GREAT houses through the eyes of people who work in them. Stephen McClarence reports from Brodsworth Hall. Pictures by Chris Lawton.
“First thing in the morning, at half past six, I’d be up in the big sitting room lighting the fire and cleaning the brasses. Then I’d take the morning trays up to the family bedrooms at eight o’clock, then set the dining room table for breakfast at nine o’clock, and go up to make the beds while the Grant-Daltons were having it. I’d clean the silver and get ready for lunch at one o’clock, and I’d change into my black dress and white apron to serve it...”
Then she stops and says: “You know this was my bedroom, don’t you?”
We’re sitting in the Conservation Room at Brodsworth, the Victorian country house a few miles north-west of Doncaster whose fortunes went into such poignant decline during the last century. As money for staff ran out and rain ran in, Sylvia Grant-Dalton, its twice-widowed final occupant, gradually retreated into a handful of the 68 rooms, most still boasting their original 1860s furnishings. She became the Miss Havisham of South Yorkshire.
When she died in 1988, the hall passed to English Heritage, which enterprisingly decided to change as little as possible. They would try to preserve the forlorn charm of the place and open it to the public, warts and all... after clearing a seven foot stack of jackdaws’ nests from one of the chimneys.
I first visited Brodsworth shortly after English Heritage moved in. I saw the Billiard Room, abandoned after the a game played there in 1933 (Sylvia lost to her husband Charles). I saw the big old kitchen, hardly used since the 1920s, its jelly moulds and turbot kettles left to rust and gather cobwebs.
Outside, the gardens were a jungle. Inside, there were dusty clutters of stuffed peacocks, bundles of Edwardian parasols, tattered party hats from the Twenties and long-empty Bollinger cases. An invitation to the 1938 Badsworth Hunt Ball was still propped on a mantelpiece. It was a haunting place, full of ghostly echoes of a prosperous past.
One vivid memory is a bath chair shrouded in a white sheet at the end of the corridor outside the Conservation Room, where Sheila Hopkinson and Brodsworth’s co-curator Dr Crosby Stevens are sitting. It’s a functional room, with a box labelled Old Pest File on the shelves and an insect-identification poster pinned to the back of the door. Beware the Biscuit Beetle and the Wood Weevil! Beware the Indian Meal Moth and the Harlequin Ladybird!
“Yes,” says Sheila. “This was my bedroom. There was a threadbare carpet in the middle of the floor and a bit of lino round the edge and an armchair over there, a little black armchair.” The computer in the corner is where her bed stood, her wardrobe was where the cupboards are, there was a washstand in another corner, but it’s the same wallpaper, a faded apple blossom pattern, here since just before Sheila left Brodsworth in 1955.
“It was like a fridge in here. I must have had 12 blankets on my bed – they were as thin as tissue paper – and then my coat. I used to sleep in a cardigan. And I used to stand a radiator on the table and leave it on all day with the curtains closed.”
Sheila, who now lives just up the road at South Elmsall, started work here in 1947, when she was 16. In the house’s Victorian and Edwardian heyday, there had been around 15 staff. Then, to look after the two Grant-Daltons and their daughter Pamela, there were six, including butler, footman, housemaid, and Emily Chester, the loyal cook-housekeeper who worked here for an astonishing 71 years.
Sheila, daughter of a farmer-turned-miner, was one of 13 children. She left school at 14 and started work the following year as parlourmaid at another West Riding country house.
“It was a prison; it was terrible,” she says. “We got a little tiny pat of butter that had to last a week and a jar of jam that had to last a month. In those days, some employers took advantage of their staff. They just treated you as underdogs. But I’m not saying they did at Brodsworth, because I quite liked my time here.”
Even so, she developed whooping cough from folding and ironing damp laundry and a hernia from shifting heavy wardrobes, beds and dressing tables on her own. And the other staff didn’t speak to her for her first six months – perhaps because she had more daily contact with the Grant-Daltons than they did.
One of her duties (“I was general dogsbody, I was Billy Muggins”) was to wait at table when the family dined at 8pm under benign portraits of their forebears. “They dressed for dinner every night. Captain had a black evening suit and white tie, and Mrs wore a long dress, always with a string of pearls. He’d be at one end of the table and she’d be at the other, with Pamela in the middle, and they always had candles. We had to wait until they’d gone to the sitting room for coffee before we could clear the table.”
She takes us on a tour of the house, past the other servants’ bedrooms: “This was Esther’s; that one was Emily’s... Those were the servants’ bells – you had to look up to see which bedroom you were wanted in.” We pass through the red (not green) baize door to the family bedrooms.
“When you went through here it was all la-di-da,” she says and opens the door to Sylvia Grant-Dalton’s bedroom and gets a surprise. “Oh! it’s her!” she says. Across the room is an unnerving life-size cut-out of “madam”, smiling with a scarf tied loosely round her neck. “I can say what I want to you now, can’t I,” says Sheila. But all she says is: “She wasn’t a bad old stick.”
The bedroom, with its 1960s washbasin, has been kept as it was in Sylvia’s final years. Brodsworth’s great appeal is that it hasn’t been over-restored into a plush Victorian period-piece, a sick-and-span showcase of good taste and fine art. It has been “stabilised”. The damp and the pests have been eradicated, but in some rooms wallpaper has been left peeling: a bold sort of “alternative” authenticity that preserves what Crosby Stevens calls “a state of abandonment... we’re trying to show the house ‘as found’.” So rather than wander round in a state of reverence, visitors can find plenty of “ordinary” things to relate to: the Baby Belling in the small kitchen, Emily Chester’s 1950s cookery books (Good Housekeeping Pies & Pastries; Something New in Sandwiches), her recipe for ginger snaps written on the back of a 1950s Christmas card. They are as relevant as the leather-bound books in the library, the collection of nubile sculptures (“poor cold ladies” Sylvia called them), and the shooting records from First World War house parties.
“All these are remnants and echoes of people,” says Crosby. “The challenge for us is to let visitors see what they want to see in it, to have access to the history of everything in it, the layers of time, signs of wear and use, the servant-family relationship, questions of 19th century collecting and taste and fashion.”
The house has been “managed” through a “stabilisation” process which she describes as a sort of archaeological dig, with items photographed in situ, numbered, stored and replaced.
“We want to show it in a state of decay, but in as slow a decay as possible,” says Crosby. The house retains most of its romantic melancholy, its “soul”, though it’s interesting how conservation can turn one era’s “junk” into another’s precious relic. It’s hard to know what Sylvia Grant-Dalton’s attitude would have been to her home’s preservation in this way. “She thought it was her duty to keep it up as best she could,” says Crosby. “By the end it was a strange place to live... it was the inside of Mrs Grant-Dalton’s head in a way.” And now? “It’s quirky... but it’s beyond quirky.”
Back in her old bedroom, Sheila Hopkinson takes up her daily routine of 60 years ago. After lunch had been cleared and washed up, the afternoon tea tray was prepared before two theoretical hours off, sometimes occupied by ironing. Then dinner, which might not be cleared until midnight if the Grant-Daltons had guests.
“But if there wasn’t a dinner party, I’d finish about half past nine. I’d put the bottles in bed, come upstairs, and shut all the shutters and curtains. Then my time was my own.”
Brodsworth Hall & Gardens (01302 722598; www.english-heritage.org.uk ) open to September 30, Tuesday to Sunday plus Bank Holidays (gardens 10am to 5.30pm; house 1pm to 5pm). Also on Saturdays & Sundays in October (gardens 10am to 5.30pm; house noon to 4pm).