Through the Georgian keyhole

Research into 18th-century bills and account books is revealing how the gentry spent their money furnishing and running their grand country houses. Following the BBC Two series The Country House Revealed, Jon Stobart takes a peek into some of the finest mansions in Georgian Britain...

Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. (Photo by Archimage/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In 1763, William Butler, the house steward at Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, wrote to a London furniture dealer that he should not send anything yet as they were waiting for “the chimney pieces & the carvers to finish the architraves, etc. for the doors & windows which must be compleated before the hangings can be put up or we shall begin at the wrong end of our work”. These fraught processes of consumption are not usually given much thought, but new research is revealing something of this secret life of the country house.

At first glance, bills and account books might seem to be dry historical sources, yet they can tell us a great deal about social life in the country house. Over a long period, they can reveal the ebb and flow of spending: how it varied through the seasons and over the years, often reflecting changing family circumstances.

Inheritance often produced peaks in spending, but weddings, funerals and periods of minority also had a big impact. When Sir Henry Cotton of Madingley Hall in Cambridge got married in 1745, he spent £1,209 on the wedding. In contrast, the trustees looking after Stoneleigh Abbey until Edward, the 5th Lord Leigh, came of age in 1764 budgeted on just £510 per annum to maintain the house and park. The years following his coming of age in 1764 saw at least £7,000 spent on decorating and furnishing the house, and assembling a fine library.

Yet there is a danger of being dazzled by such goods. Bills and accounts also provide us with some unique insights into everyday consumption: the two shillings spent each week on plum cakes and biscuits by Grace Nettleton at Tabley Hall in Cheshire or the £1 12s paid annually for the Northampton newspaper by John Gibbard of Sharnbrook in Bedfordshire. Since bills were generally addressed to the person who had ordered the goods, we can get an idea of the spending patterns of husbands and wives.

Often it was men who controlled the purse strings and were responsible for larger purchases for the house as well as feeding their own passions, from the books amassed by Edward Leigh to the £435 that Henry Cotton spent at his tailor. Wives had less financial muscle, but were often responsible for the household. Henry’s wife, Anne, ran an account from which she paid for her clothes, bought food and a wide range of small household items including china and candles, and paid many of the servants’ wages.

House share

Yet wives and others could wield considerable influence. Lady Strafford was the driving force behind the furnishing of a newly acquired house in St James’ Square, London; while Elizabeth Purefoy often took the initiative in consumption decisions regarding the house she shared with her unmarried son Henry in Bedfordshire.

Elizabeth and Henry dealt directly with their suppliers, but the day-to-day management of the budget in larger houses was usually placed in the hands of the steward or estate agent. As we have seen, it was William Butler who settled bills and corresponded with tradesmen on behalf of his master, Lord Leigh. Similarly, the housekeeper or cook was normally responsible for buying much of the fresh food and provisions, presenting periodic bills to her employer for the expenses incurred.

These people were vital to the successful management of a country house and their various workplaces occupied many rooms; but these were back spaces – out of sight from guests and visitors. At Temple Newsham, the housekeeper’s room, with its range, cane-bottomed chairs and table, was considerably more comfortable than that of a kitchen maid, which contained little more than a bed and a mirror. Both paled in comparison with the showy public rooms which formed the centrepiece of the house.

In the early 18th century, the best bed chamber was often the most expensively furnished room – that at Stoneleigh Abbey was valued at £628 in 1738, the bed itself being worth more than all the goods in the drawing room.

As bed chambers became more private spaces, attention increasingly focused on the saloon, library, drawing room or dining room. Edward Leigh focused his attention on the first two of these, commissioning stuccowork and mahogany furniture, and buying huge quantities of luxurious silks, damasks and other fabrics. Yet, as the bills make clear, Edward’s refurnishing programme extended throughout the house and included fitting up a number of attic rooms, probably as bedrooms for his guests. These were described by colour and contained oak four-post beds, Wilton carpets and suites of mahogany furniture, in many ways resembling modern hotel rooms.

The emphasis on mahogany reflects an important shift in taste. Newly available in the early 18th century, it grew to dominate English country houses: largely replacing walnut, restricting lacquered furniture to occasional pieces and fads for the oriental, and relegating oak to servants’ and guest rooms.

Wallpaper, too, became increasingly popular as a means for creating a particular atmosphere in a room, each colour carrying associations – red, for example, was associated with nobility and was used in royal state apartments.

The big advantage of wallpaper was that it offered bright patterns for a relatively modest outlay, allowing consumers to move with the fashions more readily than if they had invested in panelling or damask wall coverings.

On a more mundane level, fashion could also be important. Styles of cooking and dining changed over the course of the 18th century as the mood towards French cuisine fluctuated and as new ingredients became available. The rise of tea drinking is well known, but there was also a growing emphasis on elaborate sugar-based confections and later in the 18th century on more strongly flavoured dishes. Bills for groceries chart these changes and reveal the global reach of 18thcentury consumers.

While fashion shaped what wealthy consumers chose to buy, the character of the country house also reflected the character of its owner. This is seen most dramatically in architectural gestures like Horace Walpole’s whimsical take on the gothic at Strawberry Hill and William Beckford’s grandiose Fonthill Abbey.

But individuality was also expressed through more detailed patterns of spending. At Stoneleigh Abbey, Thomas, the 4th Lord Leigh, focused his attention on completing and decorating the west wing built by his father when he had returned from the grand tour. It seems that he had little interest in art or books and little need for new furniture.

In contrast, his son, Edward, was clearly intent on constructing both a luxurious interior and one that reflected his own interest in learning. His books were carefully and elegantly bound, and were accompanied by a range of scientific and musical instruments. This emphasis on learning led him to bequeath his library to his alumnus, Oriel College in Oxford, thus stripping the house of one of its key assets.

Jon Stobart is professor of history at the University of Northampton. He is the author of Spend Spend Spend: A History of Shopping (The History Press Ltd, 2008).

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Splash the cash

  • In 1764–65, Edward, 5th Lord Leigh, spent well over £4,300 on furniture, upholstery and curtains for Stoneleigh Abbey, including £23 on seven green damask cushions for the dining room
  • During 1741, Thomas, 4th Lord Leigh, spent around £210 on groceries – the equivalent of annual wages for around 30 servants
  • Thomas Chippendale’s bill for furniture supplied to the fabulously wealthy Lascelles at Harewood House came to more than £10,000
  • Between 1765 and 1794, an average of £310 per annum was spent on cleaning, lighting and heating Audley End – soap alone cost £28 per annum
  • James Henry Leigh paid £188 for a gold tea set supplied by Goldney’s, the London silversmiths, in 1815