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The Parsons Years


While farming provided work mainly for the men in the latter half of the 19th century, women and girls found employment in domestic service with the farmers, the vicar but above all with the Manor. The number of servants employed in a household was a mark of social standing. When Seebohm Rowntree conducted a survey in York into poverty in the city in 1899 the dividing line he used between working- and middle- class was the employment of a servant. It was estimated that a minimum of three servants were needed to ensure the smooth running of a household: a cook, a housemaid and a parlourmaid or nursemaid if there were small children in the family.

Using this criterion, Herbert Parsons and his family were very firmly middle class. When he moved into the Manor, in the 1850s he employed seven servants, which later rose to ten. By 1901, he was employing eight live-in servants, though these were not people from Elsfield village as Elsfield girls would often go into service in other villages. This was a common pattern with girls being sent at least twenty miles from home for a number of reasons: to stop girls running home, to discourage followers and to make sure they could not gossip about their employers to anyone in the locality.

The first record of the servants the Parsons employed dates from 1861, by which time their children were aged six and three. They were employing a lady’s maid, a cook, a nurse, and a nursemaid thirteen year old Harriet Gammon, who was a local girl. They also employed two men servants, a butler and a groom, William Elston. The nineteen year old kitchen maid and the cook, had been born in Bolden, where the Parsons lived prior to their move to Elsfield, so it is possible they had been employed by the Parsons prior to the move. Having a butler was a mark of high social standing, as it was expensive to employ a manservant. Not only were men paid more than women, but there was a tax levied on the employment of a manservant. This had been introduced in 1777 by Lord North to help pay for the American War of Independence and while in the course of the 19th century the tax on male servants was substantially eased, it was not finally abolished until 1937. There is no record of the appearance of the Parsons’ butler, but a tall man, over 5 ft 10 inches, could command a higher salary than a shorter man. The Parsons employed two butlers between 1861 and 1901. In 1861, their butler was a young Wiltshire man, James Chambers but he had been replaced by 1871 by 37 year old Londoner James Barratt who remained with the family for over twenty years.

One of the responsibilities of the butler was brewing the beer, which was undertaken in one of the substantial outhouses constructed by Herbert Parsons. The smell permeated the whole village when brewing was taking place. Another responsibility was the wine, not only decanting it for daily use but keeping a tally on what had been drunk. In larger households, the butler also had to fine the wine. This was a process by which a cask was cleared of impurities by adding, according to Mrs Beeton, isinglass, gelatine or gum Arabic. Whatever was chosen, it was stirred into the wine and the bubbles were skimmed off as they rose to the surface. The mixture had to stand for three or four days before it was ready for use. A further responsibility for the butler was checking last thing at night that doors were locked, windows made safe and that fires were out.

Elizabeth Clarke, cook/housekeeper at the Manor
Elizabeth Clarke

By 1871, Mary Jane Parsons was aged sixteen, had acquired a governess, 23 year old Clarissa Berwick, from Kent, and her brother Herbert John, aged now fourteen, was away at school. To ensure the smooth running of the household there was now a cook, a different one from ten years previously, Elizabeth Clarke, who is listed as a housemaid, but who stayed for many years with the family and is described by Ethel May Allam as a housekeeper. Helping the cook and housekeeper were two under housemaids and a kitchen maid. Completing the household were James Barrett the butler, a footman and a groom. Harriet Gammon, who had been a nursemaid at the Manor when the children were little had left the village, though she was to return later and become the second wife of William Elston the groom.

In 1901, nine years after Louisa’s death, there was no lady’s maid, so Mary Jane, now aged 46, obviously did not feel the need for one. John, her brother, now aged 43 was still unmarried and living at home. To look after the three of them there were Elizabeth Clarke, who is still listed as a housemaid, and Alice Huxley the cook. Also living in were a kitchen maid, a scullery maid, a housemaid, a laundry maid, a footman and a groom, none of them from Elsfield. Elizabeth Clarke lived in Elsfield until her death in 1914 aged 88.

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Page 3 of 9