Cultural historian Siân Evans has just published a book entitled Life Below Stairs, about the lives of the cooks, butlers, housekeepers, footmen, ladies’ maids and governesses who kept country houses running smoothly in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.
A wide social chasm separated servants from their employers, but a clear place in the hierarchy and a certain degree of security could make being ‘in service’ an attractive proposition.
The book describes how the different servant roles were defined and how the work was divided up, so that the mechanism of the country house could provide a seemingly effortless way of life.
For special events, such as royal visits, the system would be stretched to the limit. In July 1894, for instance, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, together with 35 other house guests, who all brought their own servants with them.
Over the four days of the house party, over 1,150 meals were provided, including 89 dishes for the Prince of Wales – a known gourmand – and the other main guests.
The whole occasion seems to have been a triumph, testament to the specialised skills and organisational capacity of the staff – although there must have been a few sighs of relief – and perhaps even the odd nervous breakdown – afterwards.