How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses
PUBLISHED: 17:09 09 December 2014 | UPDATED: 10:33 04 December 2017
Shooting parties, balls and dinners were all part of the festive celebrations at Dorset’s grand country houses. It was also when a maid could be waited on by her master or a butler dance with his mistress
For the servants who worked in Dorset’s grand country houses, Christmas was a busy time of year. It was also one of the few occasions where their hard work and loyal service might be acknowledged and rewarded. Many landowners - especially those with 20 or more servants - held some sort of celebration for their household staff and a local band drafted in to provide the musical entertainment.
Minterne House, near Dorchester, 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, “dancing commenced in the commodious servants’ hall, which, by the aid of tasteful decorations, had been metamorphosed into an excellent ball-room.” 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.”
It was the custom for the master of the house to begin festivities by dancing with the cook or housekeeper, whilst his wife would partner the house steward or butler. This tradition was observed at Melbury House, near Evershot, when the Earl and Countess of Ilchester gave the annual servants’ ball here in 1879. The Countess led the first dance with Mr Murray, the house steward, and the Earl danced with Mrs Williams, the cook. The event was a grand affair, with the servants of Minterne House, Chalmington House and Frampton Court, being included among the guests. The musical entertainment was provided by Robinson’s Quadrille Band, of Dorchester.
Even in smaller houses, some effort was usually made to observe the festive occasion, albeit on a more modest scale. At the home of attorney-at-law, Charles Oldfield Bartlett, of Wareham, an annual dinner was held in honour of his servants and former household staff. The Sherborne Mercury of 4th January 1859 happily reported that “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!”
If the landowner was 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…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 up until the Second World War.
The gentry would also 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 with notices of these charitable bequests. Typical of these is one from The Western Gazette dated 20th January 1871, which states: “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.”
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 personally visit each of the tenants and their families.
Boxing Day at the country house would often be devoted to outdoor sports such as hunting or a shooting - a tradition which continues to this day. The festive season traditionally ended with the celebration of Twelfth Night, a custom dating back to the medieval period. Most country houses held their largest and most elaborate party at this time. Events started with the sharing of the Twelfth Night cake, baked to contain a dried pea and a dried bean. Those who received the slices containing the bean or pea were designated the king and queen of the night’s festivities, which might see the master and mistress having to obey their servants! But, as one servant noted rather soberly: “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.
Luke Mouland is a professional geneaologist and historian. He runs the website Kith and Kin from his home near Sherborne. Find out more at kithandkinresearch.co.uk.
Local Custom ‘Up to Lodge’
The Western Gazette of 31st December 1875 describes a local custom which is practised in Sherborne to this day:
“‘Up to Lodge’ was the cry very early on Christmas morning, from numerous boys and girls who were wending their way to Sherborne Castle. For some years it has been the practice to give twopence in new coins to all those (whether men, women, or children) who present themselves at the Lodge gates at nine o’clock on Christmas morn, and each year the attendance is very large. Mr Pragnell soon paid the crowd, which numbered several hundreds.”