The survival of antique china, textiles and furniture is largely attributable not to days-gone-by owners but to those women of sterling qualities and boundless energy; housekeepers, who ran large country houses.
They toiled long and hard, taking pride in caring for family heirlooms, expertly cleaning and storing objets d’art for future generations to use and enjoy.
Tessa Boase, the author of: The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, tells the stories of five British housekeepers who through their labour and devotion to duty made it possible for their employers to live a lifestyle most of us can only dream about.
The factual accounts of these extraordinary women’s experiences – mostly miserable working conditions with upper class penny pinching employers, spans the 19th century, two world wars, ending in the present time with the examination of the duties of a housekeeper employed by an English aristocratic family, who, to survive financially, open their home and surrounding grounds to day trippers and tourists.
A housekeeper’s lot may not have been an easy or happy one but in the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was relatively well-paid. Accommodation, live-in, it was a sought after career path for single working women and middle-class widows.
Researching secret diaries, unpublished letters and documenting excerpts from the service archives of British stately homes, Tessa Boase has written The Housekeeper’s Tale in an intimate day-in-the-life of style. Tessa empathizes with each woman’s daily grind of duties and provides a vivid commentary on the social niceties and customs of the day.
The hardships the housekeeper’s encountered to make sure everything was ‘ticketty-boo’ for their employers evoked in me a response which labelled each and everyone of them ‘domestic goddesses’.
The work they did or organised daily ‘downstairs’ so that ‘upstairs’ could continue to live removed from the need to clean, cook or shop was amazing.
Thoughts of having a close encounter with the floor polisher or turning out the cupboards enough to bring on a migraine in my good self.
I was intrigued and a touch horrified by the tasks housekeepers were expected to perform. Electrical appliances or a robust sprinkle of Ajax unavailable, they uncomplainingly cleaned and catered for their employer’s family and a seemingly endless supply of guests.
The book begins with Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the fabulously wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire. One of five housekeepers in the Duke’s employment, Dorothy was responsible for the smooth running and interior maintenance of Trentham Hall.
The Duke and Duchess, spent time travelling between their stately piles, housekeepers hastily scrawling letters to allow counterparts to prepare for the arrival of their employers. After fourteen years of exemplary service, housekeeper, Dorothy falls pregnant and requests six weeks maternity leave. A married woman, she has sacrificed family life with her husband and first born child to serve the needs of the Duke and Duchess.
The request refused, a chain of events starts that leaves Dorothy barricaded in her room and Trentham Hall in uproar. This incident provides a fascinating insight into the lack of rights of the servant class in the 1800’s; Dorothy is forcibly evicted and cast out without pension or reference.
Tessa Boase was unable to discover any record of whether Dorothy Doar was delivered of a healthy baby, or indeed, anything about Dorothy’s life post her role as Trentham Hall’s housekeeper.
Sad, and indicative of the upper class habit of discarding servants who were no longer useful.
Sarah Wells, the mother of H.G. Wells, at age 63 was quite elderly to begin the career of housekeeper to Fanny Bullock of Uppark in West Sussex.
Fanny’s sister, a milkmaid, married ‘the-Lord-of-the-Manor’. The union had no issue so on her sister’s death, Fanny inherited Uppark Estate. A mean and critical mistress, she exploited Sarah’s need for money to clothe and feed her family by keeping the wages low and the hours long.
All the housekeeper’s stories make involving, compelling reading. Grace Higgens was employed as cook-housekeeper to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex. Vanessa Bell, her sister, Virginia Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury Set undeniably artistically talented, tidiness was not a concept they were familiar with.
Grace, married with a son, gave them fifty loyal, loving years. Unlike the earlier housekeeper’s work experiences Grace’s service was appreciated and acknowledged as the force that made Charleston a happy haven for family and friends.
Particularly interesting were the duties of a modern day housekeeper, Nicky Garner, housekeeper to the Earl of Leicester and Lady Coke of Holkham Hall.
Staterooms at Holkham Hall have to be ‘deep-cleaned for next year’s public open house visits. A vacuum cleaner slung over her shoulder, Nicky leads the work from the top plank of scaffolding placed next to centuries old Flemish tapestries. Carefully running the suction nozzle over the priceless textiles, Nicky has gained a reputation as a seriously good ‘moth-hunter’.
Along with admin, she helps her staff of four young women clean chandeliers, canopies over beds, pictures and picture frames. In frequent contact with her staff and Lady Coke, Nicky carries a walkie-talkie, quickly responding to the need for assistance.
How do the housekeepers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s problem solving skills compare with Nicky Garner’s twenty first century, powerhouse approach at Holkham Hall?
Pretty well I think. Clad in long, black, bombazine dresses, they glided around their domains, a calming presence, bridging the gap (sometimes chasm) between upper and servant class.
I asked Tessa Boase the questions below:
Q1.The housekeeper’s featured in your book employed as ‘upper domestic servants’ were given status and privileges not available to the lower servant ranks. Despite this seemingly good deal, they worked incredibly long hours for little reward. What motivated you to tell their stories and how long did the research take?
These were the career women of their day. I could think of no higher position for a Victorian or Edwardian woman of humble origins: she had absolute power below stairs, controlled huge budgets, hired and fired dozens of maidservants.
Yet nobody has ever written about the women who did this job: they seem to have passed through history unrecorded.
At the same time, we’re obsessed by the stereotype of the housekeeper: fiction, film and TV have provided us with plenty of caricatures, from Mrs Danvers of Rebecca, to Miss Kenton in Remains of the Day, to Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey. I wanted to find out what it was like for the real women who did this job; to have this degree of responsibility, and yet no real status beyond the country house basement world in which you lived.
It seemed to me a rich ground for re-examination. But boy, it was hard to dig up their stories!
Housekeepers were (and still are) the souls of discretion. In the end, I honed in on a handful for whom it had gone wrong, as this seemed much more interesting to write about.
Why had their jobs gone sour? Were they working in impossible circumstances? Was it normal to be dropped on a whim? (yes, I discovered; these women had no security).
I spent a year reading very widely, then focused on those English country houses where there are particularly good archives.
Once I had a rough shortlist, I visited the archive collections and spent many days trawling through them to be sure there was enough for a story. Inevitably, with the records of servants, there are big holes.
Archives might contain only dry things like accounts books, wage ledgers, bundles of receipts. I looked at contemporary newspapers, advertisements, fashion manuals, anything that would help recreate the era.
I listened to oral history records.
I talked to anyone surviving who had connections. I used on-line resources extensively: the census, shipping records, prison record, marriage, birth & death records, workhouse records.
Sending off for death certificates to see how a housekeeper had died always felt quite tense and exciting because so real: the final piece of the jigsaw, and often a sad one.
I had initially drawn up a list of 12 women, but once I’d finished with my first woman – Dorothy Doar – I found I’d written 15,000 words, and it had taken me four months. (I was juggling writing the book with looking after two very young children, so I was working part-time.) I had wanted to get far deeper into the subject than one slim chapter would allow.
I didn’t want to produce a superficial overview with a few well-worn anecdotes; I wanted to try to do something a bit different: to attempt to get inside their heads, evoke the texture of their worlds, as well as give an atmospheric and accurate period context.
So I honed my list down to five women – women who would give me the same scope to tell such a complex and dramatic story as Mrs Doar’s; also giving me a good geographical spread, and moving forward in time with each house.
My choice is an arbitrary one – I’m sure there are many, many more such stories out there, and since finishing the book (three years later!) I have found quite a few.
But these five women seemed to give a good mix of personality and environment, and their particular experience was somehow telling of the times.
Q2. While you were writing about the circumstances surrounding the housekeeper’s employment was there one of them who struck a chord with you – one you empathised with and whose story you would have like to have told in more detail… perhaps, a follow up book?
I have a particular fondness for Hannah Mackenzie.
She was in many ways the most elusive – despite the fact that I managed to track down a living relative, more photographs and anecdotes. I had nothing in her voice at all, so I spent a great deal of time imagining my way into her world and her head. As a consequence it seems like I really got to know her – however fanciful this might be – and I applauded her second coming after being sacked so cravenly by Nan Herbert.
There were also tantalizing loose ends: was the love affair reciprocated? What was this ‘danger and disorder’ below stairs, that drove Nan to get rid of her?
How did she come to the attention of Grace Vanderbilt III? I love the look in Hannah’s eyes in that 1924 New York portrait: this seemed to tell a thousand words.
I’d love to tell her story in more detail… but right now I don’t have more detail. I think I should like to write a screenplay of her long and extraordinary life, using my imagination to fill in the gaps.
What I find so enthralling about Hannah is that she was born a Victorian, in an era that seems unimaginable to us today. Yet she died in 1983, when I was a teenager. She is a link from our modern world back to another, one past recalling.
Q3. What’s next for you?
This is my first book, and now I want to write another. I think it will be history, but just one story this time, and a love story. Possibly seen through the eyes of a maid. Possibly just before the First World War…
Thanks to Tessa, a great insight into the story behind the book.
Photographs of the featured housekeeper’s are included in the book and there is an extensive notes and index section.
The Housekeeper’s Tale – a sometimes sad but always interesting, lovely read.
Janet Walker, Special Features Correspondent Victoria, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014