Ishbel Gordon

I have this friend from the Gordon clan (I've talked about him a bit on the blog before) whose grandfather was the Marquis of Aberdeen. And when you are that high up in the aristocracy, you know your ancestors have done some crazy, scandalous shit. Occasionally I'll recount a story he's told me, since he has the BEST stories (Princess Anne once stole his doughnuts when he was a small child, and he's never forgiven her).

I was doing some research for my PhD and stumbled across this book entitled Upstairs to Downstairs: Advice to Servant Girls and Weary Mothers. I'm writing a chapter on Victorian domesticity, so this was pretty useful. And then I got to the preface and saw that it was written by the June Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen, my friend's grandmother. How could I NOT read it after finding that out?

A bit of history: Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon was the Marchioness of Aberdeen at the turn of the century, two generations before June Gordon. So Ishbel was June Gordon's grandmother-in-law, and is my friend's great-great-grandmother. No, I don't know what kind of name 'Ishbel' is.

Ishbel was a bit of a radical (much to the shame of her family) and ran and wrote a magazine called Upwards and Onwards. (Also, sister loved a good vibrator, but that's neither here nor there). The magazine specifically encouraged the moral reformation of servants and the working classes by (HORROR OF HORRORS) the aristocrats setting a good example for them, mixing with them whenever possible, and actually CARING about the filthy plebes.

In fact, the Marquis and Marchioness were so well known for being kindly to their servants and even (GASP) knowing all of the servants' names, that King Edward VII once refused to stay with them 'in case he found himself obliged to take a parlourmaid in to dinner' (Introduction 3).

This book is actually just a bunch of extracts from Ishbel's magazine that tell how a proper house shound be run for the ultimate benefit of all. Though Ishbel was WAY ahead of her time, some of her advice is still very much a product of its age and class. Here are a few excerpts:

1.) "If any servants below the rank of footman met the Master in a corridor, they should turn and face the wall until he had passed." (Introduction 2)

2.) "To save the family the inconvenience of learning the servants' names, standard names were given to particular ranks. The first footman was usually 'James' while 'Margaret' was considered suitable for a parlourmaid. The upper servants [i.e. butlers, valets, housekeepers, ladies' maids] were called by their surnames unless these were considered either vulgar or pretentious" (Introduction 2). Obviously this one wasn't practiced by Ishbel herself, but it was how things were 'properly done' in big establishments.

3). "Remember the wise saying 'Feet warm, head cool, bowels regular – laugh at the Doctor'" (21). Ah, yes. That old chestnut. That saying has a real ring to it.

4.) "The worst wheel of all is the one that creaks and groans as it goes about the work of turning" (23). Is this a piece of advice, or just a general observation? Yeah, creaky wheels are obnoxious.

5.) If young servant girls "write home once a fortnight and visit home once a year that will be quite often enough" (49).

And then, of course, there is this classic upper-class joke she thought to include:

"When is a clock like a lazy workman?"
"When it strikes." (36)


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One Response to Ishbel Gordon

  1. hibiscusrose says:

    So very Downton Abbey, I would guess?

    And Ishbel is, I believe, a Scots variation on Isabel. Possibly originally spelled Iseabail or something similar, with a accent mark. (Ishbel is an Anglicisation [based on SG pronunciation] according to Wiki).


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