Hello, Nicola here! It's almost April, which means that we are whisking off the dust sheets, getting out the beeswax polish and opening up Ashdown Park, "my" National Trust historic house, for the season. The most difficult part for me is updating my guided tour to include the research I've done in the past year. If I add a few facts to my talk I have to take something out. I have 35 minutes to get my tour group around the house and (I hope!) impart a few fascinating details about the Craven family through the centuries, the art, the architecture and a ghost story or two!
Each year we change the exhibitions we have in the Information Centre, which is housed in the building that was once Ashdown's brewery and bakery. Last year our costume designer made a replica of a seventeenth century gentleman's country outfit, the type of clothes the first Lord Craven would have worn at Ashdown as opposed to what he wore at the court of Charles II. This year she is designing and making a lady's costume to match. We have a small display of items from the Second World War, when American and Canadian troops were stationed at Ashdown prior to D-Day. We also have some archaeological finds from the Iron Age fort of Alfred's Castle. As you can see, we try to cater to all those people who have a special interest in the house as well as those who choose to visit simply because it is a beautiful place.
The other exhibition we will be mounting this year is a display of photographs of Ashdown from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Victorian period was the only time that Ashdown was lived in on a permanent basis. Unlike his father, the rackety Regency Earl, William Craven Second Earl of the Second Creation was considered a typical Victorian gentleman. He was described by his contemporaries as "a fine horseman and very good to hounds, a first rate all round shot and an extraordinarily fine fly fisherman." These were the virtues admired in the Victorian landowner. As a result of some private correspondence between the Countess and her sister, we also know something a little more personal about William Craven – his wife considered him to be extremely good in bed and would boast of his sexual prowess! Not what we consider typical Victorian behaviour at all! William was also atypical in that he was a pioneer of Victorian photography and so we have an unusually detailed record of Ashdown from that time in photographs.
The family above stairs are fascinating in terms of how they spent their time (visiting friends, walking or riding about the estate and watching the earl take photographs!) but we receive many more enquiries from people who are tracing their family trees and have discovered that they are descended from the Ashdown House servants. During the Victorian era there were on average thirty five indoor and outdoor servants at Ashdown when the family were in residence. The house is unusual because it has no servants' quarters. As a hunting lodge it was built on a very small scale. So in the nineteenth century it was extended to provide extra accommodation for the family – a ballroom, smoking room, billiards room and garden room – and at the same time a new servants' block was built in what is now the courtyard. I think it must have been quite a squash!
There was a very strict hierarchy in the servants' hall and this is perfectly illustrated in the Ashdown census returns of the 1800s where the servants are listed according to their status with the governess first, then the butler and housekeeper, then the upper servants and the lower servants. The upper servants included the ladies maids, of which there were two at Ashdown in 1861, one for the Countess and one shared by her elder daughters. They earned between £12 and £15 per annum. The Earl and the male members of the family had several valets to wait on them. The valets earned £25 to £50 a year. Discrimination was alive and well! These were the only servants who formed close bonds with the family, although of course they could never be friends. In her letters the Countess speaks of calling on "little Mrs Brin" the retired housekeeper. The tone of her letters is rather condescending! In her time Mrs Brin had 3 housemaids working for her at Ashdown. One of these became pregnant by one of the footmen despite maids being forbidden from having "followers." They married when the girl was about 5 months pregnant and the Cravens gave the couple a local cottage in which to live. Neither was allowed to continue working at Ashdown, however.
At Ashdown the butler, William Churchill, was assisted by 3 footmen. The upper servants, who also included the cook, the head gardener and the coachman actually had their own servant – the Steward’s Room Man – to wait on them at meals. This shows how incredibly status conscious the servants’ hall
was. At Ashdown this poor lad was a19 year old called William Dyke. He was almost at the bottom of the pile, down there with the kitchen maids and the scullery maids. But there was someone still lower on the social ladder – the odd job man, Edward Cook, who waited on the lower servants.
Throughout the Victorian period the Cravens had French cooks. Again this was a sign of status as French cuisine was very highly rated. The kitchens were located in one of Ashdown's lodge houses and were connected to the main house by a corridor. The family wanted the kitchens kept as far away from the dining room as possible because they didn’t want to have to smell the food cooking. So although it was inconvenient for the servants to have a kitchen in the lodge it suited the family well.
Another process that was kept well away from the family – in Ashdown's case a quarter of a mile away – was the laundry. Before the automated laundry process was invented, laundry created a great deal of steam and smell, which was why the laundry was usually away from the rest of the servants’ quarters. Quite often it was near the stables, as it is at Ashdown, and as the historian Mark Girouard remarked, “the laundry was the Achilles heel of the Victorian country house as far as keeping the male and female servants apart was concerned.”
Ashdown, being a country sporting estate, had a big stables with coachman, grooms and stable helpers and also six gamekeepers. The house also had extensive kitchen gardens where they grew everything from mushrooms in dark sheds to exotic fruit such as melons and pineapples, against heated walls that still stand today. Much of the fruit, vegetables and herbs eaten by the family and guests came from their own gardens during this period.
By the Edwardian period Ashdown's heyday as a country estate was over. The Edwardian Earl of Craven, who had married the American heiress Miss Cornelia Martin in 1893, preferred the opulent splendour of his estates at Coombe Abbey (renovated with American money) to his Berkshire properties. In fact he was so rarely in Berkshire that he was driving past Ashdown one day and remarked "I believe I have a house somewhere around here." It was Cornelia Craven who gave Ashdown to the National Trust in 1956. This year, courtesy of some wonderful photographs from Mr Rick Hutto, we are hoping to have a little display dedicated to Cornelia, the "dollar princess" who saved the Craven family fortunes.
I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour through a bit of Ashdown history and a few of our special photographs. If you had been around in the Victorian era would you have preferred to be upstairs or downstairs?