Thursday, January 10, 2013

She lived “between the stairs”: reminiscing about my Grandmother’s stories during the “Downton Abbey” premiere….

For most people, their knowledge of the stratified world of household service in Edwardian England comes from film and TV.  The PBS series “Upstairs Downstairs” introduced the whole idea of the upstairs servants versus the downstairs servants.  “Downton Abbey” confirmed to us that life of the servants downstairs was completely different from the life of the aristocrats upstairs.  Movies like “Mary Poppins” showed us Edwardian England, an era that was completely different from modern life, even though that movie was made only about fifty years after the events supposedly happened.
I learned about the usually hidden life of those who were “in service” in Edwardian England long before I saw the mini-series “Upstairs Downstairs”.  My grandmother, Bertha Louise Roberts, was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England in 1897.  At age 12 she had to go to work.  That means that in 1909 she left school and was placed to work six days a week at the local vicarage.  She had to live there, and was allowed to come home to visit only on Sunday mornings.  Can you imagine sending your child to live that sort of life?  Grammy's stories about her childhood were endlessly fascinating to me when I was a girl. 

Fortunately, she was in training as an under-nurse, and was not a scullery maid.  That means she was a an assistant to a Nanny.  The household in which she worked was huge.  There was an under-nurse, a nanny, and a governess for four boys.  The middle two boys were twins.  There was a large downstairs staff, and also the upstairs servants.   The nursery staff were “between the stairs”.  As the under-nurse,  Bertha had to run all the errands to the kitchen, such as getting the food, scuttling the coal and cleaning the children’s silver service.

Apparently there was a dispute between the kitchen staff and the upstairs staff, and Bertha was caught in the middle.  It sounds like a story line for TV, doesn't it?  But it was miserable for a twelve year old girl.  Luckily, my uncle was interested in genealogy and he taped his mother reminiscing about her childhood in Leeds.  This tape was made in the 1970s, and she said “The nurse and the cook didn’t get along with each other and it made it difficult for me.  I would go down and chop great big hunks of coal and cook didn't give me the newspapers that I needed for the fire and we didn't have any nice things sent up to us.  We got the food, but we didn't have any cakes or anything nice sent up to us.  I was really very homesick and I would run all the way home and my mother would say “if you’re not happy, Bertha, you don’t have to stay there.”  But I just felt that I had to…”

I have a postcard from Bertha’s sister, Hilda, which she sent to the vicarage.  From this postcard I was able to see that the Holy Trinity vicarage was located at Hyde Terrace, Claredon Road, in Leeds, but there was no house number.   I googled the words “Holy Trinity” Leeds “Hyde Terrace” and found a link to a page on a website called British Listed Buildings  and according to this page the vicarage was listed at 38 Hyde Terrace.  There is also a great description of the house, and a link to the street view at   The Victorian style brick home was built in 1857 and looks like a grand mansion.   It also says that the building is now flats (apartments).   It is located in the current neighborhood of the Leeds University.    From the Google Street view I was able to grab a screen shot for the photograph below. 

38 Hyde Terrace, Leeds, Yorkshire, England from Google Streetview
This was the Holy Trinity Vicarage 100 years ago, built in 1857
I could also see from the Google maps application that Hyde Terrace was about one mile from where Bertha's family lived.  Her street, Northwest View, no longer exists due to urban renewal and the Leeds University expansion.  In her audio tape of her life story, her description of life in these slums rivals the scenes in the book Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.  Bertha said " I was allowed to go home on Sunday afternoons so I could go to Sunday school and I would have supper with my family and then my father would take me back because the vicarage was in a very isolated part of the city.  And I always had a lot of newspapers and a cake that Mother had made for me.  Then I had half a day once a month that I could go home."

An old photo of the Woodhouse neighborhood of Leeds
This section of the city no longer exists, and it was where Bertha lived as a child
More from Bertha  "There was quite a class distinction over there and the vicar's wife was really very snobbish.  I was just a little servant girl and there was lots of things I couldn't do...  I wasn't allowed to do…... And lots of times they would have parties for the children and some of the children were probably just as old as I was.  But if we played games I had to go outside of the nursery and then go back in again.  I had to be the last one to go in.  It gave me sort of an inferiority complex but finally I had big rosy cheeks and the nurse was very nice to me.  But after she left I wasn't too happy there so I came home again."

Every time I watch "Downton Abbey" or read a historical novel about life in upper crust households in Edwardian England, I think about my grandmother.  The nicest thing about "Downton Abbey" is that some of the downstairs staff in the show use the same Yorkshire accent as my grandmother.  It really is nice to hear that again!  I would love to find some non-fiction books or documentaries about the life of servants in England during this time period.  Relying on fictional television and movies for information is not very authentic research, is it?  But it certainly is fun! 

I previously blogged about Bertha’s audio tape, and you can read the part about her life at the vicarage at this link:   It was a six part series to transcribe the entire tape, and if you are truly interested in her early life in the slums of Leeds and her 1915 immigration to America you might want to read all six blog posts.

Genealogy tidbit about Bertha Louise Roberts (my grandmother):

My great grandfather was John Peter Bowden Roberts, born August 1865 in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, and died 23 August 1925 in Beverly, Massachusetts; married on 24 May 1890 at St. Clement's church, in Sheepscar, Leeds to Emma Frances Warren, daughter of Obed Thomas Warren and Betsey Hannah Stimson.  She was born about 1870 in Peterborough, Northampton, England and died in August 1925 in Beverly, Massachusetts.  Four children:

1.)  Hilda Mary Roberts, born 14 May 1891 in Leeds, died 1 July 1990 in Marlborough, Massachusetts; married in 1914 in Leeds to her first cousin, Herbert Pogson.  Four children born in Massachusetts

2)  Horace Warren Roberts, born 5 September 1895 in Leeds, died 2 November 1969 in Beverly; married on 20 June 1920 to Katherine Bella MacDermid.  Three children born in Beverly, Massachusetts.

3.) Bertha Louise Roberts, my grandmother, born 30 September 1897 in Leeds, died 17 March 1990 in Long Beach, California; married on 26 November 1926 in Beverly to Donald Munroe Wilkinson.   Three sons born in Beverly, Massachusetts.

4.) Infant son, born before 1900 in Leeds, died young.

Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. What a great story, Heather! And how lucky you are to have that tape. I often just want to kick myself for not having listened better, for not keeping enough written records, etc., etc., etc.! Thanks so much for sharing these memories.

  2. What a great post this is Heather! It reminded me of my grandmother's story. She wasn't from England and she didn't live during the time period you referenced. But during the Great Depression here in the United States she left home to work as a Mother's Helper. She also talked about this experience in her recorded life story.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Jana. I'm glad you have a recording of your grandmother, too. I'd love to someday digitize my grandmother's cassette tape and put her voice on my blog. She had a lovely Yorkshire accent!

    2. Thankfully, my dad transferred my grandmother's vocal history to CDs. He was the one who interviewed her back in the '70s. She was his mom. During the interview she even sings some Swedish songs. So fun!

  3. Heather,

    I do hope you get a chance to digitize that cassette. I know how dear the recording of my husband's grandfather is to him. It's short, he is singing a song with his great granddaughter. I never met him but he was extremely influential in my husband's life. Hearing that tape always makes me feel a little closer to knowing him.

    A lovely story and a great tie into to popular film and television. I look forward to reading more.

  4. I want to say "How fun?!?" or "How cool is that?" but she must have had a tough time. I have an audio cassette that one of my mom's cousins did of their grandfather in the 1970s. He tells some great stories on that tape. Get your tape digitized before the technology to play the tape goes away!

  5. Thanks for sharing your grandmother's reminiscences and experiences. I'm especially tickled by the photos you posted, which really give a sense of the places. Downton Abbey is wonderful TV but I wouldn't have wanted to be part of the downstairs staff, meself :)

  6. Fascinating! I have been interested in the upstairs/downstairs dynamic for a long time. Although I don't think I would like to work downstairs, the reality is that many found it to be a great honor to be "in service." Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Fascinating! So your grandmother Bertha had an actual, first-hand experience of class discrimination as a child at the vicarage in Leeds, rather than the more glamorized version we see on "Downton Abbey" or "Upstairs Downstairs." Your grandmother sounds brave to put up with all that, even for a while. Thank you for supplying the tape. I hope you can find some documentaries to read of servants during this period . . . you would think that the creators of the both TV series had to get their research from somewhere!

  8. I had to share this on my favorites for this week:

    Thanks for writing about your grandmother's experiences!