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Programme 2 - Rural Victorians
Wednesday, 17 May 2000

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This episode is now part of our archive. This programme is still available to schools to borrow or purchase from the Audio Visual Recording service at the SELB. Please quote the SELB programme code in your correspondence. See our ordering page for more information.


The programme contrasts the lives of two children from opposite social classes living in rural Victorian Ireland. It is set in the Castle Ward house and estate and we find the presenter secretively accompanied on her tour of the house by two ghosts - one of a rich and one of a poor Victorian child.
Background Information
Image of a people working the fieldsQueen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch in British history. Her 64 year reign, from 1837 to the time of her death in 1901, coincided with dynamic social and economic change. One of the major events of her reign was the "Great Exhibition" at the Crystal Palace in 1851. It attracted six million visitors. There they saw, for the first time, great inventions from all over the world. The "horseless carriage" or motor car, the sewing machine, photographic cameras, the predecessor of the modern computer and even the humble toilet roll were all invented during Victoria’s time. But for all this innovation society was still divided into the rich and poor.

Ireland was still recovering from the effects of the Great Famine. The population had been reduced dramatically by emigration and starvation. Those who remained took work wherever they could find it and the “Big House”, in the midst of great economic prosperity, provided it. Castle Ward was one such estate.
The Gentry
Image of a Victorian mansionThe Ward family in the nineteenth century typified a way of life enjoyed by many prosperous landowners in rural Victorian Ireland. It was financed largely from the renting of their land and properties in Killough, Bangor and the immediate area surrounding Castle Ward. Their lifestyle, filled with leisure and sporting activities, was made possible only by employing an army of servants to look after their every need. The most famous of the family was Mary Ward (1827-1869). She was the daughter of a rich landowner and the wife of the 5th Viscount Bangor. Victorian women had a passive role in society. They were not expected to contribute anything other than to have a family and to keep the affairs of the household in order.
"Man for the field and woman for the hearth;
Man for the sword, and for the needle she;
Man with the head, woman with the heart;
Man to command and woman to obey."

Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Mary Ward was an exception. She was a woman of many talents who took an active interest in all things scientific. She wrote and illustrated a book, "The Wonders of the Microscope" which was published in 1857. Mary was also interested in astronomy. She was a cousin of Lord Rosse who had a famous telescope in Birr, Co. Offaly. Tragically it was when she was visiting him in 1869 that she died after falling from a steam carriage. She was only 42 years old.

Image of a Vicorian style bedroomFor most rich women, life in rural Victorian Ireland was conducted at a genteel pace, with picnics, boating, riding and croquet on the lawns. The men spent their time shooting, hunting and fishing in the well-stocked lakes and rivers. In the evenings they talked politics in the library while their wives sewed or played charades.

Children were rarely contemplated, the phrase "children should be seen and not heard" originated in Victorian times. Children usually lived on the top floor of the house and were looked after by a nanny or governess. They rarely saw their parents except for a short while after tea, when they were allowed to stay for an hour or so before going to bed. For entertainment they played charades or with puppets and dolls and in the evening their father might come upstairs and read them a story - ghost stories being popular at the time.
The Servants
Image of a Victorian style kitchenThe servants came mainly from the surrounding villages. They were generally pleased to get a job in the Big House or estate, even though they worked long hours. Service provided a regular income, board and lodgings and in the time of workhouses and social deprivation, a much respected place in society.

The butler was the senior servant in the house. He was in charge of all the other staff. In a house like Castle Ward there would have been a housekeeper, a valet, a cook, a governess and a variety of maids. They worked long hours for low wages.

The kitchen was the hub of the house. The gentry rarely ventured in here but did suggest lavish menus to the cook. Victorian meals often consisted of five courses and for special occasions could run to ten. The servants also ate well, the importation of refrigerated meat from Argentina and Australia meant that more meat was eaten and cheap fruit and fish became more widely available. However, on the estate and in the fields the family of a farm or estate worker had to exist on a staple diet of bread, potatoes and tea.

Image of a Victorian style laundryThere were clear and unambiguous rules about the role of servants. They had their own set of back stairs connecting their quarters and working areas with the main house. In Castle Ward this took the form of a tunnel. The servants lived in cottages on the estate or in the courtyard above the stables.

Victorian families were much larger than modern ones. It was quite usual to have five children and some people had as many as twelve. For the poor, the more children they had the less food there was to go around and children were often hungry and neglected by parents who had to work long hours for a tiny wage. Children were often sent out to work as soon as they were old enough. In an estate such as Castle Ward they would have worked in the fields scaring crows or in the laundry hanging out clothes.
Before the Programme

  • Discuss the meaning of the following keywords:
    Gentry, Servants, Country Estate, Reign, The "Big House", Auction

After the Programme

  • Pupils could find out which modern day implements and machines were invented during the Victorian age and trace their development from then until the present.
  • Pupils could devise their own Victorian dinner menus, one for the gentry and another for the servants. How would they differ from a modern day meal?
  • The library shown in the programme has false, secret doors. What might these be used for? Pupils might also think which doors they would like to disguise in their own homes.
  • Wealthy Victorians used silhouettes as cartoons. Pupils could work together making silhouettes of each other by using a torch to cast shadows then drawing around them. They could then be cut out and displayed.
  • The laundry workers whitened or bleached cloths by laying them outside in the sun. Could pupils devise a way of showing how sunlight affects modern materials?
  • A scullery maid would have earned the equivalent of 50p in today’s money. Compare what this would have bought then with what it would buy now.

Further Resources
Castle Ward - A Resource Book for Teachers, Information about Castle Ward and Victorians, and activities for KS1 and KS2 pupils.
Contact: The Regional Education Officer, The National Trust, Rowallane House, Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Co. Down, BT24 7LH Tel: (028) 9751 0721

Life in Victorian Ireland, written by Deirdre Brown and Rhonda Glasgow and published by Blackstaff Press ISNB: 0-85640-566-6
History Programmes
Programme 1:
Belfast Blitz:
Programme 2:
Rural Victorians
Programme 3:
Monastic Settlements
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