Header Image: Hoar Cross Hall Staff - c1920

HOAR CROSS HALL – LIFE BELOW STAIRS  -  This week I’ve done a history blog about the servants who lived at the Hall from the 1870s to the 1950s when the Hall became empty.  They were an essential part of keeping a big house running but were often not appreciated by the aristocracy as they went about their day to day duties. The life of a servant in Victorian times was a hard one.  They had to rise at 5am to clean and light all the fires and dust and polish the floors, then do a day’s work, often not getting to bed much before midnight.  No wonder they didn’t live to a great age in those days! 

By the end of the 19th century there were nearly one and a half million servants; most young girls went into domestic service when they left school.  A large house with neither running water nor electricity would need a lot of help to keep things going.  There was also the continuous cooking that needed to be done – for the family above stairs and the servants below.  Everyone had meals at different times; the servants would obviously eat before or after they had served the family.  The children and nursery staff would eat at around 5pm and then there were the afternoon teas and full English breakfasts!  Everything had to be made from scratch of course so the cooks must have been cooking something or other from dawn until dusk.  It must have been exhausting! 

In the grounds there were around 20 gardeners and groundsmen who helped to keep the constant weeds down and tend to the rose bushes and hedges.  This in itself would have been a full time job.  The kitchen gardens and greenhouses would have provided a lot of the produce they ate as well as the pheasants and other game birds that were reared to be eaten.  There was also a carp pool for their fish stock.   In total there were about 50 servants employed by the Meynell family which included cooks, housemaids, chambermaids, lady’s maid, a governess, a nanny, a butler, footmen and a house-keeper among others.  All staff were expected to attend the 9am service which was held in the Chapel in the house.  They were also expected to attend services at the church which had been built in the grounds; however, they weren’t allowed to walk down the drive to the church but had to make a detour around the perimeter of the grounds so that they wouldn’t be seen by the family!

In the Victorian days a lowly housemaid earned about £10 a year compared to the house-keeper who earned the princely sum of £52 a year!  The staff at Hoar Cross were well treated it seems.  The family showed their concern towards the female members of staff if they wanted to leave the house to attend a local dance, and always made sure they were escorted to and from the event by the footman.  Young maids were well protected in those times as the family were always worried about ‘undesirable’ friendships starting up, either within or outside the household.  But it seems that there was generally a good atmosphere in the house for most of the time.  The children mixed freely with the servants and Lady Mary forbid them to call the servants by their surname only, as was usual in those days.  She said it was disrespectful although the butler was always called by his surname, something still practised by today’s aristocracy.

The basement rooms were where most of the staff spent much of their time.  The large kitchen with its open fireplace was surrounded by the scullery, larders for meat, game and fish, dairy products, and the cook’s own sitting room.  Along from the servants hall (where they all ate their meals) was the butler’s pantry and plate room and the butler’s bedroom.  The plate room was where all the silver plate was kept and it was the butler’s job to look after it, even having his bedroom next to the plate room so it was always under guard, especially at night.  There was also a wall safe to keep valuables in and next to the wine cellar was a Chubb walk-in safe.  The still room was a large area for making jams and cakes and where the afternoon teas were prepared.  It was also used for pastry making and other meals such as the breakfast trays for the nursery which gave some relief to the kitchen staff in the main kitchens.  The staff would sometimes use this for a sitting area too when they had time!

After the food was cooked it was taken through the servant’s hall to a lift shaft or dumb waiter and up into the Dining Room.  From there the servants could serve the family.  Unfortunately a pantry boy fell down this shaft and broke his leg in several places so it was sealed up after that and a different system was used to keep the food warm on its way to the Dining Room.  At each end of the house was a spiral staircase and this meant that the servants could move around the house on their own staircase out of sight of the family.  On each floor was a green baize door off the staircase where they could enter the main house to attend to their duties.  The spiral staircase ran from the attics at the top of the house to the basement at the bottom so that they could also access their bedrooms once all the work was done.  Pity the poor housemaid who had to climb up three flights of stairs to go to bed after a long day’s work!

Copy of Original Building Plan of Hoar Cross Hall Basement - Servent's Quarters


By the 1920s the indoor staff had dwindled to about fourteen.  Lady Dorothy and her husband didn’t really live a full social life as previous Meynell families had and there were few balls and dances and hardly any hunting and shooting.  I think the First World War had a lot to do with staff cutbacks as society was changing between the wars and Lady Dorothy’s two daughters weren’t really interested in high living and parties – they wanted to do something useful with their lives.  They had spent much of their childhood in the schoolroom at the Hall.  The sons of the family were away at boarding school but the girls had a governess and nursery maid to look after them. Dorothy had her own personal maid at the age of 11.   The schoolroom was situated just off the main entrance hall on the ground floor and the maid would bring breakfast there for them.  Later she would spend her time mending and sewing in the workroom before serving lunch then supper later on in the nursery.  One Sunday in four was a day off – although it was only from 2.30pm – 10pm and they weren’t allowed to be late back!

For servants a good singing voice could really help you get a job – especially if you were willing to sing in the Church choir!  Boys from the local orphanage were also required to offer their services to the choir.  During the 1920s there was a chauffeur and an under-chauffeur, although the Meynells had run a motor car since the early part of the 20th century.  The chauffeur was always addressed as Mr, showing that this position had succeeded that of the groom.

Around 28 people were employed on the grounds.  Two young boys were employed just to sweep the pathways and were known as bothy boys.  The most common of all male servants was the gardener as they were responsible for producing all the fruit, vegetables and herbs which were used in the kitchens as well as keeping the lawns and hedges tidy.  Grass was cut by a horse-drawn mower, although this was the chauffeur’s job surprisingly.  The kitchen garden also supplied the house with flowers and during important functions at the house they would bring across masses of palms and pot plants to decorate the rooms.  Home Farm supplied the estate with as much produce as was needed.  In addition to the farm workers, the estate employed bricklayers, a stone mason, foresters and thatchers, carpenters, a joiner, plumber and an electrician.  They looked after the Hall and the workers’ cottages and all tenanted properties.  The head gardener had a lot of authority outside the house and even the mistress would have to seek his permission first before entering the nursery gardens!

Around Christmas time, all the staff and local trades’ people who supplied the house, were invited to a party held in the Long Gallery.  However, they were only allowed to stay in this area, although they may have had a peep though the huge double doors into the drawing room.  When Hugo Meynell married in 1936 a large reception was held for all the cottagers, tenants and staff.  This was an example of the aristocracy extending hospitality to local people, something that was considered an important obligation of the gentry.  When the family ‘wintered abroad’ the house was closed down and a small amount of staff were kept on – the rest of the servants had to find alternative employment for six months, although they would be re-engaged upon the family’s return.  This must have been quite stressful for them as they lived as well as worked in the house so if they didn’t find a job they could possibly have no-where to live either.

Although they were hospitable to the locals, they also liked to exert their authority.  Apparently when the Meynells took a ride through the village, people were expected to ‘doff their caps’ – if they didn’t remove their hats they received a strongly worded letter telling them to do so next time!  How times have changed!

During our time at the Hall in the seventies, when we were open to the public, quite a few of the servants came to look around and told us their stories of what they had done and what it was like living there in the early part of the century.  Most of them agreed that it was hard work and it’s clear that life below stairs was very different to life above.  For most servants it was an accepted way of life, and for many, unavoidable.

Don’t miss next’s week’s instalment: Like Father, Like Sons

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