The Housekeeper's Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House
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Working as a housekeeper was one of the most prestigious jobs a nineteenth and early twentieth century woman could want - and also one of the toughest. A far cry from the Downton Abbey fiction, the real life Mrs. Hughes was up against capricious mistresses, low pay, no job security and grueling physical labor. Until now, her story has never been told. The Housekeeper's Tale reveals the personal sacrifices, bitter disputes and driving ambition that shaped these women's careers. Delving into secret diaries, unpublished letters and the neglected service archives of our stately homes, Tessa Boase tells the extraordinary stories of five working women who ran some of Britain's most prominent households.
There is Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the obscenely wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire. There is Sarah Wells, a deaf and elderly Victorian in charge of Uppark, West Sussex. Ellen Penketh is Edwardian cook-housekeeper at the sociable but impecunious Erddig Hall in the Welsh borders. Hannah Mackenzie runs Wrest Park in Bedfordshire â?? Britain's first country-house war hospital, bankrolled by playwright J. M. Barrie. And there is Grace Higgens, cook-housekeeper to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex for half a century â?? an era defined by the Second World War.
Revelatory, gripping and unexpectedly poignant, The Housekeeper's Tale champions the invisible women who ran the English country house.
and coached him in sport, at which he excelled. He had no sense of being different to his classmates for being the son of a domestic servant. ‘I was just another boy from the country.’ This was a measure of Grace’s standing with Vanessa, Clive and Duncan. She did not feel inferior, so neither did her son. Nor was he aware that the ménage at Charleston might be of interest to anyone. ‘The Bloomsbury lot? They were just another family. “Bloomsbury” didn’t mean anything to me at the time. There was
safely back in the basement of her Georgian mansion, saying that ‘after due consideration’ she didn’t think she would be ‘quite strong enough’ to manage such a large house as Hatfield, and that she was sorry to be obliged to decline the honour. ‘Lady Jersey says she do not think I should be strong enough either.’ Who, then, was given the position? In a box in an upper servants’ hall at Hatfield House is a large brown envelope, dirty and frayed, whose contents chart the Marchioness of
scrutinising the family rooms through her mistress’s eyes, checking and rechecking the linen cupboard, sorting the translucent Staffordshire bone china and adding to the growing stock of rosehip, gooseberry and ginger wines which lined her still-room shelves. Under her control were a kitchen maid, a laundry maid, three housemaids, a still-room maid and two dairymaids: eight young girls to be kept busy on ‘board wages’ in a house that was, essentially, killing time. Kept busy, and kept away from
stay out of the way of the family. But you’re right there at a moment’s notice when the family wants you.’ ‘Mrs McKinsey’, by all accounts, ran a tight ship below stairs. Norah learnt ‘very early’ not to cross her; ‘that was a rule. You followed to the T what the housekeeper wanted you to do. You did it, and you kept your mouth shut.’ If you didn’t, you were out. But there was also ‘great camaraderie’ among the staff. Servants ate the same food as the Vanderbilts, drank the leftover champagne and
maids needing a berth. But for a family of three, the steeply pitched walls seem to contract. You can never forget where you are (so says Mark Divall, the gardener who lives there today): car tyres on the gravel outside, voices in the rooms below, the creak of those wide oak floorboards as anyone moves across them. Every window overlooked the Bells’ realm below–hence Grace’s nickname for the attic, ‘High Holborn’, since it ‘looked down on Bloomsbury’. By the same token, those in the bedrooms