In Part 1, I shared the story of my great grandmother Polly Smith, who was employed as a housemaid by the head of the government’s Irish Special Branch. Now we turn to another ancestor who worked in service, whose charismatic employer was a nationally renowned organiser of Tudor-style pageants …
Millicent Gifford and D’Arcy de Ferrars
Millicent Clara Gifford, my husband’s great grandaunt, was born in Bream in the Forest of Dean in 1873, the third child of Mark Gifford, a miner, and Harriet Ann Jones. Sadly, Millicent lost her mother when she was just over a year old, and her father remarried within the year. Millicent’s first-born step-sibling, Ida — my husband’s great grandmother — was sent to Lancashire to be raised by an aunt and uncle as a young child, but Millicent was able to stay at home with her father and step-mother; she was a scholar, aged 8, in the family home in 1881.
Whereas some Forest of Dean families passed down free mining rights through the generations, Mark Gifford was the son of a labourer; he had worked in the mines since he was a child and he toiled for the profit of colliery owners. After decades as an iron miner he switched to coal mining in the 1880s, as the region’s iron ore output plummeted. His occupation was both dangerous and precarious.
Foresters were renowned for being insular, and even as an increasing number of railways connected the area to the rest of the country, it was primarily coal, not people, that travelled beyond its borders. The tight-knit mining communities were also judged by outsiders to be uncivilised, even savage, especially after the infamous ‘killing of the bears’ in 1889.
However, young women did leave the Forest in search of new opportunities. Millicent’s teenage older sister, Elizabeth, had left home by 1881, and by 1891 she was a general servant in Liverpool, working for her step-mother’s niece. Then, Millicent too left her village and her family to work in domestic service far from home. Only a teenager, she found a position as a cook in the elegant spa town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, more than 50 miles away — but, really, worlds apart — from Bream and the Forest of Dean.
I wondered how Millicent had found a placement in Cheltenham, and how she had learned to cook well enough to prepare meals for a middle class family. Another Gifford descendant seemed to have the answer. She had discovered that Millicent’s step-mother, Phoebe Morse, had also been a cook in her youth, working for a clergyman and his family in a village just four miles north of Cheltenham. I assume that Phoebe had prepared Millicent for work as a cook, and it seems possible that Phoebe could have maintained connections in the Cheltenham area, or at the least, encouraged her step-daughter to seek work there.
Cheltenham’s heyday as a spa town was over by the mid 19th century, but the town continued to attract wealthy families, especially those who had served in the colonies, including the Army and East India Company. The town also attracted evangelical Anglicans, who established several new educational establishments such as Cheltenham College and Cheltenham Ladies College. Another, very different branch of my husband’s family — wealthy and devout — lived in Cheltenham in the 1840s, and sent a son to Cheltenham College. By the 1890s, genteel Cheltenham also had three railway stations (and a special one at the racecourse for race days), an opera house, theatre, free library, art gallery, parks, and even some new bath houses. The Montpellier Rotunda, built in the early 1800s and set in the Montpellier Gardens, had a dome inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Formerly a pump room and ballroom, by the 1890s it was used as a concert venue. (it’s now the location of one of The Ivy chain of restaurants).
Cheltenham had a vibrant music scene. During the early 1890s, numerous renowned musicians came to perform in the town, and there was also a wealth of local talent. A bandstand was installed in Montpellier Gardens and used for regular concerts. Sacred music also thrived. The organist and choirmaster of All Saints’ Church was Adolph von Holst, whose wife Clara was a talented pianist and singer. Their son Gustav, now best known as composer of The Planets, was born in Cheltenham in 1874. In 1890, father and son gave a piano concert together in the Montpellier Rotunda, and in 1891, Holst performed his own composition there.
That same year, Millicent, aged 18, was a domestic cook in the household of the exotically named ‘E.R. Darcy de Ferrars’, who was a 36-year-old Professor of Singing.
Their address, 3 Montpellier Grove, an elegant townhouse of four floors, was just a short stroll away from the Montpellier Rotunda and Gardens.
Ernest Richard D’Arcy Ferris, as he was named at birth, really was a fantastic character. He was the son of Samuel Ferris of the Indian Civil Service, and Fanny — a schoolteacher and the daughter of the hilariously named Reverend Evill. Born in Bath in 1855, D’Arcy (his preferred first name) lost his father at the age of three. While his older brothers went into conventional careers, he moved to London and worked as a ‘violinist and professor of singing’. In 1878 he sang in the chorus of the world premiere of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.
In the 1880s Ferris relocated to Cheltenham, where as well as continuing to teach, conduct, and perform as a singer, he advertised himself as a ‘Designer and Director of Fetes, Festivities, Festivals, and Functions’.
In 1885, he was hired by Lord and Lady Wantage to organise a summer garden party at Lockinge House, Wantage in Berkshire. Lord Wantage was looking for something a bit different, and D’Arcy Ferris conceived of an Elizabethan-style pageant which he called ‘The Festival of ye Summer Queene’. I first heard about this lavish and exuberant party, which became widely known as the ‘Lockinge Revels’, when I was volunteering at the Vale & Downland Museum in Wantage. The two-day event included morris dancing, a Robin Hood play, a hobby horse tournament, and a spectacular procession of the summer queen, in which Lady Wantage was carried through the gardens surrounded by costumed attendants and entertainers. Hundreds of guests — the movers and shakers of the day — attended in costume. The Vale & Downland Museum has an 18th century sackback dress on display which was worn to the party, and the Oxfordshire Museums Service also has in its collection this piece of costume from the pageant:
In addition to the hundreds of wealthy and influential guests, local workhouse children were ‘invited to the park, and duly regaled’, and tea was served to the villagers. According to several reports, spectators numbered in their thousands.
Thanks to the ‘technical knowledge and unwearied exertions’ of Master of the Revels D’Arcy Ferris, the Lockinge Revels were a huge success, and were reported in newspapers across the UK, with a wonderful illustration published in The Graphic. I have a framed copy in my living room. The Pictorial World also offered ‘numerous sketches by special artists’ of guests in costume. It was soon after researching the Lockinge Revels for the museum, that I discovered my own connection to D’Arcy Ferris!
I should note that not all coverage of the event was positive. The London Evening Standard published a very sardonic piece.1 However, the event captured the public’s imagination, and buoyed by the nation’s interest in the Old English Revels at Wantage, D’Arcy Ferris then took a part of his show on the road, presenting the ‘Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers’ at ticketed events in 16 different venues across the country, including Cheltenham. As Master of the Revels to be hosted in Ripon in 1886, he proposed a grand performance of ‘Robin Hood’ near the Abbey with a chorus of 50 foresters and forest maidens, and offered to write to Oscar Wilde, then a little known poet, to ask Wilde to write the play!
D’Arcy Ferris’s morris dancing troupe, formed from working class ‘rustics’, helped to revive this ancient tradition in the UK. He also showcased sword dancing, which also received fresh interest, particularly by the aptly named folklorist Cecil Sharp. (For family and local historians, an online database of hundreds of working class people that Sharp met while touring England from 1903-1923 is a fantastic resource). Ferris’s passion for traditional music, dance and art was part of a national trend that encompassed the Arts and Crafts movement and the folksong revival that in Britain was led by composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holst, a friend of Vaughan Williams, also composed settings of traditional songs. It may be a coincidence, but in 1901, Millicent’s older sister Elizabeth was working as a cook in the household of Dr Edwin S Harland in Gloucester. A solicitor by profession, and the city’s mayor, Harland was also a founder member of the Folk-Lore Society and author of works on folklore.
In 1888 D’Arcy legally changed his surname to ‘de Ferrars’. It was fashionable for professional musicians to add an exotic touch to their names but the change to Ferrars was also a reference to George Ferrars, who had been appointed as Master of the Revels/Lord of Misrule to help entertain the teenage King Edward VI in 1552-3.
The following year, D’Arcy de Ferrars organised an ice carnival at the Albert Hall and also got married to Isabel Browne. In 1891, Millicent Gifford was cooking for the newlyweds and their first child, Mary M. Joan D’Arcy de Ferrars (known as Joan), just ten months old. The only other servant recorded in the household was a 15-year-old nurse (presumably to help care for the baby). Her name was Blanche Foster and she came from Gloucester, so I do hope she recited ‘Doctor Foster Went to Gloucester’ to baby Joan.
In 1892 D’Arcy de Ferrars and Adolph von Holst hosted and performed a benefit concert together at Cheltenham’s corn exchange2, and the following year in the same venue, de Ferrars produced and conducted Gustav Holst’s early (and mostly forgotten) comic opera, Lansdown Castle, written when Holst was just 18.
Unfortunately I don’t know how long Millicent Gifford worked for the de Ferrars family, but I do like to think that she would have met Gustav Holst, and perhaps cooked for him.
What would Ernest and Isabel de Ferrars have been like as employers?
It’s very hard to say what Millicent’s time in Cheltenham was like. Life as a domestic servant is never easy, but in a home with just three family members and one other servant, she must have experienced the sights and sounds created by her multi-talented and probably larger-than-life employer. Perhaps the monotony and physical exertion of daily cooking and cleaning would have been lifted by music drifting, or even loudly reverberting, around the house.
D’Arcy de Ferrars was also known to be passionate about the welfare of the working classes. In 1886, he attended a meeting to discuss the Kyrle Society in Cheltenham. This society had been set up in 1877 by Octavia and Miranda Hill with the aim of enhancing quality of life in communities through music, art, literature and open spaces. William Morris was a key supporter. Ferris (as he was then) ‘made an impassioned plea for the teaching of beauty, and for the improvement of the social condition of the people, especially urging the revival of old English games and sports to encourage a “spontaneous attempt among the masses of the people to amuse themselves”.’3 This could be viewed as rather romantic, since it didn’t address people’s basic needs — food, shelter, and clothing (or, in the longer term, employment and education). I hope that de Ferrars paid Millicent well and provided her with opportunities for leisure and intellectual stimulation.
Nevertheless, Millicent would not have enjoyed those benefits for long. In 1894, aged 21, she married collier William Ellway aka William Watts, at Viney Hill in the Forest of Dean. After several years in the household of a musician and party host, a short walk from a beautiful park and concert hall, she returned to live in a rural mining community, and raised six children — four girls and two boys. I hope that she was happy as a wife and mother, in the place where she had grown up, but it must have been a stark contrast.
The de Ferrars family also grew, adding two more daughters and a son. In 1911, the family lived in Highgate, and D’Arcy stated his occupation as ‘Pageant Master’. No servants were enumerated with them. D’Arcy de Ferrars also continued to compose and produce. His eclectic projects included an operetta, ‘Japan in Cheltenham’, in 1901. He was responsible for the ‘spectacular’ Liverpool Pageant of 1907, and his last major venture, the Worsley pageant, was held in 1914.
D’Arcy de Ferrars spent his retirement years in Padstow, Cornwall, and passed away in London in 1929. Surprisingy, an obituary in the Cornish Guardian remembered him above all as a singer. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
D’Arcy’s eldest daughter, Joan, whose first meals were cooked by Millicent Gifford, grew up to be a popular coloratura soprano. In 1925 her performance as Marguerite in Faust at London’s Old Vic, was broadcast by radio, and heard ‘throughout the West of England’.
Millicent was widowed in 1917. She remarried to widower Reuben James, another colliery worker, in 1930, and she died in 1947. Millicent’s eldest son became a miner working underground. However, her youngest son, Winston Gifford Watts, took a leaf out of his mother’s book and worked as a butler in Anderson Manor, Blandford, Dorset. He lived to be 101, only passing away in 2012.
Sources and Further Reading
Lockinge Revels complete programme and guest list printed in the Berkshire Chronicle, 29 August 1885 (p.8) and Reading Mercury, 29 August 1885 (p.4)
R. Judge, ‘D’Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris’, Folk Music Journal Vol. 4, No. 5 (1984), pp. 443-480 (38 pages), Published By: English Folk Dance + Song Society.
Judge, R. (2004, September 23). Ferrars, Ernest Richard D’Arcy de (1855–1929), musician and pageant master. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- London Evening Standard, 28 August 1885
- Cheltenham Looker-On, Saturday 21 May 1892 (BNA)
- R. Judge, ‘D’Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris’ (see sources above)
Updated 9 Oct 2021 with information about Phoebe and Elizabeth Gifford, provided by Janet Rigby (Phoebe’s great granddaughter).