February 16, 2013

'Abbey' fans finding the real servant stories in R.I.

Tours of mansions in Newport are boosted by the 'Downton' series

By MICHELLE R. SMITH The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Rhe Elms mansion in Newport, R.I., seen through an opening in an iron fence.

2010 file photo/The Associated Press

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The Elms, with footmen, is seen in a 1920s photo.

Preservation Society of Newport County photo via the Associated Press

Additional Photos Below

Another includes the story of the dismissal of the entire staff in 1902 after they asked for more time off, said John Tschirch, director of museum affairs at the mansions, who did much of the research on which the tour is based. The Berwinds replaced them with new servants brought up from New York.

Other bedrooms display photos of servants, as well as journals and other documents, many provided by servants' descendants. One shows a maid standing next to a rocking chair on the home's roof, which was a makeshift porch for the staff.

In another photo, the Berwind household's longtime butler Ernest Birch, who married the cook, sits on a chair outside the mansion surrounded by footmen. One, much like Downton's footman-turned-valet-turned-assistant butler Thomas, seems to be exuding a little attitude.

Census records from 1895 show that around 10 percent of the population in Newport was domestic servants. Tschirch said staff would have "kitchen ratchets" -- parties in the kitchens of the different mansions, with food galore.

"That's where all the gossip was," he said. "You think of a social summer resort, the stories the servants could tell about each other, the people in town, the fashion."

Much of the information has come from servants' relatives who heard the Preservation Society wanted to hear from anyone who had lived or visited there, not just the owners. Tschirch said all kinds of family lore has surfaced, and they're still looking for more. "The descendants," he said, "are beginning to feel that these houses are part of their family histories, too."


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Additional Photos

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This 1920s image shows butler Ernest Birch, center, surrounded by footmen at The Elms mansion in Newport, R.I. Newly discovered photographs and documents have inspired the creation of a tour about servants at The Elms.

Preservation Society of Newport County photo via the Associated Press

click image to enlarge

Grace Rhodes Birch, left, a cook at The Elms mansion in Newport, R.I., is seen with her husband, Ernest Birch, the mansion’s butler. The couple married in 1918.

Preservation Society of Newport County photo via the Associated Press


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