LIFE above and below stairs at Downton Abbey has gripped television audiences in their millions but is the drama a true reflection of the English country house in the 19th and early 20th centuries?

In reality, the two worlds, one of the landed gentry and the other, that of their servants, as well as those working in rural villages, were often blurred as increasingly more socially aware mistresses of the ‘Big House’ became ‘Lady Bountiful’.

From the day they were born, ‘Downton Abbey’ ladies lived a life of privilege, often surrounded by great wealth, and mixing with members of the aristocracy. But in late-Victorian and Edwardian times, the lack of education, and the demeaning position many women were forced to accept, began to play on the consciences of females in the upper reaches of society.

In her new book, The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey, author Pamela Horn examines the duties and responsibilities undertaken by the mistress of the house and her daughters.

To Hampshire’s Florence Nightingale, pioneer of nursing and health care reform, whose family home was near Romsey, caring for villagers offered an early opportunity to use her medical skills.

She would often badger her mother for medicines, food, bedding and clothing for the poor who lived in and around her father’s estates.

The author also highlights another Hampshire lady, Anne Sturges Bourne, from Eling, who established and financed a servants’ training school in her own house.

Here, young girls were taught cookery, housework and dressmaking, as well as becoming expert laundresses.

All this might sound stereotyped today, but in past decades, faced with little or no alternatives, these were skills that could be used to make a living.

In the early 1880s a ‘country-house wife’, 24-year-old Mrs Townsend, began to fight for better conditions for girls who found themselves living in restricted conditions in parts of rural Hampshire.

This led to her establishing the Girls’ Friendly Society (GFS), a highly-influential and long-lasting Anglican organisation, which cared for young women.

“Mrs Townsend first became interested in the welfare of young women when living at Sherfield Lodge, Hampshire,”

said the author.

“There, she had constructed a sewing class for local girls, and while they worked away busily she read aloud to them.

“From this small beginning, she began to plan a national organisation to train young working and lower-middle class girls in religious principles and domestic duties, and to imbue them with a concern for sexual purity, ‘dutifulness to parents, and faithfulness to employers’.”

Central to the GFS was the semi-maternal relationship between the upper-class and the working girl members, who were required to be unmarried and bear a ‘virtuous character’.

Over the years, the scope of the GFS extended to include employment registries, homes, reading rooms, and journals, all designed to assist girls to find work as well as a refuge when they were unemployed.

By 1899, the GFS had 1,345 branches, while membership reached a peak in 1913 when there were 39,926 associates and 197,493 members.

A history of the GFS records: “Mrs Townsend had gone to live in a Hampshire parish in the Winchester Diocese, and wild and rough as the heath they lived on were many of the young women and girls who gathered round her there.

“As time went on, her heart was deeply touched and saddened by the insight she gained into their lives, and their sore need of loving Christian influence and protection.

“She wrote: ‘If the power of rescue work will be so increased by organisation, why should not work be organised to save from falling?’”

l The Real Life Women of Downton Abbey by Pamela Horn, Amberley Publishing, £20.

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