Mollie's memories of upstairs and down
PUBLISHED: 08:53 12 April 2013 | UPDATED: 08:53 12 April 2013
Mollie Moran has survived two world wars, lived both upstairs and downstairs and, aged 96, has just written a book about her days as a scullery maid. KEIRON PIM spoke to the irrepressible nonagenarian.
The girl perched up at the top of the village’s tallest oak tree was the bane of PC Risebrough’s life. His beat was hardly a hotbed of criminality but life in the village of Wereham would be a great deal easier if it were not for young Mollie Browne and her escapades.
Elsewhere around the country it was another story – the year 1926 saw coal miners striking, John Logie Baird give the first public demonstration of the television, and London’s bright young people were caught up in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – but as she surveyed the countryside, with the River Great Ouse glinting in the distance and flint churches scattered across the fields of wheat and barley, Mollie felt as if she were in another world and century.
No one else had made it to the top of the old oak, not even the biggest boys in the village. Two of them, Jack and Bernard, stood look-out at the base of the trunk; now she had to do what she was there for. Unaware that the local policeman had her in his sights, she crept along the bough trying not to look down, dripping sweat from her brow, until she saw the prize: a pair of brown speckled eggs in a crow’s nest, just a little beyond her reach.
And then she heard Jack whistle and hiss up to her: “It’s the bobby, get down afore he sees ya.”
A fortnight earlier PC Risebrough had boxed her ears for stealing strawberries and now, as she shimmied back down the tree and thudded to the ground, she found herself looking once again at his black laced-up leather boots.
“Mollie Browne again,” he said in a broad Norfolk accent as she looked up. “If there’s trouble to be found it’s always you in the thick of it, ainch’ya? When will yer learn?”
She protested that she was just “having a gawp” from the treetop but he was having none of it. “Tha’s a lot of old squit – stealing eggs you was,” he said, sending her on her way with another clip round the head and a threat to tell her father.
Mollie had always had a feisty and independent streak; the Norfolk countryside was a giant playground through which she ran amok in a good-spirited but reckless manner. PC Risebrough was right: trouble always would seek her out, as becomes plain from Mollie’s fascinating new memoir, Aprons and Silver Spoons.
Today that flame-haired, free-spirited girl is a feisty 96-year-old who remembers her rural childhood with crystal clarity. She paints a gorgeous picture of an idyllic untrammelled childhood “spent running free in the beautiful Norfolk countryside [that] gave me a spirit as wild as the hawthorns that grew in the hedgerows”. The countryside of her youth was “beyond beautiful,” she remembers. “The hedgerows, trees and dykes were alive with kingfisher, yellow-hammers... and on a summer’s day you could catch the tantalising whiff of salt in the air off the Wash. … In the summer months the grass verges were filled with rows of brightly coloured painted caravans belonging to the Romany gypsies who came to hawk their wares in town.” These free-spirited people intrigued her: “Where had they come from and where would they go next? They washed up like tides on the River Great Ouse and the next morning they’d be gone on the winds.”
But for all that, her new memoir is a book refreshingly devoid of nostalgia. Her father, Sydney Easter Browne, had been gassed at Ypres and was one of a legion of broken men populating the Norfolk villages. After listening to her mother Mabel’s anguished screams echo around their tumbledown cottage one night, Mollie ventured into the bedroom the next morning to find she had a younger brother. Mabel had baby James on her chest and her legs tied together with rope so that she couldn’t move: it had been a horrendous breech birth and rendering her immobile was the country doctor’s method of ensuring that she healed as quickly as possible. A couple of weeks later her mother was hard at work again, scrubbing the kitchen, cleaning the stove, baking, washing, keeping rural life ticking over. Today Mollie credits her parents’ rugged nature and her healthy childhood for her own longevity.
“I was very feisty – I was always the boy and my brother was the girl,” she laughs, speaking earlier this week from her home on Bournemouth’s seafront. The Norfolk accent remains intact, as does the vivacious spirit: she holds regular parties where she cooks for up to 25 people, a talent honed in her teens and 20s. Because for all her love of the countryside, Mollie knew that her destiny “didn’t lie in the sleepy villages, forced into a dull apprenticeship before being married off to the local farmhand”.
When she was 14 the chance arose to go into service. A local member of the gentry named Mr Stocks owned Woodhall, a stately home at Hilgay, but also a London residence at Cadogan Square, Knightsbridge. He needed a scullery maid and Mollie leapt at the chance. In the bustle of industry below stairs at Woodhall and in the capital were a cast of characters vividly recalled 80 years on: the dragon-like cook Mrs Jones (“actually all hot air and no fire”, she says), Alan, the lecherous footman, Irene the housemaid, and Mr Orchard, who was gay and lived his life in fear of exposure at a time when homosexuality was criminalised.
She was thrust into a world of learning how to whip sauces – always with a wooden spoon, never let it boil – and how to light the stove, scrub the dishes, clean the hearth. As a scullery maid she was the lowest of the low, she says. “You’re the youngest, the lowest-paid, you work the longest hours and you spend the most time on your hands and knees scrubbing. You’re even a skivvy for the servants.”
But she worked hard and did well, rising to the position of kitchen maid, while also taking every opportunity to explore London life during her spare time. Mostly this consisted of eyeing up young men while dealing in turn with the attentions of other chaps who took a fancy to her, some more welcome than others.
London became a lot less alien when she heard another Norfolk accent among the girls below stairs. Flo Wadlow was a gentle character who always had wise advice: such a good influence on Mollie that they became lifelong friends, only separated in January of this year by Flo’s death aged 100. “It’s what you expect when you get to that age,” says Mollie matter of factly.
Coming straight from a rural childhood into the bubble of life below stairs left Mollie naive about the wider world, which nearly cost her dear on a couple of occasions.
She and another colleague named Phyllis, a scullery maid, were strutting down the King’s Road during their afternoon break when a “rich and deep sexy voice” called out to her: “I say there, you, the red-headed girl. Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Mollie spun around to see two men in black; her suitor was a handsome, blond-haired fellow with “muscles on his muscles”. He seemed so suave and self-assured and his physique was so mesmerising that she didn’t really study the pamphlet he thrust into her hand. After a flirtatious exchange this dashing Henry and his friend Percival told the girls to find them at Hyde Park the next day, where their boss was due to make a speech at a rally.
Sure enough Mollie and Phyllis turned up and were soon “throwing our heads back with exaggerated laughter at their jokes”. Then the boss arrived.
If the atmosphere was already edgy owing to the tension between a swarm of other men in black and a vast crowd of demonstrators, it now turned distinctly menacing.
She thought back to “dear old PC Risebrough in Norfolk and his campaign to trap a scheming gang of strawberry-thieving kids. Something told me he’d be a bit out of his depth here.”
As the revered leader marched through the crowd and “drew close I felt a strange chill wrap itself round my spine,” she writes. “His eyes were as dark and cold as a shark’s and he had cheekbones you could have cut glass on.”
Her date stood ramrod straight and swung a straight arm up into a salute: “Hail, Mosley!” he barked. Against a backdrop of hostile noise from protestors, the British Union of Fascists’ would-be demagogue then embarked on a rabble-rousing speech laden with racist and jingoistic rhetoric. First a clod of earth sailed through the air toward him from within the crowd of demonstrators, then everything descended into a brawl, into which Henry and Percival launched themselves with gusto.
Mollie and Phyllis fled, though Mollie was sufficiently smitten by Henry’s good looks to see him once more. But after spending that encounter listening to him and his fascist friends spouting odious opinions, she thought of her father lying in his bed barely able to breathe from the effects of mustard gas in the trenches, and knew very well what he would think of his daughter knocking around with such people.
On another occasion she brought shame on the house by accidentally appearing in the News of the World wearing only a bathing suit, after attending the controversial new ‘mixed bathing’ session at the Serpentine and being snapped by a photographer seeking a salacious story.
In September 1936 she left Woodhall and Cadogan Square after five years’ service for a new job with Lord Islington, but he died soon after and she found herself out of work. Back home in Norfolk she heard that the Luddington family at Wallington Hall needed a new cook. She was bewitched by the house’s imposing facade: “Looming up out of the misty fields, the hall rose into the grey skies like something out of a Gothic fantasy,” she writes. And the rumours of an Elizabethan ghost and buried treasure in the estate’s parkland tantalised her too. She found herself in an even grander world with fireplaces that seemed as big as her mum’s cottage, lavish tapestries hanging from the walls, a mounted stag’s head overlooking the drawing room, which echoed to the sombre tick of a grandfather clock.
Her fortunes in love would soon improve too when she met a young officer named Timothy Moran, who was stationed at RAF Marham. They married and had two children, and embarked on a life together that would take them around the world. Malaysia, Hong Kong and Yemen were a few of the far-flung locations they called home; and after a while Timothy’s rise was such that they had staff of their own. The former scullery maid found herself being waited upon by “no end of servants” who helped cook, clean and look after the children, who now live near Mollie in Dorset.
“I think that’s why they called the book Apron Strings and Silver Spoons,” she says now. And while she isn’t misty-eyed about the old days, she has no doubt that her time in service set her up well for a life that she saw from both ends of the social spectrum.
The book’s publication is bringing Mollie a national profile in her mid-90s - next week will see her appear on This Morning and BBC radio, which is all proving something of a distraction from her busy life in Bournemouth.
“It’s good to hear from you though,” she laughs. “I always have a sympathy still with anyone from Norfolk.”
And with that it was time for her to get on with preparing for the weekly Scrabble party she hosts at her home. The girl who ran PC Risebrough ragged 90 years ago is still going strong all these years on.
t Aprons and Silver Spoons is published by Penguin, priced £6.99.