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.
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!