An Edwardian Dinner Party

The hostess, Ellen Thomas-Stanford, PMPHO000029
The hostess, Ellen Thomas-Stanford, PMPHO000029

In the early twentieth-century, dinner at Preston Manor was generally served at 8.00pm. Guests were announced by the butler, and escorted to the drawing room. After the first course had been laid in the dining room, the butler announced “dinner is served” and the guests proceeded to their places.

Charles Thomas-Stanford, (who married Ellen Stanford in 1887 after the death of her first husband), escorted the senior ranking female guest and she sat at his right hand; the remaining guests were paired according to their rank. At the rear of the procession Ellen Thomas-Stanford accompanied the gentleman of highest rank and he sat at her right hand.

The host, Charles Thomas-Stanford, PMPHO000099
The host, Charles Thomas-Stanford, PMPHO000099

Dinner parties at Preston Manor normally comprised six to twelve guests. When the party was small at least two of the leaves from the dining table were removed to create a more intimate atmosphere. Visitors books and annotated menus indicate that the Stanfords, unsurprisingly, entertained the elite of society as well as family members and friends.

The Guests

Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s fifth daughter, was a frequent guest of the Stanfords, last appearing in 1926. Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, and Princess Helena, second and third daughters of Victoria, were also occasional guests. Literary friends of Charles included Carrie and Rudyard Kipling, who visited in 1927 and 1930.

Place settings had to be carefully worked out in advance; guests’ names might be written on cards or Charles Thomas-Stanford might request each guest to take a given seat. Charles and Ellen normally sat at the middle of the able at the sides so that the principal guests were gathered around a common centre.

The Service

Dinner set, John Turner & Co., c1800, Bequeathed as part of the Stanford bequest of Preston Manor and its contents to the Brighton Corporation in 1932, DAMAS000229
Dinner set, John Turner & Co., c1800, Bequeathed as part of the Stanford bequest of Preston Manor and its contents to the Brighton Corporation in 1932, DAMAS000229

Dinner was served à la Russe, so called because it was said to have been introduced by the Russian ambassador at the court of Naples in the early nineteenth-century. Service à la Russe became the usual method of serving dinner in England from the 1870s. It superseded Service à la Française, where a great number of dishes were set out on the table, and were then removed to be replaced with a second course of much the same mixture of game, fish, sweetmeats and roasts.

In Service à la Russe guests were presented with a succession of courses, beginning with soup and ending with desert. The cutlery for subsequent courses was arranged so that guests worked inwards. Service was always from the left, though wine was served from the right. Dishes too heavy to carry round, like roasts, were carved, often by the host, at a side table.

The Decorations

A watercolour of Preston Manor's Dining Room, 1896, PM190082
A watercolour of Preston Manor’s Dining Room, 1896, PM190082

The table was decorated with flower-filled vases and centrepieces. The 1907 Army and Navy Stores Catalogue has three pages filled with glass vases suitable for flowers for the dinner table. Contemporary household manuals devote pages to floral decoration with suggestions for combinations of glass, silver, lampshades and seasonal flowers. Great attention was paid by the hostess to ensure that nothing clashed. Pink. Red and yellow flowers, mixed with white, were particularly recommended.

At Preston, the candles on the table had self-adjusting supports with candle shades which varied in colour according to the floral decoration. The electric lights were normally switched off as guests preferred the softer light of candles.

The Meal

A typical Edwardian dinner party at Preston Manor would start with soup accompanied by sherry. This would be followed by fish served with a good white wine. After the fish came the entrée, which might consist of vol-au-vent, mutton cutlets or sweetbreads served with champagne or claret. The next course was known as the remove or relevé. This was the most substantial part of the dinner and might include a joint of meat, poultry or a substantial meat pie served in burgundy. Potatoes and vegetables in season always accompanied the ‘remove’. The potatoes were cut to the size of matches (as testified by Dorothy Fuller, a scullerymaid at Preston Manor from 1923-26. Interview March 1999.)

Mustard Pot, PM400757
Mustard Pot, PM400757

Next came the roast course of game such as field fares (a small bird), snipe, wild duck or pheasant served with game chips. These were disc shaped potato chips; at Preston Manor they were so thinly sliced that they could be seen through. Claret would normally be drunk with this course. Then followed a series of dishes known as the entremêts. This course was divided into three and usually consisted of a dressed vegetable, dishes such as cherry tart or savarin of peaches and a savoury of, for instance, devilled sardines or cheese.

The table would then be cleared, a new set of wine glasses put out, and the guests were provided with dessert plates with ice-plates on top of which were set finger bowls and silver-gilt dessert cutlery. The finger bowls were then set to the left, ices brought in and served on the ice-plates; these were often removed, leaving the dessert plates for the fruit and nuts. Port of madeira would then circulate.

At this stage the ladies would retire in exactly the same order as they entered – the lady of the highest rank first, Ellen Thomas-Stanford bringing up the rear. The gentleman could now smoke. Coffee would be served separately; in the drawing room for the ladies and in the dining room for the gentleman.

This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.

5 Responses

  1. Cathy

    I absolutely love Preston manor, the little church, the walled gardens. I find it all the most romantic and most beautiful place I have visited. I entirely love it.

  2. John H.

    Might I offer one small correction? At no time would the host or any guest *stand* to assist in carving or serving, much less walk step away from the table, even in service à la française. Host and guests carved or served only what was within reach. Slices of the large joints, fowl, game, and whole fish were placed on a platter for the waiters to pass to the guests. Soup was also passed; but hors d’oeuvres, entrées, and entremets were intended only for those who sat near them, because everyone remained seated. Old etiquette books are very clear on this.

    In service à la russe, the joint or fowl or game or whole fish was usually presented to the host and others at the table, but it was then whisked away to a side table (or possibly to the butler’s pantry or even back to the kitchen) for carving. The sliced meat (or fish) was put on a serving platter, which the waiters presented to each guest (at the left) so they could choose what they wanted. Neither the host nor any guest was involved in the carving.

    Only in less formal settings, the so-called “compromise service”, did the host carve the joint, which he did *at the table*; the slices were placed on a platter that the waiter would pass to the guests, as in service à la française. The soup and dessert might also be served à la française. All other dishes of the meal were passed as in service à la russe. This sort of service would never be used at a high-status home like Preston Manor, but it was common among the well-off gentry. In the Southern United States, it persisted into my lifetime.

    Another small correction of terminology. Dishes were carved at a side table or serving table, not at the sideboard. The sideboard held the vast array of silver and crystal that would be needed over the course of the meal. It also customarily held the “dessert paraphernalia”, the little stack of fruit dish, ice dish, and finger bowl, always with a doily between each layer. It also held any cold dishes that were offered apart from the menu itself. It was supposed to be very beautifully arranged.

    The side table or serving table, on the other hand, was a much more practical space or service area, sometimes even hidden behind a screen. The serving table corresponds to the guéridon in classic French restaurant service.

  3. L.W.

    Odd how Americans think they know everything amd cannot resist being corrective. My grandfather always carved the joint, despite having a butler and a footman. On Fridays a large fish was always produced for the second main course at dinner, usually either a turbot or a salmon (no meat was allowed) which was carved by Granny. Contrary to our American friend’s claim there was no “Serving table” in our dining room, just three sideboards. The room remained more or less the same from 1880 to 1980.

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