As a kitchen maid – the lowest of the low – she entered an entirely new world; one of stoves to be blacked, vegetables to be scrubbed, mistresses to be appeased, and even bootlaces to be ironed. Work started at 5:30 a.m. and went on until after dark. It was a far cry from her childhood on the beaches of Hove, where money and food were scarce, but love and laughter never were.
Yet, from the gentleman with a penchant for stroking the housemaid’s curlers, to raucous tea-dances with errand boys, to the heartbreaking story of Agnes the pregnant under-parlourmaid, Margaret’s tales of her time in service are told with wit, warmth and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation. Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants, Below Stairs is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman, who, though her position was lowly, never stopped aiming high.
Margaret Powell was born in 1907 in Hove, and left school at the age of 13 to start working. At 14, she got a job in a hotel laundry room, and year later went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to the position of cook, before marrying a milkman named Albert. She and Albert had 3 sons together.
Poor all of her life, Margaret always made the best of a bad situation. Women in service as cooks and parlourmaids in those days were considered the lowliest of the low and often referred to as “skivvy’s.” Margaret was a hard worker and when she became a cook, she had the right to “order” the under kitchen cook to do chores but poor Margaret didn’t have it in her and would find herself doing the job on her own. She just didn’t like to order people around although she’d been ordered around her entire life.
Being in service was an extremely difficult job that came with very low pay, few days off, and long working hours. What these women did for these people with a higher up status was unappreciated as far as I was concerned. Most of them weren’t treated any better than a lot of animals. Their lodgings were often atrocious but they didn’t have much choice and were forced to make do with what they had.
A very interesting look into this world of service back in the 1920’s. I know today’s nannies and housekeepers are treated a whole lot better than these poor women were and the working conditions have certainly improved for the better.