Saturday, 27 August 2011

My Grandmother Freda: 1915 - 1996

After I posted my debut blog last weekend, I was pumped with excitement. I couldn’t wait to write another one. Then the days passed and the nagging doubts returned with a vengeance. At the end of the day, I told myself, my doubts are not going to get my stories written, it will not give my ancestors any credit (or recognition) and my memories will go unheard and unshared.

This blog is dedicated my paternal grandmother. From the outset I thought this one would be harder to write because I did not get to see her as often as I would have liked to as a child, and when I moved away to Australia my relationship with her was mostly through the exchange of letters, and cards at Christmas, Easter and birthdays. Up until two years before she passed away, she was still writing to me regularly.
Somehow Nannie always knew that I would be a writer and pursue the family history. She loved to tell me stories about her family, show me photographs of family members from her vast collection and when I had to write a family tree project for school, she was more than willing to help me with it. I kept my scribbled notes from all those years ago and am continually amazed at how much she knew and remembered about her family history (Even down to finer details such as birth addresses and dates).

Freda Waters
 My grandmother was born Winifred Ellen Waters on 17 April 1915. Named after two of her aunts (Winifred Bowes and Sarah Ellen Waters), everyone who knew her called her Freda.
Freda was born in the market town of Beccles, in the county of Suffolk, and she lived there her whole life.

Freda was the third child of Albert Waters and Eva Bowes. Before her was one sister and one brother – her sister Muriel a lifetime friend and close companion. After Freda, came two more brothers, both of whom Freda doted on and always spoke of with the deepest affection.

When Freda was a girl she had a doll she named Germolene. This name would later prove ironic in the extreme as in her adult years she would rely on the aseptic ointment for her troubled ulcerated legs.
When she was just fourteen years of age Freda met her future husband Herbert Ward. According to a diary entry of January 1930, Herbert wrote that he had met Freda at the Methodist Chapel in Station Road, Beccles. Freda’s father was a staunch Methodist and for many years worked as a verger there.
Freda worked as a Seamstress in Beccles. My research into Freda’s maternal ancestry revealed that her grandmother Mary Leman came from a family of drapers and tailors so it is no real surprise that Freda’s interests lay in sewing. She worked for George William Bond in Exchange Square. Bond opened his draper & millinery shop in 1903 and ran a successful business until well into the 1970s. An advertisement in the local newspaper of 1903 reads:
“Flannelettes, Calicoes and Shirtings at the very lowest price”.
In the 1930s Ronald Martindale took over the running of the drapery shop at St Andrews House in New Market, Beccles. His predecessors, Womack Brooks and Arthur Dare, were both prominent tailors and local charity fundraisers. Freda and her sister Muriel went to work for Martindale who ran his store for almost four years until Woolworths took over the premises in 1937. In 1933 an advertisement ran in the local paper:
“R Martindale the Leading Draper Fashion-Wear Specialist Household Furnisher and Undertaker’.
All her life Freda loved sewing and fancy goods. All her handkerchiefs were made with the finest embroidery and lace-work. She was a lover of embroidered tablecloths and lace napery. She was very proud of her sewing achievements.
In September 1933 Freda, having turned 18 years of age, married her sweetheart Herbert Ward. Before the outbreak of World War Two Freda had two sons and in August 1940 she was faced with home life alone when Herbert joined the Royal Army Service Corps. As Herbert was 30 years old and married he was not sent to serve on the front line but was posted to the East Midlands town of Sutton-in-Ashfield.
Freda talked of how, when the winds were right, people living on the East coast of England could hear the shelling and bombing from Europe. Nearby Ellough and Flixton airfields were used as practice for the USAAF & RAF and Freda said she was relieved to hear “our boys” flying over rather than enemy aircraft. In 1944 Ellough Airfield was used to drop prototype spinning or bouncing bombs, which were called “Highball” bombs.

After the war, Freda gave birth to my father and six years later, came her forth, and last, son. By this time Freda and Herbert had moved from their home in Blyburgate Street to Ingate Street.

Freda (left) and Muriel

Freda lived for company and summer holidays. Every year she would go to the seaside with her parents and siblings and as the years passed, she would holiday with her own children and with her sister Muriel. Mostly they holidayed in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, two of Suffolk’s most popular seaside holiday destinations.

In August 1977 Freda lost her husband of forty-four years, to cancer, and my dear Nannie was understandably devastated. She had known him almost all her life and she had grown up with him and bore his children. She was alone for the first time in her life and it cut her deeply. Her compensation was her sister Muriel and her four sons, though now grown up and married with families of their own. Freda relied heavily on her family to ease the increasing ache of loneliness, which constantly plagued her. Two of her sons lived away from Beccles so she would visit with them. She looked forward to these little holidays and trips away but preferred the comforts of her own home.
In the 1980s Freda and Muriel became regular visitors to the local day-care centre called “The Dell”. It was here Freda met Arthur Gilbert, a local widower. They were firm friends from the outset of their meeting and eventually, as romance blossomed, they married in 1986. Their life together was short-lived though when Arthur passed away unexpectedly, as a result of a stroke in 1990.
Freda’s unabated loneliness took its toll and when Muriel passed away just one year later, Freda never really recovered emotionally.
Freda was not blessed with good health for the best part of her life, especially after the birth of her children. She suffered with circulatory problems in her legs for a great many years and her heart caused her to suffer greatly. She spent many weeks at a time in and out of hospital for most of her adult life, more so in her later years when she continually required heart monitoring or investigative procedures. She made the joke to me once that the hospital was her second home.
One problem, which ailed Freda in her later years, was her eyesight. This frustrated and upset her more than her legs or heart troubles ever did. Her letters to me often spoke of her impatience and irritability at not being able to see well enough to write, relying on sunny days to help her to see clearer.

My fondest memories of my Nannie are:

Nannie loved writing and receiving letters, and sending special cards and notelets to her extended family. I will forever treasure the letters she wrote to me.

Nannie absolutely loved bathing. She loved to collect scented bath salts, soaps and bath foams. My sister remembers how the Avon catalogue would be eagerly raided for the latest bath smells and scents. Nannie liked to wear perfumes, such as Pagan by Lentheric.

As a child I remember going to stay with Nannie for the night. She loved having her grandchildren to stay, and she would spoil them and dote on them lovingly. I especially remember she would fry up ‘Bubble and Squeak’ on a Sunday morning for the two of us. That was always my favourite!

I fondly remember that Nannie loved a good laugh. She had the kind of laugh that was almost like a girlish giggle and she always had an expression of faint embarrassment if she laughed too loud. She professed to me once that she was painfully shy as a girl and even had a photograph of herself where she had written on the back “Shy Freda”. My father was a connoisseur for making her laugh and he always managed to have her in stitches. He would tease and mock, and she loved and welcomed it in equal measure. Her bashful laughter was adorable to me and still today, whenever I think of her I remember her in a fit of the giggles.

Nannie loved songs and singing. It didn’t matter the song, as long as it had a quirky tempo or catchy beat. A clever advertising jingle on the television, a cartoon theme tune or game-show theme, Christmas carols or even a Cockney knees-up song, Nannie would be humming or singing along happily. She loved in particular, “Lambeth Walk” which was one of her and Grandad’s favourites.
Nannie lived for outings with the family, fish and chips for tea on Fridays from Peck’s in Beccles, and having her hair washed and regularly permed by her daughter-in-law. She always joined in with games and liked to play cards and she never tired of hearing what her grandchildren were getting up to in their lives, good or bad.

The last time I saw her was in 1995, and it was one of the most turbulent periods of my life. Nannie was desperate to see me happy, and sadly I wasn’t always patient with her or willing to listen to her advice. However, she still managed to sit me down to give me a small collection of her family photographs. She was deeply afraid that I wouldn’t see her again. In my stupidity, I didn’t believe her. She was right. In January 1996 she passed away, knowing she would never live past the age of 80 (just as her mother Eva had believed of herself).

Freda (Taken in 1995)
Soon after my first child was born I had a dream that I walked into a room to see my Nannie sitting in an armchair in the middle of the room. I knelt at her feet and cuddled into the softness of her lap whilst she quietly stroked my hair. She had neither bandages or any pain in her legs. It was a beautiful dream and I still remember it so clearly ten years on. When I asked my sister about her memories of our Nannie recently, she wrote to me about one of her memories of laying on the sofa with her head in Nannie’s lap!

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