WHAT lay behind the green baize door was a mystery to young Margaret Rhodes. Had she stepped through it, she’d have encountered the “downstairs” daily grind of servants and scullery maids, a far cry from her comfortable “upstairs” world in which royalty would drop by for tea and princesses would be her playmates.
While Margaret had the run of Carberry Tower, the family’s imposing ancestral home with its beautiful grounds just outside Musselburgh, those below stairs would make sure the grand house ran efficiently.
To butlers to housekeepers, housemaids to footmen, scullery maids and odd job men – there was even a “still room” maid whose job was simply to make the morning porridge and bottle fruit and jam – Margaret’s life must have appeared as one of privilege and comfort.
After all, one day she’d become lady-in-waiting to her aunt, the Queen Mother, and her cousin, Elizabeth, would become Queen.
Margaret’s fascinating real-life story, just published, almost reads like a script for the fictional ITV period drama Downton Abbey. From the lavish days spent in the company of royalty to the comings and goings of the servants “downstairs” and her own spell working for MI6 where she helped to co-ordinate the movements of secret agents, it’s a life that could easily slot into the weekly dramas of the Crawley family.
“I suppose looking back it was a bit like that,” agrees the 86-year-old, who now lives in the Garden House on the Queen’s Windsor estate. “But I never had any indication that it was special or privileged and I’d like to think we weren’t in any way snotty.”
Margaret was born in 1925, the fifth and youngest child of Sydney, the Baron of Elphinstone and his wife, Mary, whose younger sister was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Elizabeth would, of course, go on to become Queen, and then – after the coronation of her eldest daughter – the Queen Mother.
With such regal connections, Margaret’s life was bound to be one of privilege – quite unlike anything experienced by those “downstairs”.
“I suspect that life behind the green baize door, which separated us from the servants ‘downstairs’, was rather jolly and probably there were clandestine romances which those of us ‘upstairs’ didn’t get to know about,” she writes in her book, The Final Curtsey.
In fact hers is a life few of us would comprehend today. As a child she learned to curtsey to kings and queens – King George III of Greece was a visitor to Carberry Tower, as was Queen Mary. Harder still to picture the scene when Margaret’s aunt Elizabeth, then the Duchess of York, came to visit with her children, Elizabeth and Margaret, and events turned to light-hearted play.
The children, recalls Margaret, watched in glee as the adults played parlour games such as Are You There Moriarty?, which involved wearing a blindfold and whacking each other with rolled-up newspapers.
When not at Carberry, Margaret’s family would holiday at their shooting lodge in Inverness-shire, or at Glamis Castle – her mother’s family home – and even at Balmoral.
In particular she recalls the grouse season just before the outbreak of the Second World War with her own family embracing the occasion with even more gusto that the royals. “I can still remember the magnificent breakfasts. Then there was the shooting lunch, another enormous meal which was eaten sitting out in the heather, with the butler and footman kitted out in tweed plus fours to wait on the guests.
“That was something not even the royal family did.
“A similar scene of aristocratic plenitude was depicted in the film Gosford Park. Looking back it seems unbelievable that people lived on such a grand scale, although at the time it never seemed remotely grand,” she explains.
Carberry Tower was certainly an astonishing home. Built in the 14th century it had been consistently added to, making it one of the grandest of Scottish stately homes. Inside was a billiard room, a smoking room, drawing room, north and south libraries, a dining room, an armoury and even a secret tunnel. Then there were the bedrooms – ten spare ones for guests and the staff.
The house even boasted a bowling alley and an indoor tennis court, while the gardens included greenhouses stuffed with peaches, grapes and figs. There were also 15 cottages on the estate and a bothy “where the unmarried men lived at a safe distance from the housemaids”.
It was also drenched in history, recalls Margaret. “What I loved most about Carberry is its history. The fact that the Battle of Pinkie took place in the grounds and that the trenches were still visible and that there was a hill called Mary’s Mount, because it was where Mary, Queen of Scots surrendered while her husband Bothwell fled. Having all that around you can’t help but imbue with a sense of history.”
And, of course, it all ran smoothly thanks to the “Upstairs Downstairs” way of life so typical of that golden age, with a butler and housekeeper “on top of the pile”, along with the cook and her mother’s personal maid. They enjoyed their own smaller scale life of privilege, with their own dining room while the rest of the staff ate in another room.
Margaret’s mother, however, made sure that her children did not grow up with airs and graces. “We’d get the bus to Edinburgh if we needed to go to the shops just like anyone else. We’d go to Binns or Jenners.
“We used to go to the village of Smeaton where the miners lived so we knew that people lived differently. And my mother did a lot of volunteer work with the WRVS, especially working with people in Niddrie which at the time was a slum. There was never anything said to make us think we were better than anyone – just luckier.”
As she got older Margaret moved to Windsor and trained as a secretary, ending up working for MI6 where she helped co-ordinate the movements of secret agents. Later she was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 and three years later married Denys Rhodes, settling in Devon.
Later the Queen offered them a home in the Great Park of Windsor and in 1990, after she’d been a widow for nine years, Margaret became Lady-in-Waiting to her aunt, the Queen Mother. She was with her when she died.
The Queen is aware of her book, she adds. “It passed her inspection,” says Margaret. “I’m glad I was able to write my memories down so my children know about my life.
“I hope people read it and realise I’m really down to earth. I live on my own now and do all the cooking and cleaning and my gardening,” she laughs. “That’s the way life changes but I’m still lucky.”
n The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes is published by Umbria Press, priced £17.99.