The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Inside a Victorian rectory

Jo Draper takes a peep inside an idyllic home: the rectory in West Stafford

Occasionally Victorian photographs let us see inside Dorset houses and cottages, giving us an amazingly clear idea of what they really looked like. The rooms usually lack their inhabitants: the low light levels inside made photography difficult, and including people would have made it even harder. Usually there is only a single photograph, occasionally a couple. Fuller coverage is rare
and most of the earlier interior photographs are inside mansions.

West Stafford Rectory from across the water meadows, with the church tower peeking up left, and the long roof of the rectory barn between the church and house. It is always surprising to see thatch on big houses, but of course it was used on them as well as on cottages and barns.

Even when there are photographs we want to know more: is this really the dining room? Did people actually live in all this clutter? And so on. For one Dorset house we have not just five very good photographs of the rooms (and one of the servants who looked after them) but also several descriptions of the house which answer some of the questions.

 

The drawing room, with the door to the hall, right. So many pictures and so many other things too. A daughter of the house remembered ‘Every available shelf or drawer in the old Rectory was crammed with treasures’. The ghostly artefact looks as if someone has walked into the shot, paused with their hands on hips, then walked off again.

The house is West Stafford Rectory, a largish brick house dated 1767, with a thatched roof and good big sash windows. The rector was well-housed. Reginald Smith moved into the house in 1836 when he was made rector, and lived here until his death in 1895, almost 50 years. He and his wife Emily had twelve children here, raising all but two of them.

The door in the middle led straight into the hall, which had another glazed door opposite. Bosworth Smith sadly recalled that birds (including thrushes, blackbirds and once a kingfisher) took a short cut through the open door and killed themselves on the second shut one. Note the little window to the attic bedrooms..

The five photographs seem to have been taken in the 1880s, certainly before Reginald Smith died. They show one of the smallest bedrooms, and the main rooms on the ground floor. All are absolutely stuffed with furniture, pictures and more. The kitchen and all the first floor bedrooms were omitted, but we do get a good idea of this happy crowded family home, loved by all ten children. One daughter wrote ‘It is difficult to paint in words a picture of that wonderful old Stafford Rectory – the atmosphere of love and reverence, of wonder and enjoyment, that pervaded it, the extraordinary influence which our parents exercised over all who came into contact
with them’.
 

Bedroom in the attic, so crammed with furniture and china that there doesn’t seem room for a person. Bowls and can for washing right, with towels. All the water would have to be carried up here by hand, as indeed it would have been for all the bedrooms. The pictures on the sloping ceiling must have been fixed top & bottom. Bosworth slept in this bedroom or the identical one next door, and his sister remembered that you had to stand on a chair to see anything but sky from the windows. The chair left seems to be placed for just that purpose.

R. Bosworth Smith (the second son), wrote many books and late in life bought the ancient house at Bingham’s Melcombe. He described his first home: ‘The Rectory is a picturesque, comfortable-looking building, of no special architectural pretensions, and of no very great antiquity, but with an atmosphere and a charm of its own which proclaim it, at almost the first glance, to be not so much a house as a home – a home in which it would be a happiness to live, and no bad place to die. Its walls bulge here and there; but they are thick and weather-proof, made to “stay” and of a rich brown brick, weather-tinted and lichen-clad, the product of the clay-beds of Fryer Mayne, in the adjoining parish of Knighton.’ He was writing about 1900, when Georgian architecture was not admired.

 

The hall, with harmonium (right) oddly placed partly across the doorway. Bosworth described the ‘quaint Jacobean wooden chimney-piece’ centre (which must be inserted, and may be fake) and the room being ‘crammed with pictures and with china, with curios of every description, with old oak chests filled with toys, with oak chairs and tables’. The wicker chair and table may have been made locally – they are frequent in 1870s interiors.

Bosworth Smith later wrote a good deal about birds (his book Bird Life and Bird Lore has lots about Dorset in it) and it was the birds at the Rectory which sparked his interest as a boy. The big thatched roof ‘gave abundant shelter to all the birds which most attach themselves to man’ and was the home of ‘many, too many perhaps, pert and chirping and irrepressible house-sparrows’. There were also starlings nesting in the roof, swallows in the chimneys and house-martins on the walls, while swifts used holes in the outbuilding walls. He saw all these birds as part of his home ‘I could hardly have conceived of the Rectory without them or them without the Rectory’ and Bosworth Smith started his careful observation of bird behaviour here when he was very young, and continued to observe and write all his life.

 

Another view of the hall, which housed an organ (left) as well as the harmonium. The family sang hymns here after afternoon church on Sundays. Great arrangement of plants and flowers on the table. The door (right) leads into the drawing room. Bosworth recorded in the hall was ‘a great iron chest with a double lock which contained the baptismal and marriage and burial registers’ from the sixteenth century onwards.

Inevitably the main entertainment for this serious family was long walks, and a daughter remembered that her ‘mother always carried a large wool-work “carriage” bag, containing a heavy miscellany of sketch-book, guide-books, tracts for the poor, and biscuits and chocolate for us, and, occasionally, a heavy stone, surreptitiously added by a mischievous son’. The family (especially the children) can sound priggish so the naughtiness of overloading their mother’s bag comes as a relief – they are human.

 

The servants who looked after the house, posed outside the back or kitchen door of the Rectory about 1880. There are two maids with smart white aprons, another woman seated, perhaps the cook, and four men. At the 1871 census there were five servants at the Rectory – a coachman and four women – a lady’s maid, cook, housemaid and a nurse. Maybe some of the men in the photograph were gardeners or other outside workers who lived in their own cottages and so didn’t appear at the Rectory in the census. The smart man on the left is possibly the coachman.

The trouble is, we want to know even more about how the house was used. Why aren’t there photographs of the kitchen, the other bedrooms, the staircases (‘the front with old oak balusters, with broad and easy steps and with room for three or four people to go up abreast; the back stairs narrow and almost pitch-dark, winding round and round from the kitchen to attics’ Bosworth Smith).

 

The dining room: the portraits are probably Reginald Smith and his wife Emily. Collector’s cabinet right, with lots of little drawers. One of the daughters described Sundays, when all their toys were put away ‘Then we would be shown folios of pictures or cabinets of curiosities, one of those cabinets being chosen which contained the water of Jordan, leaves from the garden of Gethsemane, or some other bible relic’. They were stored in cabinets like this one, possibly even this very one.

The photographs do show us inside a real Victorian rectory – Reginald and his wife Emily had moved into the house in 1836, and had been accumulating for more than forty years when the photographs were taken. This accumulation of things dominates the photographs.

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