A day in the life of a conservation assistant at Petworth

Conservation Assistant

Lisa Carruthers - Conservation Assistant

My name is Lisa and i've been working as a conservation assistant at Petworth since the beginning of September 2016 and this is my first role with the National Trust. You'd be surprised how much specialist knowledge is required but it makes for a very rewarding job. Take a look below at my daily routine compared to Hannah Jackson's, 7th housemaid at Petworth in 1881.

Conservation cleaning at Petworth

8:30am My day starts as I unlock the state rooms and begin the daily clean by dusting and hoovering surfaces and opening shutters and blinds to allow natural light in.

By this time our housemaid, Hannah Jackson, would have already started work at 6am in the lower floors of the mansion having swept out the ash from the fireplaces, polished the mantelpiece and relit the fires, scattered tealeaves on the carpets to collect the dust and then swept everything away before finally dusting and polishing the parlour, dining room, drawing room and family stairs - and all before breakfast.

" Not to be meddled with but may be dusted as far as a wing of a goose will go."
- Hannah Jackson, housemaid in 1881, on books

10am By now I've finished the daily clean of the rooms in the mansion open to the public and begin to turn my attention to dusting and hoovering the Historic Kitchen, still room, meat larder, estate officers and winter dairy in the Servants' Quarters.

Meanwhie Hannah would have changed into a clean uniform to go upstairs into the family quarters, while the family are having breakfast, to make the beds with clean sheets, open windows, empty chamber pots and change water.

A rich history of lives and characters at Petworth
A housemaid in her morning clothes, 1926
A rich history of lives and characters at Petworth

11am The mansion is now open to the public so I'll have a short break before moving to the bedrooms only open by guided tour on certain days to dust and carefully hoover.

Still upstairs, Hannah will by now have moved on to dusting and sweeping the dressing room and bedrooms again using tealeaves to collet any dust.

12 noon It's time for well deserved lunch for both myself and Hannah.

12:30pm In the afternoon I'll take the opportunity to catch up on emails and any admin tasks on the computer and then once finished I'll return to the mansion and set up for 'conservation in action' where I'll carry out conservation work for visitors to see and answer any questions they might have. 

Hannah might have used the afternoon to carry out any needlework not just to her own uniform but also to mend and repair any clothing for the family as well as bedding, curtains and sheets.

4pm It's time to pack away the 'conservation in action' equipment and then replace any dirty tools and brush ready to start the clean again tomorrow. By then it's time to begin closing down the mansion as the visitors leave and review my tasks for tomorrow before leaving at 5pm.

Most large houses like Petworth would have had days where staff carried out a deeper clean. On these days Hannah would have been busy taking up carpets to beat them as well as scouring floorboards with cold water.

" The work of the house is performed as if by magic, but it is the magic of system...the whole goes on like well-oiled clockwork."
- Washington Irving, 1823

Winter cleaning

There were times throughout the year when Petworth would have been entirely shuttered and closed while the family were away for the London season. During this time housemaids like Hannah would have carried out a thorough clean of the mansion.

We follow a similar pattern here in the winter months where we carry out a deep clean of the mansion using proven and traditional methods that have enabled our collection and interiors to survive.

Over the winter you can join a winter mansion tour and see us at work as we continue to conserve the interiors and over 6,000 treasures in the collection, including the internationally important art collection with the finest paintings and sculptures in the care of the National Trust.