Upstairs Downstairs

Blenheim Palace. Credit: Mark Hemsworth

We explore what relationships were really like between the upstairs and downstairs residents of Britain’s big houses

In the new Downton Abbey film, veteran housekeeper Mrs Hughes is unequivocal in briefing staff: “I want every surface in this house to gleam and sparkle,” she tells them, and this, says, historian Dr Mac Graham of Holkham Hall, is exactly the effect the grand Norfolk home is after today.

The parallels don’t stop there. While the staff of Downton Abbey prepare for a royal visit, Holkham Hall, seat of the Earls of Leicester, has hosted many a royal guest, starting with a young Queen Victoria. Just 16 and still a princess, Victoria visited as part of a tour, arranged by her mother, of what would soon be her realm.

Marble Hall, Holkham Hall. Credit: Ivan Vdovin/Alamy

In the film, staff find their noses put out of joint by members of the royal household who rather take over things, and this is likely a true depiction. When Victoria visited, she would have come with a full entourage – her mother, her ladies in waiting (who may well have been daughters of earls themselves), and her own servants, who would have slept near her on a specially designed mezzanine floor. The royal chamber would have had two bells, one to summon the queen’s own servants, and another to summon a member of the household staff.

By now, we’re all familiar with the terms ‘above stairs’ and ‘below stairs’, but this implies that staff were very separate from the residents of the house and their guests. In truth, staff often lived and worked much closer than that, much like mice in the walls, scuttling up and down staircases hidden behind silk wallpaper and huge tapestries.

On the new ‘Hidden Passages and Servants’ Stairs’ tours of Holkham Hall, visitors can go behind the scenes and see just how well this 18th-century property was designed to enable staff to get to the family and high-status guests in the quickest possible time.

Holkham Hall’s servants’ staircase

Guests might be surprised to learn that one staircase acts as the main artery of Holkham Hall, with a labyrinth of corridors that run behind the rooms, making it easy for staff to scuttle around without being seen.

Dr Mac Graham, who has been instrumental in the curation of these tours, says: “We are able to show how the housekeeper and her staff were able to get to those rooms very quickly up one little flight of stairs – you think you’re way behind the scenes and then suddenly through a little discreet door, you’re in one of the most lavish rooms in the house.

“It wasn’t random,” Dr Mac Graham continues. “If you go back to a Tudor house or an older house it is going to be ramshackle and difficult to find your way around. Here it is very organised and symmetrical: everything has been thought through.”

At the end of the tours, which take place every Wednesday from April to October, you come down the butler’s staircase where you can see a big row of bells, much like in Downton Abbey, which gives some idea of the machinations that go into running a house like this.

For more on the upstairs/downstairs hierarchy in Britain’s great houses, read the full article in BRITAIN Volume 87 Issue 5, on sale here