Deborah Devonshire

Christmas at Chatworth

A short history of festivities at the big house

Not much was made of Christmas at Chatsworth in the 18th and 19th centuries. Diaries and letters hardly mention it. Prince Albert’s trees and decorations took a long time to reach Derbyshire and would have been wasted on the December air because there were no children here for nearly a hundred years. At the turn of the 20th century the grown-ups made up for this strange state of affairs at Christmas-time with homemade entertainment. The theatre in the house, which seats 250 people, was used every night and neighbours were roped in to take parts in the sketches between ambitious songs sung by Princess Daisy of Pless and other would-be opera stars among the guests. They moved in for the duration, so had lots of time for rehearsals. Mrs Hwfa Williams (where did she get that name?), the author of It Was Such Fun, an incredible chronicle of Edwardian high society life, tells us that the house was so hot at Christmas that it was almost unbearable. In Andrew’s granny’s time the temperature plummeted, and what people remember of her reign, 1908–38, was the intense cold.

Nevertheless, Christmas came to life again, as she had seven children. In due course they produced 21 grandchildren who, with their parents, stayed for most of the Christmas holidays, bringing nannies, maids, valets, grooms and ponies — they hunted with the High Peak Harriers on Boxing Day. Some of the nannies were keenly aware of the status of their charges. My sisters-in-law remember being told to sit down on their luggage in a passage while their nanny visited the best night nursery, which was already occupied by cousins who had arrived earlier. Granny had a famous cook who trained under Escoffier, no less. Mrs Tanner has left books of receipts and the Christmas food was rich and rare — as were the menus, which seemed to go on for ever.

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