Tag Archives: Denmark Road

Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost.

Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin, Forgotten Voices of The Great War, Max Arthur, 2002

P1050403 (3).JPGMy grandfather, Sidney Skelton, at a family picnic, 1967

In last month’s post (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier), I described my London-born grandfather’s service in the British army during WW1, relying on the war diaries of the 19th Hussars held by the National Archives to give me a more accurate picture of a cavalryman’s life on the Western Front. Contrary to what I’d imagined, it wasn’t all trench warfare, and I was rather surprised at the varied tasks the troops had to undertake, as well as the number of other activities that went on ‘behind the line’, such as parades, horse shows and football games.

The November 1918 entries for the war diary finished abruptly on the morning of the 11th at around 8:30am – with unfortunately no mention of the Armistice.  The diary was restarted the following month when the batallions  were in Germany and continued to detail the clean-up operations (as well as the fate of the horses) until the troops left for Southampton on the 30th of March the following year. Sadly, many of the entries list the large numbers of men who died from the 1918 influenza outbreak, so-called Spanish Flu, something which must have been a terrible finale to a terrible war.

While back in the UK recently, I attended a screening of Peter Jackson’s documentary about the Great War, They Shall Not Grow Old, which was created using digitalised footage from the Imperial War Museum and sound recordings with veterans made fifty years after the outbreak of war. The film (which was shown on BBC2 on the evening of the 11th of November to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice) was an incredible piece of cinematography that brought home the horrors of the First World War in a way that was more relatable than any other documentary I have seen about the conflict.

As many reviewers of the film have pointed out, watching this modern-looking footage of the soldiers engaged in trench warfare was akin to seeing ghosts rising from the dead and reaching out to us. Particularly poignant were the moments when individual soldiers casually called out to the camera (and thus to us in the audience), with comments such as Hey lads, we’re in the cinema! and Hello, Mum! Hearing the men speak (through a judicious combination of lip-reading and actors’ voiceovers) gave the clips of the troops an eerie timelessness that only served to underscore the horror of the battle scenes. Did those men – who so jauntily call out to us today – live to see old age, as my grandfather did; or did they end up as one of the many bloated and disfigured corpses that the film did not hesitate to hide from the viewer?

Perhaps the saddest scenes in the film were the clips taken at the end of the conflict, when the British soldiers fraternised with some of the German prisoners-of-war, declaring them to be ‘just like us’ and ‘decent family men’. It was heart-breaking to see them larking around together, albeit warily, for the camera, trying on each other’s hats and swapping cigarettes and photographs of their families ‘back home’, underscoring the futility of the whole venture. But in those days ‘the other’ was most certainly an unknown quantity: an ordinary soldier would never have had the chance to travel (or live and work abroad), mixing with other nationalities, as we do now. And thus it was easier to brainwash (for want of a better word) the troops into hating the enemy, who likewise had been taught to hate them. If anything, this makes a plea for more integration and cultural understanding.

Another point the film impressed on me was the question of what happened to the ex-servicemen after the war, and the callous way that many were almost thrown on the scrap heap when they returned home, particularly those who had suffered injuries. This puts my grandfather’s thirty-year stint as a tram (and later, bus) conductor with London County Council Tramways into perspective, and I feel ashamed that I (blessed with a free university education in the 1980s) had always deemed this job as beneath him. Grandad felt himself lucky to be able to take up regular work once he came out of the army after serving his allotted twelve years. And whether he wanted to leave then or not, by 1922, the 19th Hussars had amalgamated with the 15th Hussars as cavalry troops ceased to be of importance due to the technological advances in warfare that had escalated throughout the four years of conflict.

gettyimages-82094211-1024x1024Tram Conductor, London, 11th Nov 1929 (c) Imagno/Getty Images

After finding stable employment, my grandfather possibly felt even luckier to marry his Brixton landlady’s 26-year-old daughter, and have the financial security to start a family of his own, while taking over the role of ‘man of the house’ at 95 Denmark Road. There the couple were to remain (with Edith’s widowed mother living out the rest of her life with them) until almost the outbreak of the next war. Denmark Road was just round the corner from the Camberwell Tram Depot and was no doubt why Sidney took lodgings there in the first place. The house is no longer there as the street was bombed during the Blitz and the damaged properties later torn down to make way for post-war housing schemes. However, similar terraced streets in the neighbourhood are very appealing and I imagine that if 95 Denmark Road still existed it would be a much sought after property (as other period houses in the area have become).

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)My grandmother outside 95 Denmark Road, circa 1910

denmark-road-00253-640 (2).jpgDenmark Road after bombing in WW2 (c) Ideal Homes

P1030829 (2)Similar remaining houses in the Denmark Road neighbourhood

This house, which I have written about before (see I Remember, I Remember), must have witnessed a great deal in its 75 year lifespan. All three of the couple’s children were born in that crumbling Victorian terrace: my aunt in 1925, my father in 1928, and my uncle in 1935. Today it is hard to imagine choosing to give birth in a house which did not have electricity or an inside toilet, or the other mod cons we now take for granted.

By 1938, the family were glad to escape from what I imagine to then be a rather dark and dreary house when they moved to the newish cottage-style, council-owned, Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood. Not only had all these semi-detached houses electricity and a bathroom, but a side passageway from the front to the back garden (or yard in those days), meant that messy coal could be directly deposited in the coal shed at the back. And when Denmark Road was eventually bombed, my grandparents were pleased they’d not taken the advice of my grandfather’s brother, Arthur, to buy number 95 outright for £100.

P1030886 (2)The ‘new’ house at Durning Road, West Norwood

My grandparent’s relationship was to all accounts a very traditional one, with Edith’s role that of mother and housewife, despite working as a telephonist in the years prior to her marriage. My mother told me that even when they had retired, my grandmother always had to ‘get home’ in time to make the evening meal if she had been out visiting friends or family, mostly spending time with her grandchildren. But what might seem chauvinistic today was the norm for most families at that time, even until relatively recently. In fact, my own parents, while believing themselves to be very modern, still had very traditional roles, and I remember my father’s occasional hissy fits when my mother was delayed in her part-time job and not back home in time to help prepare dinner.

When researching my grandfather’s life, post-war, I was fortunate enough to discover a chapter entitled ‘Omnibus and Tramway Services’ in the New Survey of London Life and Labour (Vol. 8, London Industries 3), published in 1934. This survey of working class households in London was conducted during 1928-32 (mostly in 1929-31), and was based at the London School of Economics. It was led by the retired government official and social reformer, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith*, with the objective being to measure the current levels of poverty in London, in order to chart the changes in living standards (and other aspects of working class life) since Charles Booth’s pioneering investigations forty years earlier in the 1880s and 90s.

*Interestingly (in terms of the Great War), Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith headed the British economic section at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918-19, and became chief economic adviser to the post-war government. He was a strong supporter of the League of Nations, and was the British member of the economic committee from 1920 to 1927. He was also a leading personality in all negotiations affecting international trade and the commercial repercussions of the war.

Smith’s New Survey outlined some of the conditions for tram and bus conductors prior to the 1933 London Passenger Transport Act, which consolidated the services under the one public authority of the London Passenger Transport Board. It described how the new electric trams (previously they had been powered by steam or horse-drawn) were a growth industry, with the number of conductors and drivers almost doubling throughout the 1920s, due to the increase in services throughout the expanding London suburbs. By the 1930s, diesel buses had begun to play an even greater role, although my grandfather remained as a tram conductor until this mode of transport was phased out in the 1952 under the ominously named ‘Operation Tramaway’, which came into effect in 1950. Thus for the last few years before his retirement he worked ‘on the buses’ – a phrase which brings back memories of that irreverent 1970s sitcom set in a London bus depot that once so entertained us as a family!

However, in the inter-war period many more men applied for the job of tram driver or conductor than there were jobs available, although it would seem that preference was given to returning servicemen who were able to fit the job description in terms of age (over 25) and height (over 5 foot 6 inches, but less than 5 foot 11 inches). I am of course assuming that this was what enabled my grandfather to obtain employment at the Camberwell Tram Depot, particularly after having been a professional soldier for over a decade, having enlisted with the 19th Hussars several years before the outbreak of war. With no proper education after his basic schooling, the army was the only training he knew, but would have given him a number of transferable skills (in today’s parlance), not least discipline and stamina, and being seen as a good team worker.

2624182_1024x1024Camberwell Tram Depot, 1930s (c) London Transport Museum

From what I can gather, Sidney was relatively happy in his employment and I believe it suited him more than a desk-bound job. The tram driver and conductor had to work closely together, coordinating their movements, something with which an ex-soldier would have been familiar. In addition, there were many opportunities to help the public (see poster below), to quip with the passengers – particularly the regulars, and perhaps more importantly for someone used to military life, to keep moving around and with opportunities to be ‘outside’. (Although perhaps breathing in the often smog-laden air of London was not ideal).

gettyimages-464494493-1024x1024LCC Tramways poster, 1932, by J. S. Anderson © Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images

I have a strong memory of riding on the top deck of a London bus with my grandfather on a warm summer’s day in the early 1970s (when there still were conductors and the jump-on-jump-off system at the back) and witnessing him admonish a couple of boys in the seat in front of us who had thrown something from the window (a red sweet I think it was) onto the head of an older bald man waiting at the bus stop in the street below us. I remember how I felt, shrinking into my seat, while Grandad gave those lads a colourful earful: pride, fear, embarrassment, all these emotions were going through my mind, and I wondered why he had spoken up when no-one else had. But of course it all makes sense now, given his earlier career. Like most children, I did not know or even care much about what my grandfather had done for a living before I was alive, although for some reason I cannot remember a time when we had not known about his role in the Great War.

P1040720 (2).JPGWith my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, early 1970s.

According to Smith’s New Survey of London Life and Labour, mentioned above, a tram conductor working for the London County Council in the early 1930s would have been paid around 72 shillings a week* (with a penny bonus per day for an accident-free day). He was expected to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, completing a 48-hour week. Holiday pay was given for a fortnight every year (starting after the first year’s service), and there was a staff benevolent fund of which most were subscribers, allowing payouts in times of hardship (employees payed in a penny a day, which was matched by the employer). In addition to this, there was also voluntary schemes with staff-organised friendly societies.

*This amount could be augmented by Sunday and public holiday bonuses, as well as extra earnings for split shifts.

All this would have been a far cry from the situation which existed before the war, where casual labour would have been more prevalent, and men would sleep out at night near to the stables and garages, hoping for paid work the following day. As Sidney had experience of these conditions at the docks, before enlisting in the 19th Hussars, he would have been grateful to find this improvement in working conditions that social reformers, such as Sir Hugh Lewellyn Smith, had brought about.

During the 2nd World War, my now middle-aged grandfather continued to work as a tram conductor (a reserved occupation), while Edith and the three children were eventually all evacuated to the Somerset village of East Coker, this story being the starting point for my genealogical quest (see In my Beginning is my End). Up until the that time, they appear to have been a close family unit, and Sidney was also used to making regular trips to Thornton Heath to visit his older brother, Arthur, and his family.

Perhaps this was because Arthur had also experienced life in the Western Front, spending the final year of the conflict as a prisoner of war in Germany. In addition, their middle brother, James Francis Skelton (who was named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively) had been killed in September 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres, leaving behind a young widow and baby who lived in Arthur’s household during and after the war, becoming a mother figure to the children when Arthur’s wife Harriet died of breast cancer at the age of 41 in 1925. James (nicknamed Ginger, presumably on account of having red hair) had been in the Royal West Surrey Regiment along with Arthur after they both signed up at the outbreak of war. 

This loss no doubt brought the two remaining brothers closer together, particularly as they would have known of the horrors that James went through in the mud of Flanders. In addition, one of their three step-brothers, Peter Pushman, was killed in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. (Records indicate that their other two step-brothers – George and Bertie Pushman – seem to have survived the war).

In the course of my research for this post, I discovered that James Skelton’s name is inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial, near to where he was killed at Passchendaele, while Peter Pushman is commemorated at the earlier (pre-1917) memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres. I doubt that any of the family has been to visit these sites, so I have already planned to make the trip next year – something I can perhaps do for my grandfather, who possibly would never have wanted to return to Ypres*. As Arthur’s youngest son, Peter Sidney (born in February 1915) appears to be named after both Peter Pushman and my grandfather, I believe this indicates that Arthur was close to his step-brother. Peter was only a year older than Sidney, and they had lived in the same household from a young age, so there may have also been a strong bond between them.

*I am delighted to have since discovered (see comments) that one of Arthur’s grandaughters attended a ceremony in Tyne Cot last year to honour the fallen, in which James’ name was read out. It is wonderful to think this young man has not been forgotten, even though he has been ‘lost’ to living memory.

AWM_E01202-L

CEM1988316_1436080540

tyne-cot-cem-2015-n13_orig (2)

tyne-cot-cemetery-belgium-123rf-15203002-rf_tablet.jpgTyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial over the last century

Despite the fact that my grandmother was not so happy about Sidney’s trips to Thornton Heath (she was none too keen on Arthur, I believe), my aunt has fond memories of spending time with her cousins, which I have mentioned before (see The Two Arthurs). However, all these visits came to an end when the next war broke out and were never re-established. As my aunt once wrote: the war seemed to be the beginning of time – what happened before was rather like a dream.

After 1945, things changed completely for the family. My aunt married her teenage sweetheart from East Coker and became a teacher, the young couple living first with my grandparents (as was normal at the time), before setting up home nearby.  The family had been rehoused (their West Norwood ‘dream home’ had also been bombed during the Blitz) in Teddington, temporarily at Bushy Park Road until they moved to Bishop’s Grove, where they remained until the early 1970s.

For my father, who’d spent the majority of the war as an evacuee in Somerset, Teddington was not a place which held memories or old friends. He was not particularly close to his sister, and the seven-year gulf between him and his younger brother was not surmountable until later in life. My own belief is that there was a feeling of impermanence about the family at this time: the halcyon family years of the 1930s were long gone, and the children were now growing up and had to find their own way in the new post-war world. Like many families, the war changed the dynamics of family relationships, the consequences of which I believe have rippled down to the next generations.

For my grandparents, the years immediately following the Second World War were mainly about helping to look after my aunt’s three young children (at least for my grandmother) while later in retirement Sidney threw himself into woodwork and gardening and learning to drive, as well as having a mysterious part-time job in the neighbourhood which no-one alive can now remember (although it possibly involved joinery). But it illustrates the fact that Sidney liked being busy, making and mending, and co-operating with others. Whether this was his personality or because of his time in the army, or both, it is difficult to say.

P1070475 (2)With their new Morris car, Sid and Edie Skelton, Hayling Island, 1955

I think of Grandad Skelton now as an ‘old school’ pensioner: the type I remember from my childhood who was always working on allotments or building or painting things. These men would invariably always wear a checked flat cap, have rolled up shirtsleeves and a handknitted tank top sweater in a muddy colour or with a fair isle pattern. Shapeless grey or brown trousers were often held up with braces, while strange contraptions kept up woollen socks and held back unruly shirtsleeves. Long johns were worn under trousers in winter, but apart from that the uniform did not seem to change much with the seasons. Whether at the beach with us in summer, or walking through Bushy Park in autumn, collecting conkers, the outfit was always the same.

P1040559 (3)Grandad Skelton in his pensioner’s ‘uniform’, c1967 (age 75)

While it seems strange to imagine my grandfather sporting the jeans and fleece combo of today’s pensioners, it seems stranger still to think that all our allotments, sheds and parks were once full of old men who had served at the Western Front. Now that there are no veterans left – and we are fast approaching the same scenario for the 2nd World War – it is hard to imagine that communities were once full of ex-soldiers who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare, and yet were mostly quietly getting on with their retirement, appreciating their years of freedom, but certainly aware of the fact that this was something many of their fellow servicemen had been denied.

Although it is common knowledge that most returning veterans did not want to talk about the war to their families, I have since come across the theory that this was not necessarily simply because they did not want to relive the horrors, as previously assumed, but more due to the fact that those who had not experienced life on the Western Front could not be expected to understand what they had gone through. Yet, amongst themselves old soldiers would privately reminisce, particularly about those who had not survived the conflict. And I believe it was this bond which held Sidney and Arthur together during the interwar years.

As I look through the few photographs I have of my grandfather, I realise that he never seemed to look terribly happy – always a little uncomfortable, never smiling. But I do not want to leave my readers with the sense that Sidney was permanently melancholic. So I have managed to unearth a rare image in which he seems to be genuinely relaxed: one which which was taken on a summer’s day just a couple of years before he died in 1974 at the age of 82.

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Wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2018

 

 

 

 

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I Remember, I Remember . . .

I remember, I remember

The house where I was born

The little window where the sun came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon

Nor brought too long a day,

But now I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away!

Thomas Hood (1826)

The day I came across this poem by Thomas Hood in an anthology, it gave me a strange feeling – as if a voice was speaking to me from the past. I knew I’d heard those lines somewhere before, but couldn’t quite place them. Perhaps it was something we’d had to learn at school and read out in morning  assembly? Or maybe it was in one of the children’s poetry collections we were given for Christmas? But after a while I began to hear the voice of my father, reciting the poem in that slightly hammy way of his which always made us laugh. The words were faint at first, but grew louder in my head until I could hear his South London accent almost as though he were in the room. Yet however hard I tried, I could only ever hear him saying the first three lines over and over again.

As a child I’d presumed he’d made the poem up himself, just as he often came out with his own jokey rhymes to amuse us. Then I realised that most likely he had been the one who’d studied it at school, and the memory had stayed with him since (as is often the case with poetry rote-learned when young). And it was obvious that as an adult he would have realised the final lines of the first verse might have sounded rather macabre to children growing up in times when death in childhood was not a common occurrence.

The poem started me thinking about the places where we are born. I knew from my father’s birth certificate that (despite him fancifully telling my mother he was from Blackheath for some inexplicable reason), that he’d taken his first breath in a crumbling mid-Victorian terraced house in Brixton. A house which had neither electricity nor an indoor toilet. A house that had afforded him a view of the Crystal Palace burning down in 1936 from the upstairs bedroom. A house which, when my grandfather had the chance to buy the freehold for around £100 in 1938, was condemned out of hand by his brother Arthur (a ‘builder’, of whom my grandmother was rather suspicious). I knew those details because my aunt – who’d also been born in the house – had written to tell me all this when she first discovered I’d been delving into the family history. Her letter, which contained snippets of intriguing information about the family, ended with the ominous words . . . the war seemed to be the beginning of time – what happened before was rather like a dream.

My grandmother, Edith Stops, outside the house at 95 Denmark Rd, Camberwell (circa 1910)
My grandmother, Edith Skelton (neé Stops), outside 95 Denmark Rd (which seems to be collapsing even then), circa 1910 (c) Margaret Andrews 

So my grandparents never owned a house (the war put paid to that, amongst other things), and were of the generation that saw nothing unusual in this. But it was probably just as well my grandfather did not risk buying 95 Denmark Road as the street was eventually badly bombed in an air raid, and today the road is mostly home to post-war housing association blocks. However, by the time the Luftwaffe were preparing for their assault on London,  the family had already been allocated a semi in Durning Road on the Bloomfield Estate – a  1920s cottage-style garden development near to Gypsy Hill, built on the site of the former Bloomfield Hall. Over seventy years later, my aunt could still remember the move with affection: It was like paradise. We had electric lights! We had a bathroom! And wonder of wonders we had a through way from the front garden to the back garden, and we all loved it.

 

The house in West Norwood today
The ‘luxury’ council house in Durning Road, West Norwood today (now privately owned)

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, for our story starts in Fulham in another terraced house where my grandmother, Edith Stops, and her two older brothers were born in the 1890s, and where to all accounts the family had led an untroubled life, and one typical of late Victorian artisans.

My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops, was a blacksmith and wheelwright by profession. His father, William Stops (also a wheelwright), had come to London from Wendover in Buckinghamshire and had settled in the Hackney area, siring a family of seven children, six of whom were male.  Thomas, one of the middle sons, married Harriet Burnell in Wandsworth in 1887 at the age of thirty-four. Harriet, who was originally from Somerset, had left school at the age of twelve to take up a position as a domestic servant in her native Highbridge, and had eventually moved to London: the 1881 census showed that she worked for a corn merchant and his young family in Camberwell (although if she were typical of the period, she probably moved employers several times). Thomas and Harriett were both in their thirties when they married, perhaps marrying later for financial reasons in a bid to rid themselves of the poverty into which they’d been born, and they settled into their two-storied house on part of a new estate of Victorian terraces off the Wandswoth Road, raising three children after a six year hiatus which was no doubt unplanned and unexpected!

According to Charles Booth, who was prowling around the area at about this time creating his poverty mapsThe main feature of Fulham is its newness. Twenty years ago it hardly existed. There is still a fair amount of open space in the form of market gardens at the western extremity and private houses and grounds at the southern extremity, but each year both are eaten into by the builder with amazing avidity. He went on to say: The new tenants come from every part of London, especially from South-west London, drawn hither by the fact that there are houses to be had and that they are suited to their needs.

By ‘their needs’, I am assuming he is referring to the affordable rents, and the fact that the area was regarded as a reasonably respectable part of town, although he does go on to mention that as regards proximity to work, Fulham is at a disadvantage for it is hardly possible to be in London and further away from the City. For Thomas Stops this wasn’t a problem in any case, as he  worked locally as a coachman and blacksmith.

However, in 1906, this family idyll came to an abrupt end when Thomas’s life was cut short through contracting tuberculosis in his early fifties, leaving the widowed Harriet with three children to care for. The family had already moved to Denmark Road by this point, and Thomas died in the nearby Lambeth workhouse infirmary. Despite the grim-sounding name, attending the hospital attached to the local workhouse was relatively common in those pre-NHS days, and simply meant the patients did not have the means to pay for private healthcare. Nevertheless, it is also likely that the family had fallen on hard times, which had perhaps precipitated their move to Lambeth in the first place. Thomas’s failing health may have been the cause of this, and is a  salient reminder of how insecure life was for even the ‘respectable’ working classes at that time.

After her husband’s death, Harriet took in boarders to help pay the rent, as many other householders did at that time. She remained at 95 Denmark Road, living with her married daughter and family, and survived long enough to have given my father a vague memory of an old lady dressed in black who sat in a chair in a corner of the living room.

The Stops Family, 1909, 'Taken soon after father died' (c) Margaret Andrews
The Stops Family, ‘Taken soon after father died’ (c) Margaret Andrews

The two old photographs above – which no-one in my immediate family had ever seen before – were sent to me by Margaret Andrews, grand-daughter of Thomas Stops (my grandmother’s oldest brother). Margaret was carrying out genealogical research into the Stops family at the same time as I had returned to my own investigations, and it was a serendipitous on-line ‘meeting’ which eventually led to me receiving these lost images that illuminated the unknown (and hitherto unimagined) childhood of my grandmother. This unexpected glimpse into her early life gave me an almost vertiginous feeling of falling back through a rip in time. Could it really be that I was seeing my long-dead grandmother rise up again in front me as an Edwardian child?

For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother  standing at the gate. My gaze was drawn to the blinds and net curtains at the windows; the  plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading?

I thought too about the wary-looking girl who stood there, feet splayed out in front of her in a way that reminded of my grandmother in the later years of her life, lumbering flat-footed through Kew Gardens, her handbag held at her side as if it were a lump of wood. Graceful she was not! But it was hard to imagine the dumpy old lady with the dimpled arms and the long yellow teeth as this gangly pre-teen, arrested forever in a single moment in a springtime over a century ago. On that day she is standing half-way between the house and the street,  poised on the cusp between girlhood and adolescence. We do not know if she is going out – perhaps to run an errand for her mother – or whether she is waiting for a friend or relative. Is she still unsure about a fatherless future on the other (wrong?) side of the river, where lodgers come and go (not realising that one day her future husband will be among them)? Is it one of her beloved brothers who is taking her picture, calling out to her as he presses the shutter? Edie, smile, will you!, laughing at his little sister’s seriousness and the way she grips the iron railing as if to stop herself from toppling backwards into a precarious past.

And it is that wistfulness which seems to be reflected in her eyes in the second photograph a studio image of a family grieving, which may seem strange to us today. Harriet is in black, looking slightly out-dated for the period, and holding something in her hands that could be a reference to her departed husband. Brother Tom, in long trousers, already seems to be taking on the role of protector to his younger siblings, his expression emanating a slight air of detachment from the whole palaver associated with the rituals of the photographer’s studio.

Every time I look at this photograph I am drawn to the arm that Edith has placed tentatively around her brother’s shoulders and the funny twisted necklace at her throat. I want to tell her that everything will be fine – she will keep her big brothers, despite the awful war they will fight in. This future war will even give her a chance to forge a short career as a telephonist. And later, when it is all over, she will meet a returning soldier who comes to board in the spare room at the house in Denmark Rd. Eventually she will go on to have two boys and a girl of her own with this, sometimes taciturn, man who has witnessed things of which he can never speak. And those children in turn will one day give her a brood of grandchildren to enrich her later years.

Edith Skelton (née Stops) in the garden of her own house in Hampton in 1963
Edith Skelton (née Stops) in the back garden of the house in Bishops Grove in 1963

So now we see Edith (or Edie as she was known as) over 50 years later in the garden of another house – the council house in Bishops Grove, Hampton where the family moved in 1948 (after renting two rooms at the top of a house in Teddington for two years after the war ended). They were lucky as houses were in short supply, but were determined to stay  near to my aunt, who had married and set up home in the area. The long years of conflict and the resulting evacuations and relocations had scattered everyone, and there were no strong familial ties in south-east London any more. In the end, my grandparents were to stay in this genteel corner of the capital, enjoying the post-war period of peace and prosperity, until their deaths in the 1970s.

But it is only in their very last house that I really remember them – a small, ground-floor retirement flat round the corner from Bishops Grove, where they moved during their final years. When we came down from Scotland to visit them (which was relatively infrequently), it was always a disappointment to me that the house held no memories of my father’s boyhood. In contrast, our McKay grandparents’ house in Edinburgh was full of traces of  our mother’s life as a young girl, and we delighted in the stories which connected our childhood to hers through a sense of place.

Now I realise that part of the feeling of being disconnected from my grandparents’ past, and that of my father’s, was because we had always visited them in that neutral, ‘story-free’ space. No family events had ever taken place in those bright, modern rooms. No pre-war possessions cluttered up the small flat (most of those having already been lost or destroyed through bombs or carelessness). Unlike the long-gone house in Denmark Road, it was a place which did not surrender any clues to what had happened before.

Edith_Xmas64
Edith Skelton (née Stops) with two of her seven grandchildren, Bishops Grove, Christmas 1964 (I am the baby on her lap)

Merry Christmas! from The Incidental Genealogist, December 2015.