Sunday 22 September 2019

Jean, Mrs Brodie and life in the Roaring Twenties

'For October 1925 saw her donning a servant's uniform to play her part in a real-life version of Downton Abbey'
'For October 1925 saw her donning a servant's uniform to play her part in a real-life version of Downton Abbey'

Fiona O'Connell

Many teenagers in this country town are considering what costumes to wear for Halloween, whereas fancy dress was less fantasy and more fact for a 14-year-old Protestant girl called Jane, who in 1925 was propelled by religious persecution to flee her home in the nearby townland of Kilcross.

For October 1925 saw her donning a servant's uniform to play her part in a real-life version of Downton Abbey.

"They had little bells on the wall in the kitchen," Jane remembered, 74 years later, in an interview with her son-in-law, Roger Buisson. "If anyone rang it, a little tag would say 'bedroom' or whatever, and you would go up and see what they wanted. Then you would come down and there was somebody employed in the kitchen who would help me get it and take it to them."

The journey to that job had been the longest of Jane's young life, starting with a six-mile jaunt on a donkey cart to this town's train station - before "getting on the ferry in Waterford, or Rosslare, I think it was, and going through Cardiff in the middle of the night in the dark - on a train by now - and getting into St Pancras Station, London and going from there to Waterloo".

Jane's six-month stint in this lavish London house was a launching pad to her new life in Australia. So maybe it was apt that it also supplied her with a new name, courtesy of the bedridden lady of the house, Mrs Brodie.

"She had a live-in companion called Jean," Jane recalled. "I remember thinking: 'what a lovely name! I'm going to change my name to Jean'. Which I did - I made everybody call me Jean after that," she laughs. "But for official reasons, it has to be back to the old Jane again."

Though there was no going back for this girl from rural Ireland. Jane relished the Roaring Twenties in London, with "all the lights all over the place. Walking on your own and catching a bus was fantastic. I would go to the pictures as often as I could. T'was the silent days, but they had music; they had a sort of baton and ball that would hit all the sounds. I remembered the tune for years."

And even if Jane was "down in the kitchen; you had your place to keep", she was treated well and cleaning up in more ways than one. "The pay was £24 a year - but I got my keep and shelter and everything, so that was fantastic. I could go out to Lyons Cafe and have a cup of tea. I thoroughly enjoyed not having to work about the farm and look after the cows and things."

And even if school was out, Jane still got an education.

"Mrs Brodie was a bit of a philosopher," Jane recalled. "She used to lie in bed, after she was tended to by Jean, and she had a piece of string. I remember it well. She used to tie a knot in it every day and say: 'I get better and better in every respect in every way, every day.' I can still see her with this piece of string, each day putting another knot in it."

Leaving Jane with a freakishly forget-me-not good grip on those long, gone days.

Sunday Independent

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