In the heart of the Peak District – not far from Sheffield – Chatsworth House and its estate have been home to thousands of servants and staff for over 500 years. With unprecedented access to the stately home’s archives, three PhD students from the School of English have recently been unearthing the names and stories of the people who worked for the Cavendish family between 1700 and 1950.
Hannah Wallace (BA History 2013, MA Early Modern History 2014), Lauren Butler and Fiona Clapperton were successful applicants for Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded collaborative doctorates, supervised jointly by the University and Chatsworth. Together, they are gaining an understanding of the wider Chatsworth community, exploring the changing relationships between masters and servants over three centuries.
“Only 60 per cent of the thousands of records have been catalogued. We had access to the remaining 40 per cent, which meant we were reading letters and documents for the first time. It was an amazing process,” explained Hannah.
The students compiled a database of 4,000 servants and staff going back to 1700, recording names, dates and occupations. This is already proving to be a useful resource for family historians from around the world. They have also worked in partnership with Chatsworth to present stories from the archives at public events and on the house’s website.
Piecing together servants’ lives has shown us that they were not only workers; they were people with families, hobbies and responsibilities.”
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 research has 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.
Hannah added, “Piecing together servants’ lives has shown us that they were not only workers; they were people with families, hobbies and responsibilities. We have plans to continue to uncover individual stories, capturing the ordinary and the extraordinary, to further our understanding of how such a community operated during a long period of social and economic change.”
From the archive
The scandalous housekeeper
Rather controversially, the sixth Duke of Devonshire hired Elizabeth Bickell, a barmaid from Buxton, as housekeeper in 1843. She 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 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 estate and who had hoped to secure the position for themselves.
Miss Bickell’s final undoing came in 1846 when there were rumours that she had been entertaining friends at Chatsworth, making other servants wait on tables and hosting musical soirées in the Duke’s private apartments. One letter records: “if this foolery is to continue any longer, then the Duke is no longer master of his own home.” Following an investigation, Miss Bickell was swiftly removed from her post.
Lauren Butler commented, “The scandal of the housekeeper who was too fond of company involved servants at every level. More widely, it sheds light on fears about upsetting the social order. The idea that Elizabeth was trying to fill the position of the Duchess came up several times, as did the concerns about the ‘rag tag’ people she brought into the house.”
The loyal footman and soldier
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 Esmond 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.
George didn’t forget about his 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.
The Victorian cook and busy mum
When the Cavendish family and their professional chef were away, Jane Booth 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.
The international staff
Many of the employees at Chatsworth came from the surrounding villages and towns. However, there were also a significant number who came from much further afield. “Over 100 years ago, the aristocracy were keen consumers of French cuisine,” said Fiona Clapperton. “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.
“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 ninth Duke of Devonshire, turned out to be a very poor governess indeed. The Duchess wrote to her husband in December 1913: ‘I have just lost my temper with Fraulein von Bloem. The girls say that she has been grumbling and making difficulties’.”