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Servant’s Diaries Shed New Light On Life Below Stairs

March 8, 1995

LONDON (AP) _ Beatrice Christopher died in 1922 as she lived, an obscure young housemaid in a magnificent stately home.

Now the chance discovery of her dust-covered diaries tug at emotions and excite historians with a tale of lost love and rare insight into a servant’s life at the time of the Great War.

``It’s a lovely little story,″ historian David Smith of Britain’s National Trust said Wednesday. ``But it’s real importance is that hardly anyone in Beatrice’s position wrote and kept diaries.

``Most servants were basically literate, but Beatrice’s writing is beautiful and expressive. You can see education shining through.″

As an 18-year-old in 1910, Miss Christopher joined the 15 domestic servants at Kingston Lacy, the 17th century mansion of a lead-mining family, the Bankes, in Dorset, 100 miles southwest of London.

She worked there until she died at age 30, emaciated and wracked by a cough _ apparently suffering from tuberculosis, or some might say a broken heart.

In 1918 her soldier-fiance had jilted her for a Dutch girl he got pregnant, and that same year her father died and her elder brother, William, was killed in action.

The diary by the housemaid who earned 10 pounds a year _ then the equivalent of about $44 _ included a poignant poem titled ``Only A Servant Girl,″ and descriptions of servants’ outings paid for by her employer, Henrietta Bankes.

For example: ``Easter Monday, April 5, 1915: Lissie and myself went to Hampton Court (near London). The fare was nine pence. Lovely long ride. Saw the palace grounds and the maze ... we had an awful rush for a return bus.″

Miss Christopher’s niece, Maureen Day, discovered the diaries atop a cupboard in 1990. She was clearing out the home of Miss Christopher’s only sister, Dorothy, who lived six miles from Kingston Lacy.

Mrs. Day, 55, is the daughter of Miss Christopher’s younger brother, Arthur, who carried his sister off the train when she arrived home just before she died. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

``Dad said Beatrice was like a little bundle of black rags,″ said Mrs. Day. ``But they didn’t talk much about it ... I knew nothing about the diary. I just checked on top of the wardrobe and there it was.″

The Bankes family gave the 16,500-acre estate to the National Trust in 1981. During a day trip of the mansion for the public, Mrs. Day showed the diaries to Smith of the National Trust.

He was fascinated by the writing and the collection of postcards from Miss Christopher’s fiance, Cpl. Elijah Ford, who was sent to France at the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914.

It puzzled Smith that the diaries and postcards stopped abruptly in 1918. He traced Ford’s descendants who still live in the area and they helped complete the story.

Among the last postcards from Ford was one showing a couple about to kiss, and on the back he wrote, ``I wish this was us.″

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