Auctioning Off Household Goods in the Regency Era, Part 3

If you have not read the other two posts on this subject, look to Monday and Friday of the previous week for other posts regarding this thriving business in the Georgian era, of which the Regency can be found.

As I mentioned in Part 1, in the scene from Season 6, Episode 1, of Downton Abbey, we saw many people streaming through the doors of a neighboring estate for the sale of the majority of the household goods.

The sale of goods from country houses became common. Do you recall in Season 6 of Downton Abbey when in a development that would have been unthinkable back in Season 1, Robert and his wife, Cora, the Countess of Grantham, find themselves attending an auction of a nearby estate (the aristo inhabitants are downsizing to a London-only lifestyle). Of course, this episode were set in 1925, but they were just as poignant in the early 1800s. As it was in the Downton episode, many houses held a “walk through” for people to come a few days ahead of the actual auction to view what was available. I know the contents of Lady Blessington’s house was auctioned in that manner. The auctioneers held an open house before the auction where serious buyers and curious people could tour the house and  the serious could choose what they wanted to buy before the auction started. I imagine that the auction house had people stationed all through the house who listened to comments and upped the reserve on the items that garnered the most interest.

In the scene pictured above, the Darnleys are selling Mallerton Hall and downsizing into a smaller home. They are auctioning nearly everything the family has collected over the past several generations, including an enormous portrait of Sir Darnley’s grandmother. Lord Grantham is appalled that any family might choose to sell off their treasures and memorabilia, and he and Sir Darnley have the following conversation:

DARNLEY: We’re selling things we shouldn’t have, but I kept thinking of that poky little house on Thurston Square, and I don’t know what else to do.

GRANTHAM: You might have stored some of it, in case one of the children starts up another house someday.

DARNLEY: That’s a dream. Face it: in 20 years’ time there won’t be a house of this size still standing that isn’t an institution.

How did these sales work? First, they, generally, occurred at the house itself and for very practical reasons. I recently moved into a new house only seven miles from where I lived the previous twenty years. It was an expensive endeavor, and moving my humble belongings was one of the more expensive pieces of the puzzle. Thankfully, I held great equity in the other house and with today’s crazy housing market, even after paying off the previous mortgage, I could afford the move. Yet, what if I had a grand estate (like Jane Austen’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice) or even a more most one such as Longbourn in the same novel? Moving the furniture and other items to be sold into a warehouse in London would have been an expensive endeavor, especially for those who were selling because of bankruptcy. Moreover, many warehouses could not have held all the items nor could the proprietors of the warehouse “stage” the rooms/items as well as they would be seen in the house itself. Therefore, the house was customarily opened for public view several days before the actual sale began, as well as on the day of the sale itself, so people might view the items—large or small. This process could take a week or more, but 4 days was the average. The longer sales would be used for specialized items (an extensive library, such as the one belonging to Fitzwilliam Darcy in the Austen novel) or because of the a larger number of items to be auctioned.

The auction houses developed a system where, first and foremost, the goods were seen within the rooms in which they would normally be found. Then common items—linens, rugs, china, etc.— would be set in “common” rooms and often presented as one item, if someone wished to clam them all, as these would quite often appeal to a different buyer than those interested in a Joshua Reynolds’ portrait or Thomas Hope cabinet. These “different” items were often auctioned off several days prior to the main household auction. If you have any concept of a probate inventory, you will understand what I mean by the two types of sales.


The Regency Reader tells us, “In Regency era England, there were several popular furniture makers and designers.  These included: Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Hope, George Seddon and Sons, and George Hepplewhite.  These furniture makers were influenced by Georgian Thomas Chippendale, a Georgian cabinet-maker and furniture designer associated with the English Rococo and Neoclassical styles.

“Reflecting the neo-classical style which appeared in the Georgian era, Regency furniture featured plain, slender, elegant lines and avoided shapes and curves for surfaces. Carving and elaborate forms of decoration and ornament like marquetry declined, giving way to brass work and use of rosewood and zebrawood. These woods allowed striking use of colour in veneers, alongside mahogany, which was still the wood of  choice for most library, dining room, and regency bedroom furniture. (  Regency furniture style was an adaptation of the French Empire sensibilities ( and included animal ornamentation and scrolled ends in rosewood.”


Most assuredly, these sales were the precursor to the estates in England which are set up for a large number of visitors today. The “guided tour” type experience keeps many of the estates we most cherish from crumbling to the ground. In my opinion, these early auctions were the beginning of the house tours. The country house has been rendered into a money-making endeavor.

Naturally, most who attended the auctions wished to purchase “second-hand” merchandise available, but there more than a few who simply wished to view how the other half lived. They permitted those who would never know a day of such luxury to view it up close and personal.

Many of you who regularly follow me know I am an Austen fan (notice I did not say “fanatic”). Austen is said to have been influenced by Frances Burney, and, as I was an English teacher for some 40 years, I have read Burney’s Cecilia. If you have read it you might well remember when Miss Larolles means to visit the sale going on at Lord Belgrade’s estate.

“All the world will be there, and we shall go in with tickets, and you have no notion how it will be crowded.”

“What is to be sold there?” asked Cecilia.

“O every thing you can conceive: house, stables, china, laces, horses, caps, every thing in the world.”

“And do you intend to buy anything?”

“Lord, no, but one likes to see the people’s things.”

I will close with another episode from Downton Abbey, Season 6. This is the one where the Crawleys open the house to raise money for the local hospital. What is most poignant of the scene is how many people want to visit the house, but none of them find it cozy. Equally as important, the Crawleys do not seem to know much about the rooms for which they are serving as guides.

From we learn: “In order to raise money for the ever-problematic local hospital, the Crawleys are throwing open their drawing room doors, inviting an entire village’s worth of plebeians to ogle their artworks.

“When the big day dawns, Cora and her daughters tour groups through their home and are largely unable to field questions from the crowd due to their utter lack of knowledge about their environs. Pressed for details on the fireplace molding, the paintings, the architects behind the grandeur, the Crawley women are largely at a loss. Except for Granny. The Dowager Countess of Grantham is never at a loss, as demonstrated when she storms the open house and interrupts Mary’s tour in the library. Mary seizes the opportunity and prompts her to comment on the room’s history. “

“The library was assembled by the fourth Earl,” the dowager tells the tour group. “He loved books.”

“What else did he collect?” Mary asks.

“Horses and women,” the Dowager responds, curtly.

The most illuminating lesson anyone learns at Downton Abbey all day. As well as …

Cora: No, the third Earl built it. Well, he didn’t really build it so much as envelope it, because this room is originally medieval. It was the monks’ refectory of an abbey that King Henry sold after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Visitor: Is that why it’s called Downton Abbey?
Cora: … I guess so.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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