It would be fair to say that the Museum of Coastal Heritage was not exactly state of the art. There were still rows of locked glass display cabinets and a profusion of not terribly good pictures on the walls of famous locals whom not many people had heard of. Uncomfortable looking horse-hair stuffed couches had ropes across them and signs saying “Please do not sit here”, and faded photographs of fishermen hung alongside the nets they had used. Interactive displays and virtual reality headsets had not yet penetrated the heavy oak doors of the Museum of Coastal Heritage, though for a couple of years it had had a website.
But there was still something about it that appealed to Julia Foster. Something that was comfortable and crusty at the same time, though she couldn’t help thinking, with no disrespect intended to the relevant gentlemen, that when you’d seen one old photo of a fisherman, you’d seen them all.
The more unkind said that the museum was considerably more interesting from the outside than the inside, and Julia had to admit they had a point. It had once belonged to the Warrenby Family. They weren’t quite nobility, and it wasn’t quite a stately home, but it came pretty close. They were most certainly a power in the land. It was a three-storey Victorian building, but from the earlier part of that estimable Queen’s Reign, while she was still a sprightly young woman passionately in love with her beloved Albert, and not the portly black clad widow of Windsor, and when buildings clung to the grace of the Georgian era. It did have a couple of rather anomalous turrets, but they were a much later addition, put there in the 1930s by Sir Harry Warrenby (knighted for his services to fish processing) who had a surprisingly whimsical side. Julia wished she knew more about Sir Harry who seemed one of the more likeable and interesting inhabitants of Warrenby Hall, as it was called then. Not that there was much competition in that area. She had a soft spot for Martha who had defied her father to enlist as a VAD nurse in the First World War, and for one of the earliest inhabitants, Laurence, who had started a local school, and even taught in it himself. But otherwise they seemed to have been a pretty dull and not especially endearing lot. The last person to have worked there in the 1940s, Lilly Henderson, who had been a housemaid, had only passed away a couple of years ago, and she did not speak fondly of her days at the Hall. She was not one of those old ladies who waxed lyrical about bygone days on principle, and had told a local radio station, her wits as sharp as ever, that, “Obviously nobody wants there to be a war, but for a lot of us who worked at the hall, it was the best thing that happened to us. I joined the Women’s Land Army, and though it was bloody hard work and we had to do as we were told, it was a thousand times better than being a skivvy at the hall.” That was the last time it was inhabited by the family. It was turned over to the military, given the concentration of them in Lincolnshire, and the family never came back. Whether they didn’t want to, or couldn’t afford it or both, was open to dispute.
For quite a while nobody knew quite what to do with it. There was talk of it opening as a school, but nothing came of it, and it had a brief incarnation as a hotel, but people who came to that area stayed in guest houses and on campsites, not in places that aspired to be country house hotels. It was generally agreed that it was too historic to be pulled down, though buildings just as historic had met that fate. So ivy grew over the windows and brambles grew over the lawns, and somebody started a story about a ghost, but not many people apart from a few gullible holidaymakers believed it.
The founding of the museum was largely down to one man, Reginald Robinson. He was the president of the Local History League (for some reason they had always been called a League, not a society) and decided that something must be done. Reg, as everyone called him, wouldn’t have struck you as one of life’s movers and shakers. He was already past pension age in the 1980s when he first mooted the plan, a widower, a one-time bank clerk who had never had any aspirations to be a manager, and an aficionado of crown green bowls. But he was persistent. And he had contacts in the council. And so the museum opened, and somehow it kept on going, kept on chugging along like one of the trains in the little display area devoted to the town’s station, that had long since fallen to Beeching’s axe. Reg had been very firm on two related matters, and they were still respected after his death (when he left most of his not inconsiderable estate to the Museum with a couple of smaller legacies to the local Bowls club and the Bank Benevolent Fund). The museum was never to bear either his name or that of the Warrenby Family. Though in the early days he’d had a necessarily civilised relationship with one of the last surviving Warrenbys, an innocuous elderly gentleman called Cedric, he had little time for the family.
You were quite a revolutionary in your way, Reg, thought Julia, fondly. He had certainly been on the side of the servants rather than the masters. And he would most definitely have approved of the relatively new Downstairs exhibition, even if it was somewhat oddly situated on the top floor. Or maybe not so oddly, as that would have been where the servants slept. Reg’s influence still imposed an essential frankness on the museum. Looking at a narrow, hard bed, Julia smiled at the sign that honestly stated, “This is not a bed that was slept in by an actual servant here, but is of the right period.”
“Well, I say enough is enough.” Julia would have been hard pushed to say exactly why she knew at once there was something odd about the voice, but she did. She turned, and sitting on the bed, she saw a maid. But this was not a maid like Rose in Upstairs Downstairs, in a crisp and clean uniform, hair shiny and eyes bright, well cared for by the imperious but kind-hearted master and mistress and the strict but caring cook and butler in the comfortable servants’ hall. This was someone scrawny and gaunt, her hair thin and lank, her complexion sallow, and her uniform grimy and ill-fitting. But she was no pathetic victim. This young woman (for Julia thought she was young, even though her face was lined) had, as she proclaimed herself had enough. There was definitely something in the air. A crackling, tense sensation that something was going to happen soon, and couldn't be stopped.
“Annie, no good ever comes of not knowing your place.”
“You don’t believe that any more than I do, Mr Carlton.” Mr Carlton, it appeared, was the butler. But his clothes, too, were threadbare and ill-fitting.”
“She’s right,” an older woman, evidently the cook, said. “It was the last straw for me when Madam gave me a ticking off for not making dinner fine enough to suit her when she barely gives me enough to cook a meal fit for a church mouse.”
“Still better than what we get,” Annie muttered. “Look how we were all sick after that bad mutton, even George who can normally eat stuff he wouldn’t even feed his horses. I say we have a walk out, all of us, and let them know enough is enough.”
“And they might just tell us not to walk back in again,” Mr Carlton reminded her. “And not give us any references either.”
“Hah, I doubt that, Mr Carlton. This place has a reputation now for the way it treats its servants. Word gets around, you know. But I tell you what. NOT a walk-out, but a sit-in, right in the hall where everyone who comes calling can see us. I know that George is up for it, and says he might even bring one of the horses in.”
“And Sissy will do as I tell her,” the cook said. “Poor scrap. She’s one of the worst kitchen maids I’ve ever had, but she’s only a bit of a kid and so sickly looking I sometimes wonder if she’s long for this world, though maybe she only needs some feeding up.”
“Which she’s not likely to get at the moment,” Annie said. “And what’s your favourite saying, Cook? No time like the present! You get Sissy and I’ll go out to the stables and get George.”
“I reckon you’re sweet on that young man,” said Cook, but her voice was not disapproving.
“My Dad, may God rest him, used to read me a story about the Three Musketeers and they said All for One and One for All,” Annie said. “So is that how it is with us? Mr Carlton? Are you with us or against us?”
“That’s silly hysterical talk from some Frenchie storybook, no disrespect to your Dad. But yes, I’m with you.”
It seemed that none of them had noticed Julia, and yet she was still swept along, Cook even taking her arm. I’m going to look very out of place, she thought, though at least I’m not in jeans today.
They clattered down the wooden steep stairs leading to the upper storeys – and then, in a symbolic gesture, walked down the main stairs, not the hidden ones the servants were meant to use, but the broad marble ones. The building was changed. Julia recognised some of the pictures, though they were in different places, and caught glimpses of the horse hair stuffed chairs, but there were no pictures of fishermen and no fishing nets; no glass locked cabinets full of fossils and bits of pottery and some jewellery and postcards. This was the house, not the museum. It was daytime, so they were not lit, but instead of electric lighting, there were gas mantles, and fires already laid in the grates.
The hallway gave Julia that odd jolt that comes from the familiar being rendered unfamiliar. The drive was cobbled instead of being block-paved and the sound of the clip-clopping of a horse’s hoofs was unmistakeable. The door was flung open and George the groom led an enormous, but amiable looking, bay horse into the hallway. “Come on, Daisy. Come on, my beauty!”
Cook had extricated Sissy from the kitchen, still wearing her apron and with flour on her hands. Julia felt a pang as she saw exactly what she’d meant about her not being long for this world. Her arms and legs were like little sticks and her eyes, enormous but dull in her peaked little face, seemed to blink at the light. But she was no coward. “Oh, Missus, this is lovely, this is,” she said to Cook.
“Aye, it’s another world,” Cook said.
At that point Daisy did what horses do, and the evidence of it was substantial and smelly on the gleaming tiles of the hallway. “Oh dear me,” George said, “What a naughty girl you are!” But he sounded entirely approving.
Julia was in a turmoil of emotions. This was exciting and she wasn’t exactly scared, but like many people who say they long for something strange and unusual to happen, when it did, she had decidedly mixed feelings. It occurred to her that it could all be a hallucination. That she had been taken ill and collapsed, and would wake up either with the museum receptionist, Harriet, who was a good friend of hers, fussing over her, or, far worse, in some sterile modern hospital bed. But she didn’t feel at all unwell and it was all very solid and not spectral or phantasmal – certainly not the odour of freshly dropped horse dung!
“What is the meaning of this?” a woman’s voice demanded – one of those cut glass, haughty voices – the voice of someone used to giving orders and getting her own way. “And what is that smelly brute doing in here?”
“That would be the smelly brute that drew your carriage over to your fancy friends only yesterday, Madam,” George said.
“The truth is, Madam, we’ve had enough,” Annie took up her familiar theme. “We’re not asking much. Not that anyone doesn’t have a perfect right to, master or servant. Decent food. Beds that don’t have bugs and broken springs. An afternoon off a week.”
“This is – outrageous!” Julia took a look at the woman, and recognised her – Marion Warrenby, who had been mistress of the hall in the early years of the 20th century – and Martha’s mother. She had a mean, haughty face, and a taste in very large, very ugly hats. What that poor girl had to put up with, thought Julia. I reckon being a nurse in the trenches must have seemed positively pleasant compared to living with a mother like that.
“My husband will hear of this!”
As she stormed out of the room things seemed to change in a second and to take an hour to do so.
“Julia? You okay? You were miles away!” It was Harriet, coming from behind the reception desk.
“What – er, yes, thanks, I’m fine.” She knew that she couldn’t tell Harriet about what she’d experienced, even though she trusted her, but she could, and did, pose casual questions about the history of the hall, and if Harriet had ever heard of any servants’ uprisings.
Harriet scrunched her eyes up, as she often did when she was thinking. “Not that I can place, but though I do my best, I’m no expert. We still miss Reg, bless him, for stuff like that. Not that I’d be surprised. I’ll look into it for you, Julia.”
When they next met – not at the museum, but at a local café, Harriet said, “I don’t know if you’d say this is good news or bad news or neither. I’ve not found out about any servants’ uprising, but I have unearthed one of those quirky little snippets,” she obviously relished the phrase quirky little snippets and rolled them on her tongue, “That make this job so interesting. Back in 1903 something very strange happened, and they couldn’t keep it hushed up. Visitors to the Hall started to remark on it, and others even stopped visiting. There was this terrible smell. Folk in those days were probably less precious about smells than we are, even the above stairs folk, but this was awful. It met you as soon as you came into the hall, and no matter how much the floor was cleaned, it wouldn’t shift – apparently in the end they had to have a whole new hallway laid. They wondered if it was the drains, but it wasn’t a bad drain sort of smell. Folk who smelt it could only say it was like rotting horse dung!” There was definitely something in the air!
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Nice. Please read mine My reason for leaving
Lovely story. I enjoyed reading.