Curators of a new charming exhibition on Dorset’s servant class invited reporter Jessica Rees to go behind the scenes and travel back to the time of domestic drudgery.

TALES of adultery and poisoning masters line the walls of a new exhibition in Beaminster which time travels into the past and down the stairs of stately homes.

The premise of the country’s most popular period drama, Downton Abbey, created by Dorset’s Julian Fellowes, has been brought to life in the pretty little town of Beaminster, in Beaminster Museum’s latest exhibition, Life Below Stairs.

The exhibition, which opened Easter weekend, has taken two and a half years to research and curate by volunteers Peter Holloway and his wife Lesley.

A sister exhibition called Census, curated by volunteer Brian Earl, celebrates the 175th anniversary of the first census records taken in 1841, which have been the most valuable source for researching Life Below Stairs.

The museum takes visitors on a journey of the life of staff of big houses, of the housemaids, butlers, coach men and cooks.

Exploring the relationships between both master and servant, and servant to servant, Peter and Lesley have captured pockets of harrowing history and heritage in the nevertheless charming collection.

Peter began volunteering at the museum three years ago after he became interested in his own family genealogy when he retired.

Peter said: “We started researching the service exhibition in the summer of 2013. Census records and newspaper articles were the two biggest sources of information.

“Using the records we could track servant movements, and find servant tales of love and marriage.”

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The exhibition covers records from Victorian 1841 to Edwardian 1911, what Peter describes as the real heyday of domestic service.

The hierarchy of service is explained as you move through the collection, allowing visitors an insight into how classes were segregated by a ceiling.

One of Beaminster Museum’s most interesting sources was a unique diary kept by the owner of Hooke Court near Beaminster, Lady Salt. The diary documents every servant the house had, and Lady Salt’s thoughts on their service.

Peter said: “That diary was the holy grail of the whole exhibition. It was very difficult to find other narrative stories.

“We used old copies of Bridport News using the British newspaper archives and local library which was really interesting, as we were able to look at adverts and then find in the census records who got the job.”

Peter highlights one particular story of a 14 year-old girl, Mary Studley, from Broadwindsor, who in 1935 got a job as a kitchen maid at Wootton Fitzpaine Manor, near Lyme Regis, for an annual salary of £22.

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Peter said: “The two most interesting themes that came up were love and marriage. It was hard to find a partner in service, but for those who did, many found each other in the same household.

“In Slape Manor House, of Netherbury, near Bridport, the butler married the housemaid in 1914.”

Peter said: “Everyone loves juicy gossip, and there was plenty. Adultery with servant girls, and thefts by servants. There were elopements and poisonings and scandals in all the newspapers, in court lists and divorce papers.

Curator of the museum, Brian Earl, said: “A lot of trouble then was the servants didn’t have any family to look after them. A lot of them were spinsters and bachelors for life.”

The museum is full of freshly discovered real life tales that capture the essence and reality of life as a maid-of-all-work, which during the time was one of the biggest trades in the country.

There, in the museum, are the real life inhabitants of Downton Abbey - like Anna, Mr Bates, Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson. The museum makes their story a priority, and their struggle, leaving the splendour and grandeur of upstairs life in the shadows.

And it is the volunteers who have tirelessly spent years capturing it all.

Peter said: “I enjoy the detective work, it appeals to me so much even though it can be very difficult, especially reading the census records, but that is part of the challenge, and why you get so excited when you find something.”

Brian Earl, standing next to Peter, agrees. Brian said: “I like living in a place that I actually understand. I have an eclectic thirst for knowledge, people call me a curious person and I don’t like unanswered questions.

“We are making sure we understand what Beaminster was like.”

About 50 volunteers help run the museum, which has about 1,500 visitors each year. Brian calls it ‘quite the little community.’ Douglas Beazer, who voluntarily manages the publicity of the museum, said: “I wanted to become involved with the museum because it gives me an opportunity to help present to our visitors what a tremendous heritage we have in this local area and to preserve our wonderful history.

“I think it is most important that we educate our future generations about our history and pass on our knowledge so this is sustained for the future by, hopefully, younger people becoming involved with the museum.”

The exhibitions, Life Below Stairs and Census are at Beaminster Museum until the end of October. The museum is open every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Bank Holiday 10.30am to 4pm and Sundays 2pm to 4.30pm. For more information call 01308 863623 or visit