Yesterday we considered some of the domestic duties of the housekeepers of Jane Austen’s era.  Housekeepers in grand houses had another  more public role for they tended to be the person who would conduct guided tours of the house to paying visitors.

Let’s consider this process and a rather famous housekeeper….

We know from our reading of Pride and Prejudice that  the procedure for getting admitted as a visitor to an important house in the English countryside of the early 19th century was quite simple, provided one had the means of transportation and the correct attire : you applied to the housekeeper for a tour of the house, and if you were lucky, the gardener might also show your party around the gardens.

Tourism in the UK,- visiting grand country houses for example- developed apace in the 18th century. Why? First, because of  the developments in travel .If you couldn’t “get” to a country house easily you couldn’t visit it. Improved roads and the system of posting horse and carriages for hire, made travel easier for those who could afford it.  Secondly ,The Grand Tour of Europe , as undertaken by Edward Knight, Jane Austens’s brother, was tourism on a grand expensive and foreign scale, but the wars with Napoleon curtailed foreign travel to a large extent, so people turned to touring England and Wales for their leisure and education.

The rise in the cult of “taste”, as advocated by Edmund Burke, especially with regard to his “Philosophical enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful “(1757) and the “Picturesque” as developed by William Gilpin and his books, meant that people at last began to explore their own country, equipped with sophisticated guides for the evaluation of art, architecture and natural scenery.  The late 18th century/early 19th century tourist saw the visiting of country houses, not only as a pleasant activity, but one which gave them an opportunity to develop and exhibit ones “taste”.

Many houses were open to the public.  Horace Walpole, the famous antiquarian, regularly opened his house, Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham.

It was a roaring success. Much of the ephemera of that period associated with the openings have luckily been preserved and give us some idea of the  process for the owner and the visitor.

He wrote in 1783 ( in a letter to Sir Thomas Mann)

“I am tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house, and have no enjoyment of it in summer. It would be even in vain to say that the plague was here. I remember such a report in London when I was a child ,and my uncle Lord Townshend,then secretary of state,was forced to send guards to keep off the crowd from the house in which the plague was said to be-they would go and see the plague. Had I been master of the house, I should have said….”You see the plague! You are the plague”.

Poor old Horace was so inundated with visitors to his extraordinary house, that after he had been disturbed at dinner by the arrival of three Germans Barons who wished to visit his house, he eventually would only allow his housekeeper to admit people to his house if they could show her a signed ticket obtained from him in advance.

Such was the demand for these visits that Walpole had tickets printed- he still signed them and inserted the date of the proposed visits as you can see here, in this preserved blank ticket:

Indeed ,he went so far as to print ” a page of rules for admission to see my House”:


“…..Mr Walople is very ready to oblige any curious persons with the sight of his house and his collection….it is but reasonable that such persons as send, should comply with the rules he has been obliged to lay down for showing it.

No ticket will serve but on the day for which it is given. If more than four persons come with a ticket, the housekeeper has positive order to admit none of them…..

Every ticket will admit the company only between the hours of twelve and three before dinner,and only one company will be admitted on the same day.

They that have tickets are desired not to bring children…..”

He also had printed a Guide to his house and its contents. This was not unusual as we shall see below:

As I have said other grand houses opened their doors to the respectable paying public: Holkham on the Norfolk coast, the home of Thomas Coke and subsequently the Earls of Leicester was open to tourists while it was being constructed and afterwards. Visitors flocked to it in quite surprising numbers bearing in mind its somewhat isolated position on the North Norfolk coast.

There is no visitors book which recorded the visits, but there are entries about visitors in the wine books, which have been kept since 1748. The servants recorded whom they had served with refreshments from the cellars ,together with the details of the type and amount of wine consumed . This very civilised habit was so unusual in country house visiting that it caused numerous visitors to record their astonishment in their diaries. Sir George Lyttelton wrote in 1758:

I was not offered the least refreshment ,but a glass of wine at Lord Leicesters ,at any House I visited in the whole county

Mrs Lybbe Powys a kinswoman by marriage to Jane Austen and friend of the Leigh Perrots, and one of my favourite diarists of this era, wrote of even more generous hospitality:

…we had breakfast at Holkham, in ye gentlest of taste with all kinds of cakes and Fruit placed undesired in an apartment we were to go thro’; which as ye family were from home I thought was very clever in the Housekeeper, for one is so often asked by people whether one chuses chocolate which forbidding word at once puts (as intended)a negative on the Question

There was no official entrance fee to these grand houses, but visitors were expected to tip the servants who escorted them around the building. And it had to be a substantial tip. Horace Walpole wrote slightingly about Lord Bath and his wife who left a tiny tip( in his opinion) after visiting Holkham:

Lord Bath and his Countess and his son have been making a tour at Lord Leicester’s; they forgot to give anything to the servants that showed the house: upon recollection- and deliberation , they sent back a man and horse six miles with- half a crown! What loads of money they are saving for the French!

As Leo Schmidt observed in his history of the house,  Holkham, obviously one was expected to leave rather more than this sum as a tip for a tour of a great house. The house was so popular with visitors that it also had a guidebook which was published in 1775, and it could be had from Norwich booksellers. It stated that

“ Holkham could be seen any day of the week, except Sunday, by noblemen and foreigners , but on Tuesday only by other people”

indicating that at some houses a sort of class distinction  regarding admittance was made.

A visitor to Holkham in 1772, Lady Beauchamp Proctor, wrote:

..when we came to the House the servant told us we cold not see it for an hour at least as there was a party going round…we were obliged to submit to be shut up with Jupitor Ammon in the Smoking Room below the Saloon, and a whole tribe of people till the Housekeeper was ready to attend us, nothing could be more disagreeable than this situation ,we all stared at one another , and not a creature opened their mouths, some of the Masters amused us with trying to throw their hats upon the Heads of the Busts, whilst the Misses scrutinized one another’s dress…at length the long-wished for time arrived. The good woman arrived and we rushed upon her like a swarm of Bees. We went the usual round, all but the wing my Lord and Lady used to inhabit themselves, this was new done up…when we came down the party vanished ,but we were conducted a second time to Mr Jupiter where we poured libations of Chocolate on his altar, that is we had some set out in great form in the Leicester style

Another guide published in 1817 entitled The Strangers Guide to Holkham Containing a Description of the Paintings ,Statues etc of Holkham House In the County of Norfolk, the Magnificent Seat of T W Coke esq, M.P.,…Printed and published by J Dawson ,Burnham gave the following advice, which confirms Lady Proctors experience, that visitors were to

” congregate in the Vestibule under the Portico and the Saloon, to wait for the Person who shews the House”.

Interestingly, the Guide describes a route around the rooms which is still the route taken by tourists today.

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the home of the Dukes of Devonshire was the first house to adopt the habit of reserving “open days” for tourists and as early as 1760 it was open though only on two public days each week.

Derbyshire was a very popular destination. Guides like the Reverend William Gilpin’s book, Observations on Several Parts of England, particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty made in the Year  1772, provided potential visitors with a route and expectations of what  they could see in these somewhat remote areas.


Indeed, the route taken by Elizabeth Bennet and the Gardiners through Oxford, Blenheim Palace, Kenilworth ,Warwick  etc was the one recommended by Gilpin in that book . Mrs Lybbe Powys also took that route on her trip to Jane Austen’s most northerly destination,Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire. This book seems to have influenced Jane Austen tremendously, with its descriptions of Dovedale, the Peak, Matlock, spas at Buxton and houses such as Chatsworth, Haddon Hall and Kedelston.

Back to housekeepers.

The picture above is of Mrs Garnett who was the housekeeper at Kedelston Hall in the late 18th/early 19th century.

Kedleston was the Adam designed home of the Curzon/Scarsdale family,  in Derbyshire.

She was famous for her excellent guided tour. In her hand, as shown in the portrait, you can see a copy of the Catalogue of Pictures, Statues, &c. at Kedleston, which was ready to be put  into the hand of the next enquiring visitor. Such guidebooks had been produced at Kedleston since 1769, with subsequent editions revised to take account of the ever-expanding art collection. It was an important means of recording the identities of the sitters in portraits, which were of greater interest to 18th-century visitors than matters of attribution or iconography!! A consequence of not having such aids was recorded by Horace Walpole, who described how at Petworth the 6th Duke of Somerset refused to let his servants have new picture lists, so that when he died, half the portraits were unknown by the family!

Although it was by no means uncommon for house servants to act as guides, it was unusual for the housekeeper herself to be painted. That she was immortalised in this way perhaps indicates the respect and affection in which this long-serving and highly capable servant was held; indeed, she was given a gravestone describing her as ‘sincerely regretted’.

In 1777 she took Samuel Johnson and James Boswell around the house:

‘Our names were sent up, and a well-drest (sic) elderly housekeeper, a most distinct articulator, shewed us the house… We saw a good many fine pictures… There is a printed catalogue of them which the housekeeper put into my hand; I should like to view them at leisure.’

James Plumptre, the playwright and Anglican clergyman was clearly very impressed by her when she met him in the Marble Hall and showed him round in 1793:

she seem’d to take a delight in her business, was willing to answer any questions which were ask’d her, and was studious to shew the best lights for viewing the pictures and setting off the furniture’

(see: James Plumptre’s Britain: The Journals of a Tourist in the 1790’s)

I am of the opinion that this famous and beloved servant was the model for the depiction of Mrs Reynolds in  the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. And I often wonder if on her travels, or of those of her kinspeople, she heard about this paragon and if her reputation influenced Jane Austen a little when she gave us the full and wonderful pen portrait of a sensible  devoted housekeeper in her most famous novel.