Labour round-the-clock was the life of a Victorian servant, as we discovered in the delightful exploratory history event, Life As A Servant At Como, at Como House and Garden museum. Our National Trust host enquired whether we’d have time to clean the marble front verandah as starter? (It would only take a few hours and was a once-weekly task of two maids.) With no volunteers forthcoming, we set off. On these house tours, guides entertainingly recreate the drama of daily life through Q&A, roleplay, and activities from the era.
Como House is a picture-book example of Australian Regency and Italianate architecture. A refined mansion set in pleasant grounds, the last of four owners (the Armytage family) remained almost 100 years, from 1860-1959. With photographs taken by one of their daughters, we see the staff in their uniforms acting out their duties — as chimney sweep, cook, washerwoman, parlour maid, and gardener — with markers of status within the service pecking order visible by dress.
The tour starts at the servants’ quarters where we view their bedrooms, stables, laundry. The kitchen includes oversize industrial machinery, including a laundry rinser, Coolgardie meat safe, and giant iron wood-fired stove. We see the servants’ bells, each one shaped for a different ring tone, keeping the small staff on their toes!
Entering the mansion, we see the ballroom with billiards room, children’s wing, and roof turret. The bathroom is steam-punk amazing and virtually intact from the late 1800s! We ascend various servant’s staircases to find the tweenies’ (between floors) room — a young girl of 11 years who prepared the morning fireplaces while emptying chamber pots.
The house manager’s ‘office’ was the interview room for prospective staff and, hilariously, we see original advertisements: ‘No references’ meant ‘no interview’; and, if you were a nanny, you needed to be ‘a young lady not opposed to also assisting in the laundry’!
At its peak during the Marvellous Melbourne years of the 1860-80s, Como House was a social place, with ballroom dancing held winter Fridays, and during the Spring Racing Carnival. We gleaned other information involving French governesses, thieving boat captains, and sneaky paramours are other gossipy facts to rival a Downton Abbey script.
Into the 20th century, we hear of the changes war and modernity brought as well as education, marriage and international tours. We end with an exit through Como’s front door, as if it were 1959, their last year of ownership, when servants themselves were a thing of the past and the remaining Armytage daughters themselves polished the silver.
Take a step back in time to imagine what life might have been like, both for the masters and servants, of an 19th century colonial household.
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.
Check out The Australian Heritage Festival for other heritage event details 18 April – 21 May.