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and life along the winding road

Friday, March 29, 2013

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

Downton Abbey has brought with it an interest in the big houses of the early 1900s. In the 1970s there was a similar television series called Upstairs/Downstairs. But before either of these piqued our interest, Margaret Powell wrote her memoirs, Below Stairs which covers her life as a kitchen maid which was the position my grandmother held when she was a young teenager.
Margaret Powell was born in 1907 in Hove, an English coastal town. 
It was a hard life for a young girl:
Kitchen maid's duties - rise at five-thirty, come downstairs, clean the flues, light the fire, blacklead the grate with a hard lump of blacklead [graphite] which before you went to bed at night you had to put into a saucer with water and leave soaking before it would assume any kind of paste. Clean the steel fender. Clean the brass on the front door, scrub the steps, clean the boots and shoes, and lay the servant's breakfast. And all this done by eight o'clock.

She also mentioned she had to take out all the shoe laces and iron them! In most houses she had to cook on a kitchen range which had to be lit each morning - there was no gas stove. The bedroom she shared with another servant she described as tropical in the summer and freezing in the winter. The wash jugs formed ice overnight and they had to break it in order to wash. 

Article from the Daily Mail about the memoirs  gives a good overview of the book here 

Ms. Powell speaks often of the unfairness of the vast difference in wealth  between those upstairs and downstairs. The servants were required to buy their own uniforms on a meager salary and their rooms and furniture was sparse. Even cast off clothes were sent to "charity" rather than giving them to the people below stairs and the gentry prided themselves in being on boards of these charities, although they rarely treated their servants with the same kindness.

I don't know if it's much different today. Most corporations seem to treat employees as a necessary evil and while the managing executives on the top floor, reward themselves with big bonuses and large salaries, they rarely look after the people who work for them. At least we don't have to sleep in the attic.

3 comments:

Mason Canyon said...

It's hard to image people could treat other people in such a way, and still do. It sounds like an intriguing book that would tug at my heartstrings for the writer.

Thank you for the shoutout Thursday.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful and Happy Easter.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

So many books, so little time said...

I don't normally enjoy books from the past but more and more I find myself drawn to them and enjoying them. Thanks for your review, I will keep an eye out for this one.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Lesa said...

My grandmother was born in 1908 and the stories she told about her life were fascinating. It's hard to imagine the differences in what was considered normal, everyday, then and now. I love learning about ironing shoe laces! I'm sure the book is fascinating.