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I Only Came For The Music: 18 - The Best Things In Life In Little Parcels

...It was part of Mary-Ellen's duties to wait on the rest of the servants at table, and this proved to be an excellent initiation into life below stairs. She enjoyed listening to the gossip about what went on above stairs amongst the gentry, the Masterson family who owned Harton Hall. Because she was small, four feet ten in height, and by far the youngest member of the household, everyone made a fuss of her...

Betty Mckay tells of her grandmother's early life.

Mary-Ellen worked as a kitchen maid at Harton Hall. She was twelve years old and had arrived from the orphanage three weeks earlier. The great house was in Derbyshire, and so far all Mary-Ellen had seen of it were the huge kitchens, where she worked from morning till night, and the back stairs, which led up to her room in the attics.

She shared this with two other girls. Annie and Hester Thomas were cousins and came from the same village, five miles from the Hall. They were kind to Mary-Ellen and treated her very much as a younger sister. Annie, who was a parlour maid, was eighteen and Hester, a seamstress, was twenty-two. Hester told Mary-Ellen that when the family left for London in the New Year, she would ask Mrs. Hargreaves, the housekeeper, if she could show her over the rest of the house.

Mrs. Hardy, the cook, ruled the roost in the kitchen. She wasn't married. The prefix was a courtesy title to show she was in charge, and as Hester said, "Made folks mind their P's and Q's." In the beginning Mary-Ellen had been afraid of her, for the cook was a large woman with a loud voice. However she soon realised that if she did all her duties quickly and correctly, then Mrs. Hardy was well pleased. After a settling-in period, she knew, whatever happened, the Hall was a far better place to be than the orphanage.

It was part of Mary-Ellen's duties to wait on the rest of the servants at table, and this proved to be an excellent initiation into life below stairs. She enjoyed listening to the gossip about what went on above stairs amongst the gentry, the Masterson family who owned Harton Hall.

Because she was small, four feet ten in height, and by far the youngest member of the household, everyone made a fuss of her. George, one of the footmen, teased her, calling her 'Little Titch', and Mr. Dennison, the butler and very grand, looked down his nose at him, saying, as far as he was concerned the best things came in little parcels, which made her laugh. For the first time Mary-Ellen was being noticed. Instead of a timid child in a herd of other children, she was now treated as a young adult in a close, friendly community.

On the last Sunday in the month, their free day, Annie and Hester took her with them when they went home. She met their families - Annie's parents and little brothers and sisters, Hester's widowed mother and Richard, Hester's young man. He was a blacksmith who lived and worked at the smithy in the next village. Mary-Ellen had never seen such a tall, handsome man. After tea, he drove them all back in his cart to the gates of the Hall. When supper was over they crept giggling up the stairs to bed. Mary-Ellen thought she wouldn't fall asleep, her mind was so full of the day's events, but she did as soon as her head touched the pillow.

She would remember that first Christmas at Harton Hall for the rest of her life. There was so much work to do preparing for the celebrations. Poultry and game from the home farm had to be plucked and prepared. Jars of mincemeat, Christmas puddings and cakes were already made and stored away in the great larder.

Mary-Ellen thought she had never seen so much food. There seemed to be enough to feed an army. There was fruit and vegetables from the kitchen garden and greenhouses. Tom, the gardener's boy, brought barrow-loads to the kitchen door, and he laughed at Mary-Ellen, round-eyed in amazement at this cornucopia of plenty.

On Christmas night all the servants trooped into the Great Hall to receive a gift. Lady Masterson, tall and elegant, handed her a parcel and wished her "A Merry Christmas, Denton," and Mary-Ellen, her face shining with delight curtsied and said, "Thank you your Ladyship." The parcel contained a petticoat, a bar of lavender soap and a handkerchief.

Boxing Day was quieter, but late in the afternoon, just as everything was spick and span in the kitchen, there was a great commotion at the door. Standing there was Master Harry, the youngest Masterson boy. His father had bought him a penny-farthing bicycle and he had brought the new invention to show the servants. Because it was raining, he wheeled it inside and everyone took turns to ride it around the kitchen table. Even Mary-Ellen was given a ride, and she stood on the pedals while Master Harry held onto the seat of the bicycle.

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