The servants’ hall at Canons Ashby

Jon Stobart

Servants’ halls are commonplace in British country houses. The one at Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire, appears unusual in its decorative scheme, but was in fact entirely typical of servants’ halls which were carved out of existing space.

Servants had traditionally dined and often worked in the Great Hall, but these activities, and the servants themselves, were increasingly relocated as the hall was remodelled as a space for display.

In newly built houses, servants’ halls were added to service wings or placed in the basement; in existing houses, rooms were repurposed. This is what happened at Canons Ashby, a parlour being converted into a servants’ hall around the time that Edward Dryden was remodelling the house in the 1710s. The walls, decorated with sixteenth-century heraldic or perhaps masonic devices, were whitewashed to make the room a plain backdrop to the daily lives of Dryden’s servants. The room was ideally situated: next to the kitchen and the newly created butler’s pantry and separated from the family rooms on the south of the building by the Great Hall which formed the dividing line and link between service and public space.

The furniture in the servants’ hall remained largely unchanged through the eighteenth century. A 1756 inventory lists: ten flag-bottomed chairs, a deal table; a dozen knives and forks, two white jugs and two ‘little drinking horns’, some fires irons, a spinning wheel, and two pictures. By the end of the century, there were another half-dozen knives and forks had grown and a couple more pictures on the wall; the spinning wheel had gone, replaced by a clock in the adjacent stairwell. The material culture of the servants’ hall reflected its primary function as a place of communal dining (and working) for what appears to have been a growing number of servants. The clock might suggest growing control over their time; but they enjoyed some small comforts in the form of pictures and, more practically, a warming fire.

Further reading:

  • Stobart, Jon. ‘Inventories and the changing furnishings of Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, 1717-1819’, Regional Furniture, xxvii (2003), 1-43.
  • Waterson, Merlin, The Servants’ Hall: a Domestic History of Erddig (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980)