As Downton Abbey entered the 1920s, we saw our favourite characters battling to keep their way of life, worrying about their jobs and starting to plan a new future. What might be in store for Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes and the family? Eleanor Matthews looks into the real-life story of Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire for clues.
After the First World War, things were changing for country houses. New ideas were permeating even the most rigid hierarchical structures and traditional jobs in service started to disappear. In Downton, Moseley has been forced to diversify his role and perform the job of multiple footmen, which was unheard of before this time.
This was very much the case at Brodsworth Hall. In 1919, the owner of the Hall, Charles Thellusson, died and his brother Augustus inherited. This had a dramatic effect on the household as Augustus was a fairly absentee owner, travelling to Brodsworth mainly for the winter shooting. In 1914 there were fifteen indoor servants, but by 1919 this number had reduced to just four. Servants returning from service in the First World War found that their roles were no longer needed and new servants were rarely taken on unless important ones left or retired.
John William Marshall was the ‘Carson’ of Brodsworth Hall from 1912 to 1929 and in a similar role to that of the on-screen character, was very much the patriarch of the staff. He was a tall, well-built man who could be stubborn and was not afraid to say what he thought. He married the refined head housemaid Fanny Rolfe and together they were the main support structure of the house, working to ensure that life continued as it had always done.
However, we have letters that show all was not well for Mr Marshall and that he was dissatisfied with life at Brodsworth. In 1929 he handed in his notice without reason, later regretting his actions and trying to return. But it was too late and John Marshall moved on to run a gentleman’s club in Doncaster and later a horticultural shop for allotment holders – a life which would have been very different to that of the Hall.
The country house female equivalent of the butler was the housekeeper and Brodsworth Hall’s ‘Mrs Hughes’ was Jane Langton, who worked at the hall from 1895-1936. She gradually worked her way up the ranks and her loyalty to the family was rewarded upon Charles Thellusson’s death when he left her a £30 life annuity and Augustus Thellusson left her £50 in his will. However, quite unlike Downton's Mrs Hughes, Jane Langton made her own wine and kept a grey parrot called Polly in her room which was known for its swearing.
The gradual merging of cook and housekeeper roles reflects the disappearance of servants at Brodsworth. Eventually there remained only Emily Chester (who worked at the house for fifty years until 1980) and the last member of the family and resident, Sylvia Grant-Dalton. Together they held the fort as the Hall gradually declined around them, and it is in this less shiny and polished state that we have conserved this wonderful example of the fine country houses of England.