Mumbles and scraps (Objects 170-171)

Going to Mumbles sketch

“Going to Mumbles, 1809”

Today’s objects are some sketches that I assume came from the 19th century residents of Llwyn Derw House, as featured in the previous post. The clue is in the inscriptions: in the charming pen and ink sketch above, the carriage’s passengers were apparently “Going to Mumbles” in 1809. So this was probably sketched by a member of the Horman-Fisher family who lived there then, or by one of their visitors.

This scrap of paper stuck on to a piece of cardboard shows a scene from another holiday and is inscribed “A Scrap from our Welsh Diary, 1862”:

Diary sketch

“A scrap from our Welsh Diary, 1862”

I like the pun on “scrap” here as the horses of the genteel riders appear to be having a wee skirmish with those of the passing Welsh ladies in their traditional hats. This one is signed “JJW” and also has a signature of “Maj H. Wilson” I think, added in pencil, not a name I recognise. On the reverse of this “scrap” however, is another, which seems to be a handwritten copy of the local newspaper report of Margaret Horman-Fisher’s wedding to William Fry:
Newspaper wedding reportThe full text reads:

Cambrian, Oct.12. 1877

Oystermouth. The marriage of William Fry esq. son of the late Wm Fry Esq of Portfield, Somersetshire, and Miss Margaret Jane Horman-Fisher, only daughter of S. Horman-Fisher, Esq. of LLwyn Derw, was solemnised in the parish church of Oystermouth on Wednesday morning. The bride, who was attired in a very handsome white satin dress, trimmed with Honiton lace, and orange blossoms, wearing a wreath of the same and a white veil, and followed by her six bridesmaids, in very pretty dresses of blue muslin, with wreaths of pear blossoms, and veils, each wearing a handsome gold bracelet, the gift of the bridegroom, was escorted up to the altar, where the bridegroom, with his best man and many other members of the two families had arrived a few minutes before, and occupied the seats in the chancel. The service was most impressively read by the Rev. H. Knight Eaton, vicar of Christchurch, Stafford, uncle of the bride, assisted by the Rev. Secretan Jones, vicar of Oystermouth, on returning to Llwyn Derw, breakfast was served to about forty, chiefly relatives of the bride and bridegroom. The presents were very numerous and handsome.”

This account ties in the Horman-Fishers with the Eaton family, who have also featured here and here. It’s nice to have these scraps of the past in my family archives, however distant these relatives may be, literally and figuratively, to my family and life today.


Posted in 19th century, Fry family, Horman-Fisher family, Paintings and sketches | Tagged | Leave a comment

House of Mystery, with a heart of oak (object no.169)

LLwyn Derw paintingThis oil painting of a country house used to hang in our much humbler family home, from the time Mum inherited it from Auntie in 1971, until her own death 30 years later. Prior to that it had hung on the walls of Derwen, Auntie’s house in Churt, so I have known the painting all my life. As with so many things, however, the painting was just “there”: literally part of the furniture, not something I ever thought to ask Mum about. This blog was partly born of all those unasked and unanswered questions: the ones that you never think to ask until after the only people who could answer them have gone. I wanted to document what I know of our family history before I too have taken these scraps of knowledge and memories to the grave.

As my brothers and I sorted out the contents of our childhood home when it was sold, many such questions arose amongst the boxes and newspaper. This painting, for instance: where was the house, why had the painting been treasured enough to keep? After some discussion we concluded it must be Bentworth Hall in Hampshire, stately home of Auntie’s relatives the Horman-Fisher family. None of us had ever seen it so it seemed a safe assumption; we were not aware of any other stately homes in the family apart from squire Stephen Lane’s Worton Hall in Isleworth, which we knew from Mum’s description to have a grand sweeping staircase at the entrance, which this house didn’t seem to have (More of Squire Lane and Worton Hall here). Another reason for our assumption was that in retirement Mum had written to the then owners of  Bentworth to see if they wanted to buy various paintings that had come from there, including  a small painting of the Hall itself. This must be it, we concluded.

So, when I arranged to visit the current occupants of Bentworth Hall when I happened to be in the area a few years ago, I took along this painting to show them, along with other bits and pieces of Horman-Fisher history. As soon as we approached the house up the long drive it was clear how wrong we had been: this square brick pile with its stumpy chimneys bore no resemblance to the grand building before us, with its imposing 19th century elegance and  tall chimneystacks. This was slightly embarrassing but my hosts seemed to enjoy the other items I had brought.

It was a few more years after this, when I began sorting through the family archives in earnest to write this blog, that I came across the actual painting of Bentworth Hall. It is a simple watercolour on a scrap of torn card, not even framed, but instantly recognisable as the house I had seen in Hampshire:

So that solved one mystery, but left another unanswered. What was the house in the oil painting? For a few more years the picture remained wrapped up and stored somewhere and forgotten about, ending up eventually with me. Even then it stayed in its wrapping as I had no room for another painting on my wall and it meant little to me, although, hoarder that I am, I was still loathe to part with it.

Then 2 weeks ago, Brother 1 and his wife came to visit me for his 60th birthday.  We spent a pleasant day trawling through old family photographs and ephemera. Looking at some of the oldest photographs of Auntie’s Fry family cousins, my brother suddenly recognised the house in these photos:
Llwyn Derw A colour tinted version confirmed it:

Llwyn Derw in colourThe house in the painting is Llwyn Derw, the Swansea childhood home of Elsie Fry, Auntie’s cousin and lifelong companion.

LLwyn Derw paintingThe unsigned painting may have been the work of Elsie’s mother Margaret (nee Horman-Fisher), as she was, like many ladies of her time and class, an accomplished artist; you can see more of her work on display here in the  Usmeum.

I am grateful to a reader for contacting me when I wrote about about the Frys and  Llwyn Derw House in another post. Carol Powell, editor of the History of Mumbles website, knew the house well, having lived nearby for many years. Sadly it has now been demolished to make way for modern housing, but she kindly sent me this photograph of the house as she knew it in the 1980s:

LLwyn Derw house 1980sIt must have been much extended from the Fry family days. Here is another photograph from my family archives, showing the rear view of the house as it was then:

Llwyn Derw rear view..and another showing their lavishly furnished drawing room:

Llwyn Derw interior..and the grounds, simply labelled “Llwyn Derw Drive”:

Llwyn Derw DriveI gather that Elsie and her 3 sisters enjoyed a very happy childhood there, so I imagine that the house her father later built for her mother (in which I spent so many happy childhood holidays) was named “Derwen” in tribute to the family seat. Ms Powell tells me that the word “Llwyn” in Welsh means grove and ‘Derw’ means oak – so Llwyn Derw = Oak Grove, whilst “Derwen” means oak tree. A fitting symbol of endurance for a family history blog.

I am glad we finally cleared up the mystery of the house in the painting (which is now going up on my wall), and that we hadn’t gone too far wrong in our original guess. Only about 164 miles, and one generation.

Frys at Llwyn Derw Wood

“The Frys at Llwyn Derw Wood”




Posted in 19th century, Fry family, Horman-Fisher family, Paintings and sketches, Photographs | Tagged | Leave a comment

Blood brothers

Me and my brothers 1960sToday is Brother 1’s 60th birthday. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the above photo was taken, in the early 1960s. He is on the right, Brother 2 in the natty bow tie on the left, myself in the middle. I find it amusing that my eldest brother, who has always seemed to me like a classic English gentleman, with his tweeds and niceties and eccentricities, was born on St George’s Day, while I with my arguably more Celtic love of drinking and carousing was born on St Andrew’s day. In many ways he seems a throwback to our posh English grandfather, whilst I feel more affinity with our Glaswegian relatives. (Brother 2, the middle one, seems to fit in quite comfortably wherever he chooses to be). That said, Brother 1 did meet his French wife at Scottish country dancing classes, so I am probably oversimplifying things. In honour of this auspicious occasion, which we will celebrate later today, here is a post about brothers.

Brother 1 was named after our mother’s only, much loved brother, who was lost at sea when stationed in west Africa in 1942. I have written about him before, so this post is by way of an update. My brother is the custodian of the letters he sent from the Navy just before and during his posting, which he has recently shared with me. Knowing his fate, they make for very poignant reading. Some are reproduced in the links below. Even more poignant, for me, are the words my brother wrote when he sent the scanned documents:
“How would things have turned out if we’d had another uncle?  I understand why Mum was so affected.  I feel a personal affinity with him – the curse of being named after and forever compared.”

Mum's brother

Mum’s brother aged 21, shortly before his death.

I had no idea he felt like that, but I understand perfectly what he means when he wonders what might have been. Mum was very close to her brother who by all accounts would have been the perfect, funny, loving, supportive uncle. At the time of his death he was engaged to a local girl and would probably have stayed living nearby, so we would have had close cousins and extended family growing up. We were fond enough of our aunts and uncles and cousins on Dad’s side but didn’t see much of them as we didn’t live very close (strangely I am closest to the one who lived furthest away, in Glasgow, as we were nearest in age and wrote often). It would have made all the difference to Mum as well to have had her dear brother to support her through the difficult times in her life, such as the loss of her mother and sudden re-appearance of their estranged father soon after. My Dad was solid as a rock in support of her but she must have felt her brother’s loss extra keenly at these times. And I think that she may have been a different person herself – more light-hearted perhaps, carrying  less of the weight of the world on her weary shoulders, had she not also carried this heavy burden of loss.

Mum and her brother as children

Mum and her brother

Some of the letters he wrote to her and their mother from the HMS Edinburgh Castle can be found on the links below:

Uncle’s letters 9 August 1942 at sea 3 August 1942 at sea

My Mum and grandmother had seen him not long before he left and he promised to send them a telegram to let them know when he arrived safely in Freetown. When a telegram duly arrived they opened it eagerly, only to find this inside:
15 August 1942 Telegram

One can only imagine the shock. And the grief, especially when this telegram arrived a few days later:

1942 Telegram

The following tributes from his mess mates and the ship chaplain are some of the few scraps of evidence we have of the person he was, and the uncle he could have been:
Tributes from friends 16 August 1942 from G Gardner messmate 3 September 1942 from Chaplain

In my earlier post about Mum’s brother I wrote about an unforgettable experience I had in 2010, when I travelled to Sierra Leone as a volunteer with a library project and was able to visit his grave. As the first member of his family, indeed to my knowledge the first person ever to visit him in his final resting place, it was a deeply emotional occasion for me. As a a result of this project I ended up leaving my library career in academia for a job with a charity that supports libraries in developing countries. When I joined the charity 5 years ago we did not have any programmes in Sierra Leone, but last year we were able to send books there for the first time since 2007, and this January I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country again on a monitoring trip. This second journey was deeply significant for me for more than one reason. In 2010 I had visited with an organisation that was trying to establish a library in the Freetown central prison. In the intervening years the library has been established, but had only a few out of date books. In my new job I was able to connect the dots and arrange for a donation of new books to the prison via one of our distribution partners. By sheer coincidence, my monitoring trip in January coincided with the official handover ceremony of the books we had sent last year. I was able to visit the prison library I had helped, in a small way,  to set up, and meet some of the prisoners whose lives will be changed, with opportunities for literacy, education and (virtual) escape, by having access to these books.

And I was able to visit the grave again, and this time I took a flowering bush to plant in his memory. Mum’s brother is buried in the Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery at King Tom in Freetown, a beautiful, tranquil spot overlooking the sea with its fierce undercurrents that claimed his life. It is immaculately maintained, with sparkling headstones arraigned with military precision commemorating many European, north American and Antipodean people who have lost their lives there, not only those in the armed forces: there are merchant seamen and civilians buried here too. My taxi driver at first took me by mistake to the public cemetery, which was a stark contrast of unkempt, overgrown  graves with broken and vandalised stones and evidence of unpleasant activity.  He was astonished when we found the right cemetery, never having been aware of its existence before. I was pleased to find my uncle had a new headstone in place of the broken one I found there last time. The cemetery caretaker helped me to plant the bush and promised me faithfully he would water it every day; he seemed genuinely pleased that someone had come from Britain to visit a relative there, and evidently took pride in his work.

Planting my uncle's flower

Planting my uncle’s flower

King Tom Cemetery

King Tom Cemetery

I have never been as close to either of my brothers as our Mum was to hers, but blood, as they say, is thicker than water.

Happy birthday, Brother 1: you’ve done alright.

Me and my brothers 2011

With my brothers at my 50th birthday party in 2011: a rare event for the 3 of us to be together, and even rarer for Brother 1 (left) to have a pint of beer!

Mum Grannie Brother 1

Mum with her mother and first born son

Posted in 1930-1949, 1950s, 1960s, Lane family, Letters, cards and documents, Mum, Peggy Lane, nee Peigi Murray (maternal grandmother), Photographs | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Common People (objects 157-159)

Paxton Chadwick pony lino cut

“Jill” by Paxton Chadwick

This lovely lino cut of a Dartmoor pony by Paxton Chadwick is one of my favourite pictures. It was given to me for my 18th birthday by the artist’s widow, Lee Chadwick. It wasn’t framed but she had added a note with her late husband’s framing instructions: it should have a white frame with a grey mount, with more space below than above the picture. The framers followed his instructions to the letter, which pleased Lee, whose note, I remember, told me that “he had an eye for such things.”

I never met “Chad”, as the artist was known; he died the year I was born. Lee came into our lives a few years later, when her son Peter lodged in our attic as a student, and she became one of my parents’ closest friends for the rest of their lives. Jill, the pony model for the picture, had been Peter’s childhood pet who lived in a field next to their home on Leiston Common in Suffolk (Jill’s other job was to help preserve this plot of natural heathland, as myxamatosis had decimated the local rabbit population that formerly grazed it). Years later, in 1981, myself and a friend had an adventurous holiday camping out in what was still known as “Jill’s Field” for a couple of weeks.

“Jill’s Field” in 1981

We loved it there, using it as  a base to explore the local countryside and sights such as Aldeburgh and Saxmundham. The wildlife was abundant, with swallows nesting nearby and a pair of ancient tortoises living in the back garden.


One of Lee’s tortoises enjoying a dandelion

It wasn’t the first time I had stayed in Leiston, as we had a couple of family holidays at Lee’s place when I was a child. The Chadwicks had designed the bungalow themselves in the 1940s as an artist’s studio, flooded with light from all sides (essential as Leiston had no electricity then and Chad worked by paraffin lamp),  and surrounded by the expanse of wild Suffolk Sandlings heathland that is Leiston Common. I remember one late summer holiday when I slept in a tiny room full of ripening apples, a smell that still takes me back to that magical time.

Lee Chadwick

Lee Chadwick outside her home in 1981

Of all my parents’ many and diverse friends, I think Lee Chadwick was my favourite. She was a truly remarkable and special person, who lived an extraordinary life. Born Lee Bosence in Battersea in 1909 to a family of herbalists, she developed an early passion for nature and wildlife when the family moved to Surrey at the outbreak of the first world war. She studied English and Psychology at Bedford College in London and her first career as a teacher brought her to Leiston in 1937, to teach at the progressive Summerhill school founded by A.S. Neill. It was here that she met Chad, who taught art at the school, as well as being a member of the Communist party who had succeeded, against all odds, in being elected to the formerly Tory-held local council. Lee joined the Party around this time and also served as a Communist councillor for Leiston: a considerable achievement in such a Tory stronghold.  (Like my parents, she left the Party in 1986 and joined the short-lived Democratic Left, writing a regular nature column for their newspaper Seven Days).

During the Second World War Lee worked in the Garrett Engineering Works in nearby Sizewell and in the Land Army,  while Chad served in the armed forces (which also requisitioned their house on the common for the duration of the war). She also became a full-time local organiser for the Party at this time, as well as secretary of the East Anglian Federation of Women for Peace. After the war they had their son, and Lee raised him plus a flock of free range chickens on their land, while Chad became a successful nature illustrator for Penguin and later wrote and illustrated the Pantoscope series produced by Cassell. His illustrations were exquisite in their detail and sensitivity (there is a nice tribute here). Sadly, Chad died of cancer in 1961, and Cassell asked Lee to complete the text for the series. Her research for these booklets led Lee to embark on her second career: by the time we met her a few years later, she was a published book author.

As a child, I loved to write stories and dreamed of being a writer myself one day, so to meet a real live author was very exciting, even if she did write non-fiction rather than “stories.” Her books included the agricultural study Seeds of Plenty in a Hungry World (Methuen, 1968); a book about Lighthouses and Lightships (Dobson, 1971) that I remember my Dad ordering from the local library when it came out (but I was sad to see it withdrawn from stock some years later when I worked there, never having been borrowed); an account of her Cuban Journey (Dobson, 1975); and the culmination of her lifelong fascination and love for the Suffolk countryside, In Search of Heathland (Dobson, 1982). Lee took a keen interest in my writing and always made time to read my stories and talk to me about it whenever she visited. She had such a gentle grace about her, seeming so deeply fascinated in whatever you had to say that even a small child like me could feel that my words and opinions were just as important and valid as those of the adults around me. Later when I studied comparative religion at university we had many long philosophical discussions on the topic.

We shared a love of nature and the “ordiments” that she gave me tended to be more scientifically interesting than most of my china animals: a polished conch shell, a tiny tortoise made of walnut shells, a lump of teal green copper ore (none of these have survived in the Usmeum, but I remember them well). This blog is the nearest I have ever come to those childhood ambitions, but I like to think Lee would have approved of my efforts. (I know she would have loved the campaign to save our local library, which saw me sleeping there for a few nights during an occupation).

By the 1980s Lee was physically quite frail, but this didn’t stop her determined campaign against the building of the Sizewell nuclear power station on her beloved heathland. Although the campaign failed to stop it being built, the subsequent publication of her meticulously researched book led to Suffolk County Council refusing planning permission for a third reactor at Sizewell.

In Search of HeathlandI now have my parents’ copy of In Search of Heathland, and looking at it now, I wish I had paid more attention at the time and discussed it with Lee. It is a beautiful book which incorporates exquisite pull-out illustrations, one of which, British Reptiles, is from an unfinished work on British flora and fauna that Chad was working on when he died:

Paxton Chadwick British SnakesLee had such a good relationship with her publisher, Dennis Dobson, that she was invited to holiday with the Dobsons at their home, which was then the ancient Brancepeth Castle in Durham – and she took my parents along for the trip! They had a wonderful time, as they did on many other memorable holidays with Lee, to whom they were both very close. They travelled to Hungary together to visit my parents’ friends, and in the late 1980s they drove up to Scotland on an epic journey to Mum’s relatives on the Isle of Lewis. I have some lovely photos of the 3 of them on that holiday:

Dad and Lee Scotland

Dad and Lee at the border

Mum and Lee at Stornoway Harbour

Lee and Mum at Stornoway Harbour

Lee surveys the Lewis machair


Last Christmas when I visited the Northampton branch of the Usmeum (Brother 2’s house) I noticed something on the mantelpiece that I recognised from our home:

Times Challenger tankard

The tankard commemorates an important workers’ struggle, but inside I found a note that marks something more personal:

Lee Chadwick note

“To commemorate a memorable husband/wife partnership for peace and socialism & in appreciation of many kindnesses to Lee Chadwick and Peter, all good wishes for 1980”

For me, this 38 year old slip of paper expresses perfectly the connection that Lee shared with my parents, a friendship rooted deep in the solidarity of their beliefs.

Lee became increasingly frail in her 80s, but no less active. In the end, she outlived both my parents, having treated her heart condition with a deep relaxation therapy that enabled her to stay on in her beloved home until her death in 2003 at the age of 93. My eldest niece was born around this time and we all travelled to Suffolk for a special memorial ceremony at the studio, where Peter, a successful artist himself, now lives with his wife Bridget.

I treasure many special memories of Lee’s long friendship with my family; these items represent just a few. I feel very privileged to have had such an uncommonly interesting and inspirational person in my life.

Dad and Lee

A celebration meal with Dad and Lee at our home

Lee Chadwick

Posted in 1930-1949, 1960s, 1970s, Books, Communism, Dad, Mum, Paintings and sketches, Parents | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Miss You (object no.156)

Porcelain calfThis little porcelain calf ornament is another one of the china animals from my collection that I’ve kept for sentimental reasons, even though this one was not a gift from a relative or friend or anyone else: I bought it for myself, on a sixth form college student union trip to Copenhagen when I was 17. The sentiment is for the friend I went with, who sadly is no longer with us. Today would have been her 55th birthday,  and I have spent this lovely spring day going through the meagre collection of letters and photos that remain from our 40 year friendship, a friendship that began at nursery school and only ended with her untimely death aged 43.

Michele was a sweet child who loved animals, always out walking her dog Judy on Barnes common because her parents wanted her out of the house. An unwanted and unplanned child, born late to parents who had already raised one daughter, the lack of love in her life had tragically predictable consequences. But I loved her, and I miss my old friend deeply.

We went to the same nursery school, primary school and Sunday school, but we didn’t become close friends until a mutual love of pop music brought us together at secondary school. By the time we were 16 we were going out to see bands together, much to my parents’ disapproval: they saw Michele as a bad influence, which, in a way, she was, an influence for which I remain eternally grateful. I was a pony obsessed goody two shoes until, in my 15th summer, a DJ saved my life, and it was Michele who took me under her wing and mentored me through this new world of fashion and pop.

Barnes School class of 77

Our class in 1977. Goody two shoes on the far left is me, complete with white socks and Blue Peter badge. Michele is 3rd from right, with a trendy cardigan for a blazer.

We were regulars at the Kensington music pub, though we had just missed the heyday of pub rock when the likes of Dr Feelgood and Brinsley Schwarz played there. Unlike me, Michele had a record player in her tiny bedroom in one of the railway cottages on Beverley Path (council houses then, millionaire’s residences now) and we would line up the latest singles from Fleetwood Mac or David Bowie or Santana and sing along as we prepared for our Saturday night out. One favourite was the Rolling Stones’ Miss You which she bought when it was released and played over and over again. We dreamed of leaving home, getting jobs and sharing a flat, so that we could go out every night to gigs and parties just like our older friends did. By the time I went to sixth form college to study for my A levels, Michele, not being the academic type,  had already left school behind for a full time job at Hammersmith council, and she grew up fast. By the time I reached my 18th birthday, finished my A levels and planned to leave home, she had beaten me to it, and moved in with her musician boyfriend, a man 16 years older than her who had played bass with many of the greats (I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops, backing Dusty Springfield. My mate’s boyfriend on TOTP!!). He didn’t like her going out with her young friends, so we didn’t see so much of each other, but we stayed in touch. Sadly he was the first, and by no means the worst, of several men who controlled or abused her in various ways for the rest of her life. There were plenty of happy times, the memories of which I treasure, especially when she had her adored children. But eventually life took its toll, and we lost her that tragic Whistun bank holiday weekend in 2005.

But before all that, we did have this one brief teenage holiday together, a few days on a ferry to Denmark. It was really a 4 day party on a boat, and we had a lot of fun, especially in the disco bar: Michele loved to dance. We befriended a gang of boys who were real clowns, and kept us entertained with their antics, which included streaking around the boat (well, this was the 1970s). We stayed friends with “King Kev and his Merry Mooners” for some time afterwards, they even came to my 18th birthday party later that year, dressed in kilts in honour of its being St Andrews’ Day. The friendship eventually petered out, and I sometimes wonder what became of those crazy guys.

We had just 3 hours to explore Copenhagen when we got there, which included a tour of the famous porcelain works. Despite my new interests I had not yet outgrown my childhood collection of china animals and I spent ages choosing a new one, with a few pounds I had saved from my Saturday library job. I chose this sweet little calf, which I named Heidi. Michele chose a tiny mouse sitting on a cube of Swiss cheese, which, as I watched in horror, she quietly closed her hand around and slipped unseen into her bag. I was scandalised – she actually stole it! But that was Michele: no shame, no fear, but a heart of gold. She kept her little china mouse for years, and when she died, I inherited her pet, a silver grey gerbil named Pearl who had the run of my flat for the last year of her life. I’m glad I still have Heidi the calf to remind me of our teenage adventures.

Michele and twins

Michele with her twin daughters, and me, 1990s

Happy birthday, Michele. Girl, I miss you. X

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Ornaments ("ordiments") | Leave a comment

Elephant March (for Miles) (object 155)

Wade Elephant lineLike the animals in my previous post, this family of china elephants is another treasured “ordiment” from an “auntie,” Auntie Peggy, another Margaret who was not a real auntie but a close family friend. In my mind this charming quintet is always associated with the Jungle Book film, so perhaps she gave it to me shortly after we saw it at the cinema. Being animal mad I loved the film, and these elephants walking in a line reminded me of Colonel Hathi and his herd. I also thought they reflected my own family: Dad, Mum, and us 3 kids, with the little one (that’s me) bringing up the rear. This photo with a £2 coin gives an idea of the size:
Wade 1950s elephant familyThe second smallest has lost half his trunk, probably due to a run-in with Frisky; but for that, it seems this little porcelain family, made by Wade in the 1950s, might have been worth a fair few pounds. I doubt I could part with them though, as this “ordiment” is the only object I have that connects me with Auntie Peggy.

Auntie Peggy

Auntie Peggy (left) with my Grandad, Dad and brothers, 1960s

Like my Mum’s best friend Auntie Margaret, Dorothy “Peggy” Miles was a pioneering social worker, and I believe my parents became friends with her when she worked with Margaret as a house mother at a children’s home. She lived not far from us in Sheen, though her own home life was not reflected in this nuclear elephant family. Peggy was a single parent, raising her daughter Maggie alone after escaping from an abusive marriage.

[A side note here: It was only after my mother’s death, following a chance remark by  a friend at her funeral, that I realised something about my mum. The friend was paying tribute to my mother’s kindness, explaining that when her husband left her – a shocking and shameful thing back in the 1960s – Mum had been the first person to call round and offer help, because, coming from a “broken home” herself, she understood what the friend was going through. A penny dropped for me then, as I suddenly realised that, for that time, there were an unusually high number of single parent families in our social circle – all women whose husbands had left them, as my grandfather had left my Grannie when my Mum was young. This was no coincidence; my mum reached out to these women, whose children would often come to our house while they were out at work, and because no-one made a fuss or suggested there was anything wrong, it all seemed perfectly normal to us. It’s only with hindsight that I can see how unusual it was.]

Auntie Peggy was a lovely woman. Her softly spoken Yorkshire vowels carried a mischievous wit and limitless kindness. She had retired from work by the time I knew her, partly due to disability: she suffered from severe arthritis but never complained and was always active. She had a little blue “invalid carriage” that she drove everywhere and was much in demand as a babysitter, for us and for the Mitchell kids next door; I think she looked after us  every time my parents were out at Party meetings, and the occasional party. She would make us laugh, playing games with her walking stick. Eventually, sometime in the 1970s, she had a hip replacement (a new procedure then) and we were so amazed to see the miracle of our “crippled” Auntie Peggy able to run and even jump that we got her to run up and down the stairs over and over again just to prove it.

Peggy was known for her sense of humour and every birthday, without fail, she would find the perfect, jokey card for each of us. I still have a few in the archives:

Cards from Auntie PeggyWhen I was 6 years old my family went to Hungary on holiday for the second time. Our Hungarian friends had invited us out so that Brother 2 could spend the summer in a sanatorium at the top of Kekes mountain to treat his asthma.We had a wonderful holiday but I came home a week early with Dad, because I had a very important job to do: I was to be bridesmaid at the wedding of Peggy’s daughter Maggie. Maggie had been part of our family since she was a child herself, although I only knew her as a grown up, a super cool swinging 60s girl about town with a caramel coloured Mini and a deep resonant singing voice like Joan Baez. When she married Jim at the same Barnes church that my parents had been married in, I was thrilled to be part of the occasion, in my little turquoise dress, white satin shoes and gloves. Here I am, in Auntie Margaret’s photo album (the same one featured in my previous post):

Maggie's wedding photo

“The serious bridesmaid: Maggie’s wedding 1968”

Sadly the marriage didn’t last, but Maggie later found permanent happiness in her second marriage to Ken and a new life in Canada.

In 1980, aged 18, I left home, much to my parents’ distress, not to get married or attend university but to work in W.H. Smith, live in a squalid Brixton flat and go out to see as many bands and drink as much Guinness as I could manage. After 4 years of shop work I decided that university, free as it was in those happy days, wasn’t such a bad option and took myself off to Stirling for 4 magical years. In order to take up this opportunity, however, I had to come crawling back to my parents and ask them to take me back home. They did so with open arms – we had never fallen out and I still saw them most weekends – so in August 1984 I moved back into the family home. My homecoming coincided with Auntie Peggy coming to live with us, but for the saddest of reasons.

Peggy had been bravely fighting cancer for some time; a tumour had already taken one of her eyes and now the cancer had spread to her liver and become terminal. She was dying, and my Mum, who had already lost her best friend Margaret to cancer, would not let her die in a hospital. So Auntie Peggy moved into a divan bed in our sitting room, with its French windows opening onto the garden, for the final weeks of her life, tended by my mother and a Macmillan nurse. Our house filled up as Maggie and Ken came from Canada and Peggy’s brother Tom from Australia, to say their final goodbyes. Mine included: I can still remember those last chats I had with Auntie Peggy, how gentle and loving she was, as always. I confided in her my worries about moving back in with my parents and she simply said: “East west, home is best.” I kissed her forehead goodnight for the last time and 2 days later, having said goodbye to all of her loved ones,  she drifted away peacefully.

My diary of that time records those final days:

“Sunday 12th August: Got home just before dinner, so while the others were eating I kept Peggy company; found it much easier to talk to her. She can hardly speak but her mind is all there, still Peggy; she smiles and laughs despite her bedridden frailty. She is incredibly calm and has accepted her fate – I can’t…

Tuesday 14th August: It’s all over: Peggy’s gone. It should be a relief and a release but all I feel now is numb with shock and grief and drained of everything. The house is very sad. We all know we should be glad for her, happy that at last she’s free and at peace, but you can’t help grieving. Peggy was always there – life won’t be the same – it’s worst for Maggie, and for Mum. “

Maggie’s funeral flowers carried a card that said: “To Mum: my mentor and my best friend.” They were exceptionally close. It was a lovely thing that Mum did for her friend, and for Maggie as well, enabling an intimacy and peacefulness in Peggy’s final days that no hospital could have provided. Our house was home to many people over the 5 decades my parents lived in it, and though this was a sad time for everyone, it was also very special. I know how hurt my parents were that Maggie returned to Canada and never contacted them again. She had been like a daughter to them, but I guess after her mother’s death she couldn’t face her old life and just put it all behind her, us included. I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but it was a shame for my mum and dad; they missed her.

Peggy Miles was a remarkable woman, brave and funny and gentle and kind. A lovely Auntie to this child. I only wish that, like my Auntie Margaret,  we could have had the pleasure of her company for longer.

Auntie Peggy

Auntie Peggy

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Ornaments ("ordiments") | Tagged | Leave a comment

Rain dogs (objects 149-154)

Lead figurine dogs and umbrella This tiny lead ornament, which is less than 2 inches (5cm) high, is a precious souvenir of someone who was hugely important in my childhood (as well as offering an irresistible opportunity for me to use another favourite song title). Auntie Margaret gave me many animals for my collection of “ordiments” over the years; these little rain dogs, which must be over a century old now, were in fact a gift from her elderly parents. Margaret also gave me these two, which I named Terry and Patch, fellow survivors in the Usmeum:

china dogs

Terry and Patch

“Auntie” Margaret Press was not a relative, but was my Mum’s best friend since her school days. They had met when my Mum, Eleanor, started at a new school after the Lane family’s move to Barnes when she was 11, and they remained close friends and neighbours for the rest of Margaret’s life (Mum’s other close childhood friend,  Joan, having moved to Dorset when she married). Mum wrote about that time in her memoirs:

I was admitted to the second year class, Upper Third, of East Sheen County School for Girls, a grammar school in Hertford Avenue where I had a difficult time. Having missed the first year I had to spend the summer before joining the school having intensive coaching in maths and French in order to be standard on entry. As the only new girl I was subjected to unkind attention from much of the class but I made another good friend, Margaret Press, and we had a lot of fun, mostly harmless but sometimes ending in having to stand outside the Head’s room for punishment.

At the end of my first year there I noticed some girls making a note of my exam results as they were announced. Fortunately I had plenty of passes and to my amazement gained a credit for Art for a ghastly still-life painting. I probably failed history because I found having to learn lists of kings and battles so boring that most of that lesson was spent gazing out of the window where across the road cattle were grazing in the meadow belonging to the Priory.

The Art mistress was quite eccentric and seemed to be more absorbed in her own work than in observing the class, so one day Margaret and I hopped out of one of the windows, ducked past the music class, and spent the rest of the period larking about in the cloakroom. When the division bell sounded we walked into the classroom as the others were leaving, collected our belongings and walked out again without the teacher having missed us.

This is a lovely snapshot of Mum and Margaret’s schooldays. (Incidentally I attended the same school many years later, in its first year as Shene Comprehensive;  the cows were long gone by then. It is now an Academy, and before my time was Shene County Grammar School for boys, attended by my next door neighbour Alistair Mitchell. Alistair is still a friend and I went back there with him in recent years to see a gig by old boy Vic Godard, who also attended Westfields Primary. And yes, the above reference is to the famous Priory hospital in Roehampton. It’s a small world!)

Margaret with, I think, her brothers in 1946

Margaret with, I think, her brothers in 1946

Mum and Margaret Press

Margaret and my Mum in their youth

Margaret was a wonderful woman and the scene described above really captures her cheeky and take-no-prisoners attitude to life. She was extremely fond of us 3 kids, and whilst she never married or had children herself, she dedicated her life to helping other people’s children: especially those who had lost or been abandoned by those other people. I don’t know if Margaret’s single status was by choice or circumstance, there being few eligible men available after the second world war, but she never seemed troubled by it. I do know she had at least one marriage proposal, although she never knew that I knew.

Throughout my childhood Auntie Margaret lived just 2 streets away from us in Rectory Road, so we were always in and out of each others’ houses. One late evening when I was about 12 I heard her come in when I had already gone to bed. There was much commotion in the hallway below, so, curious, I crept out of bed and crouched on the stairs to hear Margaret’s deep voice announcing theatrically: “I had a proposal of MARRIAGE today!” It was her boss who, she went on to describe with equal parts delight and amusement, “Took me in his arms and said, ‘I need someone to look after me!'” My mum seemed thrilled at the news and they went inside and out of earshot. The proposal was never mentioned again. I like to think that my Auntie Margaret was a happily independent woman, as I have become myself at around the same age she was then, but I will never know for sure.

Margaret was certainly ahead of her time with her career. She trained as a social worker in the 1950s and specialised in child social care. She was one of those pioneering social workers of that generation who revolutionised children’s homes, changing them from formal, almost military  institutions to places that resembled actual homes, with “house parents” rather than prison wardens. We now know that terrible abuse took place in these children’s homes too, but the intention of people like Margaret Press was good: she really cared about those children. My own parents, still childless after their first few years of marriage, considered adopting a child and became “social parents” to a girl called Amy who lived in one of those homes. She had been abandoned by her own parents, and my Mum and Dad befriended her, looking after her and taking her out at weekends. They were hoping to adopt Amy, but when she turned 14 and was old enough to work, she was reclaimed by her birth parents. At that time, parents had the right to do this, regardless of how they had treated their children. My parents never heard from her again and I know Mum carried a sense of loss over this child to whom she had become so attached. Later, with 3 children of their own, my parents became “social parents” to another child from a Putney care home. Linda, who was about my age, became part of our family and was very important to my Mum for the rest of her life; when she grew up and had 2 sons, they were like grandchildren for her.

Auntie Margaret was very much part of our lives. She was an accomplished seamstress and would make me beautiful dresses, which I rarely appreciated. I remember a school Christmas party when I was about 5, being completely entranced by Sally Mills’ pink, sparkly, gauzy fairy dress, and pestering my Mum for one of my own. On Christmas day I unwrapped my gift from Auntie Margaret to find shiny leaves of green and blue satin, with a matching green stalk cap. She had made me a beautiful flower fairy dress. I never wore it, and I fear I failed to hide my disappointment.

I know now that I never appreciated my Auntie Margaret enough. By the time I reached my moody teenage years, I had placed a distance between us. At that time, I am ashamed to admit, I became a terrible snob and a worse prude. Margaret had a coarse, cheeky sense of humour, something I would have come to love and even relish later, but which I found distasteful and embarrassing then. If she shared a slightly indelicate joke with my Dad I would haughtily disapprove (most probably out of jealousy). I never had the chance to get over myself and enjoy my lovely, life-loving, ribald auntie because “later” never came: always a smoker, Margaret developed lung cancer and died in her early 50s. It pains me now to remember how little I seemed to care at the time, unless that was some kind of coping mechanism. My Mum was distraught, having lost her best friend, and I was no help to her at all; I didn’t even attend the funeral. I did select one item as a memento, a tiny wooden flying goose from Canada that hung on Auntie Margaret’s living room wall. I have no idea why I chose that item, except that I liked it (much like this one from another “Auntie”), but I have kept it to this day as a memento of her.

carved wooden flying gooseAfter my own Mum’s death 4 decades years later, I found this photograph album amongst  her things.

Photo albumI had hardly thought about Auntie Margaret in the intervening years, and discovering this small treasure made me realise just what I had lost all those years ago. She must have made this for my Mum, possibly when she knew she was dying, as it is a record of their lives together, and of ours. There are photographs of their youthful holidays in Stratford upon Avon and the Lake District, some featuring my Grannie Lane, with captions that show Margaret’s sense of humour:

1950s holiday snaps dsc06515 dsc06514Then there is the photo story of my parents’ marriage and the arrival of each of us  children, lovingly chosen and captioned:

Family photos

“The first commitment”: Brother 1


“The Watchmaker” (that being his Dad’s profession at the time)

dsc06521 dsc06522


“The newcomer, 1963” – me.

And later, in glorious technicolour, a typical 1960s day in Richmond Park with our Auntie Margaret:


Pen PondsSuch fond memories, and such a treasure to have this lasting evidence of Margaret’s love for my mother and for us. Had she lived, and had I allowed her, she would have been a wonderful friend and ally through those difficult teenage years, just the kind of auntie a girl needs. And when I lost my own closest childhood friend at the age of 42, I went through some of what my Mum must have suffered then, and understood her so much more, too late. Just as I now appreciate my lovely, loving Auntie Margaret, many decades too late.

Auntie Margaret

Margaret Press in the 1970s, shortly before her death

Aboard a shipwreck train
Give my umbrella to the Rain Dogs
For I am a Rain Dog, too.

  • Tom Waits


Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Mum, Ornaments ("ordiments"), Photographs | Tagged | Leave a comment