The popularity of TV dramas like Downton Abbey and, during the 1970s, Upstairs, Downstairs, shows that we have a fascination with the uniquely British master and servant relationship. Many older readers will have family memories of parents or grandparents who worked “in service”.
In the early part of the last century most villages had their “big house” occupied by titled families going back many generations. Our Cornish fishing village of Gorran Haven did not, having to make do with Perhaver House, a less- grand Victorian residence owned by the newly gentrified Mr. and Mrs. Drew. Over the years between the beginning of the 20th century and the start of the Second World War, they were benefactors of many village institutions, providing a source of employment for many village girls between leaving school and getting married. My Gran, Auntie and cousin all worked there at various times.
In the house, Mrs. Drew ruled with a rod of iron. She had a formidable temper which Gran discovered one evening when serving a bowl of soup. “Take it away, your thumb has touched it!” she thundered. Gran got into trouble
again when she and another maid hatched a plan to steal some of her mistress’s strawberries, ripening in the kitchen garden. This necessitated waiting until the Drews were safely off the premises, and the opportunity arose the next Sunday morning when the Drews left for church. “The better the day, the better the deed”, as Gran was fond of saying! Her sins found her out, however, as she left her hairnet behind, entangled in the strawberry netting, and she was lucky to get away with a stiff ticking off on their return!
There was plenty of fun for these young girls as well, particularly a memorable ride in what must have been one of the village’s first motor cars on a trip to Truro, dressed in the headgear appropriate for such fast speeds!
It must have been almost two decades later that my cousin started work at Perhaver House. It soon became apparent that Mrs. Drew’s acid tongue had not mellowed much over the years. One of my cousin’s first tasks was to relay the message that a gentleman was asking for Mrs. Drew at the back door. In a riposte worthy of Downton’s Dowager Countess, she was told in no uncertain terms that “If he is at the back door, he is no gentleman!”
Parlourmaids from Perhaver House, Gorran Haven, Cornwall, pictured in about 1910. The author’s grandmother, Maud Vercoe, is on the far right.
Maud Vercoe ( right) and two friends all dressed up for a car journey in the early 20th century.