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.