In February 2021, the history and secrets of Waddesdon Manor’s kitchen and the people who worked in it are revealed in a fascinating new online exhibition.
A grainy black and white photograph, taken around 1900, not only shows just how accurately Waddesdon Manor’s impressive kitchen was restored in the 1990s, but also prompts an intriguing question; who are the people gathered around the very table that the photo is now displayed on?
Catherine Taylor, Head Archivist, says: ‘We don’t know for certain who the staff in the photo are, but I’m fairly certain that Alice de Rothschild’s Chef at the time the photo was taken was M. Bonnar, who died in 1915 in a car accident while in Brighton, where Miss Alice was spending the war.’
According to the records, the other kitchen staff members at the time were Annie Gough and Susan Smith, both cooks, Susan Cole and Fanny Sams, who were kitchen maids, while one of the younger women is almost certainly Agnes Dundas, who was a 21-year old scullery maid working at the Manor in 1901. The young man (second from left) could be Sam Syrett, a scullery man in his late twenties. Census records also suggest that one of the young women in the photo could possibly be Emma Howitt, who worked in the scullery. Apart from the main kitchen, there was a range of smaller rooms dedicated to different activities such as pastry making, and a Servants Hall, where the staff could gather.
Perhaps surprisingly, the staff records for the Manor are patchy, so the current team would love to hear from people who may be able to identify a family member in the photo: ‘If you have been researching your family history or know of ancestors who worked at the Manor at this time, we’d be delighted if you got in touch. Especially if you have any old family photos that may help us to identify the individual members of our turn-of-the-century kitchen brigade,’ says Catherine.
Completed in 1883 as a weekend retreat from London for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, Waddesdon Manor also served as a magnificent setting for his lavish Saturday to Monday house parties, attended by international royalty and renowned for being the last word in luxury and refinement, not least for what was served from its impressive kitchens. The Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VII) was a regular guest, and Queen Victoria herself visited in 1890.
In 1891, just 24 staff ran the house, but this number could double when the Baron was entertaining and his French chef and Italian pastry-chef came down from London. One of them, his confectioner Arthur Chategner, had cooked for the Tsar of Russia and such was their artistry in the kitchen that Queen Victoria sent her own chef to learn from Ferdinand’s after an epic lunch in 1890.
The Queen enjoyed six courses over several hours, starting with consommé, then trout, followed by quails, beef and chicken, ducklings garnished with buntings and asparagus, Soufflés a la Royale (decorated with gold leaf) and Beignets a la Viennoise – the original menu can be viewed as part of the online exhibition.
As was her custom, the Queen dined in private with her daughters, with Ferdinand later noting: ”The royal appetite is proverbial, and it was not until about half past three that the Queen…reappeared.’ Indeed, his butler reported that Her Majesty had returned to the cold beef for a second helping. In stark contrast to the extravagant meals offered to his guests, Ferdinand had simpler tastes and a delicate digestion, and on occasion would dine on cold toast and water.
Ferdinand’s successors upheld his high standards. Miss Alice was known to serve black strawberries, but there was also a difference between what the family ate on their own and when entertaining. Ferdinand and Alice’s French great-nephew James de Rothschild, who inherited the Manor in 1922, also preferred less ‘fussy’ food. His chef, Maurice Tissot recorded a very simple recipe for Bread and Butter Pudding: ‘Two slices of bread and butter off long tin loaf, cut into sections, about half a grated lemon: a few currants: a table spoonful of castor(sic) sugar: five eggs and ¾ to 1 pint of milk. Bake for about half an hour.’
When the house was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957, the Manor Kitchen was converted to a tearoom. However, as part of the 1990’s restoration, elements of the kitchen were faithfully returned to how they looked at the beginning of the 1900s, with many fixtures and fittings still recognisable, including the serving hatch, tiled walls, ovens and extraction vent.
The photograph of the kitchen brigade is displayed on the very table they are standing around, while the copper batterie de cuisine – bearing the Baron’s and his sister Miss Alice’s monogram – will give many enthusiastic cooks severe pot and pan envy. Everything in the online exhibition helps to tell the stories of life in a Rothschild kitchen, from examples of table linen to keys and other domestic equipment. For coffee fanatics, there is even an early 1920’s espresso machine.
You can visit the exhibition now here: waddesdon.org.uk/history-of-the-manor-kitchen-online-exhibition/