As a final year PhD student in the University of Leeds, I was excited at being given the opportunity to intern with the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ project – finally, I would be able to analyse something beyond my own research area! And what a research area this turned out to be. My first task was to compile a literature survey, to browse through old books, new books, journal articles, newspaper clippings, and obscure websites. And what was I tasked in finding? The use of electricity, or other new technologies, by British aristocrats in their country houses. The time period? Starting from the late nineteenth (1880s) to the early twentieth century (pre-World War II).
I discovered quickly enough that it was easier to obtain resources about certain aristocrats as compared to others. A name that came up frequently was Lord Robert Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who had been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for a total of over thirteen years. In regards to the project, we were particularly interested in his scientific experimentation within his country seat, Hatfield House. Most of the relevant literature found on Lord Salisbury pertained to his installation of electrical devices around Hatfield, and his laboratory being the site of new scientific (including electrical) discoveries. These sources were written by family members (e.g. David Cecil, the youngest son of the 4th of Marquess of Salisbury), fellow academics (e.g. Professor Graeme Gooday, Principal Investigator of this project), as well as Lord Salisbury’s peers (e.g. an unknown author praised the Marquess’ scientific endeavors in a journal article from 1903). Lord Cecil had plenty of people writing about him and thus will prove to be a solid starting point for this project.
Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Sir Winston Churchill, on the other hand, will prove to be more difficult. In Professor Gooday’s ‘Domesticating Electricity’, he had discussed her dealings with the Crompton company, which provided Lady Churchill free services as a manner to advertise their company to Churchill’s social network. Our main understanding of this aristocratic figure herself, however, comes from her memoirs. These were penned under her second husband’s name: Mrs. G. Cornwallis-West. With personal accounts on life in Blenheim Palace, Lady Churchill’s descriptions of the installation of electricity will give an insider’s view into life during this period.
Another fascinating find from this literature survey is the life of American heiress Lilian Warren Price, also known as Lily Spencer-Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Project Researcher Dr Michael Kay had written about her husband, the 8th Duke of Marlborough and his involvement in telephony. When researching about the renovations of Blenheim Palace by the Duke, however, books and articles referred to the heiress’ integral role in financially supporting his endeavours. This creates an interesting aspect to the Duke’s renovations where there may be room for further research into the extent of the Duchess’ influence on electrifying Blenheim Palace.
Alongside the aristocrats that owned and renovated their country houses with electricity, there were also the employees ‘below the stairs’ that worked with the technology. Books on the life of those working ‘in service’ in these country houses provide a different perspective on the era. Alongside concepts of a ‘servantless house’, these books explore how people interacted with the technology of electricity, and how it helped (or hindered) their daily duties in these country houses.
I have outlined findings that are particularly interesting to me, but of course there are many other resources found while compiling this literature survey. A point that needs to be made, however, is in regards to resources not found during this research. There are gaps in knowledge that have yet to be filled, and may be filled by this project. One of the aristocratic figures that proved incredibly difficult to find resources on is the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. There are accounts of his lavish spending on his country seat, Plas Newydd, but I was unable to pin down any mention of his dealings with electricity. Thus an interesting gap that may warrant further research. Another is the aristocrats’ own personal relationship with technology – it would be fascinating to uncover their own notes and thoughts into the process of fitting their houses with electricity.
Which brings us to the next stage of this project – looking at historical documents from the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). With an understanding of the literature available in print as well as in digital archives, it will be exciting to see what new information can be found from the WYAS. I will write again when that time comes, and until then – I hope that you’ve found new interesting things to look into yourself!