Borley Rectory and the Green-Baize Door

Domestic life at Borley Rectory

by Andrew Clarke
copyright 2002

When Henry Bull built the brand new rectory at Borley, he felt he was designing a thoroughly modern house, with all the latest in domestic layout and convenience. The house may look ugly to our eyes, but it was built in the fashionable style that was seen, and admired, in the smarter parts of nearby towns such as Ipswich, Halstead or Haverhill, and there are plenty of houses still standing that are so similar that one could use them to film the ultimate Borley epic. Some, like Borley Rectory, are in a rural setting, with pretensions at being minor country-houses. No doubt, Henry Bull was very proud of his house, and it was considered one of the 'big houses' in the area.

The rectory was designed to be a community. In our age of nuclear families, it is hard to imagine life at the rectory when it was in its heyday. In Henry Bull's time, there might be around sixteen of the family, friends, and governesses in residence, and at least four resident domestic staff. In addition, there would be several senior married staff living in one of the cottages owned by the rectory, or in the converted coachhouse.

Anyone who went back in a time-machine would be amazed by the sheer number of people employed either full, or part, time by a house like Borley Rectory. There would, for example, probably be two lads engaged on nothing but cleaning shoes, and tack. The stables would have at least two lads, and the head gardener would undertake no task without a 'boy'. There would be as many as five full-time helpers in the garden. There would be nearly twenty fireplaces to clean, lay and light, with three servants doing little else in a cold winter. The soot from the open fires would compound the problems of cleaning. With around sixteen of the family and friends in residence, there would be lots of work bringing hot water to the rooms and clearing away the slops. One forgets now that the running of a house such as Borley Rectory would be a complex business, with the senior staff requiring service of their own. It was a bustling place, full of activity. There was also little privacy, even for Rev. and Mrs Bull

This community was run like we'd run a small business nowadays, with Mrs Bull in complete charge. Henry would have little say in the running of the house, though he would probably be in overall charge of the garden and stables. Mrs Bull would know all the servants and would be directly responsible for their welfare. However, she would not have given orders directly to anyone but the senior staff. The junior staff would take their orders from the senior staff, such as the cook, housekeeper or head gardener, (there would be many more in the bigger establishments) but not directly from Mrs Bull, so as to avoid confusion

The 'Green Baize Door' was the dividing line between the two domains, and trespassing beyond meant going into foreign territory. The 'Green Baize Door' was a feature of almost every substantial house. It was generally an ordinary framed door onto which was tacked a green baize cloth, usually with brass tacks. It was the universal signal of the dividing line between the two halves of the house.The Bull children would not be tolerated by the servants in the domestic part of the house unless they were working under supervision. This was like walking into somebody else's house. The servants would normally use a different route to get to the various parts of the house, and would aim to be seen as little as possible. This was not because they were considered beneath notice: on the contrary, it was so that they could do their work uninterrupted by the requirement to exchange civilities. Houses evolved so that domestic staff could go about their task without interruption, not to ensure the privacy of the residents. They had none.

Machines have made housework so easy that it is hard to imagine life before washing machines, running hot water, washing-up machines, water-closets, and central heating. All this had to be done by hand Domestic staff would cook, launder, clean and tend fires for everybody, including the domestics.

The Cook was often a formidable and important member of staff. Those who made a career of Service often aspired to the role of cook. They would have a team of helpers, including scullery maids, and would need considerable organisational skills. They had to cook meals for up to forty people. The Bull family, friends, guests and governesses would need to be fed, and all the resident domestic staff. She would also need to feed some of the day staff and tradesmen too. The food did not come in packages. The foul would still have the feathers on, the game would need skinnig or plucking, and the meat would come in recognisable chunks of animal. As if the sheer task of preparing meals was not enough, there was also the task of preserving the garden produce, and various meats. In the smaller houses, the cook also supervised the washing, though at the Rectory, this seems to have been supervised by the housekeeper

Governesses and Nurses had a special place in the hierarchy. They were generally treated as 'honorary' members of the family, and slotted in with the unmarried daughters. They were normally slightly better off as they generally had their own rooms. They ate with the family rather than with the servants. The Bull girls were all educated at home by governesses. Although there were a few colleges in London for young ladies, the Bulls grew up before the provision of boarding education for young ladies became common, and Henry Bull had to put all his resources into the education of the boys. The governesses were all well educated, and would tackle the education of the children with great zest, in the room still called 'The Schoolroom' sixty years later.

The junior domestic staff consisted of young girls of thirteen upwards. Almost half the girls born in Britain used to experience domestic service. The most able girls got a place in the bigger houses, where they would receive a training at all aspects of domestic life. Life for an adolescent in a large family in a working class home of maybe two rooms was difficult indeed, and domestic service could mean travel, new sights, training and experiences. Nowadays, our liberal sensitivities are offended by the idea of young girls being put to work as servants. When one reads carefully the first-hand reminiscences of these girls, or talk to the elderly ladies who experienced service in their adolescence, one is struck by the fact that they regarded it as an opportunity to pick up skills, to experience life outside their immediate family, to meet others and to travel. The wealthier families would travel extensively in the summer, and take their servants with them, to Italy, France, Norway or Scotland etc. For some, it meant their first square meals, or their first experience of a clean warm bed of their own.

The gardener would be a man with a range of skills and crafts. He was not the ignorant rustic of fiction. He had to provide food in quantity, and at awkward times of the year. He had to grow plants that didn't want to grow in our bracing climate, and plant vegetables to provide a succession of food. Fruit, soft fruit and vegetables were his responsibility, and flowers too if he had the resources. Unlike the amateur gardener of today, he had to grow in quantities; if he got it wrong people went hungry. He would have plenty of help. There would be a number of under-gardeners, and boys. Even the mowing of the lawn could be a considerable struggle, and the gardens of the rectory would have required a team of around five, though the boys would probably take on other outside jobs too as required.

The stables would also be the scene of considerable activity. The Bulls were all active sportsmen. In those days, this was not just cricket, or later, lawn tennis. Hunting, shooting and fishing were not just occasional pastimes, but part of the way of life. Henry Bull was a keen hunter and had his own horse. There would, in fact, be several horses as they were then one of the more effective way of getting about The house would also have a carriage for formal visiting. All the harnesses, Tack, carriages and horses would need constant maintenance, and would definitely be a full-time job.

By the time that Rev. Lionel Foyster and his wife Marianne got to the house, all was gone. The larder, scullery, laundry and washroom were deserted, except for the huge unused copper pans. The courtyard that had resounded with activitry as water was drawn from the well, coal was carried up the stairs to the bedrooms, provisions were unloaded from carts, was now a silent damp spot. The kitchen had received a modern cooker in the place of the huge range that had been the cooks holy place, and the servants hall no longer rang with voices. The butlers pantry once glistened with silver, and crockery, but was now bare, except for a few storage boxes. The green-baize door was gone. The garden that once had been trimmed, clipped, hoed and dug to perfection was now overgrown and wild. There was one maid-of-all-work when they could find one, and an odd-jobber who mowed the lawn and cut back the worst of the weeds, but the house that had once been the perfect design, proved incapable of being adapted to modern times. Although the new arrivals loved the new house and didn't feel that it was completely unmanageable, their experiences were soon to prove them wrong. But that is quite another story…