Family photography can operate at this junction between personal memory and social history, between public myth and personal unconscious. Our memory is never fully ‘ours’, nor are the pictures ever unmediated representations of our past. Looking at them we both construct a fantastic past and set out on a detective trail to find other versions of a ‘real’ one.
Jo Spence and Patricia Holland, Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, (1991)
With my grandmother, Edith Skelton, on the Arran ferry, c1967
It is fair to say that neither my grandmother nor I seem to be particularly photogenic when we were snapped together on family outings in the 60s and early 70s. My grandmother had at least the excuse of age, as photographs of her as a young woman show her to look very different (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman). However, it was the ‘lost’ pictures of her as an Edwardian child that have made the biggest impression on me, and I very much wish I could have been privy to them as a child myself.
For most children, it is impossible to imagine their grandparents as anything other than old. And at a time when very few photographs were available of elderly relatives in their youth, it required an imaginative feat to picture the average pensioner as a child. This task was made more difficult by various ‘accoutrements of aging’, such as false teeth, grey hair, outdated clothes and ugly glasses, which were once more prevalent than today. But was the generational gulf really wider then, or is the belief that the current crop of retirees are more youthful than previously just an inevitable part of one’s own aging? If I met my grandparents today, frozen at ‘peak grandparenthood’ in their seventies, would I necessarily think them any older in body and spirit than their modern-day counterparts?
One thing about my grandmother that I may have mentioned before – as it fascinated me as a child – was the fact she retained her own teeth all her life, unlike all my other elderly relatives. Although her teeth were long and yellow (like a horse), they somehow suited her large face and lively grin*. And of course that meant there was never that horrible moment when you first saw a grandparent sans teeth, and wondered what had caused their face to crumple into one which resembled an unsavoury character from a particularly scary fairy tale.
* Years later, when I scrutinised photos of my Scottish grandmother as a young woman, I noticed that her smile had once been so different. It was only after my mother explained that her ‘one size fits all’ set of dentures, shockingly given to her in her 40s at the birth of the NHS to prevent future dental problems, had robbed her of her natural wide smile. But as a child I thought those funny regular too-white false teeth in old age was a given!
In fact, my English grandmother was unlike my Scottish grandmother in many ways, not least in her appearance. The age gap of almost a decade, made Grandma Skelton seem much older. She was never as fashionably dressed as my Scottish grandmother, who had been a dressmaker in her youth (having undertaken an apprenticeship), and made all her own clothes – including the mother-of-the-bride outfit, below. And while my McKay grandmother was slim and neat with short permed hair, the elderly Edith still had her unruly wavy hair tied back in a bun, strands often falling over her face (possibly why she wore hats so much). She was heavier and sweatier and ‘harumphed’ a great deal more. And my mother always used to say that the two couples were the wrong way round: Edie was the plump one, while Sidney was small and wiry – the exact opposite of my Scottish grandparents.
My parents’ wedding in March 1963 – with my grandparents ‘interchanged’
While we saw our McKay grandparents several times a year, travelling to London to visit the Skelton grandparents was considered to be quite a palaver. Not only did we all have to go down together as a family, but there was the hassle of how to get there. Over the years we tried different ways (flying, driving, the overnight bus) and all were considered stressful by my parents, who preferred to holiday at home and day-trip locally.
In addition, my grandparents’ retirement flat was relatively compact. So the four of us had to sleep in the double bedroom (kids on camp beds either side of our parents), while my grandparents had to use the pull-out sofa bed in the living room. Every morning Grandma would wake us all as she shuffled into the room in her pink house slippers, carrying a taper to light the boiler, which was housed in a cupboard in the corner, leaving a strong smell of gas in the room. (This was because she did not trust it to be left on overnight). Near to the boiler cupboard was Grandma’s old-fashioned dressing table, on which was a collection of photographs of her three grown-up children. It always delighted me to see one of my father in his RAF uniform, sporting a rather raffish moustache, and smoking a cigarette something he’d given up – along with his MG Midget – on becoming a father. He always seemed very sophisticated in this photograph and not like the man we only knew as ‘Daddy’.
There was also a whimsical collection of tiny wooden animals which had once belonged to my father, and I used to put them into matchboxes and take them out with me on our day trips into London. Some I even took home to Scotland with me because I could not bear to leave them behind. Sadly, they have all disappeared over the years (a couple were lost in Bushy Park, which caused me no end of panic at the time) and I now only have one remaining. However, it was only recently that my mother told me this was a collection my father had started in his 20s, and not one from his boyhood at all. And of course this all makes perfect sense as the many moves the family undertook over the years, including the war-time evacuations, meant that there were very little possessions from the pre-war era (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and perhaps why my father always treasured the fairy tale book he’d received from his first primary school for good work and conduct in 1936.
The last remaining wooden animal from my father’s collection
After my grandmother and the children returned from East Coker in 1945, the family were reunited and temporarily housed in the top rooms of a multi-occupancy house in Teddington, West London, while waiting to be rehoused. (Presumably my grandfather had found work as a tram conductor in the area, otherwise it would have been a long commute to the Camberwell depot). And two years later they finally moved round the corner into a three-bedroomed semi-detached council house at Bishops Grove, where they were to remain for over twenty years, near to their newly married daughter and her growing family. My father was away in the Air Force by then, but this was his base in his vacation time, and thus he remained at the address on the electoral roll throughout the 1950s until suddenly he disappears in 1959 – the year he was accepted for air traffic control training, moved to Scotland, and met my mother. Shortly after this, my uncle married his local girlfriend, and just like my aunt and her husband had done a decade previously, the young couple lived with my grandparents while saving for a place of their own.
Edith with her new Scottish daughter-in-law, Bishops Grove, 1963
As the baby of the family, my uncle was quite content to stay with his parents a little while longer, whereas my father had wanted to get away from – in his eyes – rather suffocating mother, who he always felt was watching him closely. Even at a young age, I sensed that my father was often exasperated with his mother: at her needless fussing, her endless searches for public toilets, her wish to sit down and have ‘a nice cup of tea’. In addition, she became slightly deaf in her old age and everyone had to get used to repeating things to her.
For me, it was often difficult to understand her London accent in any case – it sounded like something from an Ealing comedy to my ears – and I always dreaded not knowing what she was saying to me. We had got used to our father’s way of speaking, which had been smoothed by his years as a boy in the west country and his time in the forces, not to mention his years in Scotland, but our Skelton grandparents seemed to speak like characters out of a film about the Blitz. Sometimes I found this quite strange, especially as they often commented on our accents, and I used to feel there was an insurmountable gap between us. And yet it was exciting too, to have these exotic-sounding grandparents who oozed what I felt was the spirit of Cockney London every time they opened their mouths.
Looking back I have no idea now what we all talked about when we tried to understand one another. Possibly my grandparents asked us about school and the sights we’d visited in London when the four of us returned to their flat in the evening. Other days we all went out together to nearby locations, such as Kew Gardens or Bushy Park (places where there were public toilets and cafes). Grandma always wore a hat, whatever the weather, and did not make much concession to summer. For my father, who was a bit of a free spirit, these days out with young children and elderly parents were possibly tedious, but I remember that it always seemed exciting to go out en famille like that, and even more so when we went to visit our cousins (as we had none on the maternal side of the family). However, the age gap with our older cousins meant that we did not see so much of them so it was mainly the two children of my father’s younger brother we spent time with (and who I still visit today).
A rare family gathering (and a rare hatless moment for my grandmother)
However, I was always aware of my grandparents closer bond with their English grandchildren, who they saw on a regular basis, and who called them ‘Nan’ and ‘Grandpa’. Possibly it would have been easiest all round if we’d just adopted this name for our paternal grandparents, too. Having to call them Grandma and Grandad Skelton to distinguish them from our Scottish grandparents (who did not need the extra appellation) always felt like marking them out as second-class grandparents, which in a sense they were. And had it not been for our collection of family photographs, I would not even have known that they had come up to Scotland to visit us several times before they got too old to make the long journey after 1970. As hard as I try, I have no recollection of any of their annual summer visits!
Grandma Skelton dressed for a summer’s picnic, Ayrshire, c1970
It is only now, through re-viewing these old family photographs, that I can see how Edith’s children (and their children) have inherited some of her physical characteristics, including her slight double chin and thick, wayward hair. Whenever I’m with my Skelton-born cousins, I’m always surprised (and delighted) at how they walk with her flat-footed gait, and sometimes a quizzical look will flit over their faces which reminds me of my grandmother. And as we are all moving closer to the age our grandparents once were when we were young, these similarities have become even more apparent.
Edie’s own three children in middle age (1980s)
Studio portrait of my father and his sister, c1932
The abiding impression I have of my grandmother in her later life was the continuing importance of home and family. This is best illustrated by the fact that she moved to East Coker in September 1940 to be near to my aunt (who was evacuated there with Camberwell Girls School), taking her two younger sons with her (see East Coker). Both her boys had initially been billeted in separate accommodation at the outbreak of war, my uncle to Brighton (he was only four!) and my father to Leatherhead with Gipsy Hill Junior School. There he lived with a large prominent Russian-American Mormon family who had known Joseph Kennedy when he had lived in the area, and my father recalled being given the future President Kennedy’s cast-off bicycle to ride.
When the boys returned to London during the period known as the ‘phoney war’, my grandmother no doubt decided that she did not want the three of them to be split up again. My aunt later told me that her parents kept the news from her that the brothers were back at home in case she wanted to return, too. However, I have the feeling that, as a teenager, my aunt was possibly enjoying her freedom in East Coker where there was a lively social life and many opportunities for interaction with the local youth. And of course it was here where my aunt eventually met her future husband.
Although my grandmother had given up her work as a telephonist (both her brothers had worked as telegraph clerks before the outbreak of WW1) on her marriage in 1924, like most of the population she undertook wartime tasks in East Coker. After a couple of false starts (a distressing billet where my grandmother was bullied by the woman of the house who wanted her to cook and clean for them all), the family found themselves in a farm cottage belonging to Burton Farm. Here the older Skeltons helped out the farmer Bill Dunning and his family, and my grandmother undertook cleaning work. My grandfather – on reserved occupation in London – came to visit occasionally, but it must have been strange for the three children not to have had their father in their lives for five years, a long time for a child.
As the grown-up children all came back at various times to the family’s new home in West London after the war, Edie’s role as a mother and housewife never seemed to stop and simply segued into that of full-time grandparent. In the 1950s she regularly helped out my aunt with her three ‘steps-and-stairs’, then in the 1960s she helped bring up my uncle’s young children when he was widowed untimely. And all the while she continued to cook her legendary roast dinners with Yorkshire puddings so high they were fabled to have been stuck in the oven on occasion.
My grandmother also continued to see her two beloved brothers and their families, who had moved out of London during the war, spending time with Fred and his wife in Exeter when he was very ill at the end of his life. Both Tom and Fred died relatively young, but Edith continued to stay in touch with some of their children, following their achievements with pride. And this was what I believe her final role was: to support her friends and family, and to help her children to attain their educational goals. Like many women at that time, it seems to have been enough for her to give the next generation wings to fly. She created a safe base from which they could launch themselves into the world, and at the same time was satisfied with this.
Edith with her first-born Stops nephew and niece, Demark Rd c1923
We can never know how much of our ancestors’ life decisions were based on personality or circumstances, but perhaps – just sometimes – there are those who find that both of these come together by happenstance. There was the free spirit who revelled in the cultural changes of the 1960s; the studious type who was lucky to be born in the time of scholarships and university grants; the entrepreneurial engineer who lived during a period of rapid industrial progress. Perhaps my grandmother found that she enjoyed the role that was thrust upon her; perhaps she had no choice. But I think in her own way she lived her life to the full, while still giving something back to society. And in the end, this is really all that each of us can hope for.
The Incidental Genealogist, March 2019
I’ve been reading your postings for quite some time, and really enjoy your family sagas. Thank you for sharing the stories and pictures in your quest to understand the past.
Thanks so much for your positive comments. It has been a great way for me to learn about social history and understand my own family. I would certainly recommend it, although it can be rather time-consuming!