Tag Archives: servants in Victorian England

Tyntesfield: The House that Guano Built

In 1842, William Gibbs’s brother Henry died during a visit to Venice.  In the same year, the South American agent for the family firm, Antony Gibbs and Sons, made a risky decision. He took out government contracts for the collection and shipping of guano from barren islands off the coast of Peru.  What is guano?  Solidified bird droppings!  William Gibbs was alarmed by the large loans necessary, but the gamble paid off.  Soon the company had a monopoly on the business, which shipped vast amounts of agricultural fertilizer all over the world.

William became a very rich man. He happily set about transforming a fairly simple Georgian house into a dream home for his growing family.  The beautiful result was Tyntesfield, completed in 1865.

William lived contentedly with his family until he died in 1875 at age 85.

Themes from nature appear everywhere in the house.

In his later years, he was affectionately known as “Prior,” because he turned his attention to spiritual matters and to good works in his community. The exquisite chapel was never consecrated, but it’s beautiful all the same. Family and servants gathered for daily prayers, and I doubt that anybody minded taking a break in this beautiful space.

Subsequent Gibbses made substantial additions of their own, and the house rang with the laughter of family and friends for many happy years.

Unlike grand houses built for show, Tyntesfield was built solely for the enjoyment of a family.  The wonderful library was filled with carefully catalogued books that were used on a daily basis by anyone interested.  Those books are still there.  As soon as the room was completed, the family began using it for amateur theatricals.

By all accounts, servants at Tyntesfield were well treated and stayed with the family for many years.

On my very first visit, shortly after the house opened, the servant quarters were just being explored.  It was possible to see, behind the scenes, how a grand home actually operated.  There were laundry rooms, boot rooms, a still room for making jams, a luggage room, rows of large containers for carrying hot water to the main bedrooms, and a kitchen with a fireproof ceiling.

House staff included a butler, two footmen, a housekeeper, a lady’s maid, a cook, six housemaids, a nurse, two nursery maids, two scullery maids, and a hall boy.  Actually, this was  a fairly modest staff for such a large house and family.  I like to think the Gibbs children, raised with the strong Gibbs work ethic, made their own beds.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Mark Rylance in Victorian England

Last week the fine actor Mark Rylance finished the Guthrie Theater run of his play Nice Fish, (co-written with the Duluth poet Louis Jenkins).  Minneapolis will miss him, but  I want to recommend his 1995 film Angels and Insects. I think I saw Mr. Rylance on stage years ago in England, but this excellent movie is the first time I remember seeing him.


The movie is based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, and she participated in writing the screenplay.


Mark Rylance plays a penniless naturalist, William Adamson.  He is just back from years studying animals and insects along the Amazon.  Almost all his possessions were lost in a shipwreck on his way home to England, so he counts himself lucky to find a job helping a rich Victorian man catalog his own collections.  The Victorians were great ones for collections, of course.  Every respectable country home had shelves full of curiosities.

Patsy Kensit plays a somewhat dimwitted and seriously  messed-up daughter of the family.  Kristin Scott Thomas plays a razor-sharp governess.  William Adamson finds himself between them.  Of course, complications ensue.  Mr. Rylance, as William Adamson, steals every scene with his quiet dignity that clearly covers a passionate nature. He is the second-most intelligent person on the premises, and yet he falls into a trap that an outsider can see from a mile away.  As always, love is blind.

What I find fascinating about the movie is the depiction of social classes in a grand country house which is very similar to Downton Abbey.  Instead of the formal but friendly relations depicted in the TV series, the servants in Angels and Insects are supposed to either grovel or turn invisible.  When a housemaid encounters a family member in a corridor, the housemaid has to immediately turn and face the wall until the family member passes. And William Adamson has to rescue a maid from sexual abuse by a haughty family member. I have to wonder whether the TV series or the movie has the more accurate depiction of master/servant behavior.

Bedroom arrangements are interesting, too.  In Downton Abbey, Lady Mary teases her parents for sharing a bedroom. The penniless William Adamson has no such luck. When he marries the daughter of the house, he gets certain privileges, but he always knows his place. He is given a small bachelor-like room adjoining his heiress bride’s bedroom.  However, he is only allowed into her grand bedroom when she has her maid unlock the door in between.  If he is not welcome, he finds himself standing in his nightshirt before a silent locked door.

The movie was filmed at Arbury Hall in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.  The descendants of the founding families still occupy it.  It is not part of the National Trust, which in modern times means it has to be run as a money-making enterprise. Like many stately homes, it is now used for corporate events and weddings.  The neo-Gothic rooms shown on the estate’s website are grand indeed. Visiting hours are limited, but I’m putting it on my list for my next trip.

The 19th century writer George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was born on the estate. Her father worked as a manager there.  She wrote about the estate as “Cheverel Manor” in her book Scenes of Clerical Life.

For stellar acting and a fascinating look at Victorian life, check out the movie Angels and Insects. And join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–and the British Isles.