From pages to cooks, and wet nurses to seamstresses, little is known about the servants and courtiers who ran the royal palaces of Britain over the centuries.
They came from all walks of life and all corners of the world, managing life at the royal court and attending to the needs of their royal masters and mistresses.
Now a new Historic Royal Palaces exhibition at Kensington Palace, Untold Lives: a Palace at Work, is to shine a spotlight on the lives and contributions of these often overlooked and forgotten people.
The stories uncovered include women who took on traditionally male roles, from female rat-killers to Frances Talbot, a female “keeper of ice and snow”, who managed the royal icehouse at Hampton Court Palace in the 1770s, performing a physically demanding job cutting ice for the drinks of palace guests.
Meanwhile, the work of the “groom of the stool” was a little more intimate, as the servant responsible for looking after the monarch on the toilet.
One story is of a young boy called Peter, found living alone in woods in Germany, who was brought to Kensington Palace and became the subject of intense scientific and public interest, before being sent away. His image survives in a mural on the king’s staircase.
Images of many others do not, such as gay usher, Gustavus Guydickens, who showed visitors through the palace. A ceramic artist was commissioned to design a series of plates depicting how his life may have looked. Contemporary artists such as Peter Brathwaite and Matt Smith, depict other stories in the exhibition.
Curators have also uncovered the unexpected origins and identities of some of these people. Portraits and objects explore the presence of black and Asian royal servants and attendants, including Abdullah, a wild-cat keeper from India, and Mehmet von Könsigstreu, “keeper of the privy purse” for King George I.
Mehmet and his wife, Marie Hedwig, are believed to be one of the first interracial married couples at the Hanoverian court, curators said. As a trusted valet of King George I, Mehmet was an influential, and sometimes controversial figure. His portrait is also featured on the king’s staircase, but now, for the first time, his story will be told alongside that of his fellow Turkish valet, Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri, (more commonly known as Mustapha) in a portrait by Godfrey Kneller, on loan from the Ömer Koç collection, never before exhibited in the UK.
Among the everyday exhibits used to represent specific members of staff is a linen apron that belonged to one of Queen Charlotte’s dressers, Mrs Thielke, a German woman who lived with the queen, wife of George III, until the end of her life. There is also a measuring tape that the wet nurse Anne Percy used to measure the royal children.
Sebastian Edwards, co-exhibition curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: “For centuries the palaces have been kept running by a host of people working behind the scenes. While their work has been crucial, their stories remain largely untold, and through our new exhibition we hope to shine a spotlight on some of these fascinating individuals from across the past. In recognising the contribution they made, we hope that all our visitors find new connections with the palace and their stories, celebrating the lasting legacy which their roles have contributed to these amazing historic places.”
Untold Lives: a Palace at Work opens on 14 March 2024 and is included in palace admission.