For a long time our family assumed this tiny chair was made for children. It sat in our bedrooms as kids, in various states of disrepair and often the throne to a doll or a pot plant. It is as high as a coffee table, and recent tests confirm it can just about bear the weight of a toddler.
Today it is in good condition – having been restrung in the fifties and refurbished in 2017 at an antique shop in Nantwich, UK – where its 100-year heritage was gradually revealed. It also uncovered a class divide in our family that is as much Downton Abbey as it is Upstairs Downstairs.
Jan Scott recounts: “I had always assumed it was a chair made for a child but as the restorer pointed out, there was a lot of detail and work involved just for a child’s chair. In the early 1900’s, carpenters didn’t have shops, so they would make scale samples of their wares and take them around to the big houses. Once the order had been completed the chair became surplus to requirements.”
We had always assumed that the chair had been ‘appropriated’ by Nana Mac, who worked as a servant in the big houses around Bala, Wales – including Bolesworth Castle in Cheshire, England.
Nana Mac worked as a servant and a cook at such big houses for most of her life. We assumed that the chair was a gift or ‘an acquisition’, from one of these big houses. It could equally have been a gift from her brother and local gardener, Lewis Edwards, or Mrs Riggs – rent collector for Nana Mac’s family home. Or was it a gift to Nana’ Mac’s mother, Nain, who as Church Warden would have known all of the important people of the area? Or Kitty Edwards, Betty Sparling’s Aunt who was a seamstress and who would have worked for the ladies of the big houses too?
Eventually we discovered that the chair didn’t come from Bala in Wales, but from Plymouth in the south of England. This meant that the gift was not an acquisition from a big house, but in fact a present from ‘rich Auntie Winnie’.
Auntie Winnie was Nana Mac’s sister-in-law – sister to Nana Mac’s husband CW McMorran. Whilst Nana Mac was a servant all her life, Winnie had married well – to a man called Ernest Casley, who had part-owned The Grand Hotel on Plymouth Hoe. Ernest and Winnie had met working for successful family business Box’s Pills in Exeter around 1917 – and Winnie now lived a very different life to her sister-in-law, who had only a small home on Elmswood Road in Tranmere, Birkenhead, with no inside toilet.
According to Nana Mac’s husband, CW McMorran, Winnie lived in “A house like St Martin’s [in Chester, a previous employment of Nana Mac’s], three greenhouses with lovely flowers, electric bells in all the rooms to call the servants, electric lights and fires and gas fires, the drawing room is as big as our house put together.”
The two families remained close – with Nana Mac’s daughter Betty and cousin Mavis visiting Auntie Winnie in the summer holidays, but from this letter by CW McMorran to his wife we can glimpse an insight into the relationship between the two women:
“Your auntie Win wants to know why you didn’t come. So I’ve told her that it was too swanky and you didn’t like the servants. But she says that’s all bosh! And when you like to come she’ll give the servants a week’s holiday and you can do your own work and see how you like that!”
This letter shows the obvious discomfort for Nana Mac to visit her sister-in-law and to be waited on by servants – the same ‘people’ to which she belonged. Too swanky!
It would have highlighted the different lives that she and her sister-in-law would have lived, upstairs and downstairs. A storyline fit for an episode of Downton Abbey.