Authors: Anwyn Moyle
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2014
A CBS Company
Copyright © 2014 by Anwyn Moyle and John F. McDonald
This book is copyright under the Berne convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
The right of Anwyn Moyle and John F. McDonald to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act, 1988.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-47113-411-1
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-47113-412-8
Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed and Bound in Great Britain by CPI Group UK Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
he big copper in the scullery was bubbling and boiling and steam-hot water was spilling out all over the floor. To make matters worse, the coalman
had just delivered a couple of hundredweight of anthracite to the cellar and then gone and trod hump-backed through the overspill with dust-black boots and big size-twelve footprints into the
kitchen for a thick slice of bread-and-dripping fresh from the frying pan.
‘Oh, God help us!’
It was my first whole day as a scullery maid and I’d only gone and filled the copper up too far. Cook was shrieking with a face like a screaming hyena and I thought she was going to throw
me into the big vat, along with the washing, and boil me alive. I was only sixteen and had never seen a copper before until yesterday and now it had turned on me like the wicked monster it was.
Luckily for me, the London season, such as it was, had started and there was a dinner party upstairs that evening. Food and other flavoury stuff was arriving by bread-van and bicycle and dray-horse
and handcart, so Cook didn’t have the time to nail me to the scullery door.
‘Get that water wiped up!’
I turned off the copper and got down on my hands and knees to clean the water and the coal smears from the floor. People were fussing and flustering all round me, tutting as they wiped their
boots and shoes – and I listened to all the voices floating above me. They hummed and buzzed around my head and flew into my ears and out again. Words twanged from the mouths of beefy men all
a-bustle and fish-eyed boys fetching in meat and game and grayling – bakers with big hats and long loaves and round sodabreads and trifles and tipsy cakes; grocers with green vegetables and
potatoes and fruit and fermented peel; milkmen rattling bottles; victuallers with port and brandy and liqueurs, and the butler bringing wines of different flush and blush up from the cellar, to let
them breathe. The kitchen maids were here, there and everywhere and Cook had another part-time helper in from the outside world so she could get everything ready on time. The atmosphere in the
kitchen was like bath night in Bedlam.
Upstairs was just as jumpy – all a beehive of bluster, with parlourmaids dusting and polishing and the head butler barking orders and the smell of lavender drifting down and mingling with
the odours of cooking and carbolic. Anyone would think it was 1834, not 1934 – apart from the fact that London was a much more modern place these days.
But when I arrived yesterday afternoon, I never knew what I was letting myself in for. The slowness and small-village saunterings of home seemed another lifetime away now, even though only one
day had passed. The dark sheep and smiling hills and gentle rain and narrow, winding days . . . I wanted to go back – to run back. But I couldn’t. My mother told me it would be like
this in the beginning; that it would seem endless and heartbreaking and full of strangers shouting and clocks ticking and I’d want to cry. But she said I was a strong girl and well able to
face the world and make it back down from its bullying. So I put away my silly self-pity and rolled up my sleeves and got on with it.
I knew nothing about London or its society soirées. Food was short in the valleys, what with all the unemployment, and this kind of extravagance seemed sinful to me. They would start with
soup of some kind and go on to soufflés and then fish and then meat with potatoes and vegetables and then pudding and then savouries like stuffed eggs and oysters and shrimps and sweetbreads
and last of all the cheese and coffee. Then the men would go away for port and cigars and some serious conversation, while the women waffled on about what they were reading or the latest production
in the West End or whatever scandal was doing the rounds of their social circles.
After the disaster with the washing copper, I had to help the kitchen maids setting out the stuff Cook needed for the dinner party – sieves and spoons and forks and flour and salt and
seasoning; saucepans and silver dishes and chopping boards and mixing bowls. When it was all set out on the big kitchen table, I mucked in with the maids and peeled potatoes and chopped carrots and
washed the utensils as they were used and put them back in place to be used again, then washed them again and replaced them again, until it was all done and time to send the great guzzle of food
upstairs to the waiting bigwigs and their wives.
Anything perishable that was left over was put in the refrigerator, which was one of the new-fangled inventions that were available in London to those who could afford them. I wasn’t
allowed a look upstairs to see the latest styles of the guests, although I would have loved to. I had to wash up the plates and pots that came back down from the banquet, some of it hardly touched
after all the work that went into it.
Cook put a lot of what came back into a bag to take home with her, but I managed to stuff a few delicacies into my mouth when she wasn’t looking. It was late when all the activity slowed
down and the guests sloped off back to wherever they came from and the street outside fell silent – holding its breath.
To say I was exhausted would be like calling the devil a dirty rascal.
A few weeks earlier, after working in a hat shop in Maesteg for a year and walking my legs off to get there and back for 1s/6d a week wages, I decided I’d had enough of Wales and wearing
out my shoes. I was sixteen and, after working in a few jobs since leaving school at fourteen, I felt all grown up like a woman of the world and not the gormless girl I really was. I’d heard
stories about the bright lights of London from people who’d been down there and they told me about the West End and the East End and the North and South Ends too – and I wondered which
End would suit a
like me the most. I wouldn’t leave off about it until a friend of the family got me the job as a scullery maid, even though I didn’t know what a
scullery maid was, and I couldn’t wait to get there and step out onto the Strand or the Piccadilly Circus or the Soho or the Serpentine. I could see myself shimmying through Berkeley Square
with a slicked-back sweetheart on each arm and wearing an haute couture from Coco Chanel, or a cardigan jacket from Elsa Schiaparelli and a French beret by Madame Vionnet on top of my permanent
wave – styles I’d only seen in magazines on the occasional table in the Maesteg hat shop. And I knew I’d blend right in with the snazziness of it all.
It was a long trip by train from Wales down to Paddington Station, and I had a set of written instructions how to get myself from there over to Hampstead in the high end of the city. When I
emerged from the station, I was nearly knocked over by the size of everything – the sights and sounds and smells and the noise of the traffic and the thickness of the air and the movement
coming from all quarters. I’d never seen anything like this before and I was all excited. There were street traders peddling fruit and vegetables and roasted chestnuts and baked potatoes and
barrow boys and horse-drawn drays with barrels of beer and newspaper boys calling from street corners and trams and trolleys and big red buses and traffic tooting and people with banners and others
with billboards all shouting about something or other.
It was a new world, full of energy and colour and sunny skies and shop windows and nervousness and I thought it would swallow me up – that I’d sink down into the soft wonder of it
and never be seen again.
When I got my breath back, I found a red double-decker bus that took me through places with London-sounding names, like Marylebone and Maida Vale, and I got off at Hampstead and followed the
written directions to a big house near the huge heath. It was a quiet street, after the madness of the earlier city, and I walked up and knocked on the front door. A snooty-looking man wearing a
dark suit answered it.
‘I’m Anwyn, the new scullery maid.’
Then he slammed the door in my face. I looked around and saw a flight of stone steps behind some black railings, leading down to a basement at the side of the house. I hesitated at the top,
looking into the lowness of it, after all the earlier expectation. Then I set my foot on the first step and went down. It was half past three in the afternoon and I was ready for a cup of tea and a
little lie-down and a chance to catch my breath. But who did I think I was, the Queen of Caerphilly?
A maid in an apron answered the basement door and took me through to the kitchen to see the cook. She grunted some kind of greeting and I was put to work without even having a chance to get my
coat off – immediately elbows-deep in a big sink full to overflowing with pots and pans and skillets and stewbowls. They must have been there waiting for me for a week or more because the
crud was crusted to them and the water was barely lukewarm. Cook gave me a steel wool pad with some kind of soap inside and I had to scrub like a sailor to get all the utensils clean. My hands
weren’t used to this kind of work and they were soon red raw. It was after seven when I finished and in all that time not a single person spoke a civil word to me. The cook came back in while
I was sitting at the table and she sprawled herself across the chair opposite. She was a big, burly woman and her face looked like a well-slapped baboon’s behind.
‘Right! Now you’ve had an easy start, let’s get your work sorted out so you know what’s expected.’
She gave me a uniform to wear – not a full uniform, just a grey dress and a white apron and lace cap to cover my hair – and a spare one of each.
‘You’ll have to wash them every other night to have them ready for the next day.’
She then recited the litany of my duties as a scullery maid – cleaning the stove and raking the grates and doing the washing and helping in the kitchen and scrubbing floors and polishing
the steps and beating the carpets. My head was going as numb as a mangle in a frozen field – where did she think we were, Bleak House? Didn’t she know those days were over? I stopped
listening, because my eyes were closing in my head from the tiredness and I wondered if anyone else was expected to do any work in this place besides me. She gave me some bread and cheese and a cup
of milk and then I was allowed to go to my bed. I would have preferred a cup of tea like a civilised person and the cheese and bread tasted like leftovers and I wondered if that’s all
I’d ever be given to eat – like a lost dog.
‘Could I not have a cup of tea?’