My own earliest memory is from the age of three and I am in a wool shop with my Mum, and the assistant is asking her when the baby is due….”What baby?” I asked (or something like that). And so I learned of the forthcoming arrival of my brother, Paul. Paul’s birth affected me because my other memories of that time are of going to stay with my aunt and uncle and cousin Lynne in a village near Walsall. We had no extended family where we lived so it was thought to be the best thing to do. I’m not so sure that it was the best thing for me although I don’t remember being unhappy, but I did develop a rather bad speech problem at about that time and that stayed with me for many years. Apparently I returned home with a distinct Black Country accent.
My relationship with my grandparents was somewhat limited as both my grandfathers were dead before I was born, and my parents had moved from Huddersfield, where their two families lived, to Coventry, again before I was born. Nevertheless, I think I had a close relationship with both my grandmothers. The two women were quite different in many ways and to me and my brother and sister were referred to as Big Grandma (maternal) and Little Grandma (paternal), as you may guess, on account of their size.
Big Grandma, Mary Ellen, was born to a working class family in Middlesbrough, her father was a steelworker. She went into service aged 13 as a maid, and eventually met and married my grandfather, a gardener at the same house. Of course they then had to leave, as servants weren’t allowed split loyalties, and went to live in Huddersfield where Grandad got a job as a gardener in the Municipal Parks and Gardens. There then followed eight children, the seventh being my Mum; the eighth child, a little girl, died in infancy and was never talked about: my generation discovered her when my cousin was going through her mother’s things after her death. Big Grandma, Mary Ellen, died in 1969 having survived her husband by 40 years: having survived WW1 he died of TB, along with one of my uncles.
My memories of Mary Ellen are of a rather formidable woman who you didn’t mess with. She was the undisputed head of her family, and if she said, for example, that everyone would go to hers’ for tea on Boxing Day then everybody went, no question. I remember staying with her for a weekend when I was a student: she said she would cook me breakfast at 8, and when I crawled out of bed at 10:30 she stood over me while I ate it, which I did! She had 15 grandchildren; when she died she left us older grandchildren 5 shillings each, and the younger one 2/6d. We all loved her.
Little Grandma, Emmie Louisa, was quite different. She was several years older than my grandfather, which always caused her embarrassment. Her family owned a small shop in a village near Huddersfield where my grandfather, a tailor, lived. On starting his apprenticeship, Grandad walked from Huddersfield to Ashbourne where he started he then lived, aged 14. This was 50 miles so he might have had a lift along the way. They had two children one born at the start of WW1 (my aunt Mary) and one at the end (my Dad).
Grandad was badly wounded in the war and never really regained his health; he died of lung cancer in 1946. So grandma had two tragedies in her life, Grandad’s death and, perhaps more tragically the death of Mary, aged 10, from diphtheria. The experience was devastating for her: Mary was taken away to an isolation hospital where she was allowed no visits, she died and Grandma was not allowed to see her, she was sealed into a metal coffin and buried without any ceremony. I believe this was the standard practice for infectious disease at the time. This affected Grandma for the rest of her life, and, because she could not then bear to have girls in the house, my Dad saw very few girls. She visited us once a year for a few weeks in the summer, travelling by coach from Huddersfield to Coventry: what she couldn’t get in her small suitcase she would wear, and as she liked to be prepared for all eventualities she had some rather uncomfortable journeys.
My memories of Emmie Louisa are fond ones, although we only saw our grandparents maybe three time a year. She died following a stroke aged 75, I was about 12 at the time; she had been making a good recovery but when the doctor told her that she was being transferred to another hospital for rehabilitation she seemed to give up the ghost. In her youth the rehabilitation hospital had been the workhouse. After Grandma died Dad found Mary’s new, unworn Whitsuntide outfit carefully wrapped in tissue. She was a religious woman, and whenever I asked her when I would see her again she would always say that she hoped it would be soon, but she might be “going on a long, long journey”; she would however wait for me at the gates of heaven.
Reflecting on these memories I think what hard lives our grandparents had, and wonder what our grandchildren will think of us.