The Norfolk Buxtons
(from theatrical memoirs of David Buxton)
My father was a Norfolk man, born in Brundell, a straggly village well to the south of Norwich. Grandfather Buxton who died a year or so before I was born was a publican. There are well-to-do Buxtons all over Norfolk. The North Buxtons, the Fowler (anti slave-trade) Buxtons and just plain Buxtons connected to the Gurneys. These great country families all derive their money from Truman, Hanbury and Buxton, large scale brewers. My father’s connection (and there probably was one) was emphatically with the plebeian selling side of the businesses and not with the landed and monied. In short, my father’s people were part of the rural poor.
My mother, for reasons it would take a psychologist to unravel, absolutely hated beer. Not that she was tee-total – far from it. She was fond of wine – particularly the sweeter whites late in life. But she never touched spirits or beer. Consequently my grandfather’s profession was kept a secret from me – not to say lied about. “What did your father do for a living?” I asked my father once. I must have been 20 at the time. With some hesitation, he said: “He sold agricultural machinery.” “Was he a travelling salesman?” “Not exactly.”
My mother’s elder sister, Maude, fell about laughing when I repeated the gist of this conversation a year or two later. When she was able to speak, she said: “They kept a pub!” And explained that probably in the twenties’ depression they did have some second hand ploughs and harvesters on the premises, but this was trading on the side, not the main business.
Daddy was extremely reticent about his early life. For instance, I never really found out how he came to lose the two middle fingers of his left hand. A year or so before the 14-18 war, so it seems, he was working part time at the North Walsham Steam Laundry and fell foul of some machinery. I believe this was when he was supplementing his income as some sort of apprentice teacher (c/f Charley Hexham in Our Mutual Friend) – perhaps on a break between terms. This of course made him unfit for military service. But the Army apparently found him more than useful (he was a whiz at book-keeping and columns of figures) and he rose to the rank of Quarter Master Sergeant. He never ever talked about his war time experience. I think he felt guilty at having survived at a desk job in England when so many of his contemporaries were being slaughtered in France.
Daddy did sketch in one scene. Shortly after he joined up, he was sent for by his Company commander in the Norfolk Regiment, very upper crust and condescending. I think it likely he was on the look-out for officer training material. The captain said he had been struck by the name. “Are you a Norfolk man?” “Yes sir,” said Daddy. “Which branch of the family? Are you connected to the North Buxtons or the Gurneys? The two families intermarried a lot.” Daddy of course had to deny any such connexion. He never exchanged another word with the Captain.
Daddy was one of six children. An elder brother, who rose to be a station master and four sisters, one of whom died in her teens. His father – a real old Victorian Barrett-of-Wimpole-Street paterfamilias, according to my mother – died quite soon after being presented to the actress wife his second son had married in secret. His eldest sister, Ethel, by far the strongest character in the brood, never took to my mother, regarding actresses as suspiciously fast. Mummy was very fond of her mother-in-law, an extremely amiable gentle soul. Mummy was also very fond of Alice, the middle sister. She had gone with Daddy as a foursome with newly-wed Alice and Ted (ex Air Force, or rather RFC) to France shortly after the War. Ted had been employed by the War Graves Commission shortly before (or possibly shortly after) demob. So he obviously knew all the answers about France – which was probably the source of some friction with my mother. Poor fellow – he was out of work for most of the 20s and 30s – until we started preparing for war in 1938. He was some sort of engineer and he at last found a job manning an emergency water tower and pumping station in Fakenham. Mummy hated him. She always maintained that Alice had been a very pretty girl, but had been worn down by years of being married to Ted. Worn-down, a fratchety scold of a housewife she certainly was. This is very unfair really. A small boy’s impression.
Elsie, the youngest, was the most impressionable. She had a sweet kind nature and would have made an excellent wife to anyone who asked her. Alas, no-one did until she was 45. And then it was a widower, Percy, older than her, who treated her badly, as a sort of unpaid housekeeper, and whose family treated her worse still after he died. She was trained in the catering trade and was in charge of the restaurant in a big Norwich department store. She moved from there to run the refreshment room at Liverpool Street Station. During the war, however, she returned home to help. Grannie was by now getting frail and Alice had moved to Fakenham. She became an North Walsham’s Great eastern Station. (In common with most East Anglian small towns, North Walsham still had two stations. The other was the Midland. Mummy used to invite Elsie (and Grannie too) to London regularly and I believe the women were very fond of Mummy. Not so Aunt Ethel. She thought my mother patronised her Norfolk in-laws to the nth degree. Relations with her were always starchy.
Ethel was trained to be “in service”. During the 30s she had worked as Cook/Housekeeper with various large houses in the district. Nothing really grand – gentleman farmers, mostly. But when Ted and Alice moved out, she had come home to the rented house in Millfield Road, North Walsham.
It is difficult for me to write about the Norfolk side of my family, because, naturally, as a little boy, I tended to see them through my mother’s eyes. But it is true that when I directed the Birmingham Rep in “Roots”, I felt I knew the people in it. There is an East Anglian motto (Suffolk rather than Norfolk actually) but it still applies – “Do different!” I got some dialect tapes for the company to work on. The language was totally unfamiliar. They got the hang of it eventually. But the key to success was the attitude of mind. Don’t take anything on trust. Don’t expect life to be easy – ever! Scowl at the world if you must. Don’t bother hoping for the best. It won’t never happen. Three wonderful actresses, Hilary Liddell, Nancy Jackson and Rosemary Leach never knew it but they gave a very fair imitation of my three aunts.
All that was in the future. There we were, Monica and I in Cromer (1949). The women of this branch of the family were very devout. North Walsham Church with its war damaged tower) was under the direction of a Vicar in the loftiest reaches of High Anglicanism. Some of this rubbed off on my cousin Olive, Alice’s daughter, just a year older than me. One summer the pair of us were shepherded by Aunts Ethel and Elsie to Walsingham – the shrine of Our Lady. We went by bus in our best Sunday clothes. I never quite understood what the connexion was with Anglicanism, but I believe there was one in the 30s. It is now quoted as a Catholic magnet for pilgrims. I found it all an insufferable bore – but managed to smile a lot. Olive seemed to enjoy it – which was one of the reasons I did not care for her as a boy. More recently I have come to admire her stickability. A failure at Primary School, she somehow used evening classes and extensive reading, got herself educated and completed a degree from Bedford College. She worked as what used to be called an almoner in hospitals in Surry. And she showed true guts in her last years, struggling with multiple sclerosis. Life (and death for that matter) is grindingly hard. Just set your jaw and get on with it. That’s a Norfolk woman for you.
But, back in Cromer. Digs are always difficult in seaside towns. The worst digs I ever had, shared on this occasion with Monica, were in Blackpool. Mucking in with the family is all very well. This particular family were in fact a very cheery bunch. But you had to take them as you found them. And what you found in the small spare bedroom was a double bed and a large Harley Davidson-type motor bike, which needed to be moved against the door if you wanted to open the wardrobe.n We did quite well in Cromer. After much enquiry we found a boarding house which would take us for the twelve weeks at just under the standard rate for Bed and Breakfast and an evening meal. The problem was that the “evening meal” (it could hardly be graced by the name of dinner) was normally served between seven and eight at night. We had to make a special arrangement to eat at 6.15. Gulp, gulp and no time for chewing much to be at the theatre for the half. We frequently had to make do with cold leftovers from the previous evening and rather limp and sparse salad. And the “special crab teas” came up with rather off-putting regularity twice a week.
The bed was very comfortable however. And we were making good use of it one Sunday afternoon (you will recall that we had only been married three months) when there came a knock on the door. “We have someone downstairs to see you.” “Is it important?” I asked. “It’s your aunt.” It was in fact the shy and nervous Aunt Elsie, not the battle axe Ethel. None of the aunts wore make-up, although Elsie did just touch her lips with red. But constant acquaintance with the east wind (there was nothing between Norfolk and Siberia except flat land and sea) had ensured that their cheeks were the colour of a ripe red apple. We scrambled into our clothes (I seem to remember I couldn’t find one of my socks) and descended breathless and giggly. I don’t know what Elsie thought we’d been doing, but it was clear that the realisation dawned on her after a few minutes of conversation. Her cheeks went a deeper and deeper red and she became almost speechless. This was the first time Monica had met one of the Buxton strait laced aunts. Elsie had a sweet nature, though and Monica came to love her dearly.
(Notes from Christopher)
According to Dad (David) Olive was a particularly irritating, holier-than-thou, opinionated little girl. Perhaps this mitigates Dad’s most shocking transgression. The boy (destined to become a Bishop according to his worldly Aunt Reenie) took a pot of indelible ink and poured it over his cousin stopping her improving advice in mid-flow.
To be fair to Olive, Mummy told me she had had a very restrictive childhood. Her mother Alice used to tie her up in a linen bag to the chin, to prevent her from getting her clothes dirty.
Grandpa had a soft spot for Olive. Perhaps he’d wanted a girl. Anyway he admired her progress to the extent that Nanna became worried that he might bequeath her a lot of money in his will. Olive never married, but she did have a long-term relationship with Stuart an ex- RAF man.
Mummy had the theory that Grandpa had been spoilt by his sisters. This increased pressure on Nanna to demonstrate that she was looking after her husband in the way he’d got used to. I only remember a visit from Aunt Ethel to Beaufort Street once. There was a thunderous knocking on the front door that echoed through the four floors of the house. Nanna was extremely tense.
I went to Elsie’s marriage as a serious little boy. I was next to Nanna in church and was impressed by her singing. It seemed to me that in her round rich contralto voice, she was singing the word orange over and over again.
Elsie’s last job was at philatelists near Liverpool Street. I remember visiting Uncle Percy in Hospital. He’d had cancer and had had his voice box removed. He was breathing through a metal ringed hole in his throat.
I never met Henry. But his daughter, Ivy and her husband died in a car crash on their way to or from church. They were the victims of the assumption, common in isolated rural areas, that there is unlikely to be oncoming traffic round the next bend of the country lane.
On the subject of socks and sex, Mum told me that she lost all fear on her wedding night seeing Dad walking around the bedroom still in his socks.