Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Dowager Countess, her Sister, and the Lady's Maid

I'd been living in the east wing of Mellerstain House for about a year or so. The mother of the 13th Earl of Haddington was living in a private nursing home at Nenthorn. She was almost 100 years of age.

Her sister,who had never married, about 2 years older than old Lady Haddington, also lived in this same nursing home.

A third elderly lady also lived in the Nenthorn nursing home. This was Chrissie Crombie, old Lady Haddington's personal maid.

At the top of the east tower there is "the Crombie flat". This was once the home of Chrissie Crombie; it is still called the Crombie flat even though it has not been occupied for a good few years now.

My wife and I used to visit the nursing home on Sundays. We used to see the three old ladies. Two of them were always asleep in a chair when we called in. Chrissie was always awake and she loved to talk about her days "in service".

Chrissie was now wheelchair bound. She laughingly blamed her clapped out knees on old Lady Haddington! Traipsing up and down the many stairs to and from her flat at the top of the east tower had been the cause of her knee problem.

She laughed as she told us this. In fact, it was really a fall she'd had that had caused the damage. Chrissie was a cheerful soul. She said she'd loved her job as the lady's maid and she meant it.

We never did get to speak with old Lady Sarah Haddington, nor to her sister. They were always having a nap when we called. They both died before Chrissie.

The Nenthorn House home was closed down soon after the two old ladies died. Chrissie was moved to another home, much to her dismay. She too died soon after the move. She was about 95.

Chrissie's reminiscences about her 'lady's maid' days made the tv series "Upstairs, Downstairs" seem so true to life in those long gone Edwardian days. In Chrissie's case she was the 'upstairs' one; in the tv series all the staff were the 'downstairs' ones.

A totally different world now though. Fewer servants, butlers and even gardeners compared to only 60 or so years ago. Apart from the Royals that is; though I think perhaps the Queen is cutting back to some degree!


Barbara's Spot on the Blog said...

I always find information on our past very fascinating. I read that women's garments were deliberately made with the buttons on the left side so that right handed ladies maids could dress them (and most garments had all the buttons in the back). We still put the buttons on the same side today although most of us have to dress ourselves.

Land of shimp said...

There's a series called Manor House that you might enjoy, Philip. I have all the Upstairs/Downstairs series on DVD, and every now and then, on a cold day, I'll treat myself to a marathon.

I really enjoy your stories. It's lovely that Chrissie remembered her life as a lady's maid with such fondness. Before the rather rigid class system began to dissolve, it was a way of life.

Manor House was a reality series (don't run screaming just yet!) that cast a family from the UK as the Upstairs people, and various people from around Britain as the Downstairs people. They adhered to Edwardian practices in their daily lives.

It was really quite fascinating, although the series (by the same producers) Frontier House was a bit more informative, Manor House really detailed what the various jobs would have entailed, and exposed modern day Brits to a life of arduous work! Really good value, if you ever get the yen.

Again, thanks for your stories. there is something very evocative in the phrase, "Dowager Countess", it immediately conjures a mental picture!

Argent said...

It's fascinating to get a glimpse into that byegone world isn't it? I guess the advent of all kinds of electrical appliances and whatnot have enabled an estate to be run with fewer servants. I know we're all supposed to deplore the rigid class system of yesteryear, but no-one felt demeaned by the fact that they had a good position in service and I daresay not all employers were cruel or mean. I'm really enjoying your posts and was just beginning to wonder where you'd gone.

PhilipH said...

Barbara, Shimp and Argent: thanks so much for your comments. I do so appreciate your visits.

In the Borders area of bonny Scotland there are more dukes, earls and fine houses/castles per square mile than anywhere else I think.

Just 8 miles away in Kelso, our nearest town, lives the Duke and Duchess of Roxburgh. They live in Floors Castle and seem to own vast amounts of land and businesses in and around Kelso. The wall surrounding Floors Castle seems to be miles long and was built, so I am told, by French prisoners of war during Napoleon's time!

A few miles east we have Duns Castle and Manderston House. Then near Melrose we have Abbotsford House, the home of Sir Walter Scott. Near Peebles there is Traquair House, the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland dating back to 1107. Traquair is quite famous for its brewery in the grounds; the brews are strong and sold world-wide!

I could go on, but will stop there and say 'Thanks again' ladies.

Pauline said...

It's always so interesting to find that one's world can be so different in many respects from the worlds of others... worlds within worlds within worlds. I enjoy reading your posts. They open windows for me.

The Bug said...

I was wondering where you were too! Although you commented on my blog the other day...

I enjoyed the story - makes me want to read a book. I'll probably have lots of time for reading after my surgery tomorrow!

Barry said...

My 90 year old mother is also in a home, where we visit on the weekend. She also has bad knees.

There the similarity ends since I discover I am decidedly short on butlers, gardeners, and other servants.


Meggie said...

After some of the 'revelations' from modern staff at the Palace, I am sure the Queen rather regrets the necessity to have any staff at all.

the walking man said...

Rather a maid than a mistress says I. One need not nap all the time once the service is complete.