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The Secret Lives of Housekeepers: A Vanderbilt Servant with a Forbidden Love

Chelcey Berryhill - Wednesday November 04, 2015 11:05
Hannah Mackenzie on her 100th birthday. Her experience as a Vanderbilt housekeeper with a forbidden love shows what life was like for country house servants.

Hannah Mackenzie on her 100th birthday. Her experience as a Vanderbilt housekeeper with a forbidden love unveils another side to English country life.

Let Royal Oak lecturer Tessa Boase introduce you to Hannah Mackenzie, a Vanderbilt housekeeper with a shocking love interest.

By Tessa Boase

The Vanderbilt mansion on NYC's Fifth Avenue

The Vanderbilt mansion on NYC’s Fifth Avenue

Grace Vanderbilt III, the ultra-discerning ‘top flight hostess’ of New York’s Roaring Twenties, was a snob when it came to recruiting servants.

For the invisible dirty work of running 640 Fifth Avenue, she was content to hire Irish Catholic girls ‘straight off the boat’ in their dozens. Chambermaid Norah Kavanagh was one, crossing the Atlantic (steerage class) in 1926. “Stay out of the way of the family,” was Nora’s instructions from the housekeeper. “Be there at a moment’s notice when they need you, but stay out of their way.”

But for the more visible tier of upper servants, the so-called ‘Queen of Fifth Avenue’ wanted the best. Housekeeper, Butler, Ladies’ Maid, Valet, Cook, Governess and Private Secretary: these were all European – poached shamelessly from British hosts. Every summer Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III would set sail for a three month stint in London, followed by Kelso Castle in the Scottish borders, with her retinue of servants in tow. And if her beady eye fell on a particularly impressive individual at a ‘Saturday to Monday’ country house party – such as Stanley Hudson, the Duke of Connaught’s impeccable steward – she would get one of her servants to have a quiet word in his ear.

Wrest Park, where Hannah and Clive met.

Wrest Park, where Hannah and Clive met.

In this way she amassed a formidable team of professionals. Mr Hudson was to work as her butler for 25 years, remembered by other servants as ‘a stalwart, heavy British, very true to his calling.’ For his female counterpart, Mrs Vanderbilt made another typically snobbish choice. Head housekeeper Hannah Mackenzie was a middle-aged Scotswoman from Inverness. She was, on the surface, a model of Scottish parsimony and dour respectability – think Downton Abbey’s Mrs Hughes. Steady Scotswomen, so the thinking went, made the best housekeepers.

Cecil Arges, Hannah's love interest.

Cecil Arges, Hannah’s love interest.

But this particular Scot was hiding a shameful secret. Ten years before her appointment, I discovered that Hannah Mackenzie had been caught up in a scandal while working at a country house Great War hospital in 1914. As housekeeper of Wrest Park in Bedfordshire – a French chateau-style mansion with sumptuous interiors – she excited the interest of the upper-middle-class land agent, Cecil Argles. This ‘sedately married man’ fell ’violently’ in love. Hannah was, so Argles confided, the ‘only thing in life that kept him from going mad.’

Argles should have kept his mouth shut. Instead he confessed all to his boss, the autocratic Nan Ino Herbert – an ‘Honourable’, and a modern women with trousers, cropped hair and cigarettes. She was not that modern though. Nan promptly expelled Hannah from service, blaming her for inciting a ‘dangerous and disorderly’ rule downstairs. So reads Nan’s diary. To me, this hints at sexual impropriety.

Hannah left in terrible shame – and her team of housemaids were fed the unlikely excuse of an extended holiday. But eight years later she surfaces in the shipping list archives, on board The Adriatic bound for New York. By 1924, her total reinvention is complete. With impressive bounce-back, she was now head housekeeper to the Vanderbilts.

An woman of impressive chutzpah, Hannah Mackenzie died in 1983 aged 102. Her story has never before been told.

Don’t miss Tessa’s Royal Oak lectures, coming soon! Learn more

Royal Oak lecturer Tessa Boase is an expert on country house servants – she’s combed diaries and other historical documents to unearth their untold stories. Whether she’s writing about what Downton Abbey gets wrong about housemaids (which she’s written about here and here), or telling tales of hard work and scandal, Boase broadens our understanding of these fascinating women.