Diary of a Scullery Maid – April

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 Written by Sienna James

I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in all my life. It was definitely worth missing my half-day off. By the time I stopped laughing my stomach ached and I felt exhausted!

When Nancy came up with the idea it was the last day of March. Lily and I were just getting to sleep and we heard the creak of footsteps nearing our bedroom. Nancy poked her head around the door and giggled.

“I’ve got a smashing idea,” she whispered to us. “It’s the first of April tomorrow and you know what that means, don’t you?”

I bit my tongue sharply, wanting to remind her that if she was caught creeping about then Mrs Seddons would be onto us all like a vulture.

“It’s April Fool’s Day!” Lily murmured excitedly, crossing her arms tightly across the covers, eyes shining in the dusky light of the attic bedroom.

Nancy beamed, dimples deep in her cheeks, and nodded approvingly as if we were her wards. “Exactly. And I know precisely what fool we’re going to play…”

 ***

 The following morning I was giddy with anticipation and also nervousness. Would we get in serious trouble for this? Probably. The senior servants do not like to be made fun of, and I was reminded of how strict and stern the butler is here at Ickworth.

“Are you looking forward to it, Arianna?” Nancy asked when she leant over to give me a dish to wash up.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I can’t wait to see his face.”

“Me too. Of course, we’ll get into trouble. We always do. I played a similar joke at the kitchen where I worked previously and-”

“You’ve worked in kitchens before?” I was so surprised, I interrupted her.

She laughed at my face and continued preparing breakfast. “Of course – I worked there for two years as a scullery-maid before seeing this position at Ickworth.”

I paused for a moment. “But you’re only fifteen.”

“Yes, I started at thirteen. You see, my mother is an invalid and so we needed money for food and medicine. She cannot work.”

“Your father?”  Nancy grimaced and shook her head, curls bobbing. “He’s rarely at home and if he is, he’s drunk.”

“I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, as I barely knew what to say. As it happens, I couldn’t have said much more as a footman knocked on the kitchen door and Nancy was away, sidling up and flirting outrageously.

It was about an hour later when we servants sat down for breakfast. Nancy and I kept catching each other’s eyes and giggling, the seriousness of our earlier conversation forgotten.

As a scullery maid, I sit down with John the hall-boy at the bottom of the table and so Mr Fox seems miles away at the top. But that moment when he lifted his spoon to crack open his boiled egg… I bit my tongue and made a funny gurgling sound. I was laughing already. Mr Fox didn’t find a firm, warm egg inside the shell. He found a pool of runny and revolting egg white! The uncooked egg had not only splattered all over his plate and the table, but even left a dribbling mess all over his smooth, starchy coat. He turned red in the face with indignation and reminded me of a ripe radish plucked from the garden. I covered my face with my napkin and gave in to laughter – I chortled just as much as Nancy, and didn’t even stop when Cook shrieked at us.

“Nancy! Arianna!” She shouted so loud I feared Lord Bristol would have heard her upstairs. “Why on Earth is poor Mr Fox’s egg not cooked? Did you just fling it in the cup without boiling it in the saucepan? Girls, return to the kitchen immediately!”

Nancy’s eyes turned wide in mock horror. Muttering something about oversleeping and footmen, she pulled some endearing ringlets down about her cheeks and looked up at the senior servants. But even that didn’t melt Cook, and we escaped from the servant’s hall with no half-day off for this week.  And yet as Nancy, Lily and I fell into the kitchen in hysterics over the look of sheer outrage on Mr Fox’s face, I knew it was worth it.

Goodnight, and Happy April!

 

 

Diary of a Scullery Maid – March

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Written by Sienna James

Nancy Wilcox – what a name! Flouncing, flirting, fooling around as though she owns Ickworth instead of Lord Bristol. She is, to use Mrs Finkle’s word, an absolute hoyden.

What I don’t understand – apart from how she gets away with her rouguish roguish attitude towards work – is how she came to be kitchen maid at all. I know I am not always a perfect scullery maid. Cook says I am always slow when washing the dishes, never seem to chop the right amount of vegetables and so far every sauce has turned out lumpy. As for plucking pheasants, I still have to bite back revolt. But nevertheless, I’ve worked hard for the nine months I’ve been here. Yet now this girl waltzes into Ickworth and becomes a kitchen maid without a blink of an eye! She didn’t even have to try! I don’t even think she has done scullery work. I wonder what Lily thinks of her… I’ll ask her when she comes upstairs. You see, I went to bed early, as I wanted to vent my fury in this little journal.

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“I think she’s funny,” remarked Lily as she bundled every cover she could find onto the bed. Even though it is March, the grass is always still heavy with dew in the mornings, and all my fingers are red from cold sores. I wish the warm weather would hurry up!

“You think she’s funny?” I questioned.

“She makes me laugh. We need a bit of laughter in the kitchen now that we’re starting the spring clean so the house will be ready for when His Lordship returns.” Lily sighed as she clambered into bed. “I don’t want the new season to start again – it gets so stuffy in the kitchen in the summer months. In the winter at least we’re warm near the oven!”

I nodded in response – fair enough. Grudgingly I realised Nancy did bring some kind of entertainment, although how she can get away with a few curls framing her dimpled face I cannot understand, when Mrs Seddons scolds me every time she sees even one hair out of place.

Nancy has a head of blonde curls which seem to float in a dreamy way about her face, like some kind of angelic halo. She has the widest and clearest and bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. As I peered in the looking-glass this afternoon my mousy locks and dark, heavy features looked common and dull in comparison. My nails are yellow from washing up and I’ve noticed the skin under my eyes is usually grey from lack of sleep.

Well, never mind. I can’t compete with her carelessness or playfulness, but I do find it infuriating that she got a new kitchen maid job and I’m still stuck in the scullery. When I told that to James in a recent letter, all he said was that I need to keep working hard. Aparently Apparently he’s told Charlotte lots about me which is good of him – I am looking forward to meeting James’s sweetheart.

Goodnight for now – I’ll need sleep for tomorrow to keep my wits about me in the kitchen. Nancy seems to be able to annoy Cook yet deftly avoids her sharp words. How? I think she needs to teach me a few tricks so I can manage through the spring.

Diary of a Scullery Maid – February

Arianna’s Diary, written by Sienna James

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February 8th

I’ve pasted this letter from my dear brother James into my diary. One day I’ll tease him about it terribly. He does seem so lovesick!


 

February 5th

Dear Arianna,

I don’t suppose life at Ickworth is much different since I last wrote – more dishes, I expect? I hope you’ve got lots of blankets at night, the frost doesn’t half bite at the farm. I knew bringing Granny’s old woollen quilt down from Derbyshire would be useful in the winter.

I haven’t got heaps of time to pen this letter. I have to be out in the paddock fetching the horses in a few minutes, so I’ll get down to the subject quickly. Fact is, Arianna, I’ve decided to go a-wooing. Only Valentine’s Day once a year! And I’m going to make the most of it.

Her name is Charlotte and she is the sister of Joe here on the farm. Joe’s a decent old bean and he invited me to their little cottage one evening. His father, you see, is a tenant of the farm and they live about a mile away. Charlotte Vaughn is such a smashing girl and I’m quite sure you two would be friends instantly. Of course, she is three years older than you, but it’s only two months until your fifteenth birthday. She really is marvellous, Arianna, and I would dearly like her to be my Valentine this year. 

The reason I am writing is to ask your opinion on how best to woo her. That’s what sisters are for! What do you think, Arianna? Flowers? Sweetmeats? Poems? Chocolates? I remember you used to tell me that soppy old story. Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Well, I would rather not act the Romeo and call up to dear old Juliette from the farm’s dung heap. But don’t girls like that sort of thing? Put yourself in Charlotte’s shoes, sister, and try to imagine what would make you happy on Valentine’s Day.

Make sure to reply soon. Do take pity on the struggling, lovesick heart of your brother and give me some needed advice! Who knows, perhaps I’ll have a sweetheart on Friday after all… Can you imagine? Your clumsy older brother parading around with a smashingly pretty girl? I must say the idea makes me chortle, so you must be in fits of giggles.

Love as always,

James


February 14th

What can I say? James and Charlotte. Perhaps I should get used to those two names together. I had never really considered that James might get a sweetheart one day. He’s just always been my older brother, and although he is four years older than I am, we’ve always been the best of friends. We became especially close after Papa’s death and then when Mr Fairfax came into our lives. I’m glad James asked my advice instead of writing to him! God forbid! I’ll never forget those days before the wedding when Mr Fairfax refused us admittance to the larder and pantry, just in case we young, foolish children should dare touch the cake. He was a brute!

Anyway, the whole affair with Charlotte finds me wishing him well and yet wishing he hadn’t discovered her. See, I rather fancied myself in the role of matchmaker. The next time James visited Ickworth, I was going to try and introduce him to one of the housemaids -maybe Flo, Carrie or Rose. Of course, I suspected that would have been thought as getting ‘above my station’, but it was a nice thought to occupy my mind while I washed dishes. Yet it doesn’t matter now and I feel rather mournful about it all.

I have not yet heard back from James so I don’t know whether Charlotte is his sweetheart or not. I hope my advice for a posy of wildflowers with a pretty card worked the trick. I am curious to meet her and I find myself wondering at such silly things like the colour of her hair or the sound of her voice. Is she a hearty girl with a Suffolk accent and round, rosy cheeks? Or is she a girl who has a laugh like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings and wears gowns of pure white?

I do wish he would reply so I can know how it all went!

Goodnight.

The Hall Boy’s Journal

The winter of 1935 was far colder than ours has been this year. Some counties had snow on Christmas Day, most had snow throughout January and February. At Ickworth House there is a lake called the Fairy Lake – surrounded by rushes and reeds, populated by moorhens and swans. Domestic staff who worked at Ickworth in the 1930s have recalled how they used to skate on the lake during the winter months. A photograph of some young gamekeepers slipping and sliding on the lake is displayed in the Ickworth Lives exhibition at the National trust property. The following piece is a fictional tale based on the memories of those who used to work at the House.

Snow and Ice and All Things Nice

It snowed again this week and now that the mayhem of shooting season is over I have more time to go out and enjoy it. If the snow is still around on Saturday night Mrs Seddons (our housekeeper) has said she will allow us junior ones an hour or two outside after supper.

Jim is putting together a sledge for us – a ruff ruf rough bit of wood smoothed down with a little ridge at the end to hold the feet of the person up front. Rough is a strange word – it don’t look right on the page!

I know Rose, Carrie and some of the other housemaids are going. The footmen (Laurie and co) are playing it cool (no pun intended there) and are saying that such sillyness silliness fun and games in the snow is for children. I’m going to ask Arianna is she is allowed to attend. The kitchens have laws of their own. Cook is queen there – not Mrs. S. I’m sure she can spare a scullery maid for an hour or two. I knows of a few footmen who could help out if not. They’d like that! Heh!

I went down to the Fairy Lake last Sunday after church and the snow was nowhere near thick enough for a sledge. It now sits a good seven inches on the balustrades outside the House. Good, deep, compact stuff! Just right for bombing it down the hill to the walled garden. I’m so excited – I can’t wait!

It was cold enough last Sunday for me to put my new skates to the test though. I’ve been saving my wages to buy a pair of skates for ages and then, when the time came to it, I only went and got them for free! Mrs. S – the angel that she is – pulled me aside one afternoon and I thought I was in for it. Thought she’d discovered that packet of Woodbines in my side cupboard. Turns out her nephew outgrew his skates and was going to throw them out. She saved them from the skip and, blow me, handed them straight to me!

“I thought you might appreciate these John.” She said.

Not half! Of course I offered my thanks over and over and over again. She seemed happy enouf enough with my response – and it was no act neither. The skates fitted perfect like. I joined a few of the younger gamekeepers on the lake, skating this way and that, up and down (mostly down on my part to be truthful). The boys warn’t even wearing skates! Just ruff rough boots with rubber soles. They didn’t even wear mittens or a scarf! I was wrapped up like a fresh leg a ham from the butchers. These outside chaps must get used to the cold.

What a feeling, though! Joining those silly moorhens scooting over the lake. You feel like your you’re flying, skimming over the fish an frogs cased under the thick sheet of ice. The feeling can’t be beat, I reckon.

Well, here’s hoping the snow lasts for Saturday.

Signing off for now,

John Mayhew, hall boy.

 

 

Diary of a Scullery Maid

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JANUARY

It’s a freezing night at Ickworth so Lily and I decided to head upstairs to our little attic room early. Whilst I write, she is flicking through a fashion magazine and keeps pointing out all the glamorous models.

“The next time I hear of a dance in Horringer,” she said with determination, “I’m going to make myself a stylish new dress. I’m fed up with being covered in sweat and dust and smells from the kitchens all day – I want to look as beautiful as Wallis Simpson.”

“Wallis Simpson?” I giggled. “If you want to look like her, Mrs Seddons will have something to say.”

“But look at her!” Lily held up the magazine to show me a picture. Wallis Simpson was so long and slender it looked as though she’d been pulled lengthways by her hair and toes. “Doesn’t she look so sophisticated and elegant?”

“She may be elegant but she’s ever so skinny,” I replied. “I can’t keep a figure like that when I eat a huge breakfast of Mrs Finkle’s eggs every morning.”

Lily laughed and wriggled deeper under the covers. “Well, you were a little slip of a thing when you first came here. Nobody can deny the highlight of working here is the delicious food. But I’ve decided, Arianna, to get a sweetheart. No matter whether I’m as skinny as Wallis Simpson or not. And he’ll ride down the drive every day on his bicycle to deliver me a posy of flowers freshly plucked from the meadows.”

I laughed at that. What servant girl doesn’t dream of a handsome lad courting her? I like being in the bubble of the Ickworth kitchens but sometimes I wish I could be a housemaid for once and get to frolic about with the footmen. But there’s hardly any time to focus on romance when life here is so hectic. Strangely, though, I like the routine the way it is. I wouldn’t want it altered.

I’ve just flicked back through this journal. From the time I started writing in June when I came to Ickworth, to now: a new year. I have learned so much during those seven months – about my situation as a scullery maid and also about the workings of the kitchen here. Mrs Finkle sometimes calls me over to watch her make a special sauce or whip up a seasonal pudding. Perhaps one day I’ll make a kitchen maid like Lily and not bend over the sink all day. But for the moment it seems unlikely as I am the youngest here. I suppose that means I’ll just have to try hard if I want to climb the ranks. Who knows, maybe one day in years to come I’ll be head-cook and in charge of the whole kitchen? I have just laughed out loud at the thought of it.

Goodnight.

 

The Servants’ Ball, 1935

The week following Christmas was a busy time for the servants at Ickworth House. The Marquis and Marchioness enjoyed the traditional Boxing Day hunt and then threw regular shooting parties for family and friends. The House would have been full of guests, below stairs a hive of activity. Once all the visitors left to start the new year in their own homes, in an act of thanks for all their hard work, Lord and Lady Bristol threw a ball for their staff.

Sienna James describes the servant’s ball at Ickworth in 1935 through the eyes and ears of scullery maid Arianna. This story, and those of the Hall Boy and Housemaid, are all based on the memories of actual servants who worked at Ickworth House in the 1930s and 40s.

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The servants’ ball was bliss! I didn’t realise until a few days before that you were allowed to bring a guest, so I scribbled a quick note to my brother James – he is the only person I know outside of Ickworth – and prayed it would reach him in time. Luckily it did, and he caught a ride to Ickworth on the back of a cart. I had to brush a bit of straw off him when he arrived – I couldn’t have him disgracing me in front of Lord and Lady Bristol.

I think I’ll write the events of the evening from beginning to end so I can re-read it again and again. I was so excited in the afternoon beforehand that I thought I might burst.

“Let me fix that curl for you, Arianna.”

I was speechless when Miss Petcher – she is Lady Somerleyton’s maid – came up behind me whilst I was struggling with my abundance of black curls. In a few deft movements, she had twisted it up into a respectable knot on the top of my head and secured it with pins.

“Thank you ma’am,” I stuttered, not looking her in the eyes. That’s what Lily told me to do with the senior servants.

She gave a smile and swept away – the ladies maids’ gowns are so much more stylish than those of the scullery maids!

With my hair styled by skilled hands that dress the hair of proper ladies I felt ready for the ball. Would Laurence ask me to dance? Would I be limited to a dance with John and my brother? Would I sit at the side, unnoticed, as I was the youngest of the servants? What would it be like upstairs? What would it be like when Lord Bristol took Mrs Seddons for the first dance?

The Rotunda is absolutely magneficent magnificent. I can barely describe the cool marble pillars, the ornate carvings, the stunning colours, the smell of candle wax, the soft padding of our footsteps on the wooden floor, the absolute wealth and beauty that surrounded me…

James raised his eyebrows and whispered in my ear, “bit too posh for us Blackburns, eh Arianna? Different to Bakewell!”

It was lovely to have him with me, looking smart in shirtsleeves and waistcoat – to share little glances across the floor and laugh at his comical faces. I remember how much I miss him, even though he is not as far away as Mama.

When Lord Bristol danced with Mrs Seddons I had to conceal a grin. She seemed more graceful, more affable, when she was in his arms. I wonder if that would happen to me if I danced with an aristocrat. Briefly I allowed myself to imagine a young man on a white steed galloping towards me across the Ickworth estate. No. The fantasy was over in a moment and I returned to reality. I suppose the basement staff aren’t too bad really.

One dance with James…

Two dances with John…

One dance sitting out, looking up at the huge Christmas tree which towered above us…

One dance with Laurence…

One dance with Jim…

I’ll savour the evening forever. I remember laughing in a giddy way when I spotted Martin trying to get fresh with Connie, and when James pulled one of his faces I felt dizzy with happiness.

When I sat for that one dance I was suddenly aware of this coming to a close. All of us had worked doubly hard through the Christmas week as it is prime hunting season and, of course, we had to get everything ready for the family’s party. We hadn’t had the chance to celebrate until now.

Christmas Day was a week ago yesterday and since then I have been recalling this time last year. We were all preparing for Mama’s wedding in the Spring. James and I were still getting to know Mr. Fairfax. We had a little Christmas tree in the hallway and I remember cutting out gingerbread men and James icing them. Last year Father Christmas brought me an orange, some chocolate and new hair ribbons for church – this year Mama sent me a sixpence in a Christmas card and told me to spend it on a new apron. I don’t think so! I’ve got a little tin box in my bedroom labelled ‘hat fund’ – now I’m earning I hope it won’t be too long before I can buy myself a summer straw bonnet.

Yesterday evening was very special. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was looking their best in pretty frocks and smart jackets. Everyone was just having a good time and it was lovely to see. I was sad when I had to say goodbye to James at the end of the ball – I do wish we could see one another more often.

So, now I’m going to turn down the lamp and dream of it all before I go to sleep. I wish we could have a ball every night – but then I don’t suppose it would be as special. Oh, I just wish I could get a jam jar from the scullery and savour all the excitement and enjoyment from last night. The whole night smelled of jam! Then, every time I feel lonely or tired I can open the lid, have a little sniff, and remind myself of my very first ball!

Goodnight.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Day at Ickworth – 1935

The Hall Boy’s Journal: 26 December 1935

xmas9

Merry Christmas! – a greeting only too proper for my Christmas this year. Boy, did I get merry!

This was my first Christmas at Ickworth House, well, as a hall boy that is. Every year since I can remember I went with Ma and my brothers and sisters to the great round house on a crisp winter’s day not long before Christmas. All the children of those living and working on the Estate were invited with their families. We sung carols under this great big tree standing tall and proud in the magnifisent magnificent hall. It was always covered in hundreds of candles and sparkling decorations. We never had a Christmas tree at home. I suppose we don’t have the space – a twig covered in candles just isn’t quite the same (and a bit of a fire risk I reckon). Anyway, after carols every child was handed a small gift from under that great big tree. I got a sixpence once, an orange another year and a toy train the next. Happy times!

This year I helped to erect the tree in the front hall of the Rotunda. Jim and some of the gamekeepers worked to heave the great beast through the doors without knocking anything over or scratching the stone and marble floors. If they had of damaged something, cor, they would have felt the wrath of the housekeeper, Mrs Seddons! The tree was stood just in front of the big statue by the stairs and is so tall that the top almost touches the first balcony on the upstairs landing! Now, it’s not often I get to go “upstairs” – as hall boy my work is in the basement. It was quite an excitement to venture up those stone steps, I can tell you, and emerge in the main hall. And what a strange thing to be in the house and not invited to attend the carol singing! I could hear the voices of my old neighbours flowing through the halls and corridors. I imagined the little kiddies staring hungrily at the presents under the tree. I suppose I felt a little jealous – a little sad to be missing out.

Christmas day as a servant, though, surpast surpassed was more than my greatest expectations. I knew we all had to work as normal and I knew we were all sitting down to a meal together in the late afternoon, but what a meal it was! We had two turkeys (just one turkey costs more than a month of my wages), a goose, hams, trimmings, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, gravy, plum pudding, sweets…the list can go on. The table in the servants’ hall was so full of food that I’m surprised it could take the weight.

At home we usually just have a cut of meat Pa puts aside in the shop and a sponge pudding. Ma said that all the fruit and raisins and such are too expensive to make a Christmas pudding. This year they will eat better. One of the perks of working here is that we get first dibs on any excess stock. I sent Ma and Pa a brace of pheasants and Cook gave me a bag of dried fruit and nuts (the raisins sourced all the way from the other side of the Empire!). I hope Ma finds a tasty use for them. I wish them all a very merry Christmas.

Oh yes – back to the “merry”. At the end of the Christmas meal a great big Christmas pudding was presented to us all. It was so big that we all got a slice. I have now tasted heaven! Soon after though, cor I felt funny! All giddy and that! I couldn’t stop talking, laughing and joking and the like. Even flirting with the housemaids like a common ol footman! Everyone laughed when Cook confessed that the pudding was laced with sherry. With SHERRY! Now, I’m no tee-totaller. I’ve enjoyed a pint of ale at the village cricket club with the rest of them, but never sherry! What a head I had on me this morning! I suppose I’ll be laughing about it soon enough though.

Have a happy Christmas everyone – and a merry one, if you like. But not too merry, eh!

John Mayhew

Hall Boy, Ickworth House