It was Mollie Moran’s funeral today. She died just two-and-a-half years short of her 100th birthday. A good innings by anyone’s reckoning but somehow for this former kitchen maid who found literary fame in her nineties it just didn’t seem right. At least she died peacefully in her own bed just a few months after a cancer diagnosis.
I first met Mollie a year ago when I interviewed her about her best-selling upstairs downstairs memoir Aprons and Silver Spoons. Razor sharp and impossibly energetic, she seemed strong and well. She walked her dog daily, entertained visitors at her Dorset cliff top home, hosted weekly scrabble sessions and each month would invite 25 players from across the southern region to take part in a mini-tournament. Single handedly she would cook for them all, producing a selection that included cottage pie, chicken curry and a variety of puddings. I asked how she managed it. She shrugged and told me: “Oh it’s nothing. After all I don’t do the washing up. I get someone to help with that.” She seemed indestructible.
Somehow she also managed to find time to write a first-hand account of life below stairs in England’s grand country houses back in the 1930s. For Mollie, who was born in 1916, the daughter of a country smallholder, worked at two vast stately piles near her parents Norfolk home – Wood Hall at Hilgay and Wallington Hall at Runcton Holme. Little did she know when as a 14-year-old she started working as a scullery maid – the lowest of the low – that she was entering a vanishing world. Gripping as her tales of the last bastions of Britain’s dying Empire were, to Mollie they were just everyday memories from her young life.
Last year, after Penguin books finally persuaded her to tell her story, she found herself – aged 96 – a best-selling author. There were appearances on Woman’s Hour, Steve Wright in the Afternoon, This Morning and features in national and regional newspapers and magazines. Her book, republished earlier this year in America under the title Minding the Manor, was an instant best-seller. It didn’t just fuel the fascination of a readership obsessed with Downton Abbey, it served up a huge slice of social history, tracing the rapidly changing life of a girl who had grown up in the seemingly time-locked world of rural Norfolk. Mollie was bemused by the attention. “Everyone seems so interested,” she told me. “But to me it’s just normal.” She loved being in the limelight nonetheless and soon got the hang of working the TV and radio studios. She rather mothered the print journalists, telling me with a mixture of amazement and glee that the man from The Mirror had three helpings of cottage pie and had eaten it while talking on his phone.
She particularly enjoyed telling interviewers where Downton Abbey gets it slightly wrong. “I laugh when I watch Downton,” she told me. “When you were in the kitchen you didn’t see the people upstairs. I was answerable to the butler and the cook who were far more obsessed with class and position than any of the gentry. Most servant girls could count the number of times they saw the boss on the fingers of one hand.”
This actually wasn’t the case with Mollie who at Wood Hall was tasked with preparing meals for the estate’s gun-dogs. The master of the household, Mr Michael Stocks, used to come and collect the dogs’ food personally.
“He was a lovely old gentlemen but rather sad,” explained Mollie. “He was a widower and his son had been killed in the Great War. Everything had changed but he was determined to keep up tradition, living life the way it used to be. It seemed he lived for his shooting parties.”
Mr Stocks would dress for dinner even when dining alone but had little appetite and the food was often returned barely touched. “On Sundays he would have a great big joint of roast sirloin but only eat two tiny, thin slices,” remembered Mollie. “The rest came back for the staff. Don’t let anyone tell you that servants didn’t eat well. I was a skinny little thing when I went to work there but I had a bit of weight problem by the time I left.”
Mollie knew all about the tragedy of the First World War. Born at the height of hostilities, she grew up helping her hard-working mother scrape by, keeping a few pigs and chickens and selling vegetables door to door. Her father had been gassed in the trenches and was often too sick to help.
At Wood Hall she was paid £1-a-month and got a day off and the use of a hip-bath once a week. She was up at 6.30am, often scrubbing floors and shovelling coal. The day would finish around 8.30pm or 9.00pm. “There was a lot of hard work but I really didn’t mind. I was strong and fit and it was just the way of things were in those days,” Mollie told me. “I honestly believe they were some of the happiest times of my life. We got two hours off each afternoon and we’d cycle around the Norfolk countryside. On holidays we’d cycle to Hunstanton and back. It was 27 miles away but we never thought anything of it.”
A particular chum was kitchen-maid Florence Wadlow. She worked with Mollie for just two years but the pair remained firm friends until Florence’s death at the age of 100 in 2012. “Me and Flo got up to all sorts.” Mollie recalled. “We gave the cook and the butler so much cheek it’s a miracle we didn’t get thrown out.” In 2005 Florence published her own story of life below stairs Over A Hot Stove. It was this book that inspired Penguin to ask Mollie to write her own story.
In 1938 Mollie married dashing RAF officer Timothy Moran who she’d met at one of the local dances. The couple who would go on to have two children (Tim and Ruth ) travelled extensively and soon Mollie found herself stationed in the Far East with servants of her own. But old habits die hard. “In Malaya I used to have staff and my husband had a batman but I really didn’t like people doing things for me. I’d much rather do them for myself.” she told me.
Mollie went on to run the Hay Tor Hotel Overlooking Boscombe Pier in Bournemouth while Tim retired from the RAF and became a teacher. In her final years Mollie, by now a widow, held court at her home in nearby Southbourne presiding with some authority over her beloved Scrabble sessions. She invited me along one day early last summer. I found myself in the company of a cast of characters who would perfectly populate a gently surreal drama. In addition to Mollie herself there were several other nonagenarians including a 92-year-old who told me her name was Amabel. She spelled it out carefully before explaining that her parents who already had five other children had got it out of the dictionary. How appropriate was that for a future Scrabble player? It’s a Latin name in case you’re wondering. Younger players included a man who studies the theory of dark matter in the universes and another who was writing a sci-fi adventure inspired by his literary idol J.G. Ballard.
Mollie told me she’d been playing Scrabble ever since the board game first hit the British shops. She was good too, regularly scoring more than 400, sometimes 500 plus points. Meanwhile her daughter Ruth Marsden kept score printing a full set of statistics in her own self-published magazine The Southern Counties Scrabble League News. With a circulation of just 19 the magazine was definitely a labour of love rather than a commercial enterprise. “It used to have a circulation of 23.” Mollie told me ruefully, “but we lost four teams because so many people play Scrabble on-line these days.” Mollie added that she had started playing on-line too but eventually got rid of her computer. “It gave me backache so I gave it to my cleaning woman,” she explained.
Farewell Mollie. We will miss you.