Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Behind The Green Baize Door

My handsome Dad, wearing his butler's uniform, ca 1969
I’ve mentioned before that I spent most of my childhood living in other people’s houses while my parents worked in domestic service. It occurred to me that some people might find some of our adventures interesting, so here goes.
My Mum had left school at 14 and, being a Lancashire lass, had gone to work as a towel weaver in a cotton mill, a job she’d never really taken to. One of the older weavers said to her ‘You want to get yourself a job in service and learn to be a cook.’ So that’s what she did and, when she met Dad in 1936, she was working as a housekeeper for the then editor of the Bolton Evening News. They were married a year later, when it was so foggy, even the vicar was late.
In the late 1930s with the threat of war with Germany looming, Dad had joined the Army as a reservist because it meant an extra £15 a year. Because of this, he was one of the first to be called up.
Soon after that, Mum and I left Horwich for her to go back into domestic service and we spent the rest of the war years in Blackpool, where Mum was working as a live-in housekeeper. I was a shy, timid child and there were two noisy lively children there who made my life a misery, like the time they emptied a chamber pot out of the bedroom window and saying it was me.
After Dad was demobbed in 1946, we moved to Ivybridge, Devon, where my parents had taken a job, Mum as cook-housekeeper, Dad as chauffeur-gardener, even though he knew almost nothing about gardening. You could say he learned on the job. The house was large and rambling and because of the danger of flooding from the river that ran through the town, only the upper floors could be used. I nearly came to a watery end in the river when I fell down the embankment. Fortunately, I landed on a ledge!
In 1947, we moved to Birmingham and it’s here that my memories become more vivid because we stayed for three years and I was very happy there. Again, it was a large house with a large garden. To get to the servants’ quarters, you had to go through a green baize door, hence the title. The house was owned by a middle-aged bachelor, Mr Barclay, and I remember him as a pink and portly gentleman with thinning grey hair who spoke rather ponderously. Mum always said, with some affection, that he was a typical crusty old bachelor.
              Although we seemed to eat well in Birmingham, severe rationing was still in force. Mr Barclay was in the habit of ringing up at the last minute, having invited someone round to dinner and she’d be left to find something for dinner out of what was often lean pickings. Occasionally, there were pheasants or grouse from a shoot or chickens and eggs from a farmer friend, but more often than not, Mr Barclay and his friends would end up with our rations while we ‘made do.’ In the end, the constant strain began to tell on Mum and they decided to leave.
This time we were to move back to Bolton, where Dad had been brought up. We were to stay, for the time being with Dad’s Auntie Leah, his mother’s youngest sister, who had inherited the family home after my great-grandfather died in 1947. Moving to a traditional two-up, two-down terraced house was a bit of a shock after the spacious houses with bathrooms and central heating, we’d lived in. Now we had to get used to washing at a kitchen sink and having to use an outside toilet.
In a previous blog, Four Schools in One Term, I spoke about winning a place at a Bolton grammar school but before I could take up the offer, we had moved to Rotherham, where my parents were taking jobs in their usual capacity for a solicitor and my scholarship was transferred to Rotherham Girls’ Grammar School. Yet within only a few weeks of moving to Rotherham, we were on the move again, to Chesterfield this time, my scholarship being transferred to Chesterfield Grammar School.
After a very short stay there, I learned we were off again. This time, we were going to stay with my Dad’s brother, who lived on the outskirts of Manchester, and his family for a few weeks until something could be sorted out. I wasn’t happy about this; I didn’t get on with my cousin Patricia. It meant having to go to Levenshulme High School with her.
Mum and Dad had decided they’d had enough of domestic service for a while and were looking to put down roots in either Bolton or Horwich by getting ordinary jobs. Eventually, we found a house to rent on the outskirts of Bolton and my scholarship was transferred to Farnworth Grammar School where I stayed for the rest of my school life.
That should have been the end of my parents’ involvement in domestic service; it certainly was for me. Not so my parents. In about 1967, Mum had been working for some time as a cook for the directors’ of the large packaging group based at their headquarters in Bolton while Dad was chauffeuring directors, visitors etc to and from Bolton station. Then one of the partners of the company asked them would they consider working at his Bedfordshire country home. The temptation was too great and sometime that year, they moved there. Fortunately, for most of the year, that just mean working at the weekends. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard as the owner entertained lavishly, with guests staying. Dad, by this time had graduated to chauffeur/butler, and found he’d got a natural flair for it.
Mum, doing what she did best, cooking!
In 1971, Mum decided to retire while Dad carried on for a while longer. Big mistake! Mum was bored. Within only a few months, she and Dad went after a number of jobs she’d seen advertised in ‘The Lady’ magazine, a pastime she was addicted to.
Once they were offered a job at the country house of the late MP John Stonehouse by his then wife. They turned it down because they felt it would be too much entertaining for them. Shortly afterwards, apparently beset by money troubles, he faked his own death by leaving a pile of clothes on a beach. He turned up years later in Australia, living with his secretary, whom he later married. He was eventually sent to prison for fraud and died in 1988.
              Mum and Dad also turned down an offer of a job from Victor Lownes, the European head of the Playboy organisation, at his country house, Stocks, in Hertfordshire, because he wanted to keep the Victorian kitchen exactly the way it was.
              Remember Asil Nadir, the disgraced business man who fled to Northern Cyprus, returning to the UK some years ago, where he’s now serving a prison sentence? For a short time, they worked for him when he had a house on The Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead, known as Millionaire’s Row. They had a few adventures while they were there, like having to hustle his mistress out of the back door when his ex-wife came to call with their son. Or the time Dad nearly caught out some burglars by finding a bedroom window open and a ladder propped against the wall outside. Mum and Dad left only because he’d promised to employ them at his country house, which never materialised.
From there, they went to work for an elderly couple, the Puxleys, in a large house, designed
Langley End, King's Langley, Herts
by the famous architect, Edward Lutyens, in Hertfordshire. It was only after they’d been there a couple of weeks that they discovered that the Puxleys were both suffering from cancer. Feeling sorry for the couple in their isolation, for they had no children, my parents agreed to stay on. Fortunately, the Puxleys were rich enough to have nursing staff so all Mum had to do was a little light cooking and Dad occasional chauffeuring. Not a bad thing really as Mum and Dad were getting older themselves. Mrs Puxley died first followed shortly after by Mr Puxley. Mum and Dad were asked to stay on for a while longer to help Mr Puxley’s brother sort out the estate and this they agreed to do. One night when Dad got up to go to the toilet, he quite plainly heard Mr Puxley’s voice calling out ‘Williams?’ in the imperious tone the old man used. Needless to say, he scuttled back to bed pretty sharpish.
And so their long and interesting career in domestic service finally came to an end. Fortunately, because their accommodation had been tied to the estate, they were allocated council accommodation. Even then, Mum continued to work as a cook for the Sue Ryder organisation in one of their hospices while Dad got a job as a personnel driver for a nearby airfield. As by this time, they were well into their sixties you might have thought that would be the end of it. No, it wasn’t. When they finally moved back to Horwich in 1980, Mum got a job as the manageress of a charity shop in Bolton with Dad helping out in the shop. When that came to an end, she spent her time fund-raising for local charities or entering cookery competitions. Dad died in 1999 aged 87 and even though Mum was 90 in 2001, she bravely moved to be near us and finally died aged 97 in 2008. 
They just don’t make them like that any-more!