The first article in this series introduced us to Marigo Argenti who was born in 1891 and spent much of her childhood and later life at Picts Hill House. When she was nine she started a diary, now in Bedfordshire Archives, and this gives us an insight into the daily life of a nine year old child in a well-off family at the beginning of the 20th century. In the following series of extracts, some of the contrasts between Marigo’s privileged life and the realities of the poverty that was widespread at that time are evident. The extracts are reproduced as Marigo wrote them, often with her quite literal spelling and lack of punctuation.
Turvey and London: Marigo’s encounters with ‘the poor’
Marigo describes in her diary several encounters with ‘poor people’. These are described in quite a matter of fact manner, suggesting perhaps that they were not particularly unusual or shocking for her. Rather the narrative seems to focus on the obligation to provide charity, this seems to be accepted as part and parcel of the responsibility of her own family.
On 7th February 1901 Marigo does her lessons in the morning with her governess and in the afternoon writes:
“I went for a long walk to give a poor old man that fell off a tree and hurt himself a rabbit he was very pleased with it.”
The rabbit would probably have been provided by William Jordan, the Argenti’s gamekeeper and poultryman who lived at Picts Hill Lodge.
In July she is out walking again when she met “…a poor old man and so we gave him something to eat”. Later that month she recounts:
“…we went to see one of the old people at the Arms houses which was very interesting because she had a lot of old stories to tell us.”
The almshouses at Station End were near to Picts Hill where the Argenti family lived. They had been opened sixteen years previously “for the relief of twenty poor persons of good character and reputation”. You can read about them here.
Throughout the 19th century, Turvey had been a village where many women worked making lace. By the end of the century the numbers had declined significantly (I found just 26 in the 1891 census compared to 142 in 1851) but lace making would still have been an essential source of income for some, particularly for older women. This is reflected in the following entry in which Marigo, out for a walk comes across:
“…a poor old woman about 60 years old and she could hardly walk with rumatisem. She was selling lace and so she asked us if we would buy some but we said we had no monny but to wait at the gate for us to come back but she did not hear and so came to the house and we gave her something to eat and 9 pens.”
The state pension was not introduced until 1909, and then only for people aged over 70. Before then, older people in financial need were dependent upon family support, Poor Law provision, which was usually in the form of the workhouse, or, as in these examples, charity.
Some idea of the value of the 9 pence (9d) that the elderly lace maker received from Marigo can be found in a detailed study of poverty in 1903 in Ridgmont, a rural village about 15 miles south of Turvey (Mann, 1904). Here a pound of cheese would have cost 7d, a pound of potatoes 1/2d. Ridgmont, like Turvey, still had some women making lace. The researcher found that even by “very hard and constant work” the maximum that could be earned from lacemaking was 6d a day. By these comparisons then, the 9d given by the Argentis must have been of some value to the elderly woman concerned. Contrast this though with the 13s 10d given by Maria’s mother to each of her children in December 1901 in payment for the eggs they had collected from the chickens they helped looked after at Picts Hill.
The Argenti family divided their time between Picts Hill and their London house, and it was in London in May 1901 that Marigo describes an encounter with “ten of the dirtiest children in London” when she was in Hyde Park. Children begging would have been a common sight in London in 1901. Charles Booth’s ground-breaking survey of the social conditions of Londoners at the end of the nineteenth century had estimated that 33% of the London population lived in poverty (Vaughan, 2018). The proportion of families with children in poverty would have been higher still. The children Marigo met were told by her nursemaid that they would be given a penny each if they would go away. In contrast to the lives of these children, a few days before Marigo had been to Harrods where she “went up the rolling staircase and looked at all kinds of things”, returning the following day when she “could not help buying a few sweets”. The escalator, the first in the UK, had been opened three years before in 1898.
The differences between Marigo’s life and that of the urban poor is further evident in her account of being taken to see the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London on the day before meeting the children in the park:
“We took the two penny tube and two handsomes to go. We went to see the jewels first which I liked…And then we saw all kinds of things and came back on a boat.”
The ‘twopenny tube’ was the Central London Railway, so called because the fare was 2d for any distance. The railway opened in 1900, so would have been new at the time. It is now part of the Central Line of the Underground.
The hansom cab, still horse-drawn in 1901, was typically used by the better off. The fare cost a minimum of 6d per mile (Cheng, 2013).
High days and holidays
An event of national significance, the coronation of King Edward VII, took place in August 1902 and Marigo writes about the celebrations both in Turvey and London. The Argenti family put on a party at Picts Hill for the village and the children were fully involved in the preparations:
Monday, 4th August 1902
“This morning we had to begin doing the coach-house. We draped it all with red white and blue, and put the tables all ready. Cousin Andree Scaramanga hung some green leaves to the roof and put up some Chinese lanterns. After dinner we all helped again. After tea they played at croquet. We then went to bed.”
Tuesday, 5th August 1902
“This morning we helped cleaning the crockery and putting it on the tables. After dinner we did the same and after tea too – tomorrow we will have to unpack the cakes – we then went to bed. Tomorrow we will have the village people up to dance and to eat. We will stop out too. We are all going to London Friday to see the coronation and Saturday evening we will go to Edgware.”
Wednesday, 6th August 1902
“This morning we went and helped Mother unpack the cakes and put them on the table – this afternoon too – we had tea and dinner at 6.30 and then all lit the lamps. Then the people came with the band – I told them to come in. Then we all danced and went round to refreshments and I and Gina served them all as well as servants. We then danced again. In the middle there were torches of different colours lit all round the garden. I loved it so much. We then went to bed at about 12. All was eaten.”
For Marigo, the excitement continued as she was to go to London to watch the actual coronation procession:
Friday, 8th August 1902
“This morning we went up to London and played in the garden and after dinner we went out again and after tea we did too and then went to bed very excited because of tomorrow. We have got to be up at 5 to be their at 7.”
The following day Marigo writes:
“This morning we got up at 5 and then had breakfast at 6 and then went to the rooms. It was lovely the coach I never saw anything like it!! The King looked ill. Then we got into a cab and drove to Edgware and then had tea and went to bed.”
It was perhaps not surprising that the king looked ill. The coronation had in fact been scheduled for 26th June but had to be postponed as he had become ill with appendicitis shortly beforehand. Complications had developed, leading to an operation by one of the most renowned surgeons in the history of the treatment of the condition, Frederick Treves.
The previous August had afforded another highlight for Marigo – a holiday in Cromer. The town had developed as a holiday resort throughout the nineteenth century, and the coming of the railway in 1877 had increased its accessibility and popularity. The Argenti family travelled there by train from Turvey station, Marigo counting 26 stations on the way. The train must have been busy, she describes “a dreadful rush to get rooms in the train” at Cambridge.
The family spent three weeks in Cromer and Marigo clearly delighted in everything she did. She writes about playing on the beach, making sandcastles, donkey races, visiting the lighthouse, flying kites, playing cricket, “lovely schops” and visiting the Norfolk Broads and Sheringham Woods.
The sea was a particular joy, “to our great pleasure we were allowed to paddle”, and Marigo liked it all the more when it was “ruffer”. Even father “took off his shoes and stokings and paddled with us so did mother and we caught nearly 90 shrimps”.
She mentions going in a bathing machine when it was raining. Bathing machines, essentially huts that were wheeled into the sea, had been invented in the eighteenth century and were used to protect the modesty of female bathers throughout the nineteenth century. The bather changed inside the machine which was then wheeled into the sea so that they could emerge straight into the water unseen from the shore. During the latter half of the nineteenth century by-laws in many resorts prohibited mixed bathing but legal segregation ended in 1901 and the use of bathing machines declined. It appears that the Argentis’ use of the machine the same year was more as a shelter than for its original function.
The Cromer pier had been opened that summer. There was a bandstand at its head and the Argentis went to a concert which was “lovely”. They also went to a circus where there was:
“a very strong man that lifted 253 pounds of iron and besides that had four or five men standing on his chest and stomach”.
“Mademoiselle Emma that had a lovely dress and horse and after we saw her doing their tea in raggs”.
All too soon the holiday was over but, perhaps inspired by what they had seen in Cromer, the day after their return to Picts Hill the children “played a long time at been a band and playing different pieces.”
Summer haymaking and Christmas festivities
Haymaking was an important part of the rural calendar and a special time of year for the Argenti children as the following entries indicate:
Monday 24th June 1901
“We went to the hay field and found the Taylors [the family at Turvey House]…we made a big nest and had a lovely picknick tea…After tea we buried each other in the hay”.
She ends the entry “We had no hats on all the time” – clearly the infringement of normal rules was something worthy of comment! The following day the children were in the fields again where they “rolled over the little cocks of hay” and at the end of the day got to ride in the hay carts and “did laugh so since it was so shaky”.
By the end of the Victorian period, Christmas had become established as a time of family festivity, although for most families a Victorian Christmas in Turvey would have meant just a day or two off work and humble gifts and food. For Marigo though, Christmas 1901 meant London parties and theatre trips. The family went to their London house on 21st December where straight away the festivities began with a party where the children
“had marionettes and then had a good tea and after tea there were performing dogs…and there was a dip and we got presents.”
On the 23rd she went shopping:
“and got all our things for the servants and some beautiful stuff for a dress for Biddy [her nursemaid and firm favourite]…we went to Harrods Stores for some hats…and went to bed very pleased because Christmas is coming.”
She was not disappointed, on Christmas Day:
“we woke very early and found such a lot of beautiful presents we emptied our stockings first and found in them a lovely frame from Mrs Garette, a nicer one from Biddy a knife from Gina [her sister] a frame from Boy [her brother] and 5 shillings from Father. Then we got dressed and opened the pillow slip. Oh! How we did laugh and scream…we found 5 pictures…a lovely book and sachet and soaps from Mademoiselle [the governess]…and all kinds of other things.”
On New Year’s Eve they went to the Hippodrome to see Aladdin in which Marigo thought “the princesse was beautiful and the last scene the palace was splendide there were lights all over the place”.
More parties followed, with magic lanterns and Marigo dancing “every dance from half past 5 till past 9”, and “every dance till a quarter to eleven”. She visited Oxford and Regent Streets and found the shops “something too lovely”. There were two more shows, one at Drury Lane, “I never saw anything more beautiful”, and the other to a pantomime.
A Changing World
Marigo wrote these entries and the pieces in the previous article at the dawn of the twentieth century. Much in her diary reflects life as lived in the previous century, a world of servants and gentry, horse-drawn cabs, country routines and the ever present fear of illness. The years ahead would bring much change in the way people lived, worked and travelled. Perhaps what hasn’t changed though are some of the things that make this diary such a delight – the acute observation, forthrightness, excitement and joy of childhood.
Chen, F.C., Cab cultures in Victorian London: horse-drawn cabs, users and the city, c 1830-1914, Ph.D Thesis, University of York, 2013. https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/8047/1/Thesis%20Final.pdf
Mann, P.H., Life in an agricultural village in England, The Sociological Review, 1 (1904), pp. 161-193
Mirilas P., Skandalakis J.E., Not just an appendix: Sir Frederick Treves
Archives of Disease in Childhood 88 (2003), pp. 549-552. https://adc.bmj.com/content/88/6/549
Vaughan, L., Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography (UCL Press, 2018). https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10056449/2/Mapping-Society.pdf