Christmases at Knole

Memories of interviewees from the earliest decades of the 20th century

compiled by Veronica Walker-Smith

Fond memories of Christmases past at Knole: from our archived interviews with Knole Estate staff, their children and their relatives. This selection includes Emmy Arlett nee Sales, daughter of Knole’s fencer, who grew up at Knole; Margaret Simmons, daughter of the Knole Head Gardener Charlie Beavin; Pru Carter, daughter of the Knole chauffeur, Manfred Fairweather; blacksmith Peter and Marjorie Collins, assistant cook who met and married at Knole in the 1920s; Bill Hughes who started work as Second Footman in 1928 and rose to become Butler, in service for 50 years to the Sackville-West family; Alan Grubb, whose long association with Knole spans nearly a quarter of the 20th century. In more recent years, Christmas carols have also featured in Great Hall concerts, remembered by Andrew Dawson.

From the memoirs of Margaret Simmons née Beavin :

The huge Christmas tree was cut from the Park a few days before, and then it was erected on the dais in the Great Hall where the party was to be held. It was then ready to be decorated by the footmen, who had to use a tall ladder to reach the top. Celebrations started early in the evening, and everyone was dressed in their best clothes, and the children were instructed to be on their very best behaviour. The meal we ate was served on the Hall’s long refectory table, with Lord Charles and Lady Anne presiding at the head. It was a beautiful setting with the huge log fire blazing away, the decorated tree, and the candlelight from the chandeliers and table candles glinting on the glassware, whilst the liveried footmen were on hand to serve us. The memory of what we actually ate is hazy, probably due to over excitement, although I do remember fresh fruit salads in jelly that had been set in the scooped-out skins of oranges and grapefruit, and huge pyramids of éclairs.

Oddly, a much clearer memory, and one that is always special to me, was that smell, only found in ancient houses, which is a mixture of old wood, beeswax and potpourri and enhanced on these occasions by the pine-y smell from the Christmas tree.

After the meal Lady Anne Sackville would present all the children with gifts from under the tree. As our names were called by the butler we walked what seemed an endless distance down the hall to receive our gift and we had, if nerves allowed, to remember to curtsey! The gifts were always just right for each individual child. Obviously a great deal of thought had gone into choosing them, the credit for which was probably due to Mrs Jefferies, the head housekeeper.

My favourite present had been a doll with wax features, dressed in deep rose velvet, and with real leather shoes on her feet. I treasured her for years as she was the only doll that I ever owned which had real hair. Following the giving of the presents, we children were given a bag of sweets and fruit, and then ushered out of the hall to another part of the house, to be looked after and entertained by some of the maids so that our parents might enjoy the rest of the evening in peace.

If you’d like to listen to any of these interviews in full, you’re invited to search the British Library’s online catalogue, using ‘Knole’ as one of your search keywords. You can then read each interview’s timed content summary and reserve the recording for playback at the British Library in London.


Emmy Arlett's memory of children's Christmas parties at Knole

Emmy Arlett (EA): Boxing Day was the highlight of Christmas at Knole. And we used to go to this Christmas tree, Christmas party. And we used to all be dressed up in our Sunday best and be drilled in what we had to do before we got there. And then we had [a] marvellous tea, when we got there, all fancy jellies and cakes and something you’d never seen, you see, hardly.

We’d go all through to the Great Hall at Knole, and this huge Christmas tree and it had candles on, in those days. And the footman would be there, with a snuffer thing; every time a candle burnt down, they’d have to put it out, so it didn’t catch alight.

And then we all had games which were all organised by some of the staff.  And then Lord and Lady Sackville would come in and present the prizes – everybody had a present, all done up in fancy papers and beautiful dolls we used to have and really lovely books they used to give us. Beautiful books. And then the mothers and fathers would all go away with the Butler and the Housekeeper to have a glass of port wine and talk. And we were left to play. With the staff, some of the staff would be there to look after us.

There was this huge log fire – great, enormous open fire – and they had a musical box, and it used to play “Put on your tattars, your pretty little tatters and go”.  I can always remember it, this thing, and it was a revolving drum; used to go round. It used to always be in the corner, it used to play, and we used to stand open-mouthed and look at it, wonder where the noise came from. It was wonderful really.

But when you think back about it, well we thought it was wonderful. But the children today – I don’t think they would think anything of it at all. And when we came home, when it was time to come home – because we had to walk right across the park to get home – we used to be presented with a bag with orange and apple and sweets in it. And all the food that was left over. They were giving sandwiches and all things to the parents to take home. We thought it was wonderful. Marvellous, really.

But they were getting the clothes ready for us, to be dressed up for weeks before.

Interviewer: And drilling you to curtsey?

EA: Yes, my mother used to, because they didn’t have much money in those days, she used to make all the clothes. Although she wasn’t a dressmaker but she used to make them out of something else; unpick it all and wash it. All the boys’ trousers, she used to make; and dresses and things for me. Out of – well it was never new; it was all always made out of something else.

Christmas party food - Assistant Cook, Marjorie Collins, 1920s-'60s

Interviewer: Would you like to tell me about the Christmas party because you, Mrs.  Collins, you must have had a lot to do with it.

Mrs. Collins: “Yes, the cake and things like that.  Iced cakes and sandwiches and homemade biscuits, gingerbread biscuits and all kinds of things.  Lashings of lemonade, homemade lemonade and milk of course and yes that was very nice.  They lined up, they came from all over the Estate, the children you see, and Barbara Booth was the first one and John Booth and then Pru Fairweather and her brother and so on down the scale until you got to the outworkers and all that, and of course they had it in the Great Hall and an enormous Christmas tree right at the very end and they had all the Great Hall to run around and really make themselves heard and it was really lovely.  Mrs.  Jeffery used to, now who was it, now, Booth called out the names, Mrs.  Jeffery handed the presents to Her Ladyship and Her Ladyship gave them to the children.

Interviewer: Did you actually take part in the party?

“Oh yes, you wore your ordinary clothes and made yourselves look as nice as you could.”

Interviewer: So you joined in the organization of the games as well did you?

“Well we could if we wanted to but I think we were busy saying ‘Would you like another cake?’ you know.”

Gifts of venison - Peter Collins, blacksmith, 1920s-'60s

Mr Collins: “Our sole Christmas thing was they used to slaughter a few deer before Christmas and the senior people got a piece of venison for Christmas and the junior ones like myself got a piece of rabbit, or a whole rabbit.  Sometimes a whole rabbit, but Mr. Potter and Mr. Jeffery and those people they got a side of venison for Christmas.

It was amazing how each one [said]  “Now I had a shoulder last year, will I get a shoulder this year?’ or ‘Will I get a leg?’ and ‘Why should so-and-so have a saddle?’ you know.”

Interviewer:  Who did the butchering?

Mr.Collins:  “The gamekeeper.”

Mrs.Collins:  “He did the skinning but we did the cutting up.”

Mr.Collins:  “You cut them up but Hodder killed them and skinned them and hung them up in the butchery.”

Mrs.Collins:  “The first time it happened, I went up to the butchery for something and all these creatures were hanging up and then lying across the big table there.  I said to Mrs. Holmes what are those creatures, what’s happened up in the butchery?  ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘it’s only the deer, we’ve got to go up there and cut them up in a minute.’  I said, ‘I can’t ! And she said, ‘You’ve jolly well got to.’

Interviewer:  It’s quite a skilled job.

Mrs.Collins: “But I’d known those deer since I was a little girl and she hadn’t!  She only knew them as being about and I said, ‘But I’ve known them and she said they aren’t the ones you knew as a little girl.’

Oh it was awful, I didn’t like it at all.  It was quite tough work chopping them up and you had to be so careful because if someone got a bigger shoulder than the other one they weren’t very happy.  So they got their venison, and everyone got a Christmas pudding.”

Second Footman's Great Hall duties in 1928 - Bill Hughes

“Christmas, they’d have a party for the staff. Now in those days, in particular the days I’m talking about at this particular moment, this was about the first one I did when I went to Knole [in 1928], there was about 40 children. Working on the estate at that time were about 50 people or more.

The children would come with their parents for a tea in the servants’ hall. The servants’ hall was all laid out with jellies and Dundee cakes and everything you could whip up – marvellous tea they used to give the staff and their children. Then we used to go into the Great Hall. And in the Great Hall, there was a Christmas tree and I’d stand by the side with a big bucket with a big stick with a sponge at the end, just in case one of the candles went.

But my job was to give the nuts, and the bag of apples and oranges. They first collect their present from Lord and Lady Sackville to the left of the tree, near the door that came in from the parlour passage. Then to me, have their apple, and go back to their parents. When the Sackvilles had given their present, then the staff and everybody used to mix in and play Postman’s Knock, Kissing the Rings -and calling and everything like that, – games until about 7. And then the men used to come and pick their families up. And the Butler’s pantry which is opposite the Great Hall, which is now a workplace of the National Trust head workers. That was the Butler’s pantry. In the Butler’s pantry, each man, they each had what they wanted to drink from the Butler. And when he’d had what he wanted, he’d take his children home.”

Christmas presents from Lady Sackville - Pru Carter

“And the highlight of the year for the children was the Christmas party.  In fact we had, we were allowed out of school half an hour before school finished so that the children living around the other side of the park, around Godden Green, had time to go home and get back for the party.  The tea was always held in the servants’ hall, a long table with the usual sandwiches, cakes and jellies and after we’d had tea we were taken through into the Great Hall.

We entered by a little door at the side and there would be a large Christmas tree up that end and I think there must be a step, I seem to remember a step down, this tree was up on that.  And there was a huge fire with huge logs burning and little forms set out on either side for mothers to sit on and have a talk while the children played.

And once we were all there and settled, another side door would open and Lord and Lady Sackville would come in.  It would always seem to take me by surprise to suddenly see them standing there.  They asked for quiet and then the Butler called out our names: the Butler’s children first, then the Chauffeur’s, the Head Gardener’s and so down the scale.  As our names were called out the Housekeeper would hand the present to Her Ladyship and Her Ladyship would hand it to us.  I think we were all supposed to bob or curtsey but half the time I think we all forgot as we were so excited with our presents which were really very good presents.

Two outstanding I remember, one was a very large doll, the largest doll I had ever had and a tea set, not your ordinary sort of tin tea set, but it was a china tea set with almost full sized cups and a teapot, saucers and plates.  I loved that tea set!”

Christmas gatherings of staff - Alan Grubb, 1963 - 87

“In the mess room of the Carpenter’s Shop. It was about 26 of us in there, and there were one or two people who used to get drunk and try to get somebody drunk. I was one who got caught. The gamekeeper Ray West, had to go and get my wife, or take me to Sevenoaks where she worked, to take me home. That was in the early years, before I was married.

It was all just chat really. We got all the drink in and the food and the wives used to do the food, sausage rolls, mince pies, cheese and pickled onions. The stonemasons as well, they were a big part.”

This page was added by Veronica Walker-Smith on 14/12/2020.

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