Access to the basement of Belton House is by guided tour only. Places are limited so it makes sense to book when you arrive. Photography is not allowed and the tour is unsuitable for wheelchair users. The tour was advertised as taking 50 minutes. Ours took 75 minutes. The guide was excellent, informative and funny. He also allowed plenty of time to ask questions.
The tour takes you down into the servants working areas and covers the life and working conditions of the servants. There was a strict hierarchy below stairs with upper and lower servants. Status was all important and servants never asked anyone else, especially a lower ranking servant, to do their jobs. Sexes were strictly segregated and men and women servants were not allowed to work in the same room above stairs. At night the doors separating men and women’s quarters were locked and only the housekeeper and Butler had keys.
Servants started work as young as eight and were often illiterate when they arrived. They were taught to read and write by the upper servants.
The tour begins in the Marble Hall and goes through a red beige door to descend into the corridors running under the house, with work rooms off. We passed the massive dumb waiter which took food up to the breakfast room and stopped to admire the row of bells on the wall. In the corridor was a nightwatchman’s clock. This had a series of small pegs and each time the nightwatchman made his rounds he triggered one of the pegs. This meant the Butler could check how many rounds he made each night. The nightwatchman was also responsible for making sure all candles and lamps were put out at night. He was also the estate rat catcher.
The tour begins in the women’s corridor. Rooms are now disused and empty and cold. The slate slab in the pantry could be kept even colder by pouring water over it. The housekeepers room was a large room doubling up as office and sitting room. The walls were lined with big cupboards to store all the linen (150 pairs of sheets and 90 tablecloths) and china.
The still room was used to make jams and pickles as well as distilled vinegars and flower waters. The breakfast and afternoon tea was preserved here. In the 1930s it became the kitchen and has a large Aga, sinks and a drying rack hanging from the ceiling.
At the end of the corridor is the servants entrance to the chapel. Servants were expected to attend every morning and twice on Sundays. The upper servants sat in the front pews and the lower servants behind them. The organ pulls out from the left side of the gallery and was worked by hydraulic power until this was removed after problems with flooding.
Moving into the me's corridor, the first room is the Stewart’s Boy’s area. He was responsible for washing the pots after the servants meals and carrying wood to the bedrooms.
Next to it is the Stewart’s room. This was an office with desk, cupboard and bookcase, and also where the upper men servants ate their meals, being waited on by a lower servant. The stewart was responsible for looking after the estate. He was responsible for hiring and firing staff. Young children would be taken on following a recommendation from existing staff of good reputation. Servants had to ask the Stewart’s permission to marry. Women were told no, as there were no married quarters in the house. The men might be given permission if they were a senior servant, had worked in the house or estate for a long time, were a good worker and had somewhere on the estate to live. If a married man was offered a job he was given accommodation in the house but his wife and family had to find somewhere else to live.
Next to this was the Nightwatchman’s room. Beyond is the wine cellar with walls lined with brick built bins. Along with the beer cellar next door, this has a curved ceiling which supports the grand staircase above it. The door of the wine cellar was kept locked and only the butler had a key. Wine was decanted before serving. The corks had the vintage date on the bottom and there was a resale market for them. Corks could fetch three to five shillings depending on the vintage and were used by unscrupulous hoteliers to replace corks in bottles of cheap wine.
Male servants were allocated three pints of beer a day, women servants two pints. The beer was weak, only about 1.5% volume. Before the 1800s, tea was too expensive for the servants to drink.
The lamp room was a very important room until electricity was installed in the 1930s. Forty oil lamps were needed.
The Strong Room is beneath the Marble Hall. It is lined with cabinets containing silver gilt and silver plated crockery. There are Christening cups, cigar lighters, urns and also a set of mastiff dog collars, dating from 1707. The coronets of the Earl and Countess dating from the first Lord Brownelowe are kept here. The church plate is kept here too.
The Gilbert Collection from the Victoria and Albert Collection is displayed here. (The V&A are responsible for the photographic ban on this tour.) Sir Arthur Gilbert amassed what was described as the finest private collection of silver and gold which he bequeathed to the nation. This was kept in store in the V&A but there has been a policy to return some of the items to their original homes for display. The collection on display at Belton House includes a silver gilt lady’s vanity set.
At the end of the corridor is the Butler’s Pantry with fireplace with a chair beside it and a large table. The Butler was responsible for the silverware and crystal which was kept in large wall cupboards. His job also included washing the crystal and there was a boiler to supply hot water and a sink. There was a rack of trays used to carry crystal and silverware.
The Butler was also responsible for ironing the morning paper. This wasn’t to remove creases, but to make sure the ink was dry and wouldn’t mark his lordships hands.
The Butler slept upstairs and the The Under Butler slept in this room in a bed hidden in one of the cupboards. His job was to guard the silver and strongroom and there were a two blunderbusses above the fireplace.
The tour then goes down a long corridor to the kitchen with large working table, big range (not the original), oil lamps hanging from the ceiling and walls lined with shelves. Food was taken in a heated trolly to the dining room. The person pushing the trolly was expected to whistle all the time as it is impossible to eat and whistle at the same time.
This was a fascinating tour. There was a lot to take in, almost too much. The tour is included in the admission price for Belton House and is definitely worth doing. I have written a separate review for Belton House itself.