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I blogged a few months ago about servants and mentioned then Erddig in North Wales, one of the most-visited National Trust properties. The Yorke family, the Squires of Erddig, while not overpaying their staff were certainly fond enough of them to commission portraits or photographs of them, and write (mediocre) poetry about them.
What makes Erddig (pronounced Er-thick–it’s Welsh) unique is that all of the outbuildings, dairies, laundries, stables, dogyards etc., are intact and restored. You can see before and after photographs showing what an enormous, and daunting task this was for the National Trust, as mostof the buildings, including the house itself, were derelict. In his final months in the house the last squire camped out in the drawing room by candlelight, with bowls set out to catch the drips from the leaking roof.

The gardens and grounds are gorgeous–tulips, primroses and bluebells were in bloom, and there’s a lovely (and rare) eighteenth century walled garden. Rare historic varieties of fruit trees, espaliered against the brick walls, were also flowering.

As for the house, it’s crammed full of amazing furniture and artwork, but all very dark and oppressive. The Yorkes, a rather eccentric family, didn’t believe in throwing anything away, or unnecessary plumbing or electricity. One of the nicest rooms is the late eighteenth-century kitchen, well-lit, by tall, elegant windows, and with its original tiled floor–not much changed other than by the addition of two Victorian ranges. It was frustrating to see features of the house–like particular pieces of art–and not be able to see the details you know from photographs.

Final word: definitely worth a visit. You could spend hours exploring the gardens and grounds, and the restaurant does great food (excellent cakes and a good cup of tea). But buy a guidebook so you can really see what things should look like!

Posted in Regency, Research | Tagged , | 3 Replies

Here’s a recent portrait of me.

No, really, this is the way I feel after massive cleaning, sorting, throwing out of items in preparation for some fairly substantial work to be done on my house.

This is a portrait of Mrs. Jane Ebrell when she was 87 by provincial artist John Walters of Denbigh, one of the servants at Erddig, a national trust property dating from the 18th century whose owners liked to commission servants’ portraits (and later photographs), embellished with poems. Mrs. Ebrell, a former housemaid, was hired as a Spider Catcher, possibly as a way for the family to support her in her later years. (I have been dealing with monumental spider webs.)

My thanks to the Two Nerdy History Girls who found the text of the poem:

To dignifie our Servants’ Hall
Here comes the Mother, of us all:
For seventy years, or near have passed her,
since spider-brusher to the Master;
When busied then, from room to room,
She drove the dust, with burhs, and broom
Anyd by the virtues of her mop
To all uncleanness, put a stop:
But changing her housemaiden state,
She took our coachman, for a mate;
To whom she prov’d an useful gip,
And brought us forth a second whip:
Morever, this, oft, when she spoke,
Her tongue, was midwife, to a joke,
And making many an happy hit,
Stands here recorded for a wit:
O! may she, yet some years, survive,
And breed her Grandchildren to drive!

She certainly sounds better at cleaning than me. (And to whichever member of the Yorke family of Erddig wrote the poem, don’t give up your day job.) I’ve mentioned Erddig before as it is such a rich source of servant info, but I may not have told you what an excellent cake shop it has–other food is sold there, but I ate only cake. The walls of the cake shop are hung with photos of the house as it was before restoration by the National Trust. This is Philip Yorke, the last private owner of Erddig, in the one habitable room of the house before he deeded it to the National Trust (note: no electricity!). It was a real mess with subsiding floors (built over a coal mine, something I borrowed for The Rules of Gentility), buckets scattered throughout the house to catch leaks from the roof–just horrible. Happily major restoration, funded by the Coal Board and sale of some of the land, put it to rights and it’s now one of the most popular stately homes in England.

But back to my humble home–any tips for surviving renovation? If I were in the Regency and wealthy I’d just take off to one of my other houses, leaving my faithful butler in charge. Sadly that is not the case. The best tip I’ve had so far is to eat out as much as possible and label the boxes.

And a small reminder that (1) The Malorie Phoenix is now 99 cents for kindle and (2) I’d love some amazon reviews. If you’re a legit blogger/reviewer, please contact me.


It’s tough to follow on after the heart-wrenching demise of Frisky the Goldfish (and now his successor, gone to both a watery and icy grave). So I thought I’d write today about servants, who I find far more fascinating than the folks upstairs in the drawing room in the labor-intensive regency household. Of course the best thing about servants, for a writer, is that they knew the household secrets and family dynamics better than anyone. I find it interesting, though, that so many regency-era writers get them all wrong, relying on vague ideas of what servants are like (and copying others’ mistakes).

For instance, a female servant would never answer the front door, unless the household was quite poor and she was theonly servant. Neither would she wear a black dress and white cap–that was a uniform that came in much later in the century. Footmen, dressed in livery, were the servants in an aristocrat household who dealed with visitors and guests–status symbols for the family, since there was a tax on male servants. It was the fashion to hire men who were similar in appearance and height, rather like a team of horses (leading to some very interesting possibilities if you have a mind like mine). Female servants hauled coals, emptied chamberpots, and did other dirty work, while their male (and better paid) colleagues minced around in daft uniforms and wigs opening doors and presenting billets-doux on salvers.

For an interesting breakdown on servants and their duties, visit this page (and if you poke around on the site you can also find out how to become a gentleman’s gentleman),

For a feel of servants’ living and working quarters, take a virtual tour of the “downstairs” at The Regency Town House–it’s described as a time capsule, as it’s the basement of a house in Hove (near Brighton) that has been virtually untouched for almost two centuries. Restoration of the main house, at 13 Brunswick Square is also underway and the servants’ quarters are a couple of doors down at number 10.

Another interesting servant-oriented stop on your next visit to England is Erddig, an historic house in North Wales, where the former owners (before it was taken over by the National Trust), bless them, didn’t throw away a thing for three centuries, including correspondence with their servants when the masters were away. This unusual family also had portraits painted of their servants and wrote poems in appreciation of them.

A book written for the National Trust about Erddig by Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall, is out of print but you can find secondhand copies online. The Erddig family tradition of staff portraits continued well into the 20th century; in this 1912 photo, each staff member whimsically holdsa tool of their trade (the cook, front row left, is holding a dead pigeon. No wonder they look embarrassed).

The artist William Hogarth painted his servants’ portraits, too. Notice the age range, from a young boy to a middle aged man.

So what was it really like, to be in service? The servants themselves existed in a social heirarchy at least as complicated as that of the people Upstairs.You worked very long, hard hours for not much money, but it was a way, if you scrimped and saved, to make the upward trek into the middle-class. You might end up running an inn or a shop with your sweetheart of many years, if you’d saved up most of your wages and tips (a valuable addition to the low wages most servants earned). A manservant in the 1820s eloquently described his life: The life of a gentleman’s servant is something that of a bird shut up in a cage. The bird is well housed and well fed but is deprived of liberty, and liberty is the dearest and sweetest object of all Englishmen. Therefore I would rather be like a sparrow or a lark, have less housing and feeding and rather more liberty. A servant is shut up like a bird in a cage, deprived of the benefit of the air to the very great injury of the constitution.

Any good servant scenes in anything you’ve read recently? Have you ever wanted to write about servants?


Thanks to Naomi for the idea for today’s post. She wrote to us:

I have been reading a fabulous book by Alison Light who wrote about Virginia Woolf and her complex relationship with her servants (Mrs Woolf and the Servants). Virginia Woolf in her fiction and diaries thought and fumed about her difficulties with servants. She couldn’t live with them and she couldn’t do her work without them. If we assume that our beloved ‘historical romance’ heroines are reflective of our own idea of desired qualities then often they are written as being firm but fair employers, efficient and amiable house managers, and who often have some retainer or ex-nanny who is fiercely loyal and loved by her mistress and who loves her mistress like a daughter/mother/friend etc. These stereotypes are rather revealing in our own prejudice towards humane treatment of all regardless of their social standing, yet given how essential it was for the aristocracy to be seen to have servants to do the cleaning, cooking, heavy work, and the relative separation of the classes, exactly how much of the idea of good will between the classes is wishful thinking. I wonder if this is a line of enquiry that would be interesting to pursue for your readers?

Oh goodness, yes.

The truth was that for the Bloomsbury crowd, particularly after the first world war, their servants didn’t really want to be in the profession and had options elsewhere. Being a servant no longer had the prestige or the benefits of former times. And that’s exactly what the position was with servants/employers from the late eighteenth century through the Regency.

The Georgian servant population was mostly young (early 20s), transient, and planning and saving to get out of service. Visitors from abroad as well as employers complained bitterly about English servants’ rudeness, laziness, and greed.

Yet at the same time there was a fashion in the late eighteenth century for employers to commission portraits of servants–out of nostalgia for the “good old days,” maybe? There was a terrific exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London a few years ago that brought together many of these portraits, and the book of the exhibit is well worth having–many great illustrations and thoughtful essays.

Most of the portraits were painted by local artists (unless of course the servant was background for a portrait of the family) and many of them have a “primitive” quality to them. Here are a couple of some of the most famous of the genre from Erddig, one of the most popular National Trust properties in England because of its servant history.

To me, one of the most striking things about these portraits is that the servants don’t look happy. Maybe they were ill at ease. The estate carpenter in particular looks as though he wants the artist to just go away so he can get on with his work. The Yorkes, the masters of Erddig, regarded their servants with great affection, wrote some rather bad poetry about them, and created at least one sinecure position, cobweb duster, for an elderly employee.

One major clue about master-servant relations in the Regency-Georgian period is the appearance in print of warnings to servants not to ape their betters, to behave respectfully, and to dress appropriately–and that suggests that servants needed this advice. This is rather ironic since for many positions, including those of lady’s maid and valet, one of the “perks” of the position was the employer’s discarded clothes.

Would you want this saucy minx washing your undies? Quite honestly, she looks like a real trouble-maker.

Back to Naomi’s letter. Which writers can you think of who show “realistic” relationships between servants and their employers? And if you’re a writer, how do you portray servants?

If you’d like to see the Riskies write about a specific topic, email us at We always like to hear from you!

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