About the project

What is the Country House Technology project?

 

Project background and methodology

The project has its origins in the 1990s, when the National Trust’s then Surveyor of Conservation, the late Nigel Seeley, initiated an exercise to record artefacts relating to technology at National Trust properties. The resulting database (see links for more information on this) provides one of the inputs into the work of this project. However, this project seeks to go further, not only by studying a wider range of country houses throughout the United Kingdom than those owned by the National Trust, but also by examining both the physical remains and historical evidence in a wider context, to reveal the factors influencing country house owners’ decisions to adopt or to shun particular technologies, to understand more about the ways in which technological ideas and knowledge were disseminated and to analyse the impact which these technological changes had on country house servants as well as the house owners, families and guests.

The project not only studies Victorian and Edwardian houses, which might be Alnwick Castle - an ancient building modernised in the 19th centuryexpected to contain what was then the latest technology, but also older properties, such as Chirk and Alnwick Castles, where the introduction of service wires and pipes posed particular challenges.

Preliminary research of published literature, maps and previous data collection (such as that described above) is being followed up by house visits, during which the most notable examples or absences of technology are recorded.

Types of country house technology

The main categories of domestic technology covered by the project are:

  • Lighting
  • Heating
  • Cooking and food storage
  • Water supply and sewage disposal
  • Sanitation
  • Laundry
  • Communications
  • Transport
  • Security
  • Garden technology
  • Estate technology

Burghley House
Servants' bells, Burghley House, Lincolnshire

In addition, the layout of country houses, especially their service areas, is being evaluated to understand the impact of technology and of other social factors such as the organisation of the “below stairs household” and their interaction with the family.

The project is also examining the ways in which environmental concerns and economic factors are encouraging many country estates to adopt modern variants of previous technologies which enable them to become self-sufficient once more in areas such as energy production and sewage disposal.

Project outcomes

The key outcomes of this project included a conference in May 2010, the proceedings of which have now been published, and a major book published by English Heritage in August 2016 – click here for more information. The project team also carry out consultancy work for owners and curators of country houses wishing to understand the historic technology in their properties and present it to visitors. Recent projects have included detailed studies of the domestic technology at Audley End and Eltham Palace, for English Heritage, and at Tatton Park for East Cheshire Council.

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