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The Real Downton Abbey: Decline of the Country House Lifestyle

Posted:
19 December 2014
Posted By:
Eleanor Matthews
Categories:
History Uncovered
Brodsworth Hall and Gardens

As Downton Abbey entered the 1920s, we saw our favourite characters battling to keep their way of life, worrying about their jobs and starting to plan a new future. What might be in store for Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes and the family? Eleanor Matthews looks into the real-life story of Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire for clues.

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After the First World War, things were changing for country houses. New ideas were permeating even the most rigid hierarchical structures and traditional jobs in service started to disappear. In Downton, Moseley has been forced to diversify his role and perform the job of multiple footmen, which was unheard of before this time.

The deserted maids' room at Brodsworth Hall , which became redundant as the numbers of servants dwindled in the 20th century

The deserted maids' room at Brodsworth Hall , which became redundant as the numbers of servants dwindled in the 20th century

This was very much the case at Brodsworth Hall. In 1919, the owner of the Hall, Charles Thellusson, died and his brother Augustus inherited. This had a dramatic effect on the household as Augustus was a fairly absentee owner, travelling to Brodsworth mainly for the winter shooting. In 1914 there were fifteen indoor servants, but by 1919 this number had reduced to just four. Servants returning from service in the First World War found that their roles were no longer needed and new servants were rarely taken on unless important ones left or retired.

Augustus Thellusson, the absentee owner of Brodsworth who inherited in 1910, and Pamela Grant-Dalton, daughter of Sylvia who lived there until 1988

Augustus Thellusson, the absentee owner of Brodsworth who inherited in 1919, and Pamela Grant-Dalton, daughter of Sylvia who lived there until 1988

John William Marshall was the ‘Carson’ of Brodsworth Hall from 1912 to 1929 and in a similar role to that of the on-screen character, was very much the patriarch of the staff. He was a tall, well-built man who could be stubborn and was not afraid to say what he thought. He married the refined head housemaid Fanny Rolfe and together they were the main support structure of the house, working to ensure that life continued as it had always done.

However, we have letters that show all was not well for Mr Marshall and that he was dissatisfied with life at Brodsworth. In 1929 he handed in his notice without reason, later regretting his actions and trying to return. But it was too late and John Marshall moved on to run a gentleman’s club in Doncaster and later a horticultural shop for allotment holders – a life which would have been very different to that of the Hall.

The faded grandeur of the drawing room at Brodsworth Hall today

The faded grandeur of the drawing room at Brodsworth Hall today

The country house female equivalent of the butler was the housekeeper and Brodsworth Hall’s ‘Mrs Hughes’ was Jane Langton, who worked at the hall from 1895-1936. She gradually worked her way up the ranks and her loyalty to the family was rewarded upon Charles Thellusson’s death when he left her a £30 life annuity and Augustus Thellusson left her £50 in his will. However, quite unlike Downton's Mrs Hughes, Jane Langton made her own wine and kept a grey parrot called Polly in her room which was known for its swearing.

The cavernous Victorian kitchen at Brodsworth Hall, abandoned in 20th century in favour of a much smaller and cosier 'Aga kitchen'

The cavernous Victorian kitchen at Brodsworth Hall, abandoned in 20th century in favour of a much smaller and cosier 'Aga kitchen'

The gradual merging of cook and housekeeper roles reflects the disappearance of servants at Brodsworth. Eventually there remained only Emily Chester (who worked at the house for fifty years until 1980) and the last member of the family and resident, Sylvia Grant-Dalton. Together they held the fort as the Hall gradually declined around them, and it is in this less shiny and polished state that we have conserved this wonderful example of the fine country houses of England.

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  • About the Author

    Eleanor Matthews
    Eleanor is the Assistant Curator at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens in South Yorkshire.

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  1. Pingback: What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the 1920s | Enough of this Tomfoolery!

  2. I visited Brodsworth Hall today which included the guided tour (Mark was our excellent guide) but am now wondering how Emily Chester lost one of her legs. Can anyone tell me please?

  3. Hi Pamela, we’re glad that you enjoyed your tour at Brodsworth Hall. Emily is remembered as suffering from bad legs from 1974. She had an accident about 4 years after that (about 1978), damaging her leg when she dropped a log while looking after the fire in the Library.

  4. It is so sad to see these great halls in such condition, but I am always heartened to know that English Heritage is there to help preserve our wonderful and irreplaceable history for future generations.
    I live in Asia, and although some historic buildings survive, much of the history of my adopted home country of Thailand has been lost, or is housed in buildings not open to the public.
    At least in supporting EH over the years, despite not being in the UK for a long time, I feel I can at least take a small part in helping the organisation in it’s important work.
    I have also been a member of National Trust for many years and for the same reason.

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  6. Pingback: 5 conservation Dos and Don’ts of caring for a country house - English Heritage Blog

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