For Downton fans: The Manor House Project (PBS)

I watched the first episode of The Manor House Project, a PBS series from about 10-ish years ago (on Netflix).

If you’re having Downton Abbey withdrawal AND you want to go into next season fully informed about the protocols of upstairs/downstairs, this might be a worthwhile diversion. Of course, the current Downton Abbey is a couple of decades past this period.


It’s not riveting (so far) but it does show you the nitty gritty (emphasis on gritty) of how much work it was for servants to take care of an upper middle class family at that time.

Someone asked on the Downton thread about why Molesley wouldn’t have been a proper footman. The show said that footmen were supposed to be attractive, charming, built, and above all, tall. (Molesley fit that one anyway.) A footman under 5’7" might get $25 per year (that’s right, the equivalent of twenty-five DOLLARS per annum), but a very tall footman would get $50.

Anyhoo, there’s a lot of detail and interesting tidbits. I don’t plan to watch every one of the six episodes, but I’m going to check in to see how the people are adjusting. In the first episode, the woman who had volunteered to be the scullery maid quit after two days, whining, “I miss my boyfriend… the butler told me to scrub the floors…I’m not used to stuff like that…I’m used to my mum doing stuff for me.” She got a big shock when she was asked to do some WORK and she just walked out without taking her stuff (clothes, props) or telling anyone goodbye.

There are also a lot of fun, informative links on the site.

One of them is a Snob Quiz that y’all may find amusing. (BTW, there is a misspelling in the quiz-- I AM a spelling snob.)

I got 63% snob: “You’re a long way off joining the ranks of the blini-nibbling, bubbly-sipping, double-barreled brigade, but then you’re no champion of the proletariat either. If you haven’t got a Volvo, Golden Retriever, and 2.4 kids yet, you soon will have because the middle classes beckon.”

So the Olliff-Coopers do nothing, right? In history they would have been essentially high-level managers, controlling the running of their estates or factories. Running a house cost a lot of money and that money had to come from somewhere.

Well, this project only lasted for three months. It wasn’t about the wider world, as I understand it. Just the microcosm that was the home.

There’s also a Frontier House and maybe one other one from about the same time period. Don’t know if they’re on Netflix or not. Frontier House was really good as I recall.

These PBS/BBC reality shows were really great. While they did introduce period problems occasionally, most of the drama came from just getting by. The Canadian pioneer house one had an honest to god fire, a life threatening bout of pneumonia, horses wasting due to under-nourishment etc.

The subject one is interesting in how the upstairs folks are so clueless about how much life sucks for the downstairs staff.

I may be forgetting the title. Is that the one set in Montana, when they got snow in July? I also remember a big problem with cutting enough firewood.

Nitpick: It was a Channel 4 production, not the BBC. And if this was done by a US network, they’d have turned the whole thing into some sort of dumb competition. So I like this approach better.

And I think there was an episode in which the chef wanted to make some point and so he served a whole pig’s head to them. It’s the sort of thing that might have been common back then, but today most people are not used to it.

The whole thing started with 1900’s House, in which a middle-class family lived in a typical middle-class London home that was furnished with period turn-or-the-century furnishings. The mother in that show was a trip - she decided that would be the perfect time to convert the family to vegetarians. The son revolted.

Watch the whole of Manor house - Mr. Edgar is a lovely, sweet man.

Frontier House was the one set on the prairie. The Tennessee family with the bitch of a mom, the California family whose mother thought the dad was starving to death because he’d gotten so fit. Nice kids all around. The couple to be married (wife was the school teacher). I remember just before it ended (the experts were going to tell the families whether or not they would’ve survived the winter on the prairie), the Tennessee family killed a hog. It was the son’s pet, and the mom made him watch the dad kill it, because she wanted him to know where his food came from. At the barbecue, they had to tell all the families about 9/11.

1940’s House was London during the Blitz. I don’t think I ever saw that one.

They are all worthy of viewing, IMHO.


The Manor House family IRL were not raised with servants and were not “upper class,” so they don’t have that sense of entitlement and ease with being waited on that the Crawleys have on Downton Abbey or the Bellamys had at Eaton Place.

The mother of the Manor House family said she feels very cared for and the fact that someone else does everything for her makes her feel childlike. I believe she is permitting herself the fantasy that they do it out of some kind of love/affection, which is 180 degrees from the truth. The show said that a woman like her in that era would have spent five or six hours every day just changing clothes! It did seem to me that in the early seasons of Downton Abbey, the women spent an awful lot of time getting dressed and undressed.

The husband says he feels “humbled” by the servants and all the work they have to do to keep the house running. He probably doesn’t know the half of it. I don’t think Lord Grantham (Robert Crawley) gave it a thought, let alone felt humbled.

This system only works if the denizens of upstairs don’t think of the servants as people, and if the servants remain silent and invisible. The amount of work to run a house like that today with labor-saving devices would be mind-boggling, but back then with mostly elbow grease-- hard to even imagine.

I was appalled that when the family pulled up the the house in a car, one of the footmen greeted the master aloud without being spoken to first. No way would that happen-- more than once.

The guy playing the butler does seem like a serious, kindly sort.

I will keep watching.

On the other hand, the people “playing” the servants would have been raised in an era when they understood their position, the number of hours involved and the amount of work involved. Modern people are not accustomed to that.

If you mean, real servant classes of the time would have been prepared for the amount of work, yes, absolutely. But to all of the moderns in this experiment, the shock is enormous on both sides in different ways… Still, the “servants” have it the worst.

I was kind of addressing my comments to this remark by Kevbo: “The subject one is interesting in how the upstairs folks are so clueless about how much life sucks for the downstairs staff.”

My point was that the family felt cared for and humbled by the servants’ work, in a way that a real Edwardian wealthy family (whether new or old wealth) probably would not.

In fact, neither side, going into this, had the faintest idea how much work was involved for the servants. But the husband made an interesting remark, namely. that because so many people were involved in the care of the family, the family had to adhere to the timetable of the servants. It was a rigid structure for all parties. The family had to sit down to dinner when dinner was ready because so many hands had gone into its preparation. To get off schedule would threaten later tasks and deadlines. No one was free to just do what they wanted when they wanted unless they were prepared to completely upset this structure. Again, though, the servants clearly had the worst part of it.

The backstory was that the Olliff-Coopers were nouveau riche industrialists. IRL Sir John would’ve spent a lot of time in London and the family would’ve entertained more. Lady Olliff-Cooper and the children’s lives wouldn’t have been that much different.

I think Sir John did pretty well developing a sense of entitlement.

The mother was already a vegetarian; IIRC she converted the family mainly because she couldn’t stomach handling raw meat and making meals from scratch with it anymore. I also loved how she dismissed her maid because she felt too guilty having someone waiting on her; cue the narrator explaining that the maid would’ve ended up a prostitute if she couldn’t find domestic work. :wink:

No kidding! I skipped ahead and watched episode 5 (of 6). I wanted to be able to see the change in everyone. “Sir” John certainly DID develop a sense of entitlement. A visitor asked him what it was going to be like to return to his real life and he said he didn’t know what he was going to do. That he “passionately loved” the live he was living in the manor house. And he told someone else that he was sure his servants were happy even though he never talked to any of them. He said, “A smiling maid is a happy maid.” Holy crap!

And the wife! They were getting ready for a ball with 40-50 invited guests. Needless to say, the servants were scrambling for their lives, cleaning and polishing. The butler said that every room in the house was occupied with a couple. And the mistress just sat in some kind of la-la land saying, “Oh, it’s so easy living here. Even entertaining… it’s just so easy. All I have to do is decide on the seating arrangements.” Yeah, baby, it’s easy for YOU, because everyone else is working their fingers to the bone 20 hours a day. She was kind of a space cadet to begin with–she fell into the fantasy too readily.

ThelmLou - But the wife’s sister was desperately unhappy and ended up leaving the house.

The isolation of the tutor was interesting. Not family, but not servant.


True… but not sure of your point? She did come back in Episode 6.

Yeah, the tutor was a fish out of water, for sure. Terribly isolated. He said that “Sir” John forbade him to go downstairs, presumably looking for human contact, because he didn’t want his son to know that he was being taught by a servant. The tutor said he understood the misery of someone like Jane Eyre who was also in limbo.

I expect that the real Lord Granthams thought about it quite a bit as they were paying the wages of the staff.

At rates like $25/ year for a footman (the maids would have been much less)?

Or do you mean he would have felt bad because the paid them so little?

A staff of 20 at an average of $25 each is only $500. The butler made more and probably the cook…but the total might not have been over $1,000 per year. Even at double that, a bargain.

Here’s some info on wages of servants:

I watched 1900s house and Frontier House, both great shows. There was a 1940s house, where the family lived like the Blitz was happening, and a Neolithic house, where a group lived in a recreation of an ancient village. That one was unintentionally funny- It fell apart almost immediately, as the sheer difficulty of survival in those conditions was far beyond the abilities of the participants. Also, it rained and they had no shoes.

One thing from the Frontier House has really stuck with me. When the show was wrapping up, they asked the young son if he would be glad to go back. He said no; When they asked him why he said something like “At home, nothing I do matters. Here, everything I do matters.” I thought that that was one of the wisest things I had ever heard.

I knew a guy from one of Houston’s wealthiest families. Yes, indeed–they lived on the servants’ timetable. Even if they didn’t feel like a sit down dinner every night, that’s what they had. When he got off on his own (still supported by his trust fund), he had a cleaning lady come in twice a week. So he could have more freedom.

Lord Grantham wouldn’t really think about servants’ wages–that was the steward’s job. I think we met that important staff member briefly–he was part of the unglamorous running of the estate. Of course, Grantham apparently let a few too many financial details slide.

The family of the fellow I mentioned earlier has benefits packages, etc., for their servants. Because people have more options now–so they make an effort to keep good workers. (He said he was five years old before he realized his mother wasn’t black.)

I guess my point was that not everyone’s head was turned by the experience. She didn’t assume that the servants loved her and loved serving her.