You are in [People] [Bloomsbury Group] [Below Stairs at Ham Spray House]

This article was written by Robin Buchanan-Dunlop in 2017:

Ivy Hoare who died on 30th July, just short of her 101st birthday, was the last real link between Ham and the Bloomsbury era at Ham Spray House. She was also a reminder that, despite their free-wheeling approach to life, the Bloomsbury Group still depended on domestic staff for their creature comforts.

The original Bloomsbury trio who arrived at Ham Spray House in July 1924 comprised Lytton Strachey, author and committed homosexual; his passionately devoted friend, the Slade-trained artist Dora Carrington; and Carrington’s recently married husband, Major Ralph Partridge, war hero and Olympic-class oarsman. They brought with them Annie Styles, who had been their housekeeper at Pangbourne.

Annie was something of a flirt - Carrington’s 1921 portrait of her shows a girl with a mischievous smile – and she must have found life out at Ham Spray lonely and boring. By the beginning of 1925 she was gone. Her replacement was 15-year old Olive Slater (later Olive Martin), daughter of a carpenter in Hungerford.

Olive would have been oblivious of the high drama at Ham Spray. Ralph Partridge, an inveterate womaniser, had already tired of Carrington and had now found a new love in a vivacious Cambridge bluestocking, Frances Marshall. By the end of 1925 Marshall was a permanent fixture at Ham Spray House, and perhaps because of this Olive became a companion of sorts for Carrington. At first Olive’s duties were simply those of a housemaid: cleaning, bed-making, emptying chamber pots and lighting fires. However, she evidently soon helped with the cooking too, as a year after her arrival Carrington is wondering in a letter whether Olive can be trusted to make a French salad for Phyllis de Janzé, a friend from the Slade, who is coming to lunch. As it was, Carrington did most of the cooking at Ham Spray, leading Virginia Woolf to label her waspishly “a cook who doesn’t go out on Sundays”; there was no shortage of bitchiness in the Bloomsbury Group. In fact Carrington prided herself on her cooking. Writing in a letter, she described a dinner party given for locals, Mr and Mrs D’Arcy Japp. It was a return match and Carrington was out to score points. The meal was in her words “indescribably grand, epoch-making”, although by today’s standards the menu of grapefruit, chicken, risotto and sack cream was nothing special. However, the pièce de résistance – shades of Hyacinth Bucket in the television series Keeping Up Appearances – was a bottle of Café Royal red wine “perfectly warmed” and sitting in a cradle on the table which “took Mrs Japp’s breath away”.

In 1929, much to Carrington’s dismay, four and a half years after her arrival Olive left to join a family bakery business. By then Olive had become a treasured part of the household. She had appeared frequently in Carrington’s correspondence, and in one letter there is a spirited account of Carrington taking her tobogganing on Ham Hill, which ended in a tremendous crash and a badly bruised bottom for Carrington. The initial replacement Kitty, described by Carrington as an ice maiden, was not a success and was swiftly replaced in turn by Flo, a nice but very large girl, christened ‘Elephant Flo’ by Frances Marshall, and no doubt the rest of the household. Then, a year after “leaving for ever” in Carrington’s words, Olive returned to the household. With her came her younger sister Phyllis who seems to have
taken over the cooking duties. What is certain is that in the following year, 1931, Phyllis was the model for the cook in Carrington’s trompe l’oeil painting in a window of Biddesden House. The painting shows a cook peeling an apple at a table on which is perched the Ham Spray cat, Tiber, looking longingly at a caged bird. Olive had herself been painted by Carrington in 1925, and at some point the portrait had been given to her. According to a cousin, Olive’s family used it as a draught-maker to help light fires, but it nevertheless survived.

While this domestic merry-go-round was going on, Carrington’s life was unravelling. Her long-range affair with her soul mate Gerald Brenan, who lived mostly in Spain, had come to a miserable, stuttering end. Then, astonishingly, she acquired a lover, ‘Beakus’ Penrose, ten years younger than herself. To her utter horror Penrose made her pregnant – Carrington had a pathological revulsion about childbearing – and the upshot was a ‘backstreet’ abortion in London. Two years later in November 1931 Strachey fell ill with stomach cancer. He died the following January, and maddened with grief Carrington shot herself some weeks later. Olive was still apparently around at this stage, but in 1934, by which time Ralph Partridge and Frances Marshall had married, Joan Mills (later Joan Robinson) took her place.

About the same time Edie Barclay (later Edie Howard) also came to work at Ham Spray. Both girls lived next door to each other in The Severalls, then consisting of only four semi-detached houses. Edie’s mother came from a prominent Ham family, the Bowleys, and was the widow of a Scots Guardsman who had died of wounds after the end of the First World War. Joan was 14 years old and straight out of school. In later life she was adamant that her mother would never have let her work at Ham Spray House had there been a scintilla of scandal attached to it. The death of Carrington, known as Mrs Partridge in the village, had been an undoubted shock for Ham, but the coroner had glossed over her suicide, recording it as an accident with a loaded gun. Joan would spend the next seven years at Ham Spray House entirely ignorant of the exotic life-styles of the Bloomsberries. Occasionally she came across a naked body wandering about upstairs but that did not faze her, nor did her employers’ enjoyment of nude swimming with their friends worry her, although it provided great amusement for the local youth who used to sneak down to Ham Spray to spy on this activity.

The year after Joan’s arrival, the Partridges’ son Burgo was born. Joan remembered him as a lonely, ailing child. At first there was a nanny, but she left and towards the end of her time Joan was asked to look after the child on the Partridges’ various expeditions. By all accounts Frances was a rotten mother, a criticism echoed by Burgo himself in later life (Burgo died from a congenital heart condition in 1963).

Domesticity was not Frances’s strong suit and she had a particularly blank spot where children were concerned. At Joan’s first Christmas at Ham Spray she gave her a doll, much to Joan’s intense mortification. That apart, Joan enjoyed her time at Ham Spray. Her chief memory was that each weekend the house would be full of guests, often artists, intellectuals and writers, and she remembered Virginia Woolf in particular. In due course she became the cook and there were always large numbers to cater for. This took on a new dimension at the start of the war, and with the arrival of evacuee children Joan could be cooking for up to 18 people. The Partridges were generous employers and from time to time would take their small staff by car to the Regal cinema in Hungerford, where the Partridges would
sit in the front seats and the staff were seated at the back.

In November 1940 a stray German bomber dropped a stick of bombs on Ham, one falling at the end of the avenue (now a farm road) leading to Ham Spray House. Amongst the chief recreations for teenagers in those days were dances in the various villages round about, to which Joan used to bicycle wearing her long dress. She was returning from one of these when bicycling along the avenue in the dark, she heard the bomb passing over her head. Frances Partridge wrote in her published diary, “I was standing recovering when in came Joan, her hair loose and dishevelled”. In later life Joan protested that Frances had over-egged the dishevelment bit. Joan left in the middle of 1941. She had fallen in love with a soldier whom she later married, and as a result she went to work in an aircraft factory as she then wanted to be involved in war work. Edie Barclay left at some point in 1941 too. In January 1942 Alice Cooper arrived. Alice was the daughter of a retired huntsman with the local Craven Hunt. Her husband was in the army and she came with her small boy. Although she seems to have been a success, she left after nine months also to do war work in a factory, which had become a national trend. For the whole of 1943 the Partridges were without any domestic help, which tested them both. Part of the problem was a frost between the village and the Partridges. Ralph Partridge had been called up for military service, but despite his enviable record in the First World War he had registered as a conscientious objector; his wife was a lifelong, passionate pacifist. And this had triggered a blazing row with Major Geoffrey Huth, the Ham Spray estate owner, amongst others. However, despite the froideur, Lilian Chant arrived as the new housekeeper in February 1944. Her husband was away in the war, and she lived with her three children – one of whom was the late Doreen Miller – in one half of Manor Cottages. Lilian was the
younger sister of Edie Barclay so would have known the score at Ham Spray well. She stayed until the end of 1945, by which time her husband had returned.

In 1946 Ivy Hoare became the last of the Partridges’ housekeepers. Ivy had been born at Moordown Farm which was then part of the Ham Manor estate. She went first to Ham School, which meant walking there and back each day, a round trip of five miles, and then with her sister to Buttermere School. Like many girls of her generation she entered domestic service at the age of fourteen. But she was 29 when she arrived at Ham Spray, and she came with her husband Cecil who had recently returned from the war and with her mother. They were all housed in the nursery wing at Ham Spray House, which was not ideal from either side, and with Major Huth’s assistance Ralph Partridge agitated for more social housing. Eventually two more semi-detached houses were added to The Severalls, and in 1954 Ivy and her family went to live in Number 5. Ivy remained with the Partridges until Ralph died in 1962 and Frances sold Ham Spray House the following year. In her old age she was guarded in her comments about the Partridges. They were evidently good employers and inspired loyalty in their staff even when public opprobrium of their pacifism was at its peak. Ivy recalled that the Partridges kept themselves very much to themselves and had little truck with the village; she summed up this relationship succinctly, “I got on with them well, some didn’t”.

See also:

- Bloomsbury group

- Ham Spray House