Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Below Stairs - The Life of A Victorian Servant at Ashdown House

During the Victorian period the Craven family occupied Ashdown House on a permanent basis. This was the only time in the history of the house that it became a proper home and the nineteenth century census records give us fascinating details of both the family upstairs and the servants downstairs. This information is taken from a presentation I give about life at Ashdown in the Victorian period.

In fact the servants were not “downstairs” at Ashdown because the house was so small that there was no servant accommodation in the main building. During the Victorian period additional wings were added to the main house to convert it into the sort of dwelling suitable for a Victorian aristocrat and at the same time the servants’ accommodation was extended. The servants also lived in the two lodge houses and some had homes in Ashdown village. Others walked to work each day from Lambourn, Ashbury, Uffington, Idstone and the surrounding villages.

At Ashdown House the census returns for the nineteenth century illustrate beautifully how a Victorian servants hall would run. The upper servants were the steward or butler, the housekeeper, the cook, the senior lady’s maid and senior valet, the head gardener and the coachman. The steward’s room boy waited on them. They did not eat in the servants’ hall but separately in the butler’s pantry. There were two ladies maids, one for the Countess and one for her elder daughters. The ladies maids earned between £12 and £15 per annum. There were also two valets, one for the Earl of Craven and one for his brother. They earned more – naturally.

At Ashdown the butler’s pantry had cupboards for storage and a table for cleaning. The room was at the front of the house and it had a view of the approach to the house so that the butler could see visitors coming and open the door in advance. It was also his job to iron the newspapers in the morning! He was responsible for all indoor male servants except the valets. He was in charge of the silver plate (though it was the footmen who actually cleaned it), the drink and the table linen, and he was also in charge of the safe.

There were three footmen at Ashdown in 1871 plus one steward’s room man. The footmen waited at table at dinner. They also had duties outside including carrying in the coal, they trimmed the lamps and they stood around looking good! Servant tax was higher on taller servants and people often chose matching footmen because they looked elegant in their livery. They attended the family on outings in London such as to the theatre or opera, riding on the back of the carriage to stop children hitching a free ride. Footmen earned £15 - £25 and could also make a considerable sum in tips. At Ashdown we have a collection of footmen’s chairs from the eighteenth century which were designed so that the footman could sit down facing the back of the chair in order not to crush the tailcoat of his livery.

In the 1861 census the Ashdown House cook was male and French. This was extremely fashionable. He had three kitchen maids and one scullery maid to assist him and they worked in the South Lodge where the kitchen, bakery and brewery were situated. Having the kitchens away from the main house was ideal for the family because as well as reducing the fire risk it also kept kitchen smells away from the main house. Various cunning methods were employed to keep the food warm on its journey across the courtyard from kitchen to dining room. The kitchen and scullery maids at Ashdown were all in their teens or early twenties and they helped prepare the food and did the washing up. All the servants worked from 6am to 11pm. By the Victorian era the kitchen at Ashdown was quite advanced with complexes of roasting ranges, closed ranges, stewing stoves, boiling stoves, turnspits, hotplates and hot closets. Food was kept cold in boxes cooled with ice from the icehouse in the village behind the stables. Larders were kept cool by natural ventilation. There was also a specialised game larder at Ashdown because of the importance of shooting on the estate.

The housekeeper was in charge of the housemaids, of which there were three at Ashdown, and one stillroom maid. She was responsible for cleaning the house, looking after the linen, and providing, storing and preparing tea, coffee, sugar, groceries, preserves, cakes and biscuits. Afternoon tea (which was introduced in the 1840s) added to her responsibilities. She had a room of her own, was in charge of the stillroom, and also presided over a storeroom and closet. At Ashdown the housekeeper’s room contained the china cupboards and linen presses but was a parlour as well.

The housemaids were responsible for drawing the blinds and curtains – and closing the internal shutters at Ashdown - for bringing fresh water for washing before breakfast, at noon, before dinner and at bedtime, and for keeping the fires going. In 1850 the housemaids were paid between £11 and £14. They had a half-day off on Sundays, one evening a week free and one day off per month. Not exactly a generous allocation!

The census returns and estate records give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Ashdown servants in the Victorian era. In future pieces I will write more about the outdoor servants and their roles, and also about “Upstairs” – the life led by the Victorian Earls of Craven and their families. If you are interested in the role of Victorian servants drop me a line and I will be very happy to email this complete article to you.


Anonymous said...

Oooh, I love this kind of stuff. I wrote a quiz for the castle last year about servants. It's quite tough to imagine how they lived at the castle - as you say they weren't always below stairs! These ones lived right at the top.

Carol L. said...

I loved this Nicola. Thanks so much for your sharing your knowledge. I love History. I'm also a new GFC follower.
Carol L
Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you both. I think it's fascinating to get a glimpse into the lives of those who kept the house running!