Arianna’s Diary – Life as a 1930s Scullery Maid

With the return of Downton Abbey to our screens I am happy to announce that the Ickworth Lives blog will be going live again, after a year or so of hibernation. The theme remains the same – the lives and experiences of domestic servants at Ickworth House (National Trust, Suffolk) in 1935/6. Some posts will document the actual experiences of those who worked at Ickworth in the 1930s, the information drawn from interviews conducted with those who used to work at the house. Other posts will discuss, in more general terms, domestic service in England during the inter-war period.

Following the success of the Diary of a Housemaid, there will also be regular posts telling fictional tales of life as a 1930s servant. Arianna’s Diary is one such post. Sienna James, an invaluable volunteer for the National Trust at Ickworth House, plays a housemaid in the monthly living history events at the house. She is also a writer and has written a captivating tale surrounding the life of Arianna, a fourteen-year-old scullery maid who left her life in Bakewell to begin a career in domestic service. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I have. Here are the diary entries for June-September. There is more to come…


Arianna Diary logo

Sienna profile picWritten by Sienna James

June 1935

I have been working at Ickworth for a month now; and I suppose you could call me settled in. I’m not really, but when everybody asks the question that is supposed to be kind, I answer that yes, of course I am happy here. I’m not. I wish I was back in Derbyshire with mama and my older brother James, in our little cottage in Bakewell.

Today I could not stop thinking of home. Every little thing reminded me of it. The brown china bowl, the smell of sticky dried fruit, the feel of breadcrumbs beneath my fingers. I remembered baking with Mama when I was a small child, when she had recovered her grief over Father and before she met Mr Fairfax.

My father died of his old war wounds a few months before my birth; I never knew him. That alone makes me sad. James knew him, and he tells me plenty of stories, but that is not really enough. So when Mama and Mr Fairfax married – I cannot think of him as ‘papa’, that is impossible – she sent James and I away. It was evident she was taken up with the idea of being on a new estate with her new husband and new surroundings, and wanted us both to go away, as we must have been reminding her too much of her old husband, my father.

I must try not to think of our old home and mama – I doubt she is thinking of me – and must concentrate on my new life at Ickworth. I am the newly employed scullery maid, the very lowest ranking of the servants. James has found a job on a nearby farm in Hawkedon, he must be working very hard on the harvest at this time of year. We meet when I get a half-day off, and he seems to be enjoying his work.

The work in the kitchen is so tiring! Being a scullery maid, you are on your feet the whole day. We don’t have to rise as early as the housemaids, thankfully, but I still have to get up earlier than I did in Derbyshire. There, I now realise, I had a blissful life.

I went to the local school when I was younger but in the past few years I have not bothered. All the knowledge I need I will hopefully have acquired. I used to stay at home and perform menial tasks while James and Mama went to work in the big house. I would have time for my drawing and painting. I would do pleasant things: pick flowers in the summer and blackberries in the autumn, and walk to meet James when he returned from work; striding across the fields.

But I suppose I have a job now; I cannot expect everything to be the same as it was before. Because it won’t ever be now, I suppose. I still cannot get used to Mama married. Just writing that seems unreal. But I still have James – I know he will always care for me should he need to. Perhaps I’ll see him next weekend, when I get a half-day off.


Arianna Diary divide

July 1935

The men-folk were all harvesting the corn and the crops on the estate today, and there is enough straw around to thatch a cottage twice over. All the dust that floated in the air made me sneeze – and it was so terribly hot in the kitchen I’m sure my face was as bright as a peony. I could have done with some of the cool ale that Jim and Albert, the odd-men, took out to the workers. It reminded me of the harvest in the fields around us in Bakewell.

I wonder how Mama is getting on by herself. I feel strange and sick when I think about the cosiness of our cottage compared to the huge scale of the house I live in now. Even in June when the sun shines into the windows it doesn’t seem as warm as our little home; it feels empty and cold, as though there isn’t enough furniture to fill the space.

Mama has moved into the next village and I doubt that she will go back and remind herself of the war or the grief. No one will have replaced the flowers on Father’s grave, the ones I last put there will be brown and withered now. With all the apprehension of moving away, I did not speak to our neighbours before we left for Suffolk, and so I couldn’t even ask Mrs Heffney to check the grave every so often.

I wished I could have gone for a wander today! The sky was so blue and smooth – all it needed was a little polish and those clouds would have vanished. I wanted to paint the sky deep azure, and the fields around a sunny gold. I begged Maggie, who is apparently supervising me, if I could go for a short walk after dinner but she didn’t allow me. She said I was too young to go out alone – I am fourteen – and she said she did not want to accompany me, as she was tired from the day. I am not too young! I walked alone through Bakewell all the time! I don’t see how Ickworth is any different. Perhaps I can walk tomorrow.





It is the next day and I managed to slip away for a walk, after the servants had eaten dinner. I did not ask Maggie for she would have refused to let me go, but nobody said I had to ask her. It was that time of the evening after light but before darkness comes.

Annoyingly, I forgot to take my sketchbook with me and so I had no way of capturing the long, stretched shadows over the fields. I did not realise how vast the Ickworth estate it, and also how striking. For the first time, I felt proud that I worked for such a naturally beautiful place.

As it was another hard day in the kitchen, panting and sweating, it was such a relief to get outside into the cool evening air. I enjoyed it immensely; I hope to get out tomorrow night too, it relaxes me before sleeping, I think.



Arianna Diary divide

August 1935

We made meat and vegetable pasties in the kitchen today, to take out to the men in the fields. Head Cook didn’t let me near the pasties. She doesn’t trust me yet with all her precious food, I don’t think. She trusts Lily and Maggie but not me, I have only been here a few months. The other two have been here a couple of years at the very least.

Scouring all the pots and dishes was the main thing I did today, as well as washing vegetables for the pasties. Cook let Maggie spoon the jam into the tarts and she was even allowed outside, lucky thing, to cut some fresh basil for the cheese. James says I am impatient, that I won’t wait for anything, but I don’t think I am. I think I just get frustrated when people think I am not capable of something I know I am capable of.

Lily has just come in; she stopped to talk in Rose and Florence’s room. She and I share a room; it is probably around the same size as my bedroom was in Derbyshire, but of course I did not have to share that with anyone.

They were probably all chatting about the new footman, Laurence. He is definitely a success with Mrs Seddons, the housekeeper, already. Actually everyone likes him. He is a young footman; he is in great demand with all the housemaids. I only spoke a ‘how do you do’ to him, but he seemed amiable enough. He has an interesting face: a hard chin and eyes that are deep in their sockets, and curling black hair. He must be quite young really, for his frame is still boyish. I would have liked to draw him but I don’t have time anymore.

I have had a few minutes of time to write my journal but now I’m going to dinner, and afterwards I’ll hopefully go for a quick walk.




I did manage to slip out for one of my strolls, but this time I wasn’t alone. I bumped into Laurence, the new footman.

“Hello, Ariana.” He noticed me first, I had my back turned to him and was gazing out over the estate.

“Hello. What are you doing out? You don’t usually come out at this time of an evening.”

He shrugged. “I needed to stretch my legs. Sometimes it gets so stuffy in the servants’ hall, don’t you think?”

I could hardly reply to that, for I thought it was empty and dull, compared to the cosiness of our old cottage. Perhaps he had lived in a big house before coming to work here. “Yes,” I answered eventually. “It does get warm.”

Laurence turned to look out over the golden fields, green trees and hedgerows. “Isn’t Ickworth beautiful?”

“So beautiful,” I replied earnestly, for I think that every evening on my walk. “And the fields look so smooth at this time of year, before they are ploughed and when they are all yellow.”

He nodded silently and looked almost sad, as though it wouldn’t take much for him to cry.

“Are you alright, Laurence?” I asked, for he looked a little strange.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine. But I’ll return now. See you later, Arianna.” He smiled briefly, and then strode quickly down the path back to the servants’ hall.

Aparently – this is what Lily heard from Florence – he has lived in Bury St Edmunds since he was a child, with his parents and two older sisters. I don’t know how she gets all this information, probably from the housemaids. I can hear them talking now, but I’ll be asleep soon, I’m so exhausted.


Arianna Diary divide

September 1935

I enjoyed today. Maggie had taken her half-day off, and had gone to see her family in Bury, and so I was given more tasks to perform in the kitchen. It was pleasant to be given a break from the washing up – all I seem to do is wash dishes for hours on end. And by the time the day is over my back aches terribly.

I had straightened briefly from the sink to rub my neck when the head cook, who seemed to be in a rare good mood, summoned me. She handed me a large wicker basket and asked me to go down to the walled garden and pick tomatoes for a pudding. I wasn’t sure about the sound of a tomato pudding, but any break from washing-up was welcome, so I fetched my coat and ambled down. It was glorious to walk during work hours, not having to sneak away after dinner.

When my basket was full with round, shining tomatoes I walked along the rich, vibrant flower borders of the walled garden. The vegetable patches overflowed with bright green and dark red lettuces, and the gardeners had evidently sown their carrots late as an inch of orange was visible beneath the earthy green leaves. It was a beautiful place, with a lake before me and from there a meadow where sheep grazed. Rolling and smooth, one meadow fell into another and from there the land seemed to rise into a dense forest.

When I returned to the kitchen and began scrubbing again, Jim and Albert were trying to persuade Laurence to ride the bike through the servants’ corridors over to the east side of the basement. But he was evidently unconvinced.

Laurence stood stubbornly, his arms folded across his chest, looking disbelievingly at Jim. “No, I will not. That bicycle looks as though it could fall apart at any moment.”

“Go on, Laurence,” I teased, feeling happy and refreshed from my stroll. I stopped washing a moment and leant against the kitchen doorframe.

Laurence turned to face me, smiling. “Arianna, would you like to ride this rickety, rusty thing all the way to the east wing?”

Luckily, I was saved a reply when the head cook called my name sharply and scolded me for neglecting my duties. I should have known not to stop my washing, so I apologised as meekly as I could and returned to the dishes. But it cheered me to think I had another friend here, aside from Lily. Jim and Albert are always friendly and amiable and so is Maggie, if you get her in a good mood, so I suppose I am beginning to fit in. That’s a nice feeling, but sometimes I feel so low in the ranks that I can hardly speak to anyone else apart from those who are on equal terms.

I think I’m beginning to enjoy Ickworth life. Both the people and the land around seemed so strange and different at first, but not anymore. I think I’m beginning to like it. What would I say if Mama invited me back to Bakewell to live with her and Mr Fairfax? I’m not so sure I would return to Bakewell now.


This Week in 1935/6

29 December – 4 January 1936:

BOXING DAY SALES: crowds rushed the shops as the post-Christmas sales opened. ‘Many of the shoppers were country people in London for Christmas who had stayed on for the sales. Others had come for the day by early trains. But the majority were Londoners who had realized from the preliminary advertising and a weekend scrutiny of the goods shown in the windows that the sales this year were likely to be better than usual. The lure of value is strong.’ Marshall and Snelgrove on Oxford Street boasted a good range of summer coats costing 73s. 6d, 63s., and 39s. 6d., all reduced from 6 ½ guineas and 5 guineas. The Times reported that these were nearly sold-out by midday.

NEW YEAR’S EVE CELEBRATIONS AT ST. PAULS: an experiment was held on New Year’s Eve 1935 at St. Paul’s Cathedral – a community choir sang outside the grand building for passers-by. Canon H. R. L. Sheppard conducted the choir in the hope that he would be able to alter the raucous nature of previous New Year’s celebrations outside the cathedral. ‘There was some rowdyism, particularly on the outskirts of the crowd, but it was not expected that the noisy character of the older, unorganized celebration would be wholly eliminated.’ Nonetheless the police were satisfied with the behaviour of the crowd and, ‘considered that it was a quieter one than in former years.’

NEW YEAR’S EVE CELEBRATIONS AT HOME: not everyone was out celebrating on New Year’s Eve. Many stayed at home – contacting their family and friends on the telephone to collectively welcome the new year. A record number of shilling phone calls were made on New Year’s Eve in 1935. The London Trunk Exchange dealt with approximately 11,000 calls to all parts of the UK between 5pm and midnight. Over 20% of these calls were to Scotland with Glasgow alone receiving 800 calls from London.

One last crazy headline:

BLAMING THE COW: this week in 1935 an article appeared in The Times under the headline, ‘Blaming the Cow’. It began, ‘so you see that if cows didn’t like mustard we shouldn’t have any movies.’ Mmm – curious. So what was this all about? Photographs on film or glass consisted of small particles of metallic silver embedded in gelatine. The gelatine increased the sensitivity to light and gelatine made from cows was preferred because it had an especially high mustard, and therefore a sulphur, content.

Final thoughts:

THE TIMES AS A TEXBOOK: The Times reported this week in 1935 that 50,000 copies of the newspaper were being sent to Sweden to be used as a textbook in English lessons. It is not just the English language that can be learned from reading newspapers – they can also act as useful sources in our attempts to access the past. In this blog I have read every edition of The Times that was issued in 1935 picking unusual and interesting stories to relay to you, my readers. I hope I have provided a colourful picture of everyday life in 1935 and made you stop and think a couple of times how little things have really changed.

Diary of a Housemaid: Christmas Special


25 December 1935

It is long past midnight and poor Florrie is looking quite annoyed that I have yet to extinguish my lamp but I am still too excited to sleep. I have had the most wonderful day! Before I can settle my head on my pillow I must write about Christmas Day at Ickworth in my diary. I have never experienced a Christmas quite like it! At home we eat beef or, if we are lucky, chicken, but for Christmas lunch today I ate half a banquet. There was a whole turkey, roast potatoes, gravy, mince pies, Christmas pudding and many other mouth-watering treats. I felt a little guilty eating such a glorious meal with my family sitting around a comparatively empty table at home. I considered saving them some but I do not think that turkey and Christmas pudding would transport very well in my coat pocket and Father was given some venison by the Head Gamekeeper as a Christmas gift.

Of course the Christmas lunch was just one part of my day – though a rather important part according to my often grumbling stomach. My day began as normal; waking up at six o’clock and preparing the fires in the rooms upstairs. I then came down for breakfast and had a very jovial conversation with the other housemaids. We were all experiencing Christmas away from home for the first time and in the morning it did seem as though we were missing out on an important event that should be shared with family. Of course, I realise now that the staff at Ickworth are our family!

Anyway, once everyone had completed their morning duties we were called up to the main hall in the Rotunda – the large cold room that is a nightmare to sweep! I could hardly believe my eyes when I ascended the stairs. There was a huge tree placed in front of that scary statue under the main staircase. It was beautifully decorated; covered in toys and lights. Some families from the estate arrived and Lord and Lady Bristol led us in singing carols. Gifts were then handed to the children of the visiting families. It was so lovely to see their happy smiling faces. It reminded me of my younger brothers at home. I do hope they had a good day as well!

After the communal festivities the cooks prepared lunch. We ate first, Lord and Lady Bristol choosing a late lunch to allow us our little party. Then we performed our afternoon duties. Towards the close of the day the footmen and hall boy cleared the servant’s hall of chairs and pushed the tables to the side of the room. We housemaids had made some paper chains and the boys hung them around the room. We then spent the late afternoon and evening dancing and playing games as one of the ladies maids played the piano. What a night! What fun!

And that is not the end of it. Next week, once the post-Christmas hunting season has finished, Lord and Lady Bristol throw a servant’s ball! A ball! I am so excited. I am told that it is held upstairs in the Library. Miss Edgeley says that food and drinks are provided and that Lord and Lady Bristol attend at the start. Apparently Lord Bristol then dances with Mrs. Seddons, the housekeeper, and Lady Bristol with Mr. Prosser, the estate manager. John, the hall boy, made me laugh. He said that the highlight of the night is not when Lord and Lady Bristol join us but when they leave. He remarked, and I quote, “that is when the fun starts”. I am just so excited to be able to dress-up and go upstairs. To walk those grand corridors and dance in that elegant room as a guest rather than a member of staff in uniform. The promise of this ball will help me through the week – I have been warned that the post-Christmas hunting season proves a very busy time for us housemaids.

It seems as though Florrie has fallen asleep even with the light of my lamp and my furious scribbling with this pencil. It was an exhausting day. I suppose I really should put my diary down for the night as I do have to be up at six again tomorrow and I believe I am not that far behind Florrie in drifting off into a deep sleep. Happy Christmas everyone. I hope your Christmas celebrations will be as enjoyable as mine have been.

Rose Bailey

This Week in 1935: CHRISTMAS WEEK

22-28 December:













A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE: a woman who had been blind from birth found she could see this week in 1935. Miss Madge Brewer (25) had her sight restored after ten delicate operations were carried out at the Bath Eye Infirmary. The Times reported how, ‘she had expected to find the human features beautiful, but her impression of most of them was that they were ugly. The only beautiful things, in her view, were flowers.’

A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE: King George V’s Christmas speech was broadcast to his people throughout the Empire. A recording of the speech can be accessed on Youtube:




Diary of a Housemaid #13

DofHM dec

December 1935

Is it just me or have the chilly stone corridors become a little warmer and more welcoming now that Christmas is almost here? Perhaps it is the heat and the glorious smells coming from the kitchens, I don’t know, but everyone seems to be in the most jovial of moods.

Yesterday Jim, the odd man, John, the hall boy, and some of the gardeners erected the largest Christmas tree I have ever seen in the main entrance hall. They spent hours trying to haul the beast through the double doors, and what a mess of it they made! Florence and I spent just as long sweeping up the pine needles that littered the floor. Everywhere I turned there was a fresh pile of the little sharp green things. But all the hard work was worth it when I saw the magnificent tree adorned with candles and decorations that glistened in the light. Of course I only got a fleeting glance as the Marquis and Marchioness were expected back from London, but that fleeting glance was enough to warm the spirit ready for Christmas.

Rose Bailey


This Week in 1935: 8-14 December

8-14 December:

A TAPOMETER FOR TYPISTS: this week in 1935 it was announced that the United Steel Companies in Sheffield had introduced a novel scheme to increase output and relieve the monotony of a typist’s work. The machine was called a “tapometer” and recorded the number of taps made by each typist in a day. If the number of taps reached a certain standard by the end of the week the typist received a bonus of five shillings. To launch the new machine 200 typists took part in a typewriting contest in which two cups were awarded.

THE SECRET OF STILTON: The Times this week in 1935 provided its readers with Lady Beaumont’s Quenby recipe for Stilton. So here it is:stilton

GERMAN BALOONISTS DOWN IN ENGLAND: three German balloonists had to make a forced landing in South Cockerington, near Louth, this week in 1935. They had been in the open basket hot air balloon for two nights and a day, participating in a race from Gersenkirchen, near Essen, to Norway.

THE POPULARITY OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUM: There was a society for everything in the 1930s – including Chrysanthemums. This week in 1935 the National Chrysanthemum Society, which was established in 1846, met for its annual dinner at the Connaught Rooms in London. Mr. D. B. Crane, chairman of the Floral Committee, and Mr. E. F. Hawes, chairman of the Executive Committee, were each presented with watches in recognition of their long periods of service.

AUSTRALIA’S CHRISTMAS GIFT: this week in 1935 Australia sent Britain a special consignment of lamb as a Christmas gift. This was the fifth year of doing so and in 1935 two of the recipients included Mr. Malcom MacDonald, Secretary of State for the Dominions, and the Lord Mayor of London.

THE OLDEST ROYAL SERVANT: A little story for the Living History volunteers at Ickworth House: Mr. William barker, the oldest Royal servant, died at Windsor this week in 1935. He was 91! He had been born on the Royal estate at Windsor and entered into the service of the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria’s mum) when he was 15. For four years his task was to wheel her about the grounds in a bath-chair. He later became a gardener and the vine-keeper at Cumberland Lodge. Under King George V he was granted a cottage on the Castle grounds for life and both the King and Queen visited him on his 90th birthday.

This Week in 1935: 1-7 December

1-7 December:

WALT DISNEY: an article appeared in The Times this week in 1935 chronicling the ‘genius of Walt Disney’. It stated that, ‘Mickey Mouse is the only public figure in the world today who is universally beloved’, and remarked, ‘in years to come, when most names which are now a by-word will have long been forgotten, it is probable that Mr. Chaplin and Mr. Disney will be remembered as the only two really great artists of this present film era.’

A KING’S BOUNTY: this week in 1935 a woman from St. Neots received the King’s Bounty (£4) after she gave birth to quadruplets. A container of human milk and four nurses from the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street were also sent to assist in the care of the four babies.

A MAN WITH TWO WIVES: two different women claimed the body of a man at an inquest that was held this week in 1935, both claiming to be his wife. Frederick Kirkley (49) was an economist and died on Armistice Day. The coroner found a veridct of “suicide while of unsound mind”. He married Gladys Kirkley in 1909 and together they had three children. He deserted her in 1928 and sent his family £1 a week until 1931. During that time he had been living with another woman, having married her even though he had Gladys had not divorced.