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Authors: Margaret Powell

Climbing the Stairs

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To my husband, with love























people to realize the social and financial changes that have taken place since the 1920s – it seems such a short time

When I tell people what it was like when I went into service in 1923, at first they say, ‘How awful for you.’ Then it suddenly strikes them that it wasn’t very long ago, and
they think you’re exaggerating, that it wasn’t like that, that either you had very bad places to work in or that you’ve made it out to be a lot worse than it was. But in fact
there have been vast changes since then.

I think what people fail to understand is that although the status of domestic servants has really risen so dramatically, the real reason for the change is the scarcity of domestic servants
nowadays. If they were ten a penny as they used to be they’d be treated in the same way as we were. This goes for other workers, too. I don’t think people have changed; it’s
events that have altered their attitudes.

When I went into service the very name ‘service’ meant that you’d said goodbye to all personal freedom – the same as it did for men in the Army, the Navy and the Air
Force. Like domestic service, these services used to be filled from the ranks of the uneducated and untrained.

Then there were few jobs open to ill-educated girls. Chances for women were coming, I know, but they were for women who’d had an education – whose parents had either been enlightened
and had seen that they were educated as well as the boys, or for women who from the moment that they could get hold of their own money had made sure that they educated themselves.

Most of the people I worked for sprang from the middle classes who, when they acquired wealth and rose in the world, adopted all the social standards of the upper classes.

And the upper classes regarded the state of the poor as inevitable. We were always with them and so long as you didn’t attempt to rise in the world – so long as you knew the state
you’d been called to – they were even prepared to be gracious and benevolent towards you. So long as they knew that you knew that they were being gracious and benevolent.

I think that they had the same feelings about servants then as wealthy people have now about their possessions – their homes, their cars and all the gadgets that make life worth living.
These things need looking after. They don’t want them to wear out too quickly, but if they go wrong or become tiresome they can be replaced.

Servants were not real people with minds and feelings. They were possessions.

Since my book
Below Stairs
was published I’ve had a number of letters from people who were irate that I wrote in the way I did. They said that their mothers always looked after the
servants. A number of older people have said also that they thought about their servants’ comfort and saw that they had a nice room.

Yes, I agree; perhaps they did. But they still looked on their servants as their possessions. The servants must never have a life of their own. The employers were entitled to say to their
servants, ‘Oh, what did you do on your day off? Where did you go? Who did you go out with?’ And to expect a truthful reply. But if you were to say to
, ‘And what did
you do when you were out last night? Did you have a good evening?’ they would have been horrified. You couldn’t ask such a thing; you had no right.

When I was reading history for my ‘A’ levels recently I discovered that even Disraeli, and he was supposed to have been a Liberal, said that there were two nations. And he meant the
rich and the poor.

Well there were two nations when I was fifteen, and now I’m sixty-one I still think that there are two nations in this country, even though things are so much better. Just give us a period
of high unemployment and you’ll see what I mean.

Another great change that there’s been is in fashions. When I first went into domestic service, there weren’t the facilities that there are now to buy cheap, but good, ready-made

Now a lot of the well-to-do openly boast that they buy things from Marks & Spencer or shops like that – buy them ready-made. It’s quite the done thing nowadays. But it
wasn’t the done thing in those days.

Then they had everything made for them. We used to make our own (and they looked like it), because bought ready-made clothes were so expensive.

Of course we used to try to copy the styles of the rich and the people that we worked for. And I often used to think that it was we servants who really changed the fashions. Because as soon as
we copied or made anything that looked remotely like what they were wearing upstairs they would discard it and get their dressmaker to design something else. Probably we flattered ourselves;
perhaps they would have discarded it in any case.

Mind you, this gap that there was was also something to do with being young, because no matter whatever your status in life then, whether you were working, middle, or upper class, no young
people were of any importance.

We were never known as teenagers. We were just young – too young to know anything about business or politics or even living our own lives. All we were expected to do was to keep quiet,
take advice and let those who had experience and know-how get on with it.

It didn’t just apply to the lower classes. It applied to the well-to-do just the same. Young people’s opinions were not consulted and weren’t expected to be given either
without being asked for. They were learning, and when you’re learning you can’t advise because you don’t know. And that applied to all strata of society.

Nowadays everything’s geared to young people. Vast sums are made by firms like the clothing, cosmetics, records, and magazine manufacturers. They make fortunes out of young people. So if
these firms are basing their commercial structure on supplying young people with the material things – and if the Government is spending great sums in providing the facilities and
opportunities for education – then we shouldn’t be surprised at the type of young people that results.

It’s no good us crying ‘enough, enough’ when youth gets up and tells us how they want to see the world run. Because we’ve made them like that. We’ve made them

But when I look back on my life – although the working-class people of my generation had to work hard for a living – I don’t envy young people at all today.

It may seem that they’ve got everything – material things and freedom to live their lives in the way they want to – but they’ve also got the urge and the anxiety of
wanting to improve the world; as for us, we only wanted to improve ourselves.

Margaret Powell, 1970


days in my first place in London before I had a chance to go out. I arrived there on a Wednesday and as a Wednesday was to be my one
afternoon and evening off in the week obviously I didn’t get it that week, so my first time out was on the Sunday. I was allowed from three o’clock till ten o’clock every other
Sunday, but that first day it took me so long to do all the washing up that I didn’t get away until four.

I’d had a letter from my mother the day before – the Saturday. Mother must have sat down and written it the minute I left home, saying that I was to be very careful indeed; everybody
knew what London was like. Not actually stating anything definite – kind of innuendoes. Anybody would have thought I was some sort of raving beauty and that every man who looked at me was
going to make advances. Instead, what I was in those days was fattish, on the plain side with big hands and bigger feet, and with these poor ingredients I didn’t know how to make the best of
myself – I don’t think many working girls did. At the end of her letter my mother put ‘and don’t talk to any strangers’. Well, since I didn’t know a soul in
London if I didn’t talk to strangers I wouldn’t talk to anyone. So it looked as if I would have to be dumb for the rest of my stay.

Anyway there I was, all ready at four o’clock to go out and I was mad to go and see Hyde Park because it was a place I had read about with its soapbox orators and the guardsmen in their
red coats walking around. I asked the cook what number bus to get on because I didn’t want to look like some provincial hick that had just come up to London and didn’t know anything. I
was going to ask for Hyde Park, hand over the right money and look as if I knew it all.

I got on the bus that she told me and I went upstairs right to the front so that I could see everything. I sat there for ages looking all round and very soon it struck me that the buildings were
much the same kind that you might see anywhere. But of course being as they were in London I thought, oh well, they must be marvellous.

No conductor took my fare. One came up several times but he never reached the front of the bus. I sat on and on looking. I thought it seemed a long way but I had no idea where things were. Then
I could see that we were in a very seedy neighbourhood: dirty little shops, a very slummy place – far more slummy than some of the places around my home.

Before I could do anything about it the conductor came up and said, ‘This is the terminus.’ So I said, ‘I haven’t seen Hyde Park yet.’ And he said, ‘No, you
bloody well won’t see it on this bus either. You’re going in the wrong direction.’ ‘But this is the right number,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘this is
the right number but you’re going the wrong way. You got on on the wrong side of the road.’ ‘Well, why didn’t you come up and get my fare – why didn’t you tell
me?’ So he said, ‘You try being a conductor on a ruddy London bus, and see if you’re going to tell people who don’t know where they’re going where they should be

I got off the bus very crestfallen and not knowing what to do at all. So he said to me, ‘Where did you want to go?’ I told him I wanted to go to Hyde Park and also that it was my
first time in London. So he said, ‘What are you going to do now, then?’ He thought for a moment. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he says. ‘We’ll be going back in
twenty minutes. We’re going over the café to have a cup of tea and that – why don’t you come over with us.’ Well, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a thing like
that at home. Not only might someone you know see you but, I mean, it just wasn’t done. But after all was said and done I’d gone to London to have an adventurous life so I thought,
‘Well, here goes,’ and walked over to the café with him and the bus driver.

It was obviously a working men’s café full of lorry drivers and bus crews. I was the only member of my sex but nobody seemed to show any surprise at seeing me, so I assumed that
they often took women in there.

The bus conductor – I found out that his name was Perce – said, ‘Well, sit down.’ And we did, at a table that was covered in American cloth and innumerable flies, and he
went to get cups of tea for us. That tea! It was so black. What they did was to stick soda in the tea urn – it’s a well known trick at these working-class cafés – to get
all the colour out of the leaves and make it look strong. And he brought us cakes about the size of tennis balls and the same consistency, too.

Anyway we got talking and this Perce – of course his real name was Percival – told me he lived at a place called the Elephant and Castle. So I said, ‘How did it get that
name?’ ‘Oh, well,’ he said, ‘originally it was called The Castle after the pub there but the landlord’s wife got so fat drinking all the stock that they called it The
Elephant and Castle.’ Green though I was I didn’t believe a word of it but I dutifully laughed.

The bus driver, Bert, was a mournful, cadaverous-looking creature and he spoke in such a resigned tone of voice that you felt he’d eaten life’s troubled apple, core and all, and all
that was left for him was a gradual descent to the grave. Part of his trouble was that he suffered from gastric ulcers. These he told me were rife among bus drivers because of the shift work and
the irregular hours they had to do. This and the fact that they couldn’t stop the bus often enough to empty their bladders. So they got these gastric ulcers. He reckoned they should have been
paid danger money. He may have been right but it’s my opinion they got their ulcers from drinking that black tea and eating all those rubbery cakes.

BOOK: Climbing the Stairs
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