Thursday, 17 May 2012

Back to the 1930s at Leeds Castle

A new exhibition inspired by Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs opens at Leeds Castle this week, tracking the real stories of the people who lived and worked above and below stairs at Leeds Castle during the 1930s.

“What the Butler Saw” uses archive materials, photographs and costumes to recall the glorious weekend house parties held between the wars by the castle’s last private owner, Anglo–American heiress, Lady Baillie.

Well known as a former Royal Palace which has been used by Henry VIII and the medieval Queens of England to hold court over 9 centuries, Leeds was a private house and weekend home to Lady Baillie for nearly 50 years after she bought and substantially refurbished it in the mid-1920s.

The interiors were designed by top French architects and furnished with a collection of the finest arts and antiques, offering a wonderful place for entertaining.  The exhibition draws on the published memoirs and diaries of many of her society guests from the world of politics; the aristocracy, including members of the Royal family; and from Hollywood.

It offers an insight into the privileged world of the upper classes and how they relaxed, listening to fellow houseguests like Noel Coward play on the Steinway grand piano, or laughing with David Niven and Errol Flynn as they played tennis and swam.

And it tells the “below stairs” stories, of more than 30 members of the castle’s staff, with excerpts from menus, account books, wage slips and laundry lists showing how they kept the place running. The exhibition is staged throughout the castle, in the very rooms many of the weekend parties took place.

Castle Chief Executive Victoria Wallace said:

“As we watched the fictional stories of Downton and of Upstairs Downstairs unfold on television, we realised that they mirrored the true story of how people at the castle lived through the 1920s and 30s. We wanted to try and show how great houses like this really worked, and offer a real glimpse of a more modern history, set within the castle itself.

It was strange at first, as we had a much better understanding of who the occasional guests were, and how they looked, than of the rather anonymous servants, of whom very few photographs exist. 

But research by our heritage manager, Nic Fulcher,  accessing the 1937 electoral roll, gave us names of everyone on the estate, and their home addresses; suddenly, the maids living in the castle, and the menservants in the Bothy, had names, and families. Many have family still working at the castle.”

But despite the exhibition’s title, don’t look for scandal or intrigue.

“Lady Baillie was notoriously private, and her staff learned to be discreet. Some of the later memoirs and diaries of her guests might hint at activities which might have been considered rather “fast”, but we leave that to visitors to imagine. Whatever the butler saw, he wasn’t actually telling.”

The exhibition runs from 1 May to 21 October. Entrance is included in the price of admission. Tours of the servants’ quarters will also be available for pre-booking via the website,

Your Key to the Castle ticket is valid for this exhibition. Tickets cost £19.75 for adults; £17.50 for seniors and visitors with disabilities (carer goes free); £12.50 for children (under 4’s free). Tickets are valid for 12 months so you can pay once and visit all year round.

Leeds Castle is located near Maidstone in Kent just off Junction 8 of the M20 and only one hour’s drive from London. Grounds open at 10am daily and the castle is open from 10.30am. Last admission is 4.30pm and gates close at 6pm (April to September). 

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