BRIDGET WHELAN writer

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Old Clothes and New Nonsense from the Chronicles of Brighton’s Regency Housekeeper

Mrs Finnegan, well rested after last week’s summer holiday, has again taken up her duties as Housekeeper of The Regency Town House. However, she never forgets that others DEPEND on her for guidance and her quill is ever busy

DEAR MRS FINNEGAN

NO DOUBT YOU are glad as I am to see that the clerk to the Commissioners is taking measures to prevent the vendors of OLD CLOTHES from obstructing the narrow alleyways which lead from North Street to the market? 

Those purveyors of old clothes should NEVER lounge at the corner of Brighton’s streets or interrupt the through-fare of respectful people like you and I, Mrs Finnegan. The smell of unsavoury toggery SALUTES my astonished senses whenever I enter those passages.

Are old clothes not the SORDID resort of those who have more desire to be genteel, than money to gratify it?

A Fastidous Gentleman

Mrs Finnegan replies

No.

DEAREST MRS FINNEGAN, SHINING RAY OF WOMANHOOD

IF THE VENDORS of old clothes are banished from Brighton I will miss them dreadfully.

I see before me the rusty old armour of life’s conquests.

Speak onto me dangling trouser leg! Did you ever dance the Polka?

The sight of old clothing thrills the blood in my veins.

A toddy stain, a threadbare elbow or a loose button makes my heart race and my eyes glisten.
You feel the same, don’t you?

A Poet of Infinite Sensibility

Mrs Finnegan replies

No.

Dear Messers Fastidous and Sensibility
You seem to be in TOTAL ignorance of the journey an item of clothing makes it its long life.
It moves from new:

To second hand:

To third hand:

To on its last legs:

And from there to the rag and bone man.

Disrupt that trade and you will leave three quarters of the nation naked.
Patches are not a badge of honour bravely won, but a sign of poverty bravely borne.

O what empty, blameless lives you must lead to have you nothing else to worry about.

PS

It’s all sorted.

Discussed, debated, dissected.

They were all in on it. The master, the mistress, Miss Susan and even Miss Martha who I THOUGHT innocent of the whole proceedings and unaware that her maid was also her half sister. Not so.
They went to London, all of them.
And engaged lawyers and solicitor’s clerks and I don’t know who else beside.

And not a word to me.
Until Miss Susan returned fanning herself with the deeds of a house in her hand. (I exaggerate. It wasn’t warm enough for proper fanning.)

She walked into the house smiling. Mr and Mrs Hankey did not.
Miss Martha followed behind her parents with an inscrutable look on her face, which I can only describe as being half way between sucking a mint imperial and sitting on a knitting needle. I was not left to wonder long, as Miss Susan made it clear she wanted to talk in private.

In the back parlour I was informed that Mr Hankey now formerly acknowledges Susan as his own child born out of wedlock.
And has bought her a cottage
In Worthing.
Why Worthing? I wanted to know.
It’s very nice, she said. And quite exclusive.

There’s a big smuggling gang there, that I do know, I told her.
We both smiled. It was another point it its favour.

“The solicitors tried to persuade me to accept a two life leasehold property, based on my my life and little Theodora’s. They said it could well run until the turn of the century but I refused. I want to own the land I live on.”

That’s clever. I wouldn’t have thought of that.

She also said it has four bedrooms and an inside water closet which sounds more like a house than a cottage to me.

And she has secured a two life pension as well: one for her and one for little Theodora. It was the talk about the lease that had given her the idea, Miss Susan said. I’ve always said she is a quick learner. The Hankey family could be paying that until the next century.

I begrudge her not a bit, although it is strange to think that the little tot is not YET three and a pensioner already with an income greater than I am ever LIKELY to enjoy, although good manners prevented me from enquiring about the exact figures involved.

We were still talking when Mrs Hankey came into the room. She was taken ABACK, probably thinking that having collected her few possesion, Miss Susan had already left.

Susan insisted she stay because THERE WAS one more piece of business to settle and with that she produced a document in impressive copperplate.

I got up to leave because CLEARLY I had no part to play. My advice was not required, but Susan’s hand on my shoulder pressed me down into my chair. ‘I insist,’ she said with that FIERCE look that sometimes comes into her eyes. What could I do?

The mistress narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips which she wouldn’t do if she had caught sight of HERSELF in a mirror. At that moment she looked more like a prune with a squint than the Mistress of a wealthy household, but she nodded her head to indicate that she was prepared to listen, although I know she’d rather be SWEEPING the pavements of Brunswick Square or washing up at the Assembly Rooms than spent any more time with us.

Three letters were laid in FRONTof us.
One was to a bank in London asking them to hold the contents of a certain package in their strong room until she or her solicitor issued its released. It was marked COPY in red ink
One was to a solicitor about the aforementioned package. It was also marked copy.

And the third?

It is STRANGE how your own name JUMPS out at you.
It was a CHARACTER reference.
About me.
And my character.
And COMPOSED as if Mrs Hankey had written it, although she clearly had never seen it before. It was addressed TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

Certain phrases leapt out

…outstanding housekeeper of her generation

and

 A MODEL of incorruptibility, she is a woman of the highest moral integrity

also

…an expert eliminator of dust, dirt and detritus

I wasn’t entirely sure what this all meant. It was a struggle but I managed to remain SILENT. I could see that Mrs Hankey was fighting her own battles. Eventually, in a voice that suggested she was trying to strangle herself, she croaked: “explain.” Another painful croak followed: “Please.”

Miss Susan was succinct.
She had Mrs H’s diary.
Nothing would induce her to return it, but select passages would be released to her husband, her children, leading society ladies, members of parliament and the cheaper and more uncouth newspapers in the FOLLOWING circumstances:

If I was sacked,
If life was MADE so uncomfortable I felt forced to leave,
Or if the words pearl earning were ever mentioned again.

The reference was for both our convenience. Should I ever WISH to leave, there it was already written for the benefit of any future employer. All Mrs Hankey need do was sign it.

NOW.

Susan was very insistent on that point and Mrs Hankey did. True, it was with ink blobs and poor grace but the signature was legible enough,

In a moment, a weight was lifted and DARK menacing clouds were turned into FLUFFY scraps of wool….

I was a free woman.
I tried to THANK Miss Susan as she prepared to leave the house for the last time, but she waved my words away and whispered into my ear.
“I’ve had a good teacher.”

I turned from the front door after SAYING goodbye to see Mrs Hankey studying me from her position on the stairs.
I sensed that our relationship was entering a new phrase…

MRS FINNEGAN is a regular feature created and written by Bridget Whelan and a host of volunteers at The Regency Town House, readers and subscribers.

This week a big thank you to PAUL COUCHMAN

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8 comments on “Old Clothes and New Nonsense from the Chronicles of Brighton’s Regency Housekeeper

  1. beth
    June 28, 2022

    I love the old clothing response so much and free at last, free at last!

    • bridget whelan
      June 28, 2022

      I was lucky to come across the work of French artist Honoré-Victorin Daumier for the first three images, although my favourite is the shepherd by Millet – you can see so clearly that he wears whatever he can.

      And as for Mrs F’s sense of freedom…when I wrote that I just tested negative for Covid after 5 days isolation. Life mirroring art…Free at last!!

      • beth
        June 29, 2022

        there you go! woo-hoo!

  2. Polly
    June 28, 2022

    ‘Mr Hankey now **formerly** acknowledges Susan…’? Tsk, tsk, Mrs Finnegan!

  3. Sarah Waldock
    June 28, 2022

    Miss Susan is a clever girl! And I agree with Mrs Finnegan about the old clothes, though she left out a couple of step – as patchwork or rag rugs whether hooked or plaited and as cleaning rags. Though I must say the idea that the old clothes vendors do not launder their secondhand garments at all before selling them does rather turn the stomach. I know the smell well, having sorted for many a Boy Scout jumble sale and finding that some people have sent dirty clothes.

    • bridget whelan
      June 28, 2022

      Susan’s done all right, hasn’t she? Although of course her ‘compensation’ pales into insignificence compared to what the Hankey family recieved from the British government for the loss of their slaves…a history we should never forget

    • bridget whelan
      June 28, 2022

      PS
      You are, of course, quite right that Mrs F’s missed out a couple of stages in a dress’ downward path. It was a long journey from loom to rags in Georgian don’t-throw-anything-away society,

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