Number Twenty Nine - Georgian House Museum

An Uptairs/Downstairs glimpse into the life of a Georgian merchant-class family in late 18th century Dublin

All over town you'll see posters of colorful doorways surrounded by white columns and topped with a half-moon window. These are the Georgian Doorways of Dublin, part of an 18th-century neoclassical architectural style practiced across Britain during the reigns of Georges I to III.

The Georgian era was Dublin’s heyday, when Dublin became (albeit briefly) the second largest city of the British Empire and the fifth largest in Europe, home to more than 130,000 souls. (The tourist office hands out a self-guided walking tour map of Georgian Dublin.)

Dublin's great squares are lined with Georgian town houses, especially St. Stephan's Green and Merrion Square. On the latter, at no. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam St., is a restored home you can enter and tour.

It sits right on the corner, the address technically no. 29 Lower Fitzwilliam St., putting it at the literal crossroads of Georgian high society — Merrion Square was where the politicians, gentry, and highly educated citizenry lived; Fitzwilliam Street was for the upwardly mobile merchant class.

This was the outskirts of Dublin at the time. Fitzwilliam Street itself was laid out in 1791, and just three years later Number 29 was built for a wine merchant named David Beatty, who sadly died the year the family moved in (they say his ghost still haunts it), leaving 33-year-old Mrs. Olivia Beatty to raise their seven children, aged 2 to 11, until they were grown and she left in 1806.

A visit here is like getting a glimpse into the Upstairs/Downstairs life of 130 years ago, sort of an urban, merchant-class version of Downton Abbey (only without as much melodrama).

Aside from being a widow, Mrs. Beatty lived a typical lifestyle for the era, enjoying three servants and a governess for the children. This was not too hard to swing on the inheritance of her father-in-law’s estate (£100 per year), seeing as how you paid your servants only £5 per year—though you also had to provide room and board, and servants were allowed to 4 pints of beer per day (this didn’t have them falling down on the job; it was only 1% alcohol beer known as “small beer”).

Servants would enter service somewhere between the age of 11 and 15, and you could always hire extra help for parties; you could get two servants for just a penny per day. In the servants’ quarters downstairs, there’d be a line of bells, each one connected to a different room upstairs and each one making a distinctive sound so you could tell which room was ringing. A young lad servant would sit on a stool during parties to keep an eye on the bells and call out to the other servants where each was needed; he was called the “Bell Boy.”

Now the housekeeper was another matter. She would cost around £40 per year, mostly because she had to be reasonably well educated as she kept the ledgers of the house budget. Her room also had a window — not onto the street, of course, but onto the larder so she could keep an eye on the rat shelf, which hung from the ceiling so the kitchen provisions couldn’t be nibbled by vermin (or, under the watchful eye of the housekeeper, filched by the other servants).

Moving all the way Upstairs, to the children's quarters, there was also the governess, who would’ve been a well-educated girl from a good family (perhaps one that had fallen upon hard times). Her job was to care for the children and teach them English, History, Geography, Music, and a continental language (probably French), plus needlework to the girls. The boys were taught at home up to age 7 (at which point they would be sent off to boarding school, then Trinity College), and the girls up to age 15 (at which point they would be married off, as was young Olivia Beatty).

The children’s domain was the top floor of the house, with the nursery, governess’s quarters, and room in which the children would receive their lessons. You’ll notice this floor has unusually small windows. In the Georgian era, your property taxes were based on window size, so “unimportant” rooms (like those for the children) would get tiny windows so as to reduce the tax burden. This is where we get the term “daylight robbery.”

A lot of the items on display in the main living quarters offer interesting insight to the era — even the furniture. You’ll notice many of the chairs have concave curves on the sides and the cross-bars by the feet — this was to accommodate the hoops of ladies’ skirts.

Or how about the Georgian exercise machine, the “liver shaker,” a spring-loaded, extra tall cushion used to do squats, both to help them with their horseback riding and to keep up the shapeliness of their calves.

One of the museum’s prizes is a Gilbert Stuart portrait of the first Postmaster General of Ireland (though he looks an awful lot like George Washington — babies that was the only face Stuart knew how to paint).

My favorite item is the pole screen, a rectangular screen on a wooden pole that could be placed between a seated lady and the fireplace, and moved up and down so as to shield the lady’s face from the heat coming off the fire. This was not for comfort. This was because the makeup of the era was wax-based, and the heat would have caused it literally to melt right off their faces. This is where we get the term “losing face”—unless you have a pole screen, which allows you to “save face.”



Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in September 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.