Imagine being a working-class one-time waitress who suddenly found herself in charge of a grand country house, and then being arrested for stealing the equivalent of £28,000.
That is what happened to Ellen Penketh, who became housekeeper and cook at Erddig Hall outside Wrexham, aged 32, and whose name has been “purged” from the history of the great house amid scandal.
Tessa Boase, a London-based writer has been conducting tours at Erddig following the publication of her book, The Housekeeper’s Tale.
It tells the story of those who laboured “downstairs” to ensure the smooth running of country houses – a glimpse into the real dramas that inspired TV shows like Downton Abbey.
Tessa, 45, spoke to the Leader after a visit to Mold Bookshop, where the book is now in stock.
She said: “I’ve been really fascinated by Erddig for a long time. I found a picture of Ellen Penketh, this beautiful housekeeper, who went down in National Trust history as being the ‘thief cook’.
“I wanted to find out if she was as bad as she was painted, but she’s been removed from many of the archives in the house. While lots of the servants photos are shown in the house, her image is not.
“I went to the archives in Hawarden, where I found information, and I also went through the pocket diaries of Louisa Yorke, lady of the house. There were 49 of them in the Erddig archive.
Ellen was installed as a housekeeper and cook at Erddig in 1902 and was paid £45 a year – the equivalent of about £2,500.
Tessa said: “This was, in real terms, a cost-cutting exercise for the Yorke family, who lived in Erddig. A cook would typically earn five to 10 pounds more, and a housekeeper more than that.
“They paid her less to do both jobs and basically asked her to do the impossible.”
The poor pay would later become a key factor in the eventual court case.
Originally from Lancashire, Ellen was given lodgings at Erddig in the housekeepers quarters, and was not only responsible for cooking grand dinners, but was also in charge of the expenses. Tessa’s analysis of the Erddig diaries revealed the sumptuous habits of the gentry.
She wrote: “They ate Palestine soup, whitebait, sweetbread, boned turkey, partridge, jelly, chocolate mould and cheese capons, rounded off with home-grown apples and pears...
“...heaped and elaborately garnished serving dishes were borne upstairs by the young footmen.
“On a day such as this (a dinner party for 12) the kitchen team would have also cooked a large breakfast, provided lunch for guests (cold cuts, savouries crafted from last night’s leftovers, rissoles, salads) along with the usual vegetarian dish for Mr Yorke (savoury rice, macaroni cheese, stuffed eggs).”
Such lavish feasts obviously cost money.
Tessa said: “Ellen was there for five years. She’d come from Lancashire and worked in Manchester. Becoming a housekeeper was a step up for her.
“But over the years, a problem emerged. The Yorkes simply loved entertaining and throwing parties. The number of people they had round almost quadrupled.
“At the same time, they put Ellen under pressure to cut costs and keep the household running efficiently.”
It is possible that Ellen, overworked and under criticism, could only see one way out.
Tessa said: “She started suppressing the bills by going to the suppliers, the butcher, the grocer and the vintner, and asking them to sell her the items on credit.
“Eventually it rolled over and rolled over. She must have been terrified to tell the Yorkes what was happening, but it became such a massive amount she was discovered.”
Ellen was immediately sacked, but she must have evoked some sympathy, as the other servants clubbed together to raise £2 for her.
Her prospects were ruined as she had no letter of reference, but worse was to come.
Tessa said: “On September 9, 1907, Louisa Yorke wrote she was a “regular professional thief” in her diary.”
Ellen was arrested, placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station on Regent Street. Philip Yorke, her former employer, stumped up the bail and she returned to Manchester.
Then, after he changed his mind, she was hauled back for a big trial at the Ruthin Assizes.
Tessa said: “She waited there for two months, doing laundry with the other female inmates. It must have been terrifying. A working class woman with no connections had very little protection.
“But when she went to trial, amazingly, she was let off.
“She had a good barrister. He pointed out, sarcastically, the “princely salary” she earned and pointed out that she’d had full access to the accounts – and yet it was all accounted for.
“He argued that, if anywhere, here was a woman with the motive and opportunity to steal, but she’d taken nothing for herself.”
The case was a huge source of embarrassment to the Yorkes.
Tessa said: “They were outraged. They had been outed as being parsimonious and cold-hearted.
“There’s a green corridor in the house where all the images are of the staff looking happy, as if to prove that working at Erddig was a marvellous place to work.
“It looks like a PR exercise.”
Sadly, although she was exonerated, Ellen Penketh would never find a high-status position again.
Tessa said: “It isn’t a happy ending. She returned to live over her mother’s shop in Manchester and worked as a domestic cook, which was a real knock-down from being a housekeeper.
“She died of a stroke aged 63, so she wasn’t old, in a hospital for the elderly.
“It had 1,000 beds and was built on the site of the Salford workhouse.
“Her picture is nowhere to be found at Erddig. I want people to know she had a place there.”