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Berkshire Family Historian
September 2000

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, September 2000 Contents

Upstairs and downstairs in the 1920s

Angela Wilson

When I was working at Padworth College, now a Sixth Form college for girls, I was talking one day to one of the senior ladies who kept the college bright and sparkling. We were discussing what it must have been like to work in the house when the last owner, whose family had lived there for over three hundred years, was alive.

'You ought to ask my aunt,' she said. 'She was Major Darby Griffith's housemaid and she has tales of exactly what it was like.' So I did, and Mrs. Hilda Hearn came to tea.

This very charming lady, with a very straight back and an elegant hat, began to tell us how she had come to work for 'the Major'. She had been brought up at Ufton Court, where her father was head gardener. She had been trained as a housemaid and her great ambition was to work at Padworth House. The house was a legend in her family because her grandfather had been employed there as a groom for about forty years and had told about the wonderful parties and the titled people who came to stay.

One day a letter arrived at her home saying that if she were still interested in working at the House, would she present herself the following day - May 13th, 1922. The wages were twelve shillings a week with full board and lodging, though she was not offered the usual two shillings extra for personal laundry because the Major considered the amount of tips she would receive from the guests more than compensated.

Padworth House Padworth House

The maids wore black dresses, white collar and cuffs, a white apron and a white starched cap. Their meals were in the servants hall which was presided over by the cook-housekeeper, the very fierce Mrs. Adkins. No one rose from the table until Mrs. Adkins did. Her husband was the butler and took the head of the table to carve. Hilda remembered that everyone sat in order of seniority; the senior servants on chairs on one side of the table while the lesser brigade sat on a long wooden bench with their backs to the window. There was often a large group of visiting servants, who had come with their lady or gentleman, who were also put up in the house on the top floor. Hilda said that she arrived in time for a Whitsun week-end party and there were so many females on their side of the table that she was transferred to the men's side, next to a chauffeur who overwhelmed her with attention. 'I scarcely had to look as though I needed something and it was placed before me. I was a bit shy at first, but before the week-end was over I was thoroughly enjoying it, and from then, lost my shyness.'

When there were no parties, and the Major was alone, 6.30 was sufficiently early for the staff to rise and get all their cleaning duties done before the breakfast bell rang. They had to clean the grates and lay the fires, sweep and dust - no Hoovers then. The Major did not approve of mops for dusting polished floors so large areas had to be crawled over and rubbed with a duster. After so much crawling, Hilda developed 'housemaid's knee' and only then did the Major allow mops.

Padworth House Main Staircase The main staircase at Padworth House where Hilda developed 'housemaid's knee'

When the house was full of guests, usually for Ascot and other big social events, the maids got up much earlier. Everything had to be ready downstairs by eight o'clock. Then the housemaids had to tackle the bedrooms, make the beds, clean bathrooms, corridors and stairs. They had a break at eleven for coffee and bread and cheese. If Mrs. Adkins appeared wearing an old purple velvet hat the maids knew they were in for trouble and couldn't do anything right. If they wanted to go out they had to ask her permission. Sometimes they risked slipping out to meet a boyfriend from the village, but had to await a signal from an upper window to tell them that the coast was clear and they could slip safely back.

Preparations for a great ball meant a huge amount of extra work. The Major went away so that the work could go on unhindered. All the mattresses, pillows and blankets from the bedrooms had to be carried down the front stairs and placed in front of enormous fires in the library and the servants hall. It was heavy work, Hilda said, because the mattresses came from large old-fashioned beds and were very unwieldy to handle. She often got a fit of giggles and would drop her end, which immediately came unrolled and was far more difficult to roll up again than it had been on the bed.

Padworth House Library The Library

On the day the house guests arrived, they had to spend the morning putting out soap and towels, filling the washstand jugs with cold water and putting out candles. This was because the electricity was run off a turbine at a mill on the Kennet and 10.30 was the time the turbine was switched off - extended to midnight when there was a party. Candles also had to be ready on a table at the foot of the stairs in case any of the visitors were suddenly plunged into darkness before being able to reach their bedrooms. Hilda said she was often in the servants hall having left her candlestick in her bedroom when the lights began to dim. By racing like mad up all the flights of stairs and along the landing she could just get to her bedroom, the last one on the landing, before the light disappeared. The great inconvenience was in the early morning, before the turbine started, trying to clean big rooms by candle-light. It was even worse in winter when the turbine became blocked with leaves swept down on the river, as they had to rely entirely on lamps and candles.

Very often, having risen at five o'clock, when there was a house party, Hilda was not able to go to bed until eleven, with only an hour or two for rest in the afternoon before changing into black afternoon dresses. One of her duties was to stand at the top of the front stairs to conduct the ladies arriving to their rooms, and if the guest had no personal maid with her, to unpack for her and find out her needs for the morning.

At seven o'clock a bell was rung to warn guests it was time to dress for dinner. Then the maids had to tidy the reception rooms. After the dinner gong sounded they then did a tour of the bedrooms, folded clothes, turned down the beds, laid out 'night attire' and drew the curtains. Then they rushed downstairs to wash up the best dinner service as the courses came out of the dining room. The kitchen staff were not allowed to touch it, in case of chipped plates. When the coffee went in, they were allowed to have their supper, usually with white wine.

The morning after a party meant a very early start to set the rooms in order from the night before. If it was the morning when a house party was leaving, 'things were chaotic. Used water to be taken from the bedroom and the washstands left tidy. Sheets, pillow slips and bath towels to be collected for the laundry, and the beds covered with bedspreads. The hand towels were left until the last minute in case they were needed, then a rush downstairs with them before the laundry baskets were closed, as they were due to be collected by eleven o'clock. There were bedroom bells to answer, sometimes to pack for a lady, or to receive a tip and an expression of thanks.'

During one weekend, when Hilda went to turn down a gentleman's bed, she found odd pieces of paper on his dressing-table. She didn't look closely at them, thinking they were rubbish, and threw them away. The next morning there was a great panic, as the gentleman could not find his return railway ticket. It had been among the rubbish which Hilda had thrown out. Two pieces of headed writing-paper were sent to her, via the butler, one was a blank sheet and the other a draft letter for her to copy and sign for the visitor to show the railway official. She was given a large tip but felt she hadn't deserved it.

Despite the very hard work, Hilda felt privileged to work at Padworth House. She was a professional - a well-trained housemaid, expert in many fields and proud of her expertise. She wrote 'A housemaid, if she is good at her job, should be able to memorise the visitors' requirements from one season to the next. For instance, does the lady take early morning tea - or perhaps a glass of hot water and a piece of fresh fruit? She may like breakfast in bed, and if so, is it just a boiled egg, or a complete breakfast?'

After tea, Hilda walked round the house with me, which had been altered a lot from her day to accommodate students and put in more bathrooms. She had not been inside the house since she left to marry, forty years before, and she was intrigued by the changes and started to tell many amusing stories as the rooms reminded her of people and events. 1 begged her to write down her memories for me and this she did, in beautiful hand-writing. Subsequently we published her memoirs beside the extract about the Major by Richard Aldington and a splendid account of the Head Gardener at Padworth House by his son, Douglas Lawrence. It is a unique account of those days, so extraordinarily different from today.

After that first visit, Hilda continued to come to the College whenever there was a festive occasion like the Christmas lunch or the Evening of Carols and she said she much enjoyed coming and re-living some of her memories. Despite the hard work and long hours, Hilda told me she looked back at her time at the house as one of the happiest of her life. Hilda was a great lady. 1 am very grateful to have known her and to have the chance to rescue this account of life in a manor house in those days which might otherwise have been lost.

Copies of the booklet are still available. Write to Padworth College, near Reading, RG7 4NR. Price 2.50, plus postage (26p).


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updated 20th March 2001