Notorious cook-housekeeper to Squire Yorke and his insecure new bride, Louisa Yorke.
Cook-housekeeper Ellen was 32, Lancastrian, and a beauty. She was taken on by the new chatelaine of Erddig Hall – a woman who knew nothing about running a country house. Ellen pleased her new mistress: ‘The new cook is going in most splendidly,’ wrote Louisa Yorke in her pocket diary. But five years and many elaborate Edwardian dinner parties later, the relationship soured abruptly.
Mrs Penketh, who earned just £45 a year, was accused of stealing £500 in her attempts to suppress the extravagant household accounts. (Erddig was floating on a raft of debt, but the Yorkes would not cut down on their entertaining). It was discovered that money was owed all over Wrexham. The tale of ‘the thief cook’ ends in court, with dramatic newspaper headlines, humiliation – and an unexpected outcome. This is, essentially, a story about money.
Erddig was transferred to the National Trust in 1973 – with all moth-eaten antiques and archives intact. The Erddig collection, held in the Flintshire Records Office at Hawarden, is excitingly large and varied. But there is a glaring gap for the tenure of Ellen Penketh: not one letter survives from this cook-housekeeper, just a photograph tucked in the back of a family album. Ellen was purged from the house’s narrative, and piecing together her story was like trying to resurrect a ghost.
For her back-story, growing up during Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, I found her name inked in to the National Census. For her time at Erddig, I read through five years’ worth of Louisa Yorke’s pocket diaries; through her household account books, the estate cash book, and the Yorke’s guest book. I discovered just how hard this woman worked – and what happened to her after her arrest. Today you can visit Ruthin Gaol www.ruthingaol.co.uk – and so I drove deep into North Wales and stood in the grim cell where Ellen was locked up. Finally, for the infamous trial, there were lengthy local newspaper reports. By now, I knew whose side I was on.
‘ “She was a poor woman,” Mr Artemus Jones reminded the jury; “not like her employers, idlers on the great highway of life, whose actions would be entirely different.” I imagine the eyes of the male jury sliding from Louisa Yorke (reddish hair, large hat, stout figure encased in black), to Ellen Penketh (slight, handsome, her face a picture of remorse). The final twist of the knife, for the Yorkes, was Mr Jones’s reiteration of the cook-housekeeper’s wages – the “princely salary of £45 a year”, given to a woman who handled “hundreds of pounds a month and thousands of pounds in the course of a year. If any woman ever had a chance of fraudulently converting money to her own use,” Mr Artemus Jones concluded, “it was the prisoner”.’
Photo Ellen Penketh copyright National Trust.