Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandmother’s birth. She was born on 9th August 1892, which means that if she were still alive she would be 122 today. That is 164 days younger than the age attained by Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified person who ever lived, who died in 1997 (though a Bolivian man called Carmelo Flores Laura, still living, is reputedly 123). I like to think, therefore, that she could still be alive and vying with Signor Flores Laura for the distinction of being the oldest person in the world.
My grandmother actually died on 9th February 1979, when she was eighty-six and a half. She outlived all of the famous people who are listed as having been born on the same day as she except for one: Thomas Fasti Dinesen. I’ve never heard of him – I’m indebted to Wikipedia for this piece of information – but apparently he was a Danish recipient of the Victoria Cross who died on 10th March 1979, about a month later than my grandmother. Significant events that happened on her actual birthday include that it was the day that Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a two-way telegraph and (of more interest to me and perhaps to readers of this blog) the first day of the trial of Lizzie Borden, the celebrated American murderess.
Every year when this date comes round, I pay a small, silent tribute to the strong, elegant and feisty woman that my grandmother was. She was in domestic service all her working life, a period which began when she was fourteen and did not end until she was seventy-four, with a very short break for the birth of my mother. She started her career, Tess of the d’Urbervilles fashion, as a poultry maid, working for an elderly lady in her native Kent. During the First World War, she trained as a nursery nurse at Bart’s Hospital and worked in London for more than a decade, looking after the two daughters (one was adopted and much younger than the other) of a Scottish diplomat. She then moved to South Lincolnshire to take up the post of housekeeper to Samuel Frear, the last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. He lived at a large house called The Yews. It’s still standing, just off the main Spalding-Surfleet road. During the Second World War, after Mrs Frear’s death, she moved to Spalding to another housekeeping job, this time working for the Hearnshaw family. They lived in a substantial three-storey house in Pinchbeck Road. Her final post was as lady companion to a very old lady called Mrs James, who lived at The Laurels in Sutterton.
Sausage Hall, the house that features in the next DI Yates novel (to be published on 17th November) is partly based on The Laurels. I can remember visiting my grandmother there when I was a small child.
When Mrs James became too ill to be cared for at home, my grandmother finally retired, to 1 Stonegate in Spalding, one of three mews houses built in 1795. These houses have since been renovated, but when she lived there they had hardly changed since they were new: the toilet was at the end of the short back garden path and, although she had a bath, it had been installed in the kitchen: there was no bathroom as such.
This house (the one on the right of the three in this picture) suited her well, because it was a short walk from Spalding town centre and just over the road from Spalding Parish Church, which she attended several times during the week and up to three times on Sundays (always clad in hat, gloves and stockings, even on the hottest of days).
As it happens, I’m just reading Servants: a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge. This is a meticulously-researched book. Although accessible, it is much more scholarly than many books I’ve read on the subject, which often fall into the trap of reading like a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
Many of the things that Lethbridge describes remind me of my grandmother’s accounts of work in the world of domestic service, but with one exception: she clearly never found the work demeaning and, although she must have been respectful towards her employers, she certainly did not kowtow to them. In fact, she gave me the impression that, in her day, trained servants were in such short supply that she could pick and choose whom she worked for and certainly earn a respectable salary.
My guess is that this was not because Lethbridge (or, indeed, my grandmother) has exaggerated the nature of the employer-servant relationship, but because my grandmother generally worked in a stratum of society not much covered by Lethbridge’s book: that of the upper-middle classes. Thus my grandmother was neither subject to the rules and strictures that servants in the grand stately homes had to observe, nor was she obliged to suffer the petty tyrannies and hard labour imposed by a ‘jumped-up’ lower-middle class mistress who could afford only one servant. The people for whom she worked were kind, enlightened, appreciative and wealthy enough to be able to pay for charladies, gardeners, maids-of-all-work and outsourced laundry services.
This is not to say that my grandmother did not work hard; I’m certain that she did. I know, for example, that when she was working for the Hearnshaws, she was accustomed to cook Christmas dinner for sixteen people. But the work that she did was appreciated and she had time to devote to her own preferred leisure activities: reading (especially geography books, a passion with her), fine embroidery and Christian worship. Each year her employers enabled her to take an annual holiday, either at the seaside or walking on the Yorkshire Moors.
She lived a long and useful life and, I think, it was overall a happy one. Reading Lucy Lethbridge’s book (which I thoroughly recommend), I am grateful to those long-gone employers for the way that they treated her.
12 thoughts on “An anniversary I always remember…”
Sausage Hall has a wonderful cover!
Great story about your grandmother. Where I come from, the highest compliment at the funeral is when everyone agrees “she was a good worker.” Something in the conception that industry and godliness are companions. ” never used a chair when there was work” is a saying out there on the plains.
When I first encountered the stoics – Portia, Caesar’s wife eating hot coals – from Shakespeare, I knew just the type of hard drivers who never stopped. Life required a type of compulsion to press on and so, one did.
I love that outlook.
Hello, Jack. Thank you very much for some lovely compliments. I’m very grateful to you for them and my guess is that my grandmother would be similarly appreciative. A work ethic is essential, as far as I’m concerned, just as long as the employer doesn’t take unfair advantage of the employee’s willingness to serve! 😉 I honestly can’t imagine ever ‘not working’! As always, best wishes to you. 🙂
Brilliant post. Such a lovely idea to mark the day of your grandmother’s birth. She sounds like an amazing woman. What different world she lived in!
Thank you very much indeed. She really was a doughty woman who held staunchly to her values and beliefs. I learned a lot from her. 🙂
Christina: I just LOVED this blog. It was so interesting to read about your grandmother. I would have loved to sit down for a very long chat with her about her life. Just wonderful. Thank you for sharing her with us.
I’m sure that you would have been enthralled by her always-intelligent conversation. She didn’t think much of men generally, but when I took my fiancé to meet her, all those years ago, they ‘hit it off’; he misses her now just as much as I do. She ALWAYS dressed as she appears in the photograph. Thank you so much for spreading this and for visiting, Lisette. You’re always welcome here. 🙂
A great tribute to a clearly dignified lady who had a sense of her own value and was comfortable in her own skin. I like the way you have put her life into context and shown the ‘other side’ of domestic service. We tend to see it as very demeaning, but you’v shown here that it was not always the case. I’m glad your grandmother had a good life. However, I’m quite curious as to how she found time to get married and have children. Was her husband also in service?
Thank you! She had only a brief period of romance. She married the Scottish diplomat’s chauffeur, who died when my mother was only six months old, so she barely ceased working. Her employer allowed her to keep my mother in the house; they were very enlightened employers, who in fact paid for my mother to go to kindergarten; my grandmother continued to work and some of her wages paid for my mother’s board. At a time when children under such cirumstances were put out for adoption, my grandmother was enabled to keep her, very largely, I think, because she was a valued employee.
Lovely post, Christina. I’m glad you have never forgotten your grandmother and still celebrate her life. When my mother was 14, she went into service, as did all the young girls of her age. Back then in rural Wales, it was expected, though I think it wasn’t looked upon as a career so much as training for marriage and a way to get daughters out from under the feet of their parents and doing something useful. Not surprising, given the size of families in those days.
P.S. So looking forward to Sausage Hall!
Thanks, Jenny. You’re right, of course, about size of families. My grandmother was the eldest of nine children, of whom two died. All except one were girls! When she had the job of poultry maid, on the Kentish marshes, she remembered, she told me, being able to see three miles across to her house and could make out her mother hanging out the children’s pinafore dresses, which she washed every day. My grandmother said that this made her feel very homesick. She in fact left home before the two youngest, including her brother, were born.
They went into service so young, didn’t they? I’m not surprised your grandmother got homesick. I’m the ninth of ten children and my oldest brother and sister had also left home by the time I came along. They seemed more like aunts and uncles than brother and sister, to me.
Yes, they did. The oldest at home (the girls, that is!!!!) were doing plenty of parenting, too. No wonder they went out into the world with a sense of what it is to work. What a shame that they had so little time to play!