Finding Rebecca - a Beningbrough Housekeeper

Matthew Constantine , Cultural Heritage Curator Matthew Constantine Cultural Heritage Curator
Overgrown head stones with grass and trees

On a local walk through the hamlet of Overton, just north west of York, Curator Matthew stumbled over the walled graveyard of a long-demolished church. His discovery opened a new channel of research and a new insight into a small part of Beningbrough’s lost history. 

A chance discovery

Never one to resist a good inscription, he wandered about until he found a gem, its inscription fighting a losing battle against decades of frost but could be made out to say:

In Memory of / Mrs. REBECCA WHITWELL / Late of / Tanner Row in the / City of York / and during 35 years / Housekeeper at / Beningbrough Hall / her diligence / and faithfulness in the / discharge of her duties / gained the respect / and confidence of / her employers / She died Jan 1st 1838 / aged 80 years / A Woman / of vigorous constitution / of strong understanding / of practical kindness / of sincere piety. 

A chance discovery offering a few clues
Headstone for an old grave
A chance discovery offering a few clues

A new clue

Beningbrough Hall, only a stone’s throw up the Ouse from Overton, is something of an enigma for historic researchers. With next to no surviving archive, the architectural history of this early 18th century building and the lives of the people who passed through it prior to the National Trust taking over in 1958 remain sketchy; just hints and scattered clues. But here was a new one.

Uncovering more

From 1841 the census gives us snapshot names of many of the house staff of the hall, whose lives can be fleshed out a little with further research, but for earlier generations there is almost entirely a blank. Armed with a name and some handy dates and facts, Matthew set about to see what could be pieced together. 

Giles and Margaret Earle

Margaret was the last of the Bourchiers (pronounced ‘Bow-cher’) who inherited the Beningbrough estate in the 16th century and built the present hall in the early 18th. She and her husband inherited Beningbrough through her father in the 1760s. Their respective wills leave annual payments to their most senior servants and, sure enough, Rebecca Whitwell is named in both.

Housekeeper for 35 years

Rebecca held one of the most senior positions in an 18th and 19th century gentry or aristocratic household. The housekeeper was essentially the manager of the household’s female workforce, with particular responsibility for directing the care and cleaning of rooms, bedding and other linen and overseeing the running of the kitchen.

Many housekeepers also had special responsibilities around the ordering, storing and preparing of expensive luxury items like tea, sugar and cordials. For this reason, the role became associated with carrying large sets of keys and their personal room was often located next to a lockable storeroom and still room. 

We can see this reflected at Beningbrough if we look at a this recently uncovered plan of the hall basement. Dating to c.1958, it records many of the original room designations – note the housekeeper’s room, with fireplace, next to the still room and across the corridor from what was probably the original 18th century kitchen - marked scullery here.

The Housekeeper looked after the female servants and spaces
A plan of a historic basement layout
The Housekeeper looked after the female servants and spaces

Family ties

Thanks to the digital revolution, more traces of Rebecca Whitwell can be found. Church records reveal she was born 7th May 1757 at Skirpenbeck, near Stamford Bridge, to Rebecca and Richard Whitwell. Rebecca’s mother had previously been married to the wonderfully named Valentine Jepson of Overton and had one surviving son, Charles Jepson, before Valentine died in 1752. Charles was evidently a relatively wealthy farmer who appears to have also been involved in property dealing in York. By great fortune, his will survives and shows that when he died in 1808, he left his half-sister Rebecca an annuity of 20 guineas.

Overton Grange

Most significantly for us, Charles is also listed in 1798 land tax records for Overton parish as living in property owned by Giles Earle; probably a farmhouse called Overton Grange. Until the sale and breakup of the Beningbrough estate in 1916, Overton was a part of the core estate, having been bought by the Bourchier family in the 1650s. Recruitment of servants for the ‘big house’ from families living on the wider estate was a long tradition and something still particularly recommended in the 18th century. 

" Tenants might think their children honoured in the service of his lordship and whose tenures would be a sort of security for his honesty and good behaviour for the servant."
- A 1790 advice book for employers

As an alternative perspective there is some evidence that a relatively secure ‘management’ position in a country house might not be an unattractive prospect for an educated and able woman with few other life options beyond the physical toil of farming or the deep insecurity of a business venture.

Income and legacy

The will of Giles Earle, drawn up in 1800, makes an allowance for an annual payment of £21 to Rebecca (“my servant”), with a further £60 annuity to her noted in Margaret Earle’s will of 1820.

These are not huge sums, but typical of those often left by members of the gentry to their senior servants at the time – part token of appreciation and perhaps also a form of pension, intended to encourage loyalty. It is notable that Giles Earles’ will stipulates payment will only be made if Rebecca remains in his service at the time of his death.

In today's money

The sum of £21 from Giles is interesting as this may possibly reflect the annual salary that Rebecca was receiving during her employment. Comparing values over time is difficult, but in terms of relative labour earnings, a £21 salary in 1785 equates to around £25,000 today. Notably, it is also less than half the annuity left by Giles to his senior male servant; men were typically paid double what their female peers received.  

In 1827 Margaret Earle died and presumably Rebecca received the promised annuity for the rest of her life. While the money left by Giles Earle 16 years earlier came with strings attached, the fact that Margaret Earle left Rebecca money even though she had left her service suggests that there was some level of genuine respect and affection in their relationship. 

Upon her subsequent death, we can see Rebecca was comfortable enough off to leave a sizeable estate worth £3,000.

Final resting place

We do not know who put up Rebecca’s gravestone, its words filled with clear admiration and respect. Perhaps it was most likely her heirs, the grandsons of half-brother, Charles Jepson; still living in Overton Grange and later to be buried near her in this peaceful spot on a small rise above the River Ouse.