What It's Really Like to Work at a House Like Downton Abbey Today

Photo credit: Courtesy of Luis Coelho and Focus Features
Photo credit: Courtesy of Luis Coelho and Focus Features

From Town & Country

There are many things about Downton Abbey that evoke a bygone era—the costumes, of course, and the cars, not to mention the clipped diction, the proper manners, and the attitudes toward sex and class. But perhaps most antique of all is the idea of life in a house full of servants, with two symbiotic worlds, upstairs and downstairs, that depend on each other completely.

But it turns out that modern day versions of Carson, Mrs. Hughes and the rest of the staff at Downton Abbey still exist today. Many of the great houses of England prevail (though they are as likely to be occupied by international billionaires with superyachts as they are by aristocrats). And the demand for a butler, housekeeper, cook and driver has never really faded in certain pockets of England—nor has the desire to actually be one.

Some of the jobs are exactly the same as they were in the 1920s.

“For me, it was always about working in a traditional, private house with a family where you’ve got that mutual respect for each other and it’s very much a family environment,” said Grant Harrold, a former butler to the Duke and Duchess of Bedford at Woburn Abbey and Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at Highgrove estate.

It took Harrold five years to get promoted to what he calls “the grand title of butler” after learning the ropes as an under butler at the Ben Alder estate in Scotland.

“You can’t become a butler in five seconds,” Harrold explained. “When I was at Woburn I very much learnt about table service and how to lay tables, how to pack and unpack suitcases. All the kinds of things you see in Downton Abbey, I did all of that,” he said.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Highclere Castle and Focus Features
Photo credit: Courtesy of Highclere Castle and Focus Features

And his schedule was packed.

“The day would consist of doing breakfast maybe around 7 a.m., followed by elevenses, an 11 a.m. cocktail and biscuit, a 12:30 p.m. pre-lunch drink, lunch at 1 p.m. followed by coffee, then afternoon tea between 4-6 p.m., then evening drinks at 7:30 p.m., then dinner which could be around 8-10:30 p.m. That’s a general outline,” he added.

For Luis Coelho, a butler for Lord and Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, his job isn’t far from what we see on-screen. “The expectations and standards are the same. Our team of butlers still dress in tails when looking after the family and the food service remains the same–I think these are great traditions that we will always have at Highclere,” he said.

According to a housekeeper in private stately in England’s Hampshire, her work is very similar to the chores that took place in the home in the Victorian times too, aside from the fact that she has access to “modern appliances which make the work easier” and her job doesn't require her to spend every hour on her hands on knees scrubbing floors.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Luis Coelho and PBS
Photo credit: Courtesy of Luis Coelho and PBS

Times are changing for the modern household.

Nowadays, the cost of maintaining a large home has sky-rocketed and many titled families have had to streamline their teams. “One hundred years ago, there were 70 to 80 staff; it was an army. Back then were people employed to literally light candles and oil lamps and build fires, not to mention carpet sweepers and laundry maids. Today, one person can do those jobs. I’m not saying one person should, [but] they can do it,” said Harrold.

Of course, innovations have made some jobs easier, but for the modern butler, tech support is another aspect of the job. “The bit you don’t see in Downton Abbey is the family telling Carson, ‘I have a problem with my computer.’ That’s where it changes, modern butlers need to know how to fix laptops and fill in spreadsheets,” Harrold said.

Highclere’s Lady Carnarvon told T&C that technology has “changed the roles the team play rather than reduce the numbers.” She added, “In the 1920s Highclere was a private home—it is now home for Geordie and I, but also takes its place as part of our heritage and welcoming visitors in larger numbers or for small tours.”

As the private house has increasingly become a public one, the roles of household staff have had to adapt too. At Aynhoe Park, a Georgian country house in Berkshire which was rescued in 2006 and restored by James Perkins and his wife Sophie, staff are on hand for both the family and to assist guests who might hire out the house exclusively for a weekend (where a two-night stay can cost from around $53,000). Head butler Mark told T&C, “during any event here at the house, we ensure everything runs like clockwork, executing an excellent and professional service to make sure all guests are relaxed and happy." He added, “as a butler it is always key to firstly remember everyone’s name and then their favorite drink.”

These roles themselves have also broadened. As Victoria Senior from The Lady magazine’s household recruitment agency, the Lady Recruits, revealed, “flexibility is key in many of these roles today and staff might be expected to undertake more than one duty to support the household.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Getty Images and Focus Features
Photo credit: Courtesy of Getty Images and Focus Features

Here's the reality of life downstairs today.

Fortunately for most domestic staff working in a country house today, a full day’s work doesn’t end by tumbling into a small bed in the cold, dark servants’ quarters in the bowels of the building. In fact, living on-site in a stately home is a huge benefit and part of the package.

Harrold described his lodgings at Woburn Abbey as “a converted stable block, that overlooked the Abbey. It was just lovely—I’ve been really lucky, I’ve never had to share.”

At Highclere, Coelho revealed he lives “in a flat at the back of the castle with my cocker spaniel called Super Ted. He was from one of the Carnarvons' dogs’ litters. Living on site is great, and I couldn’t wish for a more beautiful view out of my window.”

In addition to nice accommodations, many domestic staff have access to pensions, private healthcare, and annual leave, something their historical counterparts could only ever dream of.

Photo credit: Nick Briggs
Photo credit: Nick Briggs

“The hours can be long but certainly not as they were in the time of Downton Abbey,” said Coelho. And as an employer, Lady Carnarvon said they try to go “beyond” to “offer support when the going gets tough.”

Conditions might be better for staff today but what about the social side of life downstairs?

Harrold thinks “there is definitely still a real social side to it.”

A source tells us of secret parties when the owners are away, “We decided to get the piano out and dance on the tables—we did have to be so careful to make sure we didn’t break anything though.”

Another, who was left in charge of the estate when his boss was out of town on business, invited around a group of local girls, pretending the property was his house. Unfortunately for them, the boss arrived back early and found them all in the swimming pool. Needless to say, they were all sent packing.

But there is less mischievous fun to be had as well.

“At Woburn we used to go to concerts together, we would all go shopping together—the housekeeper, the chef, and butler. We used to go to the theater, the cinema—we’d always go on walks together,” said Harrold. He also revealed an occasion when they all went riding and ran into the Queen. “You try bowing when you’re about to bump into a tree,” he added.

Coelho told T&C he regularly hosts his colleagues over at his Highclere flat, “for a barbecue and to watch football"—the perfect way to unwind after a long shift.

Photo credit: Nick Briggs
Photo credit: Nick Briggs

Understandably, co-workers become close friends and sometimes these relationships can progress to something more. Just like Carson and Mrs. Hughes, romances within households still occur today.

“I absolutely know butlers that ended up marrying housekeepers—it is completely possible. The people that you’re living with become family,” Harrold revealed.

Photo credit: Matthew Lloyd - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matthew Lloyd - Getty Images

There are unspoken rules of employment.

Naturally, serving as a trusted member of a private home means being privy to the family secrets. One British nanny demanded a $20,000 salary rise after catching her boss having an affair when the lady of the manor was away and agreeing to keep quiet about it.

Butlers and housekeepers often have the inside scoop on offshore bank accounts and business deals, not to mention the strange and weird fetishes of their employers. It’s all considered part of the job, in a world where only the most trustworthy and private need apply.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Susie
Photo credit: Courtesy of Susie

These days Harrold runs his own traditional butler school with Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia at estates across the U.K., including Blenheim Palace and Borthwick Castle.

“The things I say to my butlers-in-training are that you must remember these key traits: trust, honesty, and confidentiality. A former employer of mine used to say to us, ‘All I ask is that you don’t lie to me, whatever has happened, however bad, just tell me.’ They need to know you have their back and keep their lives private, no matter what.”

Does keeping quiet mean modern household staff are being asked to sign NDAs? Senior from the Lady Recruits believes while it’s not “customary amongst our usual client from the U.K.” they have noticed that their “international clients are much more aware of them.”

She added that this can be problematic further down the line when a candidate who signed an NDA at a previous employment needs a reference as the agency is “unable to contact them.” However, Senior notes that “roles requiring an NDA to be signed offer a compensatory financial package.”

A good relationship with your boss is still important.

Historically, the higher up the ladder you were in a private house, the closer you were to the family and for Harrold, this “still very much exists today.”

While the roles themselves have evolved, “the bonds, the relationships, and friendships that you have working in a household have remained the same,” he said.

For Lord and Lady Carnarvon at Highclere, there is definitely less of a hierarchy between them and their staff. “We all pitch in, which is I think the main difference. Geordie and I lead from the front and I try to share and ask for thoughts on what we are doing and we discuss it so we are more on the same page. My approach is how to help create a happy atmosphere, varied and make sure people feel valued.”

Photo credit: 53024017450
Photo credit: 53024017450

Working for the same family for years, sometimes decades, means that staff are often considered to be extended family members. Harrold told T&C, “Even though you are obviously employed by them, you work for them, I became like an adopted member of the Bedford family—I’d never been out of Scotland before, never been away from home and this family literally took me under their wing and I got trained by them to a wonderful standard.”

In Downton Abbey, Carson grew protective of Lady Mary, having watched her grow up from a baby. And Harrold reveals there is truth in the depiction of that relationship.

“I loved looking after the daughter, Alexandra. She was a baby when I was there and I saw her grow up. I went back to Woburn a few months ago and I was with the Duchess and the door went and in walked Alexandra, no longer a two-year-old child but a beautiful 16-year-old young lady and I wanted to cry and I was so proud of seeing her and hearing about everything she’s achieved.”

Aynhoe’s head butler Mark too says one of the best parts of his job is “watching the children grow up.”

Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk
Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk

Of course, a close relationship to your employers also means there are hard times.

During the five years Harrold worked at Woburn, his boss, the former Duke of Bedford, tragically died of a stroke.

“I was young, he was a little like my dad. He would guide me, his death was the lowest moment for me, it still causes me to well up 16 years later,” he said.

For many senior household staff, once they’ve become accepted into the ‘inner circle’ of their employers trust, there are unimaginable benefits. From racing and royal box invitations, to front-row seats at concerts and VIP passes.

Harrold reveals that getting an invitation to both his bosses weddings was a major highlight, as was attending the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “That was a proud moment, Harry was someone I helped look after.”

But there is always a line that staff don’t cross. “At the back of your head you always know I’m here to do a job and that’s why they’re paying my wage, you’re not their best friends and that’s the reality of it,” said Harrold.

This might include a time when you’re having an informal chat with the family and a guest walks in. “You need to switch to butler mode—stand up straight, shoulders back and good posture.”

“Even if I was allowed to call someone by a first-name basis I would make sure that when I addressed them to others, I’d always refer to them by their title. It’s knowing those kind of boundaries, when you can be more relaxed and when formality is needed,” he added.

Photo credit: Joss Barratt
Photo credit: Joss Barratt

Is an upstairs/downstairs romance still taboo?

Stories of household staff falling in love with their bosses were generally frowned upon in the 19th and 20th centuries. How can we forget D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which the aristocratic heroine has a passionate affair with the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors?

Are things any different today and is it less taboo? Harrold thinks “it wouldn’t be impossible.”

Take Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who just days before his official coronation in May this year, decided to marry one of his bodyguards and give her the title of Queen Suthida.

And then there’s the Duchess of Rutland, who after splitting from her husband, the Duke of Rutland, and moving in to a different wing of Belvoir Castle, started dating her estate manager; the two have been in a very happy relationship since.

Things don’t always go so swimmingly though. One strapping young gardener who worked at a well-known estate began dating his boss's daughter. They eventually broke up, and he was soon ousted from his job and never allowed back on the property.

Harrold believes, “If a member of household staff has plans to marry the boss and become a lord or lady of the manor, it’s not entirely impossible but it is probably unlikely.”

Photo credit: 53024017450
Photo credit: 53024017450

New money comes with new rules.

Many traditional English stately homes just don’t have the funds to fix their leaking roofs, let alone pay for a cocktail to arrive on a silver tray by a modern-day Carson anymore. The houses that once stood proud are now crumbling and sky-high taxes mean there is very little cash flow to pay for a team of always-on-call butlers, cooks, and housekeepers.

Instead, it’s the international jet-setters that are fueling the demand for household staff, with the cash and means to pay seriously big salaries for the right people.

According to Senior, “There is certainly a good salary on offer for the right role but these can be demanding and in these cases it is expected that our candidates have to fully commit to their principal’s lifestyle.”

For Harrold, these highly-paid butler, housekeeper, and nanny roles are rarely as lucrative as they seem. “For the younger ones that are going to go and work for the guys in Dubai, the Russians, or the Arabs, then yes, they will probably get a decent wage, but just don’t get any time off. It’s all-consuming. In reality, a very good butler at the top of a private house in the U.K. would be on a salary around about $75,000 but that’s generous—most would be on between $37-42,000.”

He thinks that the butlers being trained up today are “very commercial and hospitality-focused,” with many using their experiences and training as a “stepping stone into the world of working on private jets and superyachts.” He added, “The old butlers are now retired or they’ve died off.”

So, is it the death of the traditional white-tie clad English butler? Not for Harrold. “I actually think that the traditional butler will turn out to be more in demand than the commercial butler. It’s one of these old-school things. This is why I started my school—to keep the standards high and to teach butlers that it can be a very rewarding, happy, and lifelong career.”

Carson would be pleased.

You Might Also Like