A Real-Life ‘Downton Abbey’ Affair

Margaret Powell was a servant to the Wardhams at its Redlands estate when her friend Rose, the beautiful under-parlor maid, eloped with the family’s only son, Master Gerald. In Servants’ Hall, Powell recounts the true story of the romance with her signature wit and humor.

Master Gerald had come down into the basement around 9 o’clock, just as dinner was over. He was wearing a dinner jacket, and had a button in his hand which he said had just come of the jacket—Mr. Hall reckoned he’d pulled it off. He’d wanted Rose to sew it on, but Mr. Hall the butler had intervened saying it was the valet Burrows’s job to take care of Mr. Gerald’s clothes; Rose was a parlor maid. Mr. Gerald had insisted that he wanted Rose to do it and had told Mr. Hall that rigid spheres of work were outdated, and in Rhodesia all the whites were equal and there was none of this Sir and Madam. White people weren’t servants, he’d said, they had the blacks for that. Despite Mr. Hall’s disapproval, Rose had sewn the button on; and Mr. Gerald said what nice slender fingers she had, and where did she live and was she engaged. All of this enraged Mr. Hall exceedingly, and when they were having supper he actually swore—and he’d never done that before in front of the female servants.

“Who’s he?” Mr. Hall had said, red with anger, “to come down into our place talking about what he did in Rhodesia. Course they don’t have white servants when they’ve got all those bloody blacks who work for next to nothing. Who does he think he is coming down here and expecting my Rose”—as though Rose was Mr. Hall’s property—“to do a job that it’s not her place to do? I’ve never seen the like. I reckon being out there three years he’s forgotten what an English gentleman’s like. They’ve got their place upstairs and we’ve got ours down here, and that’s how it should be.”

“Lord help us,” said Mrs. Buller, the cook, “If it happens again, my advice to you, Mr. Hall, is to mention the matter to the Master.” She meant Mr. Wardham, not the Master up in heaven. I don’t think the butler did much communing with the One above. “Did anybody say anything to you Rose?” asked Mary, the under-housemaid. “Only Violette, and you know how she talks in her own language when she’s excited. She gabbled on and all we understood was the bit at the end, Rose est une belle jeune fille. And that didn’t please our Mr. Hall. Pompously he quoted, ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ and Rose had no call to go against me. I really felt awful when he said that.”

I was just about to say that I reckoned Mr. Hall was jealous that an under servant should be personally noticed by one of them above stairs, when Mrs. Buller knocked on our door and told us to get off to sleep.

The subject wasn’t mentioned at our breakfast the next morning; but that meal was seldom enlivened by conversation, the butler and cook being particularly sharp-tongued early in the day. I generally woke in a cheerful mood and, knowing Mrs. Buller’s religious tendencies, I used to sing hymns. One morning I was singing, “Awake my soul and with the sun thy daily stage of duty run,” when the cook interrupted me saying there was a time and place for everything and personally she preferred to listen to hymns in the proper surroundings. I’d have liked to answer that I thought hymns could be sung anywhere, but after one look at the cook’s face I knew it wouldn’t be politic.

In any case, the cook hurried with the breakfast as there was to be a lunch party upstairs for 10 people. I remember seeing Mrs. Wardham coming into the kitchen to give the orders for the day; she looked so tired and sad and yet she managed a smile and a kind word for Doris, the tweeny, and me. Mrs. Buller cooked a braised saddle of veal and delicious it was too served with a rich gravy flavored with claret. Naturally the redcurrant jelly was home- made. It was my job to cook the vegetables, one of which was creamed spinach. This involved cooking about four pounds of the stuff, rubbing it through a wire sieve—a very tedious task—and then reheating the spinach with butter and cream; I must say it did taste good. For the sweet, cook had made a gateau St. Honoré. Awful lot of work to make and decorate, but she said that the finished result was worth the trouble.

I suppose it was, but I thought of all that time and trouble being consumed in a matter of minutes.

Having a luncheon party upstairs meant that our dinner was late; much to the annoyance of Fred, the under-gardener, whose only interest in life seemed to be his gardening and his food. Young Fred told us that his uncle, as a young man, had been a great one for the girls, a proper village Lothario. One needed a very vivid imagination to picture toothless old Fred in that role, and certainly I reckoned he was long past it now—his bent back alone presenting certain difficulties in bed.

Mrs. Buller had warned Doris and me not to mention the subject of Rose and Mr. Gerald; but it was just an ordinary remark by me that sparked off dissension at the dinner table. Mrs. Buller had roasted a leg of mutton for us with all the trimmings, roast potatoes, peas, onion sauce and mint sauce. I whispered to Mary how nice it was to have as good food as they had upstairs, so different from my last place where conditions had been so bad it was enough to turn all the servants socialist. Mr. Hall, and one had only to look at his face to see that yesterday’s event was still rankling, overheard me and said to Cook, in a very sour voice.

“Did you hear that, Mrs. Buller? Margaret likes the Socialists. No doubt she sees herself as another Margaret Bondfield in a Labor Government—and they didn’t last long, did they? Maybe Margaret would like to fraternize with Mr. Gerald who seems to have the same ideas. Perhaps she could do his washing.” “What’s all that about?” asked young Fred.

So then it all came out about Mr. Gerald and Rose. Young Fred said why shouldn’t Mr. Gerald talk to Rose if he wanted to. People like him had fallen for working-class girls before now. And then young Fred turned to Cook and said what about King Cophetua and the beggarmaid and Cook replied that that had happened in biblical times when people lived the simple life. All right, then, went on Fred, what about King Charles and Nell Gwyn, didn’t the king say on his deathbed, “Don’t let poor Nelly starve?” The valet answered, with what I considered irrefutable logic, that he couldn’t see the connection, nobody here was contemplating the starving of Rose. Young Fred got really irritated then and pointed out all the actresses that had actually married into the nobility.

Although I didn’t much care for the butler, I inwardly agreed with him when he said that was different affair entirely. Actresses were a race apart, extremely glamorous and always in the public eye.

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Lords and Dukes liked to be seen in their company. But the Wardhams were of very old and aristocratic lineage who’d always married with equally blue blood. Besides, how on earth could a girl like Rose mix with them above stairs? She wasn’t well-educated, couldn’t tell the difference between a Rembrandt and the picture on a calendar, couldn’t speak like them. “Anyway,” said young Fred, “Rose is as pretty as any actress.”

All this was going on about Rose just as though she wasn’t sitting at the table. But she said never a word one way or the other. I suppose that was the best policy really. It certainly was a policy calculated to annoy Mr. Hall who I believe, though not having any amorous inclinations for Rose himself, resented the fact that other men should. Still, as Mary and I agreed later on in our bedroom, we were seeing life in our servants’ hall, and learning a bit too.

About four to five weeks after the sewing-on of a button episode, Rose told Mary and me, in the strictest secrecy, that Mr. Gerald wanted to marry her. We immediately felt envious. We knew that she’d been meeting him from time to time; though in fact we’d warned her that he couldn’t possibly have honorable intentions.

We cited cases, real and imaginary, of girls we’d known in service who’d been seduced by one of the sons or nephews of those upstairs.

We painted a harrowing picture of what happened to such girls if they had a baby: they were dismissed instantly without a reference and refused a home by their parents. I even quoted from the Vicar of Wakefield:

When lovely woman stoops to folly And finds too late that men betray, What charm can soothe her melancholy, What art can wash her guilt away?

But Rose stoutly averred that she would never be seduced; it was marriage or nothing.

“What about that Len your Mum wants you to marry, what’s going to happen to him?” asked Mary.

“That’s just it, I’m scared to death to tell my ma and pa. Ma’s ever so straitlaced and she’d never want one of the gentry for a son-in-law. And as for Pa, he’s ever such a Labor man and believes that the workers will never get a living wage until everybody’s in a trade union. He says it’s people like those we work for that grind the faces of the poor. Can you imagine our dear Madam grinding our faces?”

“Perhaps not, but certainly I can see that old brute her husband doing it,” I said. “I’m sure he looks upon us as barely literate.”

“Margaret,” broke in Rose, “it’s my day off next week and you haven’t had your second day yet. Will you come to my home to back me up when I tell Ma and Pa? I’d be ever so grateful, I really would. I’d let them know that you were coming with me.”

“What! all the way to Manchester? We’d never do it in a day.”

But Rose said that if we started early we’d have a few hours there; long enough to break the news to her parents.

Although Mary and I continued to point out the hazards of life with one above stairs, we were honest enough to admit that had it happened to us we’d have married him like a shot. I don’t believe that Rose was really in love, but was dazzled by the prospect of living a life of affluence and becoming one of them above stairs. She couldn’t see that she’d never really be one of them; she’d never be able to keep up conversation at a dinner for she never read, not even novels, and knew absolutely nothing about politics or the arts.

Gerald and Rose eventually eloped one night. Their story is told in Servants’ Hall: A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance by Margaret Powell. Copyright 1979 by Margaret Powell. Reprinted with the permission of St. Martin’s Press.