Staff at Chamberlain’s Highbury

Relief from Fiscal Warfare – Mr Joseph Chamberlain in consultation with his head gardener John Deacon, inspecting the walk below the lake dam at Highbury, December 1903
© Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

CHT ‘Behind the Scenes’: the indoor and outdoor staff at Highbury

Highbury was run with a large staff of indoor and outdoor servants. The indoor servants included males and females and they lived in the house whereas the outdoor servants were all male, the most essential of whom lived in various accommodation in the grounds. It was considered prestigious to employ male indoor staff and the Chamberlain household was headed by a butler who had several footmen under him. The butler and footmen were responsible for waiting at table. At various times an ‘odd man’ was also employed and his work was similar to that of a footman. The butler was responsible for the house’s security and was in charge of the wine cellar and the silver, china, glass and cutlery. When the butler, Rice, left in January 1900 Mary was reported as having to check all those items which she ‘hadn’t had to do for seven years.’ Other Highbury butlers were employed for much shorter periods as ‘they proved unsatisfactory’ and were given notice or left to work elsewhere. Rice’s successor, appropriately named Butlers, stayed for less than a year as did his successor, Palmer. When Palmer left the position was offered to James, a footman, ‘but he wanted to go out of service.’ Butlers had generally started their careers as footmen. The Highbury footmen wore livery with specially designed buttons featuring the Chamberlain crest – a lion’s head and the motto ‘Je Tiens Ferme’. The accommodation for the male servants was on the ground floor in the servants’ wing, the butler’s room being next to the walk-in china room, and the men’s room by the servants’ hall. The female servants had their bedrooms on the attic floor.

When Mary came to Highbury in late December 1888 it became her responsibility to manage the household, a position previously filled by Beatrice Chamberlain from 1884 and prior to that by Joseph Chamberlain’s sister, Clara. For the smooth running of Highbury and successful large scale entertaining it was essential that the lady of the house had experience in household management and was backed up by a capable cook, in particular. Soon after Mary arrived at Highbury she reported to her mother in January 1889 the holding of two dinners for twenty eight and twenty nine people respectively ‘I do not mind the preparations in the least thanks to you and Washington. Our cook [Mrs Haines] is equal to the occasion which of course smoothes the way.’ Mary would interview the cook in her boudoir each day to discuss menus and

the numbers who would be expected for meals that day. Under the cook were kitchen and scullery maids. Cleaning, lighting fires, making beds and preparing rooms for guests was done by the house maids. Mary employed a lady’s maid, who helped her dress, did her hair, put away her clothes and packed and unpacked her luggage whenever she travelled Her first maid, Jeanne Riser, was French but left in 1891 because she became ill. The next maid, Charlotte, was also French and was succeeded in 1895 by Agnes Curtis. Curtis left in 1902 as ‘she disliked the long hours.’ When the Chamberlains were in London and Parliament was sitting Mary would wait up until Joe and Austen returned home, often at 2 in the morning. The next maid, Neilson, was with Mary for nine years and left in 1911when she got married. However since Joseph Chamberlain’s stroke in 1906 there had been a complete change to the tempo of life in London and Highbury. Ida wrote to Beatrice fearing Mary wouldn’t be able to replace Neilson so satisfactorily as no-one would want to come to a place where there is so little going and coming.’ Although among Mary’s servants at Highbury nine years was the maximum any of her lady’s maids were in continuous employment, one of her servants was remarkable for his long service. Sidney Pink joined the Highbury household as a footman in 1901 and retired fifty five years later having served as Mary’s butler in her subsequent residences.

Joseph Chamberlain employed a valet who was responsible for his clothes and luggage when travelling. A second lady’s maid was employed to look after Beatrice and her sisters.

Joseph Chamberlain had two establishments and some servants moved between the two households of Highbury and London. The numbers and functions of the servants varied over time as can be seen in the census returns enumerated at ten yearly intervals. In April 1881 when Clara Chamberlain was in charge at Highbury, a governess, four female domestic servants of unspecified duties, a cook and a male servant aged 16, were the indoor servants. Joseph Chamberlain resident at 72 Prince’s Gate on the night of the census employed a butler, a cook, a housemaid and a kitchen maid. He may have also employed a coachman who lived in a nearby mews as he kept a carriage and horses in London as well as at Highbury. In April 1891 at Highbury Joseph and Mary were in residence with Beatrice, Neville, Ida and Hilda and

the indoor staff were a butler, two footmen, an odd man, a cook, three house maids, a kitchen maid and a scullery maid, together with two ladies’ maids. At 40 Prince’s Gardens there were two female domestic servants only. In 1901 Joseph, Mary and Ida were at Prince’s Gardens at the time of the census with a butler, two footmen, a cook, a kitchen maid, a scullery maid and two house-maids. There were also two ladies’ maids. At Highbury in 1901 Neville was the only family member resident with four female domestic servants of unspecified duties.

In 1911 Beatrice was in charge of Highbury with a staff of a lady’s maid, three housemaids and an odd man. Joseph, Mary, Hilda and Ida were in Cannes in the south of France, some of the servants having accompanied them. These included the footman, Sidney Pink, whose duties included pulling Chamberlain’s wheelchair. Since Joseph’s stroke in 1906 two nurses were also employed. In 1911 Prince’s Gardens had a skeleton staff of two of a house keeper and a housemaid.

Chamberlain also employed a private secretary, John Wilson, from 1888 until his death in 1914 when Wilson continued to work for Austen Chamberlain. Wilson had an office at Highbury next to Chamberlain’s library and also had an office at Prince’s Gardens travelling between the two with Chamberlain. He also accompanied Chamberlain on his two month tour of South African in 1902-3.

The grounds of Highbury during its ownership by the Chamberlains were extensive and the large and intensively cultivated garden required a commensurately large staff to keep it maintained in top condition. Reporting directly to Joseph Chamberlain the head gardener had below him a foreman and staff of over twenty gardeners. Other outdoor staff included a coachman, grooms and stable boy, a farm bailiff and farm workers, and a carpenter.

The first of the four head gardeners employed at Highbury between 1880 and 1914 was Edward Cooper who had previously worked for the Chamberlains at

Southbourne in Edgbaston. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1892 and was mourned by the family, Beatrice writing to Neville

We may easily get a gardener more equal to so large a place but we shan’t easily get one more willing. One hates to lose people who knew one when young, and therefore took an interest in one that new people can’t be expected to take. Cooper figures in so many memories of those two beloved gardens of Southbourne and Highbury. I can’t realise I shall see his familiar figure no more

Cooper was succeeded by Mr Earp who left after two years to run a nursery in Herefordshire. The next head gardener was John Deacon who was in charge from 1894 until January 1912, and who oversaw a lot of the improvements to the grounds, and the last to occupy the post was C E Garrett. Deacon, like Edward Cooper, died in post. He was found drowned in the upper pool, and a verdict of misadventure was recorded.

It was Chamberlain’s habit when he returned to Highbury from London to make a tour of the grounds accompanied by the head gardener, noting every improvement and pointing out defects he wished attended to.

Chamberlain was renowned for his orchid collection and it was initially managed by Edward Cooper as part of his duties as head gardener but after his death in 1892 Chamberlain employed a specialist orchid grower. The orchid grower had three men under him and devoted his entire time to the orchids and glasshouse specimens. The first was H.A. Burberry who like Mr Deacon, the head gardener, had been trained at Kew. In 1894 Burberry published The Orchid Growers Handbook and this proved so successful that in 1897 he left to set up in business in King’s Heath as ‘an orchid specialist and cultural advisor.’ How essential he was to Chamberlain can be seen in a letter Mary Chamberlain wrote to her mother on 11 August 1897

Did I tell you that Burberry the orchid grower is going, Joe had threatened to give up his collection which at once brought so many protests from the family, not to mention his wife, so that he relinquished the idea. Yesterday the successor came down to see the houses, he will be installed before we return

The successor, Mr Smith, stayed for three years until 1900 when he was succeeded by Mr John Mackay who remained at Highbury until the collection was sold after Joseph Chamberlain’s death in June 1914.

It was not unusual for keen horticulturalists to enter competitions and specimens from Highbury frequently won prizes. Joseph Chamberlain, as the owner, was credited as the winner, with the gardener’s name in brackets. The potting shed at Highbury was adorned with the prize certificates. Cooper was especially keen on entering Highbury items in shows and in August 1891 Beatrice wrote

Cooper is tremendously busy over the Moseley Show tomorrow and hopes to ‘pull off’ the group this year as usual …we suspect Cooper of keeping back an unfair proportion of both vegetables and fruit for the show

Several of the outdoor staff were accommodated at Highbury. The entrance lodge on Moor Green Lane was occupied by coachmen. In 1881 John Harding was the coachman, and in 1891 and 1901 William Parrott was the coachman recorded as living in the lodge. The head gardeners lived in the Gardener’s Cottage in Queensbridge road. In 1891 George Wileman, the farm bailiff, was living in rooms above the stables. Previously in April 1881 he was recorded as a dairyman living near Highbury in Grove Road, King’s Heath and was probably working at Highbury. A cow had been kept at Southbourne to provide milk for the family and cow keeping formed the basis of the farming operations at Highbury which were progressively enlarged. Wileman was also living above the stables in 1901, but in 1904 a third cottage was built at Highbury for the farm bailiff who in 1911 was Arthur Perret. The orchid grower did not live at Highbury nor did the numerous gardeners who lived in the vicinity in King’s Heath.

Chamberlain established a provident fund for his gardeners and his domestic servants. All those saving more than one shilling (10p) weekly had their contributions doubled.

When the Highbury household was disbanded after Chamberlain’s death, strenuous efforts were made to find employment for their servants. Garrett was found a place as a head gardener elsewhere as was Burke, also a gardener and some of the gardeners joined the army, Bishop, another gardener, was employed by the Highbury hospital until he too was called up but his wife and family continued living in the gardener’s cottage. In February 1915 Beatrice wrote to Neville saying how pleased she was that he had taken on Powell to

work for him at Westbourne as although Powell was unable to read or write he had worked for the family for many years at Highbury.

Phillada Ballard May 2020

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