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What the butler really saw - the true story of life below stairs

Posted on 17 June 2013

Writer Lucy Lethbridge will offer a window into the fascinating downstairs world of the Downton Abbey era at a York Festival of Ideas talk.

Based on her best-selling book, Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th-Century Britain, she will describe the real below-stairs experience of those who served as domestic servants in our great country houses, popularly depicted in TV series such as Downton Abbey, before the onset of the First World War changed that world forever.

Held at the superb Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York on Friday, 28 June, ‘In conversation: The voices of servants’ is free to attend and open to all.

Told through the eyes of those who served, Lucy Lethbridge’s talk will include accounts of prodigious affluence among the so-called ‘gentry’ who could employ huge numbers of servants to carry out tasks such as the weekly washing in milk of the mosaic hall of a vast country house. She will also explain the lack of privacy and respect encountered by many servants.

In addition, she will chart in vivid detail the decline of this life due to the huge social changes caused by the First World War. Men went to war, butlers were replaced by parlour maids and the introduction of a series of labour saving devices such as the vacuum cleaner meant that, even for middle class households, the numbers of staff required to run houses became fewer and fewer.

Lucy Lethbridge’s talk will also highlight the stark differences in experience. Some former servants described with great loathing their treatment and the drudgery of their way of life, while others identified with a passing order in the post-war period and what they saw as the “pretensions of the middle classes” reserving praise and loyalty towards employers described as “real gentry”.

The talk will be accompanied by an exhibition in the gallery space of the Ron Cooke Hub sourced from Yorkshire country houses.

‘In conversation: The voices of servants’ will take place at the Ron Cooke Hub on Friday, 28 June at 5pm. Entrance is by free ticket available at or by phoning 01904 324778.

Notes to editors:


In conversation: The voices of servants

Friday 28 June 2013, 5.00PM

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Contact details

Caron Lett
Press Officer

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