Revisiting Chatsworth and House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

I first came across Chatsworth House while reading David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and when I moved to the UK to do a postgraduate degree at the University of Manchester, one of the things on my list was to visit Chatsworth – which I finally did in 2006. I enjoyed my day trip so much that I resolved to return which I did in May this year, nearly 11 years after my first visit.

Known as the “Palace in the Peak” owing to its location and grandeur, Chatsworth House has been lived in by members of the Cavendish family since the sixteenth century. The present house stands on an earlier structure built by the formidable Elizabeth Hardwick (also known as “Bess of Hardwick”) and her second husband Sir William Cavendish and since then it has been the home of the Earls – later Dukes – of Devonshire and their family. Nothing much is left of the original Elizabethan structure and what took its place can be considered as one of the finest Baroque buildings in the country today. As the present Duke and Duchess wrote in their introduction to the visitor’s guidebook, “Chatsworth was built to welcome guests and to be seen” and the house has been open to visitors since the 1600s, welcoming visitors from all over Britain and then from all over the world. One noted visitor was a certain Jane Austen whose visit to Chatsworth would help inspire her best known novel – Pride and Prejudice.

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There is so much to see and do at Chatsworth that one day is not enough. There are 30 rooms on  the visitor route alone, each of them showcasing stupendous interiors, furniture and objects as well as a collection of art ranging from Old Masters to family portraits done by some of the biggest names in British art and modern and contemporary art collected by both the 11th and 12th dukes. And what has made this year’s visit even more memorable is a special exhibition that has been described as the “most ambitious to date.”

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, created and curated by the Countess of Burlington together with Vogue Editor Hamish Bowles looks at the history of the Cavendish family through the prism of fashion, with the exhibition spread throughout the visitor route of the house. Alongside actual clothes worn by various members of the family; there are accessories, jewellery, paintings, photographs, drawings and archival material. Various rooms feature clothes that would have been appropriate for their surroundings; for instance the chapel displays wedding gowns worn by Cavendish brides especially during the last 40 years, as well as christening dresses while the dining room features formal gowns and dresses that have been worn to balls and parties by various members of the family.

There is the wide diversity of fashion on display showing members of the family as trend setters – there is an emphasis on Georgiana wife of the 5th duke who during her lifetime was dubbed the “Empress of Fashion” and whose clothes and hairstyle were eagerly scrutinised and copied by other women. As a political hostess, she used her clothes to make a statement: most notably when she was campaigning for Charles James Fox where she was depicted in caricatures wearing a riding habit with a hat trimmed with blue and buff feathers shaped like a fox’s tail. The message was very clear and her riding habit with its masculine cut  can be taken as an attempt to play her part in what was essentially a male sphere.

Several family members were also known for their personal style; Deborah wife to the 11th duke was both at ease with simple practical clothes and grand ball gowns particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when her husband was Lord Mayor of Buxton and a government minister.  She was particularly fond of brooches and had a good collection most of them in the shape of insects which she would pin several on a jacket in one go. Andrew on the other hand, kept up with his ancestors’ frugal ways by insisting that his jackets be patched up and shoes be re-heeled and re-soled until they could no longer be worn. Also known for his sense of humour, he had a collection of several navy blue jumpers embroidered with colourful slogans such as “Never Marry A Mitford”, “Bollocks!”, “After All We’ve Been Through” and “Far Better Not”.

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Other members of the family developed a reputation for being badly dressed, for instance the 10th duke was described by his one of his daughters-in-law as someone who “wore paper collars, did not possess an overcoat and would stand, oblivious of the weather, in the freezing wind on Chesterfield station in a threadbare London suit” while his cigarettes which he kept in his pockets resulted into blackened holes in his suits “which he would never dream of replacing.” It is no wonder that he was often mistaken as a tramp or a dustman by people who asked him for directions.

Another category of the exhibition features clothes from two members of the family who have worked in the fashion industry, first as models and presently as designers and buyers respectively. Two of the most striking clothes from this selection have been worn by Stella Tennant, the first being a “black wool, bias cut, polo neck dress” designed by Alexander McQueen and worn by Tennant to a British Vogue fashion editorial in 1993; and the other was a gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior created in 1998 and exhibited next to a portrait of Duchess Georgiana by Maria Cosway, showing how much Galliano during his tenure as head designer for Dior was very much influenced by eighteenth century fashions.

As this blog focuses on a particular time frame which spans the years 1870 to 1939, my main interests in the exhibition fell into the third category. These are the clothes associated with the public role of a Duke or Duchess of Devonshire. The centrepiece in the Painted Hall is the embroidered robe worn by both Duchess Evelyn and her daughter-in-law Duchess Mary in their capacity as Mistress of the Robes to the 1911, 1937 and 1953 coronations. Ever thrifty and resourceful, both duchesses had the robe patched up and repaired in 1937 and 1953, the former by recycling ermine from old clothes dating from the Edwardian period. However, the presence of two duchesses in 1953 presented a problem – Duchess Mary would wear the robe used by her mother-in-law but what of Duchess Deborah? In 1953, Britain was exhausted by the Second World War and punitive taxes and death duties meant that the Cavendish family wasn’t immune to the economies being made in order to meet these financial obligations. Ordering a new robe was out of the question but help came from an unlikely source – while rifling through old uniforms and livery that had been kept in storage, Deborah and her mother-in-law found a peeress’ robe that had been made and worn for the coronation of William IV in 1831. Owing to its out of date style which did not conform to the prescription laid out for the robes to be worn by each grade in the peerage, royal permission had to be sought and granted for the robes to be worn. This robe is also on display in the Painted Hall.

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The Grotto contains uniforms worn by successive dukes, with the main focus being on the full court dress worn by the 9th duke and the robes of the Order of the Garter worn by successive dukes, the most recent being the 11th duke after being awarded with England’s highest order of chivalry in 1996. Next door along the chapel corridor are accessories, ephemera and photographs used as a time line to chronicle the life and times of the Cavendish family from Bess of Hardwick to the present. Of particular interest to me were Duchess Louise’s embroidered evening bag, a badge bearing Queen Mary’s portrait that denoted Duchess Evelyn’s position as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes and the frame of the Garter Star belonging to the 8th duke where the stones had been taken to make a diamond tiara for his wife. Again the accessories and ephemera tell us something of the person who owned and has worn them: from the gold locket containing her husband’s photograph that belonged to Kathleen Marchioness of Hartington to the chatelaine that was in Duchess Georgiana’s possession and a pair of slippers embroidered with the image of Elvis Presley that was one of the Duchess Deborah’s treasured objects.

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My favourite however has to be the dresses on display worn for the 1897 Devonshire House Ball especially Duchess Louise’s costume as Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Made by the House of Worth, the gold, ivory and emerald green gauze and velvet gown is a wonder even after 120 years and it was wonderful to see the fine detail and colour of the gown considering I have only seen it previously in black and white photographs.

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After going round the exhibition twice, it was time to go for a stroll round the gardens. It had just rained so everything looked even more lush and green. Chatsworth’s gardens like the house are also world renowned and reflects the changing times and fashion with regards to garden designs. Whilst parts of the Baroque gardens survive, much of it today is based on the more naturalistic designs by William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown during the 18th century and Joseph Paxton during the 19th. Since the 1950s when the 11th duke and duchess took up residence at Chatsworth, more improvements and work has gone into the garden and the modern sculpture dotted around were an excellent focal and talking point. The fountains of course are a sight to behold especially with the famous cascade and the Emperor fountain.

Before I knew it, it was nearly time to close and there wasn’t much time to explore the rest of the gardens. A return visit in the near future is certainly on the cards but hopefully I won’t have to wait for another eleven years.

 

When visited: 19 May 2017

Photos taken by blogger

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth is on until 22 October 2017 and is included in the admission ticket to the house. For more information, please go to https://www.chatsworth.org/events/house-style/

Book Review – Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars by Sian Evans

There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.

Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.

Queen Bees cover

The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.

Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”

That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”

There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties.  Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.

Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.

And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.

None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax  – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.

Book Review: The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families –  has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.

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Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.

Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.

Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.

While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.

Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.

The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.

The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.

 

The History of the Mailrail

Deep under the streets of London and its snarl of urban traffic is a virtually unknown railway that for 75 years was an artery in Britain’s postal network. Seventy feet below ground, the Post Office railway (more commonly known as the Mail Rail), carried post from Paddington to London sorting offices from 1923 until it was finally abandoned in 2003 due to changing technology. In its heyday, the two-foot, narrow-gauge driverless railway called from Paddington to Mount Pleasant and eight stations along the way, in 26 minutes. The driverless, electric trains trains operated for 22 hours a day every weekday, with the other two hours used for maintenance work on 23 miles of lines, carried 30,000 items a day and ran every five minutes in peak times. The Post Office railway was a unique solution to the problem of transporting mail across an increasingly congested city and was designed solely to move letters and parcels.

Post Office Map

The idea of transporting mail in tubes began many years before the Post Office Railway was even thought of way back in 1853 the first ever mail tube went in to service. Although it was only 225 yards long and only 1.5 inches in diameter and used the equivalent of a giant vacuum cleaner to power the system it did prove very successful. Over the next few years various forms of this system were built and tested, even to the point of carrying passengers.

The Post Office set up a team to look at the possibilities of building a larger system between two of their buildings that was abandoned as too expensive. In 1859 the Pneumatic Dispatch Company was formed and built a tube to carry mail but despite digging several lines they were unsuccessful in persuading the Post Office to use them and the company closed in 1874. In 1899 the London Dispatch Company was formed to rescue some of the abandoned lines but this also proved too costly and that company too was wound up.

However, in the early 1900s the Post Office soon realised the need of some type of system to transport mail between the major central London sorting offices that was not dependent on negotiating increasingly crowded city streets – this was a time when there were several mail deliveries a day and post needed to be moved speedily. In 1908 a team of Post Office engineers visited the Chicago Freight subway system and a similar system in Berlin, Germany. Eventually in 1911 a governmental committee found that as London traffic would never allow for speeds of greater than 6mph, and recommended the construction of an electric railway with driverless trains that could travel at 40mph under the city. After much debate in Parliament the Post Office (London) Railway Bill 1913 received Royal Assent and the contract to build the tunnels was won by John Mowlem and Company.

February 1915 was the start of the construction of the tunnels from a series of shafts dug at points along the route of the line. Most of the line was constructed through the London clay using the Greathead shield system for tunnelling, with a small amount of hand-mining for connecting the tunnels at the stations. Essentially an updated version of an earlier system devised by Marc Isambard Brunel and named after its inventor James Henry Greathead,  it consisted of a sturdy metal tube which allowed workers to burrow at a far deeper level, pushing through London’s clay at an average of 10ft a day and installing the tunnel lining behind them as they went. The shield served as a temporary support structure while the tunnels were being excavated. Before the shield was used the loss of life and the risk of collapse were much higher.

Thanks to the outbreak of World War 1, work on the railways electrical systems was suspended, but work on the tunnels was allowed to continue until completion. During 1917, due to the shortage of labour and materials, Mowlem had to suspend work on the stations. During the later years of the war the tunnels were used to house some of London’s art collections from the Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and the Wallace Collection.

Mail Rail Tunnels

It was not until June 1924 that track laying re-started. 1925 saw the installation of the electrical equipment, lifts, conveyors and mail chutes. Progress was slowed, this time by the General Strike, and the electrical installation took a lot longer than expected, leading to exchanges in Parliament in March 1925 and March 1926:

17 March 1925 – Mr S Broad asked the Postmaster-General what is the present position of the work in connection with the Post Office tube railway and when it may be expected to be in full working order; what was the original estimated cost; how much has been expended to date; how much more he estimates will be required for completion; and whether he will urge this work forward with all possible speed, in view of the relief it is hoped will be afforded to London road traffic problems by its operation?

Sir W Mitchell-Thomson – The permanent way is practically completed, and contracts have been placed for the electrical equipment and rolling stock. It is anticipated that the railway will be ready for operation in the latter part of 1926. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000. The sum expended to date is £1,266,450, and it is estimated that about £310,000 will be required to complete the undertaking. Everything possible will be done to ensure that the railway is brought into operation at the earliest possible date.

23 March 1926 Mr Broad asked the Postmaster-General the present position of the Post Office (London) Tube Railway, when it is expected that it will be available for full service, what was the original estimated cost, and what has been the total cost to date?

Viscount Wolmer – The permanent way has been completed; the bulk of the electrical plant has been manufactured, and its installation is proceeding rapidly. It is anticipated that the railway will be available for traffic in the autumn. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000; the sum expended to date is £1,411,000.

It was not until February 1927 that the first section, between Paddington and West Central District Office, was available for training. By June 1927 the cost of the railway had risen to £ 1,550,000** and Postmaster-General Sir W Michell Thomson was confidently predicting an opening in three months from that date. October 1927 saw the finishing touches put to the railway, and the line was available for use for the Christmas parcel post. February 1928 saw the first letter post on the system. At one point, there were around 220 workers on the Mail Rail, but by April 2003, when Royal Mail announced its closure, that staff was much reduced to cater for just three stations and the cost of keeping the train going had become more expensive than using road transport.

Train 1935

Mount Pleasant sorting office

Note:

Part of the original Mail Rail is due to re-open in July 2017. Visitors will have an immersive experience -the can take the train journey and explore the railway through 3D interpretation and audio-visual presentations. And there will also be an exhibition space in the former maintenance workshop in the railway.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.railtechnologymagazine.com/Rail-Industry-Focus-/mail-rail-past-present-and-future

 

http://www.mailrail.co.uk/construction.html

 

https://postalmuseum.org/discover/explore-online/postal-history/mail-rail/

 

http://www.londonreconnections.com/2013/reopening-londons-mail-rail/

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1925/mar/17/tube-railway#S5CV0181P0_19250317_CWA_62

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1926/mar/23/london-tube-railway#S5CV0193P0_19260323_HOC_230

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1927/jun/24/post-office-london-railway#S5CV0207P0_19270624_CWA_10

 

** about £ 86,000,000 today

Film Review – Viceroy’s House: Photocopying Downton Abbey

Bloggers’ Note: Although this film falls beyond our time frame, we felt this warranted a review as the Mountbattens were regular fixtures in British newspapers from their wedding in 1922 until their deaths in 1960 and 1979 respectively.

With 2017 marking the 70th anniversary of Indian independence (and the creation of Pakistan as well), the release of Viceroy’s House is perfectly timed, a narration of the road to Indian independence and the birth of two nations. Directed by Gurinder Chadha( best known for Bend it like Beckham), she has partly drawn from her family history for this film. But most of the action is set in the magnificent Edwin Lutyens-designed viceregal palace (now the residence of the President of India) with its massive rooms and grounds which in the words of Edwina Mountbatten in the film, “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow.”

There’s a mention of her grandmother’s experience of being displaced as the boundaries between the two new nations were drawn so it makes me wish that she had brought her grandmother’s story to the big screen as a representative of what happened to millions of families. Instead what we get is a potted history lesson mixed with an upstairs-downstairs narrative that’s pretty much lifted from Downton Abbey. I will go further by saying that Viceroy’s House is a direct photocopy of Downton Abbey.

Viceroy's House poster

The year is 1947 and Britain exhausted by the Second World War is preparing to transfer power in India for 1948. Overseeing this is the new viceroy; Louis (“Dickie”) Viscount Mountbatten of Burma (Hugh Bonneville) accompanied by his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and their younger daughter Pamela (Lily Travers). At the same time, former policeman Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) arrives at the palatial viceregal palace to begin his new job as a valet to the new viceroy where he encounters a secretary, Aalia Noor, (Huma Qureshi), who he recognises as the daughter of one of the political prisoners he helped guard. Predictably the two fall in love but Aalia is already promised to another man and as her father reminds her, to marry him is honouring her dying mother’s wish.

Meanwhile Mountbatten is faced with a dilemma, should India remain as one nation or two with India as a Hindu majority (together with the Sikhs) state and Pakistan which would be a Muslim majority country? While he tries to reach a settlement between Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), violence flares across India and in the end, its accepted that partition and bringing the date forward for independence will help ease the violence. A senior judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) is brought into India to determine the borders between the two countries. With a very limited timeframe to do his job, and with the added disadvantage of never having been to India before, Sir Cyril struggles, especially as there are areas where the split between the two faiths is even. He confides this to General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), and he is shown a plan from 1945 that already showed the borders between India and Pakistan. When Mountbatten learns about this, he is shocked to learn that Churchill had authorised this to safeguard supplies of oil and to create a buffer against the Soviets.

Despite this, partition goes ahead and as a result, two nations are born while there is a massive movement of peoples between the two new countries. And what of Jeet and Aalia? Well, there is a sort of happy if slightly implausible ending in the manner of all soap operas. Actually, if I’m going to be honest, it was a jaw-dropping “wait, what? You are using THIS as a dramatic device??” moment, but possibly that’s just me.

As mentioned earlier, watching Viceroy’s House led to me to the conclusion it was a photocopy of Downton Abbey not only with the opening sequence and the upstairs downstairs drama but even with the casting of Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. This must have been the worst piece of casting since Dick van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins or Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October; Bonneville with his beefy frame is nothing like the lean Mountbatten. Neither does he have the real Mountbatten’s clipped tones, effortless charm and breezy self-assurance. Instead what we see is a man out of his depth, weak and hesitant – much like his Downton Abbey character Lord Grantham. The director doesn’t help this obvious miscasting by ending the film with newsreels of the real life Mountbatten as Viceroy – the contrast is glaring.

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Viceroy's House 3

If Bonneville reprises Robert then Gillian Anderson is Cora (and interestingly was reportedly offered the role before Elizabeth McGovern). She’s convincing as Edwina Mountbatten but her attempts at affecting a cut glass accent sometimes descend into parody. In addition she’s not really given much to do apart from constantly remind her husband of why they’re in India (hello, he’s the last Viceroy entrusted with the task of giving India its independence, I think he might know already), and act as a human United Nations statistics booklet (“Darling do you know that 92 per cent of the population are illiterate?”) in a script that very often recalls Downton Abbey at its expositional finest. And for a film that focuses a lot on real life characters, there is little done to flesh them out as people – who they really are and how their behaviours could have help affect the course of history. Nothing is made of the Mountbattens’ married life especially as they had been living virtually separate lives since the beginning of their marriage or the purported affair between Edwina and Nehru. Even Jinnah’s illness was not mentioned much less alluded to. There’s very little depth of character and sometimes it feels like the script is a taken from school textbook about independence – kept to the basics and shorn of the complexities. A feeling not helped by the almost insultingly brief running time – 106 minutes to explain a process that cost a couple of million lives. (Perhaps that should be “attempt to explain independence.”)

Ironically it’s the servants who are given the better storylines and scenes. They operate as a huge and well-organised team to serve the Mountbattens and while they are doing that they listen to the radio, read the papers and catch snippets of meetings. While they discuss and argue, the cracks between Muslim and Hindu start to show, especially when they have to decide what country they are going to go to after independence. A striking example was the two chefs and the look of anguish on the head chef’s face when he hears his deputy had chosen to become Pakistani is a microcosm of how politics has infiltrated a workplace where people have worked alongside together for years if not decades and have now been torn apart. Gradually we see the cracks widen between Hindu, Sikh and Moslem and degenerate into physical violence in an echo of what is happening outside the residence’s gates. There are also very poignant human touches that bring home the innumerable tiny human tragedies – Jeet’s colleague comes back from their village, where he has found their families dead or missing, but carrying a baby girl, the sole survivor of a massacre. A Hindu woman has picked up a Moslem girl who has escaped the killing of everyone on her train and wants to adopt her, and gets very angry with the official insistence that this is a queue for Hindus, the badly injured girl must go elsewhere. Little touches of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.

While Jeet and Aalia’s love story is pretty much standard soap opera fare, individually both characters have potential and yet are undeveloped. Jeet himself has an interesting background – a policeman who spent most of his career arresting and guarding pro-independence activists but whose father was killed by the British: but that’s never explored, and neither is the reason why he has given up his job as a policeman to be a viceregal servant in the dying weeks of the Raj. And what about Aalia? We don’t know much about what she thinks and feels as an individual: the tension between her clearly Westernised education and outlook as opposed to the traditional family demands being made on her is clear but ignored. What’s also omitted is the upper staff who are mainly British save for the major domo who is clearly Indian but is very Westernised, what’s going to happen to them? The major domo has a close working relationship with his immediate superior, the comptroller of the household (who is British) and yet what will happen to both men is a mystery, when actually that would have made a better storyline than what we’ve seen on screen.

Viceroy’s House major weakness however (and again this is where the similarity to Downton Abbey is in the distortion and trivialising of great events) is how the film glosses over Mountbatten’s incompetence and the intransigence of the Indian side. Instead blame is placed on Winston Churchill despite the fact that in 1947 he had been out of power for two years and was in no position to influence events (in fact he did vote in favour of the Indian Independence Bill and urged his party to do the same). This weakness is made worse by historical inaccuracies such as the view that Indians were not ready to govern themselves when in reality they were already native Indians serving as mayors and councillors as elected by their fellow Indians and by the 1930s the Indians were already outnumbering the British in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The constant bleating about “divide and rule” was also grating and conveniently forgets that “divide and rule” tactics were already used in India long before the British came.

The dialogue is heavily expositional and the narrative is simplistic, it’s all “Oh Jinnah wants Pakistan, what shall we do?” “Look, here’s a plan all handily drawn up in 1945 by Churchill with the borders neatly drawn in but don’t tell Mountbatten. That’ll sort it.” Independence and partition is wrapped up in about 10 minutes with contemporary newreels of massacres, long trails of miserable refugees and the Mountbattens and Nehru looking anguished over what has been unleashed.

The plus side is the visuals. If there’s one thing that this film does really well, it’s capturing the vibrant real-life locations of both the Viceroy of India’s residence and the streets of India. Filmed entirely on location, the grandeur of the main stage is fantastic to look at, whilst the costume design ranges from Mountbatten’s decorated military attire to the colourful uniforms and dress of the Indian servants.

Unfortunately for the success of the film I left the cinema feeling manipulated and that an agenda was at play. The film ends with the information that the director’s family fled the partition, that on the way her grandmother’s baby died of starvation and it was after nearly two years in a refugee camp that her grandparents were re-united. I’m not in the slightest downplaying this dreadful human tragedy, but it was one of millions, and it’s being used to peddle an essentially very selective view of the history that comes from two books – Freedom at Midnight, whose authors had access to the Mountbatten archives and the man himself and veers close to hagiography at some points  and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by a former Indian diplomat, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was a junior member of Mountbatten’s staff and who maintains that Churchill was the culprit for the bloodshed of partition.

As Ian Jack points out in a scathing Guardian review, historians have given this short shrift, but the power of film is such that there are going to be millions who take away from this the message that Mountbatten and Nehru were guiltless and that Churchill and Jinnah were the evil geniuses of partition. As Jack points out

Chadha denied the charge of anti-Muslim prejudice – persuasively, I think – but to my mind she and her fellow writers on the film, her American husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and the English screenwriter Moira Buffini, have committed just as great a sin, which is to take a breathtaking liberty with the historical record.

As he goes on to say The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office. Even so, it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.

And that’s the danger of this film, because film is a much more powerful medium than the written word and misrepresentation can be taken away as gospel truth (as demonstrated by more than enough viewers who think that Downton Abbey accurately represents early 20th century Britain). If people want to learn more about independence and partition, Viceroy’s House isn’t the film I would recommend. Viewers are advised to purchase, rent or borrow DVDs of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), a 14 part drama produced by ITV. Both explore the complexities of Indian society and politics in the dying days of the Raj and the road to independence in a sensitive and historically accurate way that Viceroy’s House has failed to do.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/viceroy.htm

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4302730/Viceroy-s-House-whitewashes-Lord-Mountbatten.html

Andrew Roberts. Eminent Churchillians (London, 1994)

Alex von Tunzelmann. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (London, 2008)

Stanley Wolpert. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford, 1996)

Women’s History Month

As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/an-american-at-kenwood-transatlantic-marriages-in-the-gilded-age/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/debs-delight-what-being-presented-and-the-season-was-really-like/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/debs-delight-part-2-lady-roses-court-presentation-and-a-right-royal-boo-boo/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/back-in-the-dolls-house-misrepresenting-post-war-women-in-downton-abbey/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/12/29/back-in-the-dolls-house-part-2-lady-ediths-pyrrhic-victory/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/spotlight-on-margaret-bondfield/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/women-in-black-mourning-fashion-and-etiquette-1870-1939/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/twelve-hours-of-danger-a-day-the-women-munition-workers-of-world-war-one-part-1/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/twelve-hours-of-danger-a-day-the-women-munition-workers-of-world-war-one-part-2/

Happy Reading!

What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 2)

For part 1 – see here

Delayed Reaction –  food rationing

Another example of this delayed reaction I mentioned before is with regards to shortages and rationing. As early as late 1914, the difficulty in obtaining goods from other countries resulted into price hikes for both essential and non-essential goods. By around 1916 there were already fabric shortages that helped accelerate further the demise of Victorian mourning customs. There was also less coal to go around so several households resorted to burning “waste paper bricks” or installing “coal saving” chimney pots. Crucially however was in 1917 when the Germans decided to engage in unrestricted U boat warfare to starve Britain into submission. In April 1917 alone Britain lost 800,000 tonnes of shipping – Germany knew that the UK depended a lot on imported food from abroad and decided to strike where it would hurt Britain the most – as Georgina Lee noted on 29 January:

The submarine menace is now acute. These islands are faced with a real shortage of food….[t]he daily toll of ships is growing heavier, and the Germans are seizing upon the U-boat as their last chance.

The submarine menace is now what we fear most. It really marks the death grapple between Britain and Germany.

By the end of April, Lillie Scales noted in her diary that “last Wednesday 40 ships over 1,600 tons were reported as having been torpedoed or mined,” Lord Devonport, the food minister initially called for voluntary rationing and Britain was forced to have two meatless days a week, while from October 1917 bakers were allowed to add potato flour to bread. Georgina Lee on 2 February 1917 recalls the amount of food consumed by her household:

We do not exceed this liberal allowance already, at least we have not lately. As we are seven in the house, I reckon we can have weekly:

13 loaves of 2lbs each, with

1½ lb Flour for puddings etc.

1/2 lb Flour for Cake

As for sugar, for weeks past I have imposed a limit of 5lbs for the household. Now I see I can use another 1/4lb, if I can get it! It has been very difficult to procure sugar at all, most grocers absolutely refusing to supply any. But my dear Army and Navy stores allow a certain fixed proportion on grocery orders.

The meat will be more difficult as the 2 ½ lbs include bone. It includes bacon for breakfast and ham so it will mean a great deal of goodwill and patriotic loyalty on the part of women, because these rations are at present left to our honour to enforce. There is to be no system of tickets yet, as in Germany. But the Government will resort to compulsion if the country does not respond.

The inefficiency of British agriculture and the commitment to free trade was one of the factors why Britain imported the bulk of its food from abroad. There were other factors as well as Jeremy Paxman noted, the British, he wrote, “lived by trade, and the growth of imperial power had rendered the country unable to feed itself any longer.” This overdependence on imported food meant that supplies were vulnerable to enemy attack and since the war broke out, people had generally made do with substitutes for staples such as butter, while newspapers and magazines published recipes especially for cakes that required no butter, milk or eggs.  But this wasn’t enough and by 1917-18, shortages were becoming more acute and endless queues for even the most basic of food stuffs were becoming common. The government’s initial response was to promote voluntary schemes such as “Eat Less Bread” through the office of the Food Controller led by Lord Devonport with the support and encouragement of the royal family. But these were not really successful and as more ships were sunk, shortages became even became more acute and the cost of food went up even further; the state was forced to come up with compulsory rationing especially on food stuffs such as butter, sugar, flour and later meat. The rationale behind rationing was to ensure that everyone received their fair share and would result into fewer queues in shops and discourage general panic that could damage morale. To help enforce rationing, the government made food hoarding a crime and several prominent and wealthy people fell foul of the law such as the writer Marie Corelli who was fined £50 for hoarding sugar despite her protestations that the sugar was for jam she intended to give away. A massive fine of nearly £700 was imposed on a Newcastle shipping magnate Rowland Hodge after he and his wife were caught hoarding over a ton of food including sugar and flour.

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Apart from making food hoarding a crime, the government also extended the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to cover food production. Other legislation were introduced such as the banning of throwing rice at newlyweds, fines for wasting food (by 1918, nearly 30,000 people were fined for such an offence), regulating what farmers could feed their livestock and setting minimum prices to discourage war profiteering as well as making the latter punishable by fines or imprisonment. But there was more to rationing than coercion and employing the stick, for instance the Game Laws were relaxed to ease food shortages, as Georgina Lee recalled in her diary:

13 February

The Game Laws of England! They too have had to make way for the necessities of England at war. Not only is it illegal to feed game birds on corn or maize, but game is no longer protected. Anybody can shoot pheasants and any other game on the land on which he is tenant. This is partly to use all available food, and also to prevent these birds eating the precious crops. Some few weeks ago it was the shooting of all hunting packs, to save their food; and naturally too of foxes to prevent them eating poultry.

There were also campaigns to encourage people to plant vegetables no matter how small the patch of land was (and yet again, the royal family did set an example by using the gardens at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences to plant potatoes and the like) as well as exhortations to eat bread substitutes such as rice and maize and using less refined flour or potatoes to bulk out homemade bread. Magazines, newspapers and cookbooks were on hand to offer advice on how to eat well despite rationing – a noted example was May Byron, a writer known for her popular biographies and cook books. As she exhorts in her war time cookery book, May Byron’s Rations Book, “[i]f you cannot have the best, make the best of what you have” and her recipes were filled with tips on how to stretch out meagre rations and using substitutes for ingredients that were expensive or hard to obtain.

The fact that Britain was importing most of its food from abroad and that the war had meant both rising costs and later food shortages makes a nonsense of Jessica Fellowes’ claim that “food was relatively plentiful” and that “rationing didn’t come in until near the end of the war,” (but perhaps she didn’t notice that those two statements contradict each other). Certainly voluntary rationing was encouraged and  official rationing and the issue of ration books did not start until the beginning of 1918 with the issue of ration books with coupons for sugar, butter or margarine and meat. Throughout 1917 and 1918 regulations and penalties against waste, hoarding and profiteering became increasingly stringent, which does not suggest that food was “relatively plentiful”. It’s true that the Crawleys would have been cushioned by the fact that there was a home farm that supplied nearly all the family’s food but they would have still been subjected to government legislation concerning what to feed and not to feed their livestock, there would have been fewer men working on the farm and given that the Crawleys seemed to have resisted mechanising and implementing more efficient means of farming then there would have been less food to go around. Crucially there would be difficulties with imported essentials such as flour and sugar as well as coal. We do not see the Crawleys really coping with shortages in the same way as majority of their real life counterparts did, and yet again we don’t see them taking the lead and initiative when it comes to offsetting and easing shortages in food. Also, if the Crawleys haven’t mechanized (and a comment in series 1 suggests that haven’t), they are reliant on horses, and many of these horses would have gone, having been requisitioned by the army. The ones that are left are the old ones and they work less hard and need more care and feeding, hence less food is produced.

Even before compulsory rationing had been introduced, many real life aristocrats had been finding ways to cope with shortages. As Pamela Horn writes, as early as 1915, the duke of Marlborough had already introduced sheep into the formal gardens at Blenheim to replace the gardeners who had enlisted, and turned over the gardens for the planting of vegetables. Mabell Countess of Airlie, apart from her duties as a lady in waiting to Queen Mary and war work involving nursing training, was also holding the fort at the Cortachy estate as her sons and many of the estate workers had gone off to fight. She was heavily involved in ensuring that the estate was doing its part in the nationwide drive to be more self-sufficient in terms of food. In her autobiography Thatched with Gold, she recalled: “My entire horizon was bounded by potatoes. Every vine house was stuffed full of them; even the little hut at the back of the gardens was stacked with potato boxes from the floor to the roof.”

As mentioned in part 1, the Crawleys being the leading local family would be expected to be following the rules and seen to be following the rules, and that would include food rationing as well. Even before the diktat from the government arrived, Robert and Cora should have been leading by example and instructing Mrs Patmore and the rest of the kitchen staff to ensure that nothing was wasted: and even before the food shortages became noticeable and unavoidable, rising costs on goods and services as well as increase in taxation would mean that the Crawleys would have to resort to belt tightening measures long before 1917. It’s all well and good for Carson to pontificate that “keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans they will not beat us in the end” but as the war dragged on, the casualties mounted and food became increasingly scarce Carson’s concern about proper place settings and objecting to maids serving at the table are not so much amusing as irrelevant and petulant. However, the rationing only becomes a plot bunny for when Matthew is set to marry Lavinia Swire and Mrs Patmore has to make the cake for the festivities. Rationing then becomes a crude bolt on plot device and trivialises the fact that Britain could have lost the war and that revolution could have been possible if it wasn’t for rationing both voluntary and through legislation, the convoy system and the realisation that to survive, people would have to rely more on home grown food and be canny and flexible. As May Byron confidently asserted:

Now, when faced with a crude incontrovertible fact that we live in an island, and that nearly all our food has been coming for outside that island, there is no doubt that the present rude awakening should be – in the long run – be very much to our advantage. ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ To begin with, a fools’ paradise is a weakening and demoralising habitation; to go on with, we are now compelled, willy-nilly to learn the use and value if expedients, of substitutes, of skilful cookery….I conjecture that, sooner or later, we shall emerge from this dire emergency a great deal cleverer than we were before; having acquired all sorts of knowledge, and exploited all manner of possibilities, which we should have regarded with a stare of blank bewilderment in 1913.

 

The servant problem – grabbing opportunities with both hands

When the First World War broke out, men of all classes rushed to enlist and this meant particularly for the aristocracy that their male servants both outdoor and indoor as well as estate farmers and tenants went off to fight; leaving them with those who were too old or too young to enlist (although this didn’t stop those who were too young from lying about their age). Outdoor members of staff such as carpenters, gardeners, gamekeepers, chauffeurs, coachmen and grooms particularly were valued by the armed services as they had skills that were useful and needed in a time of war. Country house servants were also generally seen as fitter and healthier than their counterparts in the city and were attractive recruits. There was also the appeal to patriotism – as Country Life asked its readers not long after the outbreak of war:

Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who, at this moment should be serving your King and Country? Will you sacrifice your personal convenience for your Country’s need? Ask your men to enlist TO-DAY.

The aristocracy also heavily encouraged their servants and estate workers to sign up; offering incentives such as keeping their jobs open for their return when the war ended (and the expectation was it would be over before Christmas), extended pay and continuing to pay their salaries to their dependents. More encouragement came from the state through the establishment of Pals’ Battalions and propaganda posters depicting German bombings of British towns and cities. Finally in 1916, the government introduced conscription which meant that men who fitted the criteria determined by the government had to fight. Conscription meant that more able bodied men went away to fight and with a few exceptions many aristocratic households found their homes almost exclusively staffed by women.

The war however also took away many of the female servants. Better pay and shorter working hours led many maids to leave service and take on work in munitions factories. Although the work could be difficult, dirty and dangerous the benefits included weekends off and nutritious and filling meals served on site. For the first time, many of these women had more money, more free time and were not in the beck and call of someone nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The munitionettes eagerly partook in the nascent consumer culture of the period as they went to the pictures, tea rooms and restaurants as well as purchasing cosmetics, scent, clothes and accessories. Manufacturers and service providers realised that there was a new market to be tapped and the munitionettes would help pave the way for the growth of a consumer culture among the working class following the war.

Although the servant problem began during the late 19th century, the war further accelerated this issue. As the men went away to fight and the women moved on to more profitable war work, the country house many of which were located in the middle of nowhere suddenly was seen as limiting and it was preferable to be at the trenches or in a noisy factory. Rising costs and higher taxes meant that it was unaffordable for the aristocracy and upper middle class to keep the same number of servants before the war and resulted in many of them being unable to keep their promise of holding jobs open for those who had gone off to fight.

In light of this, it’s baffling that apart from Thomas and later William, none of the downstairs staff at Downton Abbey has expressed any interest in leaving the confines of the Abbey to either serve at the front or head off for more lucrative work. More so especially the women as Fellowes and the PR (especially during the last three series) have been yammering about “strong women” who are “substantial individuals” and are not “wilting damsels:” except we don’t see that either with the upstairs or downstairs female characters. Someone like Anna or Daisy would have been prime candidates to leave the Abbey to find better opportunities elsewhere but instead we get Anna snivelling and pining for Mr Bates as part of what would become a long running misery saga, and Daisy does nothing but whine and sulk despite the efforts of good Samaritans such as William and Jane.

There’s Ethel the second housemaid who constantly goes on about “wanting the best” but yet  continues to stay in service when she could go to a munitions factory and get paid more and work shorter hours and days. Of course there is the irony that her story line which involves her getting pregnant out of wedlock by one of the officers who is a patient at the hospital and getting sacked as a result is accurate and could have happened: especially as pregnancy out of wedlock was frowned upon by all social classes and a working class woman like Ethel would have much to lose.

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Another irony is that the most accurate story lines in this series featured those downstairs. Apart from Ethel, there’s William being conscripted and his belief that they are fighting a just war, Lang the valet who was invalided out of the army and suffers from shellshock, and war widow Jane who replaces Ethel and finds a kindred spirit in Robert. However it’s a shame that many of these story lines were not explored more thoroughly and this was not helped by the ropey timeline and the speed with which Fellowes explores the First World War.

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Conclusion and aftermath:

In his notes on the script for the 2011 Christmas special, Fellowes claimed that he set the special at the end of 1919 with the traditional servants’ ball held after New Year in 1920 in order to “allow the audience to grasp that the next series would take them into yet another era, leaving the war far behind.” And that in my view was a foreshadowing of the problems that would plague the programme in the last four series, especially the last three after Dan Stevens decided not to renew.

From series 3 onwards, there was a collective amnesia about the war in Downton Abbey. As one critic has pointed out, Downton simply retreated to the past when money was still plentiful and they could party like it was 1912 all over again. We do not see any war veterans begging in the streets, there’s nothing about unemployment going up as soon as the demobilised men return from the front, no mention of maimed veterans or further rises in taxation or sales of land and property and as many viewers cheekily pointed out, no disabled war vets among Mary’s suitors: and none of the paranoia about revolution, Bolshevism and socialism. Watching Downton you could be forgiven for not knowing that by 1918 three major ruling dynasties – Habsburg, Hohenzollen and Romanov – had been overthrown, in the case of the latter, bloodily and violently, nor the widespread fear that revolution and radical social change was likely to happen in Britain. Unlike real post-war Britain, the war becomes forgotten until it’s used as a plot bunny in series 5 to give redundant characters something to do and even then it was a delayed reaction – why does it take until 1924-25 for the village to have its war memorial when similar edifices were already springing up across the country as early as 1919 and the Cenotaph in London was built and dedicated in 1920 following the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey?

Although with hindsight series 2 is seen as one of the more decent series (the other being series 1), this marks the start of the often baffling swerves in characterization for the sake of the plot, Robert in particular. A man like him who was in the regular army would have been recalled to the colours as soon as possible or if sending him to the front was not possible, then he would be placed in charge of a training depot responsible for training some of the volunteers who have signed up. One can see how Fellowes writes to the plot and not the character from that and what happens in series 3 when apparently Robert – a Lord Lieutenant and representative of the Crown – can barge into the Home Office and DEMAND that the Home Secretary perverts the course of justice for a Fenian rebel – which is something that I think a lot of people didn’t realize he was doing. Not to mention as well indulging in breaking in and forgery in order to stop a putative royal scandal in the 2013 Christmas special, a plotline so thin and so ridiculous that people laughed at it for its lack of credibility and sheer ludicrousness. If he can do all of that, then he can confront the War Office and demand a posting. But that wasn’t the plot so it didn’t happen although it was likely that Fellowes didn’t even think of him doing that.

A family like the Crawleys would have been expected to step up to the plate and do their bit. They would have taken the initiative and not wait until 1917 to be dragged kicking and screaming to open their house as a hospital when in reality a lot of homes were already ready to receive casualties not long after the outbreak of war. In the end, the war was simply treated as if it was a little local difficulty in the way of Matthew and Mary getting married –  it barely inconveniences the family for all their foot-stamping over the hospital –  and for all the yammering about “Downton at war” and claims that the programme is chronicling a time of rapid change, we barely see any of it. All the changes are simply cosmetic, there are no attempts to really explore what the war meant for everyone and how they were affected.  The servants and family assemble to mark the armistice on 11 November 1918, Robert makes a poignant comment about how many men have been killed on the estate and that’s all, folks. Global war and slaughter on an industrial scale done, dusted and dealt with. Once the war is over Downton Abbey reverts to the old ways as if nothing had happened, and as many viewers pointed out, the 1910s where so much happens is covered in 2 series while the 1920s where nothing major really happens is dragged out for four. So much dramatic and narrative potential, and all wasted.

armistice-day

It seems that nothing must stand in the way of derailing the destiny that has been set for Matthew and Mary – to the point of staging a mis-diagnosis and miraculous recovery for Matthew so he can marry his true love and sire the next generation – as well as what Professor Katherine Byrne calls the programme’s “socially conservative” message. I will even go one step further to say that the war must not stand in the way of the fairy tale that has been constructed around Downton as demonstrated by the collective amnesia about the war afterwards except in series 5 as a plot point, when in reality it was still present in people’s minds right up to 1939 and of course beyond to the present day.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

Katherine Byrne. ‘Adapting Heritage: Class and conservatism in Downton Abbey‘. Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice Vol 18 no 3 (Aug 2013) pp. 311-327.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm

Britain on the Brink of Starvation: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare