Who is the Spider Brusher? She is Jane Ebbrell, a beloved servant at the Welsh estate of Erddig, near Wrexham. Actually, she was more of an all-around housemaid, but she wielded a mean spider-brush in her day. We know this because her slightly eccentric late 18th century master, Philip Yorke, not only commissioned her portrait, but wrote an affectionate ditty about her. It begins,
To dignify our Servants hall
Here comes the Mother of us all;
For seventy years, or near have pass’d her
Since Spider-Brusher, to the Master
At the time of her portrait, she was 87. Many other servants received the same oil portrait and poem treatment over the next 250 years. But the Yorkes went beyond lip service. Jane Ebbrell, for example, was encouraged to marry another servant, and when she finally retired it was to her own home on the estate.
In around 1852, the squire, Simon Yorke III commissioned a photograph of all the family servants, each holding an implement of his or her work, standing on the front steps. He and his family appeared in the window behind the servants.
In 1912, Philip Yorke duplicated the photo with his own servants and his own young family. He wrote a long poem for the occasion. A book of his poems, all affectionate doggerel, is sold in the gift shop.
What made seven generations of the Yorke family treat their servants so well? This was an age when kitchen maid might always be called “Mary” because master and mistress could not be bothered to learn new names. Most likely the reason is that the Yorke family had somewhat humble origins themselves. When they unexpectedly inherited the house and its grand 18th century furnishings from an uncle, they found themselves rich in property but poor in cash. They could not afford the usual wages, but they made up for it by treating their servants so well that they felt part of the whole enterprise.
Perhaps not wanting to waste anything, they eventually became epic hoarders.
When the property finally passed to the National Trust in 1973, the sole remaining Yorke required that no objects should EVER be thrown out or sold. About 30,000 objects were inventoried. Only about 10,000 can be on display at the same time.
In their more orderly years, the family kept a “Failures Gallery:” a collection of objects and art they didn’t like but didn’t want to part with. It lined the walls of the passage the servants used to get to the private chapel.
The chapel was the scene of daily prayers for everyone.
The family never used the Failures Gallery. They entered the chapel through their grand eighteenth century rooms. So life at Erddig kept some of the traditional distance between master/mistress and servant. But still, life in the Servants’ Hall at Erddig was pleasant enough that generations of families were happy to serve the Yorkes for low wages.
An article about Errdig is at: