Stately home opens its 'downstairs' doors

AS visitors tour the grand rooms of an Essex stately home and admire its many paintings, few pause to think of the backbreaking work carried out “downstairs” that went in to supporting such an estate.

Elliot Furniss

AS visitors tour the grand rooms of an Essex stately home and admire its many paintings, few pause to think of the backbreaking work carried out “downstairs” that went in to supporting such an estate.

However, new research has shed light on the lives of servants who worked at Audley End House in Saffron Walden in the 1880s and revealed that they lived longer than the national average for the working class of their period.

English Heritage said that housekeepers, gamekeepers and other “downstairs” staff at the house lived into their 60s, 70s and even 80s at a time when the average working class employee in Britain died at 40.

Lord Braybrooke, owner of Audley End in the 19th century, kept detailed records of all the food eaten at the house.

These “Consumption Books” showed that servants not only ate the same food as the family but that their diet was very rich and varied, even by modern standards.

Most Read

The research was published to mark the opening to the public today of the house's service wing following a £1million restoration project.

Previously locked doors are opening for the first time and stories of the past will be brought to life, providing a vivid insight into the reality of being a Victorian servant.

Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said: “An estate such as Audley End could never have functioned without its army of servants - yet until now, their voices have not been heard in the stories of the House.

“So often people's view of what life was like below stairs has been shaped by the way servants are portrayed in period dramas, but our research has shown the reality was very different.”

Visitors will now be able to enter the service yard and go through a new orientation centre before visiting the laundry, dairy, game larder and kitchen.

At every turn they will be greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of the 1880s, from exact copies of the laundry presses and butter churns, to replica game hanging on the walls.

Costumed interpreters will demonstrate a range of household tasks such as churning butter or washing laundry, everyday during the summer holidays and most Sundays throughout the year.

Historian Andrew Hann, who has dedicated the past few months to scouring local archives and uncovering the stories of the servants who worked at Audley End, said: “These documents have helped us to build up a more accurate picture of life on the estate in the 1880s as well as enabling us to discover more about the servants themselves.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter