Pretty maids all in a row

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.

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Housemaids and Chauffeur c. 1928 – inner courtyard at Polesden Lacey

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.


The Dogs’ Cemetery

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!



13 thoughts on “Pretty maids all in a row

  1. Some years ago I had the good sense to visit Polesden Lacey on a visit to my daughter who lives in London. I took the train and disembarked at Boxhill alone and quite surprised that the ‘station” was closed. Let to my own with no idea of where Polesden Lacey was in relation to where I’d arrived I decided to walk down a quiet road and there, much to my delight I found a small pub. Inside there was just the barman and an older gentleman who luckily turned out to be a driver, and perhaps the owner of April Hill Taxi and they soon realized I was a lost Canadian on a hot summer day who would probably not survive a 6 mile (I think) uphill trek in my ‘city’ shoes.
    So off I went in style and the driver regaled me of tales of his time working in stables at Wimbleton and a naughty pony who once escaped his barn and ate a week’s salary worth of pastries set outside of shop.
    The first thing I wanted to see at Polesden were the bedrooms and the kitchen but the nice gentleman on duty that day said Mrs. Grenville would have been aghast at this and questioned “why would anyone be interested in the bedrooms or the kitchen?” Suitably chastened to the ‘Upstairs” of country house life after seeing the house I wandered off to the grounds. It was a shock for me to find all of these little gravestones and I sighed at the tragedy of so many small children having died there, until I read one headstone that referenced one small fellow as being a loyal as he was yappy.

    So happy Polesden has plans to refurbish the kitchen and bedrooms and also that it recognizes while Mrs. Grenville as hostess was interesting, those ‘pretty maids all in a row’ and that handsome butler, folk like me find just as interesting.

    • Thank you Linda. How lovely to hear about your visit to Polesden Lacey. Life below stairs is very fascinating and so exciting to find out about the families that lived and worked here in Mrs Greville’s time. These stories certainly do bring our property to life. Hope you come and visit again soon!

      • My husband’s mother worked in the kitchens in the early 1930s. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the names of the staff that she mentioned. Her name was Elsie Veronica Parkinson. She ended up a wonderful cook. Can remember her tale of when the Duke and Duchess of York visited and the staff were allowed to peep at them so long as they kept well out of sight.
        We are visiting Surrey in June and looking forward to visiting Polesden. We had hoped to see some staff records and perhaps photos but having read the above blog I think we are being a little optimistic.!!!!

      • Many thanks for your lovely comments and fascinating family link with Polesden Lacey. It is always great to hear from people with a connection to Polesden and learn more about the staff that worked here during Mrs Greville’s time. Some photos and information on past employees do exist from people such as yourself who have been in touch with us trying to trace their family histories. The records are not extensive but are helping to strengthen our archives and help highlight the lives of the staff here during Mrs Greville’s time. Please say hi when you next visit in June and we would be happy to talk further with you about Elsie.

  2. Hi,
    My grandmother was an upstairs maid at Polesden Lacey Manor in the late 1930’s. Her name was Mary West but the family believe that this was a made-up name and no-one knows anything of her family or her life before Polesden Lacey Manor. She once told one of her daughters that her real name was Rosetta Smith.

    Mary married Joseph Dockray, the head gardener of a nearby estate called Alvington House in Reigate, Surrey, in 1938 and had 5 daughters. My mum, Gwendoline, was the eldest daughter. The other daughters were Brenda, Carol, Linda and Susan.

    Mary left Joseph for a man named Alan around the time my mum, Gwendoline (always known as Wendy) married Michael Hall in 1958.

    Mum told me that Joseph was having an affair with the lady of Alvington House and so, to end the scandal, he was married off to Mary West. They moved back to his family area of Leeds, Yorkshire and settled at 6 Bowling Green Place, Holbeck, Yorkshire.

    I would love to hear any more about Mary West and where she may have come from, and what her previous name might have been. Mum mentioned that there was a rumour that her father was Wilfred West, a man who drove a dray cart for Tetley’s Brewery, but I have no confirmation of anyone by this name.

    Gillian Kennedy (nee Hall)

    • What a fascinating story….there is certainly a novel there, Gillian waiting to be written….a star-crossed love affair between a lady and her gardener, a mystery woman (Mary West), etc. etc.,
      Thank you for bringing life to those “Pretty Maids All In a Row” for it seems they and their lives were just as interesting as Mrs. Grenville’s!

    • Hi Gillian,

      What a fascinating family account. Our records here at Polesden Lacey are very limited as most documents were destroyed after Mrs Greville’s death in 1942. As a result we have no record of the names of the housemaids such as Mary West or Rosetta Smith. If you have any photos of your grandmother at a similar age to the time she was here at Polesen Lacey then I can see if I can match up the face to our photographs in our archives. If I find anything which is related to your family I will of course get in touch with you. Thank you for sharing your family memories with us.

  3. Hi again,
    I have just located a record of my grandmother, Mary West (and Joseph Dockray!) living at Polesden Lacey Manor in 1937. Mary’s name is listed directly under Margaret Greville’s name as living in the house and Joseph Dockray was living in “The Bothy” (the gardeners’ quarters) on the estate! I am sooo happy. There are 31 names listed on the record as living in various homes on the Polesden Lacey estate, with only Annie Campbell and Beatrice Bragg as the only other 2 people besides Margaret Greville and my grandmother actually living in the house at the time.Mary and Joseph married in 1938.
    This record might help others too.

    The link to the original record with the 31 names is:

    Yay! I am so happy to have located this.

    Jill Paull (now Kennedy)

    • Hi Jill,

      That is great news that you have found more information on your family. I will certainly pass these details on to one of our researchers to investigate further. We are currently researching and preparing for our next offer here at Polesden Lacey which opens in January 2017 and will focus partly on the servants here during Mrs Greville’s time. It would be great if you were able to come along for a visit.

      • Hi, very interesting to read all these story’s. I am the great nephew of Molly Hurley who has previously been mentioned.i recently visited Polesden Lacey and was amazed to see the house maids exhibition with the photo of my aunt! She was an amazing lady who was always keen to share her storeys of her life!

      • I am so pleased that you enjoyed the servants’ stories on the blog and have visited the property. It really is a fascinating insight into the lives of the servants here at Polesden Lacey and indeed helps to complete the picture here of the whole party house and how such parties were able to go ahead. The preparation and work behind the scenes was so important to help keep the guests and Mrs Greville as happy and comfortable as possible in the lavish ways they were used to. I would be very interested in hearing anything else you can tell us about your Great Aunt Molly. How lovely to have such a connection and to recognize her in the photograph.

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