Letters from below stairs: an Irish maid’s view of life in Churchill’s household

A collection of letters from Irishwoman Mary Dorgan to her soldier son include domestic details from Winston Churchill’s home

The current Sotheby’s online sale of English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations, which runs until July 9th, features a few lots of Irish interest.

Lot 32 is a collection of 140 letters, the majority of which were written by Mary Dorgan to her son Joe, a soldier based in Suffolk, Egypt and then Palestine. Mary Dorgan was an Irishwoman and a member of the domestic staff in Winston Churchill's home for more than a decade.

The letters, which date from 1945-1965, with the majority dated between 1945-1946, give a unique insight into domestic life, and a ‘below stairs’ perspective during the final years of the second World War.

From the hardships of living during the war, where severe rations were standard along with the threat of German bombs, the letters also included some lovely vignettes about Churchill’s 71st birthday cake, elaborately decorated “in the shape of the British Isles” at a time when rationing made icing and marzipan a rare sight in Britain.


The letters also describe the social life of the Churchill family when they moved to Hyde Park Gate, where Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duke of Windsor were visitors, and the emotional outpouring on the streets of London on D Day.

Working for the Churchill family had its perks: Dorgan tells of how her house in Pimlico was filled with orchids, which had been thrown over Churchill's car, and how she had been given a glass of port on the instructions of Mrs Churchill to celebrate victory "and it was good too''. But above all, her letters are filled with an anxious mother's concern for the safety of her soldier son. Two amateur photographs depicting Churchill and his youngest daughter Mary Soames are included in the lot, which is listed with an estimate of £1,000-£1,500.

Gulliver’s Travels

Lot 1 is a first edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726-1727, by Jonathan Swift (£6,000-£9,000) and lot 24 is one of the surviving copies of the Proclamation of Independence of the Irish Republic, which was printed at Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday in 1916. With an intended print run of 2,500, only in the region of 1,000 were actually printed, and it is estimated that only 50 original copies are still extant as so many were destroyed during the storming of Liberty Hall (£50,000-£70,000).

The oldest lot of Irish significance is number 11 in the catalogue, which is an Abstract of Government Expenditure from 1654; a summary of the annual cost for the Cromwellian regime for that year in Ireland. The document shows a deficit of £482,701 mainly attributed to army wage bills. Cromwell’s proposed solution to this deficit was to confiscate large areas of lands from Irish Catholics and sell them on to raise funds (£3,000-£5,000).

Three paintings, A Lady in Black, and two further oils, considered to be unfinished, by Edyth Starkie, are also included in the sale. Starkie's career, like many of her contemporary women artists who married painters, was overshadowed by the prominence of her husband, illustrator Arthur Rackham. The Galway woman's works are now held at Musée d'Orsay in Paris and National Museum, Barcelona (lot 265 £1,500-£2,000). See sothebys.com