Did servants suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder? The Victorian diaries of Mrs Sarah Wells, housekeeper of Uppark and mother to novelist H. G. Wells, reveal the physical and emotional cost of working in subterranean servant quarters. ‘So dark in these underground rooms!’ she wrote in 1892, twelve years into an anxious and exhausting tenure at the great house. ‘Longing to get out.’
Uppark was designed in the early 18th-century in the old style: servants in the dark, gentry in the light. The kitchen was moved upstairs as entertaining got more lavish, but the rest of the staff remained below ground. A series of underground service tunnels linked Uppark’s basement with outlying buildings – stables and dairy, kitchen and laundry. The idea was to keep servants completely out of sight.
But what were the health consequences of confining human beings to dark basement quarters, where the only windows were high and barred, the only exit through a long, dank tunnel?
In 1905 an article in The Lancet claimed that the ‘eminently depressing’ living quarters for servants in poorly ventilated dark basements, where ‘diffused light is but a matter of a few hours daily even in midsummer,’ accounted for the anaemic appearance of so many employed in affluent homes.
Mrs Wells effectively lived the life of a mole, ‘busy all day in those vaulted passages,’ as she wrote with resentment. Her mood darkened as summer passed. She dreaded the short days ahead.
18 July 1888: ‘Days already drawing in.’
14 October 1890: ‘Rain & wind, dark dull day, winter coming on.’
27 October 1891. ‘Dull day foggy and wet, not so cold. No walk – how dark in these underground rooms.’
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or ‘SAD’, is a modern diagnosis of the suffering that can be brought on by shorter days and less sunlight. It is held that SAD sufferers are more likely to be women, and that they commonly start craving sugary foods: cakes, biscuits, chocolate.
‘Fat little mother,’ wrote H. G. Wells in a letter, under a sketch of a rotund little lady in a lace cap. The housekeeper’s kitchen was a dangerous place for sugar addicts: all those cakes and scones, jellies and jams. More gravely, lack of exposure to natural sunlight is now known to induce depression, osteoporosis and breast cancer – even schizophrenia.
By 1892, at the age of 78, there are hints in Mrs Wells’ diary that her mind is indeed beginning to falter. These entries might be veiled references to Uppark’s endless and acrimonious staff spats, but she appears confused and paranoid.
26 March 1892: ‘Busy all day as usual. I do not feel comfortable. Such strange things one hears and sees!!’
28 May: ‘Unpleasant answer from the Cook who seems to act very queer.’
4 August: ’12 years ago today I came here and left Bromley. What anxious years they have been to me. What rude insulting people I have had to live with and it is worse now.’
The body’s need for Vitamin D, made through exposure to sunlight, was not known about at this time. But the health benefits of cod liver oil had been discovered. H. G. Wells wrote about his mother’s ‘fanatical belief’ in the stuff to prevent the vitamin insufficiency that gave his brother ‘a pigeon breast and retarted growth.’ Mrs Wells recorded her bouts of ill health and self-medication in her diary: ‘Very poorly took oil.’ She wrote this on a summer’s evening: 23 August, after twelve years of a largely underground existence.
Elsewhere in Britain, during the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign, drastic improvements were being made to the standards of living for servants. Enlightened country house design was bringing the servants into fresh air and daylight.
Lanhydrock in Cornwall, for example, a Jacobean mansion devastated by fire in 1881, was rebuilt according to the latest ideas in service design. Visitors today can see the ground-floor housekeeper’s room with its large, light-flooded windows facing in two directions, while the next-door housemaids’ sitting room is an airy, bright room where the girls could listen to the gramophone and entertain their friends.
In 1989, a terrible fire sparked by a builder’s blowtorch broke out in the roof at Uppark. The great house was gutted, the upper floors collapsing onto the ground floor with many archives and treasures damaged or destroyed. After painstaking repair, Uppark reopened to the public in 1995 – one of the most rigorous restoration projects ever undertaken by the National Trust. The servants’ basement rooms, however, needed little renovation. Their dank, underground nature proved to be the perfect protection from the flames.
Today’s visitors can peruse Uppark’s perfectly-preserved servants’ quarters – but there is, to me, one false note. The series of underground rooms are, today, lit with brilliant electricity. The subterranean tunnels are brightly lit, too. You have to work very hard to imagine Mrs Wells’s desperate claustrophobia, trapped in the gloom with only a gas lamp for company, day after day, waiting for the servants’ bell to jangle.
Read Mrs Wells’s story – and that of five other housekeepers, working between 1830 and 1970 – in The Housekeepers’ Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House