Over the years I have collected all sorts of documents about the Rev. Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta. Last week my colleague Helen Rogers sent a copy of ‘Reminiscences of my Aunt Bess’ by George Pelling, from the Burnett Archive, with the heading ‘you are going to be so excited…!’ I certainly was! Helen had sent me a unique and wonderful account written by a parlour maid, Annie Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Passiful, recounting her meeting with Henrietta Barnett in 1914. Bess was born on 2nd July 1895, the eldest daughter of Alfred and Annie Margaret Passiful. She left school in May 1908 just before she turned 13 to assist her mother with household chores after the birth of her sister Nora. She then became a daily to a dentist named William Morris (nothing to do with THE William Morris). Her nephew noted that she had been ‘blessed with a phenomenal memory of the family and dates of events of 70 and more years’.
In April 1914 Bess was working as a parlour maid for the Rev. Vicars Armstrong Boyle and his wife. It is not surprising that Henrietta should have stayed with them at the St Nicolas Vicarage in Portslade. It was Boyle’s experiences at Toynbee Hall that led him to give up the law to become a clergyman. He later became Samuel Barnett’s private secretary and curate of St. Jude’s parish church. In 1889, Boyle left Whitechapel and was installed by Lord Sackville to the living of St Nicolas, Portslade, Sussex. Bess joined his household on 1st June 1913.
In her reminiscences, Bess reported that Mrs Boyle had told her that “we have a very special guest coming to stay, Mrs. Barnett, you will maid her, help wash and dress her and do her hair. She has rheumatism so bad in her arms she is unable to get her clothes on”. She replied that “I don’t think that I can do it,” to which Mrs Boyle said, “Oh yes you can”. Bess should not have worried. The description that follows shows Henrietta to have been approachable and warm. Bess began to relax when Mrs Boyle congratulated her on how well she had done Henrietta’s hair, while conversations between Bess and Henrietta enabled them to strike up (one of the Barnetts’ famous) cross-class friendships. It was to Bess that Henrietta turned to when she wanted to know more about Portslade’s brewing industry and its working conditions. On hearing about the pay and working hours of male workers, Henrietta turned to Bess and said ‘“I have worked for social reform all my life. Unfortunately I shall not live to see the results but you will. Times will be much better for you; the bright boy and girl given their chance to get a better education and be able to get higher standards of living”. She told Bess, “given the chance you are very bright and would do well”’. Bess later visited Henrietta one Sunday afternoon for tea at her ‘remnant house’ in Hove. During her visit, Henrietta proudly showed Bess a seascape oil painting that she had painted. She later sent Bess a calendar of well-known paintings so that she could look at a new picture every month. This reflected Henrietta’s belief in the power of art by great artists (for more information see my earlier post on the Whitechapel Art Exhibitions here). This led Bess to conclude that ‘I have felt it had been a great privilege to have known such a wonderful woman, [I] admired her very much’.
Reading about this encounter has opened my eyes to an aspect of Henrietta’s personality that I have not really come across before. Up until now I have found her descriptions of Whitechapel’s poor, in her husband’s biography, to be problematic and, at times, even offensive. Bess’s autobiography reveals another side to Henrietta and shows how cross-class friendship worked between these two women. It should not be assumed that this friendship was equal. However, it was one that Bess was proud of judging by the lengthy descriptions which Toynbee Hall and Henrietta receive in her reminiscence. I’ve therefore enjoyed reading and learning about Henrietta Barnett from a working-class woman and it is this that makes this source so rare.
So, did Bess ‘do well’? She remained in service until 1943 when she went home to help her aging parents. On their death, she then nursed her brother and sister’s husband before moving in with her sister Margaret. Yet, far from remembering domestic service to be a bleak and difficult experience, Bess appears to have she enjoyed her time with the Boyles and the world it opened up to her. Of her time in service with them, she writes ‘My duties as parlourmaid was that I had to wait at tables; never leave until the last course was served. Very interesting and great scholars came to lunch from London to visit Mr. Boyle; that is where my education really started. I listened to their conversations and learned a great deal’. At this dining table she heard and served Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Marian and Arthur Patterson, the Marquess of Cholmondeley, Lord Torphichen, and Lord Sackville. She left the Boyle household in 1930 after 17 years of what appears to have been a happy and enlightening experience.