The Victorian Country House: Morality, Domesticity & Organisation

Parsons, Horton and the other servants, with the service of plate, went to 57 Grosvenor Street and we were to follow

Mrs Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Mistress of Charlecote

Running a household in Victorian England had become a science – with tasks to be delegated and a system of categorised activity for those at every level of society. When Girouard writes of the eminent concern for ‘morality, domesticity, organisation and hospitality’[1] in the country house the emphasis is on the rigid upholding of standards that allowed the country house to function and exist. Indeed, the Victorian period could be described as one of a series of checks and balances towards a societal efficiency. We see this in the nation’s industrialisation, in the rise of the middle classes[2] and in the development of ideologies such as ‘separate spheres’[3] – all of which allowed the ‘cult of domesticity’[4], another Victorian phenomenon, to flourish. In response to this, we can see how the country house becomes the site of much planning and improvements to reinforce the status quo. Using the vision of Charlecote Park, Lynford and Scarisbrick Hall as working examples I shall demonstrate the Victorian tendency towards modelling the country house as a self sufficient and sustaining entity. Supported by Girouard’s observations, we can see how modes of segregation and organisation were employed to ensure that the country house was fit for purpose in every sense of the word – perhaps even over-complicating it’s very existence in the process.

A fine etching of the main facade of a Victorian Country House by the artist Charles Herbert Clarke (b. 1890)

The Victorian Upper Classes abided by an elaborate code of behaviour and, as outlined by Girouard, were subject to scrutiny in the form of a new social criticism. Girouard makes the distinction between ‘earnest Victorians, Victorian swells and Victorian gentleman’[5]. In 1862 Charles Kingsley was prompted to write that ‘the attitude of the British upper classes has undergone a noble change’[6] – a sentiment which reflects the move towards upper class accountability in the 19th century. Extensively written on, by duty, it was believed that the upper classes were obligated to behave in a certain way and no more was this felt than in the Victorian period when pressure to reform came from middle class quarters. Criticism was levied at the perceived ‘arrogance, immorality and inefficiency of the upper classes’[7] from the corner of a newly realised middle-class respectability and morality. The drive for social change in the established order was founded on values tied to the image of the middle class – one cultivated through religion, domesticity and responsibility.

A contemporary illustration of a Swing riot

At the beginning of the 19th century we start to see a shift in the hierarchy and a questioning of fitness to rule. Whilst the landed classes sat at the peak of democracy, discontent from below was a considerable threat, something evidenced in uprisings such as the ‘Captain Swing’ riots in the 1830s. ‘Captain Swing’ was the name given by the disgruntled agricultural labourers to their protest in a bid to instil fear among the landowners[8]. Indeed, Girouard cites the 1820s and 1830s as the time at which the well-serving middle classes were at their most critical of those above[9]. Concerns were voiced by the steadily rising Middle Classes like that of a rich industrialist who tells Hippolyte Taine in the 1860s: ‘It is not our aim to overthrow the aristocracy; we are ready to leave the government and high offices in their hands… Let them govern, but let them be fit to govern.’[10] This anecdotal agitation towards the Upper Class and their accountability led to a drive to reform and respond outwardly to such concerns.

Perhaps the keenest instance of accountability paired with the landed classes sense of social duty can be felt in the unique study of the Victorian period’s ‘Lady Bountiful’[11]. I would greatly stress this institution as the feminine expression of paternalistic benevolence on which social control could be exerted from the remits of the country house with the moral byword that charity begins at home. Indeed, the Victorian societal structure hinged on it’s commitment to order and reform by order. The ideal model for society could be likened to Cruickshank’s ‘The British Beehive’[12] whereby each and every member of the public has their ordained place within the hierarchy. Naturally, on the part of those born into wealth, power and rank, their position was pure providence and necessary to maintain the hive’s inherently complex yet structurally sound organisation.

Young Lady Bountiful by Richard Redgrave.

Whilst in every period of history one will find exceptions to the governing rule, philanthropy was a rigorously promoted responsibility of the upper echelons and Lady Bountiful was perhaps its most compelling bolster. Indeed, the propaganda machine conspired to develop works of cultural assignment citing household management guides and chapters devoted to the outlining of an individual’s role such as The English Matron which advised the wife of a landowner to employ the poor, promote improvement and encourage industry[13]. Instruction like this was a byword of duty, instilled in those raised within the country house and imparted on those new wives bought into the family of a great estate. For example, when Consuelo Vanderbilt was installed as Duchess of Marlborough, she inherited responsibilities – one of which was the provision of leftovers to the poor community[14]. Such action was believed to promote social stability in an interchange of gratitude, deference and acknowledged purpose.

The Old Laundry, Charlecote.

Strategic governance was also architecturally enforced. In a world where everything appeared to have its place, we see an increased specialisation, categorisation and separation in the architecture of the Victorian Country House. Charlecote Park, Warwickshire (built c.16th) stands as an example of this, with its outbuildings delegated to different servants in the running of the house. A valuable resource, Mrs Mary Elizabeth Lucy’s meticulous diaries document her existence as the mistress of Charlecote, mentioning the separate existence of the household staff. In one instance we are informed that ‘Parsons, Horton and the other servants, with the service of plate, went to 57 Grosvenor Street and we were to follow’[15]. Here, the mention of the family’s London home demonstrates the divide in time and occupation throughout the year – with a London ‘Season’ scheduled in the calendar of an upper-class family.

The Brewhouse, Charlecote, © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The servants of Charlecote were divided between the house and its separate specialised outbuildings. Built and fit for purpose, additions to Charlecote included a brewing house, kitchen and laundry. The running of the laundry followed an arduous systemised rota to cyclically meet the demands of the house – enabling fresh linens for the comfort of its occupants and guests. Here, there’s a definite degree of self-sufficiency – with the Country House being its own functioning entity in the landscape. Demonstrative of Girouard’s observation of organisation in the Victorian House, one cannot fail to notice the stringent measures taken towards efficiency. Indeed, the joint phenomenon of the servant’s wing and revisionism led to an analysis of performance and the grouping of a household according to rank and task. Such action promoted segregation of the sexes to enforce morality, for example, servants being kept under supervision within the home and housed in wings according to sex. It’s no coincidence that only women operated the laundry at Charlecote – and that these were placed away from the main house within their own block.

Elsewhere, architects of the period were keen to enforce these divisions as a selling point of their services: The design and plan of William Burn’s residences in the 1840s and ‘50s[16] exemplify this accommodating desire. In 1856, Burn created the servants’ wing at Lynford, Norfolkshire, for Mr Lyne Stephens. His work there mapped out four distinct zones, translating into the working areas for divided parties of household staff. The butler, cook, housekeeper and laundry maid sections were separated according to male and female, with polarised staircases as the access point to their respective sleeping accommodations. These additions suggest more than a note of the pedantic in ensuring that certain standards were upheld within, yet apart from, the country house.

In many ways, these houses reflect the separation found in society under the governance of separate spheres. Learnt from the middle-classes, the cult of domesticity fostered an idealistic haven whereby men engaged in public life[17], returning to the private sanctuary inhabited and sustained by women. What Girouard would call the ‘moral home’ began here with its quiet observations of family life, prayer and routine. Where the gentry and aristocracy were concerned, privacy translated into more segregation and such an interest was reflected in the very building of their homes.

Scarisbrick Hall, Ormskirk, Lancashire. Augustus W. N. Pugin, architect 1837.

It wasn’t just a house’s physical architecture that could reflect the owner’s moral aims, indeed, in terms of substance and style, nowhere is this more felt than in the sentiment of the Gothic Revival. Belief in the Gothic expressed those values associated with Medieval England when it was seen to be the heart of hospitality, Christianity and traditional workmanship. At the helm, A. W. N. Pugin’s architectural practise worked from his founding principles which can be traced to his essay’s True Principles of Pointed Architecture call for authenticity, convenience and essentialism. Credited for having injected morality into architecture[18], here we see how the site of the Country House could become one of ornamental and ideological enrichment. An obituary in the Times wrote how the work of Pugin ‘showed us that our architecture offended not only against the laws of beauty, but also against the laws of morality’[19] and it can be rightly noted that the Victorian period of the Country House showed significant instances of enthusiastic remodelling in the revivalist style.

Great Hall, Scarisbrick.

The alterations of Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire attest to this architectural fervour. Landowner Charles Scarisbrick’s ties to Catholicism[20] and the arts put him in the path of Pugin, who, from 1837 set to improve on this family seat – one that already had significantly Gothic features. Perhaps most interestingly, Pugin added a Great Hall: the epitome of that longed for medieval hospitality. With it’s gallery, all-embracing entrance and welcoming lantern, this was indeed the heart of the revivalist vision: A communal space for entertainments, dining and shared purpose. This demonstrates how the style of architecture responded to ideological expressions of morality and significance – the revivalist sentiment itself being an active attempt to rewrite history for the bettering of society.

The Victorians set their sights towards advancement: Be this politically, economically, socially or culturally. Girouard’s observation of morality, domesticity, organisation and hospitality in the period’s country houses is, in many ways, the upper classes response to defectivity. The Victorian country house asserts its authority in order to maintain its position in the political, economic, social and cultural landscape. In those instances where we see a call for upper class accountability and the enactment of social duty, the country house stands as a bolster to security – physically secure with its added wings and perfected domesticity within. I would argue that the Victorian country house was the very embodiment of the period, including its contradictions, through the strategies employed by its owners to assume control and respond to progress. Ironically, there were cases where such measures backfired, where ill-repute, unseen and unheard, could still occur within its walls and, ultimately, the country house would be unable to sustain itself – and the very complexity of its construction. However, nowhere is it plainer that throughout the period, the emphasis on the moral house, by appearance, was the model on which society depended.

The Elizabethan Country House here…
Learn about Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles here
Explore tea and temperance in Victorian England here

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!

Sources Used: 

[1] Mark Girouard, ‘The Moral House: 1830 – 1900’, in Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History (Yale University Press, 1978), p. 276.

[2] Paul Atterbury, Steam & Speed: Industry, Power & Social Change in 19th-Century Britain, n.d <> [accessed 12 May 2018].

[3] Anne Digby, ‘Victorian Values and Women in Public and Private’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78 (1992), pp.195 – 215, p. 204.

[4] Claudia Nelson, Family Ties in Victorian England (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), p. 46.

[5] Mark Girouard, ‘Victorian Values and the Upper Classes’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 78 (1990), pp. 49 – 60, p. 50.

[6] Simon Heffer, High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House, 2014), p. 379.

[7] Girouard, ‘The Moral House’, p. 270.

[8] The National Archives, Power, Politics & Protest: The Growth of Political Rights in Britain in the 19th Century, n.d. <> [accessed 12 May 2018].

[9] Lynn Hunt and Catherine Hall, ‘The Sweet Delights of Home’, in Michelle Perrot, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby (eds), A History of Private Life: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War (Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 89.

[10] Girouard, ‘The Moral House’, p. 270.

[11] Jessica Gerard, ‘Lady Bountiful: Women of the Landed Classes and Rural Philanthrophy’, Victorian Studies, 30 (1987), pp. 183 – 210.

[12] Jeremy Paxman, The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age (Random House, 2009), p. 163.

[13] The English Gentlewoman, The English Matron (H. Colburn, 1846), p. 73.

[14] Gerard, ‘Lady Bountiful’, p. 193.

[15] A. Fairfax-Lucy, Mistress of Charlecote: The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy 1803-1889 (Orion, 2002), pp. 95 – 96.

[16] K. Theodore Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation: 1846 – 1866 (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 425.

[17] Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and Jane Rendall, Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 31.

[18] J. Mordaunt Crook, The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern (University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 52 – 53.

[19] Michael Bright, Cities Built to Music: Aesthetic Theories of the Victorian Gothic Revival (Ohio State University Press, 1984), p. 240.

[20] Edward Morris, ‘Liverpool Collectors of Late Medieval Manuscripts’ in Marios Costambeys, Andrew Hamer and Martin Heale (eds), The Making of the Middle Ages: Liverpool Essays (Liverpool University Press, 2007), p. 178.

6 thoughts on “The Victorian Country House: Morality, Domesticity & Organisation

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