Remembering Siston Court
By Elana Rourke
I must have been in my early teens when I first became acquainted with the name Siston Court whilst visiting Auntie Alice with my mother.
Once comfortably settled in Auntie Alice's front parlour, where we sipped piping hot tea and sampled a slice or two of a freshly baked Victorian sponge sandwich cake. "She beats the butter and sugar by hand, you know!" my mother would say in reverent tones. Their talk would eventually lead to reminiscences about their mutual past, when they were both servants working at Siston Court.
It was in 1920 that my mother Winifred, then an extremely shy 13-year-old, travelled from the Chipping Sodbury Workhouse in a pony and cart, hugging her scant belongings, and came to work as a Scullery maid at Siston Court.
Alice, a local girl from Pucklechurch, was a parlour maid. From those earliest times, a deep and lasting friendship developed, as Winifred, the orphan, and Alice, 11 years her senior, worked out their daily lives as servants to the Rawlins family.
Winifred would often visit Alice's mother when she was given a half-day off, and it wasn't long before she was considered one of the family; enjoying the friendship of Alice's talented musical brothers, who delighted in playing and singing around the family piano.
Mrs Rawlins seems to have been a caring employer towards my mother, for early on she opened a post office savings bank book in Winifred's name and deposited most of her wages there. Some years later, when Winifred left to take up a position elsewhere as a cook, she had accumulated a considerable sum of money -- all thanks to Mrs Rawlins.
Winifred remembered her first Christmas at Siston Court vividly. All the servants -- some 30 or so -- stood in line to receive their Boxing Day gifts. My mother was positioned at the end of the line. Her gift? A length of material with which to make her uniform!
It was around one Christmastime that Winifred broke a chamber pot. She was summoned to Mrs Rawlins's bedroom to report her mishap, expecting the worse (usually a deduction from wages), but all Mrs Rawlins said was "I don't know what you maids do with my chamber pots! You must play hoopla with them." My mother was so relieved at the outcome but never really understood the significance of "playing hoopla with a chamber pot".
Up to London for the Season
As time went on, Winifred, together with a small retinue of servants, were taken to the Rawlinses' house in London's West End to work during "the season" when the debutantes "came out". The round of social engagements proved both exciting and busy -- for servants and their masters and mistresses alike.
I always marvelled at my mother's extensive knowledge of the stage shows and the actors and actresses who performed in those years, but then I learned why. "You see," she explained, "we servants were encouraged by Mrs Rawlins to take advantage of the inexpensive afternoon matinees and view some of the performances for ourselves."
Winifred would describe how thrilling it was to peep through banisters at the elegantly dressed guests as they returned from an evening show for a light supper and a brandy nightcap.
When Royalty Visited Siston Court
What excitement! What a to-do! What an honour! "We were all so very excited,' Winifred recalled, "I can remember stealing a last long look at Edward, the Prince of Wales, when he made his departure from the Great Hall. I was so thrilled by his visit. I thought he looked like a Greek god," remembered Winifred. "He was very handsome with his gorgeous blonde hair and bright blue eyes."
Church on Sundays
"We servant girls were frog marched in pairs to the pretty St Anne's Church, and woe betide us if we were not clean and smartly turned out. We always sat in the specially allocated servants' pews," said Winifred. It was in reminiscing about St Anne's Church that Winifred and Alice discussed how artistic Mrs Rawlins was and how they remembered her painting the gorgeous murals at the front of the church.
Many years later, I was privileged to visit St Anne's with my mother. (Auntie Alice was then in her 90s and did not venture out much.) Winifred reverently showed me the pew where she used to sit. As I glanced up towards a window, I noticed a ray of sunshine that pierced the glass and settled on the rich patina of the pew. "It's as if all your memories are entrenched here after all these years," I whispered. "Yes indeed," she murmured, "So many memories."
Pip, Squeak and Wilfred
Bearing in mind Mrs Rawlins's artistic skills, I remember Auntie Alice showing me a book entitled Pip, Squeak and Wilfred given to her by Mrs Rawlins. My memory was that it had been written and illustrated by Mrs Rawlins.
When my first daughter was born, Winifred purchased a lovely blue rabbit for her and we called it Wilfred. To this day, Samantha still treasures Wilfred. (Samantha will be 44 this year!)
I often wondered what became of that book. Just recently, I saw an interesting article about Pip, Squeak and Wilfred -- as names given to a trio of commemorative medals issued to members of the British and Empire forces. The article explained that an extremely popular comic strip called Pip, Squeak and Wilfred first appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1919. The illustrator, so the article informed, was Austin B Payne. Not Mrs Rawlins at all!
All in a Day's Work
Despite her tender years and tragic family misfortunes, my mother was an avid reader. She remembered how the butler always praised her for rising early to clean the grates each morning, the first chore of the day for a scullery maid. Winifred confessed that she had good reason for rising early: she relished reading the newspapers before tearing them up and setting to work to clean the grates!
The Infamous Maid of All Work
Whilst visiting Auntie Alice one time, I remember, as I was leafing through a large stack of her old magazines -- Woman's Home, Woman's Realm, Woman's Weekly -- all neatly piled on the wide window ledge close to where I always sat, I suddenly became aware of their conversation.
"Oh, I know who you mean. She was the maid of all work," said Alice. Then they lowered their voices so I was unable to hear what else was said. I did learn, however, that Mrs Rawlins had difficulty in keeping her maid-of-all-work. It always seemed to me that the poor thing did the lion's share of the cleaning, just as her job description title indicates!
Madame, the Cook, and Henri, the Chauffeur
"We were all instructed to address the cook as "Madame", explained Alice, "She was French, and Henri, the chauffeur, was Belgian. It was a nightmare," they both agreed. "When cook and chauffeur rattled on in French together, it usually meant they didn't want any of us to hear their gossip!"
Winifred told me she was not particularly enamoured with Madame. "To be honest, I was afraid of her. She had quite a temper," she remembered. "But I could tell she knew her job, so I watched her closely and learnt a great deal from her. She did make it all look so easy," she ventured to say.
Rice Pudding Made with Cream
Winifred always adored rice pudding. "Made with cream, of course", she would say. She told the story of how she helped to make three rice puddings one day and after luncheon was told to put the remaining rice pudding in the larder. "I could not stop thinking about that lovely rice pudding sitting on the shelf in the larder," explained Winifred, "so when I arose, much earlier than usual, to start on the grates, I took a spoon and began eating out of the dish. Before I knew it, I had eaten the whole lot! Well, I just washed up the dish and spoon and went on with my chores. Madame spent the entire day wondering about that rice pudding. I spent the entire day worried sick. I was sure she would discover the truth, but she never did," remembered Winifred.
Alice Gets Married
It was common practice among servants that, when they married, they were required to leave their employ, and so it was with Alice. Kindly Mrs Rawlins arranged for Alice's wedding cake to be baked and decorated. Once the cake was assembled and the table decorated with flowers and ribbons, someone took a photograph. Auntie Alice gave me this photograph many years ago and, if you look closely, you can make out the paintings on the walls and the rich panelling there.
Returning to Siston Court
Whilst passing an estate agent's window in Bath one day, some time in the 1980s, I noticed an apartment for sale. "Siston Court" it read. The words just jumped up at me. I could not resist arranging to view this property through the agent.
And so it was on a sunny Sunday in late October that we -- my mother, sister, architect husband, and myself --approached the entrance.
"She glistens like a phoenix rising from the ashes," I thought to myself.
My husband breathed, "She's magnificent! Pure Elizabethan."
My mother, I recall, only murmured, "Oh my! Siston Court, after all this time."
The estate agent was concerned about not knowing the layout of the flat, and as I recall, she was apologetic. Whilst poring over the agent's details fastened to her clipboard, she opened a door saying, "Oh, I think this must be…"
"Master's study!" announced Winifred.
The agent turned, puzzled, and asked, "What did she say?"
"Oh, she's feeling a little wobbly," said my sister. She's taking a lead out of the Horace Rumpole series, I thought to myself, when Horace tries to cover up an inappropriate outburst.
We toured the flat, with my mother all the while remembering the layout of Siston as it was in her day. The agent didn't know quite what to make of it!
Once outside in the late afternoon sunshine, our agent bid us farewell and encouraged us to walk around the property. As our shoes made a scrunching sound on the gravel, it was as if we were stepping on all those memories.
I asked Winifred if she thought Siston had a ha-ha. "Oh, I don't remember anything about a ha-ha pond," she replied, "but we did have quite a number of ha-has. And besides, the gardeners and gamekeeper would have taken care of anything like a pond, even a ha-ha one."
Suddenly, Winifred stopped and, glancing up, she pointed to a row of small windows. "You see that far attic window," she whispered, "that was my bedroom. I could see for miles from that window. I used to read, very late at night, by the light of the moon… and dream."
Siston Court will always remain special to me. There's its outstanding architectural merit, of course -- it's a magnificent place. But for me, it is the cherished memories of a life lived long ago, which are precious treasures indeed.
Please accept my apologies if I have muddled names or got some of the facts wrong. It has not been my intention to create a scholarly work. I am merely recording my own memories of my mother's reminiscences of those times long ago when 'life at the Court' bequeathed rich and enduring memories to those who worked there.
© Elana Rourke 2010
Photographs courtesy of Elana Rourke - All rights reserved