When the National Trust took on the care of Erddig, it was clear that the lives of generations of servants would be celebrated as much as their employers. The Yorke family’s unusual method of commemorating their staff provides today’s visitor with a wonderful insight into life below stairs.
When Philip Yorke I commissioned a set of portraits in 1793 it was not to present him or his beloved family members in the fine, recently refurbished family rooms at Erddig. The subjects of these images would be his servants; the kitchen porter, the carpenter, the gamekeeper, even the retired housekeeper.
Each portrait would be finished with a poem about its sitter, composed by Squire Yorke himself. So began an Erddig tradition which lasted well into the 20th century and which has left us a wonderfully vivid account of many servants’ characters and achievements, and the unique relationship between squire and staff.
So what have we gleaned from these poems, portraits and, later, photographs? Their very reason for being is intriguing and probably changed over time. We know the Yorkes were never among the super-rich and so could not pay the best rates of pay for their staff.
However we see great loyalty, often with generations of the same family serving the Yorkes. Perhaps it was that the Yorkes took a particular and personal interest in the lives of their staff, which informed their poems. This familiarity might, in part, make up for lower wages than could have been earned at neighbouring estates.
Maybe the poems and portraits represent an 18th century ‘incentive scheme’, whereby loyalty and hard work were rewarded with a place on the wall to which other staff could aspire? Or do they reflect a wish simply to be remembered to history as kind and caring employers?
The intriguing truth is, we may never know!