Deaf and elderly housekeeper to Frances Fetherstonhaugh, dairy farmer’s daughter.
Sarah Wells is best known as the mother of the prolific Edwardian novelist, H. G. Wells. But when she took on the top job at Uppark, ‘Bertie’ was just 13 years old, and the family was in dire financial straights. At the request of a former mistress from Sarah’s days as a ladies’ maid – the elderly Miss Fetherstonhaugh – she left her husband and three sons behind in Bromley and went to live below stairs at the great house. ‘Miss F’ had inherited Uppark from her sister (a dairymaid who had shocked society by marrying the master), and she simply couldn’t control the servants. Nor, as it turned out, could Mrs Wells. Ten years later, in the words of H.G. Wells, they were ‘two deaf old women at cross purposes’. Mrs Wells was finally caught gossiping about her mistress’s former life – and was dismissed on the spot.
Mrs Wells is history’s one ‘famous’ housekeeper – but only in relation to her son, who fictionalised his visits to Uppark in the novel Tono Bungay. What sort of woman was she really? I wanted to get inside her head, and I did this by reading her diaries. Not the originals – these are kept at the university library of Illinois for scholars of H. G. Wells. But photocopies are held by the West Sussex Record Office – and here in Chichester, ten miles from Uppark, I read through hundreds of pages of her quavering copperplate script. They are not, it must be said, a racy read. But the cumulative effect is very powerful: they tell us what it was like to be hidden below stairs, day after day, in a house full of quarrelsome females.
A devastating fire at Uppark in 1989 destroyed most of the house’s archives. A handful survive, including Miss F’s accounts books. These helped me piece together the finances of this great house, and better understand Sarah Wells’ constant worry about managing enormous sums of money. H. G. Wells claimed that his mother was so bad at adding up, she begged him to do her accounts. This does not bode well if you’re a housekeeper.
‘It was an era of furious, baffling change. In November 1892 Mrs Wells visited a young lady in the village and came away feeling horribly out of the swim of things: ‘Felt very unsettled and seeing such altered ways makes one very dull’, she wrote, sitting tight-lipped in the crepuscular gloom of the servants’ basement. Truthfully she should never have taken the job: she lacked the qualifications. But Mrs Wells was eager to make the best of it, elated at her apparent great change in fortunes. The reality of her daily round, in this twilight world below stairs, turned out to be relentlessly hard for a frail woman in her sixties – and nothing like the Victorian caricature of the housekeeper, haughty in her black bombazine dress and clinking keys, directing work from the comfort of a wing chair in her sitting room.’
Photo of Mrs Wells copyright National Trust.