How we maid a living: Third of 1920s job adverts were for Downton Abbey roles like cooks, servants and nannies

‘Downton Abbey’ roles like household cooks, maids, housekeepers and servants made up more than a third of advertised jobs 100 years ago, reveals research by online CV builder

Monday, 7th December 2020, 5:26 pm
Updated Monday, 7th December 2020, 5:28 pm
Source: Birmingham Daily Post, 1870
Source: Birmingham Daily Post, 1870

In one newspaper from 1920, out of 61 'situations vacant’ adverts, there were six positions for household cooks like Mrs Patmore, played by Lesley Nicol in Downton Abbey, 11 requests for maids like Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie), and three roles for child-minders like Nanny West (Di Botcher).

The domestic help sector was one of the country’s biggest employers in 1920. In 1870, a quarter of advertised roles (25%) were for housekeepers, nannies, household cooks and servants, rising to a third (35%) in 1920.

Changes in society brought about by World War II saw this proportion plummet to 6% in 1970 and similar jobs make up only 2% of roles now.Many of the jobs advertised in 1870 and 1920 no longer exist, with evocative roles such as chandelier burnisher, milliner (a hat maker), billiard room attendant, lift attendant, wig consultant, gun polisher and whalebone rosette maker painting a picture of a world long lost to us.

Source: Birmingham Daily Post, 1870

The jobs market of 1870 was a different world to current times, with more than a third of positions (36%) available in the construction and skilled trades sector — including adverts for a mortice lock maker, French polisher and venetian blind painter. The proportion of jobs in this sector fell to 17% by 1920, 11% by 1970 and made up just 7% of the economy in 2020.

Secretarial and administrative positions grew with the rise of the typewriter, with copy-typists helping to make the sector a third (35%) of advertised positions by 1970. The advent of the computer saw this segment fall to just 4% by 2020.

Some of the adverts from 150 years ago show the progress that has been made through equality laws, with many roles specifically requesting a ‘young man’ despite the fact that the role could easily be completed by a person of either sex.

More eye-opening are the adverts for positions like office boy that specifically request applicants are aged 13. Modern employment laws specify that children can only take full-time work once they have reached the minimum school leaving age of 16.

The research was conducted by online CV builder, which surveyed the jobs pages of newspapers from 1870, 1920, 1970 and modern employment websites.

People can see what job they might have had in another era by using’s Employment History tool.

Menno Olsthoorn, CEO of online CV builder, said: “Millions of Downton Abbey fans will have spent hours dreaming of what it would have been like to live and work in a stately house, and a hundred years ago many of us would have been doing exactly that.

“It’s incredible to think that so much of the population of 1920s Britain were employed catering to the whims of the upper classes.

“Navigating the employment pages of newspapers from 150 years ago is like entering another world.

“I don’t think I would last long as a chandelier burnisher or a wig consultant, but I guess that modern titles like ethical hacker, chief cloud developer or scrum master would be equally as alien to a job-seeker from 1870.

“For those who are intrigued to see what job they might have had 150 years ago, try our Employment History tool on our website.”