During my time at the Orphanage there were three permanent members of the staff. Various others came and went, but they were invariably dismal, helpless old things who merely wanted a home where they could live free of charge on their microscopic incomes, and who were either unwilling, or congenitally unable, to do any work in return. These poor old miseries drifted in and out of our ken like grey wraiths, and few of them have left any impression upon me.
The most permanent fixture was a niece of Aunt Janey's, the daughter of one of
her many sisters. Violet must have been round about sixty, and many years before
she had vowed a life of devotion to Aunt Janey, so much so that she considered
herself “married” to her, and wore a wedding ring by way of corroboration. This,
needless to say, incensed and nauseated the hard-headed old lady almost beyond
endurance, though she was far too kind-hearted ever to let Violet know. Violet
was one of the plainest people I have ever seen, the family good looks having
completely by passed. her. But to offset this she was intensely vain, and
habitually went about hung with necklaces, stippled with brooches, and her
fingers stiff with rings, She was somewhat crippled with arthritis, but, without
being unkind, one has to admit that she made the very most of it. I never knew
her to take any part whatsoever in the work of the Orphanage, not even to
invigilating the children’s meals, but appeared to consider that all the
children were there simply to wait on her hand and foot. Although her arthritis
prevented her from doing any work in the Orphanage, it did not prevent her from
taking frequent and constant trips to town. She had worked up a wonderful pose
among the family and her large circle of friends, as the heroic invalid, who,
though tottering with weakness and helpless with arthritis, yet devoted all her
life to the service of Aunt Janey and the Orphans, with exemplary fortitude.
Actually the only activity that Violet indulged in was in writing the most heart-breaking appeals for funds, which were duly published and circulated round the family and friends. Aunt Janey privately considered them utterly nauseating, and in bad taste, but though she saw through Violet more clearly than anyone else, she never let her get a hint of it.
Violet took an intense dislike to me though I never intentionally did anything to annoy her, in fact I always did my best to please and. placate her. In the first place my youthful looks probably roused her spite, but later, when she began to see that Aunt Janey was becoming fond of me, she developed a raging jealousy which made my life a purgatory. I could do nothing right, she was constantly complaining of me and abusing me to Aunt Janey, and she could hardly bring herself to speak to me or acknowledge my existence. If ever she did speak to me it was either to find fault, or it was some nasty little spiteful remark which hurt bitterly. In order to keep the peace, Aunt Janey had to adopt a harsh and stern mariner towards me when Violet was present, though I very soon came to recognise the twinkle in her eye which belied the hard words, and her increased kindness to me when Violet was out of the way more than compensated for everything. Once I had got wise to the position, it created a still closer bond of understanding between Aunt Janey and myself.
Next in seniority was a Scots lady who had been at the Orphanage for many years. Miss McGregor was tall and thin, with fluffy white hair and beautiful blue eyes. She was in charge of the house linen and the children’s clothes, and always took sewing school in the afternoons. She was always kind and nice to me, and often went out of her way to protect me from Violet’s bitter attacks. She would even speak up for me to Aunt Janey when the old lady felt called upon to choke me off with extra emphasis for Violet’s benefit. I believe Violet and Miss McGregor had for years maintained a grim warfare, none the less lurid for being perforce suppressed.
The third permanent member of the staff was of a completely different type, and
had only been at the Orphanage for a few months before my arrival. She was
an ex-Matron of an Army Hospital. Her health had broken down through overwork
during the war, added to which her fiancé, a doctor, had died on active service.
In order to get over the shock she had gone back to private nursing, and had
come to the Orphanage originally to nurse Miss McGregor during a serious
illness. She had had no intention of taking up permanent work there, but had
become so much attached to Aunt Janey that she had stayed on, and was now the
mainspring and driving spirit of the whole place. She had taken over the
housekeeping, catering and cooking, and it was her magnificent energy and
organizing ability which kept the Orphanage going. She was in the middle
thirties, brisk and upright, with the typical Matron’s figure. She always wore
her uniform and nurse’s veil and looked as if she had been poured into her
clothes. She was a martinet for discipline, and a slave-driver for work, but she
worked as hard or harder than those she drove, and her tireless energy and gay
Irish tongue made her popular with staff and children alike. Except with Violet,
of course, who loathed her. Matron would chase us all round at high speed, at
one moment flaying us with harsh words, and the next moment reducing us to fits
of laughter with her quick Irishisms. She it was who saw to it that all Aunt
Janey's rules and wishes were obeyed and she it was who kept up the high
standard of discipline and obedience, for by now Aunt Janey was almost past
active participation in the every-day work of the Orphanage.
Matron was a first-class cook, and did her utmost to improve the variety and tastiness of the children’s diet. Unfortunately however, her well meant efforts in this direction did not always meet with the appreciation that they deserved. Instead of the solid, bullet like dumplings which invariably appeared in the stews, she introduced dumplings of a feathery lightness, blown up like great fluffy puffballs, tempting and delicious. The children, who, during the whole of their lives had been accustomed to the tough, rubbery specimens, about the size of ping pong balls, did not take kindly to this improvement. One day a polite tap came at the kitchen door. Matron threw up the hatch and looked out, and there was a small deputation, headed of course by Katie. Katie was about eleven, but small for her age, and one of those dreadful children who is always right about everything, and always ready to set everyone else right as well, ladies included. She was a perfect menace to any new member of the staff, as she had spent all her life in the Orphanage, and knew the rules and routine backwards, and never had the slightest hesitation in letting the new lady know it. Katie, with a string of small supporters at her back, spoke up in her precise, high pitched voice.
“Please M’am, may we ask you something?”
“Yes,” said Matron, “what’s the matter?”
“Please M’am, may we have the nice heavy dumplings like we always used to have? We don’t like these light ones, they don’t fill you up like the heavy ones do.”
Entire collapse of Matron.
When Aunt Janey found that Matron was an expert cook, and eager to try new
recipes, she introduced her to the making of a particular preserve which had
been popular in the family in Madeira days. This was made from quinces, of which
Aunt Janey grew a great number in the garden, and was known as “marmalada
branca”. Aunt Jainey told us that marmalade was originally made from quinces,
and that the transfer of the name to the orange preserve was of quite recent
The making of marmalada branca was a major operation, in which the entire community had to assist. The chief feature about the confection was that it had to be kept as white as possible, hence “branca” - but as quinces invariably turn to the usual deep russet colour when exposed to the air after cutting, every part of the process had to be performed under water. All the available basins were collected and filled with water, and placed in rows round the big tables in the kitchen, and there we all stood, ladies and children alike, all peeling and cutting up quinces with our hands under the water, in an aura of splash, mess, and panting haste, as even if kept under water, the wretched things would darken unless handled at top speed. The resultant confection had the appearance of thick pale coloured honey, and tasted like the sheerest ambrosia. An enormous number of quinces were required to produce even a very few pounds, and of course it was kept for Aunt Janey’s exclusive consumption. I was just allowed to taste it, and have never forgotten the utterly exquisite flavour and perfume. Ordinary quince jam is crude stuff by comparison.
For some reason or other Matron took me completely under her capable and
competent wing. She was near enough to my own generation to understand my
youthful ideas and longings better than any of the other ladies, and I believe
she was deeply sorry for me at being thrust into this inhibited and
circumscribed life, just at an age when I should have been getting out into the
world and having the experiences and fun that I craved. She never showed me any
demonstrative affection, in fact she chased me round as much as she chased the
children, but I sensed the warmth and understanding behind it and, became
devoted to her, and would follow her around like a puppy. Wherever Matron was
there was certain to be something exciting going on, and she was the focal point
of all such gaiety as I ever knew at the Orphanage.
Aunt Janey liked her for her energy and excellent discipline, and Matron seemed to have no other interest or wish in life than to carry out all the activities that Aunt Janey was too old and feeble to do herself. Matron’s whole life had been wrecked by the
loss of her fiancé, and the necessity of giving up the hospital work that she loved, and now she threw all her energies into tending and working for Aunt Janey. As time went on the reins of authority passed more and more into Matron’s hands, but she was utterly loyal to Aunt Janey, and never enforced anything without first ascertaining that it was in accordance with her wishes. She was a most remarkable person, and in later years I came to know her far more intimately than either of us could ever have guessed.
The Orphanage was one of the centres for the family, as Aunt Janey was one of the very last of her generation, and numerous nieces and nephews were constantly visiting her. In this way I became acquainted with many relatives whom I would otherwise never have met. Frank Phelps, then Bishop of Grahamstown, South Africa, always came to see his aunt each time he was in England. He was deformed from childhood, and in constant pain, but was one of the most charming and saintly men I have ever had the privilege of meeting. His mere presence was a benediction. Several years later George and I were at a mass meeting of the S.P.G. at the Albert Hall, and Frank was in the Chair, George had never met him, so after the meeting we made our way round to the back and asked to speak to the bishop. For all his exalted position Frank made the time to see his young cousins, and greeted us with a warmth and kindliness which remain as a lifelong memory.
Another nephew of Aunt Janey’s was of a very different type. He was the son of one of her sisters, and for some reason which I never discovered, he was ostracised by every member of the family with the sole exception of Aunt Janey. He was a sad, grey, shabby old man, in obviously dire poverty, who would come in silently and sit humbly by the fire, never speaking a word unless spoken to. Aunt Janey was extremely sorry for him and showed him every kindness in her power, though she would never tell me the cause either of his poverty or his ostracism. Later on she got the news that he lay dying in a workhouse in the East End. She was terribly concerned at his plight, but was unable owing to her age and feebleness to go and visit him. She therefore deputed me, as the only available member of the family, to go and see him, and take him a kind message so that he might know that in his last moments he was not entirely cast off by his own people. Matron would not hear of my going down to such a place alone, and gave up her own free time to accompanying me. It was typical of her unceasing care for me. Workhouse infirmaries and their attendant misery and squalor were nothing new to her, but to me it was a great shock, and I was more than thankful for her company.
On another occasion a very exciting visitor arrived. He was a tall, distinguished old gentleman, with Spanish Grandee written over every inch of him, No one had ever seen him before, and he arrived just as the ladies were congregating in the dining room for tea. Aunt Janey was, as usual, at the very far end of the long garden, and one of the children had been sent to tell her. As each one of us entered the dining room, the old gentleman rose to his feet and bowed deeply, but his eyes were fixed on the door, and one could see the shade of disappointment in his face each fresh entrant was not Aunt Janey. Being lame it took her some time to come up from the far end of the garden, and all the time we could feel the tension mounting as we waited. At length the door was flung open, and Aunt Janey stood there, her head held high, and her handsome old face alight with a glow which none of us had ever seen before. She held out her hand, but not in the usual position for a handshake. In two strides the old gentleman was across the room, and dropping on one knee at her feet, he raised her hand to his lips with the most beautiful gesture of old world courtesy, as they murmured greetings in Spanish or Portuguese. It was one of the most romantic and fascinating scenes I have ever witnessed, and we all felt that we had been transported momentarily to another world, Without a word to us others, they two retired to the drawing room, and we did not see the old gentleman again, as Aunt Janey let him out herself. When she rejoined us, the glow was still on her face, and it was a long time before anyone dared speak or break the spell. At length I could bear the suspense and my own curiosity no longer, and asked softly who the old gentleman was. Aunt Janey slowly withdrew her eyes from the far-off vistas down which her mind had wandered, and focussed them on me for a moment, obviously finding it difficult even to remember who I was.
Presently she said quietly, “That was someone whom I have known for a very long time,” and that was all the information she would ever vouchsafe.
I dared not question her further. Was it the echo of some long-ago romance of her youth? And had she refused him in order to devote her life to the care of her orphans? The light in those two fine, distinguished old faces, as they gazed at each other, made us feel that this must have been the case, though we never mentioned the matter again even among ourselves. It had been too impressive for discussion.
The rooms on the ground floor and the first floor which were used by Aunt Janey and the ladies, were very different from the dark basement and attics which were given over to the children’s use, Even in my inexperience I was shocked at the difference, though of course it was simply due to the fact that we were still living under conditions which were considered right and proper in the mid- Victorian period. It was incredible that they should have persisted into the world of the 1920's.
On the ground floor a huge drawing room stretched the full depth of the house
from front to back. The end overlooking the back garden was curtained off and
arranged as an Oratory. Here was a beautifully appointed Altar with Crucifix,
candlesticks and flower vases. The hangings were plentiful and exquisite, and
were changed in strict
accordance with the ordinances of the Church Calendar. Aunt Janey conducted Matins and Compline each day, with the children standing in a long double line down the length of the drawing room. Every so often the priest from the neighbouring Church, who was also the Orphanage Chaplain, would come and conduct Low Mass. Outside the door leading from the Oratory into the hall was a rope, connecting with a great bell which was fixed at the top of the well staircase. I was given the highly honourable, but exceedingly difficult task, of sounding the strokes of the Sanctus at the correct moments. It was a most nerve racking performance; for one thing it was extremely difficult to get the bell to give the exact number of strokes, and for another, the officiating priest gabbled at such speed and so indistinctly, that it was almost impossible to hear when the right moment had arrived. However it was a sign of the highest favour on Aunt Janey’s part to be appointed to this task, so I performed it with a due sense of reverent responsibility.
With the exception of the gangway down the centre where the children stood, the rest of that enormous room was packed and crammed with the most magnificent furniture. Everything had come from the Carmo, and most of it had been made in Madeira of local timber and workmanship, and many of the pieces had been designed by Aunt Janey’s mother. There were two huge dining tables each with six legs of turned lathe work with a series of flat discs up their length, each of which was as big as a soup plate. There were great tallboys, each containing numberless drawers, the front of each drawer being a deep, outstanding panel nearly two inches thick. There were sideboards and whatnots, and a tall map-stand, not to mention chairs and stools and the grandpiano. On one wall was a vast contraption known as the “over-piano". This was a hugely magnified edition of the Victorian over-mantel, and consisted of masses of small shelves of varying sizes, all connected and supported by a veritable cobweb of slender lathe turned rods. The walls were absolutely covered by pictures, family portraits and sketches, and every flat surface in the room, sideboards, tables, what-nots and that nightmare over-piano, was completely filled with treasures and knick-knacks. Exquisite old miniatures of ancestors, priceless old bits of china, and an inconceivable medley of oddments, some valuable but many merely of sentimental value and fit only for the dust bin.
As I rose in Aunt Janey's estimation, so she demonstrated the fact by putting more and more jobs on to me, and the duty of dusting the drawing room was added to all my other work. It was meant as a high honour, for no one else was permitted to touch her treasures unless under supervision. I fully appreciated the honour, but groaned at the performance. Everything in that room was a deliberate dust-trap. The great flat discs on the table legs seemed designed purposely to catch and hold the dust, the outstanding panels on the drawers were almost as bad, but the fragile intricacies of the over—piano and its multitudinous treasures were the last straw. As this could only be reached from the step ladder I fear it did not share in the daily dusting. A quick flick round the lowest shelves was the most I usually had time to manage, but I had to be very wary as Violet was quite capable of snooping round and reporting any omissions to Aunt Janey.
The dining room was furnished in similar style to the drawing room, but it was not quite as desperately crowded, though quite full enough. This, however was not my responsibility, which I record with a sigh of relief. My days were quite sufficiently occupied, without having any further extras put upon me, however honourable. My days would start by getting up at half past six, then getting the children up which meant watching their every move, seeing to hair brushing and teeth cleaning, and stripping of the beds, then invigilating them at breakfast. After this I could get my own breakfast while one of the other ladies supervised their bed-making. Then I had to dust the drawing room so that it was ready for Matins at a quarter to nine. If Aunt Janey did not feel like getting up for Matins, it was conducted by Violet, and in this case I had to play for the hymns. When Aunt Janey conducted the Services, Violet would play. Then, at nine o’clock I had to conduct the children across to the schoolroom, where I kept them till one o’clock dinner, with a fifteen minute break at eleven. After dinner Miss McGregor took them for sewing school from two till four. These were supposed to be my free hours, but I was usually pounced upon by Aunt Janey or Matron, and required to help with fruit picking, or jam-making, or some other of the endless activities. Then came the children’s teatime, and turns of duty in sitting with them during the evening, and seeing them to bed.
It was an exhausting life, and I seldom managed to get away from the place at all, and almost entirely lost touch with any outside life whatever.
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