The Redoubtable Housekeeper who kept Charleston Swinging

For half a century, one remarkable, modest woman kept the Bloomsbury set’s house in order. What would they have done without her, asks historian Tessa Boase
How would you feel if you discovered that your boss had always called your husband ‘The Dolt’ behind his back? And what if this came to light in a very public way – in a published anthology of letters? Such were the bracing challenges of working for the Bloomsbury set.

When the collected letters of deceased artist Vanessa Bell were released to the public in 1993, her contempt for countryman Walter Higgens was laid bare. But then she had never wanted him to marry her right-hand woman Grace, prop and mainstay of Charleston Farmhouse for half a century.

While housekeeper Grace was fondly dubbed ‘the angel of Charleston’, Walter was simply ‘The Dolt’ – or ‘The D’. Vanessa Bell was critical of his gardening, she was critical of his singing, and she scorned his intellect.

‘Have you heard whether Grace has had her baby yet?’ she wrote to her sister Virginia Woolf from Rome in 1935. ‘I hope I shall hear somehow when it does arrive, but I doubt her husband’s capacity to write.’

Charleston-Nov21-02-590A painting of Grace in the kitchen by Vanessa Bell (inset)

The truth was that her aversion to poor Walter was in part simple jealousy. Vanessa felt that she owned Grace. Marriage was a distraction from Grace’s service to the Bell ménage – that famously unconventional family comprising Vanessa, her separated husband Clive Bell, the gay artist Duncan Grant, plus children Julian, Quentin and Angelica (the latter fathered secretly by Grant).

It’s odd to think of servants being a part of Bloomsbury at all, such is its reputation for hedonistic house parties and unbuttoned sexual mores. But there would have been no house parties without servants; no clever conversation into the small hours without someone silently, invisibly, seeing to the food and the washing up.

What was it like, housekeeping for the Bloomsbury set? Few have bothered to ask this question, and the truth is hard to ascertain. Servants pass like ghosts through most household archives, reduced to a footnote in the census or a name in the wage book. Just occasionally, though, something more human survives.


A quarter of a century after Grace’s death, her son John sold her secret cache of 44 diaries to the British Library in 2007. The value of the ‘Higgens Papers’ lies in the smattering of famous names from the world she served, and they are read today by scholars hoping for some insight into ‘Bloomsbury’. But I’d hazard a guess that they are largely disappointed.

Grace was not impressed by celebrity, and it was rare for her to pass judgement on any of this illustrious cast. She was, after all, seeing to their bodily needs – food, linen, chamber pots – rather than joining in their conversation. The most waspish entry concerns the Woolfs, cycling up the farm track to Charleston in 1924 looking ‘absolute freaks, Mr Woolf with a corduroy coat that had split up the back like a swallow tail, & Mrs Woolf in a costume she has had for years’.

The 16-year-old Grace Germany started working for Vanessa Bell in 1920. She did her growing up with this family. And it’s through her early diaries that we get a wholly new perspective on Charleston in its 1920s heyday. Angelica Garnett, Vanessa’s daughter, has written about the ‘holiday camp atmosphere’ that prevailed at this rambling farmhouse, a ‘paradise on Earth’ isolated at the foot of the South Downs in East Sussex.

Charleston-Nov21-04-590Left: The Bloomsbury set would congregate in Charleston’s garden. Right: Artist Duncan Grant’s studio

During long summer holidays, the intellectual heavyweights of the day would congregate in the garden and parry witticisms. At first, Grace was just one of a team of young maids hired to keep the damp, dilapidated house ticking over.

She doesn’t write of her reaction to Charleston; to its dazzlingly bohemian decor, the walls, doors and furniture painted in swirling patterns of blue and yellow, midnight grey and earthy red. The kitchen was clearly more important. Her diaries conjure a servants’ quarter echoing with shrieks of laughter, practical jokes and flirtatious, physical horseplay.

In contrast, the Bell family comes across as restrained and rather gloomy (‘Mrs Virginia Woolf arrived after tea to the great joy of the household, as she is very amusing, & helps to cheer them up.’)

The real sexual anarchy at Charleston dwelt in the kitchen, among what Vanessa called the ‘crop-haired generation’ of maids.

‘Arthur West, Will White, E Kemp, Spenser Wooller called in & started chasing me, they were a terrible nuisance,’ Grace writes in 1924. ‘Tom West told Mrs Upp he was my young man & tried to kiss me, thereupon I called upon God to let me die... Mrs Upp so amused she made water, & had to go upstairs.’

This kitchen was to become Grace’s empire. She would end up spending more hours in the dark, lowceilinged little room than anywhere else in her life. In time she was promoted to kitchen maid, then to cook, and finally, aged 30, to cook-housekeeper. On marrying Walter Higgens, Grace made the unconventional choice to remain working rather than be kept as a housewife, as Walter dearly wanted. And so, with Vanessa Bell’s grudging blessing, ‘The Dolt’ and Grace moved in to the attics of Charleston. Their son John was born up in the eaves the following year.


The intimate moments of family life were played out in small, squeezed spaces, under the noses of those Grace served. The Higgens family and the Bell family lived on top of each other, quite literally, in a claustrophobic unit that would have been unthinkable to previous housekeepers and their mistresses. There was no question as to which family had the worse deal – but what did it feel like to be on Grace’s side of the masterservant divide?

She undoubtedly enjoyed the frisson of glamour that came from being part of Bloomsbury. Not many housekeepers were on such familiar terms with EM Forster that they wanted to call their dog ‘Morgan’ after his middle name (discouraged by Mrs Bell); or had watched Sir Frederick Ashton ‘leaping about Charleston Lawn with red Roses threaded in his hair’; or served George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell her queen of puddings.

But the work was often hard and thankless. Grace was just ‘part of the furniture’, according to Quentin’s wife Anne Olivier Bell, who remembers liking her very much, but knowing very little about her. For this reason, Grace’s diaries make fascinating reading. Time and again she records getting back to Charleston from a holiday to find the sink full of dirty dishes, or the fridge full of stinking meat. ‘Spent day scrubbing & cleaning,’ she recorded on her return from an exciting package holiday to Paris in 1953. ‘Took six buckets of water to scrub kitchen it was filthy.’

Her son John concurred. As a young man he began to take note of the small disrespects paid to his mother, such as Quentin walking through from his pottery with his ‘clod-hopper boots covered in clay’ just after Grace had scrubbed the tiled passageway from front to back; or the last-minute announcements that there would be eight to dinner, requiring a bus journey into Lewes to buy more food. John struggled to understand her loyalty when ‘they expected so much of her, for so little. I thought she should give it up.’

Grace didn’t expect her son’s generation to understand the pull exerted by her employers for half a century. Such unwavering loyalty belonged to another era.

Yet there were other reasons for her steadfastness, that outsiders couldn’t begin to guess at. When Vanessa Bell died of bronchitis in 1961, the record of her death in Grace’s diary reveals the touching interdependence between them. ‘So brave,’ she wrote, as she spooned warm broth into her mistress’s mouth, then changed her nightshirt. At midnight, when Mrs Bell passed away, she wrote, ‘I shall miss her terribly.’

Charleston-Nov21-06-590Charleston, a ‘paradise on Earth

They had been partners for 40 years – half a lifetime, longer than most marriages; and at such close but very separate quarters. They’d shared moments of raw grief and pure terror; of doting joy over grandchildren and proud satisfaction over vegetable plots. Both loved juicy steak, zinnias, sunshine, small babies. Neither could function without cleanliness and order in the home.

They were like two halves of the same coin – though not once had mistress and housekeeper been photographed together. Strange as it now seems, these two women, on different sides of the class divide, had made a silent pact together.

Read as a whole, Grace’s diaries portray very movingly the blossoming and maturing of an intelligent, stoical and loyal woman – perhaps too loyal, for she gave up her freedom for this family, retiring finally at 67.

From being a ‘hopeless amateur’, a girl who once travelled on the overnight train to Provence with her head in Mrs Bell’s lap, Grace became, in time, the real matriarch of Charleston. It could not have existed without her.

The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran The English Country House, by Tessa Boase, is published by Aurum Press, priced £20:

Charleston, East Sussex, is open to visitors from 25 March 2015: 01323- 811265,

Images: Penny Fewster