Upstairs, downstairs and so much more: Glimpse into a working woman's life in pre-WW2 Norfolk

Muriel Pymer

Muriel Pymer - Credit: Family Collection

This is the story of Muriel Pymer growing up in south Norfolk during the first half of the last century… and once you’ve read it you will have wished you had met her.

Her wonderful words and thoughts, the highs and lows of her fascinating life serving in the “big houses,” and more can be shared by the rest of us thanks to her son Pierre Rowe asking John Webster of the Forncett History Group if they would be interested in publishing her story.

Five Pymer sisters

The five Pymer sisters at Long Stratton in 1932. Doris, Madge Muriel, Vera and Mabel. - Credit: Family Collection

They were and the result is a compelling and important booklet shedding light on life in Norfolk at the time and especially for women.

Muriel was born in 1914 and her son Pierre, who arrived in 1948, would listen to the tales she had to tell of village life, working as a maid and cook at Boyland Hall, near Long Stratton, at Mrs Noverre’s boarding house in Norwich and then at Colonel Unthank’s home, Intwood Halls.

Pymer family 1918

The growing Pymer family: Muriel’s mother, Hilda. Roy, six months, Doris seven years, Ronald six, and four-year-old Muriel. - Credit: Family collection

Pierre realised how important these stories were and, after many lengthy discussions, he wrote about her life and times which is an important slice of local history.

After his mother married his dad Peter in 1947 they settled down to live in Diss.

“Muriel’s early years are unique; at the same time they simplify the struggle of her generation of women who had to emerge from the subservient role in family and society,” said Pierre.

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“Events conspired to undervalue them in many ways, and this frequently robbed many of self-belief,” he added.

Muriel grew up at The Maltings Farm in Forncett End. Grandpa Pymer was a master baker, grandpa Smith a farmer. Her dad, Horace, worked for his father driving a horse and cart delivering the bread.

Pymer’s bakery horse & cart at Long Stratton. 

Pymer’s bakery horse & cart at Long Stratton. - Credit: Family Collection

The bakery was at Long Stratton which badly damaged in the 1912 floods. Her dad later bought a bus picking up people in the villages and taking them into Norwich.

Muriel has wonderful memories full of mischief, growing at the farm, going to school at Bunwell. She paints a vivid picture of country life – no talking or laughing at the meal-table. Remember that?

In the 1920s the family moved to Long Stratton but life was hard for so many. She recalls her dad seeing people turned out of their farm cottages and sitting with their children and belongings on the roadside.

National garden scheme open garden, Intwood Hall near Eaton, Norwich

National garden scheme open garden, Intwood Hall near Eaton, Norwich. Dated 2004. - Credit: Archant Library

“Dad would get a bus and take them to the old and poor people’s home at Pulham. He would also take food to families who were poor and hungry,” she says.

After leaving school in the 1920s she got a job as a kitchen maid at the impressive, now gone, Boyland Hall, as a live-in kitchen maid.

“This may have been a fine place for the family to live in but it was a horrible place for servants,” said Muriel who worked from 6am until late in the evening with half-day off once a week. She lived in a small room in the attic with no windows.

From there she went to work at Mrs Noverre’s boarding house for girls from Norwich High School on Unthank Road. In 1931 she was taken on as a kitchen-maid-cum-cook

There were four servants and 24 girls to look after, Mrs N was strict but fair and Muriel liked her. Every fourth Sunday she had a day off so she would cycle to Long Stratton to see her parents.

During school holidays they got a couple of weeks off, unpaid of course.

She went on to work as a housemaid at Dr Owen’s home in Long Stratton before becoming a parlour maid at Colonel Unthank’s grand Intwood Hall. They were wonderful days. She loved working there but this was war-time. The colonel was a popular man.

Intwood Hall

A scenic picture of Intwood Hall. - Credit: Archant Library

The servants in the large country houses were called to serve their country and Muriel went to work at Murphy Radio in Welwyn Garden City… life would never be the same again. Muriel would go on to marry Peter Rowe in Long Stratton in 1947 and settled down to married life in Diss.

Muriel and Peter getting married at St Mary’s Church, Long Stratton, on April 26 1947

Muriel and Peter getting married at St Mary’s Church, Long Stratton, on April 26 1947. - Credit: Family collection

She died in 2002 but her memory lives on.

Muriel’s Story is published by Forncett History Group and costs £7 plus £2 p&p. You can contact the group website at or email chairman John Webster on

Muriel Pymer

Muriel Pymer - Credit: Family Collection