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Untold Lives

A Palace at Work

A Palace at Work

A new exhibition at Kensington Palace, uncovering the forgotten stories of those who worked at the royal palaces over 300 years ago.

They were at the centre of royal life, but little is known about the servants and courtiers who ran royal palaces for centuries. From pages to cooks, from wetnurses to seamstresses, a host of workers managed life at Court and used their skills and expertise to look after the royal family and their homes.

Now, for the first time, the lives and contribution of these forgotten figures will be explored in a new exhibition.

Untold Lives: A Palace at Work shines a spotlight on the overlooked people from all walks of life who worked tirelessly — often behind-the-scenes — to maintain, protect and promote the monarch and the royal palaces.

Header image: Portrait of Bridget Holmes (1591-1691). Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

When

Until 27 October 2024

In line with palace opening hours

Ticket Information

Tickets are currently only on sale until 31 August.


Included in palace admission (members go free)

Buy Kensington Palace tickets

A new exhibition at Kensington Palace, uncovering the forgotten stories of those who worked at the royal palaces over 300 years ago.

“A brilliant display of social history shining fresh light on those who have kept such residences running.”

The Telegraph

FindMyPast logo in green and blue for use on the Untold Stories webpage 2024.

Exhibition sponsor

Untold Lives has been generously supported by Findmypast

The exhibition reveals the breadth and diversity of the roles required to keep the palaces running. From the rat-killer, complete with his (or even her) own rat-embroidered uniform, to the 'Groom of the Stool', who was responsible for looking after the monarch on the toilet, the court was full of varied roles.

One such role was the ‘Keeper of Ice and Snow’, and one of its occupiers was a woman, Frances Talbot, whose story will be revealed for the first time. Talbot managed the royal icehouse at Hampton Court Palace in the 1770s, performing a physically demanding job, cutting ice so that palace guests could enjoy cold beverages, iced desserts and drinks all year round. Her role will be remembered with the first display of an ice saw in an exhibition at Kensington Palace.

The vital security role palace workers performed is also explored: on three separate occasions, servants and staff saved Kensington Palace from fire. Seemingly ordinary items including a fire bucket and an oil lantern will be on display, telling dramatic stories of salvage, and highlighting the people power that ensured the palace’s safety and survival.

Image: This ice saw, from Hampton Court Palace, would have been used to cut blocks of ice from nearby Hampton Wick pond and the River Thames to keep food fresh and cool down wine. The ice was stored in ice houses which were brick-lined, well-like structures often deep underground and designed to stop the ice from melting and to maintain a supply of ice for the kitchens all year round. © Historic Royal Palaces

Hands in white gloves holding up a rusty ice-saw shot in front of a black background.

Watch Untold Lives: Forgotten Stories

The Historic Royal Palaces team has been delving deep into the archives to lift the veil of the public facing court and explore the lives of the many people who lived and worked here.

Beyond the kings and queens in the stately rooms, there were hundreds of other men and women - people born high and low - who played a vital role in keeping the court going. Watch as Dan Snow explores behind the scenes at the majestic Kensington Palace.

Video Transcript of Untold Lives: Forgotten Stories at Kensington Palace

Follow along with an interactive transcript of Untold Lives: Dan Snow Investigates Forgotten Stories at Kensington Palace on YouTube. A link to open the transcript can be found in the description.

Painting detail showing a young boy

The servants and palace staff who worked at Court came from a range of backgrounds and brought a huge variety of experience to the palaces. Some, like the Waterman William Timms, who served four monarchs over 46 years, chose to dedicate their lives to royal service.

However, the exhibition exposes the hierarchies and inequalities within the palaces of the time. For example, a young boy called Peter, found living alone in German woods was brought to Kensington Palace, and became famous as the subject of intense scientific and public interest, before being sent away.

Peter’s image survives, in a mural on the King's Staircase, but many other people were forgotten and overlooked, with only brief details of their lives preserved in the royal accounts. By necessity, the exhibition team have had to find other ways to explore their contributions, working with contemporary artists such as Peter Brathwaite and Matt Smith to bring some of these forgotten stories into the spotlight and ensure that their legacy at the palaces lives on.

Image: A young boy called Peter, depicted on the King's Staircase at Kensington Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

The exhibition also focuses on the unexpected origins and identities of some of these people, which have been uncovered by its curators during their research. In an age of great change in the form of colonial expansion, religious wars and a fledgling constitutional monarchy, new figures arrived at Court from all over the world. A range of portraits and objects explore the presence of Black and Asian royal servants and attendants at court. Among these figures was 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. As a trusted servant of King George I, with intimate access to the monarch, 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 fascinating story is brought to the fore, alongside 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 exhibited before in the UK.

Image: Turkish valet, Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri, (more commonly known as Mustapha) in a portrait by Godfrey Kneller. This portrait has never been exhibited before in the UK. Ömer Koç Collection

A portrait of a Turkish man in formal clothing, sitting side on and facing the viewer

EXPLORE WHAT'S ON

  • Things to see

The King's Staircase

Discover the intriguing and unexpected characters depicted on the grand entrance to the King's State Apartments.

  • Open Wednesday - Sunday
  • In line with palace opening hours
  • Kensington Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more
  • Things to see

The King's State Apartments

Wander through the lavish rooms of the King's State Apartments, each one grander than the last, at Kensington Palace.

  • Open Wednesday - Sunday
  • In line with palace opening hours
  • Kensington Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more
  • Things to see

The Queen’s State Apartments

Explore the beautiful private rooms at Kensington Palace where Mary II once took her meals, relaxed and entertained.

  • Open Wednesday - Sunday
  • In line with palace opening hours
  • Kensington Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more

BROWSE MORE HISTORY AND STORIES

William III and Mary II

England's only joint sovereigns, who transformed Kensington Palace into a royal residence

The Georgians

Who were the kings who gave their name to an age?

The story of Kensington Palace

An elegant retreat for Britain's royal family

Shop online

Courtiers: The Secret History of Kensington Palace

Told through the eyes of a courtier, this fascinating book explores the ambitious and talented people who flocked to the Georgian court in search of power and prestige.

£12.99