Person of the month: Harriett French

Servants at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire

Every month, we’re stepping back in time to meet characters from Calke’s past. Join us on this journey as we discover the people who lived and worked on the estate, and then meet their modern-day equivalents who help to keep Calke alive.

We’d like to you to meet…

Harriett French, the Housekeeper

Harriett French was born in 1859 in Stretton under Fosse, a small village in Warwickshire near Coventry. The 1861 census records that Harriett’s family lived in the nearby village of Monks Kirby, a rural community, where Harriett’s father worked as an agricultural labourer.

With six elder siblings, Harriett came from a large family, two of whom (Thomas and Francis) worked as railway labourers at a time when Britain was building railways at an astonishing rate. Railway labourers dug the cuttings, built the embankments and laid the rails, all by hand.

In 1871, Harriett was still living with her parents in Monks Kirby, with only one older brother, Joseph, living in the family home. Thomas and Francis had married, and Harriett’s sister, Sarah, had begun working as a domestic servant in Coventry at age 14.

Early working life

In 1881, Harriett began her domestic service as a stillroom maid for George Wilkinson, Baronet and Magistrate in Thornberry. She was one of 14 servants looking after George, his wife and their daughter.

By 1891, Harriett had moved to Thorpe Hall in Thorpe Constantine, Staffordshire, again working as a stillroom maid. Here, she worked for William Inge, a farmer who was ‘living on [his] own means’. The only other family members were William’s mother and aunt.

At that time, Harriett’s sister was still working in domestic service but now as a cook for Charles Robinson, Clerk Holy Orders at St Catherine’s College Cambridge.

Harriett’s time at Calke Abbey

Harriett is recorded in the 1901 and 1911 census at Calke Abbey, as the housekeeper – one of the most privileged and important positions in the house. She would have worked closely with Isabel, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe’s wife, taking orders only from her.

Harriett was in charge of hiring female servants and was responsible for their discipline and welfare. She would also oversee the cleaning and maintenance of the house, including the linen closet. Living a comfortable life at Calke, she had her own sitting room as well as her own bedroom.

Harriett, it seemed, moved back to where she was born, Stretton under Fosse, to a house called the Elms. She died there on 11 October 1926, age 67.

A modern day housekeeper

Julie Griffith, House and Collections Manager

Hear a little from Julie, who looks after the house today.

‘I’m Julie and as House and Collections Manager it is my job to lead the House Team, ensuring that all of the objects are cared for and the house is ready for visitors. My role is similar to that of the traditional Housekeeper in that I am responsible for organising the team to keep everything in tip top condition and to keep a full inventory of every object in our care.

" Just as Housekeepers made sure everything was ‘just so’ for the family when they were at home, I ensure that everything is as it needs to be to welcome our visitors during the open season."
- Julie Griffith

‘When the family were out of town the Housekeeper would organise the rooms to be closed, deep cleaned and objects covered to protect them, this is just as we do now over the winter months. A lot of our modern preventative conservation work has its roots in the work set out by historic Housekeepers.

‘Just as they would organise the team to ‘chase the sun’, closing shutters or curtains to prevent light damage, this is exactly what we do today, lowering blinds as the sun moves around the house to protect the objects. I always feel very proud to be the next in a long line of women who played a pivotal role in keeping these behemoth houses running, ensuring the wonderful collections are here forever, for everyone.’