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PBS’s Secrets of the Manor House

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Secrets of the Manor House premieres Sunday, January 22, 2012.

Exactly 100 years ago, the world of the British manor house was at its height. It was a life of luxury and indolence for a wealthy few supported by the labor of hundreds of servants toiling ceaselessly “below stairs” to make the lives of their lords and ladies run as smoothly as possible. It is a world that has provided a majestic backdrop to a range of movies and popular costume dramas to this day.
But what was really going on behind these stately walls? Secrets of the Manor House looks beyond the fiction to the truth of what life was like in these ancient British houses. They were communities where two separate worlds existed side by side: the poor worked as domestic servants, while the nation’s wealthiest families enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury, and aristocrats ruled over their servants as they had done for a thousand years.

The program talks to present-day British lords and ladies and to the descendants of those who lived and worked in manor houses across the country. A series of expert historians (Lawrence James, the author of The Illustrated Rise and Fall of the British Empire and Dr. Elizabeth Kehoe, the author of Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters) explain the true picture of how life was lived within the walls of these stately homes that had changed very little for centuries. It explains the hierarchy of the British establishment: led by the king with a supporting cast of dukes, earls and barons, each keenly aware of his or her place. It visits modern manor houses, where aristocratic families sometimes still rule over scores of servants, in homes with 100 and more bedrooms, and where the lord still enjoys a luxurious life of hunting, shooting and fishing among the beauty of rural Britain. And it details the true hardship of life as a “downstairs” servant: maids would carry 45 gallons of hot water along hidden servants’ passageways to fill one aristocratic lady’s bath, and a housemaid’s day would start before dawn and last for 17 hours as she scrubbed floors, cleaned grates and carried coal — all for a wage of $15 a year.

But, precisely a century ago, a perfect storm of financial hardship and political and social change was threatening to engulf this traditional British way of life. Some impoverished British aristocrats married wealthy American heiresses to prop up and sustain their fading manor houses; the working classes were finding a voice and demanding both political power and better jobs; and the terrible disaster of World War I was looming in the wings. When war came, nothing in the life of the British manor house was ever the same again.

Secrets of the Manor House was produced by Pioneer Productions.

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7 thoughts on “PBS’s Secrets of the Manor House”

  1. It took some searching on my local PBS website and I found that it will show “Secrets of the Manor House”on the 26th instead of the 22nd. Oh well just have to wait a few days longer.

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