Great Aunt Margaret, The Bishop of Litchfield, Downton Abbey Strip-0-grams.

Before I start I would like to make it clear that my Great Aunt Margaret had nothing to do with the Bishop of Litchfield or any kind of strip-o-grams, although all of these people will appear in this blog.

I wanted to write this after reading a series of  newspaper articles about the increase in inequality in the UK.  I have kids, and worry like most parents about the world they are growing up into.

Newspaper stories about inequality tend to fall into one of 2 categories.  The first type claim that inequality in the UK is the worst it has been since some point in the past; the 1980s, the 1950s, the 1940s. Each newspaper article seems to be outbidding the last for how far back they can push the historical comparison.

The second type claims that inequality has been rising inexorably since some time further in the past. This links to a narrative from writers like Thomas Piketty – an inexorable growth in inequality is baked into capitalism, and that a more equal society only happens after some kind of economic shock like a World War.  There are some examples of these articles in the references at the end.


This is a photograph of my Gran and her sisters, taken in the 1950s.  She is top row 2nd from the right, her Mum is in the middle. This is a photograph of an era which was deeply unequal, socially immobile and class based.  The kind of society, which according to a number of newspapers we are heading back to rapidly.

Of the woman in the photo most of them ran a home and raised large families of children, while the men worked in occupations which varied from skilled manual work through to running small shops. I knew some of them as old people when I was a child, and while there must have been some inequality of income between them it wasn’t immediately obvious.The lived in similar houses, ate similar food (pies).  They were also fiendishly good card players.

My Gran, and her sister Margaret both worked.  My Gran attended Sunderland Teacher Training college, now part of Sunderland University, and qualified as a Primary School Teacher.  The College was based in Langham Tower on Ryhope Road and was women only.  The college’s other course, Naval Architecture, was men only. She worked as a teacher in County Durham until she was married and gave up work.  The “marriage bar” in teaching had been officially removed by Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919, however the practice continued for decades afterwards in areas like Durham where male unemployment was high. The Civil Service itself only lifted its Marriage Bar in 1946. 

My Great Aunt Margaret is bottom right. She was the live in cook/housekeeper in a large house at Sandbanks, Dorset, kept by a Sunderland Solicitor named Wright as a holiday home.  She was the last of my family to enter service, although there had been plenty before her, particularly on the Modral side. Uncle Willie and Aunt Kate, worked for the Shuttleworth family at  Old Warden, in Bedfordshire – they were the last of a long line of gardeners and servants going back longer than I can remember.

There was never any particular reticence about her job, no-one ever seemed to be surprised or embarrassed.  It was a respectable job for a woman of our social class.  Margaret always spoke fondly of the family she worked for and they seemed to treat her well.  At the start of the C20th domestic service was the largest employer of woman in the UK (c. 1.4m) and I am surprised how little we talk about it.   When my Grandad bought his house in Longacres for £300 in 1933 his friend Bill Howe moved into a Council Houses at Moorlands nearby.  Bill had a live in maid, and the Council allowed him an extra bedroom to accommodate her.

From a modern perspective I find the idea of employing full time servants baffling.  The costs and resources needed for even a small sized domestic workforce are well beyond all but the richest middle class families today.  Yet back in the 1930s Solicitors, Doctors, even Vicars had servants.

Vicars are an easily tracked sub-group of British middle class society, partly because they have been round or a long time, and also because they have been complaining about being underpaid since the middle ages.  This makes them a great source of data.

Thanks to Lambeth Palace, Church House, Durham County records office and a few other sources I was able to put together some ideas of the incomes of Vicars and some similar professions, from  the first half of the 1930s.

The Bishop of Lichfield earned £4200pa, took home £2600 after tax and rates, paid £800 for servants, train fares and his motor car.  We know a lot about his income, and his Diocese, because he wrote a chapter on the Poverty of the Clergy for a report of 1933.  I was impressed that in accounting for his income he lumped together his servants and his motor car.  This was roughly double the salary paid to a Cabinet Minister at the time.   

My Grandfather, who was a School Master probably earned £300-400pa. Secondary School teachers and Headmasters earned more – between £500-600.

An Army Officer (2nd Lieutenant with 7 year service, married) earned £500pa

The average living for a Vicar in the diocese of Lichfield was £275pa*.  Wages for the clergy varied widely, and a small number earned considerably more.

A Durham Miner earned just over £100pa, in an era when unemployment was high in the coalfields.  Wages had fallen considerably from their peak in the 1920s.

Live in staff earned a lot less, largely because their employer provided accommodation; my Great Aunt probably earned between £50 and £60pa; a maid less again, between £20-30

By comparison at the time the Labour Party were campaigning for the National Living Wage of £250pa.

This tells us income for a range of professions, however to form a full picture we need to see what it costs to maintain a home with servants.  These are the personal accounts for a prosperous Vicar, married, with one child at School, and another living away at University from 1933.

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It is commonly said that the decline of domestic servants in the UK started with WW1.  As men went away to the front woman replaced them in industrial jobs, which fundamentally changed the Labour Market.  As it got harder and harder to find servants, middle class woman got used to managing the house by themselves, with fewer and fewer staff.   

“You can’t get the staff these days” was a familiar complaint.

As technology improved it was easier for a woman who didn’t work to manage the home herself, with a part time cleaner, than to hire, accommodate and manage servants.   

Despite all of the changes in housing people might be surprised that there is still a good sized employment market for servants in the UK.   According to the Office for National Statistics from the 2012 Labour Force Survey, about 65,000 people are employed as domestic workers by British households. If you are interested in the kind of jobs available the on line version of The Lady always has adverts for Butlers, under Butlers, Cooks and Housekeepers.

Wealthy households don’t have as many staff as they used to, and the vacancies in The Lady reflect an ageing population – more carers, fewer nannies   Partly the fall in opportunities reflects technological change – it takes fewer servants to run a big house full of appliances, and partly discretion – rich people are more discrete about their servants that a century ago. 

In fact overall it takes a lot fewer poor people to meet the needs of rich people than it did a few decades ago.

[Anyone googling hiring Butlers at random needs to be careful that a good proportion of the sites are for nude Butlers, and Downton Abbey Strip-o-grams, which is a completely different part of the Labour Market].

Before we go any further with this I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that the return of big houses and servants is a good thing, nor am I equating having a cleaner to having a man in a Stressman suit who opens your front door.  But as  the gap between the rich and the rest gets bigger and bigger in the UK we apparently approach the levels of inequality that we last experienced in an era when having servants was common place and respectable.   

Which begs the question?  Why don’t people have someone in stripey trousers to open the door?  My household probably occupies a similar position in the economic hierarchy as a prosperous vicar did 70 odd years ago, if not slightly higher.

One of the most obvious economic changes is the cost of housing.   The Vicarage House, on the Old Warden Estate where Willie and Kate worked was sold in 1937 to Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, the local landowner, for a “consideration of £1250”. He then granted it to Revd Edward Wells, the Vicar of Old Warden.  I assume £1250 was the price agreed by Mr Shuttleworth and the vendors, who were the Church of England’s ‘Governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty’ a scheme set up in 1704 (during Queen Anne’s reign) to augment the incomes of the poorer clergy in England.  The Rev. Wells probably resembles the chap with the £1000 expenditure above

It is only when we inflate the salaries in the examples in line with inflation that the real changes become obvious.

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The salaries for a housekeeper are starting salaries, an experienced cook/housekeeper with staff working for them can earn up to £50,000pa.   Live in Au-pairs start at around £8,000pa in London, although you would need to meet the costs of food and housing on top of that.  I am not sure how this works with the National Minimum Wage.

Vicars have seen their salaries increase by more than inflation, although they still lag well behind their equivalents in other middle class jobs  The pay of Bishops has collapsed.  The pay scales for Cabinet Ministers, Teachers and Army Officers are remarkable similar, which is a testament to the efficiency of Public Sector Pay Review Boards.

Our prosperous clergyman with expenses of £1000 a year would equate to the modern equivalent of a newly appointed NHS Consultant, Senior Civil Service Grade 1, or Headteacher Group 6.   A Downton Abbey strip-o-gram earns about £100 per strip, plus a £25 non-refundable booking fee, in case your are wondering.   

All of this would indicate that in 2 crucial dimensions our society is much more equal than in my Grans day.

Firstly the role of women in the workforce has been transformed.  If we took the same photo today of my wife, my sisters and sisters-in-law every single one of them works in high status, high income professions.   All of them come from 2 income families. Gender inequality, has been transformed, if not wholly solved.

Secondly – while the incomes of middle class earners has risen pretty much in line with inflation wages at the bottom end have increased much faster.   The real reason why domestic servants are so much rarer is because they are much more expensive.  The gap between the poorest paid and middle class people is much closer than it was.

So – why the do we believe that we are becoming a more unequal society?   Is it actually true?

The analysis above only shows a more equal society because it misses out 2 groups.  I haven’t dealt with anyone from the lowest income groups in the UK, nor have I included anyone in the very highest income brackets – the top fraction of the top 1%.   That’s because this is based on the real lives of my family, and over the last 100 years or so no-one in my family has been very rich or very poor. 

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If we add in these groups the UK becomes the 7th least equal society out of the 30 Countries in the OECD LIS data, and the 4th least equal in Europe.  I leave it up to you to decide where on the graph we would like to be one day.

For most of us in our day to day lives we live in a much more equal, much more egalitarian, much less snobby or hierarchical society than our Grandparents.  While there are big differences in salary between a CofE Vicar and an NHS Consultant with a merit award they are not so big that it is impossible for them to be friends.  In fact despite the disparity in Salary most people would recognise both as belonging to the same extended social class.  Our definitions of class seem to have extended to cover wider and wider groups of people with similar experiences and tastes, despite wide ranges of income.

The people at the far ends of the pay spectrum live apart from the rest of us, and we don’t really interact with them.

There is also one final aspect of inequality which struck me writing this. Clearly my family have changed a lot since my Gran’s generation.  Like lots of families we have become upwardly socially mobile.   

If you come from the well off family, go to a good school, and are well connected the chances are that you will grow up to be well off.

If you come from a poor family, don’t have access to good education, live in a poor party of the country, and have a social circle of other poor people the likelihood is that you will grow up poor.

It is this respect – social immobility  – that our times most resemble the 1930s rather than income inequality.   

The 20th century expectation that each generation would be better off than the preceding one is no longer being met. People born in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s have lower incomes than their predecessors had at the same age. Those born in the 1980s are the first postwar cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors. Home ownership, the aspiration of successive generations of ordinary people, is in sharp decline, among the young especially. Most shocking of all, today only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high income earner as an adult.” State of the Nation 2016

For those are wondering what happened to Great Aunt Margaret, her younger brother John played outside right for Burnley.  He retired from football after a full back snapped his ankle, and went to work in Luton at the car industry.  Aunt Margaret moved to live nearby, and took a job in the factory too.  She moved back to Pittington, and lived up the road from us.   


Big thanks to the archivists at Church House, Lambeth Palace, Durham County Records Office for their help.  

The main sources I used for this were:

Clerical Incomes: An Inquiry int the Cost of Living Among the Parochial Clergy, Masterman 1933

The Deployment and Payment of the Clergy, Paul, CIO 1964

Office Holders in Modern Britain 1815-1879, University of London 1984

History of Durham Blue Coat Schools, R Chadwick, 1958

Royal Commission on the Coal Industry 1925, National Archives

Church of England Clergy Stipends Report 2016, Clergy Stipends Authority

State of the Nation Report, Social Mobility Commission, 2016

If you are interested in the kind of inequality thinking going on this blog, while well researched and accurate ,is typical of this trope:

The Guardian has a really good ongoing series of articles on inequality. This, from Yuval Noah Harari posits a singularity of inequality in the near future:

These are the accounts for a couple of other Vicars a bit less well off than our chap with a £1000+ a year.  The represent the rough equivalent to a family on an average income today:





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