The Housekeeper 


Second in the pecking order at Passford House was the housekeeper, Jane Charlton 36, a native of Northumberland. In the first instance, all the female domestics would have been answerable to her. Her badge of authority would have been the large bunch of keys which would have always hung from her waist. Usually, a housekeeper was appointed only in families of substantial income. Jane Charlton would have been answerable directly to Lady Arthur Cecil. She would have been expected to be grave, solid and serious – ‘to regard everything around her with the keenness and interest of a principal rather than with the indifference of a servant’. Like the cook, the housekeeper was always ‘Mrs.’, whether married or not. Mrs. Charlton would have engaged and dismissed all the female staff with the exception of the lady’s-maid and the nanny. If the maids were impertinent it was her duty to correct them; if they were shy or frightened it was her duty to mother them; if they brushed the dirt through slit holes it was her duty to detect them.

‘Mrs.’ Charlton [she was not married] would have had her own well-furnished room below stairs at Passford House where the ‘tweeny’, Joan Burns, acted as her personal servant. In this Pugs’ Parlour, as it became known to the other servants, the upper domestics such as the butler and the ladies’-maid joined the housekeeper for their breakfast, tea and supper. In all but the most exalted houses the housekeeper and the upper servants descended to the servants’ hall for the first part of their dinner. They entered strictly in order of precedence and the lower servants stood silently and respectfully to greet them. The upper servants remained only for the meat course; then, sufficient condescension having been shown, they withdrew to the housekeeper’s room for their pudding or cheese, and conversation. Mrs Charlton controlled the still room, the store cupboards and the linen cupboard.

A really resourceful housekeeper would brew her own imitation wines, distil healing waters and make items such as liquorice lozenges. A housekeeper could prosper exceedingly by giving guided tours of the house when her employers were from home. This was then an accepted practice.

A dishonest housekeeper had ample scope for cheating; a greedy one had ample scope for guzzling; a tyrannous one, in league with a tyrannous butler, could make life intolerable for the lower servants; an easy-going one would let all discipline dissolve. But a good housekeeper was worth very much more than her half-guinea a week.

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