Setting a Formal Table: Lessons from an English Manor House

One of the reasons I love holiday meals is that they are a great excuse to bring out the fine china, crystal, and silverware and set a beautiful formal table.  Why not enjoy a little old-world elegance once in a while?  And there are many great sources on setting a formal table – Martha Stewart, Emily Post, plus dozens of online templates.

But my favorite source on formal table settings is someone who actually worked in the dining room of an English manor house in the 1950s – my own mom, Erika.

One Less Mouth to Feed

Food was still scarce in Germany in the mid-1950s so, without knowing a word of English, Mom left home to work in England.  She figured this would give her parents one less mouth to feed.

Of course Mom was not a British citizen, so the only jobs available to her were in domestic service. She arranged to take a position working in a manor house for an elderly lady.

Mom has some very amusing stories to tell about working in such a formal environment, and she has agreed to share with us a few of her recollections.

Life in a Manor House

The impressive manor house was intimidating. I thought I would be one of many servants — something like Downton Abbey.  But except for a cook who hated Germans, I was the only help.

Mrs. Bostock needed a lot of attention and most of the  time I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  Once in a while her son, who spoke German, came to visit and explained her wishes to me .  There was no doubt that she expected to be treated like royalty.

I had two uniforms.  One was a gray dress with a full white-and-gray striped apron for doing morning chores. The cook brought Mrs. Bostock her breakfast in bed while I did the daily cleaning.

At noon I changed into a black dress with a little white apron to serve her lunch and high tea at five. I always had to be on call as she often wanted an assortment of cheeses later, again with formal place settings.

Arranging the silverware was confusing at first—some of the pieces I had never heard of or seen before.  But I quickly realized there is a proper tool for every food served.  Once I learned which tool went with which food, I had no problem. 

Mrs. Bostock’s meals consisted of many different courses.  Each course required a different spoon, fork, or knife—at least ten inches of elegant silverware on each side of her plate.  All for an old lady who lived alone.

The cook would give me the menu so I could match the appropriate silverware. It became easier once I remembered the order in which the food was served, starting with a melon spoon and little knife set on the extreme right and left of her plate.  Each course thereafter, the corresponding silverware was on the far outside of the place setting as she worked her way in. 

But no matter what was served, a little spoon came along with the palate cleanser between each course—the only spoon not set out ahead of time.

Numerous crystal glasses, each for a different wine or beverage, were also placed in a certain sequence. A different wine was served with each course.

Food was never set on the table, but served from the left and used plates were taken from the right, most of them still half-filled.

When Mrs. Bostock had enough of one course, she sat back and raised her eyebrows, a signal for me to take the used plate and silverware.  No words were ever spoken. This went on all through the lengthy meals, taking all of two hours each.

Thank God I didn’t have to do the dishes.

I hope you enjoyed reading a little about Mom’s manor house days.  She is in the process of developing her own blog with many more stories about her life in England.  I will be sharing the link to her blog once it goes live.


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