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A Real Life American Downton Abbey: The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

Posted on by Susan Murray

One of the Downton Abbey Costumes being readied for display at the Biltmore

One of the Downton Abbey Costumes being readied for display at the Biltmore

One day in the late 1890′s a young girl presented herself at the backdoor of George and Edith Vanderbilt’s spectacular mountain estate, The Biltmore.  Anna Matilda Scarborough had been living with her father, brother and stepmother in the tents of a logging camp in Western North Carolina when she found herself tragically orphaned.  With little between her and an orphanage, she met the wife of a worker at the Asheville estate who helped her secure a job as a kitchen maid.  How different the Biltmore with its grand size, electricity and modern comforts must have seemed to her after the rough life of the camp!  Anna was untrained and illiterate but she was not lazy or stupid.  She excelled at her job and was taught to read by another member of the staff.  This chance encounter changed her life.  While working at the Biltmore, Anna met and married a traveling salesman.  Although she moved to Arkansas and had many children and grandchildren and lived  be 101 years old, she always remembered her time at the Biltmore with fondness.

This true life story could be the plot line for an episode of Downton Abbey, don’t you think? It goes a long way towards explaining the fascination the curators of the Biltmore have for Downton Abbey as a parallel world to the Biltmore.  But really, it’s not that surprising. Downton Abbey is historical fiction which means it uses a historical time period as a backdrop for the fictional lives of its characters.  And that backdrop impacts the lives of the characters in the same manner as it did the real lives of the Crawley’s peers, in England and America.

In the first episode of the drama the heir to Highclere Castle goes down with the Titanic (along with a number of real people of the same social strata).  Alfred Gywnn Vanderbilt and his wife had tickets for the maiden voyage of the Titanic before deciding to sail a week earlier on the Olympia, and one of his servants did travel, and perish, on the great ship.  (As an interesting sidebar to this story, Vanderbilt later perished in the sinking of the Lusitania where he was last seen giving his life vest to a child)

The two families dressed for dinner and according to the custom of the time dined on eight, nine or even ten courses.  The staff included butlers and housekeepers, both of whom carried large rings of keys!

From Servants Clothing to Glamorous Evening Wear

From Servants Clothing to Glamorous Evening Wear

WWI sent both servants and employers into battle and, like the fictional Matthew Crawley and his footman, Thomas, members of the Biltmore “family” went to France.  Herbert Noble was Head Butler at the Vanderbilt Estate and he was promised his job back when (not if) he returned.  Wounded in battle he lost a hand but nevertheless returned to find his job and position intact.  He worked at the Biltmore until he retired in the 1930′s.

With so many parallels between the two families, it is hardly surprising to find an exhibit of costumes from the show, Downton Abbey, on display at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville NC.  From February 4 to May 25, 2015 more than 40 historically accurate costumes will be displayed throughout the house in the rooms in which they might have been worn.  These include both servants uniforms and the daily clothing of the family as well as elegant gowns and evening wear.  In addition the audio tour has been updated with new stories about the house and its occupants.

To celebrate this event, our Asheville Inn, the Carolina Bed & Breakfast, has created three packages.  Each includes a two night stay at our B&B (gourmet breakfast, evening reception and dessert included) and two 2-day passes to the Biltmore.  In addition we are offering a one hour guided tour of the Biltmore “Upstairs Downstairs”.  On this tour you will see the special preparations the staff would make for a grand house party as well as the preparations being made by Edith and George Vanderbilt.  Finally, if you feel like experiencing a piece of Downton Abbey life yourself, we invite you to high tea in the Library at the Biltmore Inn on the Estate. Sip tea out of bone china cups and nibble on tea sandwiches, scones and more.

Please visit our website at or give us a call for more information: 828-254-3608


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