Many traditional Lakeland industries have been carefully preserved as craft skills, with a healthy demand for hand-riven slate or locally spun wool; but the whole way of life, which once involved hundreds of local workers in the service of large country houses, has almost completely disappeared. This week concludes our series about Life In Service by plotting the decline of those houses and their staff, and their gradual disappearance.
It all started long before changes in economic circumstances brought about by war and industrial depression, when staff began to question their lords and masters, and the honesty of the double standards imposed on them. There was no Union to organise labour, no parlourmaids or grooms called out on strike. But they saw the unfairness of a system in which they did the work, ended up with very little and were still expected to be grateful to their betters. This gamekeeper took the example of his wealthy boss and used it to good advantage:
"The boss that I worked for owned acres and acres, hundreds of acres of land, and he used to carry a gun in his car or a rifle, and he wasn't against popping a pheasant or two off somebody else. We went down to Waterpark to see some people called Bridesons and he was going down there, invited to tea, when we were going down the back of Coniston Lake and he shot two pheasants with a .22 rifle. Now after that I thought if he could nip Bridesons' pheasants why can't I nip his? And that's how I started and after that I used to do it pretty regular. He knew, for a simple reason; one time we were ferreting in Atkinson Ground coppice, one Sunday afternoon me and one of my brothers. Now t'old farmer had nowt to do with woods but he saw us in there and reported it to my boss. So later on in t'week I got called down to the big house in the library, with my cap in my hand standing to attention, up for trial for poaching in Atkinson Ground coppice. He said, 'Why did you do it?' So I said, 'Look, why should you take Brideson's pheasants?', and he said, 'Oh, get out'. So I took that for granted and that's where I started and I kept it up till a matter of eight or ten year ago. I am a bit too old now - I wasn't quick enough to get out of t'road so I thought it was time I was stopping."
The gamekeeper himself never got caught for poaching alone, perhaps due to the fortunate choice of his poaching partner in crime, who happened to be the village policeman!
The poaching exploits of the gamekeeper and his master continued over many years. On one occasion the gamekeeper hid his master in a boathouse and later smuggled him out after they'd been caught illegally fishing for char with a lathe. An appearance before the magistrates did little to deter them:
"We got summonsed, we had to appear at Ulverston Court and we had quite an amusing trial because all these people who were actually on the bench were the boss's friends. But after that they fined us £5 each and costs!"
On another occasion the boss shot a goose on Shap Fell belonging to a farm. In disgust the gamekeeper refused to retrieve it, saying he'd sooner walk home than do it, so the chauffeur was sent instead. One look at the goose without its feathers was enough to tell the cook what it would be like to eat, but hung it had to be, then stuffed and roasted:
"The goose was a failure. When it was stuffed it went up into the dining room at night, and the footman went down and said their goose was tough. So the cook sent word back up and said she would send a joint of meat, as she knew before it went up that they couldn't eat it. And that went on until 1917 when I went into the Army, and my Army life was quite good and I liked it...I went to India for four years with the First Battalion Black Watch and I think that was the best four year's holiday I ever had. And then I came back again and the boss wanted me to go back to my old job but I wouldn't take it because the wage wasn't big enough."
War not only widened horizons; it gave both men and women greater expectations of both their jobs and their salaries. There was wide dissatisfaction on both sides of the green baize door after the end of the 1914-18 War. Girls who'd earned good money working shifts in munitions factories were unwilling to return to long hours, little money and the paternatilistic attitude of the employers at the country house.
"They were all dying for another war, our housemaids were all dying for another war because they had been paid so well working making munitions, wasn't this terrible?... there was one girl been turned off at the munitions factory, I don't know how quickly they turned them off but she burst into tears and she said, 'Why me, when I've just bought a fur coat?'. She hadn't paid for it, it was on easy terms, the never never. The War was an eye-opener to them because before the War they must have got very small pay and of course they got housing and very often they would get clothes and good food and all, but that wasn't the same."
Employers grumbled at declining standards of staff:
"We had a governess all through the War, two governesses and one or two servants but not such high class servants, they got lower and lower and lower, you might almost call them skivvies, but servants they were. It was a question of money. They wanted higher wages, and Mother, with a growing family and with school coming on didn't want to pay higher wages."
Not only were loyal hard-working staff more difficult to find; but so was the money with which to pay wages, as the old industries started to feel the pinch:
"I think the problem was more paying the servants rather than getting them because as far back as I remember our tannery wasn't doing so well... I'm afraid I don't know the ins or outs of why, but I do remember that most of my young life it was 'When the Works does better we'll be able to do this, that and t'other'. We weren't suffering, let me tell you, not in any way."
Slowly the great gap between master and servant started to narrow:
"Some of the cottages have been taken by Us, so to speak, and so the distinction has gone. The distinction went when people began to call you by your Christian name, all and sundry I think."
The big houses seemed to decline in a direct parallel with the sun setting over the great British Empire:
"We never have been so good since the First War. We worked up a bit to prosperity after the Second War for a short period, but it was partly because the Empire began to go down, the Empire began to cost too much."
The disappearance of the great estates left no employment problems:
"Country people found to their astonishment that there were better things. There hadn't been any other things to do except sweated labour and domestic labour, and one wasn't any better than the other. They got married and moved away, I never remember hearing a great deal about emigration because they could find jobs here with the shops expanding a little bit and the hotels too, and they didn't have such big families finally."