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The Dirt on the Domestics; Life with the Bloomsburys

Nellie Boxall, Lottie Hope and Grace Higgin

Nellie Boxall, Lottie Hope and Grace Higgins in their Younger Days with Angelica Bell 

In 1904, the Stephen’s children, Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian, left their comfortable surroundings  in Kensington, after their parent’s death, to move to the bohemian neighborhood of Bloomsbury. Since they could no longer afford the grand house and the ten servants for four people, they chose to escape many of the rituals of the Victorian household.  No more dark rooms, heavy furniture, formal dinners and restrictive lifestyles for them! Vanessa painted all the rooms of their new home white and decorated with shawls and mirrors! Discussing their new lifestyle in their weekly meetings with the Cambridge Apostles, they were full of ideas about how one should live….think, talk, write and paint. This group, made up of middle and upper class men, except for Vanessa and Virginia, formed The Bloomsbury Group, who were dedicated to domestic experiments, which were scandalous to their families and the general population.  (For more information about the members of the Bloomsbury Group see my previous post on the Charleston Farmhouse.)

They all wanted to be free from the social norms of the time, however, there was one problem. None of them could live without servants. For the men it was easier, they were not expected to take care of themselves or stoop to the mundane tasks of running a household. They could either have servants or replace them with wives, who would take care of all the nitty gritty of the household. Vanessa and Virginia had a dilemma.  Staff demanded a lot of time; they would have to hire and train the servants and supervise their work. Where would they find the time to write and paint? Neither of them knew how to clean or cook, since it had never been required of them. If they did the cooking and cleaning themselves, how would they have time to write and paint? Such a dilemma! The women could only follow their grandiose lifestyle because they and their inner circle of friends relied on some sort of unearned family money for support. It certainly was not the same for their servants.

So while the social experiments were forming and taking shape, who did all the work behind the scenes for Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell?

This is what I learned……..about three of the servants, who worked for these two women.

Nellie Boxall, (1890-1965) was the youngest of ten children and orphaned by the time she was twelve. Life for many of these women meant leaving their large families and taking up work as domestics at an early age, and moving away from their villages into the big cities. They had little to no formal education and relied on their large families for emotional support. Without that support they were nervous and often afraid of the unknown in a new family, and new town. They relied heavily on the friendships of other domestics in the household.  When the wealthy could no longer support the large household, it was a blow to the domestic life in more ways than one. There was more work to do and less support and comfort. 

From 1912 until 1916, Nellie worked for Roger Fry (a member of Bloomsbury Group) and then in 1916 joined the Virginia Woolf household as cook, with Lottie Hope as maid. Nellie’s relationship with Virginia was fraught with tension from the start.

Virginia wanted to live the life of “ the fully self-directed, autonomous woman,” but because of her mental instability and nervous breakdowns was looked after by her servants, who supervised her eating, her bodily needs, and her resting times, in addition to the cooking and cleaning, as instructed by her husband. Virginia hated their meddling and felt she never had any time for herself. She constantly wrote to Vanessa with what she called “the servant problem.”  Virginia absolutely loathed the servants.

“I am sick of the timid, spiteful servant mind, my brains are becoming soft by the constant contact with the lower classes,” she wrote to Vanessa.

I think Virginia wanted life both ways. She felt she couldn’t live with the servants and couldn’t live without them. Even with Virginia’s work for Women’s rights, Virginia had no desire to improve the economic situation of her servants. When Virginia went on to make 4000 pounds a year for her writings, she paid a meager total of 40 pounds a year for her two servants! A woman is hardly going to become self sufficient on 20 pounds a year! Why did the domestics put up with all the strife? In the Woolfe and Bell household the servants didn’t have to wear uniforms, attend church, wait on tables, or do “fetching and carrying” for their employers. They enjoyed the glamour of working for famous artists and traveling with them on their luxurious vacations.  They were allowed to mingle with the guests and no longer lived in the dismal attics or basements. The arrangements with the servants appeared to be “unbelievingly lax.” It was a trade off that they all considered. 

Nellie Boxall stayed with the Woolfs until 1934, although she frequently threatened to quit, having big rows with Virginia. Nellie was doing her best to take care of Virginia and Virginia despised her. Nellie wanted recognition for all she did and Virginia refused to acknowledge her. They played on each others dependencies. Nellie did quit (after 16 years) and went on to work for the actor, Charles Laughton, in London. She made much more money and was treated with respect, something that she never had received from Virginia.  She never married or had children. In her middle age she had saved enough money to buy a house, one of the first people in her neighborhood to do so.  The neighborhood children thought she was “a lady” and “a notch higher in her manner,” but also very bossy. Perhaps she was finally able to express her personality that had been suppressed for years.

Lottie Hope (1890-1973) was a housemaid for Virginia Wollfe. She was a foundling and grew up in the Home for Deserted Children at Hambleton in Surrey. She left the Home at fourteen and went into service at the home of Roger Fry, where she worked with Nellie Boxall. She left Fry’s home and moved to the Woolf’s home when Nellie did. When Lottie had had enough of Virginia she left the Woolfe’s home in 1924, and went to work for several of the Bloomsbury Group, but finally settled with Clive Bell and eventually went with him to Charleston Farmhouse, the country house of his estranged wife. Lottie was back living near her good friend Nellie Boxall, who was like family to her.  She left the Charleston Farmhouse in 1941, to work at a local laundry, and lived with Nellie Boxall, in her house. Like Nellie, she never married or had children, but died at the Hambleton Homes for the Aged. For a fascinating read of all the servants that worked for Virginia Woolf I suggest, Mrs Woolfe and the Servants; an Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, by Alison Light. It sheds light on all the unheard voices of the domestics, while Virginia established her reputation as a feminist. It tells of their meager existence and lack of control of their futures.

Grace Germany Higgins, (1904-1983) called “the Angel of Charleston,” worked for Vanessa Bell for more than fifty years. She came to Charleston at the age of 16 to care for Angelica Bell, Vanessa’s daughter with Duncan Grant. That’s a long intertwined story in itself. I think Grace, at such an early age, was fascinated with the lifestyle created by the Bloomsbury Group, who frequently partied, and lived off and on at Charleston. It certainly would have kept her entertained! Eventually, she was promoted to cook and housekeeper and remained full time at Charleston, even when nobody was there. Was that truly a promotion? There was no indoor facilities, no heating in the house and no running water. When the Bloomsbury gang was all there, and after she had met her household duties and served the Friday evening meal, she was allowed to take her bath outside in the tub, while all  the guests ate their dinner! After her bath she could return and clean up after them! In 1934, she married Walter Higgins, who also worked at Charleston, and they moved into a large bedsit over the kitchen. Ironically, this room is still deemed too un-important to be part of the tour at Charleston. The domestics are still kept firmly in their place.

Grace, her husband, and eventually her son, continued with the Friday night bath rituals the entire time they lived there. Vanessa did have one rule for her varied guests. They had to all be in their proper beds before Grace got up and started to cook and clean. I really think Grace would have known what was going on, she just didn’t let on. Walter Higgins, who hated working for Vanessa and living in her house, finally convinced Grace to leave Charleston, where they had continued to live long after Vanessa was dead. She had stayed to care for the ailing Duncan Grant, who she adored. Grant was always a favorite with everyone. He lived there with Vanessa, and had a child with her, (Vanessa’s wishes as she was madly in love with him), as he continued to carry on with his homosexual friends, who financially supported him until his dying days, while he lived and played at Charleston. He and Vanessa just painted their days away, including every inch of the farmhouse and furniture in squares, circles and triangles, their mantra! Grace took care of them all and never complained! When Grace finally moved to Lewes with her family in 1970, she burned all her detailed diaries of her life at Charleston. She was faithful to them until the end, but her son, John Higgins, recalled his recollections of his mother’s time there to Stewart MacKay, who wrote the book, The Angel of Charleston; Grace Higgins, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group. To get the entire story of Grace and her time with the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston read the book. She truly was an angel! It is an eyeopener in the life of the domestic servant and the hardships they faced. If you read these books, I don’t think you will be disappointed! See you next time as I continue to visit the homes and gardens on my “English Garden Tour!”

The Servants of Virginia Woolfe

Nellie Boxall, Cook, in Later Life, the Woman Standing Far Right

2 Responses to “The Dirt on the Domestics; Life with the Bloomsburys”

  1. Jacqueline Prichard

    In the picture at the end of the article, it is said that the woman on the right of the picture was Nellie Boxall. It is, in fact, Sophie Farrell, also a cook for Virginia Woolf, and before that, her mother’s. Sophie was my great great aunt.


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