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How a word from the Queen meant the world to Co Down estate's footman Arthur Inch

Lofty calling: hit series Downton Abbey gives an insight into servants’ lives
Lofty calling: hit series Downton Abbey gives an insight into servants’ lives

Lady Rose kindly supplied some excerpts from the memoirs of her grandmother Lady Londonderry's personal footman, Arthur Inch. In 17th and 18th century Britain, footmen were known by the derisory term Knights of the Shoulder Knot due to their elaborate dress and very decorative shoulder epaulets.

Interestingly, during the 18th century, attempts were made to persuade female staff to wear a shoulder knot to help distinguish an extravagantly dressed lady from her equally attired maid. But the idea never caught on. Perhaps, as Mr Inch suggests, the first buds of 'women's lib' were already beginning to appear.

Regardless of how the role was perceived, back in the early 1930s £60 per annum was a relatively good salary and, for Mr Inch, a position within the Londonderry household held an added attraction. With three houses, one of which was at Mount Stewart in Co Down, the young man relished the opportunity of being able to spread his wings and travel.

Arthur Inch was interviewed by Lady Londonderry along with the family's butler and Lady Rose's favourite staff member, Mr Gant. He records his delight at being offered the opportunity to join the existing staff which, at the time, consisted of around 42 indoors and included a piperman, William MacKenzie, who, prior to working for Lady Londonderry was Champion Piper of Sutherland.

The female servants were headed up by the cook, who oversaw a team of kitchen maids. The cook wielded enormous influence as her mistress's reputation often depended on her culinary skill. The Londonderry household spent summers at Mount Stewart and, every year, the staff had to pack up and decamp everything from the property in London to Co Down.

Mr Inch paints a lovely picture of those wonderful balls that Lady Rose often watched from the balcony. Lady Londonderry hosted many high profile guests, including luminaries such as the Duke of York, the 16-year-old King Farouk of Egypt and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and their friends from Clandeboye Estate were regular visitors. The butler was in charge of the Champagne cups that would be ladled from a huge bowl. While the Marquess and Marchioness of Londonderry officially opened the ball, staff gathered to watch. Her Ladyship began proceedings by dancing with Mr Gant, the butler, while her husband danced with the housekeeper. Mr Inch also notes how some of the bolder footmen took the opportunity to ask young lady guests to dance. Once the party was under way, staff discreetly withdrew until around 3am when the festivities were over and they had to clean up. Some staff, like Mr Inch, who were due to start work at 5am, didn't bother going to bed.

Staff also enjoyed their own glamorous event, known as Lady Malcolm's Servants' Ball, held every year in the Albert Hall. Lord and Lady Londonderry hired a box and bought tickets for any of their staff who wished to attend. According to Inch, thousands of staff attended and it was a grand evening out.

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The ladies' footman had a wide variety of duties, among them serving tea, receiving guests and taking care of outdoor clothing. He had to ensure her Ladyship had a travelling rug tucked around her knees in chilly weather. But on one occasion Mr Inch's duties took a heavy toll. During a visit from Queen Mary he was asked to fetch and then hold an incredibly large doll's house for Her Majesty to inspect. Apparently, Queen Mary was very interested in such collections and was impressed by Lady Londonderry's house. After several minutes the weight became unbearable and, noticing the footman's discomfort, the Queen expressed concern. Her words had a magic effect. Mr Inch was so delighted, he completely forgot his aches and pains saying: "On the strength of those kind words, I forgot the heavy load and could have held it for a very, very long time."

Regardless of what is portrayed on television, many of those who worked in our big houses took a great sense of pride in their work and were proud of their many skills. The last word goes to Mr Inch: "The highlight of my life in private service was when I felt qualified to call myself A Knight of the Shoulder Knot and wore the Marquess of Londonderry's state livery on the occasion of the Coronation of King George VI on May 12, 1937."

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