Archivist Ian Gregory probes a rare image of one of Buxton’s most iconic buildings:
I have recently catalogued one of the many images of The Old Hall, Buxton. This particular photo has a Victorian look to it. Three people stand on the corner, by a building which was old even then.
The Old Hall’s most famous resident was Mary, Queen of Scots but how many others have lived and worked there over 450 years? My first thought was of maids and waiters in Victorian times, perhaps because of this pictures age, but maybe due to a stream of period dramas about masters and servants. The latter were often overlooked in fiction penned at that time; today no costume drama is complete without them.
This is overall a change for the better as it shows us a broader cross-section of society, including the ancestors of many readers or viewers, including many women, who otherwise would be overlooked. Yet I wonder, do we still exclude people? Outdoor servants like gardeners and stable lads rarely figure in the period dramas, yet without them there would be no parks and water features at country houses. Head gardeners had to manage large teams, design greenhouses and grow plants which were then new to Britain. They provided much of the food eaten by their masters and mistresses.
Why did the Victorians seldom write about their servants? Snobbery is the obvious answer but was there another factor at work? Years ago, a writer of contemporary screenplays said ‘you can’t have a series about plumbers’; apparently they don’t do exciting enough things.
I’ve met plumbers whom I like, but that aside perhaps we forget something. To our ancestors hiring a maid or a footman was a mundane activity, just as employing a plumber is to us. It seems exotic and unfamiliar today because time has passed and much has changed, but at that time it was not. Had I been born a 100 years before I was, then I may have worried about some clumsy maid or randy footman but whether I’d have built a novel around them is another matter. I’m in favour of inclusive history, but also wondering if we today overlook the experiences of large numbers of people. How often do we write about contemporary hotel staff or shop workers? Will our grandchildren think we could’ve done more?