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In ITV's hit show Downton Abbey, the Crawley family struggles to maintain 19th-century standards and traditions even as the 20th century rips them away. One of the traditions they value is having an enormous stable of servants to care for them, their home, and their estate.

In the 19th century, to be "in service" was a completely respectable—even fortunate—position for a woman. The work was grueling, time off was limited in some cases to a single half-day every month, and you were literally a second-class citizen. But you had food in your belly, a roof over your head, and chances to advance.

In Downton terms, that means Daisy, the lowest servant we get to meet, could one day become Mrs. Patmore. As cook, Mrs. Patmore has one of the highest female ranks in the house. She never goes above stairs in fine clothes, but she rules the heart of the house and answers to no one but the Lord and Lady.

For a Daisy-type figure to achieve that in the 19th century, she would have to spend decades in close-mouthed, back-breaking service. She would need to obey a system of rules meant to press out her individuality and replace it with the mindset of a servant.

These rules are carefully outlined in books like 1826's The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams. Fans of Downton can see how the show makes an honest effort to represent the vestiges of the world these books described. But what fans don't really see in Downton is just how miserable that world could be.

The life of a lower servant like Daisy involved more work than we, as Westerners in the cozy confines of the 21st century, can really wrap our heads around. The simple act of getting a cup of milk involved at least a dozen more physical tasks than it would today. Here is a description of a kitchen maid's morning:

The kitchen-maid must always rise betimes, light the kitchen fire, and set on water to be heated for all the purposes of the family, the first thing she does. She next scours the dressers and shelves, and the kitchen tables, with soap and sand, and hot water; and cleans up the kitchen: She then clears out and cleans the housekeeper's room, the hall and passages, the front door, and area steps, the larder, and the butler's pantry. She then prepares the breakfasts in the housekeeper's room, and the servants hall. These things, if she be active, she will have accomplished before the cook begins to require her attention and attendance in the larder, in the furtherance of the culinary preparations; to which, however, she must have an eye, even from her earliest rising.

In less wealthy houses she would also have to act as scullery maid, adding the following to her duties: light the fires in the kitchen range, and under the copper or boilers, and stew-holes — to wash up all the plates and dishes — scour and clean all the sauce-pans, stew-pans, kettles, pots, and all other kitchen utensils; and to take care that all the latter are always kept clean, dry, and fit for use. She is to assist in picking, trimming, washing, and boiling the vegetables, cleaning the kitchen and offices, the servants'-hall, housekeeper's room, and steward's room; and to clean the steps of the front door and the area. She makes the beds for the stable men — and generally fetches, carries, and clears away for the cook and otherwise assists in all the laborious parts of the kitchen business.

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Even more important than making sure a girl understands that her foreseeable future will be spent in endless, grimy toil, is making her realize how lucky she is to have that future.

When young persons first enter upon service, they should be thankful to God if they have obtained a situation where they may be instructed in those domestic duties which are to be the business of their lives. They ought also to be very thankful, and very submissive, to those who will take the trouble to teach them. Such cannot shew their gratitude in a better way than by continuing, as long as possible, in their first service.

So how much money does a girl make for all this? Well, mostly you're getting paid in how great it feels to not be homeless. But in actual money, a kitchen maid in a "Household Establishment of a respectable Country Gentleman, with a young family, whose Net Income is from 16,000 pounds to 18,000 pounds a Year," write the Adamses, would make about £14 a year.

Converting that to today's money is tricky, because the basket of goods index isn't static (we actually buy meat at a cheaper price today than 100 years ago because of factory farming, etc.). But most calculations support that in the year 2012, £14 pounds was equal to £1,270.00 ($2,095).

That's right: A kitchen maid who spent her 18-hour days elbow-deep in grease and soot, scrubbing every surface in sight on her hands and knees, and obeying the demands of every other servant in the house, made about $2000 a year. Granted she did not pay room and board. Her male counterpart, the under footman, made a whopping £20.

And yes, the pay gap between male and female employees was quite enormous. Carson the butler would have earned £50 a year (although in his case he would have been worth every shilling), and Mrs. Hughes, his counterpart, £24 (the highest female wage in the house). Mrs. Patmore likely would have earned the same for the multi-course culinary perfection she sent upstairs three times a day. And how it would have upset her to learn that had she been a "French man-cook," her salary would have been a jaw-dropping £80.

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Perhaps wary of that measly £14, the Adamses go out of their way to remind would-be servant girls that the world is one big savage death pit.

Young Persons, Female Servants, and others of a similar rank in life, we more especially address ourselves to you! You think with horror of murder, and of prostitution; but you perhaps little reflect, that idleness and self-will, — that the love of dress, and of indulgence, — that petty acts of dishonesty, — that misbehaviour in a place — that refusing to submit to reproof, — that rashly throwing yourselves out of a situation in a regular family, — that wasting your money, and thus leaving yourselves unprovided for when out of employment, — that breaking the Sabbath, and particularly rambling about in idle company on the evenings of the Sabbath-day — you perhaps little reflect that these, or any of these evil practices, or habits, may lead you, and that by no very long or winding path, to the atrocious crimes which I have mentioned.

Meaning: "We don't want you to be alarmed, ladies, but if you buy that dress with the frivolous lace, you will be stabbed to death by one of your johns. It is simple cause and effect."

Dress as becomes your station, if you desire to please your employers,—to avoid personal harm, and to diminish the number and power of your temptations. The happiness of society arises from each of us keeping in our station, and being contented with it.

Once a girl is properly attired, she can turn her attention to the myriad other things that could turn her life into a misery. Like friendships.

A female servant should never make friendships with, or take the advice of, milk people, butchers' or bakers' servants, keepers of chandlers' shops, green-stalls, charwomen, &c.; for mostly they seek only their own interest and profit in every thing.

Besides, a good servant girl's life offers something much better than friendships. Attentive silence!

The virtue of Silence is highly commendable, and will contribute greatly to your ease and prosperity. Never talk of yourself, — but when others speak of themselves, listen to them; — such attention will please them, and probably profit yourself, as it is a chance but something escapes them that may afford a clue to their whole character.

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Besides, making friends could lead to other indiscretions.

Be very careful of your reputation for virtue and discretion in regard of the other sex; for it is the foundation of your happiness in this world; and the loss of it will bring you to misery. Avoid as much as possible going out in the evening, especially on frivolous errands. Be cautious as to whom you give your company. "Evil communications corrupt good manners." Never go to fairs, dances, nor to the theaters. Ask yourself, before you engage in any pleasuring scheme — what may be the probable end of it?

You know, even the ever proper Mrs. Hughes went to the fair in Downton. Mrs. Patmore, too. And I just dare you to question Mrs. Patmore's virtue to her face.

And the real misery of it all is that even if you are a good girl who devotes her life to the pleasing of her Mistress and Jesus (in that order), you still can end up a prostitute's corpse!

It is a fact well ascertained, that many females, totally unconscious of their danger, have been hired from such offices, as servants, by keepers of infamous houses, for no other actual purpose than that of seduction, or prostitution! Many, decent looking, but wicked women, are employed, even in the streets, to find out, and strongly recommend, young girls to places as servants. By this horrible deceit, many artless females are unawares drawn into disgrace, disease, and hasty death!

The Adamses knew that servant life was horrendously difficult, even miserable. The fact that so many people flocked to service speaks of how tough the alternatives were. In Downton's era, it was possible to break out: To take a correspondence course to train for one of the new jobs that came with the advent of the 20th century, like Gwen Dawson did.

But for most of the 19th century, a working-class girl could no more become a secretary than she could become King of Narnia. It was marriage, the scullery, or fatal poverty.

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Big Questions
How Does One Become A Knight?
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What does it really mean to become a knight? Do you get a sword and a squire to boss around? Inquiring minds want to know, so we did a bit of research. Here are the answers to some of your most pressing knighthood-related questions.


Since 1917, the British government has been awarding notable citizens with spots in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which just recently welcomed Beatle Ringo Starr into its ranks. Although the Order, which was established by King George V, was originally meant to honor top-notch civilian and military behavior in wartime, it quickly expanded to include peacetime achievements as well.

The Order has five separate ranks: Knight and Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight and Dame Commander (KBE and DBE, respectively), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). Achieving one of the first two ranks earns a person a slot in the knighthood, which means they can add "Sir" or "Dame" to their names, i.e. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Judi Dench. All members of the Order of the British Empire can add the initials of their rank to the end of their names, though, which is why you sometimes read about celebrities with ranks following their names, like "Roger Daltrey CBE."


Sort of. Notable non-Brits are only eligible for honorary knighthood, meaning they aren’t allowed to add “Sir” or "Dame" to their names. They do, however get to append the suffix “KBE” to their monikers if they so desire. Bono, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Bloomberg are all technically “KBEs.” If any of them later become citizens of the realm, the honor is usually made substantive and they are “bumped up” into real knighthood. In 2005, Irish-born BBC personality Terry Wogan received an honorary knighthood, and when he became a British citizen later that year, he could start making people call him Sir Terry Wogan.


Technically, the reigning monarch is the sovereign of the Order and is in charge of making all appointments. On a more practical level, though, the monarch receives counsel and recommendations from the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese (1894 - 1978) of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy, 26th July 1944
Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy in 1944.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Membership in the Order of the British Empire is available for all sorts of reasons, from superlative civil or military service to artistic achievement to charity work.


While lots of notable figures are offered the honor of joining the Order of the British Empire, only a few heavy-hitters get to become knights and dames commander. Simply put, these higher honors go to the bigger names. For example, current Dames Commander include Judi Dench, Jane Goodall, and Helen Mirren. Generally, it's a good idea to make a pretty substantial service and cultural contribution to the British realm.

A few members of the Order of the British Empire aren't technically knights within the organization's hierarchy, but they're allowed to call themselves "Sir." These guys have been knighted by the monarchy, but not as part of an order of chivalry like the Order of the British Empire. They can call themselves "Sir," but don’t have any additional letters added to their names. Elton John, Paul McCartney, and some other famous "Sirs" have this type of knighthood.


Nope. In fact, a number of people have turned down the honor due to uneasiness with its militaristic or imperialist overtones. According to an AP story, approximately two percent of the 3000 or so people offered spots in the Order each year decline them.

A photo of David Bowie circa 1970
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David Bowie supposedly twice declined offers to join, including an offer of knighthood in 2003, because he felt the whole business was a waste of time. John Cleese rejected a CBE and said he felt much more honored when a Swiss zoologist named a lemur after him in 2005. Vanessa Redgrave became a Commander of the British Empire in 1967, but she turned down an offer of damehood in 1999. When asked about the decision to just say no in 2002, Redgrave told The Independent, "My difficulty is in receiving anything that says British Empire, because I am a Unicef special representative at the service of children from any country. If there were no mention of the British Empire, I would be as honored as anybody. If I were asked to be a baroness, for example, I would see that in a different light."

Keith Richards turned down a spot as Commander of the British Empire and viciously mocked bandmate Mick Jagger for taking a knighthood, which he called a "f***ing paltry honour."

Generally, when a person declines an honor, they don't crow to the media about it. Rather, they discreetly tell the tale after some time has passed.


You don't get to joust or wear armor, but you do pick up a few unusual garments. Knights and Dames Grand Cross get to wear special gear to formal events like coronations. This getup includes a pink-with-gray-edges satin mantle and a collar of six gold medallions.

 Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams upon his appointment as Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda during an audience at Windsor Castle on December 5, 2014 in Windsor, United Kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams in 2014.
Jonathan Brady, WPA Pool/Getty Images

All members of the Order are allowed to wear the group's badge. The badge is basically a cross hanging from a pink ribbon with gray edges, although various ranks wear their badges in unique ways. Members and Officers simply wear their badges like military medals pinned to their chests, while higher-ups wear theirs on sashes or around their necks.

Other benefits include getting a spot in the British order of precedence, the arcane system that develops the hierarchy of ceremonial importance for things like state dinners. Furthermore, knights win their wives the right to be called "Lady," and Knights and Dames Grand Cross can modify their coats of arms to reflect the honor.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2009.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.


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