Belfast Telegraph

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A strict governess and circus trips with the butler: a busy life with beloved below stairs staff at Mount Stewart

As the new Downton Abbey film wows audiences, what was a servant's life really like at our stately homes? Lorraine Wylie visits some of our grand estates to find out. Here, in the first of a two-part feature special, she talks to Lady Rose Lauritzen of Mount Stewart

Household expert: Lady Rose at Mount Stewart
Household expert: Lady Rose at Mount Stewart
Stately living: Lady Rose Lauritzen of Mount Stewart
Mount Stewart

Period dramas that hark back to a bygone era in history have always been popular in this part of the world. Back in the Seventies, it was Upstairs, Downstairs while now it's Downton Abbey that's holding audiences captive.

With an estimated 120 million viewers, many as far away as China, the show has enjoyed unprecedented success. Following the recent release of the movie, reviews have been mainly positive. But when it comes to authenticity, who better to ask than Northern Ireland's own 'big house' experts?

Lady Rose Lauritzen from Mount Stewart, Co Down, has fond memories of growing up in a Big House household.

"I did watch Downton Abbey and, yes, it's very authentic," she says.

"Growing up in Mount Stewart, I'm not sure how many staff were employed but I do remember there being quite a lot. My sister and I had a nanny up until I was around three-years-old and then, when she left, we had what was called a nursery governess who stayed with me until I was eight. After that I was sent to school at the Warren in Holywood.

"Our nanny/governess was strict but very kind. She was also a trained botanist and taught me a lot. I'm especially grateful to her for teaching me to read when I was just three-years-old because I always hated having someone read to me.

"The indoor staff lived in the main house while those employed on the estate lived around the demesne. We considered the staff our friends and played with all the children of the workers on the estate. We really were an unruly bunch."

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Downton Abbey’s lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Frogatt) and valet Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle)
Downton Abbey’s lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Frogatt) and valet Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle)

The family at Mount Stewart appear to have been quite generous employers, providing some sporting facilities and time off for an occasional shopping trip to nearby Newtownards or even a day out in Belfast.

"By the time I arrived, the servant's tennis court over by the stables had been removed to make way for a practice showjumping ground for us children," Lady Rose says.

"But the staff were allowed to use the family's tennis court which was hidden by trees at the end of the north west lawn. They were also permitted to swim in the beautiful swimming pool. I have vivid memories of the greenhouse gardener coming with me to fish on the lake and also to play endless games of ping pong in the nursery which, from the age of 10, became my own private sitting room."

Household expert: Lady Rose at Mount Stewart
Household expert: Lady Rose at Mount Stewart

When asked whether she had a favourite staff member, Lady Rose replies with no hesitation. "I was particularly fond of our butler," she reveals. "His name was Gilbert Gant but he was always known as Manty to us. He really was my favourite character. My family had three houses, one in London, another in Wynyard, Co Durham, and this one here at Mount Stewart.

"Manty worked at all three places and continued to live at Londonderry House even after he'd retired. He was a very kind, considerate man. When I was at boarding school, I spent my half term holidays at the house in London and it was Manty who looked after me. He kept me entertained by taking me to some fascinating places such as the comedy theatre, the circus and lots of other amusements that children loved."

Like Downton Abbey, Mount Stewart held many spectacular balls and Lady Rose remembers being a secret spectator at these glittering events.

Keeping house: William Kinkead repairs the roof in 1983
Keeping house: William Kinkead repairs the roof in 1983

"My mother had a lady's maid and I loved to watch her being dressed for a ball," she smiles. "She'd put on what she called her gala make-up and some beautiful jewels. When she went down to her guests, we'd spy on them, peeping through the balustrade from the dome of the central hall."

Gradually, as faultlines between the classes began to show, life within the big house setting began to change. But for Lady Rose, Mount Stewart took a little longer to adjust.

"I'm sure things changed after the war but then I wouldn't have noticed. After my grandfather's death in 1949, my grandmother continued to live as she did in the pre-war days. Then, in 1959, when my grandmother died, my mother very slowly retrenched."

The Breakfast Room in 1933
The Breakfast Room in 1933

The years have brought a lot of change and sadly, through lack of finance and interest, many of our historic homes have fallen victim to neglect.

Fortunately, Mount Stewart was taken over by the National Trust, ensuring a part of our heritage is preserved. However, Lady Rose continues to enjoy a private apartment in what once was her family home. The corridors no longer echo with the footsteps of scullery maids and there are no elaborately dressed footmen waiting to help. But Lady Rose still employs a small number of staff.

"I have Ken Massey, who is our maintenance engineer, Madge Smart, PA and estate manager, and Joseph Magee is chef/housekeeper. I have to say that Joseph, whose family lived at the stables where he was born, is seriously good. Joseph does all the cooking for us - house parties, large lunches and dinners. He worked for the National Trust for 14 years before coming to me. His father, Gerry, was the last gardener to work for my grandmother before she died in 1959.

Sidney Watson, custodian of Mount Stewart, in the black and white room in 1977
Sidney Watson, custodian of Mount Stewart, in the black and white room in 1977

"For cleaning, we have Irene Donnelly who comes in once a week, although if we have guests or extra work needing doing her sister Mandy will help out."

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