Groundskeepers on a Georgian Estate
Six separate blogs were necessary to cover everyone who worked inside the walls of a grand country manor house or upper-class London townhouse. All the posts I’ve written regarding the management of a Regency Era estate are listed in the Pemberley Library, or can be found by a website search from the main blog page. As will be revealed, the stable staff, gamekeepers, and groundsmen were equally vital to the upkeep and functioning of a great house, and for the prestige of the family dwelling within.
Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter. The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent.
Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. ~Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“Miss Crawford soon felt that he (Tom Bertram) and his situation might do. She looked about her with due consideration, and found almost everything in his favour, a park, a real park, five miles round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the kingdom…” ~Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
The English did not invent the elaborate gardening landscape ideal but they brought their own style and techniques to the endeavor. In no other era was this truer than the Georgian. Classically imbued elegance and refined style: the earmarks and lasting accomplishments of the decades encompassing the shorter Regency. As in fashion, trends evolved and were inspired by other cultures, mainly European. In particular, French landscaping influences led to the formalized, highly symmetrical gardens popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, as the century turned and the war with France instilled strong sensations of patriotism, wealthy Englishmen rejected anything remotely French. Thus, the straight lines and sharp angles of geometric gardens were replaced (in parts) with the natural flow of curved pathways, rounded ponds, and freely growing vegetation. Suddenly the plethora of young men previously exposed to the untamed, extreme, and bold terrains prevalent in Europe while on their Grand Tour, as well as the varying garden and architectural styles of countries other than France, could allow their creativity to burst forth. As a result, the majority of the great estates during the Regency displayed a beautiful meshing of the two gardening styles that was unique from anywhere in the world.
Compare the drawings of two different English country estates below, the top from 1707 and the bottom from 1835.
The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature.
To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.
Share the botanical bliss of gardeners through the ages,
who have cultivated philosophies to apply to their own – and our own – lives.
Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.
~ Alfred Austin, The Garden That I Love, 1894
Travelers coming to visit would approach the main house via a circuitous route amid winding avenues planned so as to view the grounds advantageously. Passing through wooded areas, open fields with free roaming sheep or cattle or deer, rivers and lakes graced with elaborate fountains, until finally arriving at the house which was, of course, adorned with colorful flowers, lush bushes and trees, and precisely trimmed hedges. Hints of the superb hospitality, luxurious accommodations, and unparalleled entertainment to come.
The goal was to create a stunning feast for the eyes, a relaxing park to stroll upon, prime woods and wild areas to hunt in, one-of-a-kind fountains and intriguing adornments to explore, numerous ponds and rivers, and a vast array of outdoors entertainment options. And of course, Lord Smith’s grounds must be superior to Lord Jones’!
Not too surprisingly, landscape architects and master gardeners were in high demand, esteemed, and very well paid. Quite a number attained a level of popularity akin to today’s celebrity status. Men such as William Kent, Charles Bridgeman, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and Humphry Repton, to name but a few, were revolutionary geniuses in landscape design.
Trained through apprenticeships and decades of experience at multiple places, their knowledge would be comprehensive. A thorough understanding of indigenous and exotic plants, pruning, pest control, soil types, seasonal care, weed abatement, and the like was only the beginning. They also needed a firm grasp on the science and technology behind fountains and hot houses, for instance. They were educated on the historical precedence, cultural inspiration, and art of landscape beautifications, such as follies, mazes, statues, ha-has, and so on. Landscape design was a pure art form, and the men who rose in the field were artists on par with a master painter or musician.
All of the groundsmen from the boss on down were far more than simple gardeners. There wasn’t a single chore from cutting the grass to erecting an elaborate structure to clearing the paths of debris that they weren’t responsible for and prodigiously skilled at. Above all, be assured that these men (and women) perfected their art with passion and loving care. Furthermore, they weren’t only in charge of the ornamental pleasure gardens but also the extensive herb and kitchen gardens, and fruit bearing trees required to feed the family and guests.
Maintaining such elaborate and enormous gardens was an ongoing task that easily required up to 100 groundskeepers for a Pemberley-sized estate. Dozens more might be needed if garden construction was underway. Typically there was one Master Gardener who oversaw everything and consulted with the Master of the estate. Assistants would be assigned to manage specific areas — the orangery, kitchen gardens, ornamental gardens, orchards, and so on — with a crew of apprentices and laborers under their command.
Truth is, I have searched a number of times for specific information on who took care of the upkeep and repairs to the house itself. Logic dictates there had to be a passel of workers who did nothing but fix broken tiles, clean the brick walls, repair cracked window panes, patch leaky roofs, repaint the trim, empty the gutters, sweep the terrace, remove mold and moss from the statues, and so on. Yet, I’ve found nothing to indicate a special branch of servants with a unique title, so have concluded Georgian handymen fell under the broad “groundskeeper” umbrella.
What became certain as I Googled the topic is that the decline in stature of the great houses (many of which closed during and after the World Wars), and ultimately led to the creation of the British National Trust to restore and preserve, was primarily due to the decay of the house itself. Vegetation survives without constant attendance, albeit in a less attractive state, but bricks and mortar crumble if left alone. Maintenance of the structure was increasingly difficult due to changes in the servant class and men needed on the battlefield, and even with the advantages of modern technology costs escalated.
A fascinating article in The Telegraph from 2007 when Prime Minister Tony Blair was considering purchasing historic house Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire (I didn’t look to see if he followed through on the purchase.) discusses the cost aspects. This quote was especially intriguing–
“A conservative estimate of the annual cost of maintaining an historic house is 2 per cent of its value,” says George Burnard, of Strutt & Parker’s country house department. So Mr Blair would spend about £600,000 on Winslow Hall each year.
This American has no idea what the US dollar value of £600,000 is, but any currency with that many zeros is bound to be a huge number! And granted we are talking 2007 versus the 1810s. Still, any way you slice it, we are talking a hefty sum. Additionally, in an era before power tools and a nearby home improvement superstore, the amount of work is mind boggling.
How Did They Do It?
FUN GARDENING FACT
Pesticides as we know of them did not exist, although various chemicals such as sulfur, mercury, arsenic, and nicotine were utilized.
No electricity, no water pumped via long hoses, and no gas powered riding mowers. Yes, gardening was rough physical labor in these bygone days. However, what they did have was a wealth of tools for every need! According to famed gardener John Evelyn (1620–1706) who wrote Elysium Britannicum, or The Royal Gardens in Three Books, one list of “absolutely necessary” gardening tools included: iron-clad spades, rakes, hoes, pickaxe and shovel, sieves and screens, dibbers, transplanter, a planting lattice, ladder, trowels, turf lifter, turf edger, scyther, slasher, stone roller, leveller, tamper, funnel, shears, and long pruners. And that was just his first list!
Perhaps the toughest task was keeping the extensive lawns cut. Grazing sheep and cattle represented the first lines of defense. And here you thought they were there to look pretty! Well, in part that is true, the appearance of roaming wildlife fitting in with the natural aesthetic desired. Primarily they were useful in managing plant and grass growth, although grazing animals rarely nibble in perfectly neat rows. Furthermore, the downside of turf gouged by sharp hooves and animal droppings, while “natural”, might mar the pristine visual! Another reason meticulous planning of the landscape was essential. Animal herds do the trick, as long as they stay in distant meadows!
So what about cutting the lawns designated for strolling or gaming fields? As the drawing below left reveals, coordinated teams of laborers wielded scythes to clip the grass, using a smooth, well-rehearsed motion to cover large areas of ground. This would be done at least weekly during the spring to autumn months.
FUN GARDENING FACT
The first lawn mower was invented by English engineer Edwin Beard Budding in 1827 after he noticed a machine with revolving blades on a cylinder that was used in textile mills to shear the nap of velvet. See illustration above right.
If interested in more on the topics discussed today, here are a few links: