Christmas at Chatsworth in Georgian times

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 December 2015

The west front at Chatsworth drawn by Sir Francis Chantrey c.1818

The west front at Chatsworth drawn by Sir Francis Chantrey c.1818

supplied by Lindsey Porter

In Georgian times, Chatsworth played host to lavish parties, entertaining guests on a grand scale. Just one detail revealed by Lindsey Porter in his new book about Duchess Georgiana

Devonshire House on Piccadilly, viewed from Green Park, one of the finest houses in the capital. Taken from Thornbury's 'Old and New London', 1873-74Devonshire House on Piccadilly, viewed from Green Park, one of the finest houses in the capital. Taken from Thornbury's 'Old and New London', 1873-74

The 5th Duke of Devonshire succeeded his father in 1764 at the age of 16 years. His income went up by c.£40,000 pa, which augmented his then income of £20,000 pa from his late mother’s estate. By comparison, in the 1760s, a miner and his wife at the estate’s copper mine at Ecton, near Hartington would have the combined income of £23 pa. In 1774, he married 17-year-old Georgiana Spencer, the daughter of 1st Earl Spencer, who quickly established herself as a leading socialite in London.

Their principal home was Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London, then one of the most fashionable addresses in the capital. It was sited virtually opposite what is now the Ritz Hotel. Although with a somewhat plain looking Palladian exterior, it was sumptuously decorated internally and housed one of the finest collections of Old-Master paintings in the country.

The Duke and Duchess used Chatsworth annually in August at the time of the Derby, Chesterfield and Nottingham Races. Nottingham was five hours away from Chatsworth and so they usually stayed there at a house rented by the Duke and Duchess of Portland (the latter being the Duke of Devonshire’s sister). Later in life, the races became less important to them and they went to Chatsworth in September, staying for a while, sometimes to the end of the year. Christmas was celebrated on the one day and without the current hype.

The journey from London usually took three to four days. They would often stay with family or friends overnight (eg with Lady Spencer, the Duchess’s mother, at Wimbledon Park or Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam at Milton House in Northamptonshire, the Duke’s cousin).

The Palladian villa at Chiswick House todayThe Palladian villa at Chiswick House today

There would be carriages for the Duke and Duchess (and later Lady Elizabeth Foster on occasions), another for the children and others for the personal servants. Most of the servants would stop at inns en route and therefore travelled separately. The baggage travelled north on a wagon, taking a week to make the journey. It was protected by three stalwart occupants and two were always present on board and all three slept on it. If this maintained security, it did not necessarily mean the contents travelled safely. In 1784, the wagon tipped over in Chatsworth Park, smashing two pier glasses valued at £500. The driver was probably drunk and also was too poor to pay for the damage he had caused.

In late November 1800, Bess Foster arrived from Devonshire House. ‘With what delight I entered the park gates and through the snow frozen on our windows shew’d (accompanying guests) the garden, then the House with its cheerful lights and blazing fires… Then the Dss came flying down to the library to see us.’ Family visits involved many guests, some staying for weeks at a time. During a 14 week stay those blazing fires burnt 300 tons of coal.

The house was about full with 15-20 guests and they, plus the family, ate well. In 1798 for instance, 14 tons (i.e. a ton per week) of meat were consumed, although the poorer cuts were given to servants and poor tenants. The animals came from the home farm and were slaughtered within sight of the House.

The diet on that visit was varied with a lot of fish caught in the adjacent River Derwent. Even a brace of pike, caught by a local angler were purchased for the family table. This was augmented by 23 barrels of oysters brought in from Sheffield, 30lbs of eels and 229 dozen (that is 2,748) crayfish. They drank well too: 6 dozen bottles of East India Madeira and German Moselle plus 284 gallons of port were purchased for their needs. Although they managed to buy Belonia sausage, they were never able to obtain as much milk and as many eggs as were needed. Cows were borrowed from neighbours to help with the milk shortage.

Hardwick Hall built by the Duke's ancestor Bess of Hardwick, eight generations before the 5th DukeHardwick Hall built by the Duke's ancestor Bess of Hardwick, eight generations before the 5th Duke

The grocery bill came to c.£500 with other wines, foreign cordials and hops costing another £236. Supplements to the diet were oranges, essence of lemon and other fruits, olives, ginger, best refined sugar, seltzer (soda) water, cockles etc. The House brewer was kept busy with beer making (he also made the bread). As an alternative, 70 gallons of cider was drunk, costing 14p per gallon.

A little earlier, in 1795, the Hardwick Hall beer cellar was storing 17 pipes (a pipe was 108 gallons) and 72 half-pipes of beer (5,724 gallons). The wine cellar contained 954 gallons of wine and spirit, of which 705 gallons was port and 144 gallons was white wine. Maybe some of this was eventually taken to Chatsworth for the Duke rarely used the house other than for shooting. On such occasions, both the beds and the bed linen were taken there from Chatsworth. On 14th November 1797, a dance was held at Hardwick and an old lady remarked that it was the first one to be held there since before 1755 (the 3rd Duke’s time).

Although the Duke could rise early enough for his shooting parties, he could sometimes be in bed all day. It was common for the Duke and Duchess to rise in the afternoon. Her mother was up early and the concept of the all-day breakfast was nothing new to the cook. The formal dinner was initially at 6pm, but later, if the Duke was late back from shooting. In fact it gradually became the norm to be at 7pm. It lasted for at least a couple of hours with sometimes a break in the middle. Supper was at 11pm but taken in the Drawing Room, not the Dining Room.

For entertainment, cards and billiards were the usual distraction, with Lady Spencer giving the Duke no quarter in both. Musical or reading evenings were an alternative. There was a skittle alley and occasionally horse racing etc to while away the time. With morality being more relaxed among some of the guests (eg. Lady Jersey, Lady Melbourne and Richard Sheridan), there was always a chance that a fancied lady would be gracious with her favours, but this did not include the Duchess.

book coverbook cover

By the end of the century, the Duke and Duchess shared the same bedroom, but each had their own four-poster bed. A guest in November 1798 slept on a 16ft high/4.9m high bed covered with the finest chintz, lined with green silk. The bedframe was carved with festoons of fine cut flowers and gilded. Chairs were also carved and covered with chintz fabric to match the bed. The latter had three mattresses, four blankets, a bolster and two pillows, with a green silk quilted counterpane. A coal fire kept away the chill. Curtains matched the bed or the chairs and the guests rooms had a chest of drawers, dressing table, a large gilt-framed mirror over the fireplace and a Wilton carpet.

The more formal rooms held a lot of white furniture together with some of the oldest and finest 18th century Anglo-French furniture, which survives in the House.

There was usually hardly anyone about in the mornings but visits were arranged to other large houses or local attractions in the afternoon, as far out to Buxton and the Duke’s holiday resort there. The Duke was careful as he felt that the Derbyshire fogs were ‘unwholesome’. In the winter, even the Duchess tried to ensure the children and guests did not venture out unless the sun was shining.

After 1795, visits became fewer, with the completion of the two wings for the family at Chiswick House. It was only 12 miles from London and together with its beautiful gardens, became a family favourite. In March 1802, the Duke and Duchess left Chatsworth for London. The Duchess never returned and the Duke came back only once in late-1810, leaving in early 1811, a few months before his death on 29th July. The Duchess had died in 1806 from liver disease, leaving an enormous void, both in her family and in the capital’s aristocratic social circles. The Prince of Wales summed up the mood when he said that they had lost ‘the most amiable and best bred in the land’

Lindsey Porter’s new book Duchess Georgiana: Georgian Britain’s Most Popular Woman, A New Study is now available through bookshops or direct from Guidelines Books, 11 Belmont Rd, Ipstones, Stoke on Trent, ST10 2JN price £14.99 (carriage free, cheques only please). Tel: 01538 266662

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