Saturday, 20 August 2011

My Grandmother Lilian : 1920 - 1983

Lilian Katie Humphries abt 1940
I have just come home from the Antiques Fair and felt the strongest compulsion yet to write a blog. Admittedly I have wanted to start a blog for the longest time, and have even gone so far as to research different blog sites and sought advice from several people.
However, nerves won out and got the better of me; that, and a serious dose of self-doubt. There are so many topics I want to discuss, but at the end of the day, I kept going back to the same agonising question. Who would want to know, or care, what I have to say?
For as long as I have been alive I have had a passion for family history. As a child I loved to listen to my grandmothers when they talked about their childhoods, family stories, war stories and more importantly for me, showing me photographs and telling me who the photograph was of, where it was taken and the memory associated with that photograph, whether it be a family member, a holiday snap or a wedding portrait.
I thought about dedicating this first blog to both of my grandmothers but, to be quite honest, I don’t think that would be fair. They each deserve their own dedication, in their own right. As tomorrow will mark 28 years since my maternal grandmother passed away, I shall dedicate my very first family blog to her.

My grandmother was born Lilian Katie Humphries, on 26 November 1920. Her birth certificate says she was born in Bloomsbury Square in the district of St Giles, London. I went to visit her childhood home in 2007 and fell in love with both the Square and its surrounds.
Lilian was always known to me as “Nannie Buster” as her second husband (Alfred Sampson) was known to everyone as Buster. Others called her Lil and some of her nieces and nephews knew her as Lily.
Lilian was the seventh child of Albert Humphries and Elizabeth Dare. Before her were three brothers and three sisters, the eldest of which – Violet, or Vi as she was known - she was extremely close to. She would often spend two weeks holiday visiting her sister Vi in Sutton, where she lived with her husband Cyril Lang above the butcher's shop on the High Street.
When Lilian was just a child she was struck with asthma and bronchial ailments, inherited from her father’s side of the family who all suffered from it. When Lilian was eight she contracted Tuberculosis and the family had to leave their London home for the country air. They moved to Leigh-On-Sea and remained there until the 1930s, when the family moved again, to Sutton in county Surrey. They lived on Clyde Road.
Lilian and her sisters volunteered for the ATS when war broke out in 1939, but ill health plagued Lilian and eventually she had to give up several of her posts. It was in 1945, near war’s end in Europe, that she and her sister Stella were sent to clean ambulance trains in Epsom.
There she met my grandfather Percy Preston, who was stationed near Epsom with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Three short months later, Percy and Lilian were married at St Nicholas Church in Sutton. After the wedding, Percy was stationed back to Epsom and Lilian went, supposedly by rail, to county Suffolk to start married life, not with her husband but with her mother-in-law Nellie Preston who ran a boarding house for single working men, in the market town of Bungay.
After the war, Lilian gave birth to four children: Two girls (the eldest being my mother), followed by two boys. Percy held an Urban District Council job in the town for several years and Lilian worked in various shops and factories in Bungay and nearby Flixton. Then in 1962 they bought the Café in Cross Street, known then as Alfo’s. The tearooms are still there today, although it is now known as the Buttercross Tearooms, named after the infamous Butter Cross at the end of the street.
In May 1966 Percy passed away, of lung cancer. Two years later, Lilian met a local widower by the name of Alfred Sampson and they married in August 1968 at St Mary’s Church, Bungay. Lilian's family of four became a family of nine, as Alf had five children from his previous marriage to Jean Alden. She died of cancer in 1964, aged 35.

As a child I fondly remember visiting my Nannie and Grandad Buster where they lived at St Johns Road, in Bungay. I can still recall the rooms; the front parlour room (which I was never allowed into), the sitting room, the kitchen and walk-in pantry, the narrow staircase and the cupboard under the stairs, and each one of the pokey bedrooms. Whenever I stayed overnight, I loved to explore Nannie’s rooms upstairs, especially her wardrobe filled with flowing dresses and coats, her perfumes and cosmetics on her dressing table, and her endless book shelves crammed with Mills and Boon novels. I would have been around eight or nine years old when I first remember flicking through the pages, fervently looking for the passionate kiss on the last pages! I think she may have caught me out once or twice but I was never severely reprimanded. Perhaps she was mildly amused by my curiosity.
However, I do recall her chastising me for hiding in the cupboard under the stairs or in the kitchen pantry. This was a source of much chagrin between us, as she seemed to forever dislike my need for seeking solitude. She liked me to be where she could see me, not necessarily hear me though!

Lilian with her beloved dog Russ
Lilian loved her dog, a Jack Russell Terrier she named Russ. I shared her love for Russ, and whenever I visited or stayed at my grandparents, he was a delightful playmate for me. We would run amuck outside in the courtyard, or the garages out in the allotment area. Sometimes I would put him in my bicycle basket and wheel him around the yard. Nannie would knock on the kitchen window at me when she felt her poor “doggy woggy” Russ had been through enough torment!
When I was nine years old my grandparents emigrated to Western Australia. Alfred quickly found employment with the Alcoa group, which took him regularly to Dampier, for weeks at a time. Lilian, having been advised by her doctors that the warmer climates of Australia would help her bronchitis and asthma attacks, spent her days mostly indoors by the air conditioner watching the tennis, knitting, or baking. When a relative came to visit they would take her out shopping, which was one of her favourite pastimes.

Lilian was always proud of her London heritage. She always sang “Maybe It's Because I’m a Londoner” and if she was ever pulled up for something or feigned any sort of ignorance she would simply shrug her shoulders and say, “Well, you know it's just because I'm a Londoner”.

When my Nannie was ill, you knew about it the second you walked into her house. The atmosphere was electric when she was confined to her bed. An eerie silence hung on everything around you. Everywhere was deathly silent. There were no sounds of her singing or her slippered footsteps, the kettle wasn't whistling, and not a song could be heard. When she was well however, the atmosphere was the complete opposite. You could hear her bustling around, the washing machine going, the kettle boiling, the dog yapping nearby, her singing at the top of her lungs a tune by Roy Orbison, Bing Crosby or the Andrew Sisters. She would be cleaning, baking, making endless cups of tea or talking idly to Russ, making an absolute fuss over him. I found it funny whenever she threw open the kitchen window and shouted out to Grandad or my Uncle to come in for dinner or a pot of tea.

When my Nannie died, I was in my last year of high school. Her death was sudden and nobody in the family got to say goodbye to her. Lilian had suffered a massive heart attack at home and despite being rushed to Fremantle Hospital, she died on arrival. I was devastated, as was my mother who (understandably) took her mother’s death extremely hard. Losing my Nannie at that time in my life was so intensely shocking because I never had the chance to tell her all the things I would have wanted to. I never had the chance to ask her more about her life in London, and Surrey, or her war experiences. I never even knew her parents names, until 10 years ago when I started the family tree research in earnest.

I will always fondly remember my grandmother Lilian for:

“In the Mood” and Glen Miller Band : Lilian loved to sing this song more than any other I recall in my memory. She would saunter up to me and sing it in my ear or walk around the house with the carpet sweeper or broom.

When getting dressed to go out, Lilian would spend hours applying heated rollers, tweezing, curling her eyelashes, and "putting her face on". There was always singing and dancing involved, and I loved to sit and watch her in the mirror pulling various faces at me or throwing her head back in laughter.

Bourjois Cosmetics : Her rouge pots are still in the family today, and I also love to wear Bourjois products.

Chanel No. 5 perfume : Her most expensive and indulgent perfume, she wore this only for special occasions and always applied the smallest amount in order to make the bottle last!

Merely Musk Impulse : Her everyday perfume, or 4711 or, sometimes, the latest Avon perfumes.

Daphne du Maurier novels : in particular, Rebecca and it was one of her favourite movies of all time.

Engelbert Humperdinck : She was a lover of this "pop" singer.

Bing Crosby and the “White Christmas” movie : Her most passionate love was for all things Bing, for his musical talents and for his acting.

Roy Orbison : Another crooning voice she loved to sing along to whenever she was cooking or cleaning.

Despite her asthma and bronchial ailments. Lilian smoked cigarettes. I recall seeing her often using one of those long black cigarette holders, and I thought she looked just like a movie star! She used to smoke Du Maurier cigarettes or Benson & Hedges.

Her cooking and baking, but for me especially I will always miss her:

Rhurbarb Pie (usually always served hot with lashings of custard)
Apple Crumble (again made with lashings of custard)
Rice Pudding (the sweetest and softest I have ever tasted)
Shepherds Pie (made with any mince she found cheapest on the day)
Nannie's famous Sunday fry-ups: heaped up platefuls of soft runny eggs, oily bacon and grilled tomatoes
Roast dinners of chicken or lamb (mostly) served with lashings of sauce, gravy, peas, over-cooked cabbage, carrots and cauliflower, broad beans (she knew I hated them but she still put them on my plate and made me eat them!), runner beans, swede, and the best ever Yorkshire puddings.
Two weeks ago I found, amongst my mother’s rather extensive photograph and memorabilia boxes, a cassette tape with family members voices recorded onto it. It was recorded in January 1975 and it was intended for family that had recently emigrated to Australia. The very first voice you can hear is my grandmother Lilian. When her voice filled my living room on that day, two weeks ago, it was like having her back again. Hearing her accent, her laugh, her singing, was like I had stepped back into a room with her sitting there.
I cried like I have never cried before. For an instant I was grieving her loss all over again but then, a powerful sense of joy washed over me. Even though my sinuses flared up and my face swelled from excessive crying, I realised that I will always have a piece of her with me. I have some of her favourite things, I have my childhood memories to hold on to, and now I will always be able to hear her voice whenever I want to. All I have to do is press the play button and close my eyes.

“Mr What-you-call-it What you doing tonight?
I hope you’re in the mood cos I’m feeling just right…”

Enjoying a boat ride on the Swan River 1982


  1. What a lovely story and so beautifully written. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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  3. Glad you have decided to have a blog. Your post is well written and you emotionally covered the life if your Grandmother wonderfully. I found your post via twitter and I too have 2 blogs with blogger. Feel free to visit and leave a comment. Look after your photographs and video they are precious memories I suggest you scan them and save them to disk for safe keeping. Kev

  4. Finally at last you have taken the plunge, its not so bad is it once the first one is 'out there'. Loved reading about Lilian, Well done, great reading.Have put a link from my blog to yours now. Get tape copied though & quick in case something happens ! Lynn xx

  5. First of all, welcome to the wonderful world of blogging. I've been part of the blogging world since 2006, though I took a long hiatus in 2009/2010. I've made some wonderful friends through the blog community.

    I am only partly blogging my family history finds right now. I have 2 blogs, one of which is classic movie reviews (I'm addicted to classic movies!!). The other blog was originally dedicated to "beautiful things", like home decorating, teacups, etc. But, I've begun adding nostalgic memories and genealogical finds to it, as I believe they fit with my "beauty" theme.

    This is a wonderful tribute to your dear grandmother. I'm glad you had her in your life for so many years. I had all my grandparents until well into adulthood. My one grandfather would have been 100 years old 2 weeks ago, so I did a tribute post to him.

    Keep writing...keep sharing. You have great memories of your dear ones.


  6. Welcome to the Blogging World. I thoroughly enjoyed your story.

  7. Finally, after all this time, I have worked out how to reply to your comments. I want to say a very big thank you to you all for such kind and encouraging words. I am so touched that you sincerely enjoyed my debut blog. xx

  8. First of all, welcome to the wonderful world of blogging. I have just started a blog of my own .My personal journey in compiling my family tree and researching my ancestors. You are not going to believe this my maiden name is Humphries. When I saw the name Humphries(of your grandmother) I just knew I had to contact you.

    1. Hello Ria,
      Many thanks for your message and feedback. I would like to think we are distantly related through the Humphries name, however I do not think it is strongly possible. I do not have any knowledge of a Humphries in county Wiltshire in my family tree.
      That said, I believe in the saying "Never say never" and one day I just may find one. All the very best with your research, it is addictive and sometimes frustrating but always rewarding. Good luck xx