Sunday, 18 July 2010

Dressing up as Victorian Servants

For the past four years I have travelled to Erddig House, the beautiful National Trust Property near Wrexham and worked as an Education Volunteer. I try and go as often as I can, sometimes once a week or less frequently when I am busy with guests.

Erddig House is a truly unique place built in the early 18th century with wonderful rooms and magnificent grounds. It is on the must see list of many who visit our lovely area. Erddig is renowned as a real ’upstairs downstairs’ house. The servants’ quarters and outbuildings are exceptional and really give the true feel of what life must have been like in service. The contrast of the ‘upstairs’ is of noticeable opulence but do not feel too sorry for the servants’ at Erddig. When you walk through into the basment and servant quarters you can read all about how well they were treated by their masters, and there are many paintings of them at work. Although life was harsh by today’s standards – they were much better off than many in service.

As an Education Volunteer I help to teach children – mainly primary school age - some of the duties of a Victorian Servant. They arrive eagerly, some already having an idea what the day will bring. First they are shown a DVD of what life was like for Servants at Erddig. Afterwards they are given their ‘uniform’ for the day. For the girls long skirts, aprons and frilly mop caps and for the boys waistcoats, aprons and caps. Of course the girls have no idea where their waists are and try to have their skirts on the hips and similarly the boys try to turn their caps around with the peak at the back – but none of the Educations Volunteers or permanent staff allows any of this unacceptable behaviour! After all they are now Victorian servants. The teachers are also given their uniforms and sometimes a bit of persuading is needed for some to dress up. The children are then told a little about greeting Ladies and Gentlemen; with the girls practicing their curtsies and the boys doffing their caps ‘With Good morning Sir or Madam ’.
The boys then are told that Victorian manners will prevail and that ‘Ladies First’ is the order of the day. This is greeted with much glee from the girls but grunts of disapproval from the boys. It seems so strange to me that they have no idea about such manners. Being brought up when good manners were so brainwashed into my generation, and equality didn’t exist. I’m not sure if we have lost or gained anything with the changing attitudes that exist these days.

The children then go off into groups and have to ‘work’ and learn about life as a Servant; washing in the Laundry – hand washing, rinsing and using a mangle; making lemonade in the Kitchen – learning about working without electricity, how to grind sugar and grate lemon. In the bakery they learn to make bread ; all help to weigh flour, mixing and kneading the dough; learning about the bread ovens and the chimneys – many of the boys volunteering to be chimney sweeps as they think it will be just like Mary Poppins. My favourite though is the Bothy attic. Here the children learn about leaving home at 12 years old to go to work, sleeping in a room with other servants’, making beds and cleaning. They all seem to love the part where we explain about Victorian hygiene, bathing once a week and using the chamber pot!

The children really enjoy their day at Erddig and learn such a lot from a time of when there was no electricity or cars and when working class meant working very hard for little reward.
We are a jolly bunch of volunteers and all have to dress up too, some ladies (and a few men) have been volunteering for many many years, some even have their own home made outfits. We assist the permanent Education team who are a dedicated group with a wealth of knowledge between them that we volunteers rely on for ongoing help.

I love my days at Erddig and although I come home exhausted I always feel very grateful for the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experiences to the children. Two days are never the same and the enjoyment you get from seeing just one child engage with your stories is very rewarding indeed.

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