Peter and Marjorie Collins

Blacksmith and assistant cook at Knole, 1920s

Interviewed by Wendy Ferguson in 1988

Mr and Mrs Collins met each other while working in service at Knole. Peter Collins was a busy young blacksmith and met Marjorie who worked as an assistant cook in the Knole Kitchen.

A blacksmith's busy life in self-sufficient Knole

“There were two Potters.  The eldest one was Mr William Potter, he was the blacksmith, and he worked in the forge which was next door to the sawmill. And in that forge we made horseshoes and shod the horses. There were two big shire horses, and we made gates. We made the ironwork for the wagons that the wheelwright made, and we repaired the iron wire fences all around the paddock and also the ironwork for the windows in the house and latches. And any metalwork which was required on the Estate was done in the forge.  In addition to that, the Estate had their own waterworks.  There was a deep well in Weald Road and a reservoir in White Hart Wood and that supplied water to the whole of Knole, to the Estate and to several private houses along Fawkes Common and houses in Knole Paddock.  So as well as doing metalwork in the forge I went out to various places.   Knole sold water to the private houses, so they had water meters to be read and there was a pumping station in Weald Road which was operated by two gas engines and I had to look after those.  My first job in the mornings at 7 o’clock was to go up to the pumping station and start up the pumps to pump the water up into the reservoir.”

Interviewer: It sounds a very full life.

“It was a wonderful life.  I had a very wide experience because Mr William Potter the elder was a very experienced blacksmith – he had been a blacksmith all his life.  He taught me the smithing trade, and his son had grown up with his brother who had gone to America as an engineer, and he was experienced in engineering, in water-working, pipework, latches and things like that. So I had a wonderful experience, and I was happy at Knole.  It was a happy atmosphere. There were lots of people there, it was almost a self-contained town. There were carpenters, wheelwrights, painters.  There was a steward, Mr Stubbs, the head carpenter Mr Jeffery and in the house there was of course the butler, Mr  Booth and the housekeeper Mrs Jeffery and we often had to visit the house to do various jobs inside the house and that’s where I met my wife who worked in the kitchen.”

Wages at age 16

“The Estate was at that time relatively comfortable and self-supporting; we hardly relied on the Town for anything.  We bought our metal of course from wholesalers but we made everything ourselves, even our own tools.

Interviewer:   And you all lived outside Knole?

“I lived outside Knole.  I was here in Sevenoaks itself but the two Potters lived on the Estate.  They lived up the Weald Road, next door to the pumping station. They moved about a bit.

There were agricultural implements that needed attention from time to time and, you know, all the agricultural stuff – ploughs and such-like came into the forge for attention; sharpening and grinding tools, and then you know the ironwork for the window frames. We used to make those bars to go in the windows.

But it was an interesting job.  I learnt a lot and sufficient that when I left because I wanted to get married – and the money on the Estate was very low because most of the workers on the Estate lived on the Estate and got a house rent-free of course. But as an outsider I only got the same wages as the other boys and had to live outside.

Interviewer:  Can I ask how much you were earning?

“I started off at a pound a week (laughter) and when I left I was earning 25 shillings.

Interviewer: And you were 16 ,did you say when you started?

“I was just over 16, went up to 17 when I started and I suppose I was there 5, 6 years.  I must have been 21, 22 when I left.”

The blacksmith's marks of workmanship

Interviewer:  And you were just telling me that there are still marks of your workmanship around the Estate.

“Oh yes.  On the iron fencing facing the East side of the House we had a fair amount of repairs to all that ironwork and some of the leaves in the crowns at the top were my own personal work; and some of the latches around the House were forged in the forge.

Interviewer: You learnt a lot didn’t you, while you were there?

“We looked after the locks, big old locks and keys, cut keys and repaired the locks.

Interviewer: It must have been a bit like the Severn Bridge to keep it, certainly in repairs at Knole.

“We were never without a job because there was always something to do.  I mean, in the summer we chose our jobs.  We had a small portable forge and we used to go round the whole of Knole Paddock and Duke’s Meadow which were fenced with steel wire in those days. And often the wires were broken by either children or trees falling down; and in the summer we would go out with the portable forge and weld the broken wires together.”

Starting work as assistant cook at Knole

Interviewer: Anyway how old were you when you started working at Knole in ’21.

“21, I’d just had my 21st birthday.”

Interviewer:  And can you tell me what your job involved.

“First of all, seeing that everything was very clean.  We had an enormous table in the kitchen which I think came from one of the oaks – that’s what they said wasn’t it? – I think they had to build it, saw it up in the kitchen.  It was a huge thing on legs and at the end of the table was an enormous piece of oak about the size of an enormous beer barrel and that was the chopping board – and it had been well and truly used, solid oak and a big chopper was there. We always had to see that everything was clean you see.  You had to get up very early in the morning to get the fire going.  There were two fires in the range, one was the slow burner and an oven there in which you could do meringues and things that needed slow cooking not browning. And the other was fiercer, with hot ovens you see. But it was quite difficult shoveling the coal, to regulate it to get it right for meat and right for cakes and all that kind of thing..

But after I’d been there a little while, they installed a gas stove on the right-hand side in the corner. That made life just a little bit easier. And the whole of the top of the thing was scrubbed, it was never black-leaded or anything like that. And over the top there were huge racks for keeping everything hot and there were sort of lids coming down with latches down at the end.

The enormous Knole stock pot on the stove

“Yes, and there was always an enormous, well we used to call them fish kettles, but they weren’t fish kettles, an enormous thing and that was the stock pot and that was always, well I mean you changed them, you cleaned them and had a fresh one, but there was always this enormous stock pot on the hob and that was always just on the bubble otherwise if it went off the bubble it would go sour and we always had to watch that and it was supposed to be very good.  Well it took two of us to take it off, turn it up and drain it off and then put a new clean one on and start afresh and there were always lots of bits and pieces obviously.

Interviewer:  How often was the stock made then?

“All the time! We were making stock because it was the basis of all your sauces, except sweet sauces. It was the basis of everything you see, and soup.  In the winter, they would like nice soups and casseroles and dumplings and all the nice things like that you know. Then I would have everything ready for breakfast.

I did staff breakfasts and Miss Holmes, the cook, did the dining room breakfasts you see, but I did all the staff breakfasts. Then of course there was the Still Room in those days and Mrs. Jeffery and one other girl would be doing the herbs and lavender and things like that.  I think Mrs. Jeffery used to make the jellies when she was younger but not when she got older. And then you spent the morning simply cook, cook, cooking.

There was lunch for all the staff you see and then their teas you got ready and all the cleaning up had to be done and masses of potatoes to be peeled which Mrs. Hodder mostly came and did and the other girl that was in there.”

If you are keen to hear the entire interview, 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.


This page was added by Veronica Walker-Smith on 13/11/2020.

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