Footmen and Butlers
One of the items in the gift shop that is flying out the door at the moment is a little decorative bell for the table – it is a bit of fun and no stately home style overdraft required.
Bought with laughter and perhaps a smirk, I am not sure which partner in any home intends to ring it, hoping for someone immaculately dressed to appear, perhaps bearing a serving plate filled with food, or later with white gloved hands removing empty plates to give to some lucky dishwasher elf. I would love to know how many such purchases have led to hilarious arguments. In between our own weekends in the Castle, we do not have any such bell: I am the cook, which I enjoy, and Geordie and I both act as the various different house elves as required.
However, with a weekend in the Castle with friends, we return to more traditional roles. Paul the Chef and team create the food in the kitchens with Luis in his role as Head Butler. Jorge and Matthew help Luis and Fred, in turn, helps them.
The kitchen is miles from the Dining Room and I think I would probably walk my 10,000 steps just making and bringing plates of scrambled eggs from the kitchen to the Dining Room for breakfast. By which time I would have forgotten everything else and got annoyed with my husband for demanding breakfast in the first place. Luis and team are far better at collecting and presenting the lunch or dinner than I would ever be – we all have our roles.
Today, Luis, Jorge, Matthew and Fred all wear smart pinstripe trousers and tails. In the old days, however, the footmen had a livery: navy blue with special crested buttons, whilst the Head Butler would have been in white tie in the evening, with a slightly less formal version for the daytime. One hundred years ago Streatfield was the House Steward at Highclere. He had both a Butler and Under-Butler serving under him alongside a further fourteen footmen, a hall room boy and steward’s room boy. Fernside, valet to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was below Streatfield and above both butlers in terms of staff hierarchy. Streatfield, Fernside and Mrs Bridgeland (the housekeeper) dined in “state” in the Steward’s Room waited on by a footman whilst the other staff dined together at the other end of a corridor.
The nuances of “position” downstairs, as much as those upstairs, were often explored in the story-lines of Downton Abbey. Thomas the footman was in the end promoted and reformed whilst Molesley tried and failed to establish his position, finally leaving to take up teaching. Spratt, the Dowager’s butler, had a sideline in writing and, as a result, was nearly fired, whilst Jimmy Kent was more straightforward and slowly climbed from second to first footman.
I am sure that there were many such challenges at Highclere during the comparative period. There are some hilarious stories about riotous parties in the Steward’s room, with valets becoming too merry to function and other staff unable to serve upstairs at lunch. There was certainly a piano in the staff dining room where all could learn to dance.
Everyone was well fed, the Castle was warm (as Castles go) and the wages were well regarded. Footmen earned £20 if they were 5’10” but £22 if they were taller as height and good looks were essential to be a good footman. With the innumerable stairs and endless walking, the liveries seem to reflect slim builds.
The local tailor had an excellent business making up the uniforms and also made up the tweed suits for the keepers. Records remain as well as some of the posters from his business. Today, with much laughter, Luis and his team argue about who is Thomas and who gets to be Carson.
In the programme, as in reality, the First World War changed the lives of many of the footmen. Downton Abbey’s William died as a result of his experiences – the scene was shot in one the bedrooms on the top floor of the Castle. I do find such film moments slightly surreal knowing that one hundred years ago there really were men being nursed here at the Castle. Some of their surviving letters from this time are very moving, they simply say “Thank you” – a mother in Winnipeg writes to say “Thank you”, a sister and a former patient also “Thank you”.
After the war, life resumed, different perhaps and everyone danced as before.
Luis, Jorge, Mathew and Fred dance as well. In fact, they were all caught red handed in the tea rooms only this week practising something called the floss.
One thing is clear though – they all need a lot more practice before they have any chance of winning a place on Strictly Come Dancing! They have therefore been put in charge of judging the best dressed “Carsons” and other downstairs characters amongst all our guests who join us in September for our Heroes at Highclere Weekend.
Hooray for all of you for keeping the “Service” tradition and industry alive for us to see in 2018!…and even more hoorays…for doing it with such grace, humor and acceptance of the reality of the human condition !!
I have never read such fascinating books as yours!
You are kind
Very interesting. The taller you were, the more you got paid. I wonder if such a ‘standard’ would work in today’s world. After viewing the dancing video, I, at 78, am wanting to think that the “floss” might be something that I could do. Great story and even greater writing.
We can all do it!!!!
Am coming to visit in July with Transcendent Tours..I will probably cry coming down the driveway. Downton Abbey meant so much to me during the illness of my husband who has since passed…I’m so excited..Thank you for all you do to keep the history of this estate alive.
Tissues at the ready!!!
Oh, thank you for that lovely/charming posting……..with its predictable (I mean this as a compliment) combination of nostalgia and immediate practicality. You do, Lady Carnarvon, manage to keep a steady (and admirably wry) foot in both worlds…..and thanks for your writings.
P.S. As for the height of footmen?….that goes way back (to the days when they functioned, quite often, as bodyguards when a lady traveled through the streets of London). Read Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews”…..there’s no end to the admiration/astonishment over having a footman who’s six feet tall. I’m 5’6” (average height for an 18th century Englishman, I assume), so I wouldn’t have made much in those days. It doesn’t serve as a particular, financial advantage even these days.
Still….I don’t (unlike poor Joseph) have to spend many of my days fretting over the unsolicited advances of aristocratic women. I suppose that’s a consolation.
I just love the detail that I can find here
Your blog post and video came at such a perfect time! My daughter was trying to show me the ‘floss’ last night and was doing as good a job as your staff!! I can’t wait to show her the video! Visited your castle a few weeks ago. As an obsessed Downton Abbey fan, I loved it dearly. It was the highlight of my trip to Europe!!
I spent an unforgettable day at your lovely Highclere yesterday. I felt very much at home and enjoyed conversing with everyone. Michael made sure that I had a delicious gluten-free lunch, and Peter made my entire day with his kind conversations. I made the trip from Massachusetts, US to pick up my daughter, who attends University of St. Andrews and is rowing at Henley Regatta this week. I had to see Highclere while here. While I am a Downton Abby fan, to me, Highclere is so much more. To me, it is a magnificent family home that you are successfully preserving for future generations. The immense beauty of the place is striking. Honestly, though, the sense of family and friendship is the most special part for me. I loved my visit. Thank you for sharing your home, and I hope to return soon.
Apologizes…Matthew, not Michael!
Thanks so much for sharing these historical “tidbits”. I still watch “Downton Abbey” on DVD, esp whilst in my kitchen. I realize that the work demands of the downstairs staff were pretty rigid by today’s standards, but back then, the staff were lucky to have work and food, and a place to live.
I thank you again for the photos from yesteryear. Even though I have been an American for 72 years, I know that the same demands were here as well.
I’m always fascinated by the details of how the large estates were run and the people involved who kept everything going, whether in the household or the grounds. It was quite a pecking order from what I have read and seen in various depictions, including Downton Abbey.
I’ve toured the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC a few times and always lingered the longest in the rooms where the staff spent their time. Even the variety of different pantries are interesting to learn about to me! Perhaps I was on staff somewhere like it in a previous life. 🙂
Have a great week, Lady Carnarvon, and thank you again for another fascinating post. I jump right on your site when I see a notification pop into my inbox since I enjoy your posts so much, regardless of the topic.
What an interesting and fun glimpse into the lives of those who have resided and do currently reside at Highclere! As always, I love your writing style and the tidbits you share on this blog. Keep ’em coming!
Dear Lady C. — I enjoy your posts and look forward to them each Monday — it is the highlight of the week — really I am blessed to be living a wonderful life but I love getting lost in the tales and life at Highclere. Today your stories of service people of past and present were so very interesting and even more when you mentioned you were the cook etc. and that is just like me too — the head cook and bottle washer! I can relate to you– thank you for your posts–
Dear Lady Canarvon,
What a fun and fascinating blog today. I loved it! And I love how you always weave past and present, and also give us a peek into your real life. You sound like a wonderful chef (if not marathon castle runner to serve your culinary creations), and your husband is fortunate indeed. When we were first married, and an older friend, who’d prepared daily, hearty fare for her husband’s breakfasts, asked me what I made for Michael’s breakfast, I responded simply, “I stick a grapefruit in the frig the night before!” And that was that. So you can imagine who our cooking chef is in this castle! 🙂 I’m fortunate, as well, that Michael, who prepared our wonderful Downton Dress-Up Dinners, is a wonderful chef. And as to elves? I used to quip that Daddy had a magic chair, and when he sat in it, food magically appeared and was later cleared away. Yes, my mother is an elf. Thank you for sharing not just about you and your husband, personally, but about your staff. I can tell that they really enjoy their jobs. Any job where you can dance for the sheer fun of it, has to be a job worth doing.
Your blogs never cease to bring a smile!
Saint Louis, Missouri
Oh and I didn’t see the bells when we were there. I love that. Once, we used a gong to signal the dinner’s start. Great fun!
I have two greyhounds, Digby and Percy, and I have trained them to use a bell (exactly like the one you have in the picture) to let me know when they want to go out into the garden. When I travel I take the bell with us and whether we are in a hotel, or at friends, they always know to ring the “Butler’s Bell” (I call it the concierge bell!) Digby, my older greyhound, sometimes decides he will ring it, persistently, when he wants a treat of some sort – so, not a perfect system!
That is a splendid idea..ring the bell when they want to go ‘out’. Visiting friends recently in a large house our hostess was embarrassed by the ‘visiting card ‘ left by one of the visitors dogs in a corridor. Large houses are a problem for animals and teaching them to ring a bell is very clever.
Thank-you Lady Carnarvon for your detailed and insightful posts. I read very one from Cincinnati, Ohio. I sure hope to visit your home in the next year. Happy Summer!
I read this blog and it strikes a note in my core. I am working very comfortably in a government job. I do very well and support my daughter of nearly 9 years old on my own. What do I long for? What would be my dream job? Domestic service! Yes. Not a butler right from the start, but I would be an amazing footman. I have an incredible attention to detail. I am a stickler for protocol (thanks to military service), and I love to cook and clean. It is odd to say that this is my ambition. But I consider it a calling to work in domestic service. I would love to one day rise to that position. Plus at 5’9” I would be cheap labor. For now I will continue toiling in government service. Of course if you are ever hiring, that toil could end;)
I will remember – we work hard here but with laughter and thus it has always been.
Thankyou this reminds me of the head butler telling us stories at cousin ivy I can still picture us all in her bungalow with the dog being stroked by all of us
What an interesting blog! I still have the bell my grandmother used when she lived in Bogota, Columbia. She used to give grand diplomatic parties at her house and until recently, I still had the sequined dresses she ordered from France. Each sequin sew on by hand, of course, from head to toe. Unbeknownst to her husband, a lawyer, she learned Spanish from the servants. This man was the stepfather of my father and he turned out to be nefarious creature. Having learned Spanish well, my grandmother overheard her husband and some other men discussing a plot to assassinate the president of Columbia, Miguel Abadia Mendez (about 1927) during a hunting party soon to take place. The plot failed and another man was shot instead by accident. My grandmother was on the next boat back to America. Had it not been for the servants, she may have been caught up in a terrible mess that she could not get out of or murdered herself.
Fortunately, my grandmother was able to escape just months before the Banana Massacre. The president sent in the Columbian army to stop the striking fruit laborers and arrest the instigators. There is not a particular number written to my knowledge as to how many innocent people were killed in the massacre, but had the assassination attempt succeeded, this tragedy may have been avoided. Of course, there is no way to know.
People in service are worth far more in my opinion having been responsible for saving my grandmother who I cherish.
What a story!!!
Loved Loved Loved this episode!!! I’m flossing right now – HA!
I have tried it too …
So interesting life!
Another interesting blog, Lady C.! It seems the “servants” at Highclere Castle today really enjoy their work, dancing and all. And while your modern kitchen facilities are a “mile-away” from the dining area, at least the servers need not run up and down hundreds of stairs. And that is a fun item that you have in the gift shop, though I’d like to see one of those “Edwardian” bells as the Dowager Countess had in Downton Abbey. I’d buy one of those!
Lady C, you always intrigue me with your stories that weave days of yore with current times. The gentle times of days long past were not as lovely, and gentle as we imagine them to be, and the working staff had it much harder without today’s modern conveniences. But, like all fairytales, I always imagine myself as living above the fray, upstairs “ringing the bell” for the staff. ☺️
how can we purchase the bell?
Sally has then in the gift shop [email protected] – there are about US$5!!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I enjoyed this post so much! It was especially fun for me since I had the opportunity to meet Matthew and Luis last year when we visited Highclere on a tour we took from London with Debby. They were so kind. I cannot tell you how much their kindness meant to me.
I am a signed up member of the Downton Abbey Fan club, having watched all 6 seasons at least 20 times.
I love your stories of real life in Highclere. Thank you for sharing your life stories with us.
Linda Sue Smith
Thank you for signing up here too!
We visited a year ago in March and we’re thrilled to meet Luis and discuss table settings. There were some interesting differences between “dinner dressed up” here and there, and he was so polite to us USA tourists. Thank you so much for welcoming Viking tours to your home. And, the scones were yummy!
Viking are a great family business – it is a joy to collaborate with them!
So very interesting. I do enjoy the stories and the history of the past and present life at Highclere Castle. I hope to one day visit Highclere. Have a most wonderful week.
Thank you Lady Carnarvon, your blogs always makes me smile and take my mind of current problems…….thank you and your husband for keeping history alive and turning it into current !!!!
The early 20th century Virginia house I grew up in had a buzzer on the floor beneath the dining room table. It rang in the kitchen for getting the maid’s attention but was so loud that the diners could hear it too. Because it was under the rug, many unsuspecting guests set it off by accident. We children thought it was a grand trick!
Fascinating piece of writing. I enjoyed how you wove the historical facts with the television facts. I didn’t know that William’s last scenes were filmed at the castle. I think I know those scenes by heart. The room is lovely.
William sadly “died” in a bedroom on the top floor – the set/costume team painted it a rather mouldy brown (it worked on TV!) and it is now redecorated and a sunny yellow facing south with the original curtains re made – a lovely room
Dear Lady Canarvon,
I enjoy reading your blogs. Thank you for sharing the history and life at Highclere. My husband and I plan to visit England and hope to visit Highclere Castle while we are there. The “Floss” is new to me. It could be a great arobic exercise!
Luis and Matthew tell me they are better at the Floss now…
Height in men is still rewarded today. Most of our presidents were the taller of the two candidates. This holds true even for the current occupant of the White House. Of course usually a man is taller than a woman.
Such a wonderful heart warming story. You are admired by so many people, but your down to earth demeanor is so refreshing. Thanks for letting us get a glimpse of Highclere living. Past and present. Still praying that someday my feet will stand on English soil.
Loved those black and white photos! Thanks for sharing them and for the article…..so more enjoyable a read than today’s news.
Once again, I am enjoying reading your latest story & laughing at the photo of the “butler’s bell”
as they are the type our teacher on their desks in the ’50s and 60s to get out attention.
I was also reminded about how my mother would step into the living room to announce that
dinner was ready, ringing an imaginary bell (she’d say, “ding-ding, dinner is served”)
Then one Sunday, my aunt gifted us with a small silver bell with a ship on top, so we had a
real bell to ring. Mother and Auntie have long since passed, but I still keep that bell in my
Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful stories of everyday life and also bits of
So much fun reading this Post. So enjoy all the posts .
Thank you for another interesting blog. Modern people do not understand that being “in service” was a much better life than slaving away at agricultural work. The Big House provided food, a degree of comfort and a wage, however small that helped support the family at home. The poor little maid of all work who lived in a small suburban house did not have such a good life, though. Will you tell us about the gardeners and grounds keepers (I think of them as I complain and resent every overgrown part of my gardens and wish I had their skilled labor to help me!)
There are always overgrown parts here … I think I am lucky that Geordie’s forbears were fair, hardworking people with a strong sense of duty. My own parents gave I and and my sisters the same sense, whilst I also bear in mind the motto to serve to lead.
Hello Lady Carnarvon,
What a fun and amusing post! Your butler’s bell is still used by American school teachers as well as businesses today. Thanks to you, I’ll add it to my Christmas wish list! Perhaps my teenage sons/elves will help out with more chores around the house!
Thank you for the dance video. I am doing the “Floss” to 1930’s tunes. Oh what fun!!
Hope you have a great week!
The Woodlands, Texas
(Currently visiting Olympia, Washington)
Thank you !!
It would be interesting to know how service staff “progressed” through the hierarchy in a Great House. For example, would the House Steward at Highclere have started out as a footman and been promoted “through the ranks”, or would it have been usual for a footman to take a position as under-butler at another house, and so on, before finally taking up the post of House Steward at yet another house?
I really enjoyed reading about this. I loved watching Downton Abbey but I’ve always been fascinated with castles and the life of those living in castles in general. The fact that Highclere was actually used for looking after soldiers during WW1 was interesting to read and its especially cute reading about those that work in the castle. I hope I can visit one day. Please do share more stories when you can!
And lets be real who wouldn’t want to be Mr Carson.
Lovely post! We have several of my grandmother’s bells we use jokingly – and sparingly – to call for a fresh cup of coffee from one another. Even more excited to visit Highclere tomorrow!
What a beautiful place Highclere Castle is, the grounds and Folly’s are wonderful I enjoyed reading this blog.
So very interesting, I love reading this homey type of text. You do an excellent job. The comments are interesting as well.
Happy Canada Day!
My daughter, Sara, and I had the pleasure of visiting Highclere Castle on Tuesday, June 19, when we were visiting from Canada. We were thrilled to learn of the connection between the 4th Earl of Carnarvon and the creation of the Dominion of Canada.
In March, Sara and I visited Downton Abbey – The Exhibition in New York City, which showed us the costumes and the sets. Seeing the actual house and walking up the laneway – we couldn’t believe that we were actually THERE! In the saloon, I kept imagining that Lord Grantham would come to speak to us! While walking up the stairs, I kept expecting Lady Edith’s veil to come tumbling down! While the day was as incredible as we knew it would be, the staff of Highclere truly enhanced the visit!
Special thanks to Stephanie who arranged for us to be able to visit on that day, when it looked as if it may be impossible! She went above and beyond the call of duty for us, and we are thankful for her attention.
Our tour guide surprised us by saying that she almost locked us in the Egyptian Exhibit since we had spent so much time down there! But then she took a few extra minutes to allow us to finish the exhibit and made sure that we were able to look into the windows of the tomb.
Finally, Luis and Matthew were gracious as we were a bit late for our refreshments, piling our plates with extra quiches and scones. When we mentioned that we were from Canada, Luis offered to direct us to the Canada tree, planted one year ago to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. Unfortunately, the conversation then turned to their recent fame with “the floss” on this blog, and the tree was missed!
Thank you for sharing your amazing house and history with us. While we would have loved to meet the “lady of the house,” your staff is a tribute to your home and your history, and truly enhanced our day!
Marcy Namespetra and Sara Namespetra
Thank you for coming – it is a special link across an ocean
My ex husband and I worked as Butler & Cook for Lady Hesketh and her son Lord Hesketh at Easton Neston back in the 1970/80’s. It was the best job we ever had and would never have left if the Lord had remained in the house. We had a great fun looking after all the fabulous guests that came for the weekend house parties and then dealing with all the trials and tribulations of a grand house during the week. Even in those days it was very similar to the Downton days but slightly less formal between upstairs and downstairs. Happy days!
Ich würde persönlich gerne eine Butler Livree gerne mal tragen und darin Damen und Herren zu Tisch bedienen.