Congerstone village

Life Below Stairs at Gopsall


Life Below Stairs at Gopsall Hall

by Mike Foley & John Matthews


lt is an irony that although Gopsall was built by a wealthy industrialist, Charles Jennens, and later transferred into the hands of the wealthy aristocratic Curzon-Howe family, the people who spent most time in the house were the many members of the domestic staff.  From its earliest days, Gopsall was home to a vast number of servants, both those who ‘lived in’ and those who lived in the estate villages and tied cottages. Indeed, until the 1930s only those who worked for the ‘big house’, either directly in service or through some other avenue such as farming, were allowed to live in the village cottages. The first outsider to move into Congerstone was a miner called Pare who was not made overly welcome and was treated with great suspicion for a long while.  He lived in Congerstone in one of the eyelid cottages (now demolished) on the corner of Main Street and Shadows Lane opposite Fox Covert Farm.  He liked to tell people he was so strong, he could “lift himself up in a basket”.

No information survives about the lives of the earliest members of staff, even though Gopsall was the principal residence of the Jennens family from 1685 to 1773.  Typically, the Victorian period, although full of references and pictorial evidence relating to the Howe family, says very little about the staff.  Virtually every family room is recorded in one or more photographs, but not one picture of the domestic rooms or working rooms (kitchen, scullery, laundry etc) can be found.

For over 120 years, Gopsall was one of several Howe family homes and, as was common practice for the wealthy at that time, used predominantly at particular times of the year. The Curzon-Howe family had homes at 20 Curzon Street, Mayfair, London, Penn House nearAmersham and Woodlands in Uxbridge, Surrey as well as Gopsall Hall.

Gopsall Hall was by far the grandest house with an enormous estate and garden that seems to have been primarily used in the period around Christmas and for the shooting season.  No doubt it was also used much at other times and must have been a particular favourite with Lady Georgiana who was interred (at least temporarily) in St Mary’s graveyard in Congerstone.

Memorial tablets in St Mary’s Church and stones in the graveyard represent some of the few records we have of many of the Gopsall servants:  One particularly intriguing inscription may be found above the retainer’s (servant’s) box pew and reads:

Sacred to the memory of Mrs Anne Hodson who was unfortunately

burnt to death December 16th 1824

She was 60 years of age, 30 of which

she spent in the service of the Curzon family

This small tribute of regard is erected by a grateful master to

the memory of an attached and faithful servant.

 “Unfortunately burnt to death” would seem to be a classic piece of British understatement; one wonders what happened to Mrs Hodson so close to Christmas.

Another inscription on a gravestone reads:

Edward Irwin

Born 19th February 1850

at Florence Court

Irwin is a Northern Irish surname and the only Florence Court we can trace at this time is Florence Court near Enniskillen. So it looks like Edward came here from Ireland.   Florence Court is where the first ever Irish (fastigiate) Yew tree was found and we know more about the tree than we do about Edward.

It is likely that many of the servants in the Hall travelled great distances to secure ‘a good position’.  One example of someone who did just that to work at Gopsall was John McCullam (1857-1944).  He was born in County Monaghan, Ireland, moved to Scotland and then came to Gopsall as a groom, initially living above the stables!

‘Irish Johnny’, as he was known, eventually became head coachman.  He married Elizabeth Jebbett from Newton Burgoland in 1893 and settled in a rented estate cottage in Barton Lane, Congerstone.  It was John who drove the coach to Shackerstone Station to collect King Edward VII when he visited Gopsall in 1902.  The Earl obviously held John in high esteem as he and his family were invited to Viscount Curzon’s ‘Coming of Age’ luncheon in 1905.  John and Elizabeth eventually purchased their cottage in 1930.  In 2020 the cottage is still owned by a descendant of John McCullam.

It is also clear from some of the gravestones that some servants happily worked at Gopsall for most of their lives:

Isaac Masser

“He was in the service of the Earl Howe upwards of 37 years”

February 17th 1856 aged 57

Apart from the domestic staff who travelled with the family (ladies maids, valets, stewards etc) there was also a core of staff who worked at one particular family house. Gopsall had a range of permanent skilled and unskilled people who were employed in the maintenance and working of the house and estate.  These people are recorded in the various census documents of the time and it is surprising just how many staff were employed even at times when the family were in residence elsewhere.

As Gopsall was the largest estate owned by the Howe family, the kitchen gardens were put to full use supplying the family wherever they were domiciled.  Hampers of fruit and vegetables were sent by train from the then busy Shackerstone railway station along with meat and cheeses from the farms and venison from the deer park.

Also making this journey on a weekly basis were more mundane items of laundry sent back from Curzon Street to the many staff employed in the extensive laundry rooms at Gopsall.  Table linen, clothes and all other items of household furnishings were maintained and serviced by the permanent staff at Gopsall.  Mrs Hextall of Congerstone was employed as second laundress and eventually became head laundress (1890-1901).   She later became known as Granny Hextall and lived in one of the pair of cottages overlooking the memorial green in Congerstone.

Detailed plans of most of the house survive today (Leicester record office; Royal institute of British Architects) showing the grand family rooms –  Library, Dining rooms, Kings Bedroom, Bathrooms etc but no record of the top floor storage exist. One may assume that the architects and family felt it unnecessary to dwell on the more prosaic side of life.

Equally one may assume that a great pride was placed upon the facilities provided by the house as the same plans show in detail the Kitchen, Buttery, Bakery, Pastry Larder, Wine cellars (all 7 of them in the basement!), Furnaces, Laundry and Ironing room, not to mention the Photographic dark room in the basement. The latter is quite a surprise given that photography was only commercially developed in the late 19th century with the introduction of Eastman Kodak’s first camera in 1888.

ln fact the entire basement area of the building, approximately 30 rooms is given over to the feeding and cleaning of both the family and staff.  The top floor seems to have been only for storage, and the first floor west wing, suitably distanced from the main part of the house given over to the private staff bedrooms, dining rooms and sitting rooms.  The house keepers bedroom and maids bedroom were both discreetly placed on the first floor in the main body of the house where the staff would have been close at hand when needed.  Similarly the Butler’s pantry was near at hand on the ground floor. This ‘Pantry’ consisted of a suite of small rooms including a bedroom, sitting room and workroom and a range of sinks and storage cupboards.  Again no photographs of these areas survive – unless you know better.

ln 1851, a time when Gopsall was at its zenith in terms of family life and stature, there were 33 servants (19 women and 14 men) classed as resident at Gopsall Hall for the terms of the census. This will not have included any staff resident at any of the other houses at the time or those who lived in estate property outside of the Hall.

The Butler, Mr Speech, a bit of a stickler, was 48 years old and only the brewer and baker, James Jaques, was older at 52 years.  The average age of staff at this time was 27 years.  According to this census document of 1851 the cook at Gopsall was a man, which must have been a very modern idea at the time.  Were Martha Diaper (Nursery maid) and Sopie Duck (Laundry maid) having a  bit of fun when they filled in the census form in 1851? Or was this their real names?

Servants seem to have been made up of quite a transient population at this time as none of the people recorded in the 1851 census appear in the next census in 1861.  100 years later in 1951, when the house was awaiting demolition, the staff at Gopsall was reduced to two people.  Edward Jones, the landlord of the Curzon Arms (now Turpins Bar & Grill) in Twycross, was left to look after the gardens and a woman left to look after the house. Many reasons are cited for the decline of the ‘country house‘ in the United Kingdom in the period around the 1950’s, including running costs, lack of empathy, death duties etc, etc.  However, one item often over looked was the difficulty in finding staff at a period when two world wars saw hundreds of thousands of able bodied men leave their positions never to return.

Arthur Marshall, born in April 1914 and interviewed in 1997, recalled some of his experiences working at Gopsall Hall in the period between 1928 and 1935.  This would have been at the time the Crown had purchased much of the outlying areas of Gopsall Estate but not the Hall & Park, which were apparently still owned by Lord Waring (Gopsall Hall & Park were sold in 1941 by the administrators of Lady Waring’s estate).   Arthur started at Gopsall when he was 14.5 years old working as an errand boy and general help in the gardens.  His first job of the day was to cycle to Shackerstone station and collect The Times newspaper from the 8.20h train and then to deliver it to the Hall office.  At that time a Mrs White was in charge of the Hall.  Subsequently, he worked on the estate as a woodman and doing various farming jobs.   When the Hall was closed in 1935 he, like most of the other workers on the estate, lost his job.  He remembered that two staff were retained one of whom was Ted Jones, kept on to maintain the gardens.

One notable ‘servant’ at Gopsall Hall was Mrs Elizabeth Battey who was Housekeeper for the 4th Earl Howe from 1904 until at least 1914.  Mrs Battey had quite a reputation and was described by some as ‘thinking herself the Countess’!   She filed into St Mary’s on Sundays into the second box pew (only second to the Howe family box pew) with an entourage of lesser servants behind her.  She seems to have been a very strict lady, but given her place in the household, one would expect her to be so considered.

At the turn of the century Mrs Battey had been employed by the Countess of Warwick to oversee female staff at Warwick Castle before moving to Gopsall.  She had a friend, Elizabeth McCulloch, in America with whom she corresponded regularly by letter. These letters are a fascinating record of what was happening with the Howe family and the Howe family homes.  At times, Mrs Battey seems to have been the Housekeeper at both Woodlands Park and Gopsall.  Her letters ( show a woman proud of what she did as a career and who was obviously well regarded by all her employers.  They give a real insight into the daily comings and goings of a well connected aristocratic family.




We would like to thank Glynis Oakley, Keith Farrell, Lynn Stoney & David Wright for providing some of the images and/or information used in this article.