Recently on Kim Hill’s morning radio show, it was revealed that her great-grandparents had been servants in England. There is nothing unusual about this. In the 19th century a vast percentage of the population was employed ‘in service’. It was a respectable way to earn a living, and highly intelligent people, who simply lacked capital, made a living looking after often less intelligent people who simply had the advantage of capital.
I’m speaking of this because recently I became more aware of the servant who lived and worked in Finnis House.
It came about like this. When we took off the horrible 1950s Pinex wall covering of Flat B and revealed the beautiful rimu tongue-in-groove of the original kitchen. Douglas and I had hoped this would extend into the servant’s bedroom which, typically, was just off the kitchen and hence probably one of the warmest rooms in the house, because if it did it could provide the wall cladding for a new master bedroom.
However once we took off the Pinex in the servant’s bedroom we struck an unsuspected gentility: wallpaper. The servant, female, was given wallpaper, a dado – although it should be noted this wallpaper was very utilitarian. In contrast to the lovely garlanded wallpaper in the dining room, it was kind of like ground down muesli – ‘a servant should know her place.’
The thing which amazes me is, we know a little about the other inhabitants of the house, but we know nothing at all about this phantom servant. No name, no age, no background. Yet if one could only access her consciousness what a picture one would have had of the Finnis’: a servant would always be privy to family secrets.
As we pulled away the coverings of the kitchen wall we found the actual size of the kitchen range which was much bigger than the existing fireplace (probably put in post 1931 earthquake. There was also the curious kitchen servery, a kind of sliding door through which the servant would have pushed the food, so the family could eat in privacy – but also without – tiresomely having to do anything for themselves, except serve the meal.
The Finnis’ had two daughters at home and it was not unusual for unmarried daughters to become unpaid servants, but I think in the Finnis house this unknown servant did all the work.
Strange, then, that we will be occupying her quarters. I have always liked servants’ quarters and in fact in the last house I lived in, I ended up occupying the servants’ wing perfectly happily. (Something about the domestic scale is pleasing. It’s nook and cranny stuff instead of big broad show off rooms).
Ironically too, in the politics of the villa, the servant’s quarters at Finnis House ended up being those closest to the sun. They were literally the warmest rooms in the house whereas the formal rooms all faced south, presenting a ‘suitable face’ to the enquiring road.
What was the name of the servant? What was her later life?
By the 1930s and the depression servants had pretty much disappeared from New Zealand.We’ll probably never know – even though we know other enticing things about the house – like how the studio was a dance studio during the 1940s; and how Flat A housed the mistress of the farmer who owned the property in the 1950s. Put this down to the secrets of the house. After all, every house has its secrets. It’s why we fall in love with houses, I think. In every house lies an untold story. These rooms of an unnamed servant are just one of them.