What I love about Melford Hall: a volunteer's story

Servants outside Melford Hall

Our interviewer talks to Marian Turner to find out why she decided to join the volunteer team at Melford Hall and why she enjoys it so much.

What is your volunteering role and what are your duties?
I am a room guide at Melford Hall, and an Introductory Tour guide. These tours have been a recent initiative. We take a party of visitors for a quick tour, so that sometimes it’s very hard to show three areas of the house in that amount of time. We focus on an overview of the history, in particular for  the Great Hall, the Library and the Gallery. At 1 o’clock when free flow starts, visitors then can go into the Hall with a bit of knowledge behind them. 

As a room guide, I’m in every room throughout the season. I think if you’re intrigued by the house and you relish talking to different people, this role definitely fulfils that. In my past career I met people all the time and after I retired there was definitely a gap. When my husband pointed out Melford was looking for volunteers here I thought it might be the answer, and it turned out to be exactly that. This is my ninth season and I don't plan on stopping yet!

Do you have a stand-out memory about Melford Hall?
Ooh well I can’t choose one! Honestly, I just love the history. A thousand years of history to share is impressive. Out of that you have the 400 years of monks and I always think that must have been such a wonderful lifestyle. Such lovely surroundings - who wouldn't have wanted to be a monk here? 

And of course the Cordells, 250 years of one family - it moved from one generation to another. Each has their own story to tell, whether it’s Countess Rivers and the troublesome times through the Civil War, or down to the Cordell merchants who sold wine and became very wealthy people. I think I would have loved Cordell Firebrace, he seems a lovely man. Unfortunately when he died there was no issue and so the family dies out.

I do love the Hyde Parkers and the extent of their naval history. The library – that was a bachelor’s dream – he came here with a thousand books and had nowhere to put them and thought, “I’ll make a nice library!” It was a wonderful addition to the house, as well as being a lovely space to display all of the family’s naval pursuits. Then the great fire... What Hitler couldn’t do, the army did for him! They burnt down the whole of the North wing and after her husband died, Lady Ulla’s big challenge was to pick it all up again to make it what it is today. I think Lady Ulla herself, a stoic lady, is a great inspiration. 

Your mother used to work at Melford Hall. What’s this like for you?
My mother was 14 when she started working here as a tweeny maid. She worked until the 1930s when she married. In those days that was what you did before marriage: you worked in a shop, or a factory, or went into service. And if you could work in such a lovely house as this, then you were protected. Her mother, my grandmother, knew she was safe. 

My mother was given clothes – morning and afternoon outfits. The maids were paid a shilling a month. On her one day-off a month she would cycle home to the family and give that shilling to her mother to help bring up the rest of the family. There were eight of them in all.
The maids were happy I think. There were three little tweeny maids. They started early in the morning, they had to get up at five o’clock to light the fires for six o’clock. But they went to bed early too. The matron came in the form of Cook who kept a steady eye on them. When my husband pointed out Melford Hall I just wanted to find out more about my mother. I didn’t know much at all about where she had worked and where she lived. I do wish I’d asked her more.

One particular event stands out in my mind about working in the same place as my mother. One evening there was a concert in the Great Hall. It was absolutely wonderful and the music was played by these eighteenth century harpsichords. As a volunteer I came in early to set up chairs and then watched the concert from the top of the stairs. Afterwards, it was my job to get down on my knees and polish the floor. In one corner near the great map, I could hear my mother saying, “You’ve missed a bit!” This is exactly what she would have done! Such an odd feeling, but a very good one too.

If you could relive one part of Melford Hall’s history, which part would it be?
Definitely Cordell Firebrace! He lived in the 1700s. He was a wealthy man because he married wealthy women, but he was also great man. Largely focussing on the Rococo style, he was very into architecture. Imagine the lovely velvet plumed jacket – rather glamorous. I also think Firebrace was a very humane person. As a trustee to the Bury St Edmunds jail, he cared for the tenants there and made sure they were treated charitably. And he treated his staff well too.
I think it would have been very genteel, strolling around the garden with a parasol…

What’s your favourite event at Melford Hall?
Oh, I love the Teddy Bear’s hospital. I play a nurse in the hospital and it’s just wonderful as the children come in with their teddies. “What’s happened to teddy today?” He fell over and broke his arm, so we have to get out a splint, which is in fact a lolly stick. Teddy hurt his head, and so we rummage for the pot of magic cream.
The little children are so sweet and concerned for their teddies. We write out prescriptions for the children, what they must do to care for their bear – lots of cuddles and kisses of course.

If someone would like to start room-guiding, what advice would you give them?
Don’t be afraid! Come along. Have a go. There are lovely people here who will help you. You don’t have to know everything and you’ll never be left alone until you’re completely comfortable. Everyone is willing to help each other. 

We had cream tea on the lawn yesterday and we go on annual trips to other properties. It’s these perks and extra little things that make it extra special. You just need enthusiasm, and the rest will come. You meet a lot of people, those who are full of knowledge and those who are curious so you just need a warm and friendly personality. And then you’re already there.