Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Was the Servants’ Ball really so marvellous? It is invoked as an example of the cosy, protective relationship within the English country house between the family and their servants. But this traditional Christmas party, when the domestics got to mix with their employers as “equals,” was in reality fraught with tensions and ironies. Dancing with the poker-stiff master and mistress of the house (and delivering speeches of thanks for the privilege) wasn’t everyone’s idea of recreation.
The tradition draws on — the ancient Twelfth Night ritual of inversion. On Twelfth Night — time of mayhem and masquerade — servants get to rule over their masters. For a brief period, the world is turned topsy-turvy. Black becomes white, working class becomes genteel, degradation becomes entitlement. But all this happens at the will of the upper class protagonist, who creates the situation and engineers the transformation.
Welbeck Abbey is presented as holding the apogee of the Victorian Servants’ Ball; an example of paternalism at its most generous. None of the staff lifted a finger at the dance for 1,200. It was given on the 6th Duke’s birthday, December 28th, in the vast underground ballroom and the three palatial reception rooms, decorated as if for a state occasion with chandeliers and potted ferns. There was unlimited Champagne; the buffet was laid out with the best silver; an orchestra was hired from London. Servants, tenants, families, local tradesmen and their wives were the guests — and “a swarm of fifty waiters” was brought in to look after them.
As remembered by obsequious former butler Frederick Gorst, the Duchess of Portland, wearing ecru satin embroidered with pearls — almost as large as those in the fabulous “dog collar” about her neck — opened the ball with the house steward as her dancing partner. Every servant dressed in black tie or ball gowns; how they afforded or procured such outfits, Gorst doesn’t relate. The “prim” head housemaid wore velvet; the housekeeper was 'almost unrecognisable' in low-necked blue satin, and the Duke and Duchess tactfully drove away early the following morning.
How did it feel for the more lowly servants? This might well be their first glimpse of their famously exacting employers — and of Welbeck’s haughty upper servants, too. For just one night they would be seduced by the kind of obscene excess that they could only dream of.
The Servants’ Ball was as much a taunt as a treat. Gorst reflected, rather poignantly, that seeing all those servants dressed in their finery gave them “a new kind of individuality and gaiety for the evening. "We were seeing each other with a new aspect, as people, not as servants.”
Still, “to his eyes, Naturally the Duchess was the most majestic figure in the ballroom.” The whole evening was “just as if the Duke and Duchess were giving a party for themselves.” Who, then, was this ball all about?
Less formal houses more tactfully left the servants to get on with it in their own quarters. At Erddig Hall in the Welsh borders, the Servants’ Ball took place in the large kitchen. Tables were pushed back against the walls, and a couple of fiddlers kept the 50-odd servants on their toes.
“We had goose for lunch & the servants had a regular jollification downstairs,” wrote the newly married Louise Yorke in her diary, Christmas 1902.
“Most of the day was spent in preparations & at 9pm they gave a Ball in the kitchen. We went to look in at 9.30 & much enjoyed it. They danced til 3am.” This was the maidservants’ best chance to snare a husband; the thriving servants marriage market at Erddig was doubtless helped along by this annual “jollification.”
In the inter-war years there was less showing off of the Welbeck Abbey sort, and a dawning sensitivity. Ulla, Danish wife of Lord Hyde Parker at Melford Hall, felt the strained undercurrents of the occasion acutely. “To begin with, everybody was very shy,” she remembered. “Then the party got going, and after they had had something to eat they loosened up and got much gayer. There was a grand piano in the hall, and somebody would play, and then they would start singing local Suffolk songs and speechifying. There was a point at which Willy [her husband] would say, “Now, look, I think it’s time for us to leave,” and we used to go up where we could look down the big staircase and see what was going on.
They got gayer and gayer until Willy felt it was time to close. After they had made all the appropriate speeches to us and thanked us, we all sang “God Save the King.”
So the servants got to let their hair down while watched from on high (in every sense), then reigned in, and the “appropriate” speeches of gratitude made to the magnanimous family. It was Ulla, being a Christmas-loving Dane, who instigated these parties for the 150-odd servants in the early 1930s. There was no such tradition before at Melford.
Kitchen maid Eileen Balderson recalled her sister, who was head kitchen maid, ‘dropping a brick’ when the eldest son of the manor asked her to dance and she refused, having no idea who he was. As Eileen explained, most servants — especially kitchen staff — never got to see the family (even in the more enlightened 1930s). She also remembered that the Servants’ Ball only really got going when the haughty upper servants left the venue, mimicking the dignified exit of their employers.
Eventually, the upper class show of noblesse oblige every Christmas began to grate on both sides.
“There was a time,” remembered the Hon. Mrs John Mildmay White, “when all the estate men used to get a round of beef and I think a plum pudding, which we used to dole out at the school. Somehow that got a bit embarrassing, I don’t know why, so later they got money.” (Flete House in Devon was not one of the “really grand” country houses; “just a butler and two footmen.”)
The Duke of Richmond and Gordon remembered his mother having “a ghastly Christmas party for the servants, in the Stubbs Room [of Goodwood House] — the long hall. One year, in about 1932, I should think, there was an enormous Christmas tree made of white cotton wool, and my cousin, the admiral, Sandy, had to get up on the ladder behind it, dressed as Father Christmas, and say ‘I’ve got presents for all of you.’ He did this, and his beard caught on fire.”
Sandy was saved, and the “ghastly party” staggered on.
The hot ticket for domestics, post WWI, was the vast Servants Ball held at the Royal Albert Hall, organised from 1923 by Lady Jeanne Malcolm. The imaginative wife of a Scottish conservative MP, and daughter of society beauty Lillie Langtry, she wanted servants to be able to don fancy dress and dance until midnight; to be able to meet other servants at the sort of wild Jazz Age evening normally reserved for their masters and mistresses. All this for 5/- a ticket.
An American newspaper reported in shocked tones that Lady Malcolm danced with her butler at the early 1929 Servants’ Ball, then held at Kensington Town Hall — but she was, of course, simply maintaining a cast-iron tradition. It was just rather more public than was normal. After getting increasingly louche and glamorous, the Servants Ball was finally stopped in 1938 in part because it was increasingly attended by “the wrong sort”: gay servants and predatory gate-crashers. Thomas of Downton Abbey, we can only hope you get your hands on a ticket.
Of Carriages and Kings: A Royal Footman’s View of Edwardian Elegance, by Frederick Gorst (Thomas Crowell, 1956).
The Country House Remembered: Recollections of Life Between the Wars, edited by Merlin Waterson (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).
Backstairs Life in a Country House by Eileen Balderson (David & Charles, 1982)