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Mrs Hughes: "In many ways, I wanted to accept. But I'm not that farm girl any more. I was flattered, of course, but... I've changed, Mr Carson."
Mr Carson: "Life's altered you, as it's altered me. And what would be the point of living if we didn't let life change us?"
— Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson on Mrs Hughes refusing the second proposal of Joe Burns.[src]
Elsie Hughes (b.1862[1]) is the head housekeeper and she is in charge of all the female servants. More or less, she runs the entire servant branch of Downton Abbey. She is very stoic, but she is ethical and never two-sided.

Early Life

She is originally from Argyll and her father was a farmer. She has just one sibling, a sister who lives in Lytham St Annes.

Mrs Hughes arrived at Downton sometime between the birth of Lady Mary Crawley and Lady Sybil Crawley as Mr. Carson states that Mrs. Hughes did not know Mary when she was "young" and recall when she was 4 years old while later on Mrs. Hughes says she has known Sybil since the day she was born.

While working at Downton Abbey, Mrs. Hughes was "walking out" with a country farmer named Joe Burns. He proposed, but, finding her new work as head housemaid at Downton enjoyable and rewarding, she refused him.

Series One

By April 1912 Mrs. Hughes is head housekeeper, a prestigious position that is more or less equal with Carson's office as butler. She is a strict taskmaster, but kind-hearted, offering advice and words of comfort to staff members in distress. When Mr. Bates, in Episode 3, badly mangles his leg in an attempt to correct his limp, she helps him and reminds him that no one thinks the worse of him for his handicap. Furthermore, she looks out especially for William, who is often melancholy due to homesickness and Thomas's bullying.

Episode 4 sees Joe Burns arrive in town with the intent of a second proposal. Mrs. Hughes goes with him to dinner and the fair, but after realizing that she is no longer the same farm girl of past years (and that Downton would most likely fall to pieces without her) she again refuses and continues in her post.

In the last episode she is the first person at Downton to become aware of the chauffeur Tom Branson´s interest in Lady Sybil as she observes Lady Sybil and Branson holding hands for a short moment in celebration of the housemaid Gwen having finally succeeded in getting a job as a secretary. She warns Tom that he may lose his job and end up with a broken heart if he is not careful.

Series Two

The beginning of the war sees Mrs. Hughes busier than ever in overseeing Downton's management, dealing with various domestic crises including Carson's illness from overwork (and later from Spanish flu) and Branson's "assassination" attempt on a visiting general.

In Episode 4, a shocked Mrs. Hughes finds new maid Ethel and houseguest/patient Major Bryant in bed in the servant's quarters. Livid, she dismisses Ethel, who later reappears with the announcement that she is pregnant. From then on, though clear she disapproves of Ethel's choices, Mrs. Hughes smuggles food to the poverty-stricken Ethel and her infant son, attempting several times to give an irresponsible Major Bryant Ethel's letters. Cora discovers the situation just before Bryant is killed in battle, and in Episode 7 arranges for the Major's parents to come to Downton.

Mrs. Hughes tries to sneak Ethel into the house to meet with the Major's parents, but the attempt goes disastrously wrong. Not willing to give up, however, she arranges a second meeting in Episode 8 and speaks up for Ethel in the face of Bryant's father's bullying. Though unwilling to register an official opinion upon hearing Ethel's decision not to give up baby Charlie, she is much kinder towards Ethel, perhaps even with some small degree of admiration.

2011 Christmas Special

With Bates' trial looming, Mrs.Hughes attempts to comfort a distraught Anna with the fervent belief that Bates, being innocent, will be freed. However, she is called unwillingly to speak for the prosecution, and tricked into revealing the damning conversation she overheard between Bates and Vera - including that he had sworn at and threatened to strike his wife. Obviously shaken, she nevertheless continues to comfort the grieving Anna after Bates is convicted.

Series Three

Mrs. Hughes continues to help Ethel and Charlie, who have fallen on hard times. In Episode 2, at Mrs. Patmore's insistence, Mrs. Hughes consults Dr. Clarkson about a suspicious lump that she fears is cancerous; though visibly distraught at the thought of her illness she refuses to confide in any of the staff except Mrs. Patmore, even at the cost of being upbraided by Carson for apparent laziness. By the end of the episode she is awaiting results that will tell her whether or not she has breast cancer.

In Episode 3, still awaiting results, she discovers that Carson has figured out the cause of her stress and is initially irritated when he attempts to treat her like an invalid; however, she is touched when Cora tells her that no matter what happens she will always have a home and the help she needs at Downton, giving her new found respect for the family. A visit to Dr. Clarkson confirms that the suspicious lump is not cancer, but only a benign growth. (Carson, relieved, responds to the news by singing as he goes about his work.)

Mrs Hughes has a close relationship with the butler Mr. Carson and we often see scenes of them sharing wine in her sitting room or his pantry. Their relationship is friendly but there are hints of some sort of romantic feeling between the two. For example, when Mrs Hughes got the all clear on the possibility of her having cancer she saw Mr Carson singing because he was so relieved. Not only that but he was singing "dashing away with a smoothing iron she stole my heart away". It made her smile.

When former chauffeur Tom Branson returns to Downton Abbey as Lady Sybil´s husband she is one of the few servants who accept the new situation. She is friendly and welcoming when he comes downstairs to say hello to his former co-workers.

Thomas Barrow later tells her about his homosexuality. She reveals to Carson that Thomas is not the first person she has known "of that sort." She insists that Jimmy must have led Thomas on, calling Jimmy a "vain and silly flirt" and insists that Thomas not be ruined.

2012 Christmas Special

Mrs Hughes, like Mr. Carson, does her best to keep up the work pace while the family is in Scotland, but does ask him to let them have some fun. Mrs. Patmore talks to Mrs. Hughes about Jos Tufton, but she advises caution, and is not pleased to see him trying to impress other women at the Thirsk fair, then sees him kissing other women as well as stroking one's bottom. She later reveals to Mrs. Patmore what she saw, but is surprised Mrs. Patmore is glad to be away. They both start laughing.

When Tom Branson is made to feel awkward and ashamed by Edna, Mrs. Hughes comforts him and assures him that he should not be ashamed of being part of the family and that he has done well, and that Lady Sybil would be very proud of him and comforts him as he breaks down in grief for his wife. She then swiftly fires Edna, whom she was suspicious of for a while.

Series Four

Mrs Hughes, like Mr Carson and Tom Branson, is unhappy about the fact that Edna Braithwaite has returned, and is certain that they cannot have her back. But Carson determines they cannot speak out and resolves they should keep an eye on her. Mrs Hughes nonetheless feels that Edna's return is "a ticking bomb." Her fears are proven right after Edna intoxicates Tom then tries to blackmail him into marrying her with lies that she might be pregnant.

Desperate, Tom confidse in her (on Mary's advice to find someone he can talk to after she sees him feeling guilty and ashamed and he does not tell her). When she asks him if he expects her to help him, he states he did not know who else to turn to. She and Tom then confront Edna, where she reveals evidence behind Edna's scheme and threatens to ruin her if she does not leave and keep quiet. But after Edna leaves the room, she admits to Tom she wasn't certain Edna was not pregnant, but now is. She asserts they were "mad as hatters" to let her back in the house.

When she finds Carson's old colleague Charles Grigg has fallen on hard times, she steps in and helps him when Carson would not, and encourages him to let his old wounds heal. Eventually they do, and she even takes a picture of Carson's old love Alice and frames it for him. He thanks her, clearly very touched, after they talk about it later.

She is only one to know Anna Bates was raped by Lord Gillingham's valet Green (until Anna tells Mary), having found her afterwards. Anna swears her to secrecy, but Mrs Hughes tries to get her to mend her relationship with John (which has soured because she is avoiding him), and will not hear of Anna thinking of suicide (which she plans on doing if she turns out to be carrying Green's child). Unfortunately John, who by now has been convinced he is at fault for Anna's behavior and that she no longer loves him, overhears the two women talking and tells Mrs Hughes he will leave unless he learns the truth. She stops him and assures him Anna still loves him, and decides to tell him so he would stay, feeling John's departure would finish Anna. But she swears Green is not to blame despite John's suspicions. Later he tells her nothing is settled after Anna was confident John believed her.

Mr Carson refers to her as quite a plotter when she wants to be. She replies it is a skill all women must learn.

When Lord Grantham has to go to America to help his in-laws, she knows he will take John with him and insists to Lady Mary that Thomas should go instead, because John needs to be with Anna. When Mary asks why, Mrs Hughes has to reveal the truth of what happened to Anna, but once again remains silent as to who was responsible.

She confronts Green in the boot room after he returns with Lord Gillingham. Green tells her he and Anna were both drunk, therefore they are both to blame. But Mrs Hughes steadfastly reminds him he alone is to blame, and warns him to watch himself.

2013 Christmas Special

Mrs Hughes accompanies Carson and the rest of the staff on a day out at the beach.

She also makes a discovery.

Appearances

Appearances and Mentions
Series 1 Episode 1
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Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Series 2 Episode 1
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Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Christmas Special
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Series 3 Episode 1
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Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Christmas Special
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Series 4 Episode 1
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Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Christmas Special
   
Series 5 Episode 1 Episode 2 Episode 3 Episode 4 Episode 5 Episode 6 Episode 7 Episode 8 Christmas Special
   
Series 6 Episode 1 Episode 2 Episode 3 Episode 4 Episode 5 Episode 6 Episode 7 Episode 8 Christmas Special

Behind the Scenes

Notes

  • In "The Chronicles of Downton Abbey : A New Era" by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis, Jullian Fellowes relates that Elsie Hughes, "represents what must surely have been the majority of servants who regarded service as just a job; servants who neither worshipped or hated their employers, and would meet the different future without either passion or regret."

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 The press pack released for series one confirms she is 50 in 1912, meaning she was born in 1862: Press Pack 4
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