Technology in the Country House stands as a convincing proof-text of the assertion that students of literature, architecture, social history need to acquaint themselves with the history of technology. The authors repeatedly move between specific technologies found in large country houses and their social, political, and artistic implications/effects. As Palmer and West make clear, these British country houses, many of which resided within tracts of land comprising thousands of acres, resembled medieval castles and their surroundings or small countries unto themselves. Not only did they grow their own food and command their own supply of water but they often also even owned the quarries from which came the stone in the buildings themselves. These large country houses were thus largely independent and at the same time isolated and cut off from resources available to city dwellers. This, if the owner of a great houses wanted to illuminate his home with gas or electricity, he had to produce them on his own estate. Enjoying Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey is not enough, since both provide very narrowly focused views of life below stairs. Where, for instance, are the farmers and herdsman who provided milk and meat, the staff who ran and often constructed means of heating and watering greenhouses, or, even more invisible to us, the onsite engineers who created and maintained septic fields, waterworks, steam and water driven power plants, and tiny railways?

As the authors explain, their approach is “unashamedly archaeological, driven, in the first instance, by the surviving remains of different technologies in country houses and their parks, gardens and estates.” The “physical evidence,” they argue, provides “most reliable guide” since “plans may have been prepared and estimates provided by contractors, but that does not mean that the work was executed as indicated.” One has to take particular care evaluating contemporary sources:

The 19th century in particular was a period of fervent invention, much of it devoted to the improvement of home comfort and convenience; the pages of magazines such as The Engineer and Scientific American were full of ideas which never saw the light of day beyond the inventors’ own homes. Total reliance on printed sources such as journal articles and patents can result in a much distorted view of the history of technology. . . . Of course, some documentary research was undertaken prior to each visit to identify what to look for, but care has been taken to avoid visiting only houses known to have remarkable examples of domestic technology: much can be learned from those properties which failed to innovate, for whatever reason. [vii]

At the same time, Palmer and West point out that sometimes one has to take the physical remains with a grain of salt and critical eye, for they encountered “numerous examples” of gas lights apparently “converted to electricity (or even oil) in houses which never had a gas supply, the fittings having been introduced when electricity was first installed or, in some cases, as part of a later ‘restoration’” (vii) Then again, there was the housewith an “electric bell indicator board in the corridor outside the butler’s pantry but which had neither any bell pushes or bell wiring connected to it anywhere in the house — clearly the result of some well-intentioned attempt at authenticity after the house was taken over by the heritage body concerned” (vii).

After a valuable introduction, Technology in the Country House examines technological innovation in estate buildings, parks, and gardens, after which a third chapter, “Water Supply and Sanitation,” examines topics from collecting rainwater, water pipes and pumps, bathrooms, sanitation, laundries, and sewage disposal. The following chapter explains the wide range of ways of lighting homes and providing energy for them. This lavishly illustrated work not only has photographs and diagrams of devices used for various forms of electricity and gas lighting but also helpfully includes a photograph of a candlelit dining room of the sort few of åus us will ever encounter. Most people, they explain, had only the illumination provided by their fireplaces or rush lights, “but the predominant form of country house lighting until the late 18th century was the candle. In most cases, these too used animal fat — tallow — as the fuel.” The monopoly of the Tallow Chandlers Company and the tax on candles from 1709 until 1831 made candles far too expensive for most Britons, and “beeswax candles, also taxed and subject to monopoly supply, were even more expensive; even in the wealthiest households, these were reserved for the grandest rooms and special occasions. . . . As well as being expensive to buy, candles required the attention of staff to trim the wicks, so a house brilliantly lit with candles on a grand occasion was a very conspicuous demonstration of wealth” (75). In keeping with the self-sufficiency of many country houses, some “evidently made their own tallow candles from animal fat recovered from the kitchen. Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, has a Tallow House where candles were made at the entrance to the service tunnel.” Servants may have made candles but often were not permitted to make use of them.

The high cost of candles meant that their use by servants was strictly controlled. Lower servants, at least, were generally not allowed them in their bedrooms, partly for reasons of fire safety and partly to discourage them from reading. To light their way to bed they therefore had to steal the stub ends of candles, for which there was much competition, as butlers and footmen often regarded these as a ‘perk’, to be sold back to local merchants. [75].

The authors also explain that “mirrors were often placed behind candelabra and sconces to reflect more light into the room. . . . Devices such as water-filled bowls, sometimes known as ‘lacemaker’s condensers’, were also employed to intensify the light.” Despite all these ingenious attempts to light large spaces or intricate work, such as sewing or embroidery, candles proved a poor means of illumination. Nonetheless, “candlelight was widely regarded as more congenial and flattering to ladies’ complexions than the gas or electric light which followed, so the tables for grand dinners have often continued to be lit by candelabra to this day” (75).

Heating and ventilation come next with sections on open fires, improved fireplaces, free-standing stoves, transition from the warm air to circulating hot water systems, and finally central heating. Interestingly, as the authors explain in their introduction, modern heating came late to the great houses:

Central heating systems became available from the early 19th century and were enthusiastically taken up in public institutions and industrial complexes, but much more slowly in country houses, where open fires reigned supreme. This was partly because it was felt that open fires were far better for ventilation and that breathing warm air was bad for health. Steam and hot water heating systems were, however, extensively used in greenhouses and other structures in kitchen gardens, often some time before they were used within the house. The increasing use of coal rather than wood for open fires as well as heating systems meant that country house owners had to think about ways of transporting coal to and even within their houses, and some made use of small railways for this purpose as well as, rather later, lifts driven first by hydraulic power and then electricity. [1]

Chapter Six, which discusses food preparation and storage, expectedly takes us through the large kitchens and storerooms and then moves on to show us their dairies, after which the next chapter looks at means of communication in the great houses, which ranged from sprung, pneumatic and electric bells to telephones. Chapter 8, “Transportation,” points out that some of these large country homes had their own railways inside and beneath as well as outside the house; one, Harlaxton Manor, had one in the roof space that fed coal to bunkers in the floors beneath. Eaton hall had its own narrow gauge steam railway with multiple tracks and switches. Then there were a wide array of hoists, dumb waiters, and lifts. Physical security and fire safety provides the subject for a ninth chapter.

Whether or not a picture is worth ten thousand words, the excellent photographs that appear on almost every page make the discussions easy to follow. Palmer and West have made an excellent contribution to our understanding of a significant part of British social as well as technological history, and the National Trust and Historic England are to be congratulated for publishing it.

Related material


Palmer, Marilyn, and Ian West. Technology and the Country House. Swindon: National Trust and Historic England, 2016. 205 pp.

1 February 2009