Downstairs, Not Upstairs: Turning A Mansion On Its Head
THROWBACKS My 2015 Visit to Ickworth, A Massive English "Stately Home" Shown Differently
How Long Is This Post? c. 5,000 words. Approx 25 mins to read.
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THROWBACK: Posh Houses, and Scones
This Throwback piece was written this week, but it’s based on my memories of my visit to Ickworth, a massive stately home in England, in 2015. Enjoy! Annette
When I was a kid in England in the olden days (1970s), a very rare visit to a “stately home” meant ooh, a day out! I don't think I thought about what I would see so much as I thought about getting out of the house/school and doing something different. With scones.
While most stately homes are concentrated in southern England, no matter where you are in Britain, you're always within very convenient driving distance of one or more.
There are a lot of old mansions to choose from. According to The Internets, there are about 3,000 in Britain, and hundreds of them are open to the public, at least as many as there are branches of McDonald's.
I still remember the 1970s excitement of arriving up some long gravel driveway, and a burst of amazement at the sight of all the luxury. These were places I otherwise never imagined I would set foot in. And then gradual weariness setting in as one damn luxurious room led to another, and it all started to look the same: Impossibly uncomfortable furniture. Expensive gilded and silver knick-knacks. Few signs of human life, except the paintings of previous inhabitants. Portraits of 18th century ladies in hairdos that resembled those of the late Queen Marie Antoinette of France (below), not to mention the late American TV evangelist Jan Crouch:
There were portraits of men, too, of course. I thought that the wigs some wore were their actual hair, because no one and nothing explained otherwise. Really, there were no explanations.
While I'm sure there were volunteers present, I didn't ask questions, afraid (perhaps unfairly) of provoking a boring and confusing lecture, delivered in a snotty voice. These days, you will always see me talking to volunteers in British stately homes, because most are awesome. Then, I chatted with my party in hushed tones. We would point and say things like “Oh, look at that! I like that”, but we had no idea what we were looking at. Art history was not an offering at my school. Those few of us who stayed on for the last two years of school were treated to the mysteriously-named General Studies, with Mrs. Crewe, who aimed to give us a bit of middle-class polish by exposing us to art and that sort of thing. Only years later did I get that that was the point. When Mrs. Crewe was nearly 90, I thanked her for trying.
At stately homes, we, the public, understood that we were supposed to admire all the tasteful beauty. As I know now, that was the original goal of such displays: Long-ago owners bought expensive art, furniture, and knick-knacks (the collective proper name for which, I now know, is decorative art) to show off their poshness, their good taste, but only to other posh friends, not to riff-raff like us. We were simply supposed to be stunned by their power and wealth from a distance.
Now we were allowed in, we tried to appreciate the art, and the implied history, although not in any meaningful way. If we bought the old guide books, we never read them (they were atrociously written, I now realize, designed more to impress than to inform.) I suppose the adults with me just hoped all of this would all rub off on us.
Eventually, the trek would end, perhaps in a tatty, dimly-lit and sparse shop with its books and curly postcards and souvenir pencils, but definitely in the tea room.
If you think about it, it's pretty weird to pay to go round a rich person’s house, living or dead. And yet so many of us did and do. Nobody on these tours ever asked where the money came from. It never occurred to me to ask. Nor did I often think of history in such places. It was hard to connect many of them with what we learned in school. I just knew I liked stately homes better than castles, because castles were beyond boring, especially if they had collapsed into rubble, or worse, were only a green grassy mound that, miserably, I had to walk around in the rain, and no tea room. No, stately homes were much more pleasant. At least I might be rewarded with a souvenir pencil, or, better, a slightly stale scone with jam and butter or (heaven!) thick cream.
I got hooked on stately homes, though, I'll admit it. Even now, I can be tempted into a stately home with intriguing objects and stories. And those stories are becoming more and more interesting as historians blow the lid on what actually underlay such wealth, even as Downton Abbey and its like are fighting back (oh, and do look up Downton Abbey’s writer, Julian Fellowes. Just saying. The more you read, the more the lights go on.)
Wondering What “Posh” Means? Here’s a post of mine you might enjoy! A.
The Lure of Posh Stuff
At posh houses open to the public on both sides of the Atlantic, including grand American houses like Biltmore and Hearst Castle, as well as British stately homes, we expect to see lots of knickknacks.
But suppose houses told stories instead? I was excited to visit Ben Franklin's London house when it had not long been opened to the public. We visitors found the same empty rooms that the museum curators had when they took it on. So instead of stuff, we got a woman in costume with a script, and ambitious storytelling that, honestly, needed work. I’m being nice. On the way downstairs, I asked an older couple what they thought. “It wasn't very good,” said the wife with a sigh. “I like looking at old furniture and china.”
After all, that's what we had been brought up to expect, and I wasn't unsympathetic. Most of us—me included— were descended from servants and factory workers. Unless you count making a decent living for a few decades after WWII as obscene privilege (I don't), most of us and our ancestors just got by while Britain's big money was made. We did our bit in two World Wars. We learned that Britain had ended slavery and the slave trade, and we were proud of that. We had never been as enthusiastic about Empire as our “betters” and were happy to see it gone. My grandparents’ generation had fought for a fairer society than in the past, one in which I could stay at school instead of being sent to work in factory or someone's kitchen when barely in my teens.
We enjoyed the ill gotten gains of the upper classes mostly when we got to walk around their houses, and look at their stuff. Then we went home, put the kettle on, switched on the telly, and never gave it all a second thought. I don't recall begrudging them. They were posh, somehow better than me. That had been the stately home’s message. I absorbed it.
A Visit to Ickworth (2015)
Ickworth (just Ickworth, not Ickworth House, or Ickworth Hall) is jawdropping. I knew nothing about it before I visited, and even though I grew up near there, I’d never even heard of it. How big is it? I couldn’t even fit it into my photo:
Ickworth was built by John Hervey (pronounced Harvey) a man who, as the third son of the Earl Of Bristol, never imagined inheriting his father’s title, or his estate. Those would go to John’s eldest brother, while John became a clergyman. But then his older brothers died. Later, John looked back on his meteoric rise from curate (the lowest rank for ministers in the Church of England) to bishop, and finally, to Lord Bristol. Here’s how he put it:
“In my time I have made three jumps, and I think each of them is better than yours. I was a curate, and I jumped into the bishopric of Derry; I was a commoner, and I jumped into the earldom of Bristol; I was a younger son and landless and I jumped into the Bristol estates – not bad jumps eh?”
Yeah, right, mate. Don’t you think these jumps might have had something to do with your dad being the Earl of Bristol, and your two older brothers dying young so that you won the title and estate? Oh, you don’t? All due to your own talents and efforts, is that what you’re saying? Fascinating. Or maybe you just can’t believe your luck? That’s an interesting thought, too.
Anyway, John Hervey (one of many John Herveys in that family) is nicknamed the Earl Bishop, and he stayed a bishop even after becoming Earl of Bristol. I think he was titled Marquess, too, but please don’t ask me to explain aristocratic titles, except to say that you can have more than one of them. Even now, Prince Charles is Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, etc, etc. It’s all a bit weird and confusing.
Like a lot of 18th century bishops, the Earl Bishop didn’t seem to have a lot of work to do. Even before he was a bishop, he neglected his first jobs in the Church of England by going on a years-long tour of Europe, shopping for art. For this neglect of his work, the church made him bishop. After all, you could hardly make an Earl's son a lowly parish priest! Work like that is for less important people! That was the thinking. Often still is: I once heard students at the University of West Georgia, employed by catering, grumble that they were hardly going to do this sort of lowly work in their adult lives. Don’t be so sure, kids.
Unlike those optimistic students, the Earl Bishop knew he would never have to do work beneath his station. Among the Earl Bishop’s few actual duties as bishop was deciding who got hired and promoted. He came up with a unique way to pick the best candidate: When the contestants for a new job in the church were on the fat side, he enjoyed making them compete for a position by racing each other across bogs. What a lovely man he must have been.
It’s traditional to laugh about this sort of thing, and excuse it as “eccentricity”. But, as an outspoken wee Scot who refuses to shut up, and who’s also a clear-eyed historian, I won’t: The Earl Bishop comes across as a lazy, entitled, and greedy sadist. His redeeming qualities included giving away some of his money, but then he had a lot to give, and wouldn’t have missed it. And like most philanthropists, he enjoyed the sucking up with which he was repaid.
By the time he became 4th Earl of Bristol, the Bishop had accumulated a ton of art in his travels through Europe, like a lot of wealthy people on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century. Indeed, he spent most of his life in continental Europe, shopping.
Yet although he was rarely at the family home, the Earl Bishop decided it wasn’t big enough to show how seriously rich the Hervey family were. So he designed a new house: A massive rotunda to live in, with two wings to hold all his stuff in a private museum for his friends and admirers (NOT open to the public). Think of this as like the House on the Rock, only not a joke.
Work began on the new Ickworth house in 1794, but the Earl Bishop (who’d gone back to touring the continent anyway) died before it was completed. Most of his collections, housed in France, were confiscated by the French during war with Britain, so never did go on display at Ickworth.
The Earl Bishop’s descendants completed the house. But they changed his design: They made the Rotunda the exhibit hall for the family’s art collection, and they lived in the East wing. They didn’t know what to do with the West wing. Ickworth was just too big to be livable. So the entire West wing sat empty. By the 1950s, it was used to store the estate’s grain harvest.
Which parts of Ickworth can you see as a tourist today? That’s where it gets really interesting.
Aside: The Owners of Ickworth
I can’t say I would have ever wanted an invitation to meet any of the Herveys, the previous owners of Ickworth. If you’re curious why, even after reading about the Earl Bishop (above) I strongly recommend reading, for example, the astonishing obituary for another John Hervey, also known as the 7th Marquess of Bristol. Don’t miss the bit when he shot the dinghy out from under an American guest. He died in 1999, so we’re not talking ancient history. Shortly after, the power to legislate was stripped from hereditary peers, Lords who had inherited their titles, like him. Hmm, I wonder why?
Like many aristocratic families that were wealthy in land and house, but cash poor by the 20th century, the Herveys could no longer maintain their insanely vast home. To avoid death duties (taxes), which had been imposed on the big landowners since the late 19th century, they eventually gave up Ickworth to England’s National Trust, a nonprofit. The National Trust was founded in part to preserve areas of natural beauty, as well as mansions and their contents, but it now looks after a large and increasingly diverse collection of fascinating sites and buildings. That’s a hint.
The Herveys, like other such families, were allowed to remain, to live in a private section of the house, as part of the deal with the National Trust. But the 7th Marquess (he of the stunning obituary above) sold off his right to live in the East Wing of the house, which has since become a hotel. It's all of it—house and land— now in the care of the National Trust.
The evolving mission of the National Trust matters, as you will see. In my childhood, and for a long time after, the National Trust, Lord love ‘em, were all about inviting in the respectable middle-classes to admire the good taste of the upper classes. It’s still a very middle-class organization, but they are getting more, shall we say, real. And they must. The public appetite for mansions is not endless. At some point, the novelty began to wear off. The National Trust is no longer, by its own admission, all that keen on taking on any more stately homes. They did, however, buy two of the Beatles’ childhood homes, and that’s actually more important than it sounds.
What the Trust did with Ickworth is brilliant. And it’s just the first example I want to give of how even the staid old National Trust is now encouraging my fellow Brits to better understand their own past, even when we resist dealing with unpleasant facts.
Ickworth from the Bottom Up: The View from Below Stairs
I visited Ickworth in 2015. I don’t keep a diary, so I’m afraid all we have to go on are my photos, and my dodgy memory.
But one thing I won’t forget in a hurry is that I didn't start the self-guided tour of Ickworth where I expected to. We tourists weren’t invited to march up the grand stairs to the rotunda, as if we were posh guests of the Earl. Instead, we were shown into the East Wing, the former private quarters of Lord Bristol. What’s more, we were directed into the basement, the service areas of the mansion, where servants had lived and worked.
This is not normal. I have been to a lot of “stately homes” but never like this.
Aside: The Servants’ Places
I don’t recall ever seeing the servants’ living and working areas on my youthful visits to stately homes. That’s because I probably didn’t. The basement service areas at Ickworth used to house the National Trust tea room and gift shop, both austere in that postwar time, and that was what used to be normal. You came to see glamour, not gritty service areas, but it was okay to visit tourist services in those grim areas. We would hardly expect to take tea in His Lordship’s posh space!
Here’s what changed: The original goal of the National Trust was to save places of beauty and historic interest for the nation. Mansions provided both beauty and historic interest, especially when British history to most of us meant “what rich and powerful people did”. British history now is starting (just starting) to be about everyone. But this development has been much slower than in America, where the gates of academic history opened decades sooner to non—posh people than they did in England, starting with working-class white WWII veterans entering academia (thanks to the GI Bill, which funded postsecondary education for WWII veterans), and then throwing open the doors to the rest of us (yes, it was more complicated than that, but it’s still a cool story) This opening of the gates didn't happen quite the same way in Britain, and change took longer.
Partly because of this, much of Britain’s social and cultural history (the story of the rest of us) was written by non-academics until recently, something I have had to remind myself of while writing for you.
In recent decades, the National Trust has also changed, and the servants’ quarters are now very much part of the show in a lot of stately homes.
The addition of the servants’ quarters to stately home tours was met with a warm welcome. People enjoy seeing these spaces. Many of us had been thinking about them since the original TV drama series Upstairs, Downstairs aired on TV in the early 70s. Many former servants were delighted to have the chance, finally, to tell their stories for museums.
But before visiting Ickworth (and since) I have never seen the servants put front and center.
Read here to find out what the National Trust’s curators were aiming for, and how they based their interpretation on interviews with former servants that began in the 1980s.
The Great Resignation
The servants’ quarters on my visit to Ickworth were presented as they were in the 1920s and 1930s. To grasp the significance of that, it helps to know that the aristocracy (and their cousins, the gentry) were in freefall at that time. Agriculture, the source of the rents that brought in cash, was in trouble. Middle-class politicians in the House of Commons had loaded down aristos with death duties, taxes first imposed on inherited wealth (NOT ordinary people) in 1895, long before the election of a democratic socialist Labour government after World War II.
Young aristocrats who were supposed to inherit big estates died in droves in the trenches of World War I, so death duties galore. Meanwhile, after World War I, working-class people held a “great resignation.” They were finding better jobs than that of “servant”. The days of grand houses like Ickworth were numbered, and many had already been torn down. This concerned those people who saw them and their contents as National Treasures: Founded in 1895, to cultivate people's appreciation of beauty, the same year as death duties were imposed, the National Trust set about saving stately homes for the nation.
Throughout the exhibit in Ickworth’s gloomy service area was a trail of curators’ hints that times were changing in the Thirties for everyone who lived at Ickworth, including the servants.
So let me show you. As we came in the tiny lobby, right before we were ushered downstairs, we were greeted, not by portraits of Ickworth's owners, but by those of the servants. The quote is from the Earl of Bristol’s daughter, who lived at Ickworth in the Thirties:
What Lady Phyllis is talking about was the “servant problem” of Britain after World War I. The problem, she says revealingly, was that her family did not have enough servants to hold huge grand parties properly. She also complains about “inconsiderate” servants quitting at short notice.
What she doesn’t tell us, of course, is the context. Not only do we not know what kind of employers the family were, we also may not know that, in the Thirties, working-class Brits were finding better jobs than that of servant: Better paid, better conditions, better hours (Victorian servants typically worked six and a half days a week) and not having to live at their workplaces, under the constant supervision of scary rich people who expected to be sucked up to.
Rich American travelers as early as the 18th century were shocked at the deference of ordinary Brits, how they acted humble around their “betters”. This wasn't how (white) people were supposed to behave, they thought. Deference wasn’t always an act, by the way: In fact, much of it was driven by fear of retribution. And working-class people had been convinced the rich were better people than they were, and why wouldn’t they? Aristocrats were better educated, better spoken, and even physically better looking: They tended to be tall, while people of working-class descent (especially in urban areas) tended to be short. Lacking education themselves, it was hard for people to understand that these advantages were not natural, but a consequence of wealth and privilege.
If a servant was a bit rebellious, she would be reminded of her “place”. I found a scrap of paper casually displayed in a servant’s bedroom. It was put there by the curators. On it was a rhyme that may have been written by Charles Dickens (a social reformer as well as a novelist) but, if so, he was summing up the typical thinking (or gaslighting) of the time:
Let us love our occupations Bless the Squire (Lord) and his relations Strive to meet our obligations Always know our proper stations!
Thinking of the Thirties, it’s hard for me not to hear this quote in a sarcastic voice. By then, servants had had enough. And even when we can’t hear their voices, even when they were reluctant to criticize, afraid of retribution, or just plain in denial, their message is unmistakable in their actions. Young people increasingly refused this work. If they did take it, they resisted by throwing attitudes, pinching stuff, and refusing to demean themselves.
I found this next note tacked to a bulletin board in the corridor. Sorry, it’s a bit out of focus. I suspect it’s not a copy of an actual note, but a creative way of interpreting what was learned from interviews with former servants, and other sources. I have reached out to the National Trust to confirm. For now, do note that rules arise in response to people’s actions. You can be sure that 1930s servants did all these things, and more, including skipping Her Ladyship's prayer meeting (held at 9, after she rolled out of bed, hours after the maids started work) and riding down the halls on a trolley.
What About Upstairs?
I do remember emerging into Ickworth’s rotunda, which was filled with art. But I saw such luxury very differently now, having explored the servants’ area first. We couldn’t tour the West wing because it was empty storage, and by 2015, a center for conventions and weddings. The East wing, where the Herveys had lived, was now a modern hotel. John Hervey, 7th Marquess of Bristol, who died in 1999, had sold most of the family's possessions, art included.
Their art collection must have been massive. There was not much of it left for us to see, but what there is, fills the rotunda. Among other things, the family left behind their books.
Isn’t the National Trust's interpretation of Ickworth, focused on rebellious servants and a declining aristocratic family, a political message? Let me turn it around, and consider the alternative. What these houses used to say in their silent interpretation was: “Here’s a lovely house full of lovely things once owned by lovely people with loyal servants. Enjoy!” If the first is a political message, then so is the second. It had been the message of stately homes ever since they opened to the public. If it seems neutral, that’s because it’s what we were used to. We must now be honest, and deal with the overwhelming weight of evidence that says no, it’s not that simple.
There's no such thing as a neutral museum, or historian. BUT good historians and museum professionals are not guided by politics. We are committed to following the evidence as best we can no matter how uncomfortable we are with what we find, and not to ignore when it contradicts our dearly held beliefs about the past, but embrace the complexity and the discomfort. We try to get everyone to keep an open mind, and that includes ourselves. Speaking of which . . .
About 15 years ago, I noticed a brave attempt to introduce a discordant note into a museum in England (I really wish I could remember where). It was a display of luxury objects, along with an info panel that said something about sugar plantations and slavery. I remember an older couple huffing that they didn't want to have to think about such things all the time.
But did they ever think about such things, I thought? Did they ever chat with each other about slavery in the West Indies and other uncomfortable origins of Britain’s national wealth? American slavery, sure. But British reliance on slavery? Did they even know? Look, this was hard enough for folks to deal with before, but now, people are really afraid, in these polarized times, of being cast as villains. I’m here to say that this is not what history is or should be about. We’re here to pursue truth about the past, to discuss it, but not to weaponize it. Oh, and I’m a member of a fantastically diverse modern family: We have ancestry (and current members) who are Scots who grew up in England (me), actual English, Irish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Chinese-from-the-Philippines, and more TBA. If we start attacking each other over the past, it would get really, really silly, fast.
So. This brings us to slavery and Ickworth. I don’t see a direct connection, but had the Earl Bishop’s brother-in-law died, he would have found himself trustee of sugar plantations in Jamaica, and the enslaved people tied to them. And I doubt the 18th century influx of money from sugar and slaves didn’t add to the family fortunes. The slavery/stately home connection is news that people are genuinely struggling with right now, not least because 21st century Britain feels to many like a place where everything’s falling apart.
But we do have an obligation to seek truth, not shy from facts. Oh, and I don’t recall exhibits about lives of exploited servants setting off the same furore as references to slavery have done. That’s something that should give us pause. Interested? Link to National Trust director Hilary McGrady’s blog and to the Trust’s report on slavery here.
What I took away from my 2015 visit: Ickworth and other stately homes were not happy places for servants, on whose labor they depended. When other opportunities presented themselves in the years after World War I, young people seized them. My grandmother, from a family of maids, took her first job (age 13) working in an antique shop. She didn’t like it. But this was the 1930s, and she had some choices. So she trained as a nanny, a servant’s job, sure, but now a relatively cushy one that came with privileges: She went on the adventure of a lifetime to China with a Scottish family. And then WWII changed everything, and she left behind domestic service forever, to her own benefit, and mine.
Annette Laing, PhD, author of Non-Boring History, is a published scholar of early America, Britain, and the Atlantic World, and was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University. But don’t let that put you off. She quit in 2008 to do things like this instead, writing and presenting for real people. Like you. Find out more at AnnetteLaing.com
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