The British Royals’ Huge Staff Once Included Exotic Cat Wranglers, Rat Killers and Toilet Attendants

A new exhibition in London offers an inside look at the lives of the workers who served the monarchy between 1660 and 1830

Sir Godfrey Kneller
The exhibition includes portraits of staff by Sir Godfrey Kneller. © Historic Royal Palaces / Ömer Koç Collection / Kloster Barsinghausen

Kings and queens may have been the centerpieces of the historic English monarchy, but they were always supported by an army of staff. Those workers are now the focus of an exhibition at London’s Kensington Palace, a longtime royal residence, that highlights the behind-the-scenes work of palace life—from wet nursing to ice chipping to rat killing.

Untold Lives,” which focuses on the years between 1660 and 1830, tells these stories through an “unlikely collection of objects,” as the Telegraph’s Francesca Peacock writes. In one room, for example, visitors can view an ornate dress worn by Queen Charlotte—her only surviving gown—alongside a large, serrated saw. This tool was used in the 1700s by two women known as the “keepers of ice and snow,” Frances Talbot and Louisa Flint, who were tasked with cutting ice from rivers and ponds and preserving it for royals’ cold drinks and desserts.

Queen Charlotte dress
A dress worn by Queen Charlotte © Historic Royal Palaces / Fashion Museum Bath

“The research into this exhibition has revealed a whole host of fascinating job roles and people who have kept the palaces running for centuries,” says co-curator Sebastian Edwards in a statement from Historic Royal Palaces, which runs Kensington. “Their work has been crucial, but their stories remain largely untold, and we hope to now shine a light on them.”

A British monarch’s royal household—the team of people who attended them wherever they traveled in England—could be “as large as 2,000 people,” per the Telegraph. To survey such a sprawling operation, the new exhibition is divided into themed rooms. In the “Care and Intimacy” room, visitors can see an apron worn by Queen Charlotte’s wardrobe maid, Ann Elizabeth Thielcke, in 1786. Along with the queen’s dress and the ice saw, “Skills and Expertise” contains a mid-1800s fire bucket. Per the exhibition’s website, “On three separate occasions, servants and staff saved Kensington Palace from fire.”

Care and Intimacy
The "Care and Intimacy" room in the "Untold Lives" exhibition contains an apron worn by Queen Charlotte's wardrobe maid in the late-1700s. © Historic Royal Palaces

Alongside the more familiar wet nurses—who breastfed and cared for monarchs’ children—the palace employed workers with unique skills: The “rat killer” controlled vermin in the palace while wearing a “rat-embroidered uniform,” a “groom of the stool” attended monarchs while they used the toilet, and a “wild cat keeper” cared for the monarchy’s pet tigers.

As the British Empire stretched across the globe through conquest and colonization, the crown’s servants became more diverse—a shift represented in “Untold Lives” by a trio of paintings by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

Untold Lives | Dan Snow Investigates Forgotten Stories at Kensington Palace

“This exhibition brings together three extraordinary portraits probably for the first time since they were painted in Britain over 300 years ago,” Edwards tells Artnet’s Vittoria Benzine.

One portrays Mehmet von Königstreu, an Ottoman prisoner taken to Britain and ennobled in 1716. He served as Keeper of the Privy Purse—essentially the monarch’s private accountant. Von Königstreu’s wife, Marie Wedekind, is pictured in another: Part of the German court of King George I, the pair was the first interracial couple to live among royals. The third portrait depicts Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri, better known as Mustapha, a Turkish valet, according to the Guardian’s Caroline Davies.

The curators have also commissioned contemporary artworks to accompany the other items on view. For example, a photograph by artist Peter Brathwaite brings to life a Black trumpeter and courtier depicted in a painting in Kensington’s King’s Staircase. Additionally, a series of ceramic plates by artist Matt Smith tells the story of a gentleman usher who was dismissed from Queen Charlotte’s court after he was seen having sex with a young man in Hyde Park.

A white linen apron that was worn by Ann Elizabeth Thielcke, Queen Charlotte’s wardrobe maid, in 1786 © Historic Royal Palaces

As co-curator Mishka Sinha says in the statement, palace workers’ legacies are often “simply invisibility.”

“By piecing together fragments of their history and presenting seemingly ordinary objects, we can build up a rich tapestry of unique stories of the real people behind the glamour of the court, whose hard physical labor and extraordinary skills ensured the protection and continuity of the royal household,” she adds. “While there is still much research to do, instead of defining them by their job roles, this exhibition aims to tell the human stories of these people for the first time.”

Untold Lives” is on view at Kensington Palace in London through October 27, 2024.

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