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Behind the Scenes

The country house kitchen was at the centre of a whole complex of rooms given over to specific tasks from scrubbing vegetables to polishing silver. Chris Yeo goes into the labyrinth to find out where the Butler did it.

It was 1978. Self-expression was in the air. In New York, at Studio 54, Bianca Jagger was making her show-stopping entrance on a white horse. In the UK, angry punks were tearing up the rule book, giving a two fingered salute to the Establishment and, in a bedroom in a small Somerset town, age 7, I was enjoying some rebellious behaviour of my own. Ignoring the strict 8pm ‘lights out’ regime rigidly enforced by my parents, every night I would wait for the footsteps to disappear back down the stairs and, when all was clear, turn on the bedside lamp. What was leading me down the slippery slope of transgression at such a tender age? It was the guide book to Penrhyn Castle (yes, I was an ‘unusual’ child), a vast Regency neo-Norman fantasy castle in North Wales that I had visited that summer. I would turn the increasingly battered pages, carefully taking in the descriptions until I reached my favourite part - the servants’ rooms. My eyes would pour over the delicious roll-call of evocative sounding room names: Butler’s Pantry, Housekeeper’s Room, Still Room, China Store, Plate Room, Brushing Room, Lamp Room, Pastry Room –it was like descending into a labyrinth. Who needs The Beano? Forty years on, my bedtime is a little later but not much else has changed. I’ll take a Housemaid’s Closet over a grand ‘Upstairs’ room any day of the week. If ever I’m pushed for time on a country house visit, I’ll give the Sheraton short shrift and make a bee-line for the Backstairs.

And these days I’m seldom alone. Head to any National Trust type house and after we’ve gawped at the Robert Adam interiors, the Holbeins and something ‘after Veronese’ hanging on the wall, it always seems the largest – and most appreciative – crowds are always to be found in the servants’ wing. Which really is no surprise. After all, nothing takes you faster back to the past than seeing how hard it was to do your laundry. But, more than that, there’s something fascinating, intoxicating even, about the whole quaintly weird Upstairs, Downstairs world of Butlers and Under Butlers, Footmen and flunkies that grips our imagination. Relegated to the basements and the attics, using separate entrances and staircases (their activities muffled and hidden behind the famous "green baize door"), servants lived a parallel existence, shadowing the family members and anticipating their needs - meals appeared on the table, fires were found miraculously lit, newspapers were ironed and loose change washed by an invisible hand. And for those providing this service, it was all about getting up early, working until after midnight and getting chilblains.

It didn't start out like that. Being a servant started out as a recognised form of apprenticeship for those already half way up the social ladder – the sons of the squirearchy and small-time gentry. In the middle ages, going to work in someone else's household was the standard way for a young man of gentle birth to learn good manners and the practices of privilege. All kinds of likely lads, including Chaucer, started out as napkin folders and cup bearers, learning on the job the importance of not dribbling in the soup or picking your nose in public. The reward for this was a spruce uniform in shout-out colours which announced to the world that you were connected to the right kind of people. It was only in the 17th century that the country house started to divide up its internal space to reflect the growing desire for a more private life ‘upstairs’. Domestic service stopped being the first rung on the social ladder for aspiring young gentlemen and the staff, now mostly female, was banished out of sight, either to the basement or a separate servants’ wing. Back stairs were now installed to ensure, as Mark Girouard famously put it, "The gentry walking up the stairs no longer met their last night's chamber pot coming down". And when that chamber pot arrived downstairs it would be taken to the kitchen. That’s not a pleasant image, so let me explain. Historically, the words kitchen and kitchens were used interchangeably. The reason? In country houses and even in townhouses in the wealthier areas of London, the space where food was prepared and where servants did a great deal of their work was divided into a series of rooms and whilst each room had its own name, together they were called the kitchens.

This downstairs world was made up of three distinct ‘territories’, each ruled over by the Butler, the Housekeeper and the Cook. These people assumed the role of God for the staff under them, had their own sitting rooms and often their own personal servants. Together they ran the Victorian country house like a military campaign in a far-flung corner of the Empire. The general of the domestic army was the Butler. He was the pre-eminent male servant of the country house, unobtrusively carrying out the tasks that ensured its smooth running. The Butler was the proxy master; he hired and fired the other servants, presided over meal times in the servants’ hall and kept the household accounts. Always addressed as ‘Mr’, he carried out his duties in ‘gentleman’s costume’ of black suit and white tie.  His special responsibility was the wine cellar and the silver and his control centre was the Butler’s Pantry. This room was used to store and clean the best tableware, serving pieces and glassware. It was lined with cupboards and draws and would have had lead-lined sinks with wooden draining boards for washing the dining room china and glass. A large table in the middle of the room would be used for decanting wine and cleaning the silver. The most valuable pieces would be kept under lock and key in a large safe and often a footman would sleep in the pantry for added security at night. The Butler cut an imperious figure below and above stairs; Lord Stanhope claimed that his butler was the biggest snob he had ever met.

The third portion of the below stairs power triangle was the kitchen. For centuries the kitchen, with its great cast-iron ranges and roasting spits had been the bustling heart of the country house. It was generally positioned away from the family quarters to keep cooking smells away yet near enough for the food to be delivered hot. From here the cook controlled operations. Although the wealthiest households employed a male cook, by Victoria’s reign most cooks were women. She oversaw the kitchen staff, consisting of kitchen maids, scullery maid and sometimes vegetable maid, as well as supervising all the cooking. The amount of food produced by the kitchen was prodigious; as well as the family upstairs, three, perhaps four substantial meals a day would need to be provided for the nursery, the school room, the servants hall and the kitchen staff themselves. Then there were the parties, picnics, teas and other celebrations. Her main province was the kitchen itself but it didn’t end there. The scullery was where pots and utensils would be washed and vegetables scrubbed by the scullery maid – the lowest of the low in the below stairs pecking order. There might be a pastry room where elaborate desserts were created, a plethora of larders (for meat, fish, dairy and dry food), a bakehouse and a dairy.

The past is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. And visit it we do. Whether it’s a country house, a Sunday night drama, a scrubbed top table in the kitchen, or a guide-book in the hands of a disobedient 7 year old, the long-departed below stairs world still captivates us

Image credit: National Trust

Published on: 07-06-2018
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