Manor House Antonia Dawson
"If I'd been born 100 years ago a woman of my class would almost certainly have been in service. And I'd like to know what that meant." Antonia, kitchen maid
Antonia Dawson
Antonia Dawson

Watch the video diaries

The Kitchen Maid: Daily Duties

Ellen and Antonia take a break
Ellen and Antonia take a break

Edwardian Life

A Typical Day in the House

More about Edwardian Food

How to Address the Family

The People: Antonia Dawson

Antonia: Thoughts After Leaving the House, 2002

What expectations did you have about entering Manor House?
I had very few expectations. I knew it was going to be really hard work but apart from that it was impossible to imagine what living the life of an Edwardian kitchen maid would entail.

Do you think that taking part has changed you?
Yes, I do think it has changed me - if only subtly. I want more out of my life. I thought I had it all - good job, house, car etc. All the things today's society dictate makes you a success. Now, more than ever, I realise family and friends are the most important and I'll fight to protect them. It's also given me the confidence to stand up and speak out for what I believe in, rather than sitting back and accepting things. This is because at Manderston to challenge the 'establishment' was to risk everything and yet in certain instances I still did.

Has anyone said that you have changed since you have returned to the 21st Century?
The only thing my sister, Nicola, said was that she is surprised how protective and motherly (I hate that word) I am over my colleagues from Manderston. On one occasion since when Kenny and Ellen came to visit, I explained to Nicola how I had to wake them up, feed them and pack them off in the morning as Kenny had to be at work. My sister found the way I explained this hilarious. She even caught be asking Charlie on the phone if he was eating properly - Oh God - I'm turning into my mother!

What do you feel you've learnt?
It's not so much what I've learnt but I now I understand why people talk about 'the good old days'. It was a more innocent time. We enjoyed small things like having time for a bath once a week or just being able to sit down for a cup of tea and a chat. Today's pressures of paying bills, traffic jams, global warming etc just didn't exist. I'm not saying it was a better time - just simpler.

Have you remained friends or stayed in contact with anyone from the household? Why?
Charlie and I visited Mr Edgar, no matter how hard I try I can't call him Hugh. He is an amazing man and all of us love and respect him immensely - despite putting us through hell and his stories about his Aunt Ada. He is the person most responsible for making the project a success.

I've exchanged letters with Mrs Davies and hopefully we'll meet up soon.

I've met up with Monsieur a couple of times. He may not have been the easiest person to work with but I am very fond of him and he has my utmost respect for the amazing things he managed to achieve at Manderston.

Charlie lives just round the corner from me. We didn't know each other before Manderston but I relied on him a lot when we got home. We'd meet up for a drink every week or so and saw a lot of each other before he left on his round the world trip. We actually get on better now we've left Manderston and don't talk about Edwardinarnia at all. I'll miss him while he's away, he's become a good friend.

Rob and I have exchanged visits. Invariably it always ends up with us getting extremely drunk. He was the person I was closest to in Manderston and he always made me laugh. It's hard to keep that sort of close relationship going but I know we will try.

I've become a lot closer to Becky. We've visited each other and get withdrawal symptoms if we don't have a juicy gossip once in a while. She was actually thinking of moving in with me in Nottingham but plans have been put on hold at the moment.

Tristan, lovely Tristan. I did, and still do, call him Mr D'Arcy. When he walked across the courtyard with his hands in his breeches pockets, wearing riding boots, a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and braces, his blonde hair all tousled, fresh rosy cheeks and deep blue eyes, all us ladies would melt - even Mrs Davies! Unfortunately the dream would hatter when he let out a loud fart or took off his riding boots and melted your eyeballs with the toxic fumes exuding from his feet, but we couldn't have everything.

I've not seen him since we left, I think he's scared of me. But we do speak and text each other.

I didn't know the family so I haven't spoken to them but I do hear how they're doing through Mr Edgar.

What did you enjoy most?
The people I worked with.

We were all so close and I can honestly say, although it was a really hard experience, I've never laughed so much.

There were also times when I'd suddenly stop and think to myself "What am I doing?!" Like the time I cycled to church with my skirt wrapped around the handlebars because it kept getting caught up, showing my bloomers to all and sundry.

What did you like least?
Lack of freedom.

You couldn't book the morning off work to have a lie in or pop into town to meet friends. We had to ask permission to go anywhere, do anything, even speak sometimes - it was very frustrating. We were chastised for the simplest things like speaking at table, It seems bizarre to think how we were back then.

What did you find the hardest aspect of the role you assumed?
One of the hardest things for me was working with Monsieur. He was a very daunting and sometimes explosive character, but I think by the end we worked well together. Another thing I used to dread was bringing a meal out and see people look at it in disgust or taste it and pull a face. I remember one time I did a great looking roast beef but it was as tough as old boots. They dived in and five minutes later they were still chewing the same mouthful. I could have died!

What did you miss most from the 21st century? Did you ever give in to temptation?
Surprisingly I didn't miss that much

I did use tampons. I tried it their way but it was impossible. I was running to the loo every two minutes which made my job very difficult. Plus if I did have an accident I'd have to wear that dress for a week or so before my other one came back form the laundry - no way.

I hated roll-ups and there were times I would have sold my soul for a proper filtered ciggie.

On our afternoon off, Rob and I would got to the tea shop first. We would always buy a coke and a large coffee, the theory being the caffeine would wake us up so we could enjoy the rest of the day. We didn't know if we were allowed coke or not but we weren't going to ask in case they said no.

I used the phone once on Sept 11th to make sure my mum was OK. I don't consider it as cheating, at a time like that my mum came first.

Do you think that the 21st century can learn anything from the Edwardian era?
Manners and respect for each other and the environment. It's something I really noticed since I got back. I'm not saying we should be as extreme as the Edwardians but basic please and thank you would be nice.

What did you like and dislike most about the Edwardian era?
I liked out close community and the fact we all knew where we stood. Not that we should all know our place but we did know what was expected of us. When we went into town or to church everyone knew who we were and accepted us as part of the community - I know we were wearing strange clothes and probably a bit of a novelty, but people were interested in life at Manderston and I think that would have been true during the Edwardian era.

I hated the lack of communication from the outside world and would have given anything to watch the news and know what was going on. It took ages just to get a letter, especially when you're used to mobiles and emails. When a letter arrived from friends or family I would wait for a quiet moment and read it over and over again.

If you could have your time at the Manderston again is there any one thing that you would have done differently?
I wish I'd pursued with my suet puddings. I only made two but no-one liked them. I didn't master homemade custard either.

The 'bloody vegetarians' were the bane of my life so I wish I'd been a bit more prepared for them.

Other than that - no.

Did you find that the Edwardian setting changed the way that men and women related to each other? How do you feel about it?
In the beginning Rob and Charlie would take great pleasure in pointing out women had no rights but they soon got bored and to be honest I don't think they ever thought or tried to think of us as second class citizens. They did get quite efficient at opening doors for you etc. which was nice.

The only other problem was when we had to line up in order of precedence. By rights quite a few of the boys should have been below Becky and I but because they were men they went first.

Any other stories you want to tell?
There are bad things I remember about Manderston such as being woken up in the middle of the night because the balls of my feet ached so much, falling asleep in the servants hall because I was so exhausted I couldn't move, eating that goddam horrible gruel Monsieur made, trying to get a scullery made to stick at it, being wet through to the corset with sweat after stocking the ranges and my eyes hurting when going out into the courtyard because I wasn't used to daylight.

I mostly have good memories though.

The first thing I used to do when I got up out of bed was look out the window to see how much wind there was. This would determine how hot the ranges were that day - it took me ages to get out of that habit when I returned home.

We had a brilliant game when walking back from town after our evening off. When we saw a cars headlights in the distance we would strike an 'Edwardian' pose. We watched the headlights draw closer, the vehicle getting slower as it approached. Then as is passed it would swerve and drive off at speed. They obviously thought we were ghosts or something but it was really funny to watch.

Some of the best and funniest moments were around the servants dining table. Once when Kenny had been banned from speaking at table I forgot and asked him a question. His mimed answer and facial expressions started me off giggling. This gradually had the whole table desperately trying to calm their laughter as it was always very formal and silent at dinner. It didn't work however and when Rob finally gave in and guffawed very loudly the rest of us immediately followed. What made matters worse was Mr Edgar's bewildered expression as virtually the whole table disintegrated into loud and uncontrollable laughter. We didn't get reprimanded for that either.

Kenny used to come out with some very strange statements and questions. These were called Kennyisms as they were things only Kenny would come out with. For example:

"Mr Edgar, sir, did they have lottery in Edwardian times, sir?" It's just I was thinking, if we started one up, there's only a few of us so we're bound to win!". It was swiftly pointed out to Kenny that if there were only a few Edwardians then there would only be a few pounds to win.

"Mrs Davies, what's horseradish sauce made out of?" - horseradish, Kenny!

On the subject of finding a new scullery maid, "We need to find one where no one comes from so we've got something to talk about".

Finally, my best afternoon off was with Rob and Charlie. We went to the Whip and Saddle pub and had more than a little drink. We managed to acquire a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic, the plan being to have it back at the servants hall on our return. We were very, very late as we had to be back by 10.30pm but luckily it was teaming with rain so we decided to use this as an excuse to Mr Edgar - we'd been waiting for the rain to stop before attempting the two mile walk home - honest!

On the walk home, to give us sustenance, we decided to open the gin and tonic. We took it in turns, mouthful of gin, mouthful of tonic. Charlie walked down the drive to Manderston, arms outstretched, a bottle in each hand, rain pelting him full in the face, shouting "This is living!" reminiscent of Leonardo Di Caprio in a scene from Titanic (set in 1911). We were very drunk at this stage.

On arrival at the servants entrance Mr Edgar opened the door. We were wet through and looked very pitiful, managing to conceal our inebriation as much as possible. The contraband was hidden in my rather spacious handbag for us to finish later.

Our plan worked and Mr Edgar ushered us in, instructing us to go and change out of our wet things before we caught our deaths of cold.

Up in my little attic room it became completely obvious to Becky, Ellen and the girls that I was completely plastered. They were amazed we'd got away with it.

Wrapped in dry nightgowns and pyjamas we all congregated in front of the open fire in the servants hall and proceeded to polish off the remaining contraband, as well as a bit of wine and champagne from Charlie's secret store.

After hearing me complaining slurring about never having seen the sumptuous rooms upstairs, Rob thought it was an excellent opportunity for me to admire their splendour whilst the family were in bed.

He grabbed my hand and we tiptoed up the winding servants stairwell in our slippers. First to the morning room, Sir John's office, the drawing room - I wish I could remember what they looked like! - and finally the ballroom. Rob turned on all the lights and we proceeded in having great fun sliding up and down the ballroom's dance floor, him in his granddad - style chequered dressing gown and me in my lilac number. When finally we got out of breath, he turned out the lights and we went on to the next attraction - the silver staircase. No - we didn't slide down the banister, my frilly nightgown wouldn't allow it.

The tour came to an end outside Lady Olliff-Cooper's bedroom. The thought of her shocked face if she exited her room to find her second footman and kitchen maid giggling on the landing in dressing gowns and slippers was too much to bear. We turned to the servants staircase, back to our rooms and prepared to cover up a shocker of a hangover the next morning.

UPDATE: 2003
Antonia is working at the police control again and lives with Ellen the scullery maid. She looks back on the experience with rose- tinted glasses, forgetting the bad times. She feels that the experience made her appreciate things more and the options that are there for a 21st century woman.


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