The lives of Petworth's hidden helpers
PUBLISHED: 15:05 15 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:05 15 February 2016
Petworth is one of the great houses of the south of England and the Egremont family have been in residence for 400 years. At the turn of the last century the family of five were served by some 40 servants, up to 100 at certain times of year. Patricia Cleveland-Peck discovers more about the lives of these hidden helpers
The chances are that very few readers will even know a working servant, yet the 1891 census shows that at that time one in three girls aged between 15 and 20 were in service. World War I initiated social change and World War II ended forever a system in which it was taken for granted that one class was put on this earth to wait upon another.
This, however, is history which we can almost reach back and touch and it engages us because we realise that but for the accident of time, the vast majority of us would have been the servants rather than the served.
This fascination is reflected by the popularity of programmes such as Downton Abbey in which the lives of servants, even if presented in an overly rosy light, play an important part. Visitors to country houses may now be more interested in life downstairs than the goings on of the grand family above and consequently more and more stately homes are reopening abandoned domestic offices and including them in their tours.
In the vanguard was Petworth House in Sussex where some years ago the Old Kitchen and the 18th century Servants’ Block were made available to the public. Recently the Winter Dairy and the Meat Larder were also opened to visitors.
Petworth is one of the great houses of the south of England and the Egremont family have been in residence for 400 years. At the turn of the last century the family of five were served by some 40 servants, a number which could rise to 100 at certain times of year. At the time it was said that the best servants were those which were never seen, to which end a tunnel had been constructed leading from the kitchens to the house.
One of the most surprising things to us is the strict hierarchy of the downstairs world. It was divided into several groups: the upper servants, the kitchen staff, the male indoor staff, the female indoor staff and the large, mainly male, outdoor staff. Some servants spent their whole lives looking after other servants.
The most senior servant was the house steward who in 1881 earned £120 per annum and lived in a spacious house of his own with servants to look after him. The chef was on par – he was usually French or Italian and would be assisted by a roasting and a pastry chef, three kitchen maids and a scullery man. The housekeeper was the senior female servant, responsible for employing the housemaids as well as looking after the still room and the china and linen stores. She had comfortable rooms and was well looked after by the under-servants. It was invariably aristocrats rather than servants who sat for their portraits but a wonderful series of photographs was taken of Petworth servants at the turn of the century.
In the 1930s important recordings were made of the memories of what were effectively the last of the old-style servants.
Harriet Best, who began as fourth housemaid in 1918, adds a rider to the notion that servants should never be seen which paints the employer in a more human light. When scrubbing the vast Marble Hall, “Our instructions were that if Lord Leconfield came in we had to troop out carrying our buckets… when for some reason his Lordship came back into the hall… we all walked out again. Eventually he became irritated and told the housekeeper in his forthright way that he ‘hadn’t got some bloody disease’ and a notice was put up to that effect and afterwards we stayed put.”
Food for thought
Dorothy Digby, who started as an under-housemaid, describes the life of her father Fred Baignet, who was scullery man at the time. “Everything was cooked in copper pans which Dad… cleaned with a mixture made from salt, sand and vinegar… Dad worked long hours, six in the morning until two in the afternoon then six until ten at night… The chef jointed his meat when it came in, my father helping. It was heavy work lugging the carcass about… He’d also prepare rabbits, pheasants and chickens… venison too of course, quails and I particularly remember snipe… Dad would also peel all the staff potatoes and carrots…”
Unsurprisingly the servant’s meals differed from those sent upstairs, being prepared, according to Dorothy, “without the niceties of ‘front of house’”. She does however add, “Staff food was exceptionally good.”
It is worth noting that many servants were not unhappy with their lot. It was considered the norm that the classes were strictly divided and the expectations of each – ease and comfort for the masters, drudgery and labour for the servants – were taken for granted in a way we should find hard to tolerate.
For Phyllis, an under-maid in the kitchens in the 1930s who cooked for the servants, “The day began at five… I’d clean the flues on the big fire, black lead it, take the chef his cup of tea, make one for the head kitchen maid, then I’d make yeast buns… trays and trays of them. Then I’d clean the chef’s room… Sometimes we could still be going at midnight for dinner or shooting parties, then the chef would bring out his bottle of punch and give us a drink and we’d feel very much part of a team – at other times though he’d hardly pass the time of day… Time off was just ‘one afternoon a week and be back by nine.’”
By the mid 1930s, going into service, according to Mary Longman, was no longer “really in accord with the spirit” of the time. Starting as a junior housemaid she felt she was “the lowest of the low and very much a dogsbody”. Early on she heard a fracas in the night when one of the housemaids was discovered with a footman. “The girl and her belongings were out at a moment’s notice and no doubt the footman suffered the same fate.”
Servants were also actively discouraged from going into town. Once, after she had been paid, Mary visited a local teashop and was relaxing in the window enjoying a cream tea when someone saw her and reported her to the housekeeper. Although she was spending her own money in her own free time, “to parade herself in this way”, she was told on her return, was not for a junior housemaid. With this incident, one can almost hear the death knell of a way of life.
The austere regime described by these servants has gone forever but it is important that future generations remember it as it really was, rather than as it is portrayed in nostalgic period dramas. At Petworth these memories and images, together with the buildings used by servants, preserve important links with something which has disappeared forever.
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