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Tech­nol­ogy in the Coun­try House

Mar­i­lyn Palmer and Ian West (His­toric Eng­land and the Na­tional Trust, £60)

THE OPEN­ING se­quences of Down­ton Abbey fea­tured a set of sprung ser­vants’ bells, filmed at the Na­tional Trust’s Canons Ashby in Northamp­ton­shire. Wou ld a coun­try house, mod­ernised by Amer­i­can money at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, re­ally still have em­ployed such an old-fash­ioned method of sum­mon­ing staff?

Elec­tric bell boards had ar­rived in some houses as early as the 1860s, when elec­tric light was in­stalled; by flick­ing a flag into a lit­tle win­dow marked with the name of the room where the bell had been pressed, it showed clearly where a ser­vant was needed. No more study­ing the vi­bra­tions of a me­chan­i­cally pulled bell. On the other hand, one of the hand­somest suites of sprung bells is to be found at Man­der­ston Hall in Ber­wick­shire: a dou­ble row of 56—not in­stalled un­til 1903–05.

Such de­tails are among the ar­cana of coun­try-house base­ments and ser­vice courts to be found in this fas­ci­nat­ing vol­ume. Although this is not the first time the sub­ject of do­mes­tic tech­nol­ogy has been aired, rarely has it been stud­ied with such rigour. Don’t ex­pect the suave prose style of a Mark Girouard; this is more of an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey of what sur­vives—from model farms to rid­ing schools, early shower baths to wa­ter clos­ets and, in­deed, sewage works (there are il­lus­tra­tions both of a sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple and a plan).

One can only mar­vel at the in­ge­nu­ity of our an­ces­tors and the elab­o­ra­tion of means re­quired to sup­port a highly evolved life­style. When ladies change their dresses five times a day and men wear starched shirt fronts with their evening dress, laun­dries are bound to be Her­culean, not only in elec­tri­cally pow­ered wash­ing ma­chines and spin dry­ers (driven from over­head belts), but heated dry­ing cab­i­nets and stoves to heat the many sizes of flat iron.

Wa­ter, such an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion in the sit­ing of early houses, caused no end of head scratch­ing when a house was lo­cated away from a ready sup­ply. Given the ex­pense of lead, elm pipes were used un­til cast iron was pre­ferred in the mid 19th cen­tury. Then, there was the prob­lem of dis­tribut­ing wa­ter through the house, solved, at Clive­den, by a prom­i­nent and hand­some wa­ter tower. In the 1780s, the sec­ond floor of Aud­ley End was equipped with a coal gallery, to which a sup­ply of coal could be hoisted from the gar­dens; this pro­vided hot wa­ter, although ser­vants still had to carry it by hand. ‘It is alien to the na­ture of an English­man of stand­ing to the bed­rooms to en­velop him­self in lux­ury,’ wrote the turn-of-the-20th­cen­tury Ger­man ar­chi­tect Her­mann Muthe­sius, and few of the in­no­va­tions de­scribed in this book can have, by them­selves, de­liv­ered a high level of com­fort; only a large staff of well-trained ser­vants could do that.

But a good ar­chi­tect ne­glected noth­ing that could make a house run more ef­fi­ciently—wit­ness the two ser­vants’ stairs at Lan­hy­drock: a stone one, for hulk­ing great men car­ry­ing trunks to stomp up, and a wooden one for the maids, dain­tily trip­ping to bed­rooms. The chap­ters on fire pre­cau­tions and lifts cover un­trod­den ground. (See Her­itage of In­dus­try pro­mo­tion, page 97.) Clive Aslet

Ar­gand oil lamp from the 1780s

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