The whole point of a recent, very popular, TV series like Downton Abbey is the relationship between master and servant, above and below stairs. Living today, as most of us do, in a servant-free zone (alas; I would love to employ a cook), there is a perennial fascination in stories and films of the days when a hierarchy of class distinctions and gradations lay at the very heart of British life.

For such readers Lucy Lethbridge provides a cornucopia of anecdotes, statistics and the personal reminiscences of former servants like Margaret Powell and Winifred Foley, as well as wise observations of her own, that make her book an absorbing account of this aspect of our social history.

In 1900 there were one and a half million female servants ,while in 1911 800,000 families in Britain employed domestic staff. These ranged from a single household skivvy at the bottom rung of the ladder, through the snobbery of a middle-class household with its precarious hold on gentility, all the way to the grand estates. At Chatsworth, for instance, the Duke of Devonshire employed 200 servants to attend to the needs of 50 house guests while at Welbeck Abbey the reclusive fifth Duke of Portland employed 90 indoor servants for his personal needs.  At her vast London mansion, Holland House, the dowager Lady Ilchester, an invalid confined to a bath chair, had in attendance a butler, footman, odd man and second footman, housekeeper and four maids, a still room maid, a cook, two kitchen maids and two scullery maids, a chauffeur, nine gardeners, a lady’s maid, and night nurse and a day nurse.

Yet it was not all exploitation of one class by another; Lethbridge comments that “every example of oppression and ill-treatment… can be countered by another of reciprocal friendship and loyalty.” In the great houses caste superiority was so unmistakeable and so taken for granted that it was easier for servants to feel part of the household community and ethos and to take pride in their position than lower down the social scale where keeping up appearances and pettiness towards staff often reflected the social insecurity of the employers.

Unlike the US, the English were very reluctant to embrace modern appliances that would make work easier; elbow grease was less vulgar and labour, until World War I, was cheap and plentiful. With so many staff at one’s disposal work had to be either invented or at least enshrined by ancient custom. Thus, on one small Scottish estate a woman called “Letter Betty” was employed for 50 years just sorting the mail and Lady Diana Cooper at Belvoir Castle recalled a “gong man”, whose sole duty was to bang a gong thrice daily to summon the household to meals. Modern gas lighting was despised; at Belvoir there was a team of “lamp men” who spent all their days simply “trimming, cleaning and maintaining the lamps.” A former lamp boy for Lord Bath at Longleat surmised that the harsh public school system had inured the upper classes to the discomfort of their draughty, ill-lit and uncomfortable homes which often lacked basic amenities such as flush lavatories or proper baths.

Lethbridge observes that in Georgian England the relationship between employers and their servants was closer and more comfortable than in the Victorian period which followed. Victorian additions were built on to Georgian properties to keep the servants and kitchens apart from the family. The long passages and corridors required the introduction of bells, with wires or pulleys, so that demands from upstairs could be instantly understood in the servants’ hall.

The very wealthy provide the humorous stories in this book: “Whimsical requirements out of season and out of sense have always been a perk of the rich”, the author comments. For instance, Waldorf Astor would only drink milk from his own cow – so whenever he travelled he was always accompanied by a cow from his own herd at Cliveden.

Lord Curzon of Kedleston, the famous Viceroy of India, was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window during the night after the servants had gone to bed that he smashed the glass with a log from his bedroom grate. The Duke of Portland would toss silver coins from his carriage window to his servants as well as building them an ice rink.

Butlers were at the top of the servants’ hierarchy, “remarkable for their dignity and good manners.” Edwin Lee, the Astor’s butler at Cliveden, was “legendary”. The position took years of training: “Unless he could organise a party for 3 or 400 people in 24 hours, then he was not ready for the job.”

Sometimes a close and affectionate relationship developed, especially in the more eccentric country houses; at Erdigg the Yorke family had a tradition of writing poems for their servants, who lived alongside them in isolated and dilapidated grandeur, while at Renishaw the Sitwell children were much closer to the servants than to their chilly and forbidding parents. A visitor to Renishaw once observed the butler admonish the young adults of the family who were reluctant to spend time upstairs with their mother, Lady Ida: “Make up your minds; one of you has to go.”

Alongside this Jeeves-like aspect of service, an odd mixture of familiarity and subservience, the author notes much that was unhappy and unjust: servants who could never afford to be ill for fear of dismissal and consequent penury; nannies who gave all their maternal love to their charges and who, when the nursery days were over, were left in the limbo of “faithful retainers”; lives spent in quarters and kitchens that were “airless, dark, damp and unhealthy”; above all, the waste of gifts and intelligence in the servant class who were never given the opportunity to better themselves.

Some employers were astonished that their servants could wish to read a book; the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle once discovered his housemaid sitting by the kitchen grate reading Goethe; he merely commented that it was “strange and even touching in the poor soul.”

Lethbridge also examines the rise of “Universal Aunts”, to help impoverished single women and middle-class widows with no qualifications or experience find genteel, ladylike employment in the aftermath of the Great War, as well as the au pair system after World War II. Her book, beautifully written and carefully researched, provides sympathetic and scholarly insight into a way of life that was once part of the very fabric of society but that is now a feature of history.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.