Diamonds at Dinner: My Life as a Lady's Maid in a 1930s Stately Home

Diamonds at Dinner: My Life as a Lady's Maid in a 1930s Stately Home

by Hilda Newman, Tim Tate


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A fascinating memoir of life as a lady's maid in a big house in the 1930s, covering the beauty of the house, the housing of royals escaping the Nazis, the hard work of staff, and the experience of joining the army to serve a Countess

Hilda Newman was a maid to Lady Coventry at the Worcestershire stately home of Croome Court in the 1930s. In her fascinating memoir of life below the stairs (as well as glimpses from inside the big house), she reveals what it was like living and working in the 18th Century Neo-Palladian mansion surrounded by parkland landscaped by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. During World War II Croome Court housed the exiled Dutch Royal Family, who escaped the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. It was also the top-secret RAF base Defford, where radar was developed and repairs were carried out on aircraft fighting in the Battle of Britain. Hilda remembers life both upstairs and down, from the grand long gallery designed by Robert Adam and the tapestry room (since removed and transferred to the Metropolitan Museum in New York), to the hard labor demanded of serving staff and what it was like in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women's branch of the British Army, which she joined to serve the Countess in 1940.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782196105
Publisher: John Blake Publishing, Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Hilda Newman was a maid to Lady Coventry at the Worcestershire stately home of Croome Court in the 1930s. Now in her late 90s, Hilda has led a remarkable life both above and below the stairs. Tim Tate is the author of several previous books.

Read an Excerpt

Diamonds at Dinner

My Life as a Lady's Maid in a 1930s Stately Home

By Hilda Newman, Tim Tate

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Hilda Newman and Tim Tate
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78219-784-3


Stamford by Gaslight

I am, it is safe to say, old now. Though a more polite way of looking at it would be to say that I have seen a lot of history. I arrived in the middle of one world war and served in uniform in the second. Eighteen governments – of all sorts and political colours – and twenty different prime ministers have come and gone. I have lived through the reigns of two and a half kings (more of which later) and was ten years old before our present Queen was born. In a very few years – if both of us are spared – she will send me a telegram to celebrate my 100th birthday.

I am, I suppose, a living piece of history: my body, which has grown old and frail, has registered the passing of ages, as a fossil captures and preserves its times for generations to come. But my mind, well, that's still as sharp as ever; still able to conjure up the memories and images of an era – more than one, perhaps – taught to my great-grandchildren in school history lessons.

And so I have a story to tell. And you, readers, why do you look within? Have you seen Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs and come in search of stories from inside the aristocracy? Good: you shall not be disappointed, for there is much I have to tell you of life with the Earl and Countess of Coventry – one of the oldest and greatest families in the land – and of the lives that played out both above and below stairs at Croome Court, one of the grandest houses in England, set amid the rolling fields of Worcestershire. This, to be sure, is a tale of the gentry and of a leisured existence long since blown away by the coming of a new world.

Perhaps, though, you want a little more than this servant's-eye-view: perhaps you have a sense that television dramas, all fine and good as may be, aren't the whole story. Maybe you seek a different tale, one which shows the grit as well as the glamour: if so, you are doubly welcome, for my story is not simply that of a servant in a great house.

It is a story both of the times and of its time. It is a story of the rich and powerful and the ordinary folk who served them; it is the story of a mansion – and oh, what a mansion. But it is also the story of the smaller, meaner homes of ordinary people. Perhaps it will serve to remind you – to remind us all – where we once came from and how we once lived. And that is important for, if we forget – or if we never knew – where we have come from, how will we know who we really are? If we lose touch with our history – rich and poor, grand and humble – how can we feel settled in ourselves? Without our stories – perhaps without my story – we, the people, will lose sight of our country and how we came to be.

If the past is another country, its gatekeepers are those who are steadily passing into the night, who have lived and breathed and survived it. And so my own story must be told soon for, as I have said, I am old – 97 now – and time will soon take me and my memories away and, with me, one more small piece of the jigsaw puzzle of our country – of our life – will be lost.

I shall tell you a story that began long, long ago and of which I am the living proof. I have the feeling that this will be the last time I tell this tale, so be comfortable, be patient and, if my memory fails sometimes or plays the tricks that come with and plague advancing years, well, then, you will, I hope, forgive an old lady who has much on her mind. From my heart I shall tell you my story and I shall speak true and with the kindness – if not the wisdom! – that seeps its way into old bones.

To begin our story we must venture not to the rural folds of Worcestershire, nor to a great country house. Our journey begins in a small, quiet town in Lincolnshire and – to be specific – in the close confines of the front room of a tiny red-bricked cottage in Red Lion Square in Stamford.

The year is 1916. Britain has been at war with Germany for two long and bloody years. Two harsh winters and two balmy summers have passed since hundreds of thousands of brave young men left their homes for the squalid and blood-flooded trenches of France. Many have already been consumed by the industrialised carnage of Flanders, never to return to till England's fields or labour in its factories.

But my father has been lucky. He has not been claimed by the mass slaughter of Mons or Ypres or the Somme. And that August he is about to receive a letter, addressed to him care of his regiment, somewhere in France. All letters to and from Tommies in France were subject to censorship – a little blue pencil wielded by an unknown official in the War Office in London. Perhaps fearing this, my mother has devised a code of her own to deliver some important news. 'The cushion has arrived. It does not have a tassel.'

Quite what the censor must have made of this cryptic message we cannot know. But my father understood it straight away. His first child – me – had been born. And as to the tassel? Well, little girls don't have 'tassels', do they?

It can't have been easy for my parents, those first two years: Dad, away at the front with the concerns and yearnings that any new father has, added to the daily – often nightly – terrors of the First World War. He must, too, have feared greatly that his 'number might come up'; that he might, as they used to say in the trenches, 'go west' before he ever had the chance to see or hold me. Perhaps he sometimes wondered whether he would be lucky enough to 'cop a Blighty' – be wounded sufficiently badly to be shipped home. That would, at least, ensure he lived and would know me, even at the cost of some terrible injury.

For Mum, too, those first two years of my life must have been terribly difficult. She was a young mother alone with a new baby in a tiny terraced cottage and constantly worrying about her husband. It was, I know, a plight endured by thousands of women in those dark times but we forget, I think, how primitive communication was back then. Mum would have received no news of Dad in the ways we take for granted now: telephones were few and far between – the privilege of the rich, or reserved for businesses that couldn't function without them. There was no television, of course, and the BBC hadn't even been established. Newspaper reports were the only way families could find out anything about the war but they were heavily censored and days, if not weeks, out of date.

I am immensely proud to introduce you to my parents because, whatever the hardships of those times – and we'll come to those, I promise – my Mum and Dad were the best parents a girl could ever hope for. They may not have had much money but they were 'respectable poor': they had standards, which they stuck to throughout their lives and instilled into their family. Later I would look back on these strong, principled working-class people and wonder at the behaviour of those who society had placed above them – at least in terms of money and standing – and wonder why the rich and privileged didn't seem to have the same values as those they looked down on.

Robert Mulley was my dad. He was born in 1886 – a year before Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee – in a tiny village called Elmswell in the middle of Suffolk. He trained to be an engineer – a very good and skilled job in those days. At some point – I've never known why – he travelled the 80 miles to Stamford.

In those days this would be quite a journey and not one that most people of our class would ever do: working people in the 19th century tended to stay put. People were born, lived and died in a village or town and rarely, if ever, ventured further than a few miles. There were no cars, nor any buses, and a train journey would involve any number of changes and be quite expensive. So Dad must have had some reason for coming halfway across the country.

Maybe it was work that brought him to Stamford for, by the time he met my Mum – Hilda Annie Blake, as she then was – he was employed at the town's biggest engineering company, Blackstone's. They married at All Saints Church, right in the centre of Stamford, in 1913, less than a year before the outbreak of the Great War. Their first home – and the place where I was born – was no more than a cock-stride across the square from the church.

Right next door to our little house was The Crown Hotel. One of Mum's sisters – I had two maternal aunts, Beat and Chris – had a job there and, in the years to come, that position would prove very important indeed for our family. It also must have made life a little easier for Mum in the two years between my birth and Dad coming home from the war.

I'm very happy to say Dad came back safe and sound: and if, like all the men of that time who had served in the army and experienced the terrible ordeal of that most terrible war, he must have suffered mentally, at least he never lost a limb or suffered a life-threatening injury.

The great promise – made by the high and mighty in the government – was that, for men like Dad, Britain would be 'a home fit for heroes'. Well, that's the thing about politicians' promises: it's all jam tomorrow. Because, when Dad came home, he had no job to go back to at Blackstone's. And in those days, no job meant no money: there was precious little in the way of welfare, even for returning war heroes – and, anyway, most people who had any choice in the matter had too much pride to go cap in hand for what was thought of as 'charity'.

So Dad set himself up in a little business of his own as a boot and shoe repairer. To be sure, it didn't bring a whole lot in the way of money into the house but Dad worked hard to see that his family had enough to eat. And when times were harder than normal, Mum's sister found him work at the Crown Hotel – not behind the bar (back then serving alcoholic drinks was not always viewed as the most respectable of occupations) but as a 'boots'. Every self-respecting hotel had one of these in those days: the 'boots' was responsible for cleaning and polishing the shoes that guests left outside their room at night, and making sure that they were neatly lined up, spick and span and shining, so you could see your face in them when they opened the door again the next morning.

In 1918 my sister Joan was born and, two years later, she was followed by a little brother, Jim. There were now five of us in the little two-bedroom terraced house in Red Lion Square and it was time to find somewhere larger. These days so many people, when they're married and have a family, take it for granted that they will buy a home of their own. But in the 1920s – and for decades to come – it would never have occurred to us: owning your own house was something that happened to other, richer people from at least a social class above us. Mum and Dad always rented and I've never bought a house in my life. In the end they found somewhere less than half a mile away. Number 5, Vine Street was a three-bedroom terraced cottage – enough space for Mum and Dad and Jim to have their own bedrooms and for Joan and I to share the third.

Now, perhaps you're thinking that this doesn't sound so very different to life today. Well, it's time, then, that we talked about life in the 1920s and my little hometown of Stamford.

Our history goes back more than a thousand years. It first came to prominence in the ninth and tenth centuries when it became one of the five controlling boroughs of the Danelaw – the large swathe of Anglo-Saxon England run by invaders from over the sea in Denmark. It had been prominent even before then, being one of the first towns to produce glazed wheel-thrown pottery after the departure of the Romans. After 1066, and under the Norman kings, Stamford prospered with an economy based mainly on wool: it was particularly famous for its woven cloth called haberget. And the town's position slap bang in the middle of England placed it at the heart of the then-vital communication routes of the Great North Road and the River Welland, flowing out to the North Sea, and ensured the success of its trade. By the 13th century Stamford was one of the 10 largest towns in England. It had a castle, 14 churches, 2 monasteries and 4 separate friaries. Parliaments met here and there was a tradition of academic learning which finally led, in the mid-14th century, to the establishment of a short-lived university.

In the 16th century Stamford was really put on the map when one of the local gentry, William Cecil, became Queen Elizabeth the First's Secretary of State. She pretty swiftly created a whole new hereditary peerage for him: the first Baron Burghley (as Cecil became) built himself a palatial mansion just outside the town and became the main owner of houses within it. I can't be certain but I think the house I grew up in was owned by his descendants: if so, it could have been a sign, pointing the way to the life I would lead as an adult. When the English Civil War tore England apart, the fugitive King Charles hid out at Burghley House and Oliver Cromwell laid siege to it. But the rest of the town got off fairly lightly.

Because of its position, anyone who travelled north from London had to pass through Stamford and the coaching trade elevated old medieval inns into major nationally renowned hostelries. Soon, prosperous professional men and merchants were attracted to the town and they built their fine houses, which have lasted until today, as well as the more humble homes constructed for their workers – and in which I would be born.

The arrival of the railway in the 1830s signalled a deathblow to the coaching trade and, with it, Stamford's fortunes. The main train line to the north bypassed the town and so stunted industrial development. But Stamford people were made of stern stuff: they adapted to the industrial revolution and quickly became famous as skilled agricultural engineers. Blackstone's, the factory where my Dad worked before he went off to war, was just one of the companies which set up and prospered.

But the railway's bypassing of Stamford would have a much longer-lasting – and, ultimately, much more pleasant – result. The fact that it escaped the vast satanic mills and shoddy terraces of mean workers' hovels, which broke out like sores in other places – together with the traditional, almost feudal, relationship between the ordinary people and the aristocracy – preserved and pickled our little town in history. The very streets where I grew up living and playing were unchanged from a century or more before and they're still like that – on the outside at least – today. Which is why, almost 80 years after I was born, the BBC chose Stamford as the place to film its great Victorian drama serial Middlemarch.

Now, I said that the houses – including our little home at Number 5, Vine Street – remain just the same on the outside, and so they do. But if you want to know about life – real, honest, working-class-life – in the 1920s and 1930s, we must step inside. And how different things are here. Let's open the front door – which led directly into the front room – and step back into history.

As you read this, please look around your home and see all the everyday things we now take for granted in our lives. Not just the television and DVD player; the computers, connected to the whole world via the Internet; the telephones – both mobile and plugged into the wall; the washing machine and the microwave oven. No – look again and try to see with my old eyes the things that, as a child, would have seemed like something out of science fiction (if that term had even been invented). You may be reading this with the lights on. Today we never even stop to think about flicking a switch when it gets dark. But there was no electricity in Number 5, Vine Street: in the 1920s very few houses – not even many of the grand and magnificent mansions of the gentry, and certainly not the sort of humble houses that working-class people lived in – were wired for electric power. For us, turning the light on was something only grown-ups could do, because our lamps were powered by gas.

If that seems archaic to you, we were one of the lucky families: many – perhaps most – people of my class at that time lit their homes with paraffin lamps. And the reason only an adult could turn on the lamps in our house was because you had to be careful with gas. It was piped to the light in copper tubes, which stretched up the walls and across the ceiling: a little brass tap regulated the supply. The lamps themselves had a small net bag – known as a mantle – made of cotton impregnated with metal: the gas was forced through this and had to be lit with a burning taper. It would make a popping sound when the flame met the gas and gave off a slightly sickly yellow glow. Often as not the mere act of lighting it or (more often) turning the gas off at the tap would cause a small explosion, which blew the mantle into tiny bits. Replacing it meant a trip to the ironmonger's shop and then fiddling about for an age to fit the new one in place. Sometimes today, when a light bulb blows in my nicely lit flat and a fresh one has to be popped in, I remember just how awkward and time consuming it was just to get the lamps working in those long-ago days and nights.


Excerpted from Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman, Tim Tate. Copyright © 2013 Hilda Newman and Tim Tate. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction vii

Chapter 1 Stanford by Gaslight 1

Chapter 2 Scandal and Renaissance 23

Chapter 3 Apprenticeship 43

Chapter 4 An Ideal from a Work Colleague 63

Chapter 5 Hierarchies 77

Chapter 6 Addressing and Dressing Milady 95

Chapter 7 Exploring Croome Court 115

Chapter 8 Huatin' Shootin' ? and a Ball 137

Chapter 9 The Abdication 157

Chapter 10 The Year of Accidents ? and the Coronation 177

Chapter 11 'My Roll' 195

Chapter 12 War: 'We have a Clear Conscience' 215

Chapter 13 To the ATS and Farewell to Croome 229

Chapter 14 Enroi ? 'I Can Rest Easy' 255

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Diamonds at Dinner - My Life as a Lady's Maid in a 1930s Stately Home 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book started off nicely, but meandered off path throughout. Very disappointing and short. Obviously cowritten by a writer who wanted to write more about World War History than of a woman experience 'in service'.