Category Archives: Grandparents

Return to East Coker

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

CROSSROADS.JPGSignpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker

It was not a particularly auspicious weekend weather-wise when I travelled to Somerset with my cousin last month. We had arranged to meet up with our elderly aunt on the Saturday of our long weekend in the West Country, and so decided it would make sense to look around East Coker the day before our planned visit. This would allow my cousin to see the places that I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the wartime evacuation, and make the experience more meaningful.

Thus it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon when we arrived in the village – not what I’d intended at all. My first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker) had certainly been influenced by the good weather and I’d wanted my cousin to have the same initial impression. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. And maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).

A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. It also brought home why the new Keyford housing estate is slated to be situated near the Dorchester Road at the far end of the village. Those pesky narrow lanes effectively sealed off the other part of East Coker (where our fathers had lived with our aunt and grandmother during WW2) from further development, and thankfully could not be widened due to planning regulations.

HOLLOW LANE.JPGA sunken lane on the approach to East Coker

We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (what had once been called Up Coker), and park by the almshouses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century almshouses by the church

A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad that I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my memories of attending the Church of Scotland in my youth.

Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten about, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.

Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did, however, convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. And I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.

As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.

BURTON LANE (2).JPGLooking down Burton Lane from the road end today

On this visit, I was more conscious of the modern houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now that previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours. Yet I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.

As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but still wants to live in a modern one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Culliver’s Grave (the name of a field) and at a crossroads in the woods turns off to Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiter, banker Marcus Fysh,  which may explain the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several more modest houses in the village!

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that this was the way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she’d undertaken in all weathers.

Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminscences is obviously something which needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious of the fact that it felt just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as either I’d sent her copies in the post or she’d been the one to furnish me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!

Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were really popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairylights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1929 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.

My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.

Another photograph of my aunt and father in fancy dress brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (number three was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photograper’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on her face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.

P1070488 (3).JPGMy aunt and father in fancy dress c1933

That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.

Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.

JET.JPG

Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady siting in a rocking chair waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother (Sandra’s father) was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years. My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months) jabbing at the twisted trunk an old wisteria tree with one of her walking sticks. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, added value to the homes.

Later that evening, esconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End). 

Coker Woods.pngThe photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944

Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about,  and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences  outlined in the book.  As East Coker: A Village Album was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.

I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees.  By chance, my aunt told me last month that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!

A VILLAGE ALBUM

Of course, today marks the day 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her youngest son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.

As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2019

 

Advertisements

Portrait of my Grandmother in Later Life

Family photography can operate at this junction betwen personal memory and social history, btween 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)

P1050391 (2)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.

P1040641 (2)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 palavar. 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.

P1070486 (2)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.

P1050416 (2)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 aways 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).

P1040615 (2)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 swould 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 appelation) 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 phtographs, 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!

P1040718 (2)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.

p1070482 (2)Edie’s own three children in middle age (1980s)

P1070488 (2)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 seperate 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 ocasionally, 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.

Stops (2)Edith with her first-born Stops nephew and neice, 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

 

 

 

 

 

Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman

During the 1910s, women’s fashion favoured a more natural body shape and a decline in fussy ornamentation – an altogether less cluttered line. Ancestors can look fairly plain in photographs of this period, when wearing the popular blouse and skirt combination that formed the basis of the female wardrobe. Typically, a white or coloured blouse with a high collar, or slightly lower neckline with a rounded collar, was teamed with a plain tailored skirt, the skirt rather narrow or moderate in shape and sometimes featuring ornamental buttons.

Jayne Shrimpton,Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs, (2014)

edith at 18My paternal grandmother, Edith Matilda Stops, at age 18 in 1916

My London grandmother, Edith Matilda Skelton (née Stops), died on the 31st March 1976, two years into her short widowhood. She was found at her ground floor flat in Hampton, ensconced in her favourite comfy chair, a book on her lap, her weak heart having suddenly given out after 78 years. As a child, I had thought this a most normal-sounding death, but of course I now know better. When I think about the horrific-sounding demise of my Edwardian  actor/manager ancestor Herbert Sleath-Skelton in Holloway Asylum (see Herbert Sleath: His Decline and Fall), or that of his father’s junior business partner, George Schofield – who was crushed under a tube train at Warren Street Station towards the end of his life – then I know that my grandmother was one of the lucky ones.

The informant of my grandmother’s death was my fifty-year-old aunt, who lived nearby, and visited her mother regularly. She had been alerted by a neighbour who’d noticed from the communal garden that my grandmother had been sitting at the window in her chair all day, something which was very unlike her. In fact, earlier that morning she’d hung out a wash, then brought it inside, folding it in preparation for an ironing which would never happen. All those details I know as they were related to my parents in a phone call later that same day, no doubt to impress upon them that the death had been unexpected and that my grandmother had not suffered it any way. As it was, we’d only just had a telephone put in at our home – partly because when my grandfather died two years earlier, the family living next to us were contacted first. (We were not particularly close to them, so that probably was a slightly awkward scenario for all concerned).

glenmill.jpgThe flats at Glenmill, Hampton, with the communal gardens

It must have been that ugly grey phone, bolted high up the wall next to the hall mirror, which delivered the bad news about our grandmother to our house. I remember being  told very little about the event, at the time, and my father set off down to London for a slightly tense meeting with his siblings (there being some sort of friction between my aunt and uncle, as is often the case after the death of a parent). A few days later he came back with a rather kitschy swan vase for me – one of several ornaments my grandmother had out on display during my childhood. But I never felt as if it contained the essence of her, and sadly I lost it in one of my many moves over the years.

grandma's swanAn almost identical swan vase to my grandmother’s

What I really wanted (had I been asked) was the funny green plastic cup that I was told was actually called a beaker, and which could magically hold hot tea without melting. It had a strange but comforting smell – especially if you bit softly into the rim. When we finally arrived from Scotland at our grandparents’ house off the overnight bus (via the newly-built M1), all of us were exhausted and out of sorts, and I was always glad to be given sweet tea in that cup.

There were, however, very few items my grandparents had in their retirement flat which had accompanied them throughout their married life. This does not surprise me as they had the misfortune to be born in the 1890s, which would see them both involved (in their own way) in two world wars and all the disruption that entailed. And as regular readers may recall, when my grandmother and the three children all ended up being evacuated to Somerset to escape the Blitz, many of their possessions, including my father’s and my aunt’s favourite toys, were misplaced (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

However, recently I was pleased to discover that one of my cousins (with whom I share a birth year) had inherited my grandmother’s ‘wedding teapot’ through her father. She’d specifically asked for the item as it was a precious link to both her father and the beloved grandmother who had helped to look after her and her brother  when – in an uncanny mirroring of our paternal grandfather’s childhood experience – they had been left motherless at a very young age.

GRANDMAS TEAPOT.JPGMy grandmother’s silver-plated ‘wedding teapot’

As previously mentioned (see I Remember, I Remember), the one house that could have been described as the Stops-Skelton family home was 95 Denmark Road in Brixton*, where my grandmother lived from an early age until she turned forty. Not only did she meet my grandfather there when he came to lodge with her widowed mother, Harriett Stops, in 1922 (after serving in WW1), but all her three children were born in the house, and Harriett lived out her last years with the family, dying of heart disease in 1930, at the age of 73 at the local Lambeth Hospital (where her husband, Thomas Stops, had died of TB in 1906). Despite the  whole family being delighted to eventually be able to move to a modern cottage-style council house in West Norwood which had both electricity and an indoor toilet, I expect there must have been some degree of sadness when they closed the heavy door of number 95 behind them for the last time in 1938.    

*Lambeth Archives holds the details for this house, and I was fascinated to learn that it had been built on the site of gardens and orchards in the 1840s during a speculative building boom in the area. Thereupon the house changed hands several times, but always being used for rental income of up to £50 a year. It had been sold initially for £100 with £6 annum ground rents (on an 80-year lease), rising to £175 (possibly more), before it was reduced to £100 again by the 1930s. However, my grandfather’s brother (a builder) warned him not to buy it when he had the chance, which was a wise move given that the house was hit by a bomb shortly before it could celebrate its centenary.

denmark roadMy grandmother outside 95 Denmark Rd, Brixton, c1910

When I was a child, my grandmother always came across to me as a very motherly type, so it is hard for me to imagine her before her marriage as an independent young woman with a career as a telephonist at the central telephone exchange. That was in the early days of phone use, when calls had to be put through manually (something I can still just remember before STD or subscriber trunk dialling came into nationwide effect). She took up this job at the outbreak of WW1 and remained in it up until her marriage to my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, in 1924. In the photograph (below) of my grandmother with her mother and brother Tom, a telegraph clerk, taken in 1916, just before he went off to war, she appears very confident and grown-up in her smart but unfussy outfit – very different from the shy-looking little girl she seemed to be a decade earlier, in the image entitled ‘After Father Died’ (shown further below).

thomas_and_edith_with_mother_harriett_'before_going_to_the_war' (2)Edie with Tom and Harriett, ‘Before Going to War’ c1916

tom_fred_and_edith_with_mother_1909_taken_soon_after_father_died-3Edie with Tom, Fred and Harriett, ‘After Father Died’, c1906

From examining all the photographs of my grandmother in her youth, I have the sense she was once quite an active person, as there often appears to be an aura of restrained movement about her. In one particular image of her mother Harriett sitting in a chair in the back garden in Denmark Road, it is just possible to make out what looks like Edie (and the tail of a cat?) moving about behind her. However, as this was believed to be taken in 1923, a year before Edie’s marriage, it may have been another young female friend or relative.

It is strange feeling to think that this was also the same backyard* my father played in as a child, and which over the years contained a coal house, dustbin, outside toilet, dog kennel and henhouse. Despite all those multiple uses of what would not have been a particularly large space to begin with, it does even look as if there was the semblance of a garden as well.     

*As a child I found it odd  that my father called our suburban back garden a ‘back yard’, despite the fact I kept reminding him that, as it was covered in grass and had flowers and vegetables, it was technically a garden. For years I thought he’d picked up the expression from Americans he’d known, but of course it was only later I realised that a back yard really was what most old Victorian terraces had!

harriett june 23 Harriett Stops (née Burnell) in the back yard of 95 Denmark Road, June 1923

My grandparents’ wedding ceremony took place on Saturday 25th October 1924 at the parish church of St Matthews, in Brixton. Despite the fact that the following week would be the infamous  general election of 1924 (and the 3rd in two years), in which ex-prime minister  Stanley Baldwin* would be re-elected in a landslide win for the conservatives – the newly-married Edith was still not allowed to vote. She had to wait until 1928 (when ironically she turned thirty in any case) before the law changed to give all woman the same voting rights as men, who had been given the franchise in 1918 at age twenty-one (along with women over thirty, on conditions related to their properties or those of their husbands) under the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

I had always thought this age restriction was just due to some outdated notion that women were deemed to be more politically immature, but I have since discovered this it was created to redress the imbalance in the population caused by the loss of male voters during the Great War. By adjusting the voting age in such a way, it was reasoned that there would be more equal numbers of men and women.

*As surprising as it may seem, there is a vague family connection (through marriage) to Stanley Baldwin in the wealthy ‘other’ Skelton family, that readers may recall (see The Kipling Connection or Not So Great Expectations).

marriage_edith_stops-sidney_skelton (2)Skelton-Stops Wedding in Brixton, Saturday, 25th October, 1924

Edith must have been pleased to have Tom and Fred there beside her  on her ‘big day’, as both her older brothers had been active in the Great War, leaving her at home to lend support to Harriett while they were away. Due to this (the fear that she might lose them), and the strong bonds they created among them when they were all left fatherless at a relatively young age, my grandmother was to remain devoted to her brothers all her life. (This was lucky for me, as the only reason I have most of these photographs is because of Tom’s granddaughter, who I discovered on a genealogy website a few years ago).

As my own quest is centred mainly on the Skelton family, I have kept research into the Stops family to a minimum, even though, from a genetic point of view this is quite illogical. But at every new pairing there are more family history alleys one could travel down, and keeping my search to the Skeltons simplifies things, giving me more of a goal-orientated feel. If I were to start to investigate the Stops in any detail, I feel I would have to focus equally on the Burnells (Harriet’s family), then divide those into two branches, and so on*. I did, however, do this superficially for fun one day, and discovered that the first wife of Harriett Burnell’s brother, George, was called Matilda – and their little girl (who would go on to be called Daisy Matilda) was listed in the 1891 census as Not Named 4 ½ hours old! Was this the source of my grandmother’s middle name? As it turned out, the two cousins (Daisy and Edie) would become firm friends over the years, and my aunt recalled meeting Daisy as a child when she’d already left her native Somerset to take up a job in London as a waitress  at Selfridges .    

*I have sometimes been rather horrified to see huge sprouting family trees like ancient oaks where too many relatives seem to dilute the information – although I’m aware that ancestor-gathering does seem to be the aim of some researchers.

But to return to the Stops family. My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops was a trained wheelwright/blacksmith, born in 1853 in Hackney, the middle son of another wheelwright (William Stops) from Wendover in Buckinghamshire. While these jobs sound very much like rural professions to our modern ears, there would most likely have actually been more of such work in the capital due to the number of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets. Despite this, William Stops was never able to make much money from his trade, and the growing family moved to different accommodation in East London on a regular basis. At one point they were living in Tower Hamlets at Pleasant Place, which sounded anything but pleasant if a contemporary description of the street by a physician investigating the sanitary conditions of London is to be believed.

It is worth quoting the extract in full, taken from the book Sanitary Ramblings being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green: A type of the condition of the metropolis and other large towns by Hector Gavin MD FRCSE (1848), due to the light it sheds on the plight of the insecure working class in the middle of the nineteenth century: This central square (consisting of Pleasant-row and Pleasant-place) is made up of swine-pens and yards in which dung-heaps are piled; in it are the privies of the northern half of the row, forming the south of the square. Immediately facing Pleasant-row is a ditch, filled with slimy mud and putrefying filth, which extends for 100 feet. The space between Pleasant-row and the central square is, beyond description, filthy; dung heaps and putrefying garbage, refuse, and manure, fill up the horrid place, which is covered with slimy foetid mud. The eastern end has likewise its horrid filthy foetid gutter reeking with pestilential effluvia; the southern alley is likewise abominably filthy: there the same slime and mud overspreads the broken up bouldered path; and there, the same most disgusting odours are given off, which are common to this area of putrescence. I do not think that in all my journeying through the degraded haunts of wretched poverty in this poor parish I have found a scene so distressing.

The houses in Pleasant-place are chiefly two-roomed and let at 3s. 6d. a week, but some of the two-roomed and all the three-roomed houses let at 5s. a week. I entered one of these houses on the southern side, and found that every individual in a family of seven had been attacked with fever, and that a daughter, aged 22, who had been convalescent eight weeks, on her return from the country to her miserable home, died of a relapse in two days. The body was retained in the house, because no means could be found to raise the money necessary to bury it, and was then lying in its coffin. The privy of this house is close to it, and is full and overflowing, covering the yard with its putrescent filth; the stench was perfectly unendurable; the house itself was most shockingly dirty. 3s. a week were paid for this den of pestilence, while the husband and wife together, by working night and day, could only earn 15s. a week. To permit a continuance of the state of things I saw would be, as it were, voluntarily to tolerate the elimination of a fatal poison to be sucked in at every breath of the occupants, who, this condemned to death, perish not by the momentary pangs of official strangulation, but by the more miserable death of loathsome typhus. How lost to all sense of charity and brotherly love, how forgetful of the value of human life, are those who apathetically survey such sad scenes of wretched misery.

So William Stops had left the rural town of Wendover to better himself in the capital and it had come to this? It is ironic to note that at the same time as William was struggling in the East End, living at the very unpleasant-sounding Pleasant Place, his father Joseph Stops, was ironically working as an agricultural labourer at Paradise Water Mill* (and maltings) in the village of Wendover, in Buckinghamshire, working for the miller Eizabeth Hoare (whose sisters ran a private boarding school for young ladies in the 1840s and 50s), while his wife (William’s mother) worked as a washerwoman.  

*Paradise House is now a grade 2 listed building and an extremely attractive private dwelling today, described in the town guide as being an 18th century construction which incorporates a much older one.

Despite the ‘paradise’ name, it is debatable whether life in the countryside was any easier than in the London ‘slums’. While places like Wendover are now highly desirable locations, particularly if in commuting distance to the capital (as Wendover is today), increasing industrialisation and threats from globalisation meant that the old rural trades, such as the lace making trade in Wendover, were now dying out. And even though living conditions in the capital were less than ideal, there was no rural idyll in the countryside either, with agricultural labourers earning a pittance for insecure work and living in poor quality housing.

However, it was often the next generation that was able to build on the risks their parents had taken through movement and migration, and so it was that when Thomas Stops married the Somerset-born domestic servant, Harriett Burnell, in 1887 after an eight-year stint as a soldier with the Royal Artillery, they were able to rent a terraced house on a new estate at Sands End in Fulham. It was there, at number 61 Cranbury Road, where several years later they had their three children: Thomas William Burnell (Tom) in 1893; Frederick Arthur James (Fred) in 1895; Edith Matilda (Edie) in 1898 (when Harriett was 41).

A few years ago I went to see the house, expecting an ordinary Victorian terrace. So I was rather surprised to see that number 61 had been merged with 61a next door to create a large five-bedroomed home now named ‘Lavender House’, which has been featured in several prominent glossy magazines (see article here). Currently worth about three million pounds, it is a far cry from the old Cranbury Road houses of the 1970s, a time when  the area had become slightly run down, and it was possible to buy a period property for around three thousand pounds.

lavender house

lavender house gardenLavender House, Cranbury Road, Fulham, today (front and back)

And perhaps here – where it all began – is a fitting place to end the first part of our story. The Stops family left Fulham for Denmark Road in south London in the early 1900s and shortly after that Thomas died of tuberculosis, leaving Harriett to bring up the children alone, taking in a series of lodgers to help pay her way (one of whom would become my grandfather). Unfortunately, it is impossible to know why the family moved to the other side of London as the only connection they had with the area was the fact that Harriett had worked as a domestic servant for a family in Camberwell when she arrived from her native Highbridge in Somerset.

However, I have in my possession (courtesy of my aunt) a copy of a wonderful cabinet portrait entitled ‘Edie with Dog’, which was possibly taken by one of those itinerant photographers who called from house to house, most likely when the family still lived in Fulham. I’m not sure if the dog was the family pet, but it is certainly the kind which was popular at the time, and might instead have belonged to a friend or relative. Edie looks like she’s wearing her best Sunday bonnet and white dress. So was it a special occasion, or had she been dressed up especially for the photograph?

The background (a suburban garden fence supporting hollyhocks and climbers) makes me believe this photograph was taken in the garden of 61 Cranbury Road, shortly before the family left the area. Although the copy is of poor quality, I still find the composition exquisite. There is the angle of Edie’s head as she gazes at the unseen photographer. The nonchalant way she is holding the lead of that tiny dog. The slightly wild vegetation which frames her, suggesting a ramshackle garden that would be enchanting to a child.

Even the faded sepia copy lends the image an ethereal quality, making Edie appear like an Edwardian ghost child. As a child myself, I would have loved to have reached back through time and played with this little girl from another age in her wild back garden. Yet when my grandmother was still alive, I could never really have imagined her as anything other than lumpen and yellow-toothed. And I find that impossibly sad.

p1070485 (2)‘Edie with Dog’, c1903

To be continued next month . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2019

Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier

The children of the street are equally different from one another in character and appearance, and are often startlingly good-looking. They have shrill voices, clumsy clothes, the look of being small for their age, and they are liable to be comfortably dirty, but there the characteristics they have in common cease. They may be wonderfully fair, with delicate skins and pale hair; they may have red hair with snub-nosed, freckled faces; or they may be dark and intense, with long, thick eyelashes and slender, lithe bodies. Some are apathetic, some are restless. They are often intelligent; but while some are able to bring their intelligence to bear on their daily life, others seem quite unable to do so. They are abnormally noisy. Had they been well housed, well fed, well clothed and well tended, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown themselves to be?

Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week, (1913)

GRANDAD SMy paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, c1908

As November marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and the signing of the Armistice, I have decided to devote this month’s post to the early life of my English grandfather, Sidney Skelton, who fought in France and Flanders during the Great War. Sidney was always referred to in our family as ‘Grandad Skelton’, whereas our younger Scottish grandfather (whom we saw more regularly by dint of basic geography) was simply called ‘Grandad’. As a child, this difference in appellation used to worry me – I always thought that my English grandparents would feel that they had been relegated to second-best. Thus I hope by writing this post I can make amends for the fact that I never really knew my English grandfather well enough to learn to love him.

As a working-class Londoner who was born at the tail end of the Victorian period, not only did Sidney experience two world wars – firstly as a soldier, then as a working civilian –  but also the resulting social changes which swept through the 20th century.  I have written about my grandfather before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and those who have followed my genealogical quest from the beginning may recall that he has cropped up at various points throughout my story, most notably in connection with his father and oldest brother, both of whom were named Arthur (see The Two Arthurs). Arthur Senior’s  mustachioed face can be seen in my grandparent’s wedding photograph in the banner image above, looking like a leftover from another era. Known as ‘Grandad Arthur’, his jolly-looking countenance belied the harsh life he had led – when this photograph was taken he’d already lost two wives and had endured periods of great poverty that would seem Dickensian today.

Perhaps Sidney had not expected his father to still be around for his wedding day in the autumn of 1924, when he himself was already a relatively mature man (for those days) of thirty-two. Perhaps he’d not even expected to have survived to that age – he had spent many years as a professional soldier, serving in the Great War, and had suffered the loss of an older brother and step-brother in the conflict. For my grandfather, the marriage must have been a bittersweet moment as his thoughts turned to those of his family who could not be there, including his own mother who had died when he was just three, and his step-mother whom he’d lost the year previously.

P1060932 (2)Sidney and Edith on their wedding day, 25th October, 1924

Despite his unease in his borrowed wedding suit (it surely couldn’t have been made for him), he does appear to look vaguely triumphant in his wedding photograph. Perhaps this is not as much in evidence as in the portrait taken to mark his official entry into the 19th Royal Hussars – after all, by 1924 he was no longer an innocent young man who was excited by the prospect a life of adventure, having finally experienced what real war meant. However, on that mild October day, when he married the daughter of his Brixton landlady, he was surely a contented man. His new bride, twenty-six year old Edith Matilda Stops (a name I’m ashamed to say I found ridiculously old-fashioned as a child), was an outgoing young woman who’d started work as a telephonist towards the end of the war, while no doubt still helping her widowed mother out around the house. As both her older brothers had served in the war, she was no stranger to the emotional impact of the conflict, something which was perhaps a comfort to my grandfather.

Whenever I think about my grandparents, it seems hard to reconcile their older selves with the young couple in the photograph above. By the time I came along, Grandma Skelton was already a dumpy women with thick grey hair tied back in a bun (strands of which still kept slipping out) and long, yellow teeth. She had a strange line in pork-pie hats and shiny dresses, and walked in her ugly lace-up shoes with a peculiar flat-footed gait. But I can also remember her lively dark eyes and olive complexion, her easy smile and wonderful cackling laugh. As I child I sensed that she was a happy person, despite the hardships I later discovered she’d endured. In contrast, my grandfather was thin and wiry with pale gnarled limbs and a sunken face, and always seemed to be on the verge of a bad mood. He was also rarely without a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, which was slightly off-putting for the children of non-smokers. So we turned to our plumpish grandmother for hugs instead.

P1040821 (2)With Grandad Skelton, Christmas 1966

Thus poor Grandad suffered by comparison to his easy-going wife. It was a while after his death before I realised how varied his talents were – for woodworking, knitting, growing fruit and vegetables, and anything else he put his mind to. He was the sharp ‘brains’ of the family, but also the most tortured of all my grandparents. As my father inherited many of his characteristics (both good and bad), I know it is too simplistic to blame his experiences on the Western Front for his grumpiness in later life. But it breaks my heart to think that such a talented man ended up spending more than half his working life as a tram (and later, bus) conductor. This is not to denigrate such a job – he’d been delighted to be given such an opportunity in the lean years after the war – it is more that I believe he was the type of young man who would have greatly benefited from a recognised apprenticeship (as my Scottish grandfather did). However, his father was not in any position to support him in such a way.

When Sidney Skelton was born in Lambeth on 12th February 1892, Grandad Arthur and his first wife, Elisabeth (neé Holton), were living in rented rooms at 78, Cator street, near the Surrey Canal. A year later, when Sidney was baptised at the brand new church of All Saints, North Peckham (since dismantled), they had already moved to number 116, where they rented two unfurnished upstairs rooms from the live-in downstairs owner. This part of London was heavily bombed in WW2, resulting in a large area being turned into Burgess Park after the war (see A Tale of Two Parks), a process that took several decades to complete (and is still ongoing). Although these Cator Street houses no longer exist, the last remaining ones in the last remaining part of the street are now very much sought after residences. These period houses have a cottagey feel, yet it is also possible to imagine rows and rows of such identical multi-occupancy terraced houses, grimy in the soot-laden air, and understand why post-war planners were itching to eradicate them.

CATOR STREET (2).pngOriginal houses in Cator Street, Peckham, today

I have a strong feeling that Sidney’s mother was already ailing when she gave birth to him, her fifth child, that winter. Three years later she would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver, her new-born son, Frederick Edward, following her to the grave shortly afterwards. His malnourished rickety body was simply too weak to carry on without her. So little Sidney already had a rocky start in life, which possibly became even rockier when his father quickly remarried a widow with her own children, and the new patchwork family continued to move around south London, the youngest members being registered in different board schools every few months. Although Arthur was a shoemaker by trade, he’d never attained the level of master (as his own father had with his tailoring business), so led a more precarious existence as a journeyman, mending his customers’ shoes in whatever home the Skelton family happened to be living at the time. This would explain why my grandfather once told my aunt that he and his brothers had to walk long distances over south London in order to collect and deliver shoes for their father.

In the 1911 census, I was rather surprised to find that 52 year-old Grandad Arthur was found to be staying at Rowton House (at the Elephant and Castle), which was a fee-paying – albeit philanthropic – hostel for impoverished men. He was still married to his second wife, a widow named Harriet Pushman, but had possibly separated from her at this point (divorce being only for the wealthy). Unfortunately, after having been later used as a hotel and then a hostel, the old Rowton House building was demolished in 2007 after falling into disrepair, so I was unable to see it for myself. Yet, in 1897, when it was newly built, it was described as an impressive six-storey building, housing over 800 men, each of whom had their own small sleeping cubicle, open at the top. In addition, there were cooking facilities, opportunities to buy food and hot drinks, as well as communal living rooms, games rooms and libraries, alongside toilets and washing facilities. As one night cost around six old pence – although a room could also be booked on a weekly basis – the hostel was designed for ‘bona-fide working men’ who happened to be down on their luck. Residents who were tailors, shoemakers and barbers also offered their services, and I wonder whether Grandad Arthur was able to pick up some work while staying there.

ROWTON HOUSE (2)Rowton House, Newington Butts, c1900

By then, Arthur Skelton’s youngest son Sidney was already enlisted in the army and was most likely out of the country at that time (as he cannot be found on the 1911 census). Years later he told my father that before the Great War he had served overseas ‘somewhere hot’ (my mother thinks it was India, although it could have been in the Middle East) and there he had worn a special hat with a fold down part at the nape of the neck to protect against the sun – a style that is commonplace today due to increased concerns about UV radiation. However, in those days this issue was not people’s chief concern, and when my father was sent out to Africa with the air force in the early 1950s, my grandfather’s advised him to get out in the sun as much as possible right away, so he would quickly become acclimatised. As my father had inherited the olive skin tone of his mother, this was not a problem for him, and it seemed to me as a child that he was forever looking tanned and healthy. In fact, after years of living overseas, one of his major gripes about Scotland (and Britain as a whole – that damp dreary island in the North Atlantic) was the awful weather. So from an early age, I was picking up subliminal messages that life might be warmer and more exciting elsewhere.

My grandfather’s decision to join the British army was most likely financial. Prior to that, he had only been able to take short-term labouring jobs (as did his brothers), and years later told my parents about how he used to have to go down to the docks (possibly the Surrey Docks) to try to find daily work. As my mother once remarked, being small and wiry, Sidney might not have immediately stood out as one of the obvious men to employ for physically demanding work, and he often had to return home empty-handed. So signing up to the army gave working-class boys like Sidney a chance to have paid regular employment, to be housed, clothed and fed, and to be trained in various skills. My mother remembers how surprised she was to once come across Sidney knitting an intricate aran pullover as an old man, an unexpected benefit of being in the army.

It was only when I recently accessed the war diaries from Sidney’s regiment, the 19th Hussars, that I realised why the soldiers would have learnt such skills as knitting. Despite how I imagined life at the Western Front, it seems that in between the skirmishes there was a certain amount of time waiting and preparing for the next stage of warfare, so keeping busy would have been paramount. From 17th October 1915 (when Sidney arrived in Wardrecques, France, as part of one-hundred strong reinforcements) there are many entries which describe several days staying in billets (while waiting on commands), interspersed with trench digging, reconnoissance parties, transporting weapons etc.

In addition, soldiers constantly had to undertake bayonet and rifle drills, as well as keeping their horses fit and trained, and most unexpectedly, regularly playing football. In fact, while reading the diaries for 1916, I actually began to think that ‘playing football’ was a euphemism for some sort of military tactic. But of course, such ‘games’ would not only have improved physical skills, but also increased cohesion within the battalion and improved the soldiers’ morale. There were also descriptions of church visits, inspections, parades and horse shows (which the local population often came to watch), some of which had to be cancelled due to last-minute manoeuvres, and soldiers occasionally helped local farmers with harvests, in return for food and grazing.

74300666_3Horse show behind the lines (c) National Libraries of Scotland

The British army war diaries, which have only been available for the general public since 2014, can be read in situ at the National Archives in Kew, or can be ordered on-line for the price of a pint of beer. They are not always easy to decipher as some of the entries have been written (or scrawled) in pencil, and individual officers varied in how much information they recorded. Without prior military knowledge, it can also be challenging to follow many of the manoeuvres described, and the very matter-of-fact descriptions sometimes makes it difficult to work out when the important events are taking place. But to anyone wanting to know more about an ancestor’s movements during that period, they are certainly worthwhile reading, particularly if key battle dates are known. It is also relatively easy to plot the movements of troops if a detailed map of the area described can be accessed at the same time. Thus the diaries are an invaluable guide to visiting the battlefields, something I hope to do at some point in the future.

74300538_3British cavalry waiting for the order to move up (c) SNL

57_3British cavalry preparing to advance (c) SNL

And so it was that I found myself honing in on the 8th August 1918, when  I saw (with a horrible thrill) that for the first time in the diary the officer in charge had simply written Battle Front in the space designated for the name of the town or village in which the 19th Hussars were billeted. To follow the Battle of Amiens in ‘real time’ was an uncanny feeling, particularly in light of the fact that we know what those who were fighting cannot. I am able to read about the conflict, knowing that the war would soon come to an end and my grandfather would survive. Yet, how harrowing it must be for those who are following the hour-by-hour descriptions of a battle where their ancestors lost their lives.

74408646_3Cavalry patrols advancing over open countryside (c) SNL

74407759_3 (2)Cavalry passing Albert Cathedral, August 1918, Tom Aitken (c) SNL

Some of the notes taken during the battle were particularly descriptive. For example, at 7pm on the evening of the 8th of August, the officer in charge wrote: Enemy aeroplanes appeared in large numbers, as many as 20 or 30 being in the air above us at the same time, and commenced shooting at our horses, no damage. A few of our Scouts (S.E.5’s) were in among them, and we had the satisfaction of seeing one machine burst into flames at a height of about 1,500 feet, and fall rapidly down on the west side of the valley in which the horses were standing. The pilot jumped out and fell a little further looking like a little rag.

74407355_3British scouting planes (S.E.5s), France 1918, David McLellan (c) SNL

But perhaps the notes that enthralled me the most were those which captured the often petty-sounding (but obviously important for discipline and morale) issues of everyday life on the Western Front. Soldiers were admonished for smoking while on horseback, for shooting rabbits in the French countryside, for not changing their socks within a 24 hour period. And so the list of regulations and demeanours went on. Food was also an important topic for the troops; for example, on the 2nd of May, 1918, the reporting officer wrote the following: Information received that the peanut cake now being issued, is better boiled, this producing a less irritating and purging effect. Day passed quietly. I don’t think he realised the unintended humour of these two, possibly unrelated, statements!

74406582_3Cavalry soldiers relaxing, while their horses graze (c) SNL

A family anecdote relating to my grandfather’s time in the army which I have always found particularly fascinating is an event which took place on a cold winter’s morning when my grandfather was coming home on leave. As Sidney was walking through the suburban streets of south London in his cavalry uniform, there was a commotion when the local milkman’s horse slipped on the ice and fell over. Knowing that a fallen horse is in a difficult situation – especially on ice – and that it needs to be helped up onto its feet before it does any damage to itself, Sidney ran over to the horse and kneeled on its neck. This was presumably to prevent the animal struggling, and would have been second nature to him after his army training – as to lose a horse in wartime is obviously a grave concern. However, it would appear that the milkman was not best pleased to see this soldier diving onto his horse, and used some choice swearwords to show his disapproval.

img004Edwardian milkman, Norwood Dairies, South London

4f02678fe8e81fda7a561677109e2816--war-horses-climbingHorse falling down railway embankment, Western Front 1917-18,

Although everyone in the family seemed to find this tale quite funny, I have always thought it rather sad. I wonder if this is because it illustrates the different worlds that the two men inhabited. Sidney would have been proud of his equine skills and no doubt believed that his role in the army was for the greater good; the milkman may have felt that he was being shown up by this younger serviceman, and may have had conflicted emotions about not actively fighting in the war himself (despite the fact he may have been too old for service). For soldiers coming home on leave from the front, it must have been a strange, unsettling experience.

But perhaps it was even harder when the war was finally over.

74408227_3 (3)A cavalry patrol (c) SNL

To be continued next month in Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2018