Downton Abbey Christmas special is already causing ructions in our house. The husband hates it, personally I can’t get enough of it and I’m not alone. 10.5 million people watched the fourth series and its popularity shows no sign of waning. So what is it about this costume drama that has us gripped? It’s no racy, pacy bodice ripper that’s for sure. I think the key to its success lies not just its ability to whisk us far away from a frenzied Twitter- Facebook fuelled world, into a more gentle and orderly society – it also stirs a interesting curiosity. Who hasn’t watched the green baize door swing open and found themselves wondering if they’d been born into that era, where would they have been – ‘upstairs or downstairs?’ My neighbour and I are are only just about on speaking terms after she cast herself as Lady Mary and me as the mousey scullery maid who keeps getting dumped.
One woman who has been in the unique position of being on both ends of the social scale is 97-year-old former scullery maid Mollie Moran and she is in no doubt which was the more fun place to be. ‘I’d rather be downstairs any day,’ laughs the irrepressible nonagenarian. ‘My life was far richer than those of the fancy ladies upstairs. Who wanted to be stuck in a stuffy drawing room with a life of endless presentations at court and being forced to marry some old rich man? The bosses didn’t know it of course but we had a right giggle below stairs.’
I worked with Mollie on her Sunday Times bestseller, Aprons and Silver Spoons published by Penguin and after spending hours in the company of this funny, clever, mischievous lady I was left in no doubt. Life as a domestic servant was undoubtedly hard work but it was also great fun and it provided a much needed career ladder for pre war working class women to climb. If you were a fourteen-year-old girl from an impoverished family the only options open to you were shop work or skivvying. Mollie started in service aged 14 in London’s Cadogan Square as a lowly kitchen maid and in ten years worked her way up to the position of cook, rustling up banquets for politicians, actresses, Lords and Ladies.
Despite slaving over a hot stove she still found time to flirt with Harrods errands boys, sneak out to a dance from the attic window of this impressive house (pictured) 58a to avoid the butler and gaze longingly at the bottom of the handsome chauffeur pictured in the white apron. It was apparently so firm ‘you could have bounced a penny off it’ and to be fair, you would wouldn’t you! She even found time to heckle scandalous Wallis Simpson when she saw her leaving a hotel on London’s Park Lane in 1935.
Mollie spent her twenties dreaming up schemes and chasing boys, much like me, but unlike me she did it whilst clocking up 96 hour working weeks! Her partner in crime was her best mate Flo the kitchen maid, mine was a hairdresser. Mollie’s flame coloured hair certainly made her stand out below stairs and caught the eye of many a man. ‘A lot of the footmen would give my bum a cheeky pinch when they came in to the kitchen but I knew which ones they were so I was always ready to give ‘em a whack with a wet tea towel,’ she smiles. But below stairs it was the cook and the butler who reigned supreme and saw to it that all the staff worked an exhausting sixteen-hour day. You would think that such backbreaking work would have crushed a young girl’s spirit but not Mollie. ‘I just accepted it and tried to find the fun in everything,’ she shrugs. ‘We had a laugh as much as we could. In those days everyone was just trying to better themselves all the time. The hall boys wanted to be footmen, the scullery maids aspired to be kitchen maids and the kitchen maids had their eye on the cooks job.’ But self-confessed wild child Mollie always had her eye on the men. ‘In my first job I dated a farmer, the second chauffeur and a frisky footman, though I got bored of them all and had to get my mother to give them up for me.’ Aspiration and appearances were everything. This was a world where Lords and Ladies were summoned to dinner by a butler in white gloves chiming a gong and the gentry thought nothing of eating five courses for lunch. Mollie’s ten years in service provides a fascinating glimpse into a world that has all but disappeared, but one thing remains reassuringly the same in 2013 as it did in 1923. ‘All we young girls were interested in was boys, dancing and dresses,’ she grins. And on the subject of whether Downton is true to life Mollie’s grin grows wider still. ‘Exactly the same, except in real life we wore our skirts much shorter.’ Today Mollie is 97 years old and lives with her poodle Rodney in Bournemouth, where she regularly hosts scrabble parties and cooks for up to 25 people. Not bad for an old scullery maid. There may be 82 years separating these two pictures of Mollie but the mischievous gleam in the eye remains the same!