Life in a large and wealthy Victorian home
July 26, 2014 3:20 PM   Subscribe

I want to know more about the material culture of a large English country house or great house in the Victorian era.

(Context: I'm thinking about creating an interactive fiction game set in such a house. I'd like to include lots of more-or-less historically accurate details. The game will probably take place after the house has fallen into disuse—but the original furnishings will be intact, and the player will gradually uncover details of events that took place among the former residents, staff, and guests of the house.)

By physical culture, I mean: what kinds of rooms would there be? (Remember, this is a large house with a wealthy owner, so the rooms could be many and varied. This includes storage and utility rooms.) How would they be laid out? What kind of furnishings, equipment, decorations, and other appointments would they have? How would they be lit? Where would the servants live and work (lower floors? upper floors?), and what would those rooms be like? Would servants have separate stairways and corridors for getting around?

Which rooms would be considered common space (open to family, guests, and servants alike), which would guests and servants enter at the invitation of the family, and which would be considered private (e.g., bedrooms)? What would the toilet facilities be like (or would everyone just crap in chamber pots)? Would guest quarters be single rooms, or multi-room apartments? How would the place be heated?

What other things might be on the premises outside the house? (Decorative gardens, a family cemetery, outbuildings, undeveloped land, a coachhouse?)

I'm particularly interested in rooms and details that are colorful or distinctively Victorian. Some made-up examples: "it was fashionable for the wealthy to keep peacocks in a detached conservatory"; or "billiards was popular game among gentlemen, so there might have been a billiards room with a cabinet for brandy"; or "religious families might have maintained a private chapel with a small pump organ, some pews, and devotional art".

Finer details are great, too—how the coal got delivered, what musical instruments would be around, what possessions the residents would take particular pride or enjoyment in or regard as personal, what the family would spend extra on to express their taste, support their pastimes, or show off their wealth.

To summarize this mess into a single sentence: if a house like this somehow got frozen in time, and you came along a century later and could wander around inside, what would you find?

(I've already been through this list of room types on Wikipedia.)
posted by escape from the potato planet to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Have you watched the pbs series The 1900 House? Seems like the show was created to answer this very question (although profiles more of a middle class family so might just get you part of the way there).
posted by belau at 3:27 PM on July 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The book Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders may be of use to you.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 3:36 PM on July 26, 2014

Best answer: You could take a virtual tour.
posted by KateViolet at 3:39 PM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

There are a number of English country houses which are substantially preserved or restored to the time in question. Why not plan a trip to see a few?

(The 1900 House is nowhere near the kind of house you're asking about.)
posted by Thing at 3:40 PM on July 26, 2014

A lot of novels by Wodehouse take place in these sort of houses. They are later than Victorian, but people are always talking about the old days and how things have changed. There's lots of info about various types of rooms, the servants, proper behavior. Bonus: they are hilarious.
posted by Melsky at 3:46 PM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is why people watch Downton Abbey, although admittedly even season one is a bit later than what you want. The miniseries of Bleak House would be dead-on.

There's also the bookWhat Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.
posted by Violet Hour at 4:03 PM on July 26, 2014

Bill Bryson's At Home goes into a lot of detail about this but there were a dozen or so inaccuracies (or maybe disputed facts is a better way to describe it idk) that I noticed throughout the book so ymmv.
posted by elizardbits at 4:21 PM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

There was a PBS series. Manor House, that focused on the Edwardian time period, i.e., just after the Victorians. Google "Manor House PBS" and you'll find it.
posted by tuesdayschild at 7:22 PM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is a really difficult question because life in a great house changed enormously during the Victorian era. The Victorian era covered quite a few years, so there would be an enormous difference between early Victorian and late Victorian. Some houses were modernized earlier; the ones with more servants tended to be modernized later.

For example in the early Victorian era you are likely to have had sewage pooling underground on the property, and the chamber pots carried downstairs to empty them, covered with a cloth for decencies sake. One writer disparaged ladies who felt themselves too dainty to empty their own chamber pots and said it was the mark of a well bred person not to delegate this job to a servant. Bad drains were a genuine hazard. Sewage might soak through the basement walls and incidents where people succumbed to sewer gases were not unheard of.

This led to some extensive underground digging and proper re-routing of the sewage. Initially the idea of an indoor toilet with a built in drain was regarded with realistic alarm. You did not want that waste pipe in the house because of the gases. The first flush toilets were installed outside. In fact, right until the later Victorian era there were no bathrooms as we know it at all. Water was brought up and you did your washing in your own bedroom.

In many cases the renovations to put in the bathrooms were done at the tag end of the Victorian era. In some cases they were done later. The water piped in was frequently only cold water, so cans of hot water continued to be brought upstairs for washing.

Similarly kitchen renovations could happen either early or late. The fireplace would have a cast iron range installed inside it. (Americans used freestanding stoves; English people installed stoves inside their already existing fireplaces.) There was very often no running water in the kitchen. It was usually piped into an adjoining room called the scullery. At first the scullery would be the only room in the house with running water. The kitchen floor was normally tiled with slate. Slate was very durable but the coarseness of the stone was hard on the hems of the maidservants. You may have observed dresses where there is a band of contrasting cloth all around the bottom hem. They had to replace their hems frequently.

By the Victorian era the servants normally had sleeping quarters rather than be expected to sleep under the kitchen table (a cozy spot near the kitchen fire) and they found themselves relegated to bedrooms in the attic. Beds were frequently shared, not only by the servant class but by the highest classes of all. The daughters of the Czar that were executed in teh Russian Revolution shared not only one bedroom but their beds in the Winter Palace. Meanwhile, husband and wife, not expected to be as close as sisters or brothers, more usually had two bedrooms between them with an adjoining door.

There were usually two sets of stairs, the backstairs for the servants and the front stairs for the family and guests. You got this double set of stairs in quite small houses. I know of a six room house that has both front and back stairs. There wasn't usually a second set of corridors but the working rooms that divided the part of the house the family lived from other rooms such as the still room and laundry rooms had a door that was covered in green baize for soundproofing. Children were taught not to go through the green baize door.

A serious effort was made for the servants to do their work out of sight of the family. It was considered the mark of a well run house that you never saw a servant cleaning; they were only visible when waiting on the family. For this reason the servants often rose at five and full daily cleaning of the house was completed before nine when the family might be expected to get up. The family followed rituals that made it easier for the servants to know where they would be so that they could run in and make up the fires and clear up. For example at dinner when the lady of the house stood up all the women would stand up up too and remove themselves to the parlour while the men would stay in the dining room. The covers (table cloth and place settings) would be removed and the men would get strong liquor and could smoke if they wanted. If they wanted to smoke otherwise there was a smoking room and they might wear a smoking jacket so that the smell of their cigars or cigarettes would not get into their other clothing.

Lighting would range from candles through kerosene lamps to gas. Kerosene lamps smoked badly unless they were very carefully kept. The gas lights could not be turned out. If you turned them too low the pilot lights would go out and the family could be smothered in their beds. When electricity was first installed in the White House President Taft and his wife went to bed with the lights on. They were too scared to turn them off.

Because the lighting was poor by modern standards the house was laid out with an eye to taking advantage of the natural light. Windows were big. Being cold in the winter was less important than actually being able to see. The drapes were there not to block the light but to block the cold. On the side of the house where the sun rose would be the morning rooms, such as the breakfast parlour. On the other side of the house would be rooms used in the afternoon because they got the afternoon light. Middle class houses were built this way too.

Nurseries were visibly different from other rooms in the house. The nursery wing would likely include the day nursery where the children played and the night nursery where they slept. There would be a room for the nurse, a room for the governess and likely a school room. The nursery was often whitewashed and not papered. Children ate in the nursery, usually meals that were extremely bland and limited. Children were believed to have delicate digestion that faltered on fruit and vegetables - an unwashed fresh apple could easily result in a bad case of dysentry, so the if the children got fruit or vegetables it was usually stewed into a paste to make it easier to digest. Rice pudding and sago pudding were the usual bland type of fare served to children.

The nursery fires would have iron fenders to ensure that the children did not get burned, compared to the fire screens that might or might not be in use in the rest of the house. The nursery windows would have bars to prevent the children from falling out of the window. It was easy to tell which rooms of the house were the nurseries from the outside because of this. It also meant that when a house caught fire the inhabitants of the nursery wing were trapped.

There are various videos or websites about National Trust houses that you can find on line. BBC has made several shorts about life in Victorian times. Mrs Beaton's book of Household Management came out about 1860. It's available on Gutenberg and might be a useful source for you. I hope this helps!
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:44 AM on July 27, 2014 [109 favorites]

A heads-up: Ruth Goodman's "How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life" is scheduled for release in October. Via.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:41 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The term 'scullery' was very much still in use by my grandmother's generation in the 1970s.

There's also a whole Youtube list of BBC Victorian documentaries.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:24 AM on August 7, 2014

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