Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs (BBC)

October 17, 2012 at 10:45 pm (diaries, entertainment, estates, history) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Calista alerted me to a terrific new three-part documentary, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs.  Our guide through this world is Dr. Pamela Cox (University of Essex), whose great-grandmothers were servants.

Here is Dr Cox talking about the servant portraits at Knole (in Kent). Calista hasn’t forgotten the photographic portraits — and poems! — found at Erddig Hall (near Wrexham) – so I’ll give you what I emailed her (from my Ladies of Llangollen site):

Merlin WATERSON, The Servants’ Hall: A ‘Downstairs’ History of a British Country House (1980) – pictures and text trace the history of Erddig Hall (National Trust property; near Wrexham), the estate belonging to the Yorke family (a distant relative was the General Yorke who purchased, and expanded, Plas Newydd late in the 19th century). 

A favorite section, perhaps because it went back in time to an era during which my Mary and Emma were young brides and mothers, concerned the diary of William Taylor, servant to a widow living in Great Cumberland Street, London.

The diary was kept during the year of 1837 – so at the very beginning of Victoria’s reign. Like the portraits illustrated above, with the servants seemingly in street clothes and certainly not in the “servant uniforms” we all think of when pictures from Upstairs, Downstairs flash into our brains – William’s diary is a rare example of a pre-Victorian household.

Two items I noted, while listening to the discussion, were entries from May. On the 14th  he has written a very thought-provoking statement defending the servant class: “servants form one of the most respectable classes of person that is in existence: they must be healthy, clean, honest, a sober set of people.”

And I had to chuckle over his comments about young ladies at a party being “nearly naked to the waist“. Oh, for more from William Taylor! Has his diary been published? Will it be published? And include William’s delightful drawings.

Yes, a man who draws about life in service, his family, etc etc. He’s as comic and informative as my favorite “naive” artist, Diana Sperling (by the way, another Essex country inhabitant; if you don’t know her work, do look up the book Mrs Hurst Dancing).

This is a self-portrait: William has come home for a visit – to the astonishment of relations. To see those relations portrayed you’ll have to watch the TV show. William is discussed in part 1 of the series, “Knowing Your Place.” A HIGHLY recommended series. I’m going to catch part 3 before heading to bed.

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Imagine all the horses

December 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm (a day in the life, people, places, research) (, , , , )

My father well recalls his early years with horses; theirs was a home where the horse was still a main mode of transportation. We’ve had many a wonderful conversation about his memories, as well as “life with horse”.

But I grew up in a city! And well into the period where “car” was the only transport.

So I post today to see if anyone out there, well versed in the horse culture, especially when horse and carriage was the only means of transportation, can help.

I envision what it must have been like to be living on Portland Place, London, in 1814, when the Goslings readied to journey to Oxford. Mary Gosling writes of the journey itself; where they stopped; what they visited; when they arrived in Oxford. But: How would the household have gotten everything ready for the family to depart? Who would have done what so that when the Master of the house and his family descended, they could just enter the carriage, and be off.

I have my conjectures, of course, but would welcome some first-hand knowledge of what was required, what was done, how long it took.

Diaries are great! but describing the running of a house are not usually  included! (If anyone knows of such a diary or diaries; published books, etc; do let me know.) That would be like writing down getting into one’s car on a wintry December day: dust off snow, scrape ice; if you stop for gas, how you pump gas… etc etc. We all know HOW it’s done, so who would bother to describe it?! Similarly, Mary doesn’t bother with such minutiae overly familiar to her.

How does one harness a horse? Who would have been responsible for what? Was the carriage (and presumably there was more than one to choose from) pulled out and then the horses fitted into the traces? How? by whom? Would the driver have overseen stable lads? Or was his arrival timed to happen just before his passengers came down?

The one thing the diaries and letter DO describe is accidents; so I chose to illustrate this post with a great “action” picture by my favorite, Diana Sperling.

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A True Tonic!

January 9, 2010 at 2:19 pm (a day in the life) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I am writing (thanks to wifi in my room!) from The Governor’s House in Hyde Park — a simply terrific bed and breakfast in Hyde Park, Vermont — where our last (of four) Pride and Prejudice “Jane Austen Weekend” is taking place (for more on the inn and the JA weekends, see this website). Two cancellations, one poor Florida woman still missing in action (did she decide not to come? is she stuck in some airport?), and there are left seven participants, nine with Suzanne (the owner) and myself. A wonderful little group!

Just coming through the door last evening – after a harrowing 360-degree spin around one icy curve (narrowly missed  hitting a guardrail and oncoming vehicles; my car and myself are fine!) – I felt an embrace of ‘welcome’ , and met two of our participants, from Montreal.

Must just say what a pleasure it is being with people who talk about the pleasures of life: travel, books, tv and movie films. One participant is even interested in WWI and WWII era books and movies (like myself). It’s taken me all night to recall Nella Last’s diary (and the subsequent TV movie; both are terrific), as well as think of Georgina Lee’s diaries (published as Home Fires Burning). By the way, her son married into the Spencer-Smith branch of the Smith of Suttons family (Orlando Spencer-Smith’s daughter). Small world.

It was a gab-fest last evening: we met in the parlor before 8; chat segued into my talk on Georgiana Darcy and roamed around many topics before people headed off to bed about 11. It was great fun!

An no one will know how happy it made me feel (unless they read this post!) to hear that participants liked the interactive “look” at these three women artists (Mary Yelloly, Diana Sperling [her work seen below], Lili Cartwright) from Georgiana’s time period (1800-1840s). Looking notes over last evening before the talk I experienced a distinct liking for my ideas on Georgiania, on the works of this trio of amateur artists. Sometimes problems, cares and worries just take over the creative juices… So I’m hoping this weekend away will help them regenerate!

One thing it brought was a new source book. I am staying in the “French Room” – a lovely, huge room with two sleigh beds (quite apropos for this wintry weather…), and it is a stone’s throw from the little video library Suzanne has amassed – and on a table in that alcove, The Making of “Pride and Prejudice” (ie, the A&E “Colin Firth” version). Their researcher remarks that she figured the Bennets would have had a staff of 11 – from Housekeeper to undergroom. The source book she found invaluable in answering the question of staff was published in 1825, and sure enough books.google has it: The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams. (To get past the ‘ads’ advance to page 13 = the title page.) Should make for interesting reading — as the staffing of the likes of Suttons, in Mrs Smith’s day or in Lady Smith’s day (eighteen-teens vs eighteen-thirties), is very sketchy, with a few names in Mary’s diaries but only vague references in Mrs Smith’s letters to such as the collective “the maids”, which somehow manages to sound ever so numerous… maybe it was.

Last night, when discussing Georgiana Darcy and her £30,000, I had wanted to see what that in ‘today’s money’ might equate. Why? because of a great currency converter on the UK website for the Public Record Office/National Archives. For instance, when Mrs Smith’s father died, the family sold his Wiltshire estate for £219,000. Even in today’s money that sum sounds a vast amount to the likes of me! But with these two converters we can find (1) its equivalent in today’s money and (2) today’s money ‘buying power’ in (for instance) 1820:

calculation 1: “In 1820, £219,000 would have the same spending worth of today’s £9,180,480.” W-o-w! Nearly 10 million pounds, divided between the four daughters of Joshua Smith.

So what would Georgiana’s £30,000 equal today? Over one million pounds! (BTW, Mary — and I presume her sister Elizabeth as well, had £20,000 settled on her in 1826 when she married Charles Smith, according to a letter written by Eliza Chute [I’ve not yet looked into marriage settlements of the family].)

I hear the doors — Austen weekenders returning from their sleigh ride down in Stowe! It’s cold, but the sun is shining, which is RARE here in Vermont lately!

The making of P&P book also mentioned diaries held at “Cecil Sharpe House” – I’ve no idea what this is. Searching for it by name, I find bars and nightclubs – which doesn’t sound like a place that houses 19th-century diaries! The fuller quote (on p. 32 of the book) is: “I visited the library at Cecil Sharpe House. I had been asked to find out about a number of points, such as whether guests carried dance cards and whether they were given a full meal, sitting down. The library had a collection of women’s pocket books [ie, diaries] from the early 19th century.” If researcher Clare Elliott’s phrase “had a collection” is indeed in the past tense, any information on what happened to this collection would be of use to me. Though I do find that the English Folk Dance and Song Society website discusses the ‘complete overhaul’ of the archive spaces at Cecil Sharp House (no ‘e’ to his last name). When hearing about a stash of diaries it’s difficult not to wonder: Any from the Smith or Gosling family??

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