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With the much anticipated fourth series of Downton Abbey starting last night, we’ve delved into the family history of Dame Maggie Smith who plays the Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham and discovered it wasn’t just the Countess who had servants in her household.
The show portrays the lives of Violet and the aristocratic Crawley family. Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham was born into nobility however her family was relatively impoverished. Her marriage to Patrick Crawley, Earl of Grantham brought her hardly any more money, even with the title. Despite this, Violet lives in a grand stately home with many servants. The servants play a key role within the drama with some of them loyal to the family, preserving deeply hidden secrets.
Actress Dame Maggie Smith herself has an interesting family history. On the paternal side of her family tree many of her ancestors were shoe-fitters and shoe-makers, a far cry from her Downton Abbey character, though they too were masters of a household with domestic help.
Maggie’s paternal grandmother was Kate Gregory, who as a child worked as a shoe-machinist. Her parents, Maggie’s great grandparents, Charles Nathaniel Gregory and Susan Jones worked as a shoe-maker and shoe-fitter. The 1891 Census tells us that the family had a servant, Kate Rogers, who was 19 years old and living with them in their Newcastle home, providing general domestic duties. Perhaps this is why Dame Maggie Smith is so convincing in her relationships with the servants in the Downton Abbey series.
Rhoda Breakell, Head of Genesreunited.co.uk, commented: “Life for Violet Crawley may not be a bed of roses with the trials and tribulations of her family, but she receives a lot of support from her servants. It is interesting that Dame Maggie Smith’s ancestors also had a servant in their household – perhaps it is her family history that the actress draws upon for inspiration in the role.
“The comparison also demonstrates how it was not only the upper classes and those who lived in large English stately homes who had servants, but the middle classes as well. Many of us today would probably be surprised to find our ancestors had domestic help. Researching your family history can unearth all sorts of exciting finds and enables you to compare your lifestyle today with that of your ancestors. Searching the Census records at genesreunited.co.uk can help unlock all sorts of twists and turns in your family history.”