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History of the servants’ lives at Erddig

Wooden board hung with brass bells. They are labelled White Room, West Room, Drawing Room and Front Hall.
The brass servants’ bells at Erddig | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The lives of servants at Erddig were unusual in one respect, as they were celebrated in a remarkable tradition by the Yorke family. But they still had the same demanding duties and long hours expected of all staff on a country estate. Discover a day in the servants’ lives – from mountains of laundry to guarding the silverware – and find out why one servant ended up in court.

Why were Erddig’s servants remembered in portraits?

When the National Trust took on the role of caring for Erddig, it was clear that the lives of generations of servants had been celebrated just as much as those of their employers.

The Yorke family’s unique tradition of commemorating their staff with pictures and poems gives us an insight into life below stairs – but we’re still not certain why it began.

The Yorkes were never among society’s most affluent families and they couldn’t pay the best rates for their staff, yet we see great loyalty from the servants as generations of the same family served at Erddig.

The family took a particular and personal interest in the lives of their staff, which informed their poems. Perhaps this familiarity compensated for lower wages than those offered at neighbouring estates.

Black and white photo of servants in uniform, standing on the front steps of a grand house. A family of parents and children look on from a first-floor window.
A group of servants outside Erddig in 1912, with Philip Yorke II and his family in the window | © National Trust

An 18th-century incentive scheme?

Maybe the poems and portraits represent an 18th-century ‘incentive scheme’, where the servants were rewarded for their loyalty and hard work with a place on the wall to which other staff could aspire. Or do they simply reflect the Yorke’s wish to be remembered by history as kind and caring employers? We may never know.

The Erddig Prayer

Below stairs, hanging under some of the servants’ bells, is the Erddig Prayer. It hints at Philip Yorke I’s horror of fire, but also suggests the concern that the family showed for everyone who lived and worked on the estate.

‘May Heav’n protect our home from flame,
Or hurt or harm of various name!
And may no evil luck betide to any who therein abide!
As also, who their home have found
On any acre of it’s ground,
Or who from homes beyond it’s gate
Bestow their toil on this estate!’

– P.Y.

Today Erddig's servants’ bells hang silent, but they would have been ringing all day to call the staff to more work.

A day in the life of servants at Erddig


An early start

The scullery maid is one of the first to get up, have a quick wash in cold water and get dressed. Then it’s down to the cold kitchen to clean the iron range and light the fire. Getting water boiling is the priority, so she can take cups of tea to the housekeeper and cook, plus hot water for them to wash. 

Then there’s breakfast to prepare – first for the other servants who eat in the Servants’ Hall, then for the Yorke family and their guests served in the Dining Room. 

A large kitchen with blue painted walls. A long wooden table is in the middle of the room, with cooking range on the left, herbs hanging from the ceilings and copper pots on the shelves.
The New Kitchen at Erddig | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

A servant’s courtroom drama

By the early 20th century, staff numbers at country houses were dwindling. At Erddig, the duties of Cook-turned-Housekeeper Ellen Penketh now included keeping the household accounts.

The newly married Mrs Yorke loved to entertain, but struggled to cope with running a stately home and managing its finances. When she realised the accounts were in poor shape, she accused Ellen of stealing from the family.

The accusation backfired when the Yorkes took the housekeeper to court for theft and the jury found her not guilty.

The 18th-century house, seen across the lake at Erddig, Wales

Discover more at Erddig

Find out when Erddig is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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History of Erddig 

Find out about the High Sheriff who lived beyond his means when he built Erddig, the rich London lawyer who extended and redecorated it and 240 years of the Yorke family.

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Erddig’s collection 

Erddig has the second largest collection of items in the whole of the National Trust. With a total of 30,000 to care for, it's no mean feat for the house team of conservators and volunteers. We’re an accredited museum too.

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Saved from ruin, Erddig is a rare survivor teeming with treasures. From servants’ portraits to fine furnishings, discover the top things to see and do when you visit the house.

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From daffodils in spring to 180 apple varieties in autumn, find out about this 18th-century walled garden and its seasonal activities and highlights.

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Check out the places to eat and shop at Erddig. Most are set within historic outbuildings and every purchase helps us to look after Erddig for future generations to enjoy.