Chronicles: Behind the scenes – Combe Wood in the 1890s

Henry Griffin’s family came to the Isle of Wight in 1893 when he was 13, and they lived in Bonchurch in Combe Wood (later known as Peacock Vane).  The photograph of the house and garden here dates from some thirty years earlier, in the 1860s, although by the time the Griffin family lived there it had been considerably extended.  The second photograph shows members of the Griffin family on the lawn at Combe Wood playing croquet.

The extracts here are taken from the account Henry wrote for his grandchildren in the 1950s.

Servants were cheap and efficient in Victorian England, and in my poverty stricken old age it makes me laugh to think of the size of the Combe Wood staff.  There were indoors a butler, a footman, a knife boy, a cook, a kitchen maid, about four housemaids and a children’s nurse, later to be succeeded by a governess.  In the stables, a coachman, a groom and a stable boy.  In the gardener’s lodge near the gate, was old Kosh the gardener and his son, and another gardener’s boy came in by the day.  In other words, it required 16 servants to keep the household running smoothly indoors and out, and their work was unending.

The only reading light at night was that of candles and brass lamps which had to be kept shining bright, with well-trimmed wicks. There was only one ‘Master’s’ bathroom, and hot water canisters and a tin bath tub had to be carried up for everyone in his or her bedroom – and all the soapy water removed promptly after use. I have a memory of always meeting maids with water, coming or going, in the halls, and they would always stand aside so politely to let you pass. It was a wonderful system for the beneficiaries, but I shudder to think of the work it must have meant for the maids.

The etiquette of the servants’ hall was an awesome affair. The butler was called ‘Mr’ when addressed by other servants but not of course by his employers.  The kitchen was ruled over by the cook, who rated the title ‘Mrs’ even when addressed by her mistress. The butler and cook had something like equal status in relation to each other, but the butler was not supposed to enter the kitchen.

There were characters on the Combe Wood Staff that might have walked right out of the pages of a Victorian novel.  Bevil the butler looked exactly like the butler in a Pinero play, and in addition was interested in old paintings, and believed he had unearthed a lost Rubens.  He became so wrapped up in his discovery and the fortune that he believed he was going to make from it that his previously perfect performance of his duties began to suffer.  Either out of sheer kindness, or in the hopes of getting Bevil’s mind back on to his work, Father had the alleged Rubens submitted to Duveen in London for an expert opinion.  The verdict was unfavourable – it was a copy, possibly contemporary, of some other known painting of the period, and definitely not the work of Rubens, nor was it of any particular value. But Bevil either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe it.  His work continued to suffer, and Father finally had to tell him that he must make his choice – either to be a connoisseur of old masters, or to be a butler who tended to his business.  Bevil chose to be a connoisseur, and we and he parted with mutual regrets, for we all liked him, and he, I think, liked us too.

When Bevil was still with us, our cook was a Mrs Bird.  Relations between the two of them had been strained for some time, and were not eased when she took to tippling. Things came to a crisis one day while Father was absent in London.  At the scheduled moment for the roast to appear, Charlotte, the kitchen maid, told Bevil that Mrs Bird had apparently gone mad, declaring that as far as she was concerned there would be no roast that day – and that ‘If Mr Bevil didn’t like it, he could jolly well lump it’. Somewhat alarmed, and perhaps with a suspicion of the truth, Bevil went to the kitchen and was chased out of it by Mrs Bird in person, brandishing a carving knife. 

Mother was quite timid about some things, such as horses, but give her a genuine crisis to deal with and she was fearless.  She summoned Manning (the footman), the coachman and the groom, and marched on the kitchen at the head of her bodyguard.  The result was something of an anti-climax – Mrs Bird was discovered snoring on the kitchen floor.  Charlotte was sent to the cook’s room to pack her trunk, Manning was sent to the village to arrange suitable lodgings, and Kosh the gardener was summoned with a wheelbarrow.  This was originally intended only for Mrs Bird’s trunk, but when it became apparent that she could neither stand nor walk, nor indeed be fully awakened, she as well as her trunk were placed on the wheelbarrow, and Manning led the way to the village, followed by Kosh and his loaded wheelbarrow, with the coachman and groom marching behind somewhat in the manner of pallbearers at a funeral, but with broad grins on their faces. Many years later I saw Admiral Dewey given a hero’s welcome in New York, with thousands of marching soldiers, sailors and innumerable brass bands, but that famous spectacle hasn’t left nearly as vivid an impression on my memory as the triumphal exit of Mrs Bird from Combe Wood.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Extracts here from Henry Griffin’s memories of his life,  published in Old Men Remember, Ed Vincent Chambers, available from our online shop.