Life at the manor

Downton Abbey has encouraged interest in the aristocracy and their homes, but how much does the fiction reflect reality?
Downton Abbey has encouraged interest in the aristocracy and their homes, but how much does the fiction reflect reality?
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Small-screen dramas such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey have played on our fascination with the aristocracy. But does the fiction reflect what life was really like? Stuart Anderson visited Stansted House to find out.

It’s a cold day at the abbey as Lady Mary Crawley confides in Carson, the butler.

Janet Sinclair, curator at Stansted House, in the housekeeper's sitting room

Janet Sinclair, curator at Stansted House, in the housekeeper's sitting room

He has always been a friend and confidant, but this time she feels he has overstepped the mark by telling her to stand up to her father after the death of her husband.

‘You’re letting yourself be defeated, my lady,’ he tells her.

‘I’m sorry if it is a lapse to say so.’

She counters: ‘You do not seem to understand the effect Mr Crawley’s death has had on me.

Footman Ken Doel

Footman Ken Doel

‘I’m afraid I may have encouraged you to feel you have the right to address me in this way.’

Everything about the popular TV drama Downton Abbey seems perfectly recreated – from the footmen’s starched livery to the elegant tapestries adorning the mansion’s walls.

The social interaction, is, however, complete fiction, as Janet Sinclair will attest.

Janet is a curator at our very own version of Downton Abbey, Stansted House near Rowlands Castle.

Housekeeper Martha Fletcher and her dog

Housekeeper Martha Fletcher and her dog

She lectures on life in days gone by at our stately homes and says the boundaries between upstairs and downstairs were more clearly defined than we might believe.

Janet says of the downstairs staff: ‘The owners on the whole wouldn’t have cared what their names were or what their marital status was.

‘As long as their fires were lit, the food was on the table and the doorknobs were polished, they didn’t really get involved.’

That said, the parallels between the fictional setting of the ITV series and Stansted House are remarkable.

The country house is set in 1,750 acres of ancient forest and has everything you might expect of its fictional counterpart.

Visitors can roam about the ‘upstairs’ section, with its elegant vases, tapestries and grand fireplaces before setting foot in the utilitarian servants’ quarters downstairs.

Many of the rooms are kept as they would have looked in 1910 – while portraits of noble ancestors adorn the music room, a simple sewing machine takes pride of place in the housekeeper’s sitting room.

Janet’s description makes Stansted House sound every bit as grand as its on-screen equivalent.

‘In 1851 there were 20 live-in servants to look after a family of four,’ she says.

‘You would have had your footmen, your scullery maids, your housemaids, a butler, under-butler and a housekeeper.’

A census from the 19th century also reveals the house had roles which sound like they are straight out of Upstairs, Downstairs: a lady’s maid, coachman, servant to Captain Wilder, a groom, a dairy maid and a still-room maid.

But there, Janet says, the similarities stop.

‘There were two separate communities,’ she says.

‘There wasn’t this interaction which makes all the drama and intrigue.

‘For instance, if you read guidelines on how to treat your servants you didn’t speak to them.

‘You gave them names like Emma and Mary so you didn’t have to remember their real names. Servants were told not to speak to their employers unless they were addressed, a little bit like not speaking to the Queen.

‘So this idea of people popping in and having quiet words is complete fiction. It’s good entertainment, but then again, so is Neighbours!’

Janet says there was a huge difference between today and how things were in the golden age of the grand estates in the Victorian and Edwardian years.

In the past, the estate was a place of hard work for many, but today it is a focus of community spirit and a touchstone to our heritage.

Janet says: ‘Nowadays people want to get involved in preserving their heritage so they come in and they give up their time freely, whereas in the olden days people were working from dawn to dusk for pennies, and all that just for one family.

‘Today it’s all for the public, so the doors are open and people can come in and enjoy it.’

Stansted House has just started its annual open season, which will last until September.

Visitor manager Joan Felton says it’s the downstairs parts of the house that most delights visitors.

‘They are really impressed that they can see what life was like for ordinary working people,’ Joan says.

‘They say it’s just like Downton. And then I tell them that Downton is made in studios, but this is the real thing.’

Male and female servants had quarters in separate sections of the basement, but they had a shared room for eating and relaxing.

Joan says the servants must have bonded with each other, if not the family upstairs.

‘They lived and worked together and they didn’t get much free time so their friendships had to come within the house.’

Joan says as time went by conditions vastly improved for the servants, but there was still a social pecking order.

‘The lesser the servant, the earlier they had to get up. The kitchen maid would get up extra early to make tea for cook and the housekeeper and the butler before she started her day.’

They lived downstairs

The downstairs rooms at Stansted House contain old photos of the domestic staff which sing out with a realism the oil-on-canvas portraits of lords and ladies upstairs can’t match.

One photo from around the turn of the century shows a buxom woman seated next to her dog. It’s Martha Fletcher, a housekeeper who was married to a gardener called William and kept chickens in the estate’s grounds.

Another photo, from 1939, shows Ken Doel wearing elegant footman’s livery.

Ken started his career in service at the age of 14, waiting at table and cleaning the earl’s boots.

In his free time he rode a BSA motorcycle to Emsworth or to Southsea beach with one of the young housemaids.

Ken left the manor for the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and returned years later, aged 88, to find his old uniform still packed away.

‘I feel proud to know that my livery will be on display for visitors to Stansted House to see in the future,’ he wrote.

Janet says discovering more about the people who made their lives at Stansted was one of the joys of working at the house.

‘We have people who visit and then send in photographs of their great-great-grandmother and others who used to work here,’ she says.

‘That’s what really brings the house to life.

‘It’s not all those old pieces of furniture and paintings and so on, but it’s the stories of the people who lived there.’

At a glance

Stansted House

WHERE: Rowlands Castle, PO9 6DX

WHEN: The house is open for viewing from May to September from Sunday to Wednesday 1pm-5pm. The Pavilion Tea Rooms on the estate are open Monday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm.

CONTACT: Phone (023) 9241 2265, e-mail


WHAT’S ON: On Sunday, May 31 there will be an MG rally from midday. The Stansted Garden Show takes place from Friday, June 5 to Sunday, June 7 between 10am and 5pm. There will be more than 300 stands selling gifts, plants, country foods and wines and much more. There will also be children’s entertainment.

A grand history

Stansted House began as a hunting lodge 800 years ago.

A manor house was built there in 1688, and royal visitors are recorded from Henry II to the present generation.

After several owners and a calamitous fire in 1900, the mansion was rebuilt in 1901 on the exact footprint of old house. It became the family home of the Ponsonbys, Earls of Bessborough, in 1924.

The family kept an extensive staff until the Second World War, when Vere Ponsonby, the ninth Earl of Bessborough, left to become governor-general of Canada.

During the war the house was used to shelter evacuees from a Southsea orphanage, and for a time afterwards it reverted back to the Ponsonby’s home, albeit with a much-reduced staff.

In 1983 the 10th Earl of Bessborough, Frederick Ponsonby, set up the Stansted Park Foundation, a charitable trust charged with the preservation of the estate for the benefit of the nation.

He died in 1993, and his favourite room, the library, is preserved exactly as it was then, crammed with books, watercolours and richly-upholstered armchairs.

Stansted House’s grounds are vast, and include the longest avenue of beech trees in Britain at more than 2 miles.

The grounds include tea rooms, a garden centre and arboretum, a chapel, a farm shop, a light railway and even a maze.

No working for pennies

As one of Stansted House’s two housekeepers, Christine Day is no stranger to hard work.

But, Christine says, her labours don’t compare with what the house’s domestic staff at would have gone through in days gone by.

‘I know I wouldn’t want to be lifting one of those copper pans in the kitchen full of water and vegetables because they would probably be extremely heavy,’ she says.

‘And all the hard work they put in with blacking the fires.

‘They would have had to have done that every day, but we only have to do it on occasions.’

Christine, from Cowplain, has been a housekeeper at Stansted House for 10 years.

She says many people have it easy today compared to their forebears.

‘You can’t imagine working for pennies and still not having enough money. I think we’ve 
all got too much today to be honest.’

Good Ground care

The gardening team at Stansted House has changed dramatically over the past century.

There was once a team of 
14 gardeners looking after 
the grounds, but today there are just three, who are supported by a group of volunteers who help out once a week.

But Rory Watson, the head gardener, still lives at the old gardener’s cottage on the grounds.

Rory says the focus of the job has also changed.

‘In the past, their job was to cater for the occupants of the house, so they grew fruit and vegetables and it was very much a working environment,’ he says.

‘Today we’re continuing to transform the site to attract more visitors.’

As well as maintaining the hedgerows and mowing the lawns, Rory has built a large playground for young visitors and makes sure the circular hedge maze is kept in good nick.

‘Because we’re open to the public and we have a huge visitor draw, there are always bits and pieces cropping up,’ he says.