Sheffield students have uncovered saucy letters from Chatsworth House – the real-life Downton Abbey
Servants letters reveal saucy details
Researchers at the University of Sheffield have discovered thousands of letters unveiling the secret day-to-day lives of servants at Chatsworth House.
Three PhD students from the School of English uncovered the letters as part of a joint research project hoping to shed a light on the house’s history and its occupants.
The letters, which date as far back as the 18th Century, reveal the sometimes scandalous true stories of the lives of servants which put Downton Abbey's drama to shame.
Hannah Wallace, a lead researcher on the project, said: “In popular English country house dramas, we see servants mainly serving the family of the house doing tasks such as cooking and cleaning, but our research has found that servants and staff at Chatsworth did much more than this.”
And they aren’t wrong.
One particular story that grabbed public attention is that of Miss Elizabeth Bickell, more commonly known among Chatsworth residents as ‘The Tigress’.
Miss Bickell was unexpectedly employed at Chatsworth after the death of the popular housekeeper, Ms Hannah Gregory, and quickly made a reputation for herself.
Known for her reckless spending and tendency towards social deviancy, Miss Bickell caused huge controversy because she hosted private soirées in the Duke of Devonshire’s private apartments, stole orange flowers from the garden, and secretly cared for an illegitimate daughter
Talking about the Miss Bickell scandal, Lauren Butler, one of the lead researchers, said: “It even caused ‘a flare-up downstairs’ at Devonshire House in London and provided the most popular topic of conversation at the nearby town of Chesterfield.”
Although she was quickly removed from Chatsworth following an investigation into her behaviour, letters suggest that The Tigress stayed in touch with maids at the house – much to the Masters’ dislike.
The stories aren’t limited to the confines of the Chatsworth grounds, either.
Speaking to The Tab, fellow lead-researcher, Fiona Clapperton, said that the best stories were the ones showing how servants and staff at Chatsworth lived their lives outside their job roles.
She said: “These are the stories that really show who these people were, what they were interested in, who they were close to. My favourite story is perhaps the one about George Esmond.”
Mr Esmond was a butler working at the house in the early 20th Century. He left the estate to fight in the First World War, despite being deemed medically unfit for service due to problems with varicose veins.
Although he did not return to domestic service after the war Mr Esmond stayed in touch with the Cavendish family, who were the owners of the house. The connection between them remained close, despite no longer being an employee, and he regularly performed at local theatre nights which the family would sometimes attend.
The findings from the study have provided an important new take on the everyday life of country house estates, and Lauren, Hannah and Fiona have been amazed at the level of interest in their research.
Fiona told The Tab: “I hope that this research helps academics to see country estates as dynamic communities, I think it is often tempting to consider the country house from an Upstairs/Downstairs perspective but houses like Chatsworth were powered by large estates.
“I’m particularly interested in how the community at Chatsworth attempted to adapt their traditional, every-day way of life in response to the intense changes taking place around them. I think that can help us understand how people deal with change.”
The students presented their study as part of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind and Off the Shelf Festival this year.
Lauren, Fiona and Hannah hope to continue working with Chatsworth, to explore ways of preserving the stories to share them with the thousands of visitors who visit the house.