News & Events

The Housekeeper’s Tale is now available as an Audible audio book

Coming up:

Friday 19 May 2017 Fairlight Hall, Near Hastings, East Sussex, 10.30am-12.30pm 
A unusual look behind the scenes at this atmospheric ‘Victorian neo-gothic’ country house and private home. I’ll be talking about some of the grittier home truths behind houses like this, and we’ll take a tour of the original service quarters. Followed by coffee and Fairlight’s fabulous cakes. Tickets £20 online.

Two exhibitions on the ‘Bloomsbury‘ set opened in January 2017, one at The Dulwich Picture Gallery and the other at Two Temple Place, both in London. If you have read The Housekeeper’s Tale and enjoyed the story of Grace Higgens, make sure you visit both of these and – while looking at all those energetic paintings and fabrics – keep Vanessa Bell’s loyal housekeeper firmly in mind. Would there have been any of this artistic outpouring without a housekeeper? Most probably not.

Past events:

Thursday 22 September 2016Hurst Festival, Hurstpierpoint, East Sussex, 7.30pm
Small but thrillingly diverse, this is a favourite bijou festival showcasing (mostly) local talent, from bass guitarists to micro brewers, writers to rap poets. Two Sussex housekeepers who span a century – the querulous Mrs Wells of Uppark, and the stoical Grace Higgens of Charleston – will feature in my talk.

Tuesday 20 September 2016: Berkswich History Society, Walton-on-the-Hill, Staffordshire
What happened to poor housekeeper Dorothy Doar, evicted by the Duchess of Sutherland from Trentham Hall for falling pregnant in 1832? She seemed to simply vanish from the records. I’m grateful to Beryl Holt, super sleuth of Berkswich, for enabling me to now tell the full story.

Saturday 23 July 2016: Ryedale Festival at Duncombe Park, Helmsley, North Yorkshire, 3pm
What better place to weigh up the triumphs and tribulations of the country house servant than at this exquisite Grade I listed house, privately owned by the Duncombe family? The setting is the magnificent Saloon, not normally glimpsed by the public.

19 May 2016: Midhurst Historical Society, South Downs Memorial Hall, evening
H.G. Wells was the most famous novelist of the Edwardian Era. Less well known is that his mother was High Victorian housekeeper of Uppark. She’s gone down in history as ‘the worst housekeeper’ – but was this blithe assessment by her son fair? A West Sussex talk followed by summer drinks. 

14 May 2016: The Old Courthouse, Antrim, Northern Ireland, 7.30pm
An entertaining, moving and informative talk on some of the characters I unearthed during research. So many country house servants were recruited from rural Ireland: what dizzy heights could an ambitious chambermaid reach? Drinking leftover Champagne and rollerskating round the Vanderbilts’ ‘humungous’ Manhattan kitchen, in one instance.

22 April 2016: Holkham Hall, Norfolk, 6pm.
What’s it like housekeeping for a vast English country house today? In 2014 I spent the day with Holkham’s former head housekeeper Nicky Garner, last in a long line of ancestors to serve the Hall. It was fascinating to get her opinion on the often harsh stories of her predecessors – and one in particular that seemed to mirror her own. Tickets £18, including a glass of wine in the Saloon, and unique access to some of the other state rooms in the Hall. Holkham Ticket Office: 01328 713111.

10 March 2016: Norwich Castle, Town Close Auditorium, 2.30pm.
Grace Higgens of Banham, Norfolk was loyal housekeeper to the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex for 50 years from 1921; Nicky Garner was recently head housekeeper at Holkham Hall. Viewed together, their experiences tell a fascinating tale of one hundred years of change in the English country house. £3.50 members, or £4.

9 February 2016: Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, 10.30am.
The racy and valedictory story of Scotswoman Hannah Mackenzie, housekeeper of Wrest during its role as the nation’s best Great War private hospital. An English Heritage event held in the Great Library – or ‘Ward B’, as it was in 1914.

10-19 November 2015: The Royal Oak Foundation, U.S tour.
Bringing to life the tough and torrid lives of the five housekeepers in my book  – and exploring the subject of archival research: how do you go about resurrecting the lives of working women who left so few traces behind them?

Tuesday 29 September 2015, 7.50pm: Oxfordshire Local History Association, Kidlington. The challenges, frustrations and triumphs of researching the lives of real domestic servants.

Saturday 3 October 2015: Sevenoaks Literary Celebration. A tea-time talk about the redoubtable Grace Higgens of Charleston (with Grace’s own cake recipes on the menu, naturally).

Monday 21 September 2015:  West Sussex libraries Midhurst  (3pm) and Chichester (7.30pm). A talk focusing on two Sussex housekeepers: the ineffectual and elderly Mrs Wells of Uppark (mother to H.G.Wells), and loyal Grace Higgens of Charleston Farmhouse, willingly exploited by the Bloomsbury ‘set’ for half a century.

Thursday 17 September 2015: Rye Arts Festival, East Sussex. A much cherished and intellectually ambitious boutique festival, now in its 43rd year.

Thursday 25 June 2015, 6 & 7.30pm. Erddig Hall, Wrexham, North Wales.
Spotlight on Ellen Penketh, the Edwardian ‘thief cook’ of Erddig. Why was she purged from the archives? A promenade-style talk exploring the atmospheric servant quarters and piecing together her dramatic story.

Wednesday 11 March 2015, 7pm: 2 Temple Place, London. ‘Cotton to Gold’ exhibition: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West. Who looked after these spoils of Empire and their eccentric owners? A talk about the housekeeper’s role as guardian of such valuable or downright weird booty – and her relationship with the master.

Saturday 29 and Sunday 30 November 2014: Great Dixter Christmas Fair Northiam, East Sussex
The former home of gardener Christopher Lloyd, Dixter exudes history, stories, characters – above and below stairs. Find me in the medieval Great Hall with its crackling fire, signing copies of The Housekeeper’s Tale.

Tuesday 25 November 2014: 6pm Jaffé & Neale bookshop, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
Now that Downton’s over – how does the TV drama match up to the reality? A talk on the real heroines of the English Country House in this delightful independent bookshop-cum-café.

Sunday 26 October 2014: 10am Harrogate History Festival, Yorkshire. Venue: Old Swan Hotel
‘If Walls Could Talk’: I’ll be joining two lively social historians – Lucy Lethbridge (Servants) and Dr Pamela Cox (Shopgirls) – for a discussion on the invisible foot-soldiers of history. Chaired by historical novelist Antonia Hodgson.

Friday 10 October 2014: 6.30-8pm Lewes Waterstones author talk, East Sussex
Honey, Hives and Hierarchies: sharing the floor for a buzzy discussion with critically acclaimed novelist Laline Paull (The Bees) and award-winning food writer Hattie Ellis (Sweetness and Light; Spoonfuls of Honey). What do a beehive and an English country house have in common? More than you’d imagine.

Sunday 28 September: 2.30pm Capron House, Midhurst, West Sussex
Part of Film Hub South East’s festival on HG Wells: SCI-FI: Days of Fear and Wonder. A talk about his mother, Sarah Wells, ‘the worst housekeeper’ of Uppark. Was this blithe assessment by her son fair?

Friday 22 August: 4pm Charleston Farmhouse, East Sussex
A talk on ‘The Angel of Charleston’, Grace Higgens – and a chance to poke around her kitchen. Still dark, but much better appointed.

Thursday 26 June 1914: 6.30pm Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
How an intriguing bundle of application letters in Hatfield’s archive reveals the hunt for a head housekeeper to Queen Victoria’s prime minister.

Monday 23 June 2014: 2pm Holkham Hall, Norfolk
Talking to visitors in the estate shop, alongside Holkham’s housekeeper Nicky Garner (linseed oil and e-cloth at the ready)

Thursday 19 June 2014: 6.30pm Trentham Hall, Staffordshire
The sad story of Dorothy Doar, housekeeper to the obscenely wealthy Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

Thursday 12 June 2014: Erddig Hall, Wrexham, North Wales
Ellen Penketh, the ‘thief cook’ of Erddig. Why was she purged from the archives? A promenade-style talk exploring the atmospheric servant quarters.

Sunday 25 May 2014: Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
‘Wrest at War’ with English Heritage: telling the story of the Scottish housekeeper behind this country house hospital – the irresistible, irrepressible Hannah Mackenzie.