A most trusted and loyal aide

Until the First World War, it was possible for a tall and good-looking lad from a humble background, whose conduct conformed to perceived high standards of correct behaviour, to rise through a complicated and rigid hierarchy of domestic service and become accepted amongst the most prestigious members of society.  One of these aspiring young men was Charles Reginald Collingwood, born in the Berkshire town of Windsor on 1st May 1855 as the second son of Joseph Collingwood, a domestic servant, and his wife Emma (nee Hazelhurst)[i].

By the 1861 census, the family was living in Stamford Road, close to where Fulham Broadway station stands today in Southwest London.  Joseph was employed at the Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and Emma was looking after their four young sons: 5-year-old Charles, his older brother 7-year-old Frank, Harry aged 3 who had also been born in Windsor, and baby Fred born in Pimlico, Central London[ii].

Ten years later, Charles, now aged 15, was no longer living with his family, but was ‘in service’ working as a page at Denbies, a large estate near Dorking, in Surrey[iii], which featured a grand mansion of over 100 rooms, created by Thomas Cubitt, the master builder responsible for much of London’s Bloomsbury and Belgravia, the east wing of Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and the eastern front of Buckingham Palace.  Although Thomas Cubitt had died in 1855 – the same year Charles was born – his estate was inherited by his son George Cubitt, 1st Baron Ashcombe, a British politician, who lived a lavish lifestyle employing many servants working within the house, and many more looking after a separate laundry, three stables and a small lodge, plus of course the landscaped garden and extensive grounds.  On census night in 1871, Charles was the only male amongst ten servants looking after the household, which is surprising because most wealthy households would have employed a butler and one or more footmen who would have trained the young page[iv], so it is likely that the butler and other servants were staying elsewhere on that night – perhaps at one of the family’s other properties.

Photograph of a Denbies, a large Victorian stately home near Dorking, Surrey
Thomas Cubitt’s Denbies © Dorking Museum[v]

In a large house during Victorian times, the wealthy owner and his or her family would live ‘above stairs’, whilst the servants worked and lived ‘below stairs’ even though they may have slept in rooms at the very top of the house.  Rather than entering and leaving the house through the main entrance, servants would have had their own side entrance with separate corridors and a plain staircase to move around the building so they wouldn’t inadvertently cross paths with their employer, his or her family, or their guests.

As a page, Charles would have earned around £8 a year plus food, accommodation, and two suits of livery (the uniform of a male servant which remained the property of his employer[vi]), but he would have been expected to pay for his own underclothing and boots.  His duties would have started at 6am when he would light the Servants’ Hall fire, clean his fellow servants’ boots, trim the wicks of the oil lamps – as there was no electricity nor gas in those days – before laying the Hall for a breakfast probably consisting of a dish of stew, cold meat, bread and cheese, with tea available to the women and younger servants, and beer to the adult men.  After clearing away breakfast, Charles’ morning duties would have included the cleaning of knives, silver, windows, and mirrors around the house, before helping carry the food up to the main dining room for luncheon, a formal meal served to his employer’s family and any guests who may be in residence, after which he would have helped to clear away after the meal and wash up the cutlery.  It is unlikely that Charles would have been expected to wash up the plates and dishes, as the head housekeeper would have taken great pride in looking after these herself.

During the afternoon, Charles would have helped set up the Servants’ Hall for dinner, the below stairs staff’s main meal of the day, eaten around 2pm when the servants would wait behind their chairs until the butler and head housekeeper arrived and indicated that they could take their seats.  The butler would usually serve the meat and the housekeeper the vegetables before passing the plates in order of seniority, so the youngest would be the last to receive theirs.  Once everyone had finished the main course, the senior staff would retire to the housekeeper or butler’s parlour where they would have been served dessert by one of the maids, whilst junior staff cleared the Servant’s Hall and washed up before perhaps having some free time to chat amongst themselves until it was time to set up the Main Dining Room for dinner, their employer’s main meal of the day.  If there were visitors, Charles may have waited at table, before helping to clear away after the meal and wash up the cutlery.  In most households it was understood that leftover food from the main dining room that had not been served could be kept for the servants’ breakfast and supper the following day.  Finally, at around 8:30 or 9pm, he would have helped lay the table in the Servant’s Hall for supper and enjoyed a meal which probably consisted of cold meat, hot vegetables, and bread and cheese[vii], then cleared the table before retiring to bed. 

Many servants worked a sixteen-hour day or more with no real respite, as a bell could ring at any time summoning them to carry out a task or service, and they were not usually allowed to leave the house except on their one day off each month. 

By the second half of the nineteenth century, domestic service was predominantly carried out by female workers, and opportunities for male indoor servants were in decline.  Although female staff outnumbered their male counterparts by over twenty to one, their working life tended to be brief as, should they marry, they would almost inevitably give up their position to be reliant upon their husband and manage their own household.  For any young man looking for a long-term career in a large household, personal appearance was important, and employers generally preferred their male staff to be single as it was vital for senior staff not to become too friendly with the other servants in the household so they could maintain an air of authority. 

Charles must have been seen as a dutiful, intelligent, confident, and trustworthy young man, as he was soon promoted to footman, a much more public facing role than page.  Traditionally, young men selected as footmen were generally tall and of pleasing appearance, but even Mrs Isabella Beeton, in her famous book of Household Management, warned against choosing a footman “without any consideration other than his height, shape and ‘tournure’ of his calf”[viii]. 

A footman usually had two sets of clothes, so would start the day with the messier jobs, such as moving furniture, trimming lamps, lighting fires, or cleaning shoes and boots, before changing into a smart livery of white shirt, white bow tie, dark cutaway (‘morning’) coat and waistcoat, to set the breakfast and wait at table.  His duties would be varied, depending upon the size of the household, and included answering the door to visitors, delivering messages and invitations for his employer, along with assisting the butler in his day-to-day responsibilities.  Most importantly, a footman had to be ‘attentive to all but obtrusive to none’.[ix]

When Charles was about nineteen, his employer, George Cubitt MP, hosted the annual dinner of the Dorking Conservative Association attended by many prominent guests including Sir Charles Russell, 3rd Baronet VC, whose main residence was Swallowfield Park, a magnificent stately home near Reading, Berkshire.  Sir Charles had been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, for his actions during the Crimean War, then became involved in politics and sat first as a Conservative Member of Parliament for Berkshire from 1865 to 1868 before returning to Parliament as MP for Westminster in 1874. 

Perhaps Charles Collingwood made a very favourable impression at the dinner, as he was soon engaged as butler in Sir Charles’ household where, despite his youth, he was responsible for ensuring that the wheels of domestic life turned smoothly, and might also have looked after his master’s wardrobe, waited at table, and been responsible for the distribution and collection of mail.  His most important duty was to take care of the wine cellar, decanting wine for daily use and putting away the decanters after every meal, then recording in the cellar book the amount of wine given out and number of bottles drunk each day.  A good butler was also expected to know how to ‘fine’ or clear wines, to brew beer, and be competent enough to advise his master as to the price and quality of wine to be ordered in.  Fortunately, many household management books of the time, including Mrs Beeton’s, offered plenty of advice and recipes.

Nothing spreads more rapidly in society than the reputation of a good wine-cellar, and all that is required is wine well chosen and well cared for; and this a little knowledge, carefully applied, will soon supply.”

Mrs Isabella Beeton[x]

Sir Charles, accompanied by his butler and some of the other staff, would have divided his time between his main residence at Swallowfield Park and his London house in Brewer Street, close to Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster, when Parliament was in session during the months known as the London ‘season’, a period of social entertainment lasting from around Easter after the best of the hunting season had finished, and continuing until the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of August, which marked the start of the grouse shooting season.

In general, a butler was expected to be devoted to his work and serve his employer with utmost loyalty and dedication, nevertheless Charles seems to have found time to embark upon a clandestine relationship with Ellen Alice Kirby, a 26-year-old ladies’ maid from Shinfield, Berkshire, just a couple of miles from Sir Charles’ Swallowfield Park residence.  It’s quite possible that they met whilst both working at Swallowfield Park, and they were married secretly on 9th June 1877, in Eccleston Chapel, Belgravia, with Charles’ parents as witnesses.  In those days, it was possible for a couple to obtain a special licence from the bishop by paying a fee to the church enabling them to marry quickly and discretely, avoiding the need for banns to be read publicly over three consecutive Sundays.  Despite the secrecy, there are still some inaccuracies on their marriage certificate, with Charles and Ellen’s ages both given as 24, and Charles’ stated residence is his parents’ home in Stafford Place, Pimlico, with Ellen apparently living just a few doors away[xi].   

Immediately after the wedding Ellen returned to Berkshire, perhaps to stay with her family, and six months later she gave birth to a baby boy who she named Charles Ernest Collingwood.[xii] 

Of course, becoming pregnant before being married was regarded as a source of great shame for any woman those days.  Ellen was very fortunate to have been able to marry, as unmarried mothers-to-be working in service were usually dismissed as soon as their condition became known, then, after giving birth, often had no choice but give up their child to a Foundling hospital.  It was simply not possible for a woman to raise a child born outside marriage and remain in ‘polite society’, or employment, in the 19th century.

Despite apparently living apart for the first months of their marriage, this arrangement seems not to have caused Charles and Ellen too much inconvenience, and perhaps Sir Charles – who himself never married – was sympathetic to his butler’s personal life and provided the young family with accommodation.  My great grandfather Harry Cuthbert Collingwood was born on 29 April 1879 at 33 Brewer Street, Pimlico, and baptised just over a month later at St Andrew’s Church in Westminster, the same church in which his older brother had been baptised in a year earlier[xiii].

Two years later, on the night of the 1881 census Harry was living in Swallowfield Street, East Swallowfield, his mother Ellen, now aged 28 and described as a butler’s wife, his older brother Charles, aged 3, and a general servant, Ruth Lane aged 18[xiv].  That night, Charles Snr accompanying Sir Charles as his butler where Sir Charles was staying with younger brother and his family in Folkstone, Kent.[xv] 

Sir Charles Russell died in 1883, but Charles Collingwood was fortunate enough to quickly find employment as House Steward to Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, whose ancestral seat was Glamis (pronounced ‘Glarms’) Castle about twelve miles north of Dundee in the Scottish Lowlands.   

Victorian family photograph with Charles Reginald Collingwood, his wife Ellen and their sons Charles Ernest and Harry Cuthbert
Charles Reginald Collingwood, his wife Ellen, and their sons Charles Ernest and Harry Cuthbert c1883

Whereas a butler was a servant responsible for just one household, a house steward was employed by a Lord to be responsible for all his estates in a position of great trust and responsibility.  The house steward did not wear livery but dressed like a gentleman and represented the values of his employer at all times.  He had sole charge of the keys, so he and he alone had access to the pantries where food was stored, to the wine cellars where the wine was stored, and to the storerooms.  Any member of staff who needed to access these areas had to ask his permission, then he would let them in, and lock the door after they were finished, thereby controlling any possible pilferage and looting.  

Other duties included paying wages and bills, ordering household supplies, and supervising male servants, such as the footmen and valets.  He was also responsible for making sure repairs were carried out, that seamstresses were hired to make or repair clothing or furnishings, that there were enough laundresses, and that the stables were in good condition.  In short, he managed all the affairs of the castle and enjoyed a very comfortable existence with a wage of £100 a year, paid monthly[xvi], and a separate grace-and-favour home for him and his family at Muir House set in the vast estate surrounding the castle.

When the Earl and his family went to stay at their other homes, including London and Italy, Charles organised the travel arrangements, supervised the movement of staff, and oversaw the safe transit of valuables from one residence go another.   

Snowy winter scene with Glamis Castle in the background
Glamis Castle in Scotland c1880[xvii]

Although outwardly beautiful and romantic with its fairy-tale turrets, Glamis Castle, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, may be the most haunted stately home in Scotland and was also one of the great talking points of the 19th century with rumours of ghosts, secret passages, and a hidden room concealing a terrible secret known as ‘the Monster of Glamis Castle’, an elusive and terrifying creature who was the true heir to the title, but had been locked away and his existence denied after his birth.  It was said that a child, Thomas, was born into the 11th Earl’s family in 1821 and had died that same day, but as Thomas had no gravestone, and reports had begun to circulate that an unnamed midwife claimed Thomas had survived the birth but been hidden away, perhaps because of a genetic defect as his parents were first cousins.  Another tale from about 1865 was that of a workman, who had encountered Thomas in a passage close to the castle chapel and reported this to his employer, was quickly persuaded to emigrate to Australia with his passage paid for by the then Earl. 

Prior to Charles’ time at the castle, allegedly a group of guests had been encouraged by the 12th Earl’s wife, whilst her husband was away, to try to identify the location of the hidden chamber by hanging towels, sheets, and other linen from all the rooms they could find, then going outside to inspect their markers. It was claimed that one window remained empty, however none of the guests could locate any entrance to that room.  Unfortunately for the Countess, the Earl returned unexpectedly and was so enraged that he divorced her, and she was exiled to Italy where she ended her days.[xviii].

The rumours of the secret chamber and monstrous heir were so strong that many accounts have been written and, according to several newspaper reports in the early 1880s, the secret was known only to the Earl, his heir upon reaching the age of 21, and the manager of the estate (the house steward).   It was said that the 13th Earl did not believe the legend during his father’s lifetime but, when he inherited the estate and tried to discover the truth, he was transformed from a cheerful man to a sad and troubled person.   

If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret, you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.

Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne[xix] 

Mr Collingwood, as house steward, may have been privy to the truth behind the legend and been deeply disturbed by this knowledge, however he remained utterly professional and loyally served the Earl and Countess, and their ten children for many years, during which he would regularly travel with the family from Glamis to winter in Bordighera, on the Italian Riviera, their preferred residence. 

In his role as house steward, Charles was responsible for many high-profile events, including an annual New Year grand ball for over four hundred neighbours and estate tenants, and led the festivities as master of ceremonies on several occasion.  He also attended to the necessities and comforts of countless high-profile guests at the castle, including Mr William Gladstone, the then Prime Minister, in 1884.  I’m sure Charles would be quietly delighted to know this his steadfast service and efficient management of the household ensured that “the whole place was vibrant with joyous young life, and the stately, grey-bearded owner of this historic castle, and of many broad acres in Strathmore besides, found great pleasure in seeing how happy his children and his guests could be under his roof.”[xx]

A large group of Victorian servants
The Glamis Castle staff, c. 1895.  Click on the image to view full size[xxi]

During Charles’ years at Glamis, there were many opportunities for wedding festivities as the children of the Earl and Countess grew up and were married, followed by celebrations as grandchildren arrived, including Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, born in Glamis Castle on 9th August 1900, who would later be known as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

However, there were also times of great sadness and formality, including the deaths of three of Lord and Lady Strathmore’s adult children. Their third son Ernest, died in 1891 and was buried at Glamis Castle, then Herbert their fourth son died in Bordighera in April 1897, from where Charles would have organised the body’s return to Glamis Castle for burial, and Mildred, their third daughter, died just two months later in France.

A newspaper report from 1901about the demise of the Glamis ‘ghost’[xxii]

Although gothic tales surrounding the mysterious captive in the castle continued to circulate in the press, reports had begun to appear that he too had died and the gloomy atmosphere and persistent melodrama within Glamis Castle had lifted.

In January 1901 Queen Victoria, then the longest serving British Monarch, died after a short illness and the nation was plunged into mourning.  To coincide with the late Queen’s funeral, a service was held in the private chapel at Glamis Castle, and the flag on the castle flown at half-mast. 

The Victorian era was over and Britain, a once-powerful nation that controlled a large empire, was starting to decline as a global political and economic power.  However, technological improvements such as electric lighting to replace oil lamps and candles, and running hot water to bathrooms, as well as labour saving devices such as suction cleaners, hand cranked washing machines, gas cookers, and telephones were arriving on the scene, and there were fewer servants in proportion to the number of families than there had been twenty years before.  

Nevertheless, life continued much as before in the Bowes-Lyon household, whether in Scotland, London, or Italy.  At the time of Lord and Lady Strathmore’s golden wedding in September 1903, their surviving children, five sons and two daughters, and over thirty grandchildren were staying in Glamis Castle[xxiii]

According to her official biographer, one of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon later the Queen Mother’s, earliest memories was of her grandparents’ golden wedding celebration, when she sat on her grandfather’s knee and watched the fireworks. Lord Strathmore recorded in his diary that nearly 600 local children were invited to tea, sports, and a conjuring show, followed by fireworks arranged by the house steward, Charles Collingwood. “All went perfectly. They said there were 2000 people to see the fireworks. We saw them from my window with some of the children.”[xxiv]

A few days after the celebration, Lord Strathmore, who had been in poor health for some time, left Scotland once again for Italy, “in the hope that a change of scene would restore him to his wonted vigour”[xxv]. Although in his eightieth year, his death in February 1904 was quite unexpected and his remains were quickly returned to Glamis Castle for burial.  Immediately, his eldest son Claude George Bowes-Lyon previously known as Lord Glamis, succeeded his father to the Earldom.

The 14th Earl already had his own retinue of staff, so my great-great-grandfather Charles Reginald Collingwood, after twenty-year’s faithful service to the 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, found himself suddenly without employment or a home


[i] Charles Reginald Collingwood birth certificate

[ii] 1861 England census Class: RG9; Piece: 29; Folio: 79; Page: 6; GSU roll: 542559

[iii] 1871 England census Class: RG10; Piece: 828; Folio: 77; Page: 6; GSU roll: 838704

[iv] The Duties of Servants: a practical guide to the routine of domestic service published 1890 via archive.org

[v] Dorking Museum: Denbies

[vi] The Duties of Servants: a practical guide to the routine of domestic service published 1890 via archive.org

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management published 1861 via archive.org

[ix] Samuel Orchard Beeton All About Everything published 1871 via archive.org

[x] Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management published 1861 via archive.org

[xi] Charles Collingwood and Ellen Kirby’s marriage certificate

[xii] City of Westminster Archives Centre; London, England; Westminster Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SJL/PR/4/4

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] 1881 England census Class: RG11; Piece: 1311; Folio: 43; Page: 4; Line: ; GSU roll: 1341318

[xv] 1881 England census Class: RG11; Piece: 1010; Folio: 136; Page: 17; Line: ; GSU roll: 1341240

[xvi] Glamis Castle archives: Vol.247, Wage Book, 1888-1903: p.1 August 1888 Charles R. Collingwood, House Steward. Wages per annum: £100. Monthly wage up to 1st August: £8: 6s: 8d.

[xvii] Glamis Castle in Scotland from Morris’s Country Seats (1880) image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

[xviii] The Monster of Glamis by Mike Dash published 2012 in the Smithsonian Magazine last accessed 07 May 2023

[xix] Times of India 30 May 1882© The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[xx] Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross published 2010 via archive.org

[xxi] © the Glamis Castle Archive May 2013 (Exhibition Box 8)

[xxii] Montrose Review 04 January 1901 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[xxiii] The Times: Thu Feb 18 1904

[xxiv] Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross published 2010 via archive.org

[xxv] The Times: Thu Feb 18 1904