Yet for the millions of people who have read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and those who have spent hours gripped to historical dramas such as Downton Abbey, there is a whole other side to the English Country House beyond the privileged families who live there. Thousands of stories about the secret lives of servants and staff who lived and worked at the real life Downton Abbey have yet to be told – until now.
Hidden away in a part of Chatsworth – one of the most renowned English country houses – is an archive containing thousands of letters, diaries and correspondence from servants and staff who lived and worked at the estate between the 18th and 20th centuries.
To uncover these stories and shed new light on the lives of servants and staff at Chatsworth, three PhD students from the University of Sheffield’s School of English have studied the previously untouched section of the archive for the first time.
From dairy maids, to gardeners, upholsterers to governesses, findings from the research are changing our understanding of the lives of servants and staff at country house estates.
The study, conducted by Lauren Butler, Fiona Clapperton and Hannah Wallace, PhD students from the University’s School of English, has uncovered previously unknown stories about the lives of some of the 4,000 individuals who lived and worked at Chatsworth between 1700 and 1950.
Findings from the research have revealed that the lives of servants and staff were very different to those portrayed by Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice.
Stories uncovered from the archive show that the Duke and his family were rarely in residence at Chatsworth, so it was in fact the servants and staff who lived and worked on the estate and played previously unknown roles in the local community.