Cathal Dowd Smith, Curator at Newbridge House delves into the new Servants Quarters Experience....
Newbridge House is perhaps one of the Republic’s best preserved houses in public ownership. Since the reopening of the new-look servant’s quarters in July 2020, Newbridge presents an even more complete picture of the Irish country house. For the first time the servant’s rooms are authentically recreated and used to tell the stories of those who lived and worked in domestic service here over the past three centuries.
In the basement, off the main service passage are a series of bright and well-proportioned work spaces with views over both lawn and courtyard. The spaces boast vaulted ceilings and original Georgian woodwork painted in an idiosyncratic Venetian red. It was here that the army of staff slept, ate and worked.
The 1821 inventory indicates what these rooms would have looked like and was an invaluable tool in their recreation. For example the Servant’s Hall was spartanly furnished (probably as it was full of people) containing only two tables, two forms (or benches), two chairs, two ‘high presses’ and one ‘large wooden box’.
Figure 1 The Servant's Hall today
Regardless of whether the family were entertaining guests, celebrating an occasion or travelling abroad the basement was kept alive with a constant hubbub of activity. There was always cleaning to be done, repairs to clothes, deliveries arriving or visits from tenants. Whatever their business the servant’s quarters was a welcoming place to all, where hospitality was freely given. Frances Power Cobbe, daughter of Newbridge House, wrote of the 1840s when:
‘the poor people were welcome to come and eat and drink.. on every excuse or without any excuse at all
The extensive Cobbe family archive brings to life the stories of Newbridge’s former servants. The wage accounts record their names, the duration of their employment and even the circumstances of their dismissal. As could be expected the household was not without its moments of disquiet over the three centuries. On 6 December 1784 Thomas Cobbe notes the dismissal of his wife’s ladies maid and housekeeper ‘Mrs Anne ... Dis[charge]d. to the general joy of ye family’
While some stayed only a short while at Newbridge most staff lasted much longer, in certain cases their whole lives. Ally Mathews was a dairymaid worked for three generations of the Cobbe family from 1760s – 1820s. In her old age she performed more basic household tasks such as milking cows, collecting sticks and washing. Frances Power Cobbe recalled ‘Old Ally’ as she wore ‘the real old Irish scarlet cloak’ which Frances remembered admiring when she ‘used to run by her side and help her to carry her bundle of sticks’.
Another life-long worker was Patt Murphy first recorded in the workman’s wage books in 1854 when he performed a variety of jobs from cutting timber, sowing turnips, going to Dublin, making mortar or helping the carpenter. In 1899 Mrs Cobbe wrote to the steward directing him to offer Patt Murphy half wages and be taken off work as he was of an ‘enfeebled state from extreme old age - 82 or 83 years.’
It may seem strange to the modern reader that people of such advanced years were kept working albeit two or three days a week. To our Victorian ancestors, in pre-state pension times, paying senior staff for non-strenuous labour was a way to keep them out of poverty and maintain their dignity.
Not just the lower wage staff like Murphy and Mathews but the more senior servants stayed for a long time at Newbridge. One such was Joseph Hill who started as Estate clerk and eventually took over as Steward and Land Agent. A prominent figure in the community as head of the estate, he lived in a large house in Donabate village with his wife and five children. He continued to live their rent-free after his retirement in 1904.
The Cobbe’s duty of care towards their servants and staff extended not just to their living conditions and wages. In 1810, taking over Newbridge from his aged grandparents Charles Cobbe spent a staggering £114-10-0 on ‘Servants Cloaths & expense of dress’. This bill was as substantial as the £118-6-0 spent on the servant’s wages that year.
Comparison with other estates shows Newbridge was one of the largest employers of staff in Fingal. The fact that the Cobbe family were continually and permanently resident in Ireland provided stability to employment which seems to have been returned in dedicated service and many lives devoted to working at Newbridge.
Hopefully when it is safe to reopen you will come to Newbridge and visit these rooms to step back into time as it would have been in one of the busiest country houses in Fingal.
Figure 4 The rear of the house containing the kitchens, scullery and form rent room, makes up a corner of the farm courtyard
Frances Power Cobbe, The Life of Frances Power Cobbe, as told by Herself, (London, 1894)
Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort, A History of Domestic Arrangements,
Mona Hearn, Below Stairs: Domestic Service Remembered in Dublin and Beyond, 1880-1922
, (Dublin 1999)