For the Cavendish family, travel abroad was an educational rite of passage. It provided the opportunity (particularly for the young men) to learn, network and encounter new cultures, all useful experiences for a career in politics or a leading role in society. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a fashionable route. This ‘Grand Tour’ focused on France and Italy, and sometimes Germany and Switzerland could be included if there was enough time and money. As travel became easier and the British empire expanded, travel destinations could include distant countries such as India.

The opportunity to travel abroad must have been equally, if not more exciting for the retinues of servants who accompanied the Dukes of Devonshire and their family members. This post will briefly touch upon some of the experiences of servants abroad. If you would like to find out more, visit the Grand Tour of The DevonshireCollection exhibition at Chatsworth, open until the 23 October.

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster, inspired by Greek Mythology
Eighteenth Century

In 1782, Lady Elizabeth Foster went on her first Grand Tour as governess to Charlotte Williams, the 5th Duke’s illegitimate daughter. As governess, Lady Elizabeth received a generous wage and all the comforts the 5th Duke’s wife, Duchess Georgiana, could provide, including her own servants. One of these was Mrs Ashburner, a maid who appears to have enjoyed the new experience of travelling. Maybe a little too much. Writing to her daughter, Lady Elizabeth’s mother described Mrs Ashburner as a ‘pert, gallant, corrupt femme de chamber’ who ‘may overturn your best plans of prudence’. In other words, Mrs Ashburner was spending too much money. By the time the group reached Lyon, she had left Lady Elizabeth’s service, however this is not the last we see of her. Over a year later and on her second Grand Tour, Lady Elizabeth stopped in Lyon and employed Mrs Ashburner again, perhaps a friendly face in an unfamiliar country was worth the risk.

Robert Meynell and Paul Santi by Carelli, 1833
On display in the Grand Tour of the Devonshire Collection exhibition
Nineteenth Century

The 6th Duke of Devonshire (1811-1858) often travelled for several months at a time. The two servants who accompanied him were Robert Meynell, the valet, and Paul Santi, the courier. The Duke was fond of both but they had a tendency to get into trouble. On one occasion in Paris, Santi lost £70 (a year’s wages) at a gambling house and short-tempered Meynell got into arguments with other servants, including the Duke’s artist Raphael Carelli, who painted watercolour portraits of the valet and the courier during a visit to Sicily. They also experienced some of the hazards of traveling. ‘Last day began on calamities’, wrote the Duke, ‘Santi the courier got a tremendous fall on turning a corner in town’. On another occasion, Meynell was hurt when a carriage fell off the road, to the dismay of the Duke, who wrote ‘Never shall I forget the horror of seeing the carriage upside down, far below, I not knowing if they were killed’.

King George V's Delhi Burbar, 1911
Twentieth Century

As Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, Duchess Evelyn was expected to join the royal family when they went overseas. She must have been well used to foreign travel as her father, Lord Lansdowne, had been the Viceroy of India during her youth. However, for the servants who travelled abroad with her, it would have been a very different experience to what they were used to. In one letter dated the 20 December 1911, Duchess Evelyn recounts the difficulties the servants attending her, Jack and Charles, faced in adjusting to life in India: ‘The staff here seems nice really - but they don't quite understand their job and it is difficult for our men to know how much to take upon themselves ... Jack and Charles grumbled a lot. This morning they were very outspoken … I told them that if we complained we should only earn a reputation for us. They say they won’t do it again.’

Whether they were accompanying the Cavendish family abroad in 1782 or 1911, some of Chatsworth's servants had the opportunity to see and experience things that very few others could. The archives contain exciting glimpses into these journeys, but in most cases we can only imagine how excited, anxious or inconvenienced they felt about being so far away from home.


Lauren Butler, Fiona Clapperton and Hannah Wallace
Chatsworth and The University of Sheffield ‘From Servants to Staff’ project


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