In 1914 the first world war saw the end of the golden age of domestic service and many people previously undertaking a life in service were finding opportunities to work in shops, manufacturing and offices and securing higher wages and more free time. Life below stairs was becoming a thing of the past. After the first world war when it became even more difficult to obtain servants in country houses, Mrs Greville still managed to retain a staff of 70 people. Her ample fortune meant she was able to pick and choose the best applicants. The majority of her staff were female and she chose them on height and good looks.
This photo was taken in 1928 at Polesden Lacey in the inner courtyard at the House and shows some of Mrs Greville’s house staff. We would love to find out the names of all these faces (we have a few). Unfortunately, Mrs Greville asked that all her personal papers be destroyed on her death and very little information exists about the life of the servants here at Polesden Lacey. Following a surge in interest in family history we are slowly building up an archive of the many families that lived and worked here in Mrs Greville’s time. A photograph can tell us so much about what life was like and a name can prove invaluable.
One of our aims here at Polesden Lacey is to put a name to all the faces in our photographs in the archive – which is quite a task – but one which we are hopeful of achieving. We rely heavily on our visitors for this information and enquiries about family histories in order to do this.
A recent visitor to Polesden Lacey saw the picture of the housemaids (above) and recognised his Aunt Molly straight away. Mary (Molly) Anne Hurley is pictured in the centre of the photograph. Molly was born in 1908 and began her working life as a housemaid at Tylney Hall (Duke of Wellington Estate). Here she led a happy life, having an affair with the butler! It is not known exactly when she began employment with Mrs Greville but she became a housemaid here around the late 1920s. Her best friend was Nancy, another one of the housemaids here at the time. Mrs Greville knew of Molly’s talent for needlework and asked her to make a cushion suitable for one of her dogs to be laid to rest on. The cushion was duly made and the butler, possibly Bole, placed the dead dog on to it. The staff were then told to follow behind the butler in procession to the dog cemetery. All the staff attending a dog’s funeral just goes to show how much Mrs Greville’s dogs were considered important members of the family.
Molly spent a happy time here at Polesden Lacey and often recalled how she had to clean the grates in the Billiard room – a long, arduous task. She remembered lots of parties that happened here and recalled fun times spent with other members of staff. When she left Polesden Lacey she then became housekeeper at White Waltham Place, near Maidenhead where she stayed until her retirement when she was given an apartment to live for the rest of her life in Great Windsor Park.
Here at Polesden Lacey we have a reminiscence and oral history project to capture as many memories as possible and build up an archive of photographs and memories of life at Polesden Lacey from Mrs Greville’s time to the present day. It is our hope to continue to record these memories for the future benefit of the understanding of the house and its estate. “A picture paints a thousand words” which is certainly true as they can lead to further research and highlight what life was like in a bygone age.
Visitors to the House over the Christmas event would have heard sound recordings from people with a connection to Polesden during Mrs Greville’s time and will have seen just how important and effective these memories are in highlighting the history of the property and bringing our stories to life.
How many of you have looked at your own family’s photo albums passed down from older generations and never been quite sure who the faces staring back at you were? Sadly so much information is lost when an elderly relative dies but if we actively encourage talking to each other and writing down information about our families then we have a fantastic resource for our future generations. Let’s get chatting and find out more!