John Spencer and his butler: servants care of masters in their last days

In the first of a trio of blogs linked to the ‘When Spencer Met Stanhope’ exhibition, Nicola Walker explores the family papers to give a fascinating insight into the family and in this case their servants.

Cannon Hall, home for 300 years to the Spencer and Spencer Stanhope family, sits near the village of Cawthorne, 5 miles west of Barnsley. In early November 1775 as John Spencer neared the end of his life, John Smith, the butler at Cannon Hall was fraught with the responsibilities of caring for him. Letters, written by Smith as he negotiated caring for his master as well as settling in the new heir to the estate, are preserved in the Spencer Stanhope collection housed in Barnsley Archives and Local Studies. These letters allow us to delve into the experiences, concerns and emotions of the butler as he fulfilled his ultimate duty.

As the butler, John Smith was the most senior domestic servant and worked for the family at Cannon Hall for several decades. Letters sent from Smith to the family reveal some of his responsibilities including overseeing the employment, dismissal and instruction of servants and, from the inventories of his pantry, ensuring the safe keeping of some of the families more valuable items including pistols and the formal dining ware. Smith was also responsible for the personal care of the family, particularly lifelong bachelor John Spencer. Smith built a close bond with the family, dedicating his life to the service of the house.

A section of the 1775 inventory
Ref: SpSt 60671/20 Inventory, Butler’s Pantry

On 9th November 1775 Smith wrote to Walter Spencer Stanhope, John Spencer’s nephew and heir, stating that at ‘ten minets before one my master Departed this Life’. For several weeks John had suffered ‘with Goutey pains all over his whole frame’ with the ‘Greetest pain in his shoulders, arms & hands which putes him to the Greetes torter emajanable [greatest torture imaginable]’. Gout, a form of arthritis worsened by a diet high in alcohol and meat, was a common condition among the wealthy in the eighteenth century and John suffered from it repeatedly. Gout, however, is not life threatening and the real cause of his death is not fully known. Smith writes candidly of John’s suffering, of a fever which ‘so effected his nerves and memory and all of his breath’, ‘a rash out all over his whole body’ and finally resulted in the loss of ‘his speech so that we cannot understand’ him.

A letter from John Smith to Walter Spencer Stanhope regarding the death of  John Spencer
Ref: 60564/10 John Smith to Walter Spencer Stanhope regarding the death of John Spencer

John Spencer’s chronic condition was incapacitating and shifted the nature of the relationship between himself and his butler. In his hour of need John was forced to be compliant and quite literally put his life into the hands of those he employed with the aid of two local doctors. Smith was required to navigate small but uncharted decision making that pushed the boundaries of his role at Cannon Hall. Historians now recognise that the master-servant relationship was often complex and far from confined to the bounds of contractual obligation. As is demonstrated here in the relationship between John Smith and the Spencer family, the relationship between master and servant was also one of sentiment and care.

A letter from John Smith to Walter Spencer Stanhope, November 1775
Ref: 60564/9 A letter from John Smith to Walter Spencer Stanhope, November 1775

In a letter to Walter on 8th November 1775, the day before John died, Smith described his commitment to the care of his master. In it he stated that he would ‘do every thing in my power’ to care for John by ‘keeping him with in bounds’ and ‘to try Every stratigam in my power to keep him in bed as his life is at stake’. Smith also alludes to John’s volatile temperament when he wrote that ‘your Hon[ou]r is no stranger to my masters temper tho I have been in Greet favour During his whole illness & he has been Good in Doing everything I desired’.Smith’s letters paint a picture of the complex relationship between master and butler and how John’s temper and stubbornness was known and carefully navigated by all. It was noteworthy that John had succumbed to Smith’s personal care of him. Now dependant on his butler, the power dynamic between them had shifted.

Not only was John Smith responsible for caring for his master but also for overseeing events immediately following John’s death including keeping Walter and John’s closest companions updated. Smith’s awareness of rank and his discomfort in performing tasks outside of his usual role were revealed in his letters to Walter. Smith repeatedly described himself as ‘distresst’ regarding whether it would be appropriate or not to send his letters via the more expensive ‘Express’ or by regular post; on the occasion he does send as an express he is at pains to stress his decision to do so was supported by the local vicar. The bounds of Smith’s rights and responsibilities were a cause of anxiety for him and letter writing was evidently not something he was accustomed to doing regularly, at that time at least. Smith’s role as the only informant of his master’s health and imminent death and his responsibility to deal with the necessary affairs which followed were unfamiliar and daunting for him. It was also Smith who informed John Spencer’s closest friends and sent another servant James Spurr to fetch the lawyer overseeing Spencer’s last will and testament.[1] In his hour of need it was his butler who stepped up, cared for him and wrote to his family and friends. While this relationship may well have been typical of others between butlers and the men they served, they are not widely documented. Furthermore, the evidence from this example shows the extent to which the master-servant relationship could extend beyond contractual obligations and be those of loyalty, care and devotion.

The Spencer Stanhope Family Papers

All the documents referenced in the blog are from the family papers held at Barnsley Archives & Local Studies which are free to view, visit their website for more details and opening times

you can visit the ‘When Spencer Met Stanhope exhibition at Cannon Hall Museum until 30 October 2022. Visit our website to take a virtual tour

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