I stumbled across Hannah while researching my book The Housekeeper’s Tale – a task far harder than I’d imagined, as these haughty upper servants of the country house world left very few traces behind them. I was looking for characters, larger than life women with enthralling stories to tell – but most housekeepers were, naturally, souls of discretion. The job was all about trust. She knew the aristocracy’s most intimate secrets; she handled huge sums of money and dozens of maidservants. Yet powerful as she was within her domain, the housekeeper was entirely at the mercy of her mistress’s good humour.
Hannah Mackenzie had the misfortune to fall out with her mistress, the Honourable Nan Ino Herbert, during an unusually stressful period for domestic servants: the First World War. She had answered an advertisement in August 1914 to work as housekeeper of a large, country house war hospital in Bedfordshire. Hundreds of stately home owners around the country had similarly rushed to offer their houses for the use of wounded or convalescing soldiers. There was no time to be wasted.
As the first bloody battles were fought on the Western Front, 33-year-old Scotswoman Hannah Mackenzie arrived at Wrest Park and set about the transformation of this indulgent weekend chateau. Out went the Turkish carpets, the paintings, the eighteenth-century furniture, tapestries, and Faberge eggs. The crystal chandeliers were bagged in white sheets, and the walls covered with yards of pale calico, nailed over flock wallpaper and gilded mouldings. All that Hannah was supposed to cherish and conserve as part of her job was gone. In its place were rows of iron hospital beds on wheels – and a wholly new figure, a Matron, bustling about. Where did this leave housekeeper Hannah Mackenzie?
Her mistress Nan – now plain ‘Nurse Herbert’ – kept a detailed diary of Wrest Park’s role in the Great War, and it was this remarkable unpublished account that led me to Hannah’s story. Domestic servants form just a footnote to the narrative, but it’s clear that they were a source of upset and constant anxiety to Nan.
A picture of her housekeeper emerges: manipulative, charming, attractive to men. ‘Hannah handled any man of importance with supreme skill,’ Nan noted. ‘She studied Dr Beauchamp and attended to his needs until she had him tied to her little finger.’ Hannah then turned her attention to the meddling matron, Miss Martin. Nan described it as nothing less than a ‘blood feud’, with Matron and Hannah Mackenzie slogging it out for ascendency, ‘neither losing any opportunity to slit each other’s throat – Matron clumsily, Hannah with the utmost skill, lashing the men-folk into a state of outraged chivalry on her behalf.’
Under such an onslaught, poor Miss Martin lasted a mere five months. Hannah lasted a little longer. One year after her appointment, with Wrest Park Hospital at the peak of its efficiency, the housekeeper was forced to resign. ‘Downstairs’ had become ‘dangerous and disorderly’ wrote Nan; an unhappy place for domestic staff to work. What’s more, the middle class land agent Cecil Argles (a ‘sedately married man’) had fallen ‘violently’ in love with the housekeeper while helping her do the accounts. Hannah Mackenzie was the only thing, Mr Argles confessed, that stopped him from going mad.
I was hooked: here was the character I’d been looking for. Where had Hannah Mackenzie come from, and what did she do next? Piecing together the fragments of her life involved much patient detective work. Once I had narrowed down the census returns to the right woman and sent off for her death certificate, I was astonished to find that Hannah had a living relative in Northampton with a clear memory of her.
Ross Mackenzie, her great nephew, was born in 1947: Hannah was his favourite great aunt from a large family clan now split between Inverness, Northampton, and Australia. With the help of Ross’s memories, together with census returns and shipping records, I was able to fill in the gaps in Hannah’s story. She was born in 1881 in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, the fifth of twelve children born to a shoemaker. The 1901 census finds Hannah, aged 19, working for a loom dresser in Lanarkshire as a general domestic servant. By the 1911 census she was working, aged 29, as housekeeper of a Lutyens mansion in Norfolk, home to a Conservative politician. From here she answered the Wrest Park advertisement – yet her subsequent disgrace and dismissal were not enough to keep this irrepressible woman down.
Hannah’s response to the bleak post-war years of poverty, strikes, and unemployment was typical of her chutzpah. On 25 November 1922, aged 41, she boarded The Titanic’s sister ship ‘The Adriatic’, White Star Line, for New York. Two years later she was photographed at a studio in downtown Greenwich Village. Great nephew Ross has the picture still.
This 43-year-old Hannah is stouter, with a daring shingled hair-do and fashionable ‘barrel line’ dress falling in soft ruched waves from her hips. She still has that poise; that quiet air of self-possession. And something else: a hard-won satisfaction. Clearly Hannah was none of those things – sloppy, chaotic, disorderly – that were levelled against her at Wrest Park. She must have been a class act among housekeepers, for she ended up working for the most famous party giver of Fifth Avenue, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III. There was a certain snobbery attached to having a Scottish housekeeper, which might have proved irresistible to this ‘top flight hostess’ of her era.
Hannah returned to England in the mid Thirties with an American accent and an extraordinary stock of anecdotes. More importantly, she brought back from New York a tremendous confidence, which signalled the end of her career in domestic service. She took on a boarding house in Hampstead, her lodgers including two Brigadiers and a German spy.
Even in old age, as Ross remembers, Hannah was formidable trotting around London in feathered hat, fox fur, and pearls, taking tea at Jackson’s of Piccadilly. Remarkably, she lived to celebrate her 102nd birthday, toasting the occasion with her usual tipple of neat whisky and a packet of Chesterfields.
This is the first time her story has been told.