Monthly Archives: March 2011

Life in a German Country House

Excerpts taken from The Leisure Hour: a Family Journal for Instruction and Recreation. (April, 1866). Unknown author.

An 1896 cover for the journal The Leisure Hour

       The journal contained many different items, from biographies to reference information and short stories. Copies were illustrated with scenes from the stories, and many of the editions were headed with a quote by William Cowper; ‘Behold in these what leisure hours demand, – Amusement and true knowledge hand in hand’, which gives an impression as to the aim of the publication. Each edition was originally priced at one penny and published weekly. (See Rooke Books)

       However, I found this piece on Ebay for a couple of pounds! It appears to have been neatly unbound from its original volume at some point and sold on as a separate essay. I haven’t reproduced it here in its entirety as the story is over 6,000 words! So far, it has been impossible to track which house is being discussed – which is disappointing, but the article is fascinating for many other reasons. The language is very conventional for the mid-nineteenth century, and the (female) writer clearly had set ideals concerning daily routines, dress codes and even room settings. (Note the complaints she makes about a type of bedding we now take for granted.) In many instances these are very apparent and she seems rather haughty, or at best slightly naive. Perhaps the best thing about this article is a reader’s comment at the end which questions the original writer’s authority and knowledge on the subject. Clearly, someone wasn’t impressed by the simmering haughtiness and constant cultural comparisons which favoured the English above all else!

There is a short glossary of terms at the end.


Life in a German Country House.

       Our acquaintance with the Von Fersens commenced in a singular way. The Countess broke her arm crossing the Brunig Pass in Switzerland, and was brought to Lungern while we were there. We were able to show them some attention, and were a good deal in their company; in fact, I struck up quite a warm friendship with the twin daughters – very pleasant girls. Some six months after we returned to England a very pressing invitation came for us to pay a visit to the Von Fersens at their home at Havelburg.


       As we drew up, there was a hospitable rush of the whole family outside to receive their guests. Helena and Bertha overwhelmed me with embraces and tears. The Countess, who spoke little English, exclaimed, ‘Very much welcome, my dear mess,’ as she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Welkommen, ein schones Welkommen,’ said the Count, who knew no English, giving me what he called a right English handshake. My brother Fred was most cordially received, and a tall, long-backed son, Count Albert, duly presented.


       Helena led me up the carpetless stairs, with their massive oak balustrades – stairs so smooth and shining that, running down in a hurry, I more than once narrowly missed a tumble. Going down a broad passage, we entered a pretty room, with two windows overlooking the lake. There was no toilette-table, but a tall, narrow mirror stood between the widows, secured by an ingenious contrivance of ropes. This, being rather rickety, often frightened me as I brushed my hair before it, for I was afraid of the heavy thing tumbling down on me. There was a small piece of carpet – quite a luxury – under a round table in front of the sofa. The small bed was without hangings or drapery. The sofa could, if necessary, be turned into a couch. The washing-stand shut up and formed a table during the day. An antique chest of drawers and a few chairs completed the furniture. I leaned out of the window to enjoy the prospect. How pleasant these foreign windows are in summer: it is so charming to have the whole aperture for light and air, and to lean out without risk of knocking one’s head. In winter give me our close-fitting sashes.


       There was a tap at the door, and Paulina, the young Countess’s maid, entered with a friendly ‘Guten Tag, gnadige Fraulein.’ I soon found out that the servants expected to be greeted with a few civil words on first seeing them in the morning, etc., as much as their masters did. Servants here are by no means the silent automatons we are accustomed to; and, as they talk without forwardness, and give themselves no airs, the greater freedom of intercourse with their employers seems, after all, more natural than our cold English fashion.


       A little before two we assembled in the large drawing-room. Even at this early hour the sisters were in low barege dresses, with a white muslin jacket. The Count offered his arm and we marched into the ‘saal’. The soup came first, which the hostess helped as in England. Everything else was handed round the table being covered with plate and flowers, silver vases at the corners filled with lilac and golden-rain (laburnums), and an epergne with preserved fruit in the centre. Three courses of made dishes followed the soup, very nice, but incomprehensible – most likely veal. Two plates were given us to-day for the apricots, here considered the proper accompaniment for roast pork. When we mentioned apple-sauce as the fashion at home, all the family exclaimed at the strange mixture.


       I thought then and afterwards that dinner lasted a very long time. The interval between each course was immense; but did not find it at all tedious. The young ladies spoke capital English – so idiomatic; Bertha enchanted Fred by coming out with a little mild slang, yet neither had been in England, but as is customary in North Germany, they had had an English governess for several years.


       About half an hour after dinner, old Tegel, the footman, brought round some delicious coffee; and then we all rose and dispersed in different directions. The gentlemen took Fred to look at the farm buildings behind the Schloss. These German land-owners are generally farmers; i.e., they have their land in their own hands, and manage it by means of inspectors (bailiffs). Our system of letting several hundreds of acres to one tenant seems quite the exception. For some miles round, nearly all the land belonged to the Count, and more than a thousand persons lived on his property in two villages. Havel had four hundred inhabitants, and Rosen, three miles off, was larger. Some idea may thus be formed of the number of labourers employed, and of the very large sum disbursed weekly in wages. A German nobleman, therefore, while at his landhaus, leads an extremely active and busy life.


       The garden at Havelburg was a very disappointing place. Count Fersen was considered the wealthiest man in the province, and there was much taste in the laying out of the grounds; but Fred and I were scandalised at the want of order and neatness. In spite of the efforts of several women-gardeners, who were perpetually sweeping and raking, the lawn looked like a young hayfield, while the soi-disant gravel paths were ankle-deep in dust.


       Reader, you may be well acquainted with Rhineland, you may even have done the grand round of German capitals, and still you may know nothing of a genuine German bed. The number of travellers visiting the country have effected a revolution in the chief hotels, and there we find sheets, blankets, and counterpanes much the same as in England or France. The architecture of my bed was on this wise: a spring mattress at the bottom, then a feather bed covered with a sheet, an enormous pillow for the head as big as four of ours rolled into one, and a smaller one for the feet, elevating them in an uncomfortable manner. There was only one lower sheet, and neither blankets nor counterpane. The superstructure was a large feather bed in a case, the duplicate of the one below. The night was oppressively hot, and I trembled at the idea of passing it beneath that mass of feathers. The next morning Fred enquired how I managed, and gave me the benefit of his experience. After a desperate idea of using the towels as sheets, which from their size and dampness he found impracticable, he said he ended by taking the feather bed out of its white covering, and so slept in the great case. Even in winter, when the warmth is grateful, these beds are uncomfortable, as they are apt to roll off, and it is impossible to tuck one’s self up.


       After Sunday dinner the Count asked us to drive to a neighbouring Schloss, which we declined; and then Count Albert made a vain attempt to induce Fred to join in a dance the servants had got up in the lower hall! Of course our scruples were considered unreasonable. In the cool of the evening Helena and I strolled down to the lake, and there she begged me to tell her what the day at home was like. I tried to picture to her the serenity and peace of an English country Sabbath, the rest from toil for man and beast, the quiet, happy family gathering, the freedom from worldly cares, and the holy preparation for the perpetual Sabbath-keeping that remains for the people of God. I suppose in many families there may be better usages, but I record what I saw of ‘Life in a German Country House’.


A reader’s comment.

I have been rather amused lately by an article in ‘The Leisure Hour’ for April, entitled ‘Life in a German Country House’. Though evidently a recollection of ‘auld lang syne,’ the little picture is painted in lively colours, and cannot fail, I am sure to give pleasure even to those who cannot have the same interest which I have in hearing German life described by and English pen.

But while it is only justice to say that this little narrative is amusingly written, it is nevertheless far from giving satisfaction to a German reader; and I cannot refrain from making a few remarks, and protesting, in the name of my countrywomen, against conclusions that might be drawn in too strict accordance with the sample of German country life given here. Besides, it would only have been fair to state how many years ago, and in what part of Northern Germany, the lady may have gathered her experience of German life.

I am quite ready to believe that, many years ago, in some remote part of back Pomerania or Eastern Prussia, things may have been as described in that article, from the absence of the egg-cups and toilet-table up to the dusty garden walks and weedy flower-beds. But I can only say that my experience, which is not based on one case only, is of a very different nature. It is quite true that we Germans do not, happily for us, attach so much importance to all the luxuries of life as is the case in England; but I must say that, though sometimes more than fifteen miles distant from a railway-station, and in houses where there was no pretence to luxury, I never yet found a bedroom so bare as the one described; and that wherever I went I have always been lucky enough to be provided with a well-furnished washing-stand, which was not meant to be anything else during the day.

The narrator must have gone with wonderful notions on her German visit. She seems to have expected a sort of back-woods life! She dwells with considerable length on the good-natured hospitality she everywhere meets. She praises it just as one would praise it in a savage, and is not only astonished to find a certain degree of intellectual culture in German women, but actually quite wonders not to find that they may be only good for knitting stockings and spinning flax.


Glossary of terms

Barege dress: Mainly a gauze dress

Landhaus: Country house, administrative base for estate management

Saal: Dining room

Schloss: Manor house, castle, mansion or stately home.

Soi-disant: Probably meant here as ‘so-called’ or ‘supposedly/allegedly’.

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Courses and core reading material

There are now centres and specialist courses for the study of country houses. The specific geographical spread of these courses probably exists as a result of the suitability of accessible houses in the locality, and in all cases there is always a house used extensively for study purposes.

Selected universities/institutions that include modular based study of the country house as part of their History of Art, Museums Studies or History.

Nottingham Trent University

NUI Maynooth

University of Buckingham

University of Derby

University of Exeter

University of Leeds

University of Warwick

University of Wolverhampton

It is also worth checking the following for other forms of study which usually link their modular courses with summer schools and continuing education.

The Rich Man in his Castle: the Victorian Country House – citylit: Centre for Adult Learning, London (April 2014)

Culture of The English Country House – University of Oxford, Department for Continuing Education

Stately Homes and Country Gardens – Oxford Royale Academy

Country House Study Week – University of Buckingham

Summer Study – Durham University Study Week


Architecture: the English country house – University of Warwick

Certificate in Country House Studies – University of Hull

Masters Degree

Centre for the Study of the Country House – University of Leicester (part of the Department of the History of Art and Film). There are two MA courses – The Country House in Art, History and Literature (based on campus) and The Country House (by distance learning).

Masters level modules

British Country House – (the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies) University of York. At Close Quarters: The English Country House and its Collections – Sainsbury Institute for Art at the University of East Anglia (in association with The Attingham Trust)

The courses themselves generally focus upon the English country house (with the exception of Maynooth) and its formation to houses in the media and houses as museums or heritage sites. Distinct modules will include the building of the country house, estate and household management, heritage management, houses as depositories of art collections, and some greater historical context such as politics, wealth and land management. At a higher level of study and specifically in research terms, gender, class and material culture/consumption have steadily established themselves as worthy subjects connected with the study of the country house with individual case studies proving that the country house was more than a decorative administrative base for a landed estate.

For anyone wanting to study the (mainly) English country house, these books are crucial reads. Many of these formed part of a key reading list when I was an undergraduate student of art history over ten years ago. When I started my research degree on women and the country house in 2003, those same key books were still being recommended to the student of the country house. I’ve updated the list for 2011 and included books which also cover something more of the social and economic history of the country house since these topics are integral to the subject in current teaching trends. This is by no means comprehensive, and places of study will recommend many more as part of their ‘core/preliminary’ reading lists.

For a full list of different types of courses and their locations in the UK see Matthew Beckett at

J. S. Ackerman. The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses. Princeton University Press (1990).

Dana  Arnold. The Georgian Country House: Architecture Landscape and Society. Stroud (1998).

J. Beckett. The Aristocracy in England, 1660-1914. (1988).

C. Christie. The British Country House in the Eighteenth Century. Manchester (2000).

Olive Cook. The English Country House: an Art and a Way of Life. (1974).

J. Gaze. Figures in a Landscape. A History of the National Trust. London (1988).

Mark Girouard. Life in the English Country House: a Social and Architectural History. New Haven and London (1978).

Mark Girouard. Life in the French Country House. (2001).

C. Hardyment. Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses. (1997).

J. J. Hecht. The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England. London (1956).

Gervase Jackson-Stops. The English Country House in Perspective. New York (1990)

M. Sayer. The Disintergration of a Heritage: Country Houses and their Collections. Norwich (1993)

Lawrence Stone and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone. An Open Elite?: England 1540-1880. (1995).

R. Strong. The Destruction of the Country House. London (1974).

John Summerson. Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830. Yale University Press (1993).

Amanda Vickery. Behind Closed Doors: at Home in Georgian England. (2010).

Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley. Creating Paradise: the Building of the Country House, 1660-1880. (2006).

Update November 2011: Warwick University have begun a project on the East India Company at Home which is a wide-ranging body of research into elite families, country houses and specific material culture connected with the East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The main aim of the project is to establish how goods from the east were traded or bought, displayed and cared for in the elite home with special focus on the country houses that were being built or rebuilt and modernised between 1757 and 1857. This is indeed a large time frame, however the website for the project contains some valuable material for the prospective student of the British country house including a comprehensive bibliography and detailed resources.

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A Short Story from Plompton Hall, North Yorkshire.

       In 1755 Daniel Lascelles (brother of Edwin who commissioned Harewood House) bought the estate from the de Plumpton family when Robert de Plumpton died without a male heir. Lascelles demolished the existed decrepit manor house in order to build a major new house to the design of John Carr. The house appears to have been converted from the south range of the stables when Lascelles moved to Goldsborough Hall, North Yorkshire in 1762 and building work on the much larger house to south-west of the stables ceased. The Hall and stables are mainly ashlar with rusticated stone quoins. The house is a private residence today, but the park and eighteenth-century pleasure grounds are now known as Plumpton Rocks (yes, that is a different spelling) which provided inspiration for J. M. W. Turner.

Plompton Hall

Present day Plompton Hall


       The story here exposes the relationships between household members and the outside workforce when a country house was under construction. It centres on the period of building before 1762 when Daniel Lascelles was still eager to establish a large house on this site. It is also possible to see the dynamics of a household without female authority in a managerial role!


       The exceptionally well hidden pregnancy of the Plompton cook, Sarah Lister would have continued so if it were not for the delivery of a healthy baby boy almost a month early. Lascelles had the incident described to him by the family doctor, Dr. Richardson who had been present during the labour, and the steward Samuel Popplewell who took some responsibility in defending the woman’s position in the household. Sarah Lister had planned to take leave for her relations when she believed the baby was due, but giving birth a month earlier than expected thwarted all plans of her maintaining such high levels of secrecy. Lascelles now had an otherwise highly regarded female servant to approach on delicate terms. Sarah Lister was fortunate to have secured support from her male colleagues with both a Doctor Richardson and Popplewell writing to Lascelles emphasising her wish to stay on in service whilst also complimenting him on his existing good nature. Popplewell rather optimistically hoped this would be further realised in this instance and reminded Lascelles that she was ‘an excellent cook’. Dr. Richardson was a little more objective:

…she says if you have so much compassion for a miserable wretch [,] forgive this great offence and continue her in your service, she will be bound by duty and gratitude to do everything in her power to serve you right. If you don’t think fit to continue her she beggs [sic] you will not expose her but give her a character that she may get her Bread in some other part of the world…

        Luckily for Sarah Lister, Daniel Lascelles eventually responded compassionately – not because he was entirely sympathetic to her misfortune, rather it was due to ‘the unpardonable thing in this affair was that the scene of this business should be laid in my house’, his forgiveness was therefore bound to keeping the ‘unlucky affair hushed…for the sake of good order in my house.’ More unfortunate for Lister, however was exactly how public the affair had become; a circumstance which led several workmen at Plompton to taunt and sexually harass her. Both Lascelles and Popplewell admitted her ‘freedoms with any of ye men servants’ had damaged her authority in the household, but hoped it could be quickly restored, especially as Lascelles had overlooked the affair and had similarly expected everyone else to do so. Taunts and bullish behaviour were unacceptable, whether her authority had diminished permanently is not known but at least Lascelles and Popplewell remained adamant (and somewhat patronising) in their agreement that Sarah Lister was one of the ‘better female Cooks in ye County and not many Housekeepers who sends up a Dessert in a prettier manner…’

       Retaining a servant who proved good in their department regardless of their irresponsible behaviour outside of it saved time on hiring and firing but anxieties clearly persisted where trust had been broken under the roof of an employer. For Lascelles, authority was paramount to safeguarding the order of the household. For Sarah Lister, her supposed sexual dalliances at Plompton left her mentally and physically vulnerable within a male environment, where men were in charge of all managerial affairs, as well as occupying wider space in the house as the building and interior work progressed.

A servant’s promiscuity had implications for the servant themselves; whilst an employer’s patience and diplomacy were meant as cool warnings for other household members to remain circumspect. Daniel Lascelles offered a second chance, but could easily have made examples of a servant caught up in scurrilous events.

Archives for Plompton Hall are to be found at West Yorkshire Archives, Sheepscar, Leeds. They have been placed with those of the Lascelles family which is mainly concerned with the building and plans for Harewood House in the eighteenth century and then personal papers up to the present day. There is a good index which breaks down the correspondence from the eighteenth century between family members and the steward Samuel Popplewell, from which this story is composed.

Links: National archives link to repository information,

West Yorkshire Archive Service,

Plumpton Rocks – part of the park and grounds at Plompton where John Carr helped create the dam for the lake eventually establishing a romantic walk which can still be visited today,

An interesting document relating to the conservation of Plompton area.

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Temple Newsam House, Leeds


Temple Newsam House (author's own image)

       I want to start with Temple Newsam House, Leeds because without a doubt it is a local authority gem, and mainly as I used to work there! Described in the current guidebook as ‘one of the great historic houses of England, famous as the birthplace of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary Queen of Scots in 1545, and sometimes called “The Hampton Court of the North”‘.

       The land here belonged to the Knights Templar in the early Middle Ages; a connection which gives the ‘Temple’ prefix. The house on the current site was originally built by Thomas Lord Darcy. Begun as a courtyard house with a gateway to the north in about 1480, it was probably completed by c.1520. Darcy’s involvement in The Pilgrimage of Grace led to his execution for treason in 1537, and the house passed to the Crown. It was then presented as a gift by Henry VIII to his niece Lady Lennox and her husband, whose son Lord Darnley was born and brought up here. However, Lady Lennox’s schemes to see her bloodline on the English throne once again saw the house confiscated by the Crown. 
       Eventually the original Tudor building fell into decay until it was ‘rescued’ by Sir Arthur Ingram in 1622 when he bought it from a descendant of the Lennox family for £12,000. He extensively remodelled the old Tudor courtyard house by demolishing the east wing and rebuilding the north and south wings; uniting the whole with an external inscription in the stone balustrade. 
       Ingram’s descendants lived here for the next 300 years, when in 1922 the house and parkland were sold to the Leeds Corporation. Rather tragic for the time, the then owner the Hon. Edward Wood offered the contents for an extra £10,000 but the Corporation declined and many of the goods were dispersed. A few items were left in the house as a gift to the citizens of Leeds, and several lots were purchased at the sale in order to furnish a caretaker’s flat!
        In 1923 the house opened to the public with new visitor routes added internally. The house developed as an art museum over the next few decades until the late 1970s when Leeds City Council and curatorial staff began the slow road to refurbishment in order to establish Temple Newsam as both a fine and decorative arts and country house museum. Some of the original treasures have been rediscovered and bought back; often placed in their original settings throughout the house according to inventories and sale catalogues.
       Today Temple Newsam House contains many rich collections on wallpapers, textiles, silver and ceramics. There are fine pieces of Thomas Chippendale (and the Younger) furniture too, as well as what is considered to be the most significant part of the furniture collection – the suite of gallery seats by James Pascall, repatriated in 1939 when it was bought from the Hon Edward Wood to enliven the beautiful yet sparse Picture Gallery space in the north wing.

The Picture Gallery 2008 (author's own image)

       I worked at Temple Newsam House for five years whilst studying for my research degree. Many of the staff are fantastic and there are always educational activities and holiday workshops. A few years ago there was a severe restructuring of Leeds City Council and a few museum and gallery staff found their jobs had been put asunder. Attitudes and opinions have changed throughout local authority owned museums and galleries where restructure and finances have been at the forefront of management. And so, with the speedy cuts being made in the current economic climate to our public services, I fear that the modern faces of Temple Newsam will be changing again. 
Links: The Leeds City Council website for Temple Newsam This is quite comprehensive, and I definitely recommend using this as a source for learning a great deal more about the house, its owners and collections. Contacts for the house are;
Temple Newsam House
LS15 0AE
House: 0113 2647321
(Please note that 0113 2645535 is the general estate number you may find in publications and websites.)
(And for a bit of laugh: )


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My First Post by countryhousereader

This is the first post by me – countryhousereader! Phew, it’s also my first blog, so it’ll be a bit creaky to start with. My hope is to express my knowledge of country houses gained through research, or just mooching about them when I get the chance.

This blog is intended to complement the existing country house websites and blogs which have detailed specific houses, their owners and architects. I do not wish to tread on any toes with more of the same; others are doing a grand job when it comes to establishing comprehensive histories of the country house on the internet. Instead, my intention is to deliver some of the themes associated with the country house in England (and Britain) as well as abroad. Amongst other things, this will include book and article reviews both past and present, and the occasional snippet of information from the houses themselves.

Hope you enjoy!


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