The material culture of Servants at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire

Jon Stobart

When Edward, fifth Lord Leigh, had completed the refurbishment of his grandfather’s grand west wing in the mid 1760s, the older parts of Stoneleigh Abbey were largely given over to service space. The ground floor contained bedrooms for the housekeeper, chaplain, steward and several junior servants.

As befitted his status at the top the hierarchy of servants, Samuel Butler, the steward, enjoyed a suite of three rooms. A 1774 inventory shows that, amongst many other things, he had provision for his toilet, a press to store clothes, a dining table (suggesting that he ate separately from the other servants), a desk and a bureau, plus bookcases, numerous chairs (perhaps to accommodate meetings with tenants or other servants), and gilded sconces to provide lighting. This kind of refinement was underlined by the presence of other numerous pieces of high-quality furniture which had probably been removed from elsewhere in the house: a walnut dressing table and dining table stand out.

Such relocations also added a touch of quality to the housekeeper’s room. In addition to a suite of walnut chairs and a gilt-framed pier glass, the inventory lists a four-post bed with mahogany feet and posts. Beds of this description had been supplied in 1764 by Thomas Burnett, a London upholsterer, for guest rooms in the West Wing. Both the bedstead and its crimson damask hangings had clearly been down-cycled for use by the housekeeper. Her crimson damask window curtains had no doubt followed the same route. 

In the room next door, the housekeeper’s maid enjoyed little of this luxury. She had the comfort of a feather bed, complete with bolster, pillows, blankets and a quilt; but the only other things in the room were four chairs and a looking glass in a painted frame. And she apparently had to share her room: the inventory lists another bed the same as her own. Down the corridor, the steward’s boy had just a bed, chest, chair and looking glass. The power relations of the servant hierarchy at Stoneleigh Abbey were thus underscored by the material culture of their varied accommodation.

Further reading:

  • Bearman, Robert (ed.), Stoneleigh Abbey: The House, Its Owners, Its Lands (Stratford upon Avon: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2004).
  • Hardyment, Christina, Home Comfort: a History of Domestic Arrangements (London: Viking, 1992)
  • Stobart, Jon, ‘Servants’ furniture: hierarchies and identities in the English country house’, in S. Hague and K. Lipsedge (eds), At Home in the eighteenth Century: Interrogating Domestic Space (Routledge, 2022), 245-65.

You may also be interested in: The servants’ hall at Canons Ashby