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