Victoria Fletcher (1942) – Yester House, Gifford during war time and just after
Mrs Marjorie Nettlefold (nee Wagg) came to nurse Grandpa’s first wife Margueritte Ralli who died of cancer in 1944. In 1945, she married Grandpa, the then 11th Marquess of Tweeddale. They lived at Yester House surrounded by members of the family. I (Vicki) was one of his grandchildren out of sixteen children living in the house plus their nannies in the war.
The younger children and nannies lived in the nursery wing which was separated from the main house by a corridor and heavy swing door and was run as a completely separate unit under the rule of nannies with the help of nursery maids. All the little children slept, ate and played there until they were old enough to graduate to having tea, then lunch and eventually dinner on special occasions with the adults in the main part of the house.
All our clothes including the babies’ nappies were washed in the day nursery bathroom by the nursery maids by hand using a glass-centered scrubbing board and wrung out in a mangle and then hung out to dry either on wooden clothes horses or out on a clothes line on the nursery lawn depending on the weather. Nanny Bailie, nanny to my brother Hugo and I, liked all the table linen to be starched and the ironing was done with flat irons heated beside the log fires until electric irons came in. At night we had much needed stone ‘pig’ hot water bottles to keep us from freezing in our brass ended beds complete with sheets, blankets and eiderdowns. There was also a china potty beneath our beds for use at night and we were given pyjama cases to keep our nightclothes in.
As we grew from babyhood into childhood we grew out of lovely white smocked dresses into skirts for girls and trousers mainly for the boys who wore dress kilts for smart occasions. We girls wore liberty bodices and shirts underneath a black and white check tunic of ‘shepherds’ plaid as tidy day clothes and of course dresses for parties with sashes, and ribbons in our hair. For scruffy play we had khaki shirts and shorts and later thicker day kilts for outdoor activities like shooting or walking in the woods.
Days in the nursery followed a quiet routine depending on the weather. After sweets followed by a rest on our beds after lunch, we often went for a walk in the afternoon with Nanny to the Home Farm (Yester Mains), or into the woods where we picked wild strawberries and rose hips or to visit the tenants on the estate.
My brother Hugo had a Shetland pony – Black Beauty – which we used to ride and the pony also learnt to pull a small dog-cart in which we all sat and when I was five, I was given an Exmoor pony of my own. There was also an ice toboggan and a tricycle and later bicycles and a see-saw and swings for the little ones.
After tea in the nursery we would be washed and changed into tidy clothes and taken through to the main part of the house to spend a short time with the adults before baths, being read a story and going to bed. Conversely Granny or Grandpa would sometimes visit us for tea and bath times.
Rainy days were spent in the upstairs playroom where there were all sorts of toys including a model castle complete with lead soldiers and guns, a dolls house and a rocking horse. We also had our own dolls and I had several miniature china tea sets. As we got older we would play in the evenings snakes and ladders, ludo, tiddly winks, draughts and card games or puzzles and later games like Monopoly or Totopoly and when we were much older table tennis.
After the end of the war Nanny, Hugo and I remained in the nursery whilst the others returned to their homes and we too left to go down south in 1947 but most of us returned from time to time for holidays but especially for Christmas and in summer for the shooting season.
Christmas was a high point of the year at Yester with a full size tree in the corner near the middle door of the back drawing room. Christmas day was essentially a family day ending with a formal dinner. Boxing day at Yester was the day for the estate children’s party, which was a huge party held in the back drawing room. The children came with their parents all dressed up for the occasion in their party dresses, the little boys usually wearing kilts and white shirts or their school uniforms.
First there was tea; with pancakes, scones, sandwiches, brandy snaps, and cakes and jelly and ice cream and crackers and balloons for everyone who then put on their paper hats. Next Father Christmas arrived and every single child including us, got a present, good useful presents. This was followed by party games and [in] later years by entertainment in the saloon upstairs eg the original Lassie film or a marvellous magician who produced real live white rabbits out of his top hat.
After a few years the nursery wing was shut up apart from the top playroom where we played table tennis as we all progressed to living and sleeping in the main house.
And on food:
Yester House was self sufficient in 1945, most of the food being produced on the estate, on the farm and in the large walled garden complete with green houses or having been shot in the woods on the Lammermuirs – pheasant and grouse – or fished from the burn.
There was both a Jersey dairy herd of cattle and a bull on the farm and bullocks and sheep and my mother had a herd of goats, geese, bantam chicks and Muscovy ducks and Aunt Marjory (Lady Tweeddale) had chickens and turkeys.
Unpasteurised milk would come to the dairy in the house in the basement in huge cans to be skimmed of its lovely thick cream, which was sent up to the main dining room and little pats of individual round butter portions were rolled between wooden pat boards. Cheese was also in the stillroom not only from the cows’ milk but also from the goats’.
From the garden, fruit of all kinds including soft fruits, berries, nectarines, peaches, figs and grapes would be sent up to the house together with vegetables and also flowers to decorate the house. All would be prepared and cooked in the huge kitchen in the basement of the house presided over by Mrs Sinclair the cook.
Some idea of the etiquette of this now by-gone age is seen in this description of breakfast:
Breakfast was the least formal meal other than tea. It was at 9am. The adults were called at 8 o’clock by the housemaids, with a cup of tea. One was not considered late unless one arrived after grandpa (the Marquis). Grandpa always had orange juice served in a glass jug on the side, and after he had taken his, but not until, we were allowed to drink any left over. There was toast in little silver toast racks on the table and everyone had their own little butter dish with rolled pats of butter in front of each place. At the side serving table was coffee and a choice of cooked breakfast e.g. porridge-followed by kippers, kedgeree, mixed grill or scrambled eggs, to which one helped oneself and fresh fruit like peaches or nectarines to finish with.
However, long before my grandfather died in 1967, Mrs Sinclair died and the dairy was closed as was the still room and the large kitchen, and a small modern kitchen was made in one of the bedrooms on the ground floor. The pantry over which Ned the butler presided till he died in the 1970s, was provided with a dishwashing machine’.
Vicky Fletcher trained as a children’s physiotherapist in London and worked mainly in Edinburgh with 18 months in the Transkei in Africa. She retired to Haddington in 1992. She writes prose and poetry and is involved in local societies.
FURTHER READING & REFERENCES
- Fletcher, Victoria (2000) The Children of Yester, D&J Croal Ltd., Haddington