Life below stairs


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.

The Servants Hall at Penrhyn Castle. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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 Brushing Room at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

A royal visit: King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visiting the Treasurer's House, York. ©NTPL

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.

Part of the kitchen at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

Copper jelly moulds in the kitchen at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

23 Responses to “Life below stairs”

  1. roadtoparnassus Says:

    The daily functioning of grand houses is every bit as interesting as the High Life that transpired there. I look forward to reading this. I really admired the informative and entertaining book The Victorian Kitchen by Jennifer Davies.

    English “below stairs” was somewhat different than in America, because of your service class and larger houses. I have noticed that British householders often had photographs taken of their domestic staff, while Americans did rarely. I wonder why–noblesse oblige or true affection?

    Well-preserved service areas are very rare in old houses. They weren’t often photographed and seldom survive in original form–even when people kept the fancy painting and carving in the parlor, they still updated the kitchens and bathrooms.

  2. Kaye Says:

    This is so fascinating. Thank you.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, interesting question about why the British upper classes seem to have documented their servants more. Perhaps there was a lingering sense of them being part of the ‘household’, that medieval idea of an extended family including all the retainers? Perhaps in America it was more an employer-employee relationship?

  4. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Your photo titled The Servants Hall at Penrhyn Castle suggests that at least for one meal a day, the servants ate a proper amount of food. I wonder if this was true when important guests were not arriving at the country estate – did the servants have decent rooms, warmth, enough time for leisure and sleep, clean clothes and tasty food?

  5. François-Marc Chaballier Says:

    I think the point should be made that life in service, for all its disadvantages — the hard work it implied (lighting fires before the household got up, carrying large quantities of hot water upstairs for baths…) and all the enforced restrictions on the servants’ personal lives and self-expression — has too be compared to the alternatives: agricultural work was at least as strenuous and uncomfortable, and industrial work was often dirty, dangerous and precarious before health insurance and retirement plans. Urban tenements were often appalling. There were no “safety nets”.
    On the other hand, a large household would, I think, provide for its long-time servants after they could no longer fulfil the jobs they were hired to do; it also gave them a roof over their heads clothing and adequate daily meals. Training could be provided, at different skill levels, and there existed a job market, given the huge numbers of people in service all over the country.
    All in all, in comparison, service was not so bad…

  6. style court Says:

    Speaking just in terms of design and aesthetics, it’s also wonderful to see photographs of beautifully crafted functional items — the brushes, copper moulds and pots, etc. Often the rooms filled with tools or gardening and cooking implements are more interesting (not to mention better looking and more welcoming) than the highly decorated areas of the house. Maybe because they are less contrived.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, from what I have read, the food provided for servants was often relatively good and plentiful (often with produce from the home farm) – and Francois-Marc has responded better than I could to your other points – thank you, Francois-Marc 🙂

    Courtney, yes that sculptural display of moulds is very you 🙂

  8. François-Marc Chaballier Says:

    Thank you and please excuse the various typos in my post; I only noticed them too late, alas …

  9. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post. The thought that I might eat 89 dishes in four days is enough to send me to bed. The story of the visit from the Prince of Wales reminds me of something I read about Queen Elizabeth I. The article, which I can’t place, said that when she came to visit and left soon, it was a sign that one was favored.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Francois-Marc, don’t worry – I am writing this from a smartphone, so cannot spell your name properly, either!

    Mark, yes those tours by Elizabeth I seem to have been a kind of political control mechanism: to impress, to check up, and to drain her hosts’ resources so they didn’t build up too much wealth. Edward VII had no need for the control mechanism, but he did drain his hosts’ resources 🙂

  11. François-Marc Chaballier Says:

    I have also heard a rumour that, in the XXth C., Queen Mary (King George V’s queen) had the habit of appropriating object she liked in the houses she visited and that it got to the point that people would hide their most expensive or favoured possessions in advance of a royal visit.

  12. Karen K. Says:

    This sounds fascinating — I’m currently obsessed with Upstairs, Downstairs, so the timing couldn’t be better for me. Thank goodness for The Book Depository — so much easier to get my Brit Lit fix.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    François-Marc, yes there are many stories of Queen Mary visiting houses and standing next to things she fancied and exclaiming how wonderful it was and not budging from the spot until the host(ess) had offered it to her – a very particular interpretation of the ‘royal prerogative’ 🙂 And indeed various stories about people agonising about what to leave on display and what to hide.

    Karen, I am glad this feeds into your interests.

  14. ldm Says:

    Re Queen Mary – in one of James Lees-Milne’s diaries (1984-1997) he wrote that he was asked if he knew of even one authenticated story of her demanding something from someone she was visiting and said that he did not.

    Perhaps this is an “urban legend” type of story that should be let go unless someone can come up with a concrete example of it having happened.

  15. François-Marc Chaballier Says:

    I did write of it as a “rumour”…

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes those stories may be myths, but they do add to the gaiety of nations 🙂 And the very fact that these tales (still) circulate is interesting.

  17. ldm Says:

    Poor Queen Mary. The story probably started with her being polite and complimenting people whose homes she visited about one of their possessions, and it snowballed into an ugly piece of gossip without any foundation in actual fact.

    Suppose when she visited people she said nothing nice about their possessions which surely they took pride in. Then she would have been labeled rude and disdainful.

    So she couldn’t win. But to repeat these rumors about her supposed covetousness is imho unfair unless they can be substantiated.

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Apparently one source for these stories is Kenneth Rose’s 1983 biography of King George V (p. 280 – haven’t read it myself but found the reference via Wikipedia).

    If true, these foibles should of course be seen in the context (and are the more amusing because) of her many public benefactions, her strong sense of duty and her Edwardian (indeed Victorian) sense of royal grandeur.

  19. ldm Says:

    I have done a search on of Kenneth Rose’s biography using the terms “Queen Mary”, “Queen Mary gift”, “Queen Mary present” and “Queen Mary visiting” and can find nothing about Queen Mary receiving presents from the owners of houses she visited (although of course I may have missed it).

    Page 280 (on Amazon) contains only 1 paragraph dealing with a painting by Chrome which was in a house called Castle Rising which had been leased by someone named Farquhar who was apparently a controversial figure in his day.

    If anyone has a copy of Rose’s biography and can find a reference to this topic, I hope they will post it.

  20. François-Marc Chaballier Says:

    ” Indeed, she [Queen Mary] has sometimes been criticised for her aggressive acquisition of objets d’art for the Royal Collection. On several occasions, she would express to hosts, or others, that she admired something they had in their possession, in the expectation that the owner would be willing to donate it.[52] Her extensive knowledge of, and research into, the Royal Collection helped in identifying artefacts ”
    From Wikipedia article “Mary of Teck”

  21. ldm Says:

    Page 284 of Rose’s book mentions 2 specific incidents:

    1. A gift from Lord Lee of Fareham (who donated Chequers to the Nation), of what was from Queen Mary’s point of view a family portrait (King Charles II) which perhaps, given his great generosity, Lord Lee offered to her without being prompted.

    2. The other specific transaction mentioned also involved a ‘family’ item – a Derby biscuit group of George III’s children which Queen Mary may have wished to purchase for that reason.

    I do not think these 2 stories are sufficient to serve as a basis for claiming that Queen Mary ‘cadged’ gifts from people.

  22. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    You must be right then – but what a shame to deprive Queen Mary of such a picturesque little character defect 🙂

    I think the discussion should rest here.

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