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Rosina Harrison’s career as personal maid to Lady Astor proved challenging and rewarding in equal measure

By Nina Steele 

Historical figures in BritainRosina Harrison was born in Aldfield, Yorkshire, in 1899. She began working for the Astors in 1929, first as maid to Lady Astor’s daughter and then as Lady Astor’s personal maid, until Lady Astor’s death in 1964. Working as a maid since the age of 18 meant that she had little time to build romantic relationships, and as a result, she never married nor had any children. Of her lack of romantic partner she said this in her memoir, entitled ‘The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service’: “I couldn’t have a steady boyfriend because he would never have put up with the haphazard hours. I didn’t miss one. In a way, I suppose I was a career girl”. The book was first published in 1975 under the title: ‘Rose: My Life in Service’ and then republished in 2011 under its current title.

The Astors were Rosina’s third employer. She had worked for two separate upper class families before them. But without doubt, and as the book shows, working for the Astors was the defining moment of her career, not only because it proved to be her longest stint as a lady’s maid, but above all, because of the personal relationship she developed with Lady Astor.

Her role as personal maid included being entrusted with looking after Lady Astor’s jewellery, which she found rather daunting, considering the family’s great wealth. For example, at the start of World War Two, the family made the decision to retrieve some of their most valuable pieces from the safety of the bank to one of their estates, and entrusted Rosina with looking after them. That included the sancy diamond, which one of the Astor descendants would later sell to the Louvre in 1978 for $1 million.

Rosina Harrison’s relationship with Lady Astor forms the cornerstone of her book. To put it mildly, Lady Astor was not an easy woman to work for. She was very unpredictable and prone to changing her mind at the last minute, particularly about what to wear. Rosina learnt to be always ready to make last minute changes. On top of that, she could be very mean, which inevitably put a strain on their relationship.

About 9 years after she had switched to working for Lady Astor, Rosina finally had had enough and decided it was time to stand up for herself. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. She told Lady Astor off for being rude to her and instead of being fired, Lady Astor actually apologised for her poor behaviour. From then on, she gave Lady Astor as good as she got, and their relationship became one of mutual respect.

One contradiction about Lady Astor, was the fact that although she could be mean and offensive, she was also very generous with her staff. One example is her insistence on giving them all presents at Christmas. As for Rosina, not only was she given gifts such as clothes, her mother too was the recipient of Lady Astor’s largesse. As a result, in Rosina’s mother’s eyes, Lady Astor could do no wrong, to Rosina’s annoyance.

In spite of the difficulties she encountered working for Lady Astor, they developed a strong bond and came to like each other. For Rosina, that job was to define her life. In addition to the financial benefits that came with being steadily employed, with a salary that was considered pretty good for servants at the time, she was also able to indulge in her love of travel. She went pretty much everywhere Lady Astor went. That included over 20 times to the US, much of Europe, the West Indies, a tour of Africa, to name but these few. Of having more than achieved her dream of seeing the world, she said: “I began my working life with one ambition: to travel. I achieved it beyond my early dreams and in a grand manner”. Rosina Harrison passed away in 1989 in Worthing, West Sussex, she was 90.

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