Wrest Park, Bedfordshire

1914-1915 (First World War)

Scottish housekeeper of Britain’s first country house war hospital – then head housekeeper to the Vanderbilts in New York.

HER STORY

Career servant Hannah Mackenzie was a character to be reckoned with. Recruited in 1914 to help transform the graceful chateau of Wrest Park into a war hospital, she soon had the ‘Tommies’ and war surgeons alike wrapped around her little finger. Poor Miss Martin the Matron didn’t stand a chance. Hannah’s mistress, the Honorable Nan Ino Herbert, described the battle between these two senior women as a ‘blood feud’. Nan even called upon the hospital’s benefactor, the Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), to help broker peace.

Miss Martin left after just five months. Hannah lasted a year, until the middle class land agent Mr Argles fell ‘violently’ in love with her. She was given the sack – but her story ends triumphantly. Mrs Mackenzie boarded a ship to New York, eventually finding work as head housekeeper to society hostess Grace Vanderbilt, ‘Queen of Fifth Avenue’. A remarkable woman, Hannah died in 1985 aged 102.

MY RESEARCH

Hannah was the hardest nut to crack – a voiceless yet surprisingly potent presence. Who was she, and what really happened? I started my research with just one picture taken in 1914, captioned ‘cook and housekeeper’ by an English Heritage curator (but they weren’t sure which was which). Historian Dr Andrew Hann lead me to Nan Herbert’s fascinating war-time scrapbooks, crammed with black and white photos of Wrest Park’s ‘marvelous career as a war hospital’. What Nan wrote about her forceful housekeeper was scant but telling, and I wanted to know more.

Once I’d narrowed down the census returns to the right woman (Hannah was, I deduced, seated on the left in the picture) and sent off for her death certificate, I was astonished to find she still had a living relative with a clear memory of her. Great nephew Ross Mackenzie, from his home in Northampton, filled me in on the gaps – and showed me some intriguing images of Hannah, in service to the Vanderbilts, and (sixty years later) celebrating her 100th birthday. The rest I pieced together from the National Census, advertisements in The Times, War Office records, Shipping records and local newspaper reports. This story was a detective hunt – and an exciting one, since her tale has never been told before.

AN EXTRACT

‘In old age, Hannah Mackenzie was remembered for the nicotine stain in her shock of white hair and her fondness for shouting out, in a throaty American accent, ‘Now look here, sister!’ and ‘You bunch of bums!’ She was forceful, irreverent, a practical joker and a flirt. In her retirement she consumed 100 Chesterfield cigarettes and a bottle of Scotch a day – delivered by relatives to her hospital bed in Northampton even as dementia set in. She also, evidently, had great charm. Her career in domestic service spanned the Victorian industrialist middle classes, the Edwardian Conservative nouveau riche, the Liberal aristocracy during the Great War and the American super-rich of the Roaring Twenties. She went into service at the turn of the century, when whalebone corsets and gas lighting were the norm. She peaked 25 years later in a New York palazzo working as head housekeeper to the Vanderbilts, with shingled hair, silk stockings and a centrally heated office. By any standards of domestic service this was an unimaginable career for a working class woman from Inverness.’