Stories from the Palace Archive: The Diary of Lady Day

Whilst going through the records held in the archive at The Bishop’s Palace, the archive volunteers came across a wonderful diary by Lady Day written in 1979 until 1988.  Below is an entry from June 1983 recalling a visit that unlocked some wonderful stories from the time of Bishop Wynne Willson in the 1930’s.

On 22nd June 1983, Mr. Peter Courage of Bathford came to the Palace by invitation of the Bishop and Mrs. Bickersteth. He brought with him Mr. Charles Howard, aged 87, who had been under-chauffeur at the Palace in Bishop Wynne Wilson’s time; Mr. Courage’s father was then the butler.

The Courages, Peter told us, lived in the Gatehouse; mother brought up five children there. The main gates were kept shut, if a car needed to get in, the driver tooted, and a member of the Courage family opened up. Chauffeurs were not allowed to open the gates themselves. Peter was five when they left thé Palace in 1937 on the bishop’s retirement; but he has a clear recollection of his job, which was to ride his tricycle every day from the kitchens to the Gatehouse with scraps from the household in a basket for the swans. He toppled into the moat so often that a special pole was at hand to haul him out!

‘Everyone had jobs.’

There was a pony, Joey, ‘who was a disaster’; unpopular with the bishop because he had a habit of kicking his way out of his stable in the yard, and careering about the lawn.  The lawn ‘was the bishop’s pride and joy’. Joey was used for the trap but also (with leather shoes on) for the gangmower.

The bishop kept ‘about three cars when we were in Wells, but he had four after he’d retired.’ There was an Armstrong Siddeley, a 1935 Isis, which was so big that it was used as a fire engine in Wells during the war, and a Morris saloon.  In a chauffeur’s room in the Stable Yard, a wardrobe housed their uniforns, maroon cap and overoat, and a grey suit; ‘plus two other suits for each of us’. The bishop’s cars were never filled up at the pump, it was the under chauffeurs’ job to see that the 12×2 gallon cans in the garages were always kept filled.

The staff were allowed to entertain their friends in the Palace twice during the two months summer holiday when the bishop was away fishing in Scotland. ‘All the summer, Wednesdays were open days when we took parties, mostly Americans, round the gardens’.

The Bishop ‘as far as I know’ said Charlie, had no secretary, but there was a (resident?) bishop’s chaplain, Canon Alcock.  (Note by Bishop Bickersteth – I remember him well as an octogenarian residentiary canon in the late 1940’s; it was always said that when he was at the Palace, he would write postcards to clergy asking the bishop to do something, saying ‘the bishop is very sorry that he cannot do what you ask. Rumour had it that he never consulted the bishop before writing the card!).

‘Most afternoons’ the bishop would play golf, either with Reg Courage the butler, or Charles Howard, the junior chauffeur.  Reg loved mushrooms, and one September day when a great flush of mushrooms suddenly hove into sight, and Reg got down on his hands and knees to gather them, the bishop exploded “Reg I came here to play golf not to watch you picking mushrooms. ‘We were all one big family’ Charlie said to us, as we walked him up to the wells to see the view he’d held in his mind for so long. ‘We each knew our place. The bishop loved the children specially, not having any of his own. In my day there were five gardeners and eight indoor staff, the butler, a cook, sullery maid and kitchen maid, three housemaids and one parlour maid, plus two casuals. And when he retired, he took us all with him to Bath ford and either bought us houses or built them for us. Mrs. Wynne Wilson of course was a rich woman; it was always said she inherited f1m., and we believed it.’  She was a Wills.

Over the moat, reached by the footbridge was ‘Mrs. Wilson’s flower garden. It was a mass of flowers’. We think these beds must have been all round the Bath House and our silver pears. When Mrs. Wilson went out by car with the bishop, they would never go together. He went with the chauffeur, she with the under-chauffeur.

I guessed Charles 1937 wage: ‘£3?’ 1 asked. ‘£3.10.0d’ he said, and a very comfortable wage that was.

Both thanked us profusely for giving them such a welcome.  For us it was a most fascinating hour. Peter gave us a watercolour of the Gatchouse, Palace and Tor Hill, all of 100 years old: T’d like you to have it’ he said, ‘we’ve enjoyed ourselves so much today. I have nothing but happy memories of this place’.

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