The Diary of a Housemaid is a fictional account of the life of a housemaid named Rose Bailey based on oral and written accounts of life below stairs at Ickworth House in the 1930s. Set in the basement of Ickworth House, now a National Trust property in Suffolk, Rose describes the everyday life of a housemaid; the people she meets, the work she performs, and what she gets up to in her spare time.
Born during the last few months of World War One Rose grew up in a little village situated on the Ickworth estate. Though Rose is a fictional character, the Bailey family did live in Chevington in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Her grandparents, George Bailey and Jessie Whyte, were real people who worked as servants at Ickworth in the 1890s. They married and moved to Chevington where they had five children. Twins Rena Maria and George William were their youngest, and George is the father mentioned by Rose in her diary. Although in the story Rose describes how her father fought and was wounded in the war his name actually appears on the war memorial in Chevington. Grounded in history The Diary of a Housemaid seeks to describe the life in Suffolk between the two wars through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old girl, her hopes for the future and the joys of the present.
My name is Rose Bailey. I am seventeen years old and have been working as a housemaid on the Ickworth estate for three weeks now. I come from a nearby village called Chevington. Father is employed in the village as a farm labourer but the recent years have not been kind to him. Work in the fields seems to have dried up and his war-wound has started to cause him pain. Sometimes he cannot even leave the house. This is why I went into service. My family needed the money. I am the eldest of five children. My fifteen-year-old brother, William, is also in work, as a bricklayer in the village. My other brothers and sister are still at school.
I am glad to be working at Ickworth as both my grandfather and grandmother worked here as a groom and laundry maid in the reign of Queen Victoria. In fact, this is where they met! I like to scurry through the corridors and imagine that I am walking in their footsteps. Although I am a hard worker and I always do as I am told (in fear of being in trouble) I do spend a lot of my time daydreaming. My mind is just full of stories. My schoolteacher once told me that I had to put these stories aside and start living in the real world. I have done just that, and have realised that living in the real world is a story in itself. That is why I have started this diary, and, maybe, one day, I will read back on it and relish the tales to be found in this Diary of a Housemaid.
This month always proves to be one of the most difficult in the year. Without the anticipation of Christmas and the warmth of the sun just a distant memory, long hours of work in the cold dark corridors are monotonous and dull. It doesn’t help that the family are away in London and that they have taken some of the servants with them. The corridors are empty. My footsteps echo off the stone floors. Sometimes it sounds as though I have eight feet rather than two, or that I have a whole army of housemaids following at my heel. I wish there was, I don’t like big empty houses. I am used to my small over-crowded cottage in Chevington.
At least Florence and Miss Stringer are still here. Miss Stringer is the head housemaid. She is in control of us junior housemaids when Miss Edgeley is away in London and she does her best to keep our spirits up. Once she even managed to encourage the kitchen staff to bake the housemaids our own cake! It was a delicious sponge with jam and icing! The cooks said they appreciated the opportunity to practice a new recipe for when the family return in the Spring but I think they felt sorry for us. Work in the kitchens is very tough but at least it is warm.
It has been snowing for four days now. The whole estate is engulfed in a white blanket of ice. It may be cold, but, my goodness, it is beautiful!
Yesterday afternoon some of the younger servants were given permission to venture out and enjoy the snow. The party included me, Florence, Harry, John and Millie, a new scullery maid. We wrapped up in as many layers as we could manage without falling over and stepped out into the cold. Jim, the odd man, made us a sledge from an old door, and John brought his pair of skates. The grand expedition took us past the church, through the walled garden, towards the Fairy Lake. The slope that leads from the church to the garden was so slippery that we thought it best to continue on the door-sledge. We all huddled together and Harry gave us a push to start moving. A brilliant idea to begin with and we did arrive at the chosen destination, but only after we crashed into a huge pile of snow and were scattered about like woollen rag dolls. We then took turns wearing John’s skates, for the Fairy Lake had iced over nicely. Harry, being Harry, skated on the ice in his boots and kept falling over. I saw him this morning and he looked ever so achy. I should imagine he is covered in bruises but I suppose that is the price to pay for such a moment of fun.
The family have returned from London and guests are expected to arrive in a couple of days. Suddenly the whole house has come to life. The corridors are busy again with the clip clop of footsteps hurrying every which way, back and forth, to and from every corner of the great house. Miss Stringer calls this ‘The Great Spring Clean’ season. Each room has to be swept, every ornament dusted, and every piece of furniture polished. For the past week I have spent the afternoons making polish out of beeswax and turpentine. A horrid, smelly job, but one that has to be done since the household budget does not allow for the purchase of modern cleaning products.
It is not just the house that has sprung into life this week. Finally Spring has arrived! The sun is starting to get a little warmth to it and in the mornings I now wake up to the sounds of lambs playing in the fields. A few days before the party from London arrived I spent my half-day with my brother William. He had taken the afternoon off from his work as a bricklayer in the village and joined me for a walk around the estate. When I saw him waiting for me by the gates I could not help but laugh. He was covered from head to toe in brick dust. I was in a similar state after a day of dusting cobwebs and removing dust-sheets. We must have looked a right sight! Of course the little lambs did not care how we looked and we spent the afternoon watching as they skipped and jumped to their heart’s desire.
It was my birthday this week. I did not tell anyone about it but apparently my brother William wrote to Florence to let her know. Florence and the other housemaids then put some money together and they bought me a selection of film magazines and a box of toffees from town. I woke up on the morning of my birthday to find a little brown paper package at the end of my bed. It was a lovely surprise!
Easter was late this year and the local Easter dance was the day after my birthday. Mrs. Seddons gave us housemaids and the footmen permission to attend, though we had to be back by ten in the evening. I spent a good hour getting ready, trying on the new dress Mother made me. Florence let us all use her lip-rouge and we tried to fashion our hair like that of the girls in the film magazines. This was more difficult than we first supposed it would be. I do not understand how these girls can look so perfect! The dance itself was lovely. The hall was filled with couples dancing and friends laughing, everybody was having fun. I even met a young man! George is visiting family who live nearby but he lives in a place called Watford. That is near London! He is so sophisticated, so unlike the boys from around here. Sadly he is travelling back home in a week but we agreed to meet on my half-day for lunch and a walk around the estate. I am so excited!
George travelled back to Watford and I have not heard anything from him since then. Florence suggested that the postal service might be to blame but I am not too sure. I don’t really mind anyway. There is little time to worry about silly things like boys with all the work I have to do around here.
‘Remember, remember, the 24th of May, today it is Empire Day!’ Yes, that day of celebration has finally arrived! I was not sure if the servants at Ickworth would be allowed to join in the annual festivities surrounding Empire Day. It is still, after all, just another day in a working household. When I was at school we were given the day off and would spend it singing songs, playing games, and listening to tales about the daring explorations of great heroes of the Empire. This was always followed by the national anthem, the raising of the flag, and a large picnic provided by the vicar and his family. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Lord and Lady Bristol allowed the staff a glorious spread of food for tea. Although I had to work for most of Empire Day the sausage rolls and pastries made up for it. Cook even made a celebration cake. It was nearly as tall as my hand and she iced a Union Jack on the top. I did not get a slice as by the time it reached my end of the table only crumbs were left, but just the sight of it was enough. What a day!
There are guests staying in the house, including Lord Erskine and his family. I always enjoy it when Lord Erskine visits as he insists that dinner should be followed by a savoury course rather than dessert. This throws the kitchen into disarray. I will not repeat the language I heard from the cook when she was first told. He is the son-in-law of Lord and Lady Bristol and his sons who are also visiting all enjoy a game of tennis. I have spent these past three days listening to the sounds of lively tennis matches being played on the South Lawn. Some of the more senior housemaids have been asked to attend these games; serving sandwiches, cakes, and lemonade to the family. I wish I could join in.
We have a competition of our very own going on downstairs. A few weeks ago John taught me how to play draughts, a strange game played on a black and white board. A ‘match’ can go on for hours and it is so funny to see the level of concentration that we all put in to it. The two teams are pretty straightforward, it is the hall boy versus the housemaids, and John is winning. I think he has only taught us some of the rules and is keeping handy tips and strategies to himself. Even so, we are determined to win. One day the housemaids will be victorious! Ha, how silly over a game of draughts!
This incredible heat has lasted for three weeks now. To begin with it was pleasant, the gradual warming-up of the corridors, but now the basement is like an oven. Work in the kitchens must be unbearable. One kitchen maid was sent to bed yesterday from heat exhaustion. Florence, Beatrice, Violet and I followed the odd man to the ice-store when he went on an errand for Cook. He dropped a few shards of ice when he was shovelling it into a bucket and we were quick to retrieve them. Jim knew exactly what we were doing, but he said nothing. For a brief moment, with that ice in our hands, we felt cool and refreshed.
The village school has shut because of the heat and last week my sister Iris, and one of my younger brothers, Thomas, walked from Chevington to see me. They were both red in the face from the sun by the time they arrived at the gates. I was so worried about them that I dragged them down the servant’s stairs and brought them to Mrs. Seddon’s room. We are not meant to bring our visitors into the house, but the kindly lady took pity and allowed Iris and Thomas to sit at her table. She even allowed me to stay since it was my half-day. This was meant as a gesture of kindness, I am sure, but I just felt uneasy being in that room as a guest. In the end Father had to pick them up with his cart. They received such a telling-off that I don’t suppose they will visit again, at least until the weather cools.
Every year Lord and Lady Bristol throw a party in the park for the women and children of the village. Long tables are laid out under the shade of the great trees, covered with a delicious assortment of cakes, sweets, and fruit. There is even fresh lemonade to drink. Of course we are too busy in the house to attend this event, but a few of us were allowed a brief excursion instead of sitting down to lunch. My family had been invited and as soon as they saw me my younger siblings ran over to give me a hug. This was the first time they have seen me in my uniform and I think that Mother looked quite proud. She didn’t say anything, but I could see it in her smile.
Soon it was time for me to return to the house, but not after I had eaten my fair share of the food. I also saved a slice of cake for Florence and some sugared almonds for Miss Stringer. They both seemed pleased with these. It was hard working with the noise of children’s laughter seeping in from outside. I just wanted to join in with the games. The window of the servants’ staircase in the west side of the house offers a beautiful view of the park, and here I sat for a while, watching the children having fun. How good Lord and Lady Bristol are to the people of the village. How lucky we are!
It is harvest time! I love this time of year! The whole family always goes to help Father in the fields. The boys join men from the village in cutting the crops, even little Alfred and he is only seven, and the women spend the morning making lunch. We then all meet for a huge picnic. This will be the first year that I cannot attend. I have spent much of my time this month staring out of the windows at the dusky orange light that tries to find its way into the basement. To be able to take a few hours each day just to go outside and breathe in the fresh air! On my days off this is exactly what I have been doing. I either walk the grounds of the estate or I walk back home. Mother often has a nicely fresh-baked loaf to greet me and my brothers and sister are always excited to see me.
I do not get so many chances to meet with my brother William though, as his employment in the village brickyards means that he is rarely at home when I am. However this weekend I received a note from him inviting me to go to the pictures in Bury St Edmunds. I was so excited! He borrowed Father’s cart and drove me into town. We went to see a movie called Top Hat. It was thrilling, filled with dance, drama and the most beautiful costumes. On my return to Ickworth I taught some of the other girls a number of dance moves I saw Ginger Rogers performing. Though I know I did not look anything like her, in my imagination I was in America dancing with the stars.
As the days are getting shorter and the warmth of the sun is starting to dull the basement of this great house is becoming intolerably cold. It is a type of cold I have never experienced before. At our little cottage in Chevington the stove manages to keep the downstairs rooms warm enough, and at night I have my siblings to cuddle up with to keep snug. Before the housekeeper presented us housemaids with lovely thick woollen jumpers earlier this week every time I breathed out it was as though I had become a dragon with the amount of mist that came out. The other servants did warn me about the cold, it is true, but in the dusk of the summer it was hard to believe them.
I have been at Ickworth for several months now. Time has flown by so quickly. I remember the day I first arrived. It was terrifying! Compared to my neat little life in Chevington the confusing warren of stone corridors in the grand house were overwhelming. What if I could not remember my duties? What if I could not remember the names of the other servants? What if I got lost, and, most horrifying of all, what if I met His Lordship or Her Ladyship when I was cleaning the upstairs rooms? All these worries proved to be unnecessary as I soon fell into place as a cog in the clock-work of Ickworth life below stairs.
The other servants at Ickworth have now become what I can only describe as my extended family. Quite how so cold a house could have become a home I cannot explain, but this is exactly what has happened. Mrs Seddons, the housekeeper, who filled me with such terror on my arrival, has shown herself to be the mother of the entire household. If you work well and follow the rules she is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. But I can recall numerous occasions on hearing her shouts echoing through the corridors, directed at some lazy or forgetful housemaid. The level of obedience she commands just by the sound of her approaching footsteps is awe-inspiring.
I have made many good friends during my time here. Rose Stringer is the name of the senior housemaid who has charge over me and another maid named Florence. Both these girls have become like sisters to me. We spend every moment we can spare together, gossiping and imagining our future lives as wives and mothers. Harry, a footman, Jim, the odd man, and John, the hall boy often tease us saying that we will never marry and will remain at Ickworth for the rest of our lives. The boys are always teasing us housemaids! But, then again, we are often teasing the boys too.
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 due to arrive, but that fleeting glance was enough to warm the spirit ready for Christmas.
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.