There is something about Georgian architecture that appeals to me. The elegant simplicity of Georgian terraces, in particular. Dublin has many examples of such buildings, constructed when the city, then an important part of the British Empire, was rapidly developing at the end of the 18th Century. I’ve been to Dublin a few times and always enjoy walking around the parks, streets and squares on the south side of the Liffey.
During our recent holiday in Ireland we visited the Dublin’s Georgian House Museum at Number Twenty Nine Fitzwilliam Street. This has been restored to represent how it looked when was first occupied in 1794. The restoration was sponsored by the Irish Electricity Supply Board who demolished most of the row of houses on Fitzwilliam Street Lower to make way for their rather ugly offices. They obviously felt guilty about this and put money into the project to try to salvage their reputation, I guess.
As the house is relatively small (although large compared to where most people live today) tours are guided – you can’t wander round yourself. The guide we had was very friendly and very informative, and we learned a lot more than we would have if we’d wandered around with a guide book in hand.
The outside of the house is very typical of a Dublin Georgian town house. The front is fairly plain brickwork, only broken up by the long windows. In these houses, the main decorative feature tends to be the door and the semi-circular fan-light, which present an opportunity for some individuality. The houses have a relatively small footprint, with much of the living space created by building upwards. No. 29 has four storeys, plus a basement, which is typical for this type of house. The size of the windows varies. The largest being on the first floor, where the main rooms used for entertaining guests were located. The windows reduce in size going up the building with the smallest on the top floor where the children’s and governesses rooms were found.
You enter the house via the basement of the house next door where you pay your relatively modest entry fee and wait for the next guided tour. This starts with a short film show which explains the history of the house and provides some background about the expansion of Dublin during the Georgian period, told from the perspectives of the owner, a widow called Mrs. Olivia Beatty, and her servants.
The tour starts in the basement, in the kitchen. The guide described the life of the servants – the housekeeper, scullery maid and groom. The scullery maid, in particular, had a hard time doing most of the donkey work – cleaning and scrubbing, emptying the chamber pots (no flushing toilets in those days!) collecting the water, which was stored in a tank in the cellar, and lugging food, water and just about everything else, up and down the stairs. She wouldn’t normally live in the house, but would come in day to day. The household was run by the housekeeper, who had a bedroom in the basement, next to the larder (so she could keep an eye on the supplies). The male servant, who would look after the horses and carry out other work as required, would probably kip down in the stables or on the floor somewhere in the basement.
Moving up to the ground floor, there is a large hall and the dining room. Formal meals were served here, although everyday meals would be taken in the private, personal rooms on the first and second floors. The poor maid having to carry everything up several flights of stairs from the kitchen in the basement.
The front drawing-room on the first floor, or piano nobile, was the most important public room. Guests were entertained here and it was used to display the works of art owned by the family. The guests would walk around the room admiring the paintings. The large windows allowed people on the street to see inside – a way of making an impression. The back drawing-room was a more private space where the family would entertain themselves.
The master bedroom and the lady’s boudoir were on the second floor. As with the other rooms in the house they were furnished and decorated in the style typical of the times when the house was first occupied. The guide pointed out the at this time people used to sleep in a sitting position as it was believed this helped to prevent chest infections and diseases such as TB. I’d also been told about this during my visit to Wordsworth’s house, Dove Cottage.
The top floor, or attic, contained the Nursery, where the children of the house would sleep and have their lessons, and the Governesses’ bedroom. Georgian families were quite large, so it was a surprise to see such a small amount of space allocated to the children. However older children would be sent away to boarding school and during the holidays the family would decamp to their country house, so the older children probably hardly ever needed to stay at the main residence.
The guided tour took about an hour in all (including the film) and allowed us to gain a glimpse into the life of an upper middle class family and their servants in the late 18th Century. Quite often its the grand houses of the aristocracy that are preserved and open to the public. Looking around these grand houses is interesting but doesn’t provide a picture of how the majority of the population used to live. No. 29 provided an insight of the life of more modest people, albeit still not representative of the masses of working people who lived in the great cities of Britain and Ireland. Unfortunately their houses are long gone and their stories rarely told in standard histories.