Today marks the day we usually open the doors of Preston Manor for it’s summer season. An historic house, which is as well known for it’s stories of the ‘downstairs’ servants as the ‘upstairs’ aristocratic family. As we’re unable to currently open, let’s celebrate by sharing the story of a lady who is behind the popularity of the untold servant stories in historic houses and dramas, Margaret Powell.
Last year one of the most anticipated cinema releases was Downton Abbey. Based on the long running TV drama, following the ups and downs of an aristocratic family and their servants in the early 20th century, the film was released to great excitement and went on to be one of the most successful releases of the year. But here in Brighton & Hove, we should ask ourselves whether the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey would have existed at all without a woman born into a poor family in Hove in 1907?
The story starts in 1922 when a fifteen year old called Margaret Langley (later to be Powell), turned up for her first day of work at number eight Adelaide Crescent. The grand house on Hove’s seafront belonged to a wealthy reverend and his family, and must have been an imposing sight to the teenager who, due to poverty had had to turn down a school scholarship and forego her dreams of being a teacher, to support her family. Job opportunities for young, poor girls with no qualifications were limited to different types of thankless drudgery in various laundries, factories and private houses, and Margaret had tried a few before arriving at Adelaide Crescent to start at the bottom of the servants ladder as a kitchen maid.
Margaret’s duties included rising at 5.30am, cleaning flues, lighting fires, black-leading grates, cleaning a four-foot long steel fender, cleaning the front door’s brass, scrubbing the steps, cleaning the household’s boots (including polishing the insteps and ironing the laces), and preparing a meal for the other servants – all before breakfast. As for her workload afterwards, Margaret was later to write, ‘when I looked at the list, I thought they had made a mistake. I thought it was for six people to do.’
But hard work wasn’t all that Margaret was doing in Adelaide Crescent. She was also looking and listening, taking in the affectations of her well-to-do employers as much as the rough and tumble of the servants’ hall. As she eventually left Adelaide Crescent to work in different servants’ jobs in London, including a spell as a cook, she kept a nose for a telling anecdote and good story to illustrate the gap between the haves and have-nots forced to live under the same roof. At last, in her fifties, now a married mother and returned to Hove, Margaret was able to get round to the education she’d had to abandon as a child. Realising she had nothing to say to her son who was embarking on education, she started going to evening courses. This led, in 1966, to an interview for a BBC radio programme and subsequent discovery by a publisher who encouraged her to commit her memories of servants’ life to writing.
In 1968, Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs was published to great acclaim. It was the first time that anyone had painted such a stark, no-holds-barred picture of the experience of servants. Its tales of the poor parlour-maid who falls in the ‘family way’, the employer who expects her to sleep on a bed with old curtains for blankets, the time she had to rifle through the pig bucket for the discarded kipper the lady of the house decided she wanted to eat after all, and the trials of launching herself in the dating game in a post-war world where men who don’t mind walking out with a lowly servant girl are thin on the ground instantly struck a chord with readers, who were alternately horror-struck, intrigued, and charmed by the brilliance and honesty of the writing. Selling 140,000 copies in its first year, Margaret’s riveting tales of house-maid life in Adelaide Crescent and elsewhere blew open the shocking yet sometimes darkly funny world of domestic servants, warts and all.
To say Below Stairs was groundbreaking is no exaggeration. Its popularity paved the way, in 1971, for LWT’s much-loved Upstairs Downstairs TV drama, whose baton was picked up by Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey. Tapping into the interest in servants’ lives, historic houses, such as Brighton’s Preston Manor, started to make as much a feature of their servants’ quarters as much as the glamorous upper rooms. It’s a tradition very much continued today at Preston Manor whose upstairs-downstairs lay out and atmosphere attracts visitors from all over the world.
In a fitting end to this real life rags to riches story, Margaret went on to author several more books, including the sequel Climbing the Stairs and some novels. In her sixties, TV companies cottoned on that this incredible woman was not just a talented writer but also an interesting personality and a good sport who could make people laugh. For much of the 1970s she delighted TV audiences with her trademark Sussex accent, and loud gales of laughter on shows like ‘Celebrity Squares’ and ‘Blankety Blank’. She even became a recording star, recording ‘I Laugh and Laugh and Laugh’ for RCA in 1972.
Today Margaret Powell is commemorated by a blue plaque outside her former house in Hove and a Brighton & Hove Buses bus even bears her name. From poor girl in Hove to servant to best selling author to TV star to celebrity to influencer of popular culture whose resonance, as we see in 2019’s Downton Abbey film, shows no sign of abating. It’s an incredible and heartening trajectory and you can’t help wondering what the young fifteen-year-old scrubbing steps at number eight Adelaide Crescent all those years ago would have made of it.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett