The most basic technological amenities were not seriously to take root in the majority of English country houses until well after the First World War, and sometimes beyond the Second. In fact the more labour-intensive the house was seen to be, the more it was seen as upholding the values of the old world order. Although there were some significant changes made to English houses in the late nineteenth century, human effort was on the whole considered vastly preferable to modern amenities. Houseguests shivered in the cold of country houses where, recalled Lady Cynthia Asquith, ‘you perambulated long, icy passages in search of the nearest bathroom – if there was one’. Labour was cheap: the servant problem was a problem for the cash-strapped, not the rich. At Beech Hill Park, a vast Victorian house in Epping Forest, there was a hall entirely covered in mosaic that had to be washed with milk by hand every week by five maids; yet there was no telephone in Beech Hill and it was lit entirely by candles until the late 1940s.
A general distrust for new technologies percolated through the classes. Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, wondered why he should install a hot water system in his London house when he could always employ two or three girls to carry the bath water up and down stairs as required. Too much newness became regarded as vulgar: Mrs Loftie, author of books of advice on interior design, warned against gas, a form of lighting which had once been embraced by the fashionable but by the early twentieth century had become too popular and was now associated with trade showrooms and other iniquities. ‘Nothing can compete with the gasolier [gaslight chandelier] in tawdry deformity,’ she cautioned.
In 1912, the Illuminating Engineer expressed the view that gas was a ‘middle-class luxury. It never invaded the marble halls of the West End; and of course, the poor could not get it. It was admitted to the rich man’s kitchens and domestic offices, and its attractions beckoned the workman to his only club, the corner pub. As a domestic light in the fullest sense of the word, it was almost as sure a sign of respectability as the keeping of a gig.’ In grand houses, gas lamps were generally confined to the servants’ hall, where they enabled the staff to work till late at night; gas was considered too smelly and too damaging to antique furniture to be used in other parts of the house. The inimitable patina of age became central to the national idea of Englishness, and to this idea, new technology was often considered positively threatening. The American economist Thorstein Veblen noted in 1892 how the attraction of old-fashioned beeswax candles to illuminate evening dinner parties was suddenly revealed when gas and electric lighting became widely available to the middle classes. The reason was said to be the flattering rosy glow that candles cast, but behind it lay a snobbery about industrial mass production. The lady of a house in Wigmore Street was typical: her new maid, Elizabeth Banks, reported in 1891 that there were gas fittings but her mistress declined to use them, preferring to use candles that her maid had to clean up afterwards. ‘In the halls, on the stairs and in every room of the house, from the kitchen to the fifth floor, candle grease was liberally sprinkled, and my brown paper and flat iron were in constant demand.’
The stateliest homes still relied on lamp men, whose job for generations had been to patrol the corridors of English country houses, lighting and tending the oil lamps or candles that were the only source of light. Lamp men were retainers of the old sort, associated with homes that had no need of flashy modern accoutrements that needed only the turn of a switch. Trimming, cleaning and maintaining the lamps was an arduous daily job: at Erddig in Wales, the Yorkes had forty oil lamps requiring constant attendance, for a dirty lamp created clouds of soot. ‘An Old Servant’, the author of an anonymous little memoir written in the First World War, described ‘strings of soot hanging from the ceiling all over the room; everything was thick with greasy soot’ when a lamp was inadequately cleaned.15 At Badminton House, seat of the Duke of Beaufort, the lamp man was totally blind and felt his way expertly about the corridors – and was still doing so in the 1920s. At Belvoir Castle there were at least three lamp and candle men who laboured continuously at snuffing wicks, filling lamps and cleaning and de-waxing glass – a full-time job. ‘Gas was despised, I forget why – vulgar I think,’ was how Lady Diana Cooper remembered it.
03 October 2016
High-class Distrust of Labor-saving Innovations
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 162-196: