I first heard about Lindfield House, when in a temporary bout of boredom, I went onto the Tripadvisor app and searched for “Things to Do Near Me”. I was surprised to find a Victorian house listed as one of the top attractions in Johannesburg, within 10 km from my house. I mentally filed it in my list of things to do, yet it was months before I finally got there. Then too, it was an impulsive decision and I emailed Katharine Love the night before to ask if she would be having a tour the following day. She replied early the next morning, in the affirmative. However, one is advised to book a week in advance, especially if you require tea.
A brief history of Lindfield House
Lindfield House is a Provincial Heritage Site. The original small cottage (built in 1910) was designed by Herbert Baker who dominated the architectural scene in South Africa between 1892 and 1912. Katharine’s grandmother originally bought the house and Katharine and her mother, moved in during 1967. When her mother passed away in 1996, Katharine opened the house as a Victorian museum displaying a vast collection of 19th and 20th century items representative of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Katharine still lives in the 22-roomed house alone.
Katharine greeted us at the gate in a Victorian parlour maid’s outfit and we began the tour with the rest of the group. Groups are deliberately kept small as there isn’t much space for large groups in the house.
Walking into the house was like entering a bygone era. The rooms were laid out as they would have been in Victorian times. Each room was filled with a treasure trove of Victoriana. Each item had its own story and Katharine shared many of these stories and anecdotes with us. They were so far removed from the lives we now live that we were utterly fascinated. The soft-spoken Katharine herself, was like a walking encyclopaedia and answered our many questions precisely and in detail. I was accompanied by my teenage daughter – who doesn’t normally enjoy museums – but even she was captivated here.
Here are ten things I learnt about affluent Victorian households
- Houses were kept cluttered and dark. Clutter represented class. The home was often “over-dressed” with plush fabrics and heavy curtains to provide a cocoon from the world outside. Curtains were kept drawn as sunlight would damage the delicate, expensive interiors.
- There were special times for visiting people. This was printed on their calling cards. Unmarried women were included on their mothers’ cards.
3. Visitors were not expected to say for a longer period than it took to drink a shallow cup of tea.
- The drawing room was originally called a withdrawing room. It was a room to which the owners of the house could “withdraw” for more privacy. Guests were received here too.
- Victorians were very formal people. They wouldn’t dream of going to dinner without dressing up first. Children were not allowed in the main dining room and had their own dining room.
- Children were only allowed in the drawing room for an hour or two each day, accompanied by their nannies. They were expected to shake hands with their fathers and call them Sir. If they misbehaved, they were taken back to the children’s quarters.
- The library was primarily a man’s domain. Women were only allowed in there with permission from the men. If a book wasn’t meant for a woman’s eyes, it would be placed high above her reach. Women had to be educated only to the level that they were entertaining companions to their husbands. (Yes, seriously!) My daughter, a certified bookworm was shocked to hear this.
- “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management” was an extensive guide to running a household in Victorian Britain. Mrs Beeton was considered the Martha Stewart of Victorian times.
- The lady of the house was not allowed in the kitchen. Only servants went there. Households with a lot of silver had a footman to protect the silver at night – with a gun.
- Victorian women wore extravagant clothes with a cage construction made of hoops which would fill out their dresses. Many women were injured when they sat down a tad too abruptly and the hoops would spring up and bang their faces.
See more Victorian trivia here.
Lindfield House is a national treasure, and it is run on a shoestring budget. Do yourself a favour and visit it, as you are not likely to see such a comprehensive and well-maintained depiction of Victorian life anywhere else in South Africa.
Don’t miss the amazing doll’s house which Katharine and her late mother spent years decorating and furnishing, making many of the beautiful pieces themselves.
Entrance is R50 for the tour alone, R70 with tea and cake and R120 including high tea. Well-behaved children are allowed as there are many breakable antiques in the house.