Chatsworth: frivolous spending, private parties and grumpy governesses

With its picturesque estate, filled with beautiful flowerbeds, waterworks and sculptures, illustrating nearly 500 years of changing styles, Chatsworth is believed to have inspired one of the world’s most-loved writers, Jane Austen.

Chatsworth house

The secret lives of servants at the 'real life Downton Abbey'

Chatsworth House

Yet for the millions of people who have read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and those who have spent hours gripped to historical dramas such as Downton Abbey, there is a whole other side to the English Country House beyond the privileged families who live there. Thousands of stories about the secret lives of servants and staff who lived and worked at the real life Downton Abbey have yet to be told – until now.

Hidden away in a part of Chatsworth – one of the most renowned English country houses – is an archive containing thousands of letters, diaries and correspondence from servants and staff who lived and worked at the estate between the 18th and 20th centuries.

To uncover these stories and shed new light on the lives of servants and staff at Chatsworth, three PhD students from the University of Sheffield’s School of English studied the previously untouched section of the archive for the first time.

From dairy maids, to gardeners, upholsterers to governesses, findings from the research are changing our understanding of the lives of servants and staff at country house estates.

The study, conducted by Lauren Batt, Fiona Clapperton and Hannah Wallace, previous PhD students from the University’s School of English, has uncovered previously unknown stories about the lives of some of the 4,000 individuals who lived and worked at Chatsworth between 1700 and 1950.

Findings from the research have revealed that the lives of servants and staff were very different to those portrayed by Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice.

Stories uncovered from the archive show that the Duke and his family were rarely in residence at Chatsworth, so it was in fact the servants and staff who lived and worked on the estate and played previously unknown roles in the local community.

After completing my PhD at the University of Sheffield, I went on to do an AHRC-funded postdoctoral placement with the National Trust at Hardwick Hall, where I worked as Project Curator, researching and redeveloping the interpretation in the kitchens. From there, I began my current role in the Curatorial Department at Welbeck, working behind-the-scenes with the Portland Collection. My PhD with Sheffield has been invaluable in my career so far, allowing me to develop the research, writing and project management skills that I use daily at Welbeck. Best of all was the opportunity to work collaboratively with my project partner, Chatsworth, and to experience the daily life of a busy Curatorial department. I am so grateful to my supervisors at Sheffield and Chatsworth for the opportunities which have led me to where I am now.

Dr Lauren Batt

Collections Assistant, The Portland Collection and previous PhD student from the University of Sheffield’s School of English

Chatsworth house grounds

The case of Miss Bickell – mid-19th century 

Among the stories discovered is an insight into the working life of a hotel manager from Buxton who was unexpectedly and rather controversially hired as the new Housekeeper of Chatsworth during the mid-19th century.

Following the death of Mrs Hannah Gregory, a popular housekeeper who ran the house until 1843 in the same manner as those seen in historical dramas, the sixth Duke of Devonshire hired Elizabeth Bickell from a Buxton hotel without consulting anyone. According to documents uncovered in the archives by the researchers, one of the nieces of Mrs Gregory was expected to be given the position by many of the staff at the house.

The Sheffield research found that Elizabeth bought silk dresses for the maids when she arrived at Chatsworth in a bid to win their loyalty, but this marked the beginning of her developing a reputation for reckless spending.

Some staff took an immediate dislike to Miss Bickell, including the nieces of the former Housekeeper who still lived and worked on the country house estate. Her final undoing came in 1846 when there were rumours that she had been entertaining friends at Chatsworth unknown to the Duke and Duchess.

When the Duke found out that Elizabeth had reportedly cut orange flowers from the gardens, made other servants wait on her guests at the dinner table, and ‘worst of all’, hosted musical ‘soirees’ in the Duke’s private apartments, he flew into ‘a most terrific rage’. Sarah Paxton, one of the former Housekeeper’s nieces, wrote, ‘if this foolery is to continue any longer, then the Duke is no longer master of his own home’.

Research from the Sheffield study found that following an investigation Miss Bickell was swiftly removed from Chatsworth. This did not end the matter, however. Sarah Paxton wrote that the ‘Tigeress’ was still in contact with some of the maids, who were so upset, ‘there was nothing but skulking in corners going on, no work to be done and everything in sixes and sevens’. This resulted in three handing in their notice.

The bundles of documents that survive from the case of Miss Bickell provide a fascinating glimpse into the community that worked at Chatsworth, as the scandal of the Housekeeper that was too fond of company involved servants at every level. It even caused ‘a flare-up downstairs’ at Devonshire House in London and provided the most popular topic of conversation at the nearby town of Chesterfield.

Lauren Batt

Collections Assistant, The Portland Collection and previous PhD student from the University of Sheffield’s School of English

Further research has revealed that Elizabeth was caring for a secret illegitimate daughter, who she passed off as her niece. Her ‘niece’ was caught playing the Duke’s pianos at Chatsworth. This part of the story came to light through contact with Elizabeth’s descendants. Family historians have not only learned from the students’ research, but have been able to contribute in surprising ways.

Ralph Trotter – the talented musician and upholsterer – 18th century

Among the other stories discovered is a glimpse into the life of Ralph Trotter, a talented musician who worked as an upholsterer on the estate during the late 18th century.

He was one of the highest paid servants earning £80 a year and took on a range of tasks throughout the house from making bedding for the servants, to repairing curtains in the Billiard Room.

On top of his day job, Ralph was also paid for bringing music into the house. With a group of other musicians, he played for fellow servants and for the Duke at a number of balls held at Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield.

The secret lives of servants at Chatsworth

In 1801 Ralph was paid £26 5s for playing at nine balls over the previous two years. This was a huge sum of money considering the housekeeper at Chatsworth was only paid an annual wage of £15.

Like many of the other residents on the estate, Ralph kept his own livestock and even rented his cows to the dairymaid so that enough milk and cheese could be produced for when the Duke came to stay.

Ralph’s story shows that servants could have other ways of making money on top of their work as servants.

Jane Booth – Chatsworth Victorian cook and busy mum

Jane Booth, Chatsworth’s Victorian cook had a busy personal life as her time was split between the Cavendish family’s great kitchens and her own family home at Pilsley, two miles away.

When the Cavendish family and their professional chef were away, Jane cooked for servants, tourists and tradesman on the estate.

Women’s work was considered less valuable than men’s and this was reflected in Jane’s wages. She was paid 1 shilling 10 pence per day, compared to 4 shillings for a male labourer in the house, according to the study.

As well as managing the kitchens at Chatsworth, Jane kept a cottage in Pilsley with her husband Thomas, a labourer, and their five children. When Thomas died in 1890 she was left as the sole carer for their disabled daughter.

Despite her busy home life, Jane worked seven days a week. In 1901, aged 76, she continued to be the cook at Chatsworth. Her loyalty was rewarded with a generous widow’s pension of four shillings per week.

George Esmond - Chatsworth’s footman and soldier

Among some of the other previously unknown lives uncovered as part of the research into Chatsworth’s archives is that of George Esmond - a footman who served the 10th Duke and his family.

Popular historical dramas would have us believe that footmen at country house estates were tall, well dressed men who spent a great deal of their time on their feet waiting at tables and delivering messages on his employer’s behalf. However, George was also a soldier who served in World War One.

During his time in the military, George developed varicose veins that actually made him unfit for service during World War One. He didn’t let his medical condition stop him though, he fought on until after the armistice on the 11th November 1918.

Favourite things about Chatsworth

George didn’t forget about his former life at Chatsworth. He kept in touch with his former employers by writing letters in which he described life on the frontline. In 1918, he shared the news that he had been awarded the military cross and promoted to Captain. In return, the 9th Duke and his wife sent their congratulations.

At the beginning of his relationship with the Cavendish family, George was the one who delivered their messages. However, by the end of the war, he was the recipient. George didn’t return to service, but he continued to correspond with the Cavendish family until the death of the 10th Duke in 1950.

Changing our understanding of servants

Fellow lead researcher on the project, Hannah Wallace, said: “Our research has revealed some fascinating new stories behind the lives of people who lived and worked at Chatsworth which paint a very different picture of the lives of servants that we are used to seeing through novels and dramas such as Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey.

“In popular English country house dramas, we see servants mainly serving the family of the house doing tasks such as cooking and cleaning, but our research has found that servants and staff at Chatsworth did much more than this.

“Many of them had their own lives outside of the house – some were musicians that played in villages nearby while others had their own families away from Chatsworth which they worked on the estate to support. The Duke and his family were often away from the house as part of their duties, so the servants and staff lived and worked at Chatsworth to maintain the estate throughout the year.”

Chatsworth - a place for all ages

The Sheffield study has revealed that people of all ages worked at Chatsworth. Children helped their mothers during the harvest and the expertise of older, more experienced hands was useful in every department of the house.

In the 18th century, most female servants started work at Chatsworth in their early 20s. They would work as maids for several years before leaving to get married and manage a house of their own, such as Alice Furniss, who in 1803 left her job as a dairy maid after seven years and went on to have 12 children.

Other female servants did work for longer. Some became housekeepers while others used service as a way to earn their own income and avoid marriage.

Male servants were allowed to continue working when they got married so were more likely to remain in service for longer. Instead of sleeping in servants’ quarters at Chatsworth, male servants rented houses in Edensor where they lived with their wives and children.

Many continued to work for the Duke until they died. Robert Hackett worked as huntsman until his death aged 83, William Pleasance was a stallion groom until he died aged 81 and James Broussard worked as the gardener for over 40 years before he died in the job at the age of 76.

Servants could choose how long they worked at Chatsworth depending on their future plans. When they did remain on the estate, the Duke was able to benefit from their knowledge and expertise.

Daily life at Chatsworth

Findings from the study also provide a new take on the everyday life on the country house estate.

Lauren Batt, added: “Gardeners at Chatsworth were not only expected to have knowledge of horticulture, they also needed good customer service skills. Following the advent of the railways, the house and gardens welcomed tens of thousands of visitors every year during the 19th century.

“Tourists provided servants with an extra source of income in the form of tips, but they did not always get along.

“During a tour in 1839 a gentleman was accidentally splashed with water at the Cascade. Assuming he had been the victim of a practical joke, he charged down the hill towards George Nockett, the gardener leading the tour, with his walking stick raised above his head. George pulled a knife in response. Luckily neither was hurt, and George was pardoned after explaining himself to the head gardener.”

The study found that there were hundreds of gardeners at Chatsworth in the 19th century, and many of their letters, diaries and notebooks survive in the archive and have been brought to life by the Sheffield research. One gardener, James White, copied down the rules in his notebook while he was employed at Chatsworth between 1837 and 1842. According to the head gardener’s wife, these rules were not always followed.

Unnesery absence from work or lounging in aney part of the garden or in aney way wasting time duering working hours will subgect the gilty part to a fine of 6d

Rules for the gardeners

Copied out by James White

Chatsworth’s international servants

Historically, many of the individuals who found work at the Chatsworth estate came from the surrounding villages and towns. However, there were also a significant number of employees who came to the estate from much further afield.

“From the 18th Century onwards, domestic service became more professionalised. Rich and fashionable homeowners began to search out employees with specialised skills, and in relation to this, foreign born servants became particularly sought after,” Fiona Clapperton, said.

She added: “Scotland was thought to be a good country to recruit from if you needed outdoor workers. In the early decades of the 20th century, both the head game keeper and the head forester came from Scotland.

“Over a hundred years ago, the aristocracy were keen consumers of French cuisine. So, if you wanted to impress your dinner guests, you needed a French chef. Monsieur Dupuis, who held this position in 1910, was the highest paid of all the indoor servants who worked for the Cavendish family.

“Whilst France was well-regarded for its chefs, Germany, was well-known for its governesses. German governesses were in demand because they could teach their pupils a modern foreign language and because they were considered to be good disciplinarians. Yet, Fraulein von Bloem, who was employed to teach the children of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, turned out to be a very poor governess indeed. This was because of her bad moods. The Duchess found her to be especially difficult to get on with. She wrote to her husband about this in December 1913.”

“Throughout its past, Chatsworth has employed great numbers of workers from across the United Kingdom, and even from Europe. This English country estate has a very rich, cosmopolitan history!” Fiona concluded.

Christmas at Chatsworth

Whilst searching the archives, the Sheffield PhD students uncovered new insights into how the Chatsworth estate celebrated Christmas in the early 20th century.

Documents found as part of the research tell how servants and staff at Chatsworth held a Christmas party for the children living in the nearby villages. As part of the celebrations, a servant dressed as Father Christmas gave out presents to children and a local policeman together with a clown created comical scenes for the crowd.

Duke of Devonshire’s Horse-drawn Sleigh at the beginning of the 20th century

There were tables full of presents with each gift individually labelled for a boy or a girl, and Mrs Cockerell – the wife of a land agent left in charge of the estate while the Cavendish family were away – gave a pocket knife to sailors who had also been invited to the celebrations.

Injured sailors convalescing on the Chatsworth estate during the First World War also towed a piano through nearby villages singing festive songs for people who lived there, according to documents uncovered as part of the study.

Sharing the secret lives of Chatsworth’s servants

After studying the archives at Chatsworth, the Sheffield PhD students organised storytelling workshops to share their findings with visitors to the famous country house estate.

They have also developed an interactive database that lists the names and details of the lives of all 4,000 servants and staff who lived and worked at Chatsworth between 1700 and 1950 that is free for the public to use on the Chatsworth website.

The resource has been used by family historians who have been tracing the lives of relatives who they believed may have lived and worked in the area hundreds of years ago. People using the archive can also contribute to the project, such as details of their own relatives who worked at Chatsworth.

Stories uncovered as part of the research have also been shared by the students through a series of blogs, which include Duchess Georgiana – the wife of the 5th Duke – who quickly became one of the most celebrated women of her time and famous for her three foot tower of hair. The blog shares an insight into the life of Georgina’s hairdresser whose travel expenses were some of the highest of any servant at the time. Georgina was also portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess.

One of the most recent blogs reveals the story behind Chatsworth’s Ghost Village after parch marks appeared on the estate as a result of dry weather in the summer of 2018. The marks show the outline of buildings demolished on the old estate village high street around 200 years ago.

The series of blogs published by the Sheffield students following their study can now be accessed by people all over the world via the Chatsworth House website.

Some of the stories from the lives of servants and staff at Chatsworth uncovered by the researchers have also been shared with audiences through a series of public events throughout Sheffield.

The students presented some of the stories they have uncovered at Festival of the Mind – a festival in Sheffield showcasing some of the latest pioneering research from the University – and the Off the Shelf Festival of Words, which is the largest literary festival in the UK.

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