Mrs K's Memories

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 25-01-1980

Sad Farewell, But Happy The Memories

By Christopher Long

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It's surprising what surprising things you hear, sometimes — often in the most unexpected situations.

Visiting a close friend for lunch at her flat in Chelsea recently, we both soon found ourselves absorbed by the fascinating memories of Mrs K, who, after a life-time in service and as a 'daily', was spending her last day dusting, polishing and cleaning before retiring at the age of seventy-six.

Mrs K, who says she's not one for publicity, nevertheless held us spell-bound as she talked about her childhood in a large family in a tiny terraced house in a village in Durham where her father was a coal-miner.

They were hard days, she said, but always happy, despite the poverty and primitive way of life.

Her parents were strict and firm with their large brood of sons and daughters whose daily tasks included emptying the family loo – a large wooden box with a hole in the top, filled with ash from the fire.

"We couldn't even afford a 'gesunder'," she laughed, explaining that a 'gesunder' in Durham is the pot which normally 'goes under' the bed.

"Without a gesunder, your only hope was a cold and very public trip to the outside lavatory, which in those days, before the First War, were lined up in the main street in front of the rows of terraced mining houses.

Leaving school at thirteen, after suffering damage to her eyes from the sparks of a steam-engine that ran along the back of the houses, it wasn't long before Mrs K made the break and came to London in search of work.

She was lucky, she said, because shortly after she arrived to go into service with a family in London, she met her future husband at a dance – at a time when it wasn't at all easy to find a husband if you were in service.

He was a Shakespearean actor, apparently, who was even offered a part by Hitchcock in one of the first 'talkies' – "but he said he didn't think they'd catch on" and turned the job down.

A happy, cheerful and very colourful figure, Mrs K has never lost her Durham accent, and hasn't allowed a very varied and often difficult life to dampen her enthusiasm for life.

"I remember thinking what an old-fashioned place London seemed when I first came here as a girl. All those elaborate, fussy decorations on the front of big London houses seemed very strange compared with home."

And some of the many families and households she worked in over the years seemed pretty odd too.

"Like this Jewish family I worked for at one time. They used to hide money under all the rugs and carpets – just to see if you really cleaned underneath them, and to see if you were honest as well. I can tell you, I didn't stand for that!"

As she talked memories came flooding back; memories of her Durham childhood when you had to be home by eleven at night or else you were locked out in disgrace.

Memories of dancing in the streets with her girlfriends or chatting with wandering accordion players if you did get locked out.

Memories too of her brothers, all of whom were over six foot tall and either went down the pits as well or, in the case of one brother, saw distinguished service in the navy – earning an MBE at the end of it.

Her family, of course, were worried about her in London and despatched her eldest sister to check up on her and interview her husband to be.

"He got round her all right. He took her to a pub for the first and last time in her life, and it worked out all right because I married him in the end."

And she has very happy memories of life with him and the many jobs and places that played a part in their lives – from a brief spell in farming when he was manager of a farm on a large country estate, to her days as a cleaner at Elstree Studios when she used to meet such people as Jessie Matthews and Gladys Cooper.

Over the years she got to know many of London's well-known characters and public figures, remembering Lord Goddard as one of her favourite employers in the days when he lived in Chelsea Square.

"One time, when I had two weeks' holiday coming up, I said I would spring-clean his house from top to bottom instead, while he was away. When he came back he said: 'Right, you're going to have your two weeks' holiday now.'"

"I said I couldn't take any more holiday and he said: 'Nonsense! Where were you planning to go?' So I said America, just to pull his leg a bit, and he took me dead seriously and he said, 'Right, you get the tickets and I'll pay.'"

"Oh, no!" I said. "I'm not going there!" But we did go away – to Belgium, where we went quite often.

Sipping a gin and tonic on her last day at work, stories of the old days, of servants in large houses and the oddities and kindnesses of past employers came easily. And the contrasts in life nowadays, compared with the tough days of her childhood seemed strange too.

"It's funny, you know, but even though life's so much more comfortable now than it used to be, I wouldn't say that it's changed much. I think I'm just as happy now as I was in the old days."

Finishing her farewell drink, and putting on her coat, she said good-bye to the flat in Chelsea that she'd cleaned and cared for for more than twenty years and, kissing my friend and her employer good-bye too, she headed for her bus to Camberwell, where she has been living ever since her husband died some years ago.

The irony was that her employer [Christine Priestman née Long] was the widow of one of Durham's greatest pit-owners [Jack Priestman], and Mrs K was the daughter of one of Durham's miners. Despite such different lives, and all that separated them, they had come to know each other very well and it was a sad farewell – made a little happier for so many happy memories of days gone by.

Mrs K worked for my cousin Christine Priestman at her London home in Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge (on the site of Jane Austen's former London home). I can only assume that Mrs K's job there came about because her father worked at Ashington Colliery which was once owned by Christine's husband, Jack Priestman. Presumably she then made her connection with Lord Goddard through the Priestmans, with whom Goddard regularly stayed at their Northumberland home at Slaley Hall. Goddard usually stayed there while touring as a judge on the North-East Circuit and though much admired by my Northumberland kinsmen he was greatly feared by many convicts as the merciless 'hanging judge'.

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© (1980) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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