"The fascination with ‘The Big House’ seems to be entwined in our psyche. With so many of us in the UK and beyond being descended from those who worked either indoors or outdoors at one of the enormous estates, there is no wonder. ‘The Big House’ is in our blood. The country houses mentioned in the book are from all over the UK so most people will recognise one near them.
England and Ireland were once dotted with enormous country sporting estates which showed off the wealth of their owners and provided entertainment for the estate owners and their guests. This was a golden age for those who could afford it, with whole worlds created simply for their entertainment. This is a world we can barely comprehend, decadent lives with vast wealth and a purely hedonistic lifestyle. In the days when many people would not have a house telephone, Lord Iveagh of the Elveden sporting estate laid on an external telephone system along his estate roads to enable his game keeping staff to send regular progress reports back to the hall.
Upstairs Downstairs, Gosford Park, Downton Abbey are just a few of the big and small screen dramas that have gripped audiences worldwide. The hedonistic lives of the wealthy inhabitants and those who served them are well documented in television and film dramas and in literature, both fiction and non-fiction. However, so little is known of the outside staff; the hundreds who kept these self-indulgent worlds running like clockwork.
The big estates were virtually self-sufficient empires, with teams of very talented individuals keeping the well-oiled machine on the road. Each estate would grow all of its own vegetables, fresh flowers and fruit, meat and milk, plus wood for building, fodder and bedding for the animals. Not only would the house inhabitants need feeding, but also the house staff and farm animals. It is hard to imagine that each of the tradespeople we encounter in our day to day life would have been employed by the estate.
Up until the end of WW1 the ‘Big House,’ was one of the principal employers in its locality. Workers on these estates would have often been better looked after than those who worked for smaller farmers. Generations of the same families would have gone into service, usually following the trades of their parents. These workers would have been housed according to status, but would have enjoyed free houses which were maintained by their employer, plus they were often looked after retirement.
The author is well placed to write this book, being an archivist and historian for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation for over a decade. His ancestors, gamekeepers, hunt servants, gardeners and grooms to mention just a few of the trades were employed on country estates throughout England and Wales.
In 1910 the liberal government levied huge taxes on land owners and high incomes in order to establish the welfare state; these heralded the death knell of the country estate as many were sold off in order to pay taxes.
The loss of some a generation of young men during WW1, where some 400,000 men, indoor and outdoor staff joined up and either were killed or didn’t return to service on their return meant that the rarefied world they inhabited did not exist any longer.
There is so little known about many of the roles described in Servants of the Lord. We all know about the ‘indoor staff’ as this is well documented, but what of the varied array of men and women who kept the ‘outside’ going. This intriguing book gives an insight into the day to day lives of the vast array of workers who were needed to run the estates through the transcripts of letters, diaries, anecdotes and photographs from the author’s private collection. What could be better than a nosy into private lives, reading real stories about real people? I come from a family, who like many others, hold a high regard and deep love for the old country estates dotted around our landscape. My fondest childhood memories are of being taken around ancient houses and their estates. While reviewing the book, each time I put it down I would have to go and search for it, finding any one of the family utterly engrossed in the text. For those who love these kind of books, this is the kind of book you’ll love.
Servants of the Lord is divided into chapters detailing each of the different areas of employment and the roles within those areas. An indepth introduction explains how the ‘Big House’ functioned so that readers have an insight into each of the areas of employment.
Chapters included discuss the role of the land agents who oversaw the running of the estates, the game department which was very important for shoots, poaching prevention and controlling vermin. Many estates had their own hunts and employed hunt staff to care for and hunt the hounds. Shooting and fishing would have provided very important entertainment, but of course required large teams of knowledgeable workers.
Further chapters are dedicated to the river keeper, the park keeper, those who cared for the home farm, the forestry and even the boatman. The chauffeur, lodge keeper, gardeners, itinerant workers, rare and unusual workers all get chapters which go into their roles. Towards the end of the book chapters are dedicated to the worker’s pay and perks, plus one on the estate at play. The book ends with a chapter which details the decline of the estates, the war years.
This is a magical book, one that details a world that is rarely shown in the media, yet one that was a vital part of the captivating world of the ‘Big House’. This is a book which will find a very permanent home on my book shelf and which will undoubtedly be dipped into on many occasions."
Written by Jacqui Broderick, 19/10/2017