Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Ickworth Real Lives

The refurbished housekeeper's room at Ickworth complete with 1930s housekeeper
An enormous amount of nostalgic interest has recently been aroused in the life style of upper-class English families and their servants by popular television dramas such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. This craze, which some cynically call the 'mobcaps and pinnies syndrome', is particularly evident in the US where viewers just cannot get enough of these programmes. Both dramas are good fun and have huge audiences, but it has to be remembered that they are of course entirely fictional productions and as such do not necessarily reflect life in these great houses as it really was. For the past three years I have been involved in a marvellous project which has recreated part of the servants' quarters at Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, England. Unlike the television dramas this project has been generated by a real historical research programme, which has meticulously examined the role of the servants in this palatial mansion in the first half of the twentieth century. Much of the evidence has come from interviews with real local people who once worked in the house, gardens and larger estate in the 1930s. The oral testimony of these people, many of them sadly no longer alive, underpins the whole project, which fittingly has been called 'Ickworth Real Lives'.

Ickworth is dominated by its huge Italianate rotunda

At over six hundred feet long, Ickworth is among the largest houses in Britain. It was conceived by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol (1730-1803), more as a vast kunsthaus than a functional family home. Hervey, sometimes called the Bishop-Earl (he was the Bishop of Derry), spent much time in Italy where he amassed a considerable art collection. Ickworth was designed to display this impressive assemblage, which unfortunately was stolen by the French when they invaded the Italian peninsula. Hervey died a lonely man in Albani in 1803 and never saw his dream house, which was completed by his brother Frederick Hervey, the 5th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bristol.  

At the east end of the complex is a formidable wing which the Hervey family used as their home base
The property was so grandiose that the family spent most of their time in the east wing, only using the state rooms in the Rotunda for the occasional entertainment. The east wing was provided with a well designed suite of domestic offices in its basement. This was based on the usual country house arrangement of servants' hall, kitchen, scullery, butler's pantry, housekeeper's room etc. and it worked perfectly when the family had their everyday meals in the east wing dining room. However, important functions such as dinner parties in the shooting season were held in the Rotunda dining room, more than 100 yards from the kitchen and scullery. This created a tremendous amount of extra work for kitchen and serving staff. Food and washing-up had to be wheeled backwards and forwards along a long basement corridor. It was a nightmare. 

Miss Sangster, Lord Bristol's cook in the East Wing kitchen. Behind her is an Eagle range and a roasting screen, both of which are still extant. The fish kettle on the range also survives and can be seen in a photograph below, sitting on top of  the dresser in the refurbished rotunda kitchen. 

In 1907, the 4th Marquess of Bristol, Frederick William Fane Hervey inherited the property. He immediately set about a programme of improvements, which was superintended by the London architect Arthur Blomfield. He commissioned a DC electrical generator, a novel new rainwater collection system, central heating boilers and most importantly of all for the servants, a new kitchen directly under the rotunda dining room. These works were completed in 1911. The new kitchen was designed just to be used when dinner parties were being held in the rotunda to ensure that the food arrived at the table hot. It has sometimes been called an 'occasional' or 'finishing' kitchen. Most meals for the family and servants however continued to be prepared as usual in the old kitchen in the East Wing. Although there is evidence that a scullery and a larder were originally planned to service the new kitchen, they never materialised. This of course meant that semi-prepared food and washing-up still had to undergo the long journey along the basement corridor. 

The equally large west wing was a floor-less void until the National Trust completed it in 2006
A number of ex-servants recorded vivid memories of pushing trolleys of food and washing-up from one kitchen to another. Lord Bristol's partridges en papillotes may have arrived at table in a much warmer state than before, but Blomfield's new kitchen made very little difference to the lives of the hard-pressed servants. The nightmare continued.

Arthur Blomfield's 1911 occasional kitchen is in the basement of the rotunda

The Hervey family preferred a degree of invisibility in their servants. This sunken moat enabled staff to go from one part of the rotunda to another without being visible from the gardens

The newly refurbished rotunda kitchen. Miss Sangster's fish kettle sits on the top left of the dresser; her brass seasoning box in the middle of the table
When the National Trust completed the refurbishment of the West Wing of the house in 2006, the tea room and shop were moved out of the rotunda and into the new wing. This move allowed the basement of the rotunda to be renovated and returned to its original function. My role was to survey Blomfield's occasional 1911 kitchen and assess how it could be returned as closely to its original state. When I first saw it, although its principal fittings, ranges and dresser were intact, everything was concealed behind bookshelves. These were eventually removed; the kitchen sink was reinstated and a brand new table and second dresser installed. We have now returned the kitchen to its original state. A number of important utensils have been installed on the dresser from the Hervey collection and many more items have been gifted or purchased to ensure that the kitchen can actually be used. Over the last few months I have been involved in initiating an enthusiastic group of costumed volunteers into the arcane practice of cooking English country house food from the 1930s.

Detail of a copper stew pan dating from the time of the 2nd Marquess of Bristol
Some items of kitchen copper are marked with a coronet and a B for Bristol. This mark is on a sauté pan which dates from the time of the 3rd Marquess. Identification marks like these enabled the copper retailers to return the utensils back to the correct property after they had been sent into their workshops for re-tinning.
The row of Victorian ice cream moulds on top indicate that ice cream had been an important aspect of entertaining at Ickworth in the past. The two white ceramic jelly moulds made by Shelley are from the 1920s and 30s. These date from the time that Miss Sangster ran the kitchens at Ickworth, the period where we have fixed our kitchen activities
Over the next year this kitchen team will be exploring many aspects of food at Ickworth. If you visit the rotunda basement you might well find them preparing a servants' hall dinner, a tennis tea for the marchioness and her guests, a picnic lunch for an estate shoot or perhaps some cakes for a school treat on the Ickworth lawn.  

A school treat in 1911 on the Ickworth lawn for local children. Lady Bristol is wearing her robes and coronet from the coronation of George V. Lord Bristol, the 4th Marquess is the gentleman wearing the blazer and hat.
The National Trust opened the doors of the basement to the public for the first time last weekend and we had over 700 visitors. The feedback was entirely positive. When visiting the servant's hall and housekeepers' room, an elderly friend of mine in his 90s and a true child of the thirties, said he felt a strong feeling of nostalgia when he walked into these incredibly convincing spaces, 'Uncanny' he remarked.


  1. I have been wanting to visit Ickworth for ever so long... especially after reading of the old Bishop-Earl and his passion for collection. Now that I know about the kitchen is is a destination not to be missed. Sounds like a wonderful job was done by all.

  2. Lovely article. I am a member of staff in the Visitor Services dept at Ickworth, and was a keen volunteer in the house before, so can say from personal experience that we were all very excited about your involvement at Ickworth. Its a truly unique project, and it touches visitors on such a personal level. The Living History project is extremely popular, and I am very keen to see how it continues to grow!!

    P. S. The lovely recipes you taught the ladies in the kitchen always smell absolutely devine!!

  3. Just stumbled across your post on Ickworth as I was writing up my trip there from earlier in the year. Great post.