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.