Book review: Aprons and Silver Spoons by Mollie Moran

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Mollie Moran doesn’t need to switch on Downton Abbey to discover what it’s like to live below stairs as a domestic servant. She’s been there, done it... and lived to 96 years old to tell her fascinating story.

Her rise from a 1930s scullery maid to ‘big house’ cook is charted in this lively, evocative and wonderfully perceptive and intelligent memoir which lifts the lid on a world that vanished with the onset of war.

Mollie Moran was never what her granny termed a ‘skivvy.’ Bright, bubbly, fearless and endowed with a massive dollop of Norfolk-bred optimism, she brings to her writing a joie-de-vivre and lust for life that has never diminished over nine decades.

She takes us through the grinding toil of scrubbing steps, lighting fires and polishing pans to the fun of flirting with errand boys, the comforts of companionship and the exhilaration of sneaking out to dances.

Through her marriage to a man who became an army officer, Mollie went on to run her own household of servants but she has never lost sight of her humble beginnings, never envied those born to wealth and privilege and never forgotten the debt of gratitude she owes to domestic service.

Born in 1916, Mollie was raised in the Norfolk countryside near Downham Market on the edge of the fens where she ran wild and gained a reputation as a daring tomboy. Her father was gassed during the First World War and thereafter struggled to provide for his wife and two children but, as Mollie reveals, with ‘an iron will... and a healthy disregard for the rules, you could always find food.’

As she grew, young Mollie became gripped by the conviction that her destiny did not lie in the sleepy villages of Norfolk where a dull apprenticeship usually ended in marriage to a local farmhand.

At 14 she jumped at the chance to become a scullery maid for the Stocks family who owned Woodhall, a vast Tudor pile in nearby Hilgay, as well as a five-storey townhouse in Cadogan Square in London’s fashionable Knightsbridge.

Despite dire warnings about the hard work involved, Mollie set out for the big city armed with nothing but her new uniform and her eternal optimism.

Reality soon set in... her immediate boss was cook Mrs Jones, a forbidding Welsh woman whose moods ranged from ‘surly to grumpy to moderately cheerful to downright foul.’

The new maid’s 15-hour day began at 6.30am, ended at 9.30pm and involved back-breaking work like blackleading the grate, lighting the range fire, scrubbing floors, laying tables, washing up mountains of pots and preparing the vegetables.

By the end of the first week, Mollie admits she was filthy, dizzy, exhausted and so homesick that it hurt. She was 14 and her childhood was officially over.

She soon discovered that a strict hierarchy governed life downstairs and was more rigid and enforced than anything that went on upstairs. It wasn’t her employers she feared most but the head housemaid and the obsessively loyal butler.

But there were compensations which mainly involved ‘boys, dresses and dancing’ but also the bonds she forged with kitchen maid Flo Wadlow and their extraordinarily close friendship which lasted over 80 years until Flo’s death aged 100 in January this year.

Mollie’s book is brimming with fascinating details of her life both in-house and in London as the capital teetered on the brink of seismic changes. She gives us a tantalising glimpse of Wallis Simpson, with her ‘hard face and whippet-like body’ leaving a Park Lane hotel with the Prince of Wales ‘scurrying after her like a lapdog’ and Nevile Henderson, Britain’s notoriously pacifist Ambassador to Berlin, taking shelter from the pre-war ‘storms’ at a Woodhall shooting party.

Mollie’s own brief flirtation with one of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts was a wake-up call for the naive young girl and her meeting with tall, handsome Corporal Timothy Moran in January 1938 ended in marriage and motherhood.

Down-to-earth Mollie Moran lives on her own now in Bournemouth where she regularly hosts Scrabble parties and cooks for 25 people. Age has not wearied her and she still regards her ten years in service as some of the happiest times of her life.

‘Service may seem like a class struggle to some and slavery to others,’ concludes this grand old lady, ‘but to me it represented adventure and freedom beyond my wildest dreams.’

Her amazing and inspirational story is one that should not be missed...

(Penguin, paperback, £6.99)