Success for the British in 1798 against Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of the Nile was cause for celebration back at home. Although Duchess Georgiana, wife of the 5th Duke (1748-1811), described Bonaparte as ‘too great a man in his way for the French’ she also believed ‘the wild goose expedition he is on will dig him a disgraceful grave’. Preparing for the celebrations, Georgiana wrote to her mother telling her of her plans to wear laurel leaves in her hair to mark the occasion. She also asked her confectioner to decorate the sweet treats and desserts in the same way for a public day of celebration at Chatsworth. In charge of creating elaborately decorated sweetmeats, biscuits and table centrepieces, confectioners were highly skilled servants and received a high wage to match their talent. The Duchess paid her confectioner at Devonshire House £60 a year, the same wage as the butler and more than double the earnings of a footman.

 

An account book for Devonshire House. The Confectioner is listed between Groom of Chambers and the Valet de Chambre

At this time it was fashionable to employ a French confectioner, and as a leader of fashion herself, it was only right that the Duchess followed the trend. Because of the cost of employing them, a French confectioner was a luxury and having one as a servant was a display of wealth. Their nationality might have made them sought after servants, but it also made it awkward asking them to make desserts celebrating the defeat of their own nation. The Duchess admitted her discomfort in a letter to her mother writing, ‘It is perhaps a little cruel to make a French confectioner celebrate the loss of his countrymen’.

The confectioner was not the only French servant to be employed in the houses of the aristocracy: French cooks, lady’s maids and tutors were all popular. So in demand were they that French servants could often be the highest paid servant in a house, especially French cooks who were the ultimate status symbol. Although Georgiana was happy with her French servants, not everyone else was. They were viewed by some as a luxury and accused of bringing French decadence to British society.

A view of Chatsworth from the South-West, Thomas Smith of Derby, 1743

With the British fighting against France in the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), the conflict was an outlet for many of the public’s objections about the influence of the French. People even took to the streets to complain. Writing to the 4th Duke (1720-1764), his agent told him of a crowd of three or four hundred people who had gathered at Bakewell: ‘they have read a very nonseneacal [sic] paper at the Cross, setting forth that they are not assembled in a riotous manner’. Writing again later that day, the agent said the gathering was closer to seven hundred people. The nonsensical paper called for ‘no French cooks, no valet de Chambers no French wigs’. The people wanted an end to French extravagance starting with putting a stop to the hiring of expensive French servants. One writer joked that the popularity of French servants was so great that Yorkshiremen now had to pretend to be French in order to get a job.

A copy of the demands read out at the cross in Bakewell sent to the 4th Duke by his agent

By the afternoon of the same day, two hundred of these people had marched to Chatsworth in protest, ‘ready for mischief’ and beating a drum. The crowd was easily pleased and soon left after being given beer and drinking to the Duke’s health. Even the agent was satisfied after spotting one troublemaker with ‘but one leg’, knowing how easy it would be to identify him afterwards. Even though people complained, French servants continued to be important, and expensive, members of aristocratic households throughout the eighteenth century.

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