Trentham Hall, Staffordshire

1820-1832 (Regency)

Housekeeper to the powerful First Duke and Duchess of Sutherland – Britain’s richest (and most hated) family of the time.


Dorothy Doar was unusual, for a housekeeper. She was married – and had a young daughter. Every penny she earned was sent off to keep her husband and child, who lived out. In 1832 she was horrified to discover that she was, once again, pregnant. As the country teetered on the brink of revolution with the Great Reform Act, Dorothy was dismissed from her post by the 1st Duchess of Sutherland. ‘Never again shall I have a married House Keeper,’ her mistress wrote in irritation. ‘It is attended with many bad consequences.’ There was worse to come: weeks later this ‘loyal and zealous’ housekeeper was branded a ‘Devil’ and sent packing from Trentham Hall. Mrs Doar’s unforgivable crime was to steal from her own store cupboard – a pathetic haul of sheets, dusters, mops and brooms – as she prepared for a life on the outside.


The pitiful story of Mrs Doar is hinted at in Keeping Their Place: Domestic Service in the Country House, a book by the excellent social historian Pamela Sambrook. She had read the series of letters between James Loch and William Lewis in the vast Sutherland archive – but hadn’t found any correspondence from the housekeeper, who she’d mis-read as ‘Mrs Dean’. Intrigued, I travelled to Stoke on Trent and spent three days reading through musty bundles of stiffly-folded estate letters. It takes time to get your eye in with 19th-century handwriting, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for. But when I found it – Dorothy Doar’s letter – goose bumps broke out on the back of my hands. With the letter, the story came to life. She seemed to leap off the page: desperate, pleading, anguished. Her voice had me unexpectedly wiping away a tear.

With Dorothy in place, I was able to fill in more gaps using other archive documents: accounts ledgers, floor plans, staff wage books, bundles of receipts (one for ‘13 easy chairs, one gold clock, moist sugar, lump sugar, Demerara sugar and arrowroot’). The house she served was long gone, but the gardens remain, and I paced their enormous length, trying to mentally inhabit her world. But what happened to Dorothy after her disgrace? I searched at length – but couldn’t find her.


‘Mrs Doar had no savings. She had a daughter at school, a feckless husband, rent due on the family lodgings, a baby on the way in a matter of days and her long-term job and all future security snatched from her. Pregnancy hormones raged through her body. As she squatted heavily and packed her trunks, one thing must have led to another. She finally gave in to temptation. They were not her things, and yet in a sense they were her things: she had ordered them, cared for them, catalogued and stored them; mended and marked them; ground and sifted them; bottled and corked them. Each item (candle, banister brush, pillow case, tea caddy) had its own complex emotional significance to Mrs Doar, powerfully felt through daily use. And what was it to them anyway, a handful of mops and dusters? Her Lord and Lady ate breakfast off solid-silver plates under a Poussin and a Gainsborough. All this – stock for her little shop, or there would be nothing to sell and therefore nothing to eat – was mere chicken feed. So Mrs Doar might have told herself. But how wrong she was.’