A country house Christmas in Dorset

Ox roast on Sherborne Castle Lake: Estate workers were treated to a festive supper when the lake froze over in the winter of 1890-91. © Sherborne Museum archives

The festive season would have been a busy time for the servants who staffed Dorset's grand country houses, and yet it was often one of the few occasions on which their hard work and loyal service throughout the year was acknowledged and rewarded.

It was during Christmas that most landowners - especially those with twenty or more servants - held some form of celebration for their household staff, with waiters usually being hired for the occasion and a local band drafted in to provide the musical entertainment. Minterne House, near Cerne Abbas, was the scene of such merriment one evening in 1874, when, “through the kind liberality of Lord and Lady Digby,” the employees were treated to “a little pleasant festivity.” The Western Gazette reported that, “the company assembled shortly before nine o’clock, when dancing commenced in the commodious servants’ hall, which, by the aid of tasteful decorations, had been metamorphosed into an excellent ball-room.” On this occasion a “magnificent supper” was served shortly after one o’clock, “after which dancing was resumed and sustained with unflagging interest till the small hours were growing rather old.”

As at many such parties, it was an old custom for the master of the house to begin festivities by dancing with the cook or housekeeper, whilst his wife would partner with the house steward or butler. This tradition was certainly observed at Melbury House, near Evershot. When the Earl and Countess of Ilchester gave the annual servants’ ball there in 1879, the Countess led the first dance with Mr. Murray, the house steward, and the Earl took Mrs. Williams, the cook, as his partner. The event was a grand affair, with the servants of Minterne House, Chalmington House and Frampton Court, being included among the invited guests. The musical entertainment was provided by Robinson’s Quadrille Band of Dorchester.

Holnest House, near Sherborne, Dorset

Holnest House, near Sherborne, c.1900: The landowner, J.S.W.S. Erle-Drax MP, traditionally gave out presents of game to the tenants on his various estates at Christmas.

Even in smaller houses, some effort was usually made to observe the seasonal traditions, albeit on a more modest scale. At the Wareham home of attorney-at-law, Charles Oldfield Bartlett, for example, a dinner was held annually in honour of his servants and former household staff. The Sherborne Mercury of 4th January 1859 happily reported that the “good old custom” had been observed by Mr. Bartlett in the usual manner that Christmas, when “the roast beef and plum pudding were dispensed with an unsparing hand.” The report concluded nostalgically by noting that, “this is as it should be; and is certainly one of the customs of the olden time that has outlived the spirit of change for which our country has little cause to rejoice.”

In cases where landowners were unable or unwilling to meet the expense of a party, presents might be given to the servants instead, although these rarely inspired much enthusiasm from the recipients. Viola Geraldine Bankes, of Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne, recalled how “the servants did not have a party, though they did have a Christmas dinner with beef instead of turkey. At nine o’clock they lined up along one side of the dining room in hierarchical order to receive their excruciatingly dull presents. These were a length of cloth for each woman, either black for Sunday or cheerful flowered cotton for everyday, to be made up at their own expense, and a box of chocolates. The men were each given ten shillings, and a box or bottle of port.” The custom of presenting maids with a bolt of cloth to be tailored into a new uniform continued in many country houses until the Second World War.

Meanwhile, the gentry would generally extend their charity to the poor during the Christmas period and the tradition of bestowing gifts of meat, coal and clothing to tenants of the estate took hold during the nineteenth century. Country newspapers abounded at this time of year with notices of these charitable bequests, and this example from The Western Gazette of 20th January 1871 is typical of the many hundreds which could be quoted: “a quantity of pheasants were sent into Sherborne by Mr. Erle-Drax and distributed among his numerous friends; and the tenants connected with the Holnest, Longburton and Folke estates have also been liberally supplied with game.” Others went to greater efforts to please their tenants. A notice from 1892, for instance, reports that Lord Wolverton, of Iwerne Minster, “had a fat bullock killed this week and distributed to the workmen and tenants on his estate.”

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank (1807)

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank (1807): This image shows parlour games being played around the table on Twelfth Night © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gifts such as these were a welcome treat for many working-class families, as most could not afford to buy meat at Christmas time. The presents were often distributed by the estate steward or land agent, but occasionally the mistress of the household might take it upon herself to redouble her charitable visits around the estate at this time of year and make personal visits to each of the tenants and their families.

Following the festivities of Christmas Day, a country house Boxing Day would often be devoted to outdoor sports - a tradition which very much continues to this day. When there was a big shooting party there might be a number of visiting servants; they would be required to be on hand to tend to guests and provide refreshments for them on their return to the house. If the local hunt met at the house all the mounted followers were offered a drink of port, sherry, cherry brandy or sloe gin, with the huntsmen and whips perhaps being plied with whiskey.

The festive season traditionally ended with the celebration of Twelfth Night, which was an old custom dating back to the medieval period. Most country houses held their largest and most elaborate party at this time. At the beginning of the night the Twelfth Night cake, which had been baked to contain a dried pea and a dried bean, was shared around; those who received the slices containing them were designated the king and queen of the night’s festivities, which might see the master and mistress having to obey their servants. However, as one servant noted, once the merriment of Twelfth Night was over “it was work again in the morning, and a case of wash and change into uniform for a day’s duty,” and so it continued until next Christmas.

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