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26 Aug 2020

The Hill House: domestic servants

Written by Taylah Egbers, Visitor Services Supervisor, The Hill House
Black and white photograph of the Hill House in Helensburgh.
The servants’ sleeping quarters were on the top floor of the Hill House (Photograph by Bedford Lemere, 1904, © RCAHMS)
The life of a domestic servant during the Edwardian era was like no other. Life at the Hill House was a lot more tranquil than that portrayed in programmes such as Downton Abbey, but it was still busy and challenging.

Two of the hardest-working servants that the Blackie family employed were their nanny Janet Stewart and their gardener William Howe. We’d like to share a little about them with you.

Janet ‘Jessie’ Stewart was born in Boyndie Banffshire around 1865. From census records we’re able to see that Janet was working for the Blackie family from as early as 1901 as a nursemaid or nanny. The service industry was thriving in the early years of the Edwardian era, with a little over 2 million women employed in domestic service across the UK. Servants were expected to work long hours, rising before the family and always working on demand. It wasn’t until the National Insurance Act of 1911 that the healthcare and safety of domestic servants became looked after. This new Act granted domestic workers the rights to sick leave, treatment for tuberculosis and, after a push from the Co-operative Women’s Guild, maternity benefits. But the Blackie family always treated their staff with the utmost respect and because of this most stayed in their service longer than they may have originally planned. Even after Janet Stewart left the Blackie’s service, Agnes (the youngest Blackie child) would travel to spend many summer holidays with her on the east coast of Scotland.

Janet is remembered as having a close relationship with all the Blackie children and enjoyed many holidays with the family.

The Blackie family also employed the hardworking and dedicated gardener William Howe. He and his family lived in the gardener’s cottage in the grounds of the Hill House from the early 1930s. In 1928 Walter Blackie commissioned local architect Robert Wemyss to extend the cottage, adding a small bedroom and bathroom extension. This would become home for William, his twin daughters Caroline and Grace, and son William for many years. Unfortunately, William’s wife passed away before the family moved to the Hill House, due to a railway accident in 1933.

Extract from a valuation roll showing details of who lived at the Hill House, including Wm. Howe, the gardener.
The original valuation roll showing Wm. Howe, gardener of the Hill House from 1935–36.

From stories told about the Hill House, we know that William Howe survived the hardships of not one but two great wars. He fought with the Seaforth Highlanders during WW1 and sheltered alongside the Blackie family and evacuees during WW2 and the Clyde Blitz.

The Blackie family always spoke highly of William and he was often referred to simply as Howe. William and his family continued to be a part of the Helensburgh community even after their time at the Hill House had ended. Many people from the town today still fondly remember the twins, Caroline and Grace, from their time working at the local telephone exchange and Co-op.

Black and white photo of a small detached house in the grounds of a larger house, with trees in the background.
The gardener’s cottage in 1904 before the 1928 extension, where William and his family lived during their time at the Hill House (© University Library, Ruprecht Karls University Heidelberg, 1904)

Janet Stewart and William Howe are just two of many servants who worked at the Hill House. We know the Hill House would not be the same today without the hard work and dedication of all the domestic servants who passed through our halls. Please ask us about their interesting lives next time you visit us!

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