BELOW STAIRS by Margaret Powell

Margaret Powell was born in 1907 in Hove, England, to a poor family, and had to leave school at age 13 to start working in a hotel laundry room.  A year later she went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to a cook before marrying a milkman named Albert.

After having had to give up a scholarship to a good school as a kid in order to work, at age 58 she worked on taking her O levels and progressed on to her Advance levels.  She then went on in 1968 to write her first book, this memoir, then two more books and a cookbook, and co-authored three novels, tie-ins to the television series Beryl’s Lot, which was based on her life story.  She died in 1984.

So don’t give me any guff about how you are too old to do something.  You can do whatever you want whenever you want.  You just have to want it badly enough.

She was a scullery maid for a number of years and then a cook, during the twenties, when there was a substantial divide between ‘them’ upstairs, and the domestic staff downstairs.  She worked for a number of different characters, all of whom required the staff to call them ‘Madam’, and never called the staff anything but their last names. The population who comprised the domestic service were mostly from the poor.   One employer was surprised to see her reading a book, saying she (the employer) didn’t know she could read.  Being a scullery maid was a tough job,  especially since the cooks under whom they worked thought all of them shiftless and stupid, and berated them daily.

A lot of the book is devoted to comments about the social divide, how they were treated so poorly, and what would appear to be a rapid turnover of scullery maids, parlor maids, under parlor maids, footmen, etc.   The one house where the domestic staff was treated well, with respect, and paid well, all the staff stayed their whole lives, and she only worked there as a cook on a temporary basis while the permanent cook had and operation and a recovery period.  She was so sorry to have to leave that place.

Her stories of the stingy and haughty manner of the various employers would be amusing if it weren’t so sad, but by the end of her stint in domestic service, things were already changing a bit, wages were higher, with more time off.

Upstairs Downstairs, and Downton Abby were based on her work.  Very entertaining reading, and makes you glad that was never your lot in life, that’s for sure.

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