Becoming Mary: A Victorian kitchen maid

Michelle Bullivant dressed in Victorian kitchen maid attire.

A local Cambridgeshire historian and archaeologist, Michelle Bullivant, decided to take her love of the past a step further and became part of the Black Knight Historical team for a day, to find out what being an ‘interpreter’ involves. Black Knight Historical specialises in re-enactments, taking on roles as varied as a knight from medieval times to William Wilberforce, who championed the abolition of slavery. Michelle became Mary, a maid ‘below stairs’ at Norfolk’s Holkham Hall’s Christmas event last year, and Kindra Jones found out more about why she did it, and what she discovered.

 

WHAT WAS IT THAT INTERESTED YOU ABOUT VICTORIAN SERVICE? 

Some of my ancestors were in service during Victorian times. I wanted to learn more about what they would have experienced, the various roles and working conditions of the era, and understand more about the work ethic.

 

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DRESS AS A KITCHEN MAID?  

I dressed as a maid so that I could be more involved in playing that role. I wanted a complete experience from making the outfit from an original pattern to wearing the clothes and finding out just how functional they were when working as a maid. At first I thought the dress would be cumbersome and get in the way of working, as it looked long and restrictive, but I can now say that it was actually incredibly comfortable and easy to move around in, it kept me warm and I am now wondering why we do not wear such clothes today. Dressing-up’ helped me get into the right frame of mind to imagine how it was for my ancestors when they were at work. It helped me know my rank and position within the house too.

 

Michelle and the kitchen staff.

HOW DID THE PUBLIC RESPOND TO YOU? 

I found that the public responded enthusiastically to seeing a “real maid” and I was greeted with glee and smiles from everyone I encountered. In fact, I discovered that women tended to smile and were fascinated by the material and outfit. I noticed that many men suddenly became very gentlemanly, with doors being held for me and many nod of heads and hat tipping. Perhaps it was the wearing of a uniform, or perhaps the public are a little more aware and interested in such things due to popular television drama programmes such as Downton Abbey. I found people were genuinely interested to learn more about what I was doing and about Victorian maids, and people wanted to tell me about family members that had been in service themselves and therein lay many wonderful tales. People were really appreciative that someone wanted to talk to them and more so, listen to them, about the role of the maid – particularly those who had a connection to life below stairs.

 

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU OFFER TO ANYONE WISHING TO TAKE UP INTERPRETATION?

I would recommend that anyone interested in taking up interpretation should contact an established group in their local area. Begin by making contact with one or two groups, find out if you can go along to visit and see what they do. There are so many groups to choose from and no two are the same, so do look about for what suits you best. I would also suggest that you go along to a few events where you can meet various groups and see at first-hand what they do. It’s a great chance to chat to others and gather some contacts to help you get started.