Inside Marbled Halls by Anthony Masters

This is an excellent book for those who want to find out what working 'downstairs' in one of London's grand hotels was like in the early twentieth century.

Mary Schiffer lived a life of incredible poverty in Dublin. A child from a large family she had to endure a crowded, and fairly miserable existence with a drunken father who didn't hesitate to use force and a compliant mother who put up with this. Her sister died of the Spanish Flu when Mary was very young.

Although she loved her family, Mary hated The Liberties (the tenements where they lived), and decided to leave. When she somehow got the money she took the ferry to England in the middle of the First World War. Almost captured by a white slaver, a Salvation Army lady took Mary in hand and arranged a job for her at the splendid Hyde Park Hotel.

Here Mary worked in the still-room - a sort of butler's pantry where she had to prepare tea or coffee and toast for the celebrated guests. She had to work very long hours for a rather bad-tempered boss, but life was better than it had been in the Liberties.

During her career Mary became a confidante of Queen Mary, talked to the young Duke of Wales and met other Royals and celebrated people such as Churchill and Evelyn Waugh.

She looked after the 'retiring need's of Queen Mary, i.e. her commode, and used to speak to her about the war. Mary admired her ordinariness, and her charity work.

Mary also liked the young Prince of Wales very much. He would talk to her after balls and dances at the hotel and she felt that he had a genuine desire to help the poor. However, he became disillusioned when he realized that he would only be a figurehead. She also sympathized with Queen Mary when Edward married Mrs.Simpson, especially when he married her on his late father's birthday. That seemed pretty malicous to me! The book does give an excellent account of the difficulties raised by the love affair, however, and the author was sympathetic with the Price.

Mary became a 'character' at the hotel after working there for many years. She had a hand in everything and came to be heavily relied on. Although she wasn't ambitious she was feisty and even 'had words' with Churchill at one stage!

The book describes the splendour of the hotel's 'golden age' very well - the menus of French dishes, the balls, the debutantes, and the other former occasions. It also describes the hard lives of the staff and the great poverty of Mary's family, by contrast.

It is also quite an intimate biography because the author became a good friend of Mary during his interviews with her.

This was an excellent buy for 50p from a Greenwich market! (Some 'oldies' were quite upset that I'd got it!) If you are interested in this type of social history be sure to grab it if you see it in a second-hand bookshop.


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