A Christmas Ball.

40773The following is a short but charming excerpt from Backstairs Life in a Country House by Eileen Balderson with Douglas Goodlad (1982). Eileen Balderson was born in 1916, and as the youngest of a large family left school early to start employment in domestic service mainly in large country houses. Many of her reminiscences come from her time spent at particular houses like Burwarton House (Shropshire), Rise Park (East Yorkshire) and Middleton Hall (East Yorkshire).

Here, Eileen discusses the breathtaking seasonal entertainments, of which Christmas was one. She then recalls some of the seasonal Dinner menus – the Winter one is added at the end here!

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Never again would there be such entertaining as in the pre-war years. Never again such hosts – or guests!

The big houses were full of music and colour at party time…When there was a big shooting party, there were a number of visiting servants…If the local hunt met at the house all the mounted followers were offered a drink – port, sherry, cherry brandy, sloe gin, with whisky for the huntsmen and whips, and others who asked for it. I longed to try the sloe gin, which was made in the house. Alas, it was locked in the butler’s pantry.

In houses with upwards of twenty in staff, a servant’s ball was held around Christmas time. The ball with the gentlemen of the house having the first dance with the cook and his lady danced with the butler. My sister dropped an awful brick at a house where she was head kitchen-maid. The eldest son of the family asked her for the first dance. Not knowing who he was, she said she was engaged for that turn around the floor! The mistake is readily explained. Except for the butler’s pantry staff and the lady’s maid, the rest of the servants very rarely saw the family, the kitchen staff least of all.

Master and mistress stayed for about half an hour and after a toast to them they left. The ball then got going, but was fairly respectable and sober until the butler, cook and their guests had gone. After that, it was really enjoyable! As the ball did not usually start until about 10pm we were out of bed for most of the night. It was work again in the morning, and a case of wash and change and into uniform for a day’s duty without sleep, but not without sustenance. There would no doubt be some tasty leftovers.

Winter Dinner Menus

Chicken Soup

Fish Quenelles

Fillets of Beef

Japanese Artichokes

Stewed Normandy Pippins

Whipped Cream

Sardines a la Piedmontaise

***

Rice and Tomato Soup

Fillets of Plaice with Green Peas

Salmi of Game

Potato Fritters

Pear and Chestnut Tart

Cheese Ramequins

***

Mutton Broth

Stuffed Fillets of Haddock

Curried Chicken     Boiled Rice

Cold Apricot Souffle

Savoury Brain Croutes

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (British History Online).

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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2 Comments

Filed under Book reviews, Servants, Women and the Country House

2 responses to “A Christmas Ball.

  1. Maureen Richardson

    I think this proves that Downton Abbey’s depiction of the close bonds and cozy familiarity between upstairs and downstairs is pure fantasy. If a member of kitchen staff didn’t even recognize the son and heir I suspect her life was spent in dawn to dark drudgery below stairs,, a more realistic version of what life in a great Edwardian country house was really like!

    • I’m in total agreement with you on this, and I’m pleased you’ve picked up on that as I’m quite wary of Downton Abbey anyway! The programme has to have a certain gloss for television for sure, but there’s a lot omitted for the sake of fluency, I think. Eileen Balderson’s story is one of many, but they’e not always easy to discover in print.

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