Stable Staff: Servants Focused on the Horses
I’ve written six posts which covered, in detail, the men and women who maintained the interior domains of an estate manor house. Now, with this post today, I have four blogs detailing the duties of those men and women who worked to maintain and beautify the exterior aspects of the house and estate. For a listing of all blogs I’ve written on managing a country estate, as well as all my historical blogs, visit the Pemberley Library.
In an era of agriculture and pre-power driven mechanics, it is easy to fathom how vitally imperative horses and all the trappings were. Not only for the basic needs of transportation, since one could literally go nowhere of any significance without a horse, but because the very livelihood of the entire estate depended on horses. They may have utilized oxen or some other beast of burden for various tasks, but the horse was the cornerstone. Due to this accepted reality, even modest establishments exalted the stable complex to near equal status with the main house, and hired a troupe of skilled employees to attend to the animals’ needs.
The British Stable is a book by Giles Worsley with wonderful historical information regarding the evolution of stables, the architecture, and the attitude toward horses. It is outrageously expensive, but if interested, click the image to the right. This reviewer’s quote about Worsley’s book is particularly interesting and insightful:
…in a quote from The British Stable by Giles Worsley: “Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century quadrangular stables were limited to royal palaces and the Earl of Northumberland,” but Worsley suggests that in the eighteenth century the form was taken over by the new real rulers of the country: the prime minister and the great landowners. The continuing high status of horses in polite society is indicated by the way Roger Morris’s quadrangular stables at Althorp overshadow the neighbouring mansion, and it is hinted (perhaps heretically) that James Paine’s stables at Chatsworth may even compete with “the rather confused ducal residence they serve.”
The entire campus would include several barns and buildings in addition to the main stable structure. The principal focus to the stables was the roomy private stalls placed in a central location with excellent ventilation, the ability to heat in the winter, appropriate light, and easy access to the feeding troughs, hayloft storage, and grooming areas. Everything that occurred in and around the stables was for the express purpose of keeping the animals in prime condition. The stables of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (see the image above) measure 190 feet square, have two complete storeys, and had 80 horse stalls in its functioning days. Granaries, numerous storage areas for the livery and equipment, the garage, sleeping quarters, the smithy, and offices would be the basic essentials of any proper stable. Add on the immense open areas and corrals for exercise and training, and it is plain how much space the complex would consume.
The garage facilities (or carriage house – the appropriate term) would include rooms filled with equipment and accessories, as well as a smithy for repairing metal parts and creating horseshoes. They may be attached to and part of the stables, or a separate building located nearby. A wealthy landowner or aristocrat of the day could easily rival Jay Leno in his desire for collecting costly vehicles! Various carriages had specific uses, to be sure, so the desire for different types was a sensible need. However, the manly passion for stylish conveyances did not begin with the age of automobiles, but rather with fine horses of unique breeds and luxurious carriages for them to pull. These were their Rolls Royces and Porches, and were housed accordingly. The carriages of the wealthy, both large and small, were elegantly equipped with rich silk damask fabrics upholstering the cushioned seats and beautifully painted and gilded crests embellishing the doors. Accessories might include pistols stored in hidden slots, wine or other spirits stowed in a special compartment under the seat, a beautifully made carriage clock, brick or metal lined hollows in the floorboard to place heated stones, traveling lamps for illumination, and rich fur lap robes. Items like this were too costly and precious not to be sheltered safely from all harm when not in use.
The image below is of the stable complex erected at Bishopgate House in Egham, Surrey. The plans were featured in the April 1870 edition of The Building News and Engineering Journal, noted as “a model establishment, with all the recent improvements.” The date is well past the Regency, yet an informative diagram nevertheless.
Although I haven’t specifically talked about London townhouses in this series, in general the servants employed inside and outside would have been the same, only in a much lower number, and their working environs would have been similar as well. Stables at a London townhouse served the same purpose as their country counterparts, just without the extensive space. Called “mews”, these two storey buildings opened onto the narrow alleyways running behind the connecting townhouses. Today the mews of London have mostly been converted into apartments or businesses, as shown in the picture to the right.
The Stable Staff
The Head Groom, or Stablemaster, would oversee everything regarding the stables and was in charge of purchasing supplies. He coordinated and conferred with the estate owner, the land steward, and the head coachman, and dealt with any problems amongst the staff and horses. He would devise training routines for the horses, accommodate the household’s riding and driving needs, provide lessons in horsemanship, and ensure that a groom was available at all hours of the day and night to fulfill the family’s demands.
Grooms, assisted by stable boys (apprentice grooms) were in charge of caring for the horses directly. Brushing, feeding and watering, exercising, training, and examining. They were veterinarians of a sort, expected to watch for any ailments and treat accordingly. They daily mucked and washed each stall, inspected the harnesses and other tack, and shoed the horses as needed. If the horses were involved in sports or racing then the groom would be expected to travel with the horses and provide support services during the competition. Additional specialized helpers employed on-site usually include a blacksmith, farrier, wheelwrights, and leather workers.
Coachmen were in charge of the carriages and were the designated driving specialists. The number of skilled coachmen varied depending upon the household’s size, with the Head Coachman the highest ranking and best trained driver. Being able to competently drive a carriage, especially those four- to six-horse drawn coaches of the day, required intense concentration and incredible proficiency. It was a mastery highly praised and sought after, not only by the public coaching companies and mail transports, but also by wealthy gentlemen. In fact, it was so esteemed a skill that many gentlemen considered it a challenge to be able to drive a carriage themselves, although very few did so beyond the smaller varieties, such as gigs and curricles. The average person could not possibly manage a heavy coach without years of experience, and the wise amateur would not risk his life, and the life of his family, out of pride.
All of the coachmen were equine experts as well, usually starting their career as a groom. The more prestigious and industrious the estate, the more dedicated this position was with the coachmen far too busy to cross over as a groom. Modest households might not have been financially able to extend this luxury, hence the handful of coachmen and grooms were combined. Private equipage ranged from the simple gig or horsecart to the elegant coaches. All would be daily inspected, maintained and repaired, kept meticulously cleaned and polished, stocked as ordered, and prepared for immediate use. The coachman was a mechanic, knowing down to the last spring and bolt how the vehicle was constructed, and how to repair it.