Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Life between the Wars

Life at Sockburn Hall, (on the River Tees, in County Durham) between the wars was somewhat different to many houses. The lady of the house had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair. Her husband was in shipping and his office was in London, so he commuted to London, going down on Monday morning and returning to Darlington Station on Friday evening.

Also this account is as remembered by a child who was only 9 when WW2 broke out.


Inside the house the head of the staff was the Butler, who's headquarters was the Butler's Pantry. Here lived the glass and the silver and the washing and cleaning of these were his responsibility. He would answer the front door bell and the telephone - a contraption attached to the wall with a bell and the bit you spoke into, while the hearing bit was taken off and held to the ear. I think that you turned a handle to call up the local exchange to make a call. This exchange was in Neasham, the nearest village. Also on the wall was the precursor of the soda stream. It fizzed up water in a special bottle which I seem to remember was wrapped in raffia-like material. Making the soda water was also his job. He was, of course, in charge of the cellar and all the alcoholic drink. The dining table was also his to care for. Did he polish it too? I do not know. (This table, or part of it, is now in my dining room.) When a meal was ready he would ring the gong. This was not a straightforward job of hitting the thing. No, you had to hit round and round the gong with gradually increasing strength.


Also at the top of the pecking order was the Lady's Maid. In many houses there was a Housekeeper and a Lady's Maid but at Sockburn, I do not remember a Housekeeper. The Lady's Maid outlived my Grandmother, so I knew her very well. She had the Sewing Room as her centre. (It was in this room that I was bitten by a Scottie, I remember. I expect that I blew in its face so it bit me on the nose! I have disliked Scotties ever since!) She was at the continual beck and call of my Grandmother and there was a special bell which was used to call her. Most of the time that I remember my Grandmother she needed a lot of help, so going to the loo, picking up things or getting things that were out of reach, getting in and out of her wheel chair were among the reasons why the bell was rung. She did the mending and took care of the sheets etc. I expect that she washed the articles of my grandmother's clothing that were too good to go to the laundry.


The Cook ruled the kitchen. I remember spending quite a lot of time with her. There was a scullery-maid who had to do all the washing up - pots and pans, plates etc. This would have been done using kettle water and washing soda. This was very nasty stuff that did ones hands no good at all. There were no rubber gloves in those days. Also no non-stick pans, so the whole thing was a nightmare.

I do not remember what the rest of the indoor staff consisted of. There will have been a Parlour Maid and probably a "Tweeny" who did the dirty jobs. There may have been a second man servant but I have no recollection of one. From a list of tasks, found by the present owners in a maid's bedroom, it would seem that there was not. The Tweeny had to get up about 5.00 and clean the shoes and then light the fires, which would have been done by a man-servant if there had been one. Did she bring in the coal and the logs? I do not know. I am afraid that my memories of this level of servant is non-existent.

Outside, there were three departments. I imagine that the chauffeur was the most important. He looked after the car and drove it always. It was always sparkling clean. The car that I remember was a Humber but more I cannot tell you. He was also responsible for my Grandmothers outside chair. This was electric, even in those days. There was space, by her feet for a child to stand on it - what a joy! One that I remember to this day. Also the jealousy if there was another child there who was allowed a ride!

There was a Groom and presumably a stable boy. My Grandfather hunted, as did my Mother. I should think that he would have 2 horses a day. Whether Ma did, I don't know. If the meet was nearby, they would hack to it and probably home again. If it was further away, the groom would take the horses. If Grandfather had a second horse, the groom would ride it quietly, judging where he would be when he needed it. This must have required a very good knowledge of the country and the ways of the fox. My brother has Ma's hunting diaries which would tell us much of what went on. The Sockburn hunting I only know about by what I have heard. I remember my parents hunting quite well in the 1930's though. I do know that my mother would exercise her horse during the hunting season. It was one of the activities she really enjoyed. She hunted riding side-saddle but may well have exercised riding astride.

The head gardener had a very big job. I do just remember the one in the 30's, but not how much help he had. In the summer there was a great deal of grass to cut. There was the very large area to the south of the house, running right down to the edge of the field - much further than the current lawn area. Ma talked of the pony who pulled the mower, wearing leather boots to stop it damaging the lawn. There were also two grass tennis courts and all sorts of other bits and pieces of grass. There were many rose beds, which had to be pruned, dead-headed and weeded. Hedges to trim. A large herbaceous border to care for. A great sweep of gravel to rake. Not to mention a large walled vegetable garden. The approach to the house was down an avenue and that grass had to be cut too. Then there were various paths to keep weeded. It is not surprising that when the war came and younger men were called up and the tennis courts were ploughed up for potatoes, that the deterioration started.

Life then must have been quite quiet during the week. My Mother would keep herself occupied with her various hobbies and her riding, when she was home for the holidays. After she left school and had spent a year in Paris, she helped with Girl Guides in Hurworth. More I cannot say. At the weekend, it would be all go! In the winter there was hunting, shooting and dinner parties. In the summer tennis parties, fishing and no doubt dinner parties too. In those days, there were plenty of trout in the river. (I believe they are back again now)

So that is a rather bitty and vague account of life between the wars at Sockburn. There will be inaccuracies, I am sure, and much that I have left but I hope it will be of interest to some.

5 comments:

Celtic Heart said...

What a lovely insight to a bygone age. You were fortunate to have this experience, and thank you for sharing it. Do make sure you get your mother's hunting diaries, for I bet they will make good reading.

Pondside said...

Hello Withy - I find this very interesting, as it's a peek into a way of life that is completely different from anything over here, or anything I've expererienced.

TIGGYWINKLE said...

I have just read your marvellous trilogy Withy.I am in a dream with tears streaming down my face. How romantic and poignant it is. I can just see your mother hunting side saddle, The perfume from the wonderful rose garden, your grandmother surveying the garden from her wheelchair,and you running around, up and down the stair case,and popping in to chat with the butler and cook. It must have been so emotional for you to go back. I can fully understand your feelings at the tennis courts.On a far lessor scale, we sold our lovely old home in the country in 1980, and after one occupation, it was bought by a property developer in the U.K. and just left sitting. I had the misfortune to go back to have a look a few years ago with some friends. When they turned the bend over the cattle grid, we all knew it was a terrible mistake. I dumbfounded. My prize winning 2 acre garden was a total knee high meadow, and everything looked so neglected and sad. It was like a mirage. All I could see was my mother wearing her straw hat, sitting in a wicker chair on the front porch watching the setting sun,and the sound of laughter coming from me and the children playing in the garden. I burst into tears, we left, and I have never gone back. It was such a weird surreal feeling, making me realize that without love and input, a thing of beauty dies very quickly. I wish I lived near by, and could join Kitty and her sister, and if I had tons of money I would gladly donate. I hope you will do something with your mother's diaries.Thank you for sharing your memories.

mountainear said...

Fascinating Withy - a real bit of social history and within your living memory too.

What is to be the future of Sockburn Hall? I do hope the decay and any further dereliction can be halted.

Frances said...

Hello again, Withy,

This posting is just fascinating. As Pondside has written, you've given me a beautifully written view of a time and place far different than any I have known, other than from books or films.

The image of the pony wearing boots! The image of a child ... you! ... riding along with your grandmother on her wheelchair. Just thinking of how many people were involved in keeping that estate a home.

And now, I will have yet another treat, as I begin to read about The Garden.

xo