Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Living in a stately home in Northern Ireland is a privilege but carries huge responsibility


Ballywalter Park is the home of Lord and Lady Dunleath
Ballywalter Park is the home of Lord and Lady Dunleath
Marcus Tarry and Anna Hudson, gardeners at Ballywalter Park
Ballywalter Park
Hugh and Val Montgomery at Benvarden
Henrietta and David Reade at home in Breckenhill House near Ballyclare
Henrietta and David Reade with their children (from left) William, Rosanna and George

By Lorraine Wylie

In the second part of our look at life below stairs in NI's Downton Abbey-like stately homes, Lorraine Wylie hears about a beloved nanny, unruly butlers and why modern times call for major changes in the running of country estates.

‘The upkeep is our biggest challenge’

Lord and Lady Dunleath, from Ballywalter Estate, Co Down, reveal that a large staff was employed at the premises in years gone by. "At Ballywalter Park we know that during the second Lord Dunleath's time they had 25 staff employed in the house and another 20 around the grounds and farm," says Vibeke Mulholland, Lady Dunleath.

"The butler was at the top of the tree and the housekeeper was second in command. Regardless of marital status, housekeepers were always addressed as Mrs and could earn as much as £40 per year.

"The Mulhollands' staff all lived in houses on the estate, only 'living in' when there were festivities at the house. They didn't pay rent, but they had to pay their rates, thus giving the men the right to vote. After the Second World War, the third Lord Dunleath seriously considered a number of options to reduce the house in size, precisely because he didn't feel you could run a house like this with only six staff."

Lady Dunleath recounts a story of a rather unusual butler who did not play by the rules. He was employed during the tenure of Dorinda and her husband Henry, first cousin to the current Lord Dunleath's father, Michael.

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Ballywalter Park

"They had a butler who, by all accounts, was a slightly peculiar character," says Vibeke.

"Once, when my husband Brian came to stay, the butler brought his bags up to his room and unpacked them. Downstairs, Brian suddenly remembered he'd left a gift for Dorinda in his bag and returned upstairs to retrieve the present.

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"When he got to his room the butler didn't hear him come in. Brian watched in amazement as the man, having emptied the case onto the floor, was busy throwing Brian's things across the room into every drawer he could find.

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Hugh and Val Montgomery at Benvarden

"A few days later, Brian decided to go to visit other members of the family and the butler volunteered to pack his case.

"When Brian arrived at his grandmother's house, to his horror he discovered that as well as his belongings the butler had packed his case with a full set of Dorinda's good towels.

"Embarrassed at what his hostess would think of him, he rang Ballywalter to explain - but when Dorinda heard the story she merely roared with laughter and told him the butler was up to his old tricks again."

Lady Dunleath agrees that there have been many changes for stately homes through the years - now, she says, the cost of running such a large estate is their "biggest challenge".

"Running huge houses like this takes enormous expenditure," she says. "Nowadays, although we still employ staff, it isn't in quite the same numbers as previous generations.

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Henrietta and David Reade at home in Breckenhill House near Ballyclare

"We try to make the most of what we have, for example if there's a big job to do, Brian and I will pitch in. If something heavy needs to be moved, we'll ask the gardening team to help.

"We have a friend who'll help out if there's a major cleaning job needing attention.

"We have one housekeeper who lives in a house on the estate. Brian and I also share a secretary. Back in the 18th and early 19th century, the person responsible for admin duties was known as a comptroller.

"I've never had a cook, but my predecessor, Dorinda, Lady Dunleath, had a Mrs Clark to cook when she first married. She also had a number of cleaning staff and two secretaries.

"Now, I don't mind doing practically all of the cooking. I enjoy it. If there's an event, I'll take control of the menu and plan it around whatever produce the gardener has available.

"As we're so close to the sea, I tend to feature a lot of seafood on my menu. I'm happy to cater for up to 55 guests but anything above that I tend to use one of Northern Ireland's brilliant catering companies.

"Today, Ballywalter Park may not have the same number of staff that it once employed but we do have a large family and the place is never empty."

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Hugh and Val Montgomery at Benvarden

‘Cook’s drunken antics were unrepeatable’

Hugh and Val Montgomery live at Benvarden House near Ballymoney, Co Antrim. Hugh has fond memories of the staff who were employed during his childhood.

"Growing up, we had a cook, two maids, a nanny and a nursery maid so, all told, we had a staff of around five. Nanny, cook and the nursery maid all lived in the house while other maids and occasional help came from around the estate houses.

"Staff didn't have a particularly early start, probably between seven and eight in the morning. We didn't employ a housekeeper as my mother and cook preferred to do all the planning and ordering for the household.

"My main memories involve our cooks who seemed to come and go quite a lot. Then we had John who stayed with us for 20 years. John arrived in the role of odd-job man but was then promoted to cook when our (then) current one walked out on us.

"The problem started because our then-cook, who was a Protestant, didn't like the fact that John, a Catholic, was given a day off. The day happened to be July 12 and she felt she should have had it off instead.

"There are many interesting stories about John. He was gay, an alcoholic and a Catholic which was very unusual for a Co Antrim household at the time. He was a great man in so many ways. Unfortunately however, he wasn't the best cook.

"Having said that, his huge Sunday roasts weren't bad. We were all very fond of him but most of his antics when drunk are

unrepeatable."

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Henrietta and David Reade with their children (from left) William, Rosanna and George

The children were devoted to their nanny, Nellie Parkhurst. "To us she was simply nanny," says Hugh. "She came when I was three days old and stayed until she died, 40 years later. She wasn't strict but did like good behaviour and probably spoilt us quite a bit."

Hugh and Val's daughter, Henrietta, also recalls their beloved nanny and reveals what it was like growing up in her care.

"By the time I was born in 1959, there was a cook, a nursery maid and a few other staff at Benvarden," she recalls.

"Nanny had a shock of white hair and I remember as a child thinking she must be ancient.

"Her father had been a lighthouse keeper on Rathlin Island during the First World War before taking his family to Devon in England. Nellie Parkhurst had come to Northern Ireland as a young woman hoping to find work and initially was employed by the Reade family (I went on to marry David Reade).

"In 1933 she became my father's nanny and then when my aunt, dad's sister, was born with Down's syndrome she stayed on to look after her.

"Later, my grandfather died and my granny went to live in England but nanny and John, the odd-job man who became cook, remained at Benvarden. During the week my parents stayed in Belfast, returning home at the weekend. John and nanny looked after everything while they were away."

In contrast to today's 'helicopter' approach, parents in Victorian times were much more remote.

Even in the Sixties, many parents, especially among the aristocracy, embraced the idea that children should be seen and not heard. Henrietta remembers her childhood with great affection.

"My brother Edward and I ate our meals in the nursery upstairs, brought up on a tray by nanny," she says.

"We always had elevenses, which was an apple for Edward, and an orange for me, all nicely cut up.

"Once I started school we were allowed to have our lunch in the dining room with my parents - I came out of school at lunchtime for the first two years.

"Our toys and books were mostly secondhand. Some had belonged to my father or even his siblings.

"We did have a few new ones but nanny preferred that we play with one toy at a time. I don't think she ever approved of my Sindy dolls.

"My mother tried to make her more flexible, but without much success. She was fairly strict, more so with my brother who pushed the limits much more than I ever did. I remember her chasing him round the table in the nursery with a hairbrush to spank him, while he ran away laughing."

Now, Henrietta and her husband David own Breckenhill in Co Antrim. And with firsthand experience of what's involved in running and maintaining a big house, she shares the challenges.

"Running these big houses involves a lot of upkeep - there are always windows to paint, slates to fix, leaking pipework in an old house and the roofs, especially at Benvarden, are like a sieve sometimes," Henrietta confesses. "Big houses may look beautiful and exciting, but sometimes, to me, a small bungalow can look very appealing. It is a big responsibility to own an ancestral home like Benvarden but it's also a real privilege. These properties are part of our heritage and we need to find ways to help sustain them.

"I think this is why my parents enjoy sharing Benvarden, especially the beautiful gardens - and judging by the success of the European Heritage Open Day, others appreciate it too."

Val Montgomery reveals how modern life has changed the staffing structure at her home.

"Nowadays, staffing is very different," she says. "Permanent positions of cook and maids, not to mention nanny, have mostly gone.

"We do employ some help for cleaning on a regular basis and, if we have some big events or dinners we'll bring in caterers. We have some wonderful caterers that we use for all our events."

And she adds: "As for Downton Abbey, yes, we watch it if we remember. Although I think the staff in the drama are too familiar with their grand employers who should be friendly but not friends."

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