Downton Abbey: The Dorset Reality

PUBLISHED: 12:37 28 October 2011 | UPDATED: 09:35 27 November 2017

Downton Abbey:  The Dorset Reality

Downton Abbey: The Dorset Reality

Gwen Yarker discovers photographic evidence in the county archives that gives a tantalising glimpse into the rapidly changing world of Dorset's great estates...

Downton Abbey: The Dorset Reality

Gwen Yarker discovers photographic evidence in the county archives that gives a tantalising glimpse into the rapidly changing world of Dorset’s great estates...

Autumn marks the return of Downton Abbey to our screens. In the first series, which spanned the two years prior to the outbreak of World War I, we saw the Earl and Countess of Grantham’s country lifestyle of elegant house parties, glittering hunt balls and shooting picnics. The second series covers the years 1916-1918, when we see the full impact of the War on the Crawley family and their household, Though set it Yorkshire, Julian Fellowes’ popular series also reflects real life in Edwardian Dorset’s patronage houses.

Through photographs from the county’s public collection we can witness tantalising glimpses of the changing world of Dorset’s great estates during the first two decades of the new century from those who lived there. However dark clouds were gathering on the horizon as the golden Edwardian age gave way to the horrors of the World War I and the loss of a generation on the battlefields of Europe.


Entertaining Royalty (1909)

Country estates existed largely for the pleasures of the families. Viola Bankes at Kingston Lacy observed it was not unusual for up to 50 people to stay for a shooting party; requiring a large supporting army of servants since each guest would also bring a maid or valet. In the first decade of the twentieth century Lord Alington sometimes played host to Edward VII for lavish country house weekends at Crichel, including shooting parties for the king on the downs. This remarkable photograph from the Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne Minster is surely the definitive image of royalty and aristocracy in the country. The monarch and his wife are surrounded by Alington’s family and his guests. The photograph was taken a year before the king’s death.

Other royal visitors to Dorset during the decade included the Princess of Wales, later Queen Mary, who lunched at Kingston Lacy in 1908 whilst staying with the Shaftesburys at Wimborne St Giles. More poignantly in view of the horrors to envelop Europe seven years later, Edward VII’s nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II stayed at Highcliffe Castle with General Stuart Wortley in 1907 and visited the Bankes family at Kingston Lacy.


National Service Poster (1916)

Women of all social groups were also an important part of World War I in diverse ways. Upper and middle-class women worked for no money to support the war effort. After the introduction of conscription in March 1916, the Government encouraged women to take the place of those male employees released from their normal occupations to serve at the front. Working-class women were encouraged by the Government to work in munitions factories and in other jobs usually done by men. This Government poster invites women to work as clerks in France with the British army.


Lord Portman’s Hunt, Crichel (c.1895)

In this photograph dating from the last decade of the 19th-century, the Master of Foxhounds, Lord Portman, is shown with the hunt at Crichel House. This classic scene captures the rhythm of the countryside on the big estates. A mostly male activity, the women may follow in their carriages, with only one horsewoman evident.


Shoot at Askerswell (c.1900-1910)

Most photographs from this era show families and their guests enjoying their advantageous lifestyle, with servants less visible. So this photograph is unusual as it shows a shoot near South Eggardon Farm House, Askerwswell with a group lower down the social scale. This somewhat posed all male group even includes the local postman!


First Aid Training at Studland Camp (c.1910)

An extraordinary but little known event took place in Dorset several years before the outbreak of World War I and within a year of the king’s stay at Crichel. This was the first camp of the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps held at Studland in 1910. Founded by suffragette Mabel St Clair Stobart, a Dorset resident from time to time, she established the corps to provide a connecting link between field and base hospitals which filled an organisational gap in the medical department of the Territorial Force. The corps was based on methods taught by the Royal Medical Army Medical Corps and the women received highly detailed and intensive training of up to three years.

At Studland fifty women arrived by train and marched to the camp where they stayed for one week run on strict military lines with reveille sounding at 6am. They engaged in drill and general training and practiced stretcher training. As commandant, Mrs Stobart intended the women to become efficient members of voluntary aid detachments in times of national emergency, offering practical assistance to the sick and wounded. By delivering medical aid and supplies to casualties in the front line, these radical women dedicated themselves to medical  work within the military sphere from a diverse range of motives, including feminism, militarism, nationalism and humanitarian sympathies.

This all-women corps first saw action in the Balkan War in 1912. By 1914 Stobart formed the Women’s National Service League with Lady Muir McKenzie to include women doctors, trained nurses, cooks, interpreters, and all workers essential for the independent working of a hospital of war.


Minterne House and Valley

Between 1900 and 1914 Lord and Lady Digby built and furnished their new home at Minterne, near Cerne Abbas, maintaining a typical country lifestyle entertaining family, neighbours and friends and managing a large household with over 40 staff. Workers in the house and on the estate probably came from the local village and there was a strong sense of duty and community. The house and family were formal in their approach to their staff but provided an identity of purpose, creating mutual dependence, consideration and respect. It was a cherished tradition to work in the big house and few left, except on marriage. There were no married quarters, so servants didn’t marry until they could afford a home.

Though Minterne House was built in 1905 it still had separate staircases for the male and female servants and a servant’s hall. Lady Digby organised a village nurse with a bicycle into the area and carried out a range of other charitable duties. In the build up to the war she took in Belgian refugees in two cottages.

On 4 August 1914, the British declared war on Germany and Dorset’s great houses saw massive changes, for instance Sherborne Castle became a convalescent home. At Minterne their French chef returned home to fight, and they never heard from their German governess again. Lady Digby wrote ‘most of the young men are enlisting - so our big fat butler Sutherland will have to get along with the parlour-maids’. The Digby’s son also fought in the trenches from 1915-1918, surviving with a distinguished war rrecord.


Dorset Yeomanry, Sherborne House (c.1915)

The first series of Downton Abbey ended with the announcement of the outbreak of war, a war that changed the British way of life forever. In Dorset men joined the army and prepared to fight. All the gardeners and menservants from Kingston Lacy joined the Dorset Yeomanry and saw service in the Dardanelles – few returned. This photograph shows just one troop positioned in front of Sherborne House. A remarkable painting in the members’ room of County Hall reveals their military contribution. The Dorset Yeoman at Agagia, 26 February 1915 by Lady Butler shows Yeomanry action in the Libyan Desert when they cut off the enemy rearguard under direct fire from machine guns and ended the threat of attack by the Turkish-backed Senussi tribe.


Munitions Workers, Poole (1916)

By 1918 there were nearly one million women working in engineering and munitions. Although it is generally believed they received higher wages, better conditions and greater independence than working in domestic service this photograph reveals this came at a cost, with a remarkable degree of honesty. The young women, often known as munitionettes, shown at a Poole munitions factory, reveal the grimy, dirty and tough nature of the job, note too the primitive nature of the factory building. The dangerous nature of some of their work, exposed to dangerous chemicals, poisons and explosives, demonstrated solidarity with men serving at the front. There were many serious accidents in the munitions factories, and around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT handling shells during the war.

The advent of World War I therefore saw the certainties of the Edwardian-age give way to a century of instability, which we see chronicled in these photographs and echoed in the present series of Downton Abbey. Lady Digby’s diary fell permanently silent after 24 September 1914; tacit testimony that the world would never be the same again.

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