In days gone by, let’s be honest, most of us would have been a part of the serving classes – there were very few at the top, a few in the middle and the masses at the bottom, writes Heather Jan Brunt.
So when we walk around glorious houses like Waddesdon Manor it’s natural to wonder about the folk who served the aristocracy, who looked after the running of the household and spent their days waking before dawn, cleaning out the grates, and running after the privileged classes.
And so it’s little wonder that the behind the scenes tours launched as an experiment at Waddesdon Manor in 2010 took off so spectacularly.
With the next one scheduled for Friday July 5 I was invited to a private tour with senior curator Rachel Boak who explained how the idea came about.
She said: “Sadly, we don’t have that much material available here about the lives of the servants, but we know people want to know about them.
“So in 2010 we started having tours.
“We held just three but they were incredibly popular so now we run one every month from April through to October.
“We show visitors the areas where the servants lived and worked and how we use those areas today.”
The tour, which begins at the main front entrance with a potted history of the Rothschilds, takes in a multitude of secret corridors and rooms including female servants’ bedrooms, the butler’s pantry, a strong room for the silver and the Still Room.
This is a fully tiled room with a massive range in the kitchen area used specifically for making conserves, jams and baking.
But none of the rooms is furnished as they were when the house was lived in.
They are now used as offices for National Trust staff or for storage, so you do need a good imagination to fully appreciate what was once there.
I can’t help thinking visitors would enjoy the peek behind the scenes even more if the offices and storage could be moved elsewhere and the rooms fully returned to how they used to look, using reproduction furniture if necessary.
After all, the popularity of dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs is precisely because they fully show both sides of life in these big houses, not just the luxury the toffs enjoyed.
Incredibly, in the 1891 census, there were only 24 indoor servants looking after Waddesdon Manor, with a further 40 in the laundry, stables and gardens, and numerous others on the estate.
The house was built for entertainment, and because the three people who lived there – Baron Ferdinand, his sister Alice and their great nephew James – never had children, it never really became a family home and therefore doesn’t have a nursery or a governess’s room.
But it certainly buzzed with activity as visitors came and went throughout the summer months from May to October, so the servants were kept busy.
And when the house was closed in the winter they spent their time cleaning everything and covering the priceless furniture and paintings.
On the tour visitors learn about the Baron’s valet Henry Taylor, and see the secret spiral staircase which leads to his rooms.
There are two central grand staircases in the manor, but six service staircases.
One leads from the servants’ bedrooms down to the kitchen area where a long corridor leads to what used to be the kitchen and servants hall and is now used as the manor restaurant.
Further along the corridor, fascinating rooms which were once used by the butler and servants are now offices for National Trust staff.
The tour gives a tantalising glimpse into the life many of us might have lived had we been born at the beginning of the last century.
Tickets, which must be booked in advance, cost £30 (which includes house and gardens admission).
The guided tour lasts for one and half hours. Call 01296 653226.