In the early 20th century, social etiquette, class hierarchies and gender roles were strictly observed, especially by the upper classes and those in public life. When Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford made Preston Manor their main residence in 1905, they modernised the house to fit their lifestyle and social aspirations.
Life above stairs
The drawing room and dining room were the principal reception rooms and were only used on formal occasions. The drawing room was regarded as the preserve of the lady of the house, and was used in the afternoon and evening for receiving important visitors and spending idle hours. The drawing room at Preston Manor was redecorated and refurnished in 1905 to reflect Ellen’s taste. The dining room was built in 1905 as part of the new west wing, and was designed to reflect its place as a male domain with simple classical details to maintain the spirit of the original Georgian house. Ellen managed to exert her influence with the display of her massive collection of Chinese ceramic lions which provided a talking point for dinner guests. It is thought to be the largest collection in the world.
Life Below Stairs
By 1914, the indoor servants were grouped into two departments. The butler supervised the footmen and the odd man; the cook-housekeeper supervised housemaids, kitchen maid and scullery maid. The lady’s maid reported directly to Ellen and the chauffeur appears to have reported directly to Charles. There were also several outdoor servants including gardeners and maintenance workers who reported to Mr Cripps, agent to the Stanford Estate. The upper servants took their orders directly from Ellen and Charles but there was very minimal contact between the Thomas-Stanfords and the lower servants – some of the servants never saw their employer or the upstairs rooms.
The day began early for the domestic staff: 6am for the lower servants and 7am for the upper servants. Rooms were cleaned and prepared before the family rose, the kitchen fire was lit and water heated so that hot water could be carried in brass cans to the bedrooms for washing or bathing in hip baths. The carpets were brushed and the beds aired and made. In winter the grates had to be cleaned and fires laid. This work was all labour intensive as there were few cleaning materials and most things were done by hand.
The servants at Preston Manor generally worked until 10pm, with two hours off in the afternoon, a half day off a week, and one Sunday off every month. However, they were well looked after and were provided with accommodation, uniforms, food and drink. When the family were away, at their other homes or travelling, most of the servants would remain at Preston and the work would be lighter. Some key staff, like the butler and lady’s maid, might have to travel with Ellen and Charles; those that remained would be given cash payments to buy food and drink while the family were away.
After the First World War fewer servants were employed, and the footmen (who were primarily a status symbol) were replaced by parlourmaids. Still, most indoor staff remained until the Thomas-Stanford’s deaths in 1932. Ellen left generous legacies in her will to her agent Mr Cripps, the butler Mr Elphick, the chauffeur Mr Watson, the head parlourmaid Ellen Nichols, and her lady’s maid Bertha Rohrback.
Ellen and Charles entertained the elite of society at Preston Manor as well as family members and friends, and their frequent dinner parties involved the utmost in preparation, planning and presentation. Dinners were normally for six to twelve guests and table settings were carefully worked out in advance. Ellen and Charles normally sat on either side at the middle of the table so that the principle guests were gathered around a common centre.
Dinner was usually served at 8pm. Guests were announced by the butler on arrival and escorted to the drawing room. After the first course had been laid in the dining room, the dinner gong would be rung and the butler would announce that dinner was served. Guests proceeded to their places around the table following a strict code of social hierarchy. Charles escorted the senior ranking female guest and she sat at his right, with the remaining guests paired off according to rank. At the rear of the procession would be Ellen accompanied by the gentleman of the highest rank, who would be seated at her right.
Dinner guests were presented with a succession of courses, beginning with soup and ending with dessert. The cutlery for the first course was placed on the outside of the setting, working their way inwards with further cutlery. Service was always from the left, though wine was served from the right. The table would have been decorated with flower-filled vases and centrepieces and Ellen would have taken great care to ensure that nothing clashed.
After dinner the ladies would retire to the drawing room in exactly the same order as they entered. The gentlemen were left to smoke in the dining room and coffee would have been served in both rooms.