Godmanchester’s REAL Downton Abbey
A century ago, more than a million people worked in domestic service. Today, television series such as Downton Abbey have endeared us to the people who worked “below stairs”. But what was life really like working in Britain’s big houses? CATHERINE BELL met Vera Arnold to find out.
VERA Arnold has lived in Godmanchester all her life. In fact, at 96, she is the oldest born-and-raised “Gumcestrian” living in the Huntingdonshire town.
The ninth of 14 siblings, she left school at the age of 14 to help support her family. Like many youngsters at the time, she went into service, working for what she called Godmanchester’s “gentry”.
“I would like to have stayed at school but unfortunately that wasn’t possible,” she said. “I had to get myself a job. There wasn’t much choice so I decided to go into domestic service.
She started at Farm Hall, working for Mrs Toogood, but was soon headhunted by the Stables family, who lived in Offord Hill House.
While houses owned by the aristocracy often employed many people – Hinchingbrooke House had a staff of 30 – Offord Hill had just two servants: a cook and a parlour maid.
“I was the house parlour maid,” said Vera. “I used to get up at 6.30 every morning to light the fires and wait on the family at breakfast.”
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She continued: “The man of the house was a justice of the peace, called John Stables. In the evenings, Mr Stables would often walk up and down the corridor and talk to himself. I used to lock myself in the pantry so I could get on with the washing up and cleaning the silver.
“His wife was a real lady, very charming. She was always well dressed. Every morning she would come into the kitchen and discuss the menus for the day with the cook. When I wanted to speak to her, I had to say ‘Is it convenient to talk to you, madam?’ It used to rattle me. I thought to myself ‘Why should I have to say that?’ but in the end you get used to it.
“They had one daughter, Joan. We got quite friendly – she seemed to be a bit of a loner but she chatted to me, mostly about the garden. She was in charge of the flower patch and she made a lovely job of it. We got on quite well and she treated me like a friend. I don’t think Mrs Stables approved of Joan talking to the servants. They thought they were above us, which in a way I suppose they were. They had a better education, better everything… But that doesn’t really make them better, does it? Money doesn’t make a person, manners do.”
While life could be tough for servants, Vera remembers her time at Offord Hill fondly.
“I loved it there,” she said. “I had my own room and we had our own sitting room, the cook and I. We were looked after well. The food that they ate, we had the same.
“At Christmas time, the lady of the house used to give us a voucher to buy our own present. We used to go into town and buy ourselves a very nice pair of shoes, which would last quite a long time.”
With no electricity, the house – like the rest of Godmanchester – was lit by oil lamps and candles.
“It was quite creepy, walking along the corridors with just a candle,” Vera recalled.
As well as two hours each afternoon for “recreation”, Vera was allowed half a day off each week.
“I used to get half-day on Thursdays. I used to go out at two o’clock and get back for 10. I’d go and see my mum.
“I was one of 14 children. Mum always said she was happiest when she had her babies. She was still having babies when some of her daughters were! In them days, a lot of families had a lot of children.”
Vera left Offord Hill in 1939. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that jobs in domestic service were not deemed “necessary”.
She went on to work for three local companies, including the Marshalls Brewery in Huntingdon and Chivers.
Until last year, Vera was the verger at her beloved St **** Church. She had served the church for 21 years – and her dedication was recognised when she was invited to Westminster Abbey to receive Maundy Money from the Queen.
“That was the best day of my life,” she said. “She was so charming. When she got to me, she said ‘I believe you are the verger’. I said ‘Yes, and I have been for 21 years. I’m just about to retire and I’ve just celebrated my 95th birthday’. She said to me ‘you are wonderful, you are marvellous’ and I said ‘Thank you, Your Majesty’ and did a little curtsy.”
She added: “She went along to the next man, who was a priest, and didn’t say a word to him.”
Vera has recently recounted her story for a fundraising DVD for the church roof fund and was a guest of honour at its premier on Saturday – which raised �1,500.
Vera never married but is surrounded by family and friends. She still loves Godmanchester – and thinks it has more to offer families today than when she was a girl.
“Life’s different now,” she said. “Children have a better chance of getting on.
“I’ve got no regrets. I have had a good life.”