Marigo Argenti was born on the 12th August 1891 and spent much of her childhood and later life at Picts Hill House. Her family was of Greek origin, her father was a London banker and the Argenti family divided their time between London and Turvey. In 1901 when she was nine Marigo started a diary, and this can be seen along with other family documents at Bedfordshire Archives. Its pages give a fascinating insight into the life of a child of a well-off family at the turn of the century, and provide an interesting contrast to Joseph Bell’s account of a poor family’s life in Turvey in the 1850’s.
In this, the first of two articles based on the diaries, Marigo’s writing is introduced and the routine of her life at Picts Hill and her relationships with some of the servants is described. This article mainly draws on entries in Marigo’s 1901 diary.
The hardback diaries
Marigo wrote in her diary every day, initially in pencil and later in ink, underlining things that were especially important to her. She used large hardback diaries, themselves of historical interest. For example, the 1901 edition provided the purchaser with such valuable information as the dates of Oxford University terms and the tax payable for licences for a four-wheeled carriage and two horses, £2.2s (£2.10p), and for a male servant, 15s (75p)! A pound in 1901 would be worth about £124 in 2020. Licences were not required for female servants and were abolished for male servants in 1937.
Marigo’s 1902 ‘Boots Scribbling Diary’ carried reassuring adverts for various potions sold by ‘Boots Cash Chemist and Stationers’ – Gratton’s Gout and Rheumatic Pills which ‘contain no ‘narcotics’ whilst Baird’s Bilious and Liver Pills ‘make you feel that it is a pleasure to live’! The Boots stationers inform us that a London cab would cost 1s (5p) for up to two miles and a twelve word telegram 6d (2.5p). A table of wage rates is illuminating in that it ranges from 2s 6d (12.5p) to £5.
Much of Marigo’s narrative describes the routine of her everyday life. However, with great excitement and enjoyment, she also describes special occasions, both in London and Turvey. These ranged from watching King Edward VII’s coronation and dancing ‘every dance’ at London Christmas parties, to getting the Picts Hill coach house ready for a coronation party for the villagers and haymaking in the local fields. Accounts of illness of family members frequently feature, perhaps understandably given the prevalence of infectious disease and their potentially serious consequences at that time. The first antibiotic, penicillin, was not discovered until 1928 and immunisation for childhood diseases did not begin until the 1940’s. During episodes of family sickness Marigo records with meticulous care the changing temperatures of herself, her younger sister Virginia (Gina) and her younger brother Nicolas, who she calls “Boy”.
At times the disarming frankness of a child shines through her account. After a visit from the local doctor on 25th May 1901 when he took the temperature of the two sisters, she notes:
It is very funny that Dr Cock never asked of washing the thermometer.”
She is equally honest about her own faults, a few days earlier she had been told to take medicine for her fever and writes:
…and I am sorry to say that I was norty [sic] over it.
Sometimes it is the juxtaposition in her entries that causes the reader to smile. On 2nd March 1901 Marigo’s mother sent the stable boy to the village to see if accounts of the death of Mr Farrer (of Cold Brayfield House) were true:
…he said it was quite true…he had got up to pick up a peel of an orange and he did not come back to his chair and so Miss Farrer got down to see where he was and found him dead on the ground. I enjoyed myself very much at Bedford.”
Daily life at Picts Hill
Life at Picts Hill revolved around lessons in the schoolroom with the French governess who lived with the family, 29 year old Mademoiselle Lacambre, or with Miss Vipon who travelled from Bedford. After lessons there were often walks in the Picts Hill parkland and surrounding countryside on fine days and games of ‘hiding seek’ in the nursery when it rained. Saturday 9th February 1901 is typical but also gives a hint of how matters far beyond Picts Hill entered Marigo’s awareness:
This morning we did our lessons very well, and then went out riding both together and amused our selfs [sic] very much. We said that Lambard [the coachman] was Edward VII and Gina was the German Emperor and I the Duke of Connaulth [sic]. All the time we were doing lessons Father was playing on the Pianola.
Edward VII had succeeded to the throne on 22nd January 1901 on the death of his mother Queen Victoria. Her funeral had taken place on 2nd February and the King, his brother the Duke of Connaught, and Queen Victoria’s grandson, the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, had followed the coffin on horseback. The newspapers would have been full of pictures and accounts of the funeral and we can imagine the children hearing the conversations of the adults around them as they discussed this event of such national significance.
The entry also gives an example of how Marigo’s diary reflects entertainments of the period. The pianola, a piano which had a mechanism whereby it could also self-play, had been in development over the latter 19th century but became more available and very popular around the turn of the century. The Argenti family had recently acquired one at Picts Hill and it was an object of much fascination for them.
Other pastimes included playing with a pet dog and cat, card games and going out for drives in the pony cart around the local villages. On Saturdays she went with her mother to Bedford for a painting lesson, usually followed by tea and shopping. Her entries often give a sense of what matters most to a nine year old, for example when she writes the children made toffee “by ourselves”, “we had the most lovely fun with Emma [one of the maids] in the bath” and when she complains she was so busy with lessons that “I did not have a minute of playtime.” In June she recounts Mother bringing the children in bed five strawberries each with sugar.
The children generally had their meals in the nursery, but on 24th October:
Mother invited us 3 to dinner and so we stopd [sic] up. Gina was so funny, when we had the soup Gina took her plate up and drank out of it like the Queen.
On another occasion the children were allowed downstairs to see the dining table set for a dinner party and watch the visitors arrive:
…we went and saw the table it was lovely then I saw Mrs Higgs and Miss Higgs come they were dressed beautifly [sic] Mrs in black with red roses in her hair and a bunch and Miss with a pink dress. Father went in to dinner with Mrs Higgs and Captain Throuthroner [sic] with Miss Higs…
As well as riding, Marigo took great pleasure in caring for her own chickens, and in looking after her own garden. On 12th April she writes:
This morning after lessons we went out and fed our chickens and found that Pluckke wants to sit and as we had 6 eggs we put them under her and set her. She was so pleased to see the eggs that she went in very quick. We went to look at our gardens which were beatiful [sic] and the seeds I planted were lovely.
Wildflowers too were abundant in Turvey then. On 12th May she records picking fourteen bunches of primroses, anemones and bluebells in the woods. However Marigo did not appreciate all the family’s rural pursuits, on 18th May noting:
Mother, Baby and Boy went to see Father and Uncle Alex kill crows but I don’t like seeing them killed so I picked cowslips.
She had no such qualms about fox hunting though, on several occasions describing her delight at being allowed to join the local hunt. On 7th March:
Mother came to tell us that I was going hunting on horseback and Gina and Mademoiselle would go in the carriage with her. We started at 11 o’clock and I came back at half past 3. We did not find a fox until half past 12…then the people got stopt [sic] by the railway and the hounds went on by themselves…
Upstairs and below stairs
Marigo’s account reveals the domestic arrangements of the family. The parents were frequently away in London, leaving the children in the care of the household staff, and Marigo makes frequent reference to the servants who at the time included a live-in cook, nursery maid, parlour maid, two housemaids and a kitchen maid. There was also Lambard the coachman and William Jordan the Argenti’s gardener and poultryman. On one occasion Marigo sends toys for Arthur, ‘the little boy at the Lodge’, who was Jordan’s grandson and had chicken pox.
Marigo’s favourite was clearly Biddy, Bridget Rogers the 27 year old Irish nursery maid, who played a central part in her life. It is to Biddy she goes crying to “twice when I had a pain in the chest” on the night of 2nd March. Early in the diary Marigo makes several references to Biddy being sad and tearful and voices her worry:
I think she has got the intention of going away because she says to me would you mind if I went away and then I ancer [sic] yes.
One revealing entry tells us about Marigo’s discomfort about being given the responsibility for instructing the servants in her mother’s absence and how Biddy and the parlour maid come to the rescue. On 27th March 1901 Marigo’s mother went to London and explained to her daughter that if she did not come back until the following day then:
…she would send me a telegrame [sic] to say that she would not come and I was to say so to the parlour maid to the cook and to the housemaid and order the carriage. But I said that I would not order in the house and did not like it. So then Mother said I told Lambart [sic] to come for orders from Miss Marigo and no one else and if I would not Mademoiselle could.
Mother stayed in London overnight and the following day at 8 am Marigo received an invitation to tea from Sylvia Taylor, the 10 year old daughter of George and Elizabeth Taylor who lived at Turvey House. She describes her distress at having the responsibility of having to reply to the invitation and, if it was to be accepted, instruct Lambard, to have the carriage ready. She writes that she:
…began to cry because I did not know what to do and I had the orders.
After breakfast Marigo asked Mademoiselle Lacambre if she would write a telegram to her mother to ask if she should go to tea with Sylvia but the governess refused:
…and so I began to cry and went to Biddy who writte [sic] it for me and gave it to Lambart…
The coachman would have taken the message to Turvey Post Office, then where the Central Stores is now. From there it would have been telegraphed to a London post office. A telegram boy would then have taken a telegram to Mrs Argenti’s London address, waited for a reply and then would have taken this back to the London office for the reverse transmission to Turvey. We take the speed of communication for granted in our digital age, so it is perhaps all the more remarkable that over a hundred years ago Marigo had received a reply from her mother by 12 o’clock:
“…and it said that I had to order the carriage and go to tea then I cryed [sic] 3 times because I did not like to order.
Luckily Alice, the parlour maid, asked Marigo at lunchtime what time the carriage was needed thus saving her ‘the orders’ and the tea was later “enjoyed very much.”