“Menial Apartments”: Life ‘Below Stairs’ at the Speaker’s House

Created on Wednesday 3rd March 2021 by:
Murray Tremellen

One of the challenges all historians face is the need to overcome the inherent biases of their source materials. To date, my research has focused principally on the personal papers of Speakers Henry Addington and Charles Abbot. These give a wealth of information about how they used and altered the Speaker’s House; but inevitably, they tell the story of the house from the perspective of its “master”. The stories of the domestic servants who worked for them are much harder to recover. The Speakers’ letters and diaries make only passing references to their servants, and very rarely mention individuals by name.  

The former oratory chapel in the lower cloisters, photographed in July 1897. © Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/111/5/9. https://archives.parliament.uk/
The former oratory chapel in the lower cloisters, photographed in July 1897. © Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/111/5/9. https://archives.parliament.uk/

Even if I could establish the identities of the Speakers’ servants, there seems little prospect of finding personal sources, such as letters or diaries, which would give us their own perspective on the house. In a previous post, I mentioned my interest in emotional responses to the architecture of the Speaker’s House; but the servants’ thoughts and feelings about the building are almost certainly lost to history. This is particularly frustrating, because they lived and worked in some of the most unusual “below stairs” rooms of any house in Britain.

The Speaker’s House was built around the former cloisters of St Stephen’s College, which had been completed by 1529. They were beautiful but narrow and awkwardly shaped, and therefore difficult to adapt for domestic use. By the time Speaker Addington took over the house in 1794, most of the cloisters had been partitioned and converted into bedrooms or working areas for the servants, whilst the central courtyard had been roofed over to provide space for a kitchen. The Speaker and his family had their principal rooms in the adjoining buildings to the north and east of the cloisters, which had once been the vicars’ houses.

Were the Speakers’ servants enraptured by the exquisite Gothic architecture of the cloisters? Did they ever pause from their work to admire the intricate fan-vaulting? Or were they merely frustrated by the cramped rooms and inconvenient layout of these awkwardly-adapted Tudor buildings? In the absence of first-hand accounts from the servants, we can only make educated guesses based on other source materials. Perhaps the best-known records of the cloisters at this period are the writings of the antiquary and journalist John Carter. He understood the architectural significance of the cloisters and he wrote two accounts of them for his regular column in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The first described the cloisters as they were in 1791, just before Addington took over the house. The second, in 1807, recorded the changes made following the extensive rebuild of the house commissioned by Speaker Abbot.

Carter and his fellow antiquaries were interested principally in Westminster’s medieval heritage. It probably never occurred to them that anyone would ever be interested in the contemporary re-use of the cloisters. Besides, Carter had a quasi-religious reverence for Gothic buildings and was disgusted by the “lay perversion” of a sacred space. He was therefore reluctant to describe the service rooms in detail, dismissing most of them simply as “menial apartments”. Only the former oratory in the lower cloister – in use as a scullery when Carter first saw it – merited a longer description. Even this was probably intended as a rhetorical device rather than a historical record, but it is nevertheless full of useful detail:

where the altar stood, a door has been knocked out, to give a view into the kitchen…The windows on the right and left give place to two coppers; of the two windows in continuation on each side, one makes way for an oven, and the other is decorated with a stone cistern placed against it. The rich compartments, filling up the divisions of the north and west sides, have been cut away for doors, shelves, the hanging up of wicker bottles, skewers and pudding-cloths...Indignant enquiry is confronted with being told, this place is the scullery![1]

By the time of Carter’s second visit, the former Scullery had been converted into the Housekeeper’s Room. Carter grudgingly welcomed its new role, admitting it was “one remove…from the lowest degree of lay perversion”.[2] Yet what did the housekeeper herself think of her new domain? As beautiful as the former oratory was, it was immediately adjacent to the kitchen, with all its noise and smells, and it would have had little or no natural light. I am almost certain that the Housekeeper preferred her previous accommodation in the east wing of the building. Not only was this room much larger, but it even gave her a view across the Speaker’s Garden towards the river Thames – a real luxury for any domestic servant.

After the 1834 fire at Westminster, a new Speaker’s House was built at the northern end of the Palace, which allowed the cloisters and oratory to be restored and put to other uses (see photograph). Today the buildings show little physical evidence of their former life as service rooms. The original Speaker’s House is now barely remembered even among architectural historians; and on the rare occasions when it is mentioned in the history books, it is always in connection with “great men” like the Speakers themselves, or their celebrity architect James Wyatt. Thus, the Speakers’ servants have been doubly neglected; yet without their hard work behind the scenes, the house could never have fulfilled their masters’ social and political objectives. It may never be possible to give a full account of these servants’ lived experiences; but I am determined to at least acknowledge their forgotten role in the forgotten history of a forgotten house. 


[1] J. Carter (writing anonymously), ‘Architectural Innovation. No. CX. Royal Palace, Westminster, continued.’ Gentleman’s Magazine 77: 2, p. 624

[2] J. Carter (writing anonymously), ‘The Pursuits of Architectural Innovation. No. XXVI. The Ancient Palace of the Kings of England at Westminster, continued. The Interior of St. Stephen's Chapel and its Cloisters.’ Gentleman’s Magazine 70: 2, p. 723