Victoria Farncombe finds out about skeletons in the cupboard at an historic hall.
In the heart of Herefordshire lies an historic hall whose secrets would be of interest to plot writers on the hit TV show Downton Abbey.
Archives and diaries at Berrington Hall have revealed juicy tales of gambling lords, money-grabbing wives and thieving butlers.
But there’s one potential skeleton in the cupboard staff need help uncovering – the identity of the mysterious footmen whose photo was discovered in the archives?
As tour guide Thomas Brockington, aged 21, explains: “It’s very interesting because it’s rare to find pictures of staff. They were not considered important enough to have their picture taken.
“So why did someone think he was important. Who was he?”
There is a tantalising possibility that the mystery man was romantically involved with his lord or lady – a not uncommon occurrence for footmen who were employed on the basis of their good looks.
“Footmen were regarded as fashion accessories and paid more if they were tall and good-looking.
‘‘They were literally paid by the inch,” said Thomas, who at 6ft 2in would have made a killing. The better looking and tall they were, the less they worked and the more they were paid.
“The footman in Downton Abbey is a good example. He swings both ways to improve his lot in life and there have been tales of footmen trying to gain a foothold into society by having intimate relations with their superiors.”
In a bid to find out more about the handsome servant, staff at Berrington Hall are urging people to visit the National Trust property which opened its back stairs to the public for the first time last year.
Thomas, dressed as a footman himself, is one of three guides who bring the butler’s pantry, laundry room and dairy to life. The trio have been busy since Downton Abbey, which raked in nine million viewers when it was first aired a few weeks ago, first aired. Visitor numbers at Berrington Hall have risen 26 per cent compared with the same time period last year.
Manager Gareth Gwilt said: “Following the first two episodes of Downton Abbey we have seen a definite increase in visitor numbers and the amount of questions about how the house used to be run. Everyone is particularly interested in stories about the servants who used to work here.”
Another story that proves popular with visitors is the divorce of the seventh Lord Rodney and his wife Corisande which was played out in the newspapers like a latter-day Katie Price and Peter Andre.
She was said to be a money-grabber who was having an affair, while he was a violent gambler who was eventually forced to sell the house to cover his debts.
“We run a lot about who was in the wrong. We have a lot of information about what they did to each other. It was a very public divorce. We know quite intimate details,” said Thomas.
But it’s the details about everyday life which are often most interesting.
“People laugh most at the dirty bits,” he said. “They like to hear about how the bed sheets were washed in urine. It’s the specifics that people seem to like and I think people like looking at the servants quarters because that’s where the majority of us would have lived if we had been around in those times.”
* For more information on Berrington Hall, call 01568 615721 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/berringtonhall