Two Cows at Caen Wood Hampstead’ 1797 by Julius Caesarpicture © English Heritage Archives
Published: 6 September, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
The amorous couple were enjoying a moon-lit tryst in the beautiful rose gardens of Kenwood House.
But the cover provided by the foliage proved not to be enough.
Anne Drabble, a housemaid at the Hampstead mansion in the 1840s, was spotted by head gardener George Coburn in the grounds with one of his staff – and the result was a furious argument that left her with broken bones.
Scandalously, she had a rose in her bosom – and when she was ordered to leave immediately, there was some kind of altercation.
This set-to was revealed in a letter to the Earl of Mansfield from Coburn, and another from Anne, which are part of a new exhibition, currently on at the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, which tells the stories of the lives of the women of Kenwood.
Coburn’s letter says how he scandalously caught her in the garden, and that she was “troublesome”. The last line expresses his sense of “mortification” as he saw that one of the last roses of the summer had been picked and placed in her cleavage.
Anne replied he broke her ribs as he removed her, and that she had to call a doctor who verified her injuries.
This and other tales of life at Kenwood have been collected by curator Cathy Power, and the exhibition is unique as it focuses solely on telling the stories of the women who have lived and worked there. The lives of the Earls of Mansfield, and the work of architect Robert Adam and landscape designer Humphry Repton is famed: but not so much known is the influence the women of the house had.
“The men of Kenwood are well known, but the history of the women is not so well documented or told,” she says.
As they did not write the cheques, file the accounts, or have their names of credit chits with tradesmen, the documentary and archive evidence of the lives of the ladies has not been easy to research.
Other scandals got tongues wagging among the domestic orders. The behaviour of an assistant dairy maid called Mary Self in the 1820s caused concern. An estate manager wrote to the third Earl of Mansfield, reporting that he had discovered a former gardener called Mr Elliot was living in sin at the dairy cottage with Mary.
When confronted with this salacious piece of news, the estate manager went to the cottage to throw him out.
But Miss Self had an excuse.
Yes, she was his male friend, but she explained that he was living there because the dairy maid in charge, a Mrs Green, was so elderly and infirm she was unable to keep the herd of six cows properly, nor milk them or turn their produce in to the butter and create the household needs.
Miss Self pleaded Mr Eliot’s case, and said that if the Earl could give her Mrs Green’s title of Dairy Maid instead of assistant, they would marry. It appears her wishes were granted, as later documents show that on Mrs Green’s death, the pair were betrothed and lived in the dairy cottage. “We know she started as an assistant and later was promoted and married Mr Eliot,” says Ms Power.
Other items in the show tell of the relationships between the third countess, Frederica, who was at the house in the 1800s, with the staff.
“We know Frederica played a role in how the dairy was run,” she explains.
“There is a letter, for example, from an architect to the third Earl doing work on the dairy and saying that marble milk bowls needed replacing. The architect says he does not want to make a decision on this until the Countess had been asked.” She was also responsible for the gardens: letters show her passion for plants and the layouts of the gardens.
And the famed interiors of the house were not solely the work of Robert Adam, nor the first Earl of Mansfield.
Elizabeth, who married the Earl in 1755, is mentioned in a letter from Horace Walpole discussing the date of an Egyptian drawing Robert Adam had done for Lady Mansfield, and we know she chose some Chinoiserie wallpaper for the upper floors. She is mentioned in the accounts of wallpaper manufacturer Thomas Bromwich; in the 1970s, during a restoration project, the last remaining scraps of blue wall paper she had bought were uncovered.
As these snippets of information reveal, the women of Kenwood played just as important a role in the development, management of the house as the men, it is simply a case of finding the information to uncover it.
• The Ladies of Kenwood is at The Quadriga Gallery, Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner, from September 6-October 28, www.english-heritage. org.uk/wellingtonarch