Mary Head: The Wattses' Cook

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Posted 21st June 2018

Mary Head: The Wattses' Cook

Mary (Ann) Head, born at Staple village in East Kent (1877 – 1964) was employed for many years by G F and Mary Watts as their cook.

Mary Watts's diaries recall on September 13 1904 that: “Mary Head leaves after all these years…I wish I could say as I often think of Browning's words, 'Rejoice that man is hurled from change to change, his soul's wings never furled'. Rather I feel the grief we must feel when changes and parting comes, is proof that we have a part knowledge or foreknowledge of something better, where every tear is wiped away."

Robert Miller, grandson of Mary Head, kindly shares his personal memories of his remarkable grandmother:

I was introduced to my grandmother's connection with G F Watts at a very young age. After my father returned from the Second World War, he found it difficult at first to get a job, so my grandmother kindly took my parents and I in at her home in Sandwich, Kent until I was three years of age, when we moved to a council house.

The house was small, with no hot water, one tap at the kitchen sink and an outside toilet, but my grandmother kept it pristine. And the image that greeted anyone coming in, or leaving, the house was a picture on the wall of the back room - [Watts's great painting of] Hope, lovingly hung there for as long as I can remember. The door to Mary's house was always open and she entertained many visitors and large family gatherings with her expert cooking.

Although she was quietly spoken, Mary had an authoritative air and commanded respect – my memories of living there are largely of my bedroom with its sloping roof (where my father also spent his childhood), but I also recall standing at the door with her when the rent lady came round every Thursday, as she got very anxious every time about whether she had the funds to pay and thus sign the rent book.

In elementary terms, when I was about five or six years' old, Mary explained that the “man who built the horse" [Physical Energy] wore a whistle around his neck when she worked for him and when he blew it, she and the rest of the staff at his London house had to emerge and jointly pull the bogey out, so he could work on the sculpture. In the evening, he would blow the whistle again and everyone had to rally once more to push it back again.

I think she found employment with the Watts household as a result of her older brother William, who according to the Census records, worked as a butler in the home of land agent Ralph Clutton in Vicarage Gate, off High Street Kensington, very close to G F Watts's London address.

Having lost her fiancé to typhoid during the Boer War in 1902, Mary kept in touch with her late fiance's family, the Ports, who lived in the village of Worth. Mary was still single when she was working as a cook for the Watts in 1901, as she appears in the Compton Census record as their cook; but in January 1903, her sister-in-law Lydia died, leaving her brother, market gardener John Head, with three children. Shortly afterwards, in the autumn of 1904, Mary left the Watts' employ and returned home to Woodnesborough to take care of her nephews and nieces.

Two years later, on November 21 1906, aged 29, Mary married 42 year-old George Miller, a coachman who was an expert with horses and a widower with four children. The family lived at West Street House, used as a country retreat by a music publisher, Mr Mears, where George and Mary worked. It was here that their first child, Mabel, was born.

In 1913, the family moved to Sandwich, where George took employment as a butler (and Mary worked on an occasional basis) at Manwood Court, a mansion built in 1564 by one of Elizabeth I's Chancellors, Sir Roger Manwood - and coincidentally no more than 100 yards from where I now live.

My father Walter was the youngest child from this marriage and I have a picture of Mary with Walter as a young boy in 1930, next to the statue of Physical Energy in Kensington Gardens, as well as shots of the gardens and house at Limnerslease.

After an active, long life, Mary passed away on G F Watts's birthday, February 23 1964.

Note to visitors: Robert's family has kindly lent Watts Gallery Trust several family artefacts, which are displayed at Watts Studios. They include a letter from Mary Watts and a very small brooch, as well as a small flowerpot, made by Mary Head at a pottery class. The pot is signed and dated by Mary.