The housekeeper is a familiar character in popular fiction. Whether she is kind like Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey, or sinister like Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, the housekeepers of novels, films and television shows can almost always be described in the same way. They are older and more experienced than most of the servants, have an uncanny awareness of everything that is happening in the house, and they sit at the top of the managerial hierarchy along with the steward or butler. A few years ago, a bundle of documents was found in the Chatsworth archives that paints quite a different picture.
|Mrs Gregory by William Henry Hunt|
From the beginning of the century until 1843, the Chatsworth household was run by Mrs Hannah Gregory. Regarded as the model of a good housekeeper, she was praised in local interest books as a ‘respected’ and ‘confidential’ servant. When she died at the age of 77, it was expected that one of her nieces, Mary Bown, would take over. However, the sixth Duke of Devonshire made an unusual decision. Without consulting anyone, he hired a barmaid from a hotel in Buxton who had no experience of housekeeping. The two were already acquainted. Earlier in the year Elizabeth Bickell had requested a loan from the Duke, ‘the only friend to whom I could apply’, and he obliged.
According to statements given by the servants, when Elizabeth arrived at Chatsworth, she 'bought silk dresses' for the maids, a gesture that she probably hoped would win their loyalty, but which also marked the beginning of a reputation for careless spending. Sarah Paxton, wife of Joseph Paxton and another of Mrs Gregory’s nieces, took an immediate dislike to her. Among other sins, she once dared to donate more money to a charitable cause than Sarah, making Elizabeth 'the laughing stock of the neighbourhood'. Her final undoing came in 1846 when Sarah heard rumours that Miss Bickell had been entertaining friends at Chatsworth.
When the Duke found out that Elizabeth had reportedly cut orange flowers from the gardens, made other servants wait on her guests at the dinner table, and worst of all, hosted musical 'soirees' in the Duke's private apartments, he flew into ‘a most terriffic rage'. Sarah wrote, 'if this foolery is to continue any longer, then the Duke is no longer master of his own home'. An investigation followed that saw Elizabeth swiftly removed from Chatsworth. This did not end the matter, however. Sarah wrote that the ‘Tigeress’ was still in contact with some of the maids, who were so upset, ‘there was nothing but skulking in corners going on, no work to be done and every thing sixes and sevens’. Three handed in their notice.
The bundles of documents that survive from 'the case of Miss Bickell' provide a fascinating glimpse into the community that worked at Chatsworth, as the scandal of the housekeeper that was 'too fond of company' involved servants at every level. It even caused 'a flare-up downstairs' at Devonshire House in London and provided the most popular topic of conversation at the nearby town of Chesterfield. More widely, it sheds light on fears about upsetting the social order. The idea that Elizabeth was trying to fill the position of Duchess came up several times, as did concerns about the 'tag rag' people she brought into the house.
The witness statements offer a rare opportunity to hear the voices of lower servants.
In a small way, Miss Bickell’s story shakes up what we know about servants in large houses; showing that housekeepers were not always above reproach, maids were not always meek and deferent, and the country house estate was not always cut off from the rest of society.
Lauren Butler, Fiona Clapperton and Hannah Wallace
Chatsworth and The University of Sheffield ‘From Servants to Staff’ project