When is a 'crust of dust’ a good thing?

Helen Lloyd, Housekeeper supremo for the National Trust, is one of those redoubtable, no-nonsense Englishwomen who gets things done.

Helen Lloyd: Britain's most powerful housekeeper?

Helen Lloyd: Britain’s most powerful housekeeper?

She blew into the Trust 33 years ago and rattled the cages of various male managers. ‘What I loved about my title – ‘The Housekeeper’ – was that no-one really understood what it was,’ she told me over Earl Grey tea at the National Trust’s headquarters in Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1. ‘I’d have to explain to them what I did; why my role as a conservator was important. At project meetings they’d say ‘Why do we need the Housekeeper here?’ Or, ‘Which house?’ And with a certain satisfaction, Helen would reply ‘The whole country’.

Her job was to introduce a new way of doing things; a more conservation-minded approach to housekeeping. Back then, National Trust properties were looked after and cleaned by a band of house-proud, loyal women with a cupboard full of modern cleaning products. Through over-zealous cleaning, they were gradually eroding the historic surfaces. ‘I’ve spent much of my life throwing out tins of Brasso, Pledge and Mr Muscle’, says Helen. But without specialist advice, no-one knew what to use in their place.


Pernicious: modern cleaning products are banned from NT properties

Pernicious: modern cleaning products are banned from NT properties‘

‘A lot of traditional housekeeping practice got lost after WWI’, Helen explains; ‘with servants disappearing, taking work in shops and factories. Soon there was no hierarchy of servants passing on knowledge and experience.’ By the 1970s there was no-one left who knew how to look after historic furnishings in the right way. Big houses were left with small teams of ‘dailies’, doing whatever they’d do in their own home with products like Vim. Then came even more pernicious modern products, designed to do the job quickly and easily – disastrous for fragile historic materials and furniture.

So if the knowledge had been lost, where did the National Trust start? At Waddesdon – the 19th-century Rothschild chateau in Buckinghamshire. Miss Alice de Rothschild had been fastidious about preserving the proper, traditional way of housekeeping. ‘She had kept the flame burning’ says Helen, ‘and in 1977 the staff there demonstrated her methods to my predecessors, Hermione Sandwith and Sheila Stainton.’

Waddesdon Manor, Bucks: where 19th-century cleaning methods never went out of fashion

Waddesdon Manor, Bucks: where 19th-century cleaning methods never went out of fashion

Another intriguing source was an 18th century book, written by Georgian housewife Susannah Whatman before handing over care of her house to a daughter-in-law. ‘It contains very precise instructions for closing window blinds when the sun comes in at certain times of day, using brushes to dust carved furniture, removing dust from ledges before it sticks and becomes more difficult to remove, and walking over the backs of rugs to knock grit out of the pile. Much of it is common sense,’ says Helen. ‘These techniques evolved at a time when water, light and power were scarce. They were devised to be effective and labour-saving.’ Through Susannah Whatman, the NT absorbed the surprising lesson that less is more.

‘If you do my way,’ Helen began to encourage cleaning staff up and down the country, ‘you won’t have to clean things so often. If you use Brasso on metalwork, it needs polishing every week. Instead, conservators recommend that you use a mild paste chrome cleaner, followed by a coat of microcrystalline wax which protects against tarnish, so then it needs doing just once a year.’

First up, brushes were reintroduced. Completely practical. Not dusters. Once you’ve started cleaning something with a brush you never want to use anything else’.

Brushes: 'Completely practical – you won't want to use anything else'

Brushes: ‘Completely practical – you won’t want to use anything else’

This makes me think of my early 19th-century housekeeper Dorothy Doar of Trentham Hall, and her criminal hoard of cleaning brushes concealed inside those hampers back in 1832. Once rumbled, she’d sent her personal maid out of her sitting room; on her return the girl found an ‘untolerable stench’, such as from burning ‘hair brushes, mops and flannel.’ One can imagine the rank, animal smell of so much horse- and hog-hair sizzling on the hot coals of Mrs Doar’s fire.

Trentham Hall’s poor housekeeper didn’t know it then, but her knowledge passed down to her maids would come to be priceless. In the 1970s, a handful of elderly ex-custodians still remained – and Helen’s predecessor Sheila Stainton wanted to get her hands on that knowledge. Mrs Boulter of Stourhead, a redoubtable character, was one. ‘She gave us a recipe for cleaning floors: mix 50/50 paraffin and vinegar, dip in a square of old wool blanket, allow to drip until almost dry, store in an airtight container, wrap around the head of a cotton mop, use round the edges of rooms, around loose carpets and rugs. It picks up the dust, and redistributes the wax polish.’

Armed with recipes like this, in 1982 Helen and Sheila started ‘housekeeping study days’: teaching NT house staff how to handle, move and clean historic collections. An instant hit, by the 1990s this had became a five day course. Gradually conservation became a career choice, and a wholly new type of person began to sign up: young graduates, starting at the bottom as ‘conservation assistants’, and aspiring to work their way up to become house manager of a NT property.

Perhaps Helen’s proudest achievement is the recently published Manual of Housekeeping – a wholly revised, 928-page door-stopper crammed with priceless nuggets on the care and conservation of old houses and their treasures, written by a team of NT specialist conservators, including herself. ‘Its predecessor, published in 1984, was the first “modern” housekeeping book since the 19th-century and Mrs Beeton,’ she says with satisfaction. It costs a not unreasonable £25.

Worth its weight: The National Trust's Manual of Housekeeping

Worth its weight: crammed with nuggets on best practice, culled over 200 years. RRP £25

Helen Lloyd now goes by the rather less zippy 21st-century title ‘Preventive Conservation Adviser – Housekeeping’. But I sense she is still very much ‘The Housekeeper’ at heart: trenchant, practical, with a dry sense of humour. She is known for many things, including her obsession with managing dust. Helen has spent ten years researching scientifically the effects of dust on historic materials. Her conclusions are interesting – and reassuring to those of us who daren’t run a finger over the furniture at home for fear of what it might reveal.

‘We don’t want to be over-zealous at Trust properties,’ she tells me. At Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, for example, ‘the place that time forgot’, the family had retreated into one corner, leaving much of the house unused for decades. ‘There is a patina of age, soot and peeling paint at Calke that is part of the spirit of the place. We agreed to preserve this crust of dust, and just remove the dead flies.’ Unlike in museums, where collections might be protected within glass cases, with historic houses the aim is to preserve the atmosphere of an occupied home.

As a rule of thumb, says Helen, ‘We like the old dust to stay, and the new dust to go.’

Calke Abbey, the house that time forgot: 'We just removed the dead flies'

Calke Abbey, the house that time forgot: ‘We just removed the dead flies’