Servants and Masters

The relationship between servants and their masters has long been a topic of interest for playwrights, screen writers and authors. Our appetite, as readers and observers, is ever hungry (who else is hoping they are secretly thinking of bringing Downton Abbey back?) 

In this 5-min history fix I am going to take you on a quick journey to four places where you can experience the history of servitude.

If you are a fan period drama, have you noticed differences in the servants between, for instance The Tudors or Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey? One marked difference is the visibility of the servant staff.Nowhere is the shift from visible to non-visible service easier to see than at Belsay Hall and Castle. A 17th Century Manor was built within the grounds of the original, 14th century castle as the new home of the Monck family.On Christmas Day 1817, the Monck family moved out of the old castle to take up residence in the brand new Hall. It must have represented not just a change in the building in which the family lived and their staff served but also the way in which they interacted.Servants were visible within a medieval household but by the time the new Hall was built servants were expected to go about their work unseen. Belsay is the perfect place to demonstrate this change, with one -third of the square building taken up with a dedicated service wing with its own staircase serving all levels of the house. 

Now let's travel to Bath. Bath was at the height of its popularity during the late 18th and early 19th century and No. 1 Royal Cresent is a window into typical life in Bath at this time.

'Upstairs' the gentry and the wealthy were served by a staff of housekeepers, cooks, butlers and maids from 'downstairs'. This house is a physical reminder of the distinction between the rich and those who served them. By the time No. 1 Royal Cresent was designed by John Wood the Younger, servants were expected to remain out of site as much as possible, and we see features such as service staircases, like at Belsay Hall, which allowed servants to enter and exit different storeys without using the main staircase.

Later, in Victorian society, hierarchy was as important in the serving world as in wider society. At Dunster Castle in Somerset you can go behind the scenes and see how Victorian Servants lived and worked in the purpose built Victorian service wing.The kitchens are a great example of the organisation required to feed a house of this size, each room in a series of rooms had a particular purpose and the people working in them, particular tasks. But it's the servants living quarters that give the real insight into this important hierarchy. From the Bell Boy or Scullery Maid up to the Butler and Housekeeper, everyone had a place in the pecking order with wages, living quarters and privileges suitable to their rank. It was interesting to note here that the Housekeepers lodgings, were more extensive that the Butler's and included her own private toilet. Other tell tale signs such as the call bell in the (only) shared bathroom and the tide mark low down on the bath, show how little time the staff were allowed for leisure or rest.

Our interest in servants, their masters, how they worked and how they lived comes partly, if not considerably, from drama based in Britain's great houses and palaces. One of these, Downton Abbey ran for six series. There are a number of parallels that can be drawn from the storyline of Downton Abbey and the real life events of Highclere Castle, where it set, and its residents.

During the First World War, Almina, the 5th Countess, turned the Castle into a hospital to care for men returning from the trenches. Similar to the decision Cora, Lady Grantham, makes in Season 2.Also like Cora, Almina took an active role in running the hospital, actually managing the nursing staff herself. The 6th Countess, Lady Catherine, was an American, another similarity to the character of Cora.


This blog is taken from the 'Upstairs Downstairs' travel guide in my 'Follow in the Footsteps series available on the website for £9.99. The Follow in the Footsteps series is a fabulous virtual journey which you can also turn into a real life experience using the handy visitor information in the back.


Sources: No 1 Royal Cresent guidebook, Dunster Castle & Gardens guidebook, Belsay Hall, Castle & Gardens book, Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson, www.highclerecastle.co.uk, Philippa Brewell own research.

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