Wednesday, July 8, 2020

How grand was the aristocratic Georgian London house?

by Elizabeth Bailey

Unlike the grand country house, where successive owners could build extra wings whenever they felt like it, space was at a premium in London just as it is today. Georgians built up rather than wide. Although there were mansions of considerable size, these were exceptions. Not every landed family could have one or build one. There simply was not enough room to accommodate them all.

A double-fronted very large house, such as that occupied by the Polbrook family, had in general four huge rooms to each floor. On the floors above, an extra smaller room could be made of the space above the downstairs hall. Likewise, on the second or third floor, depending how many floors you had, you could make another small room in the space above the stairwell.

There would be two staircases, a narrow one for the servants, either at the back of the house, or tucked away in a recess somewhere. This gave access to all floors, including the attics where the servants slept. Internal walls here would create enough rooms to service the entire domestic staff, with the exception of the butler, who traditionally slept in a room near the pantry.

Down the servants’ stair to the basement, you would find the domestic offices, often a rabbit warren of small rooms and corridors. The housekeeper’s room will be here, as well as the butler’s pantry, the large kitchen, store-rooms and, down a further stair, the wine cellar, the coal cellar and very likely a junk room too. At the front of the house a main door led to a narrow area and steps up to the street.

If you had four or more floors, you might give over the whole of the first floor to a grand saloon for parties and a ballroom. However, a house without this facility could open out two rooms for the purpose of holding a dance. In the Polbrook house, they would use the Blue Salon and the Dining Room. This would give you an extended room about 23 feet long and a good 18 feet wide at the front, a little less at the back to accommodate the staircase.

Choosing this design for the Polbrooks makes it possible to create two good-sized parlours in the front at ground floor level, the posh Blue Salon for visitors and a cosier parlour in daily use by the family. The two rooms behind become the dining-room and the library, the latter accessed by a small vestibule which also houses the servants’ narrow staircase. The central hall runs from front to back, where we find the grand staircase winding around and up.

On the first floor, the principal bedchambers at the front are occupied by the master and mistress of the house, and the little room over the hall becomes my lady’s dressing room. One back bedroom is occupied by the second son of the house, Lord Francis Fanshawe, and the other is reserved for guests. The heir and the daughter of the house have rooms on the second floor, with two more bedrooms available at need.

All the main rooms have fireplaces, which create a stack of flues and chimneys either side of the house because fireplaces cannot share the same flue. In the Blue Salon, as was customary, the furniture is ranged around the walls, but the family parlour has a more cosy arrangement, with only one sofa against the wall and chairs set so as to enjoy better warmth from the fire.

In the domestic quarters, things are somewhat less than comfortable. The back door leads to a yard below the main garden behind the house, with the coal hole, sheds and other facilities, where dirty water might be disposed of and carpets beaten, for example. From the cellar below there is a further outside area, which is decidedly unsavoury with the servants’ privy, receptacles for the disposal of all the contents of the chamber pots, and a lane where the “night soil men” come through to take it all away in a cart. The stench is one of the major disadvantages of working below stairs.

As may be imagined, to keep these great houses operational you needed many servants, even in the London house. Under the butler, you have the indoor menservants such as footmen and boot boy. Under the housekeeper come the female staff: the housemaid, the chambermaid and the kitchen maid; and nominally, the cook, who reigned supreme in the kitchen. Then there are the ladies maids and the valets.

At need, extra help is hired in, like the laundry woman who collects the linen and takes it away to be washed elsewhere. Caterers may be brought in for balls, bringing waiters with them. Horses and carriages are kept in stables in a nearby mews, with grooms and stable boys living above them. In addition, there are a couple of gardeners and perhaps a skivvy or two.

In all, this aristocratic Georgian family required a dozen or so servants to service a household of three to five individuals, with perhaps an occasional relative or guest. This gives your sorely beset author of the upstairs downstairs murder mystery a cast of thousands, as they say, to manipulate, quite aside from the various characters to be found outside the home. It was rather a relief when research produced this relatively modest house instead of the grand mansions we tend to associate with the lords and ladies of an earlier era.

[This is an Editor's Choice archive post, originally published on EHFA 19th June 2018]


Elizabeth Bailey feels lucky to have found several paths that have given her immense satisfaction – acting, directing, teaching and, by no means least, writing. Through the years, each path has crossed the other, honing and deepening her abilities in each sphere.

She has been privileged to work with some wonderful artistic people, and been fortunate enough to find publishers who believed in her and set her on the road.

To invent a world and persuade others to believe in it, live in it for a while, is the sole aim of the novelist. Elizabeth’s own love of reading has never abated, and if she can give a tithe of the pleasure to others as she has received herself, it’s worth all the effort.

You can check out Elizabeth’s website here


  1. A fascinating insight. Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing.
    Have Tweeted.

  2. Thank you for this insightful, helpful post. Much appreciated.


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