Trentham Hall, Staffordshire
Housekeeper to the powerful First Duke and Duchess of Sutherland – Britain’s richest family.
Dorothy Doar was unusual, for a housekeeper. She was married – and had a young daughter. Every penny she earned was sent off to keep her husband and child, who lived out. In 1832 she was horrified to discover that she was, once again, pregnant. As the country teetered on the brink of revolution with the Great Reform Act, Dorothy was brutally dismissed from her post by the 1st Duchess of Sutherland.
Uppark, West Sussex
Deaf and elderly housekeeper to Frances Fetherstonhaugh, dairy farmer’s daughter.
Sarah Wells is best known as the mother of the prolific Edwardian novelist, H. G. Wells. When she took on the top job at Uppark, ‘Bertie’ was 13 years old, and the family was in dire financial straights. Leaving her husband and three sons behind in Bromley, she went to live below stairs at the great house, working for a socially insecure woman born a dairy farmer’s daughter. Mrs Wells was caught gossiping about her mistress’s former life – and was dismissed on the spot.
Erddig, North Wales
Notorious cook-housekeeper to Squire Yorke and his insecure new bride, Louisa Yorke.
Cook-housekeeper Ellen Penketh was 32, Lancastrian, and a beauty. She was taken on by the new chatelaine of Erddig Hall, a woman who knew nothing about running a country house. Five years and many elaborate Edwardian dinner parties later, the relationship soured abruptly when Mrs Penketh, who earned just £45 a year, was accused of stealing £500 in her attempts to suppress the extravagant household accounts.
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
Scottish housekeeper of a country house war hospital, then for the Vanderbilts in New York.
Career servant Hannah Mackenzie was a character to be reckoned with. Recruited in 1914 to help transform the graceful chateau of Wrest Park into a war hospital, she soon had the ‘Tommies’ and war surgeons alike wrapped around her little finger. When the middle class land agent Mr Argles fell violently in love with her, she was given the sack – but her story ends triumphantly. A remarkable woman, Hannah died in 1985 aged 102.
Charleston, East Sussex
Loyal cook-housekeeper to artist Vanessa Bell and her bohemian Bloomsbury ménage.
Grace’s half a century in service spans a period of hurtling social change. She started working for Vanessa Bell in 1920; at her retirement in 1971, the artist Duncan Grant considered her not a servant, but a ‘family appendage’. Yet her husband Walter was nicknamed ‘The Dolt’ by Vanessa. Grace and Walter lived in the draughty attic at Charleston for 37 years, their intimate moments squeezed into this narrow space directly above the family she served.
Holkham Hall, Norfolk
Multi-tasking modern housekeeper to the Coke family – and their 30,000 annual visitors.
Norfolk mother Nicky comes from a long line of Holkham Hall servants, including one former housekeeper. At Holkham she managed a team of five women and was immensely proud of the conservation work they do, on top of the many public events. The modern housekeeper’s role is extraordinarily demanding, but hugely fulfilling.
Did servants suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder? The Victorian diaries of
V&A Lunchtime Lecture, WEDNESDAY 17 OCTOBER 1pm, Hochhauser Auditorium: ‘Bird Hats and Murderous Millinery.’ Whole birds, half birds and birds’ wings decorate dozens of hats held in the V&A’s fashion archives – evidence of a craze that gripped women for half a century, from the 1870s to the 1920s. Join me to hear the intriguing untold story of women, birds, hats – and votes.
This lecture dovetails with the current Fashioned From Nature Exhibition.