Monday, January 23, 2012

Mrs. Jane Ebrell, 18th c Housemaid & Spider-brusher

Monday, January 23, 2012
Susan reporting:

The great country houses of the past required equally great staffs to support and maintain them. As always, there were good and bad masters and mistresses, and good good and bad servants – but surely the relationship between the Yorke family of Erddig, Wrexham, and their staff was unique.

Beginning in the 18th c, generations of workers loyal to the family were memorialized in verse and in portraits (first paintings, then photographs) that hung in the house. The portraits include coach boys, carpenters, butchers, footmen, and maids, and form a rare, respectful glimpse at the men and women rarely noticed by history.

Mrs. Jane Ebrell, left, was eighty-seven when her portrait was commissioned by Philip Yorke I (1743-1804) in 1793. One of the few women honored, she was a housemaid, and is shown sitting outside her cottage with the tools of her trade - a broom and a mop – as well as a pet dog. While Mrs. Ebrell is not specifically mentioned in family ledgers, other maids in the Yorke household at the same time were paid £2-3 a year, and likely Mrs. Ebrell's wagers were similar.

The over sized scroll draped across Mrs. Ebrell's apron is inscribed with a poem (one of a number of "crude-ditties") composed in her honor by Philip Yorke. What it may lack in literary merit it more than makes up for in admiration:

To dignifie our Servants' Hall
Here comes the Mother, of us all: 
For seventy years, or near have passed her,
since spider-brusher to the Master;
When busied then, from room to room, 
She drove the dust, with burhs, and broom
Anyd by the virtues of her mop
To all uncleanness, put a stop:
But changing her housemaiden state,
She took our coachman, for a mate;
To whom she prov'd an useful gip,
And brought us forth a second whip:
Morever, this, oft, when she spoke, 
Her tongue, was midwife, to a joke,
And making many an happy hit,
Stands here recorded for a wit:
O! may she, yet some years, survive,
And breed her Grandchildren to drive!

For more about the servants at Erddig, I heartily recommend one of my favorite books about life on a British estate from the 18th c to the mid-20th c: The Servants' Hall: The Domestic History of a Country House by Merlin Waterson. Though now out of print, it's widely available used. For more about Erddig itself (a National Trust property), check out the National Trust blog, Treasure Hunt - glorious pictures of a glorious old house.

Above: Mrs Jane Ebrell (b. 1706) former Housemaid and 'Spider-brusher', aged 87 by John Walters of Denbigh (1721-1797) Collection: Erddig, Wrexham; image © National Trust Collections


Emile de Bruijn said...

Yes that portrait is fascinating, isn't it (and the accompanying verse is fascinatingly bad :))? Another interesting source about this subject is the cataloue of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2003/3 entitled 'Below Stairs: 400 Years of Servants' Portrait':

Isobel Carr said...

Nice to see something about servants marrying and how the family viewed it. You hear so often about how romances for the maids weren't tolerated and if they wanted to marry they had to leave service (I wonder if that's a Victorianism?).

Philip Wilkinson said...

Have you come across John Harris's book, No Voice From The Hall, about visiting country houses (most of them empty and abandoned) in the 1950s? It has an account of a visit to Erddig (not abandoned) when Philip Yorke was still getting around on a Victorian penny-farthing bicycle. The whole book is a joy (and there's a sequel, too.)

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