House of Stories: Collaborating with Chatsworth, by Hannah Wallace

Hannah Wallace reports on the pop-up exhibition and storytelling event ‘House of Stories’, held at Chatsworth House in the Peak District, and developed by the WRoCAH CDA PhD network ‘From Servants to Staff: The Whole Community at Chatsworth 1700-1950’.

Researching the history of the people who worked at Chatsworth is a big undertaking. To give some context, today the Chatsworth estate employs over 600 people in a number of different departments from housekeeping to forestry, gardens to events. While the type of work done at country houses may have changed over the centuries, the important roles these houses played in the local area and in local people’s lives have not. Thankfully, it is not a project I am undertaking alone. My research is part of a larger project entitled ‘From Servants to Staff: The Whole Community at Chatsworth 1700-1950’ which comprises of three interconnected PhDs. Alongside my colleagues, Lauren Butler and Fiona Clapperton, we each explore the experiences of work and service at Chatsworth in a different century.
My collaborative doctoral award is collaborative in many ways. Working alongside Lauren and Fiona has meant my PhD already has a built-in support network. The three of us all started our PhDs at the same time and we research in the Chatsworth archives on the same days. For our research it means that we can share difficult to decipher handwriting and follow family names through the centuries, but it also means there’s always someone there to celebrate each other’s successes, work out tricky problems with and bounce ideas off.

We also work in partnership with Chatsworth to find ways to present these stories to the public in an engaging way and over the course of our PhDs we have supported costumed interpreters and undertaken research for the yearly exhibitions in the house. In June this year we were given the exciting opportunity to put on an event of our own. House of Stories was a pop-up exhibition and storytelling event which took the general public on a journey through 250 years of estate life at Chatsworth.
Piecing together servants’ lives through archival documents had shown us that they were not only workers; they were people with families, hobbies and responsibilities. This was the message we wanted to share with visitors and so our experimental exhibition drew upon a number of different methods to try and achieve this. Banners inspired by playbills told century specific stories like the difficulty eighteenth-century Chatsworth faced with an aging servant population including an eighty year old groom and a seventy six year old head gardener. While the lives of individual servants were captured in silhouette illustrations which brought together the work they did for the Duke and their lives outside of Chatsworth. Nineteenth-century cook, Jane Booth, is poised with a wooden spoon which at second glace is actually a child’s rattle representing her role as mother and carer. The scruffy boots carried by George Esmond are in stark contrast to his pristine footman’s uniform, a reminder of his role as a solider in World War One.
Storytelling also took place throughout the day which encouraged visitors to imagine the experiences of these workers and transported them back to eighteenth-century Soho, the bedroom of a homesick maid in the nineteenth century, and Christmas on the Chatsworth estate during World War One.
Visitors were also treated to a sneak peak of an online database which contains over 4000 names of servants and labourers who worked for the Dukes of Devonshire over three centuries. The passion of family history researchers has been important to our own research and sharing these names means that uncovering individual stories, capturing the ordinary and the extraordinary, and filling in the details of these servants’ lives can continue to go on.