Saturday 13 April 2019


I do like a little bit of scandal at my National Trust properties. My initial research suggested I wasn't going to find any at Erddig (pronounced Erthig), near Wrexham; it was a straightforward case of stately home inhabited by slightly peculiar family.

But no! I just happened to chance upon a book called The Housekeeper's Tale, which has a chapter dedicated to the "THIEF COOK!!" who blighted the lives of Erddig's owners in 1907, and it changed everything for my visit. 

Erddig Hall

But before we get to the gossip, here's a quick history of the house:

  • Work started on Erddig Hall in 1684
  • It was built by Joshua Edisbury, who was High Sheriff of Denbighshire
  • He sounds like a generous man who took care of his friends and relatives, so naturally it all ended horribly for him and he went bust
  • It was bought by a John Meller, who was not quite so inclined to subsidise his nearest and dearest
  • He died in 1733 and left the estate to his nephew, Simon Yorke I - the Yorkes would remain at Erddig until the 1970s

One of the pecularities of the Yorke family was that they collected portraits of their staff. It was a tradition started by Philip Yorke I, who inherited Erddig in 1767. He would write little poems to go with them, giving the history of the employee. 

The portraits had turned into photographs by the twentieth century and you can see all of them lined up in the corridor as you enter the house. Albert the gardener below, for example, has his picture with his poem in the bottom left and right-hand corners:

There is no portrait of Ellen Penketh, the Cook-Housekeeper at Erddig from 1902-1907. She is mentioned though - her successor's poem leaves you in no doubt that Ellen is not remembered fondly in these parts, describing her as; "As foul a thief as e'er we saw/Tho' white-wash'd by Un-Civil Law."

The background to this tale is as follows:

  • In 1877, Philip Yorke II married a woman called Annette Puleston - his dad bullied him into the marriage by all accounts
  • Philip spent their honeymoon painting watercolours, which might explain why Annette literally did a runner soon after - she escaped on a milk float with her lady's maid without a word to anyone
  • Philip stayed away from Erddig until Annette died in 1899 and he was free to remarry
  • His new wife, Louisa, was  a vicar's daughter who had never run a large house - she kept diaries that detail the difficulties she faced in hiring and retaining staff
  • In 1902 she employed Ellen Penketh as Cook-Housekeeper - Louisa was merging two roles (Cook and, er, Housekeeper) to save money
  • You only need to see the size of Erddig to know that the role of 'Cook-Housekeeper' would be a big job, even with help. In six days in 1905, as an example, Ellen would have been catering for 750 people who were attending garden parties and other events
  • Then it all went horribly wrong - it was discovered that local tradesmen were owed £500 (£28,700 in today's money) when Ellen had been given the cash to pay them
  • Ellen claimed she had lost £130 in the street (around £7,500 today) and had been trying to make good the loss
  • She was arrested and charged; the Yorkes later decided that a court case wasn't a good idea but the wheels were already in motion
  • The whole thing ended in stress and mortification for Louisa and Philip; Ellen was found not guilty by a jury, and the press had a field day with the defending barrister's comments in his summing up that the Yorkes were "idlers on the pathway of life"

I will admit that the kitchens and servants' quarters are not usually top of my list when I'm pootling about at the National Trust. But having read Ellen's story, I was fascinated to see where she had lived and worked.

This is a terrible picture but it's the housekeeper's room where she presumably spent hours trying to work out how she was going to pay back thirty grand:

Erddig housekeeper's room

And it was quite moving to see her kitchen and her pots and pans:

Erddig kitchen

I should also point out that the Yorkes referred to her as 'the thief cook' and not the 'THE THIEF COOK!!' but having read Louisa's emotional diary entries, my capitalisation and exclamation marks are appropriate.

The Erddig scone
Did Ellen THE THIEF COOK!! bake many scones during her years at Erddig? We'll never know for sure. All I do know is that I feared the worst today when I saw this specimen, as it looked distinctly cheesy to me. I could see raisins though, and a sign saying "FRUIT SCONE", so I took my chances. 

And, reader, I'm glad I did because one jab of my knife and I knew I was onto something very special. It was a triumph of a scone. It was almost sponge-like in its texture and was as fresh as fresh could be.

Erddig National Trust scone

Erddig also had another trick up its sleeve for me. Hot Cross Scones have been sighted at National Trust properties all over the land over the past week but I never dreamed that I would be lucky enough to find one. Yet there they were - sitting in a basket on the counter. I was Charlie Bucket with his golden ticket.

I took one of each, putting myself at serious risk of looking like a greedy pig (cashier: "so...that's ONE hot drink and TWO scones?") And I'm glad I did because the Hot Cross Scone tasted great - it wasn't as fresh as the fruit number, but in its heyday it had been a great scone.

Erddig hot cross scone

I'll finish with a picture of some donkeys - apparently the Yorke family liked to keep them as pets:

Erddig donkeys
"Oi - where's our thirty grand?"

Erddig: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Bonus donkeys: 5 out of 5

Other properties we've been to in Wales: Aberdulais Tin WorksChirk CastleDyffryn GardensPenrhyn CastlePlas NewyddPowis CastleTredegar House

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