Three worlds one house by Josa Keyes

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Above and behind the front door

Lies grown-up world

Master and Mistress reign unquestioned

Among the inherited furniture.

Upstairs at the back is the liminal milky bubble

Nursery world crammed with babies

And their nurses and nursery maids.

Beyond the baize door, the back door

Twisty passages and tiny rooms

Separate world of service



Greenhouse cobwebs

Cold frame

Rotten wood and peeling paint





Stone flags seep and freeze

No worlds warm in winter

Flurrying, hurrying, maids with buckets

Ethel, Ruby, Mabel, Alice

Brooms and sweepers, blacking, beeswax

Family poised helpless on a heap of helpers

Like a hut on a hill.

In the back-passage bells jangle

Pulled by impatient hands remote in bedroom

Drawing room, parlour, salon

More hot water, pressed clothes, coals

Breakfast, lunch and dinner served

Prepared by Cook’s red raw hands

Complete with ceremonial fat gold wedding ring

On hand never held by husband

She’s Mrs in name only

For respect you see

Nursery world floats between

Where dwell the infants and their nurse

Miss Mary, Master Michael, Nanny Smith

Meals on trays brought up by grumbling maids.

Sit on a tuffet near the fireguard

Supping bread and milk in your bib

Nappies and baby clothes gently steam

On wooden racks

None of the worlds are immune from winter

Warm breath freezes to icy mist

Water solid in bedroom jugs

Frost, fog, yellow and choking

Bitter wind and snow

Step outside and chill bites

Raising chilblains no remedy can soothe

Fires rustle as coals settle and cinders fall

Gas fires bubble violet flames

Bring blood back to blue hands.

Even indoors beyond the glow

A wall of cold

Spring will come

Life stirs inside and out

Snowdrops, snowy blossom replace snow

Warmth summons forth

Boot boys and maids transformed to

Brilliantined lads and giggling girls

Promenade in groups

Rich with sex and stirring senses

Eyes slide by hoping to meet,

As elemental as animals in the ark

Master obeys the sap’s rising

Justified by psalm’s dictates,

Begets upon the Mistress a full

Quiverful within their lawful bed

To populate the nursery world

Popped out like puppies

Viewed daily for a precious hour

Otherwise left to other’s hands

As that’s the way it was back then

Woe betide the maid

Who falls to a young man’s fancy

Her increase a disgrace

Out of the house she goes

To an unforgiving world

Where babies are a regulated commodity

Reserved for the safely wed.

© Josa Keyes, 2019. All rights reserved.

‘Three Worlds One House’ was inspired by Church Bells and Tram Cars, a Vicarage Childhood, by Mary Denison, in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London.

Author’s note:

I read three memoirs from the Burnett Archive altogether, and wanted to make poems from themes in two of them, both about vanished worlds just a couple of generations behind us.  ‘Three Worlds One House’ describes one home as a paradigm of rigid social silos in wider society. In some middle – and all upper – class homes, the head of the household and his wife lived entirely separately, not only from their own children, tucked away in a nursery, but also from the support system of servants looking after them. I also wanted to highlight the plight of girls who fell pregnant outside marriage, and how society mistreated the single mum – and still does.

Josa Keyes was born in Kent. She read English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge, and is currently studying towards a Masters at Brunel University London. She started her career at Vogue, as a finalist in the Vogue Talent Contest, and has held positions as a commissioning editor for Country Living, Elle Decoration and the Times. An early adopter, she embraced digital professionally from 1995, and has swapped between magazines and digital content design as a contractor ever since. A parallel career writing fiction and poetry resulted in her first completed novel, One Apple Tasted, published by Elliott & Thompson in 2009. She indie published her second novel Sail Upon the Land in 2014, and it was long-listed for a Historical Novel Society Award in 2016. Her chapbook, My Love Life and Other Disasters, will be published in September 2019. Josa Keyes lives in West London, has two grown-up children and a teenager, and tweets @JosaKeyes.

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