Interesting times and engaging people

Here is a picture of a country and lifestyle that no longer exists. Rosina Harrison, born in 1899 in a small Yorkshire village, grew up to be lady’s maid to Lady Astor, she who duelled verbally with Winston Churchill in the House of Commons.

Rose: My Life In Service to Lady Astor

By Rosina Harrison

Penguin Books

Here is a picture of a country and lifestyle that no longer exists. Rosina Harrison, born in 1899 in a small Yorkshire village, grew up to be lady’s maid to Lady Astor, she who duelled verbally with Winston Churchill in the House of Commons.

Rose’s life as a young girl was a simple, sensible life watched over by sensible people. Her father was a stonemason, sexton and caretaker of the Church; his duties often included grave digging.

His station in life meant that any paying job that came his way was eagerly taken. Her mother was a laundry maid to the Marquess and the Marshioness of Ripon, at the big house of Studley Royal.

School was the three R’s, a bit of basic needlework (for the girls), church attendance three times on a Sunday, and lots of hard work. Rose had ambitions to travel, so she managed to stay in school until the age of 16. She learned French and apprenticed to a dress-maker. Her plan was to become a ladies maid. Her first position was as a “Young Ladies Maid.” The almost grown up daughters of the rich also needed caring for and so Rose’s life in service began,

Her first “real” job was with Lady Cranborne of 25 Charles Street, Mayfair. Her life became a whirl of fashion, hairstyle, packing for trips to Paris, Switzerland and Rome, but her pay was pitiful, at £24 a year.

So she came to the Astors. Rose began working for the young daughter “Wissie” but soon made the move to Lady Astor’s employ. She went grudgingly because Lady Astor had a reputation for being difficult but the wages were £75 a year. There were five homes owned by the family, and through the year they travelled and entertained in each of them.

If you can think of the names of any person of gentry between the World Wars, you will find them here. Royalty, parliamentarians, world leaders all attended parties thrown by Lady Astor.

This true story is of course about Lady Astor, but really it is about Rose, though she would hotly deny it.

Lady Astor was a formidable character, demanding and opinionated. She went through five outfits a day, to suit a variety of activities. She was Christian scientist and an avid temperance advocate. Rose learned to deal with her Lady using wit and honesty, never backing down from a skirmish. She had a great deal of responsibility, ushering the luggage for many trips, and carrying on her person, Lady Astor’s jewelry worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

During the Second World War, the Astor’s lived in Plymouth, and were unstinting in the war effort. Lady Astor’s no nonsense way was effective in hospital visiting, and helping those whose homes were bombed.

This is a great book of an interesting time, and engaging people. Rose, lowly born, and Lady Astor aristocrat? Perhaps.

Peggy Freeman is freelance writer living in Red Deer.

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