Saturday, 21 September 2013

Secrets below stairs

This weekend Downton Abbey returns to our screens, reminding me how many of us have ancestors who worked in domestic service. A century ago it was the country's biggest employer .

It was no different for my family. Everyone in the treasured photograph, below, worked at The Big House at some point in their lives.

In a large house such as depicted in Downton Abbey and in films such as Gosford Park, the staff hierarchy was well established, from the butler, cook and housekeeper at the head of the pecking order, down through valets, footmen, parlour maids, and 'tween maids' to the scullery maid. Everyone knew their place and their responsibilities.

But not every home was wealthy enough to employ a number of servants to share the workload.  For the lower middle-class keen to enhance their social status in having servant help of some sort, a maid-of-all-work would be employed. Not an enviable post - the greatest workload and the most poorly paid. According to Liza Picard in her book, Victorian Londona general live-in servant was paid around £16 per year where as a maid-of-all-works's annual wage could be as little as £6.

Thomas DIGGORY, his wife Eliza and children: Mary Ann the eldest at the back, Nellie beside her, Thomas behind his mother, twins Hannah & George, either side of their father, and little Edith, my grandmother, at her mother's knee.

At the time this photograph was taken, c. 1904, Thomas senior was a groom and coachman at Park Hall in Sedgley, Staffordshire. The family lived at the lodge. Eliza had worked as a cook before she was married, Thomas would go on to become a footman, George a groom, Nellie a parlour-maid and Edith a general servant.

What happened to Mary Ann, though, is uncertain. She left the family home 2 years after this photograph was taken, only re-establishing contact shortly before her death in 1982, at the age of 93.

Why did she leave? That mystery is yet to be solved...

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