My family’s own “Downton Abbey”

Large households usually needed an army of servants, as depicted in ITV's hit drama series Downton Abbey.

Apparently, in 19th century England there were more people working in service than actually working down the mines. Being employed in someone else’s household as a member of staff was an alternative available to those who, for instance, wished to leave their agricultural background and establish themselves in a big, industrial city.

At a time when the industrial revolution made the rich even richer, the members of the more modest classes often found work in the aristocracy’s ever growing households a steppingstone toward starting a new life. It wasn’t always easy, as those who worked “below stairs” had to wake up at dawn, do hard work throughout the day and stay up long after their masters had gone to bed. It was a tough life, but a very dignified one too. There was always the opportunity of going up (“bettering oneself“) in the strict social/professional scale which outlined the staff’s order of precedence even in their day-to-day lives; being employed as a butler or a valet in the case of men, or as a housekeeper or a lady’s maid in the case of women, was a goal many strived to achieve. But of course, there was a downside, in that very often working in a large household left very little time for oneself, and consequently almost no time at all for love to blossom. Members of staff did marry, but usually had to leave service sooner or later to start a family of their own.

The Gamekeeper, by Richard Ansdell.

A distant relative of mine, Emma Saviger (b.1843) could easily have felt the need to leave her native village in the West Midlands and establish herself as a servant in some large household in another county. Young Emma was the daughter of Thomas Saviger, an agricultural labourer from Herefordshire, and his wife Mary Mound, a charwoman from Shropshire. Although I haven’t managed to locate her in the 1861 Census (I suspect she was not recorded in the census or more likely that her name/surname was wrongly transcribed) I do know she married a man called John Wilson in 1865. Six years later, the childless couple were registered in the census living in Woolley Park, Chaddleworth (Berkshire), where John was the head gamekeeper in the employment of Mr. Philip Wroughton, a conservative Member of Parliament whose family had owned Woolley Park for a great deal of time.

Woolley Park, in Berkshire, is the private residence of the Wroughton family.

John and Emma Wilson lived in the Upper Lodge at Woolley Park for a long time. By 1881 the Wroughton family -comprised at the time by Philip Wroughton, his wife and four young daughters- were employing a vast number of staff in their household. Although not as grand as Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey‘s exteriors and upstairs interiors are filmed, Woolley Park does look like a large country house which could easily fit a substantial quantity of servants. In 1881 the Wroughtons employed a permanent nurse, a lady’s maid, a nursemaid, two footmen, a cook, a kitchen maid, two housemaids and two laundry maids, all of whom lived in the house itself. The stables were occupied by the coachman and his family, followed by the lodge where the Wilsons lived accompanied solely by the coachman’s assistant, John Bearman, an 18-year old boy from Sussex who may well have been like the son John and Emma never had.

In the 1880’s John Wilson left the Wroughton family’s service but carried on working as a gamekeeper. In 1891 he was living in Speen, Berkshire, and still working as a gamekeeper. By 1901 the couple had prospered enough to be recorded as “living on own means”. There is no trace of them in 1911, implying that they may have been deceased by then, but I am sure they never forgot their days when they worked at the downtonabbey-ish Woolley Park in Chaddleworth.

This entry was posted in Berkshire, Downstairs staff, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Marriage, Shropshire, Work. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My family’s own “Downton Abbey”

  1. IvanPetrovich says:

    What did it become to that part of the family??? Did they stay as staff iof a hosehold in later generations?

    • Dawsr says:

      As far as I know, Ivanpetrovich, Emma’s family remained in the West Midlands throughout the 19th century; many of her relatives, including my own grandmother, also went into service, albeit in much smaller households. Thank you for reading & posting!

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