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24 Nov 2020

Below-stairs life at the Georgian House

Written by Denise Herd, Visitor Services Assistant
A man with white cotton gloves is polishing a brass plaque which says 7, The Georgian House.
We’re carrying out research to find out more about the life of the servants who worked so hard to keep the household running smoothly.

When you visit grand old houses, often the focus seems to be on the privileged families who owned and lived in them. This is partly because they left an abundance of records through diaries, portraits and a trail of money and marriages. But their lives would have been much harder had it not been for the servants they employed to work long hours, fetching, carrying, cooking and generally ensuring things ran smoothly behind the scenes. This allowed the families to project an image of easy affluence, both within their social circles and to those they wished to impress.

A restored Georgian kitchen, with a large black range and a wooden table in the centre of the room with kitchen implements on it.
The restored kitchen at the Georgian House

At the Georgian House, we have always tried to tell the story of those often overlooked members of the household. We have restored the kitchen to show how it would have looked when the house was built in 1796 and in 2015 we opened up the butler’s room. Our film shows the working life of the servants here, which visitors find fascinating – possibly because most of us would have been below, rather than above, stairs had we lived then!

A pull-down bed, which is normally kept hidden behind a large wooden cupboard.
The bed in the butler's room

But there is still work to be done and we’re currently trying to ascertain more about the lives, public and private, of those often nameless servants. This will help us paint a truer picture of their dreams and aspirations, trials and tribulations, as well as the realities of their existence, which was without all the advantages their employers had. What was it like to grow up as a child of one of the servants as opposed to the children who lived here? How was it living in the Old Town and working in the New Town? How did it feel to move from the countryside to a bustling city like Edinburgh where you didn't know anyone?

A servants' bell on a spring for the dressing room in an old house.
One of the servants’ bells, for the dressing room

We have gathered quite a bit of information already. We know that servants worked long hours – 16 hours a day, six and a half days a week wasn’t unusual. We know what sort of wages they received, and that their conditions were better than that of those forced to work in mills or down mines. We also know that they could work their way up the Georgian equivalent of a career ladder if they were lucky. There are census reports starting in 1841 that name them and the job they did, and we were delighted to be contacted by someone who had traced an ancestor in service to this very house in 1911. Lily C Spiller was 19 years old and a ‘nurse domestic’ for the Whyte family.

Through our research we hope to give a true voice to those who worked as servants in Edinburgh’s New Town – their story deserves to be told.

Stone steps leading to a basement door of a Georgian house.
The tradesman's entrance

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