Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Life of Service - Bared Affair

With the popularity of shows depicting well off British households of past days with their armies of servants I thought this interview from Bared Affair was very apt.

We interview a retired lady in service

Sarah Cooper, aged 84, is the former housemistress of stately Headley Manor. The manor, situated in the picturesque English countryside, is currently the residence of Lord Stanley Headley and his wife Lady Victoria. Miss Cooper retired ten years ago, but still lives on the grounds in a small cottage graciously provide by Lord Headley in recognition of Miss Cooper's 60 years of faithful service to his family.

Headley Manor, where Sarah Cooper devoted 60 years of her working life.

Miss Cooper began work at Headley Manor as a fourteen-year-old chambermaid and retired six decades later, having worked her way up to the position of housemistress, a position she held for the longest in the manor's history. We paid Miss Cooper a visit and spoke to her about her working experiences and the old fashioned but effective methods of keeping standards up in the house, methods that sadly, according to Miss Cooper, are no longer employed.

The interview was conducted over tea in the cottage's cosy sitting room and we were surrounded by photos of Miss Cooper and some of her favourite "girls" during various stages of her 60-year domestic career.

Bared Affair: When did you first come to work here at Headley Manor?

Miss Cooper: Let me see, I was 14, so that must have been in 1934.

A young Miss Cooper as a housemaid in the late 1930's at Headley Manor in the beginning of her decorated career there.

Bared Affair: That seems very young to go to work full time, was that the accepted age then?

Miss Cooper: Although I was the youngest maid, it wasn't by much. Helen Secombe was only six months older than me and the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. My family needed the money I made.

Bared Affair: Your family lived nearby?

Miss Cooper: Oh yes, nearly all the staff at the manor came from the local village. My father owned the bakery and my mother helped him. There were seven children in my family and I was the eldest. As Lord and Lady Headley provided for all their live-in staff, I was able to give my entire pay to my parents. I believe it made sure that the bakery stayed open more than once.

Bared Affair: So the job was very important to you, then?

Miss Cooper: Oh, definitely. It shames me to say it now, but I was a headstrong little thing, not that you can tell it from the demure, "butter wouldn't melt in my mouth" look in the photograph. I doubt if the money had not been so important that I would have lasted more than a few months.

Bared Affair: Why was that?

Miss Cooper: For many years Headley Manor disciplined their servants in the old fashioned way.

Bared Affair: Old fashioned way?

Miss Cooper: On Fridays, that was pay day, all female staff excepting the cook and the governess, reported to the housemistress in her chambers. She reviewed each staff member's work for the week, and this went for the most junior chambermaid like me to the housemistress's assistant.

Bared Affair: If you received a bad review you weren't paid or you were docked?

Miss Cooper: Oh goodness, no! Nothing quite so drastic. Depending on what you had done wrong you may have received anything from a severe dressing down to a sound spanking.

Bared Affair: Spanking? You were spanked if your performance wasn't judged up to scratch?

Miss Cooper: Yes, indeed! It was either accept the spanking or leave your employment. It was a known fact, so it came as no great surprise to me and I found out later that Headley Manor was far from the only house to use that method with their domestics. The housemistress carried out all the spankings and they ranged from the classic over the knee nursery smack-bottom with the hand to a sound strapping bent over the housemistress's sofa with your arms and legs held in place by cook and the mistress of the laundry. They were both strong women let me tell you, and Mrs Hanson, the housemistress in my time, had a very powerful right arm and a iron palm.

Bared Affair: You received a number of these spankings?

Miss Cooper (with a laugh): Of course! There was no way to avoid it really. Hardly a week went by in my first six months that I didn't find myself bare bottom pointing ceiling-ward over Mrs Hanson's lap having my bottom soundly smacked. They were mostly a good hand spanking, but there was plenty of the slipper and the hairbrush in there as well. Being the most junior member of staff carried the additional embarrassment of being the first to be reviewed and therefore the first to be spanked, and having everyone else witness your spanking. It took a few hidings, and I got a lot of teasing about it, before I learned how to take one properly without all the carrying on that young girls tend to exhibit when having their backsides properly warmed.

From OTK Guide. A recalcitrant member of staff is chastised over the housemistress' lap.

Bared Affair: You mentioned the strap? Was that a regular occurrence?

Miss Cooper: We did have one girl who got the strap most weeks. She was only with us for a short time. Very rebellious, there was talk amongst the other girls that she had actually been at a reformatory prior to coming to Headley Manor.

Bared Affair: Were you ever strapped? 

Miss Cooper (with a blush): Only twice. Once was for an improper liaison with a groom and the other time was just because Mrs Hanson did not like any girl to get through her first year without at least one encounter with the strap.

Bared Affair: You became housemistress yourself, didn't you?

Miss Cooper (pointing to a picture of herself aged in her early 30's dressed in the neat uniform of the housemistress): Yes, I did. It took me fifteen years of hard work, but when Mrs Hanson retired I took over from her.

Bared Affair: That meant the end of spankings for you, then?

Miss Cooper (smiling): Oh, no! Remember that I said the cook and the governess did not report to the housemistress at the end of the week?

Bared Affair: Yes.

Miss Cooper: That was because all three of us attended Lady Penelope. She was the mistress of Headley Manor during the majority of my time in service. We came to her study after the rest of the staff had been dealt with.

Bared Affair: What happened there?

Miss Cooper: Lady Penelope reviewed our work during the week. She added up various infractions and then announced her decision about what action was to be taken. For instance, problems with the food served at table were cook's domain and she would be spanked for poorly prepared or served food. The children were the governess' responsibility and if they had misbehaved excessively during the week then the governess might find herself over Lady Penelope's lap. The rest of the staff were my job and if Lady Penelope found too many faults with their performances then over her knee I went.

Bared Affair: Were you treated by Lady Penelope similarly to how you dealt with your own staff?

Miss Cooper: Generally she used her hairbrush on our bottoms, but if she was really cross about something then it was a lengthy hand spanking followed by six tight ones with the cane. I don't know where she learned to use the cane, but she could really make it sting!

Before I knew about the housemistress' spankings from Lady Penelope I wondered why Mrs Hanson was so strict and why she laid it on so hard, but after I became housemistress I knew. No matter how hard she spanked the staff Lady Penelope's spankings were always harder. More than once I had a girl complain about how hard my spankings were and I generally responded with: "Never mind me, my girl. You don't want to feel the weight of Lady Penelope's hand!"

Bared Affair: This continued for all your 60 years at Headley Manor?

Miss Cooper (sighing): No, and more's the pity. Lady Penelope passed away in 1990 and Lady Victoria did not believe in her discipline methods at all. I was not even allowed to chastise the staff and believe me many of them needed it. Snippy little things they are these days. That was largely the reason I retired, I found I could no longer preserve discipline or keep the standards as high as I wished without smacking the bottoms of the housekeeping staff. The current housemistress worked at a hotel previously and she does her best, but she's confided to me privately that a few good smack-bottoms would make her job much easier and raise standards appreciably.

Bared Affair: Thank you for your time, Miss Cooper. It has been a very enlightening interview and I'm sure our readers will appreciate the little glimpse of how things were done in bygone days.

Originally published in Bared Affair


  1. Good morning Aunty Andrea,

    This is a wonderful interview about a very interesting method of maintaining proper service in a household. I would love to be sitting outside the room when the weekly spankings took place. It would be fun to ask if she still has the hairbrush!
    Love the interview.

    Thank you Aunty for sharing


  2. It's a shame that a certain lifestyle and standard has passed into yesteryear.

  3. Yes ma'am, I agree to a certain extent but back in the day the brush and hand otk were used in a caring and loving fashion, nothing mean was ever intended just maintain discipline. It will never return but at least there are some of us who still remember the sting, the tears but the knowledge that your bottom was just spanked by someone who loves and cares for you, a loving lap is how I term it.

    Thank you Aunty,