In this blog series, we'll be interviewing some familiar faces around Gunnersbury. Next up is Sophie Hazlewood, Visitor Assistant.
Sophie Hazlewood grew up in the Midlands before moving to London and starting at Gunnersbury in December 2019. She helps local people and visitors from around the world to understand more about this remarkable house and garden #fortheloveofGunnersbury.
How did you get the job here at Gunnersbury?
I sort of stumbled into it by accident. I read history and archaeology at university and when I saw the advertisement, I went for it. I’ve always loved visiting museums. Even as a child, whenever we went on holiday, I’d drag my family into a museum.
What’s the appeal of museums to you?
It’s all about people – who they were, how they lived. Their lives were so different from ours today but also very similar. When you read about them you often feel a strong connection with them even though they lived in another era. One of the things I love about Gunnersbury is the number of remarkable women connected with the house and gardens.
Is there a particular woman that you find fascinating?
There are so many strong, pioneering women but one in particular is Marion Wallace Dunlop. She was an artist and her work was displayed at the Royal Academy but she was also a suffragette. She was the first suffragette to go on hunger strike. She demanded to be treated as a political prisoner. When you read about her you really do feel as if you know her.
The Rothschilds are the most famous residents of the house and park, aren’t they?
Yes, this was their country retreat, when it was outside London. They invested in the Piccadilly Line among other things and I think there’s something ironic about the fact that it was that railway line that helped London to expand out here, around their country house.
What kind of visitors do you get to the museum?
It’s a real mix, as you can imagine. We see lots of local people who want to know more about the history of their area. But then we recently had visitors from Australia, New Zealand and the US who came to see an exhibition we had featuring the Acton Top quilt. It was created by an Acton family in 1825 and it features contemporary figures in Regency dress as well as images of animals and plants and scenes from the Bible. It’s considered to be very significant in the history of British quilting. That’s typical of the kind of thing that you learn every day when you work here.
Whenever people ask me something that I don’t know I really enjoy going away and finding out the answer. It’s important not to guess – I want people to have the correct information.
We have elderly visitors who remember coming here as children and people who were stationed in the park during the second world war. There’s a real feeling of community engagement.
Do you have a favourite part of the museum?
That’s difficult to say because it’s all so interesting. I do like the kitchens, though. When you walk into them you can imagine that the cooks and scullery maids have just finished cooking lunch and have cleared up. There are also a couple of mysteries in the kitchen. There’s a hook sticking out of the wall in the pastry room, for instance, and no one knows what it was used for. We also know that there would have been three shakers on the table. One was for salt, one for pepper, but what was the third one for? Some kind of condiment or flavouring perhaps? We just don’t know. Not yet, anyway.
Is there an element of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs here?
You see some of that when you look at the lives of the servants. It was very tough, probably tougher than you see on TV dramas. They would usually live quite far away from the mansion. The idea was to discourage them from stealing food and trying to sneak it home – it would just be too far to carry. The record of the wages really shocked me I must say.
What did the servants get paid?
There was a young scullery maid called Susannah, for instance, who we think was on about £20 a year. But the Rothschilds also employed two French chefs because it was fashionable to have them at this time. They were brothers called Charpentier or “Carpenter” as the English referred to them. The Rothschilds built them their own office, just off the kitchen, to persuade them to work here and they paid them £130 a year each – far more than poor Annie. I find these human stories the most fascinating.