The Old Folks – A Tome
by David Buxton
“Rum funny lot, the Buxtons!” So my mother frequently said, summing up the family into which she had married. My impression, however, is that Mother’s own family, the Morenas were decidedly odder.
My Grandfather Walter J (John) Morena made up a new name for himself when he completely broke with his family and left home at a very early age. Those he left lived in some style in Hackney, the house being grand enough to employ at least one gardener called Cooper. Pa (I always called him Pa) was the youngest boy of six or seven children. The older boys were quite well educated, but family funds were running low by the time the younger generation needed schooling. Pa found himself a school at 1d a week and spent most of his time with Cooper. “He was brought up by the gardener!” Those who knew my mother well will remember the shocked contemptuous tones she could muster.
“We girls”, (it is Auntie Maude, my mother’s elder sister, talking now) “could never make out how it was that various of Pa’s brothers when they visited were called Brown – and we were called Morena. Bill Brown is the only name I can remember of these brothers. He worked “somewhere in the city”. There were at least two other brothers. One of them, so Pa said, lived in Canada, and was Gamekeeper or Estate Manager for a large scale land owner. Pa envied him his open air life, shooting and fishing for a living, as opposed to “playing the trombone in stuffy theatre orchestra pits.”
The other brother Maude mentioned was a commercial representative in Spain for a London firm which sold tea. Spanish friends evidently called him Senor Morena. (Yes I know it should be more properly Moreno, Spanish for a brown or black skinned moor). But Pa took Morena as his name when he broke forever from the Browns – not by deed poll or anything as grand as that. He just gave it as his name when anybody asked him, even on official documents. And, it seems, he got away with it.
Grandmother Morena (Granna) would have laughed if anybody had called her an art lover – but a picture-holic she certainly was. There was not a square foot of bare wall anywhere in the house, including the outside loo. Pictures everywhere, prints of shipwrecks, little girls being shown telescopes by benign old fishermen, prints of Millet’s Angelus, pretty calendar pictures of Clovelly, hand-scripted poems a la Patience Strong (beautifully framed) etc etc etc.
Pride of place over her kitchen mantelpiece was given to a head and shoulders study of an eighteenth century buccaneer. Very much the sort of thing popularised later on in films by Douglas Fairbanks (both of them). Bandanna hat with a bobble hanging over the shoulder, ballet shirt sleeves, dashing thin moustache and a full set of gleaming dentures. Maude, who ought to have known better, teased her younger sisters with the tale that this was a picture of Pa’s “Spanish” brother – a pirate. Irene, the youngest of the sisters, still took the legend. My earliest memory is of a thirty year old woman, telling seven year old me: “I believe he was some kind of pirate.” By my time, however, this picture had been replaced by a reproduction of the “Laughing Cavalier” in sepia tones.
To return to Pa: somehow or another he acquired a basic education. He started work odd-jobbing, running errands, at 12, for whoever would employ him. In truth he became a master of all trades. He was a skilled carpenter – not just a do-it-yourself-er. He could run you up a pair of French windows. When he died a complete set of wooden moulding planes were discovered, beautifully laid out in the chest of drawers he had made in the top bedroom; as well as every other sort of carpenter’s tools. There were chisels, gouges (for making the grooves in a draining board), a brace and every kind of bit etc etc. I believe my cousin James took charge of this collection when Pa died. Perhaps when James himself died a couple of years ago, some executor scratched his head, wondering what to do with these beautiful tools.
To continue with the catalogue of skills: he kept a sailing boat at Leigh-on-Sea where they lived – and he knew a lot about how small boats were built. He repaired his own and all the family’s shoes. In his time he had been a great shootin’ and fishin’ man. There were three double barrelled shotguns and a .22 rifle; also several fishing rods and a beautiful collection of trout flies, which were stored in a small chest of drawers, which he had probably made himself. If a piece of delicate silverware needed to be repaired, he would get out his soldering iron. “Don’t touch that!” he said pointing to a piece of what he called Flux. Of course his would-be helper (me) disobeyed. I remember the stuff looked like toffee. I screamed of course as I was forcibly taken away upstairs. But it wasn’t, luckily, very painful. I was screaming because I was going to be denied the pleasure of watching Pa work. “Very unfair”, I remember thinking. I cannot have been more than 5 or 6.
I was the youngest of three grandsons and I don’t remember any of the sporting equipment being used. It is possible that Granna clipped Pa’s wings when the family started arriving. Nevertheless examples of his prowess were displayed in glass cases in the front room – a large pike, a flat round fish (perch?) and a duck. Prizes of a sporting youth. In the fourth case stood a ferret, teeth bared, snarling at the world. Although this was the smallest thing so displayed, I found it the most frightening.
There was one occasion when Pa did fire a gun – up in the parlour (or back room as it was more usually called) chimney, as a method of cleaning some of the caked soot. A protective sheet was carefully hung from the mantelpiece. Pa’s head and shoulders disappeared behind this. The ladies of the house had been forewarned and were safely out of the way in the kitchen. I was well out of the way upstairs – and it was thought best to do the deed without giving me any prior warning. With the exquisite timing of the true farceur, the little boy that was me came down the stairs and was crossing behind Pa’s back when he discharged the gun. When the reverberations had died down and the unconventional chimney-sweep emerged, I gave him a solemn warning. “Don’t you do that again Pa!” This line became an oft repeated tag and softened the impact of many family faux-pas and contre-temps. (Aunt Irene chided me sometimes with this tendency towards solemnity. She was convinced I would grow up to be a bishop.)
How Pa learned to play the trombone and read music is totally shrouded in mystery. But, by the time Granna met him, he was partially at least earning his living as a free-lance professional musician. In ’39 when war broke out I happened to be staying with my grandparents. My father was a Head-teacher and he was superintending the evacuation of his London school to the country. And Mother was involved as a sort of billeting officer and matron – unpaid of course. I was 13 and at boarding school by now but term was not to restart until some sort of air raid shelters had been built. So I was down at Leigh. I amused myself (though not my grandmother) by teaching myself the rudiments of the trombone. Pa commuted each day to London. He got home at half past sixish – and was tickled pink with what I was up to. He dug out and gave me some of his old band parts. Some of the marches he himself had composed. Of course he only had the bass line. Grandmother called out one day, “For God’s sake, can’t you give us a tune? Not this eternal oom-pah!” The sad thing was that Pa himself hadn’t touched the instrument for many years. Tragically he no longer had enough front teeth to make an embouchure. He was rather upset – and I didn’t know how to console him.
Granna delighted in relating an episode in the early days of her marriage. As well as playing in theatre orchestras, Pa was a regular deputy (not quite the contradiction it may seem) in the bands of at least two Army Regiments – the HAC (Honourable Artillery Company) and the 17th (if I’ve got the number right) Middlesex. This meant for ceremonial occasions, Pa without ever having to join the Army, was kitted out with a uniform (very elaborate in the case of the HAC) and marched with the band. The trombones always were the front rank of the band to give room for the slide work. In those days soldiers marched 4 to a file. So to look good a marching military band had to have four trombones. Hence the frequent need for deputies. During the early stages of the Boer War, one of Pa’s regiments was ordered to South Africa. Everyone went down to the embarkation point (East India Docks?) to cheer them off, including Granna. The band were first to board. They formed a circle and played while the troops marched up the gang plank. “Dolly Grey” amongst other tunes of course. Eventually all the troops were on board, a speech of some sort had been made and the band played the national anthem. End of ceremony, cheering died away. Some docker or other started fiddling with the mooring ropes. Panic struck Granna. In one of those extraordinary silences that seem to occur when a lot of people are gathered together, her voice rang out: “Walter! Get off that boat!” She always maintained that if she hadn’t shouted the civilian deputies as well as the troops would have been on their way to war.
Granna had come from a very similar family structure to Pa’s. Her name had been Brumwell. “My father was a gentleman,” Granna would often say when she was anxious to close off an argument. I only realised, years later when I received my commission the RAF, exactly what she must have meant. On that occasion I was informed that I was now “a gentleman before the King”. This meant only that in practice, if ever I were to meet the King, His Majesty was obliged to call me Mr. Buxton instead of just using my surname as though I was a groom or footman. Old Brumwell was “something in the city”. He was an amateur oarsman, and at some celebration (a Jubilee? A Royal Wedding?) he was given the honour of rowing the Queen down the Thames. By right of this honour he was a Queen’s Boatmen – and I presume a GBQ (Gentleman before the Queen). And he had an elaborately trimmed jacket and cap to prove it.
There was endless argument about this. My mother confused it with “Doggett’s Coat and Badge”. This prize was rowed for annually (perhaps it still is) among professional Thames watermen – water taxi drivers in fact. And in the London Evening Papers each year there would be a picture of a cheerful chappie who had won a race from A to B. He would be wearing a gold trimmed coat and badge, My father, never loth to prove someone wrong, particularly my mother, looked it all up in the local library. Granna always ended the argument by saying: “My father was a gentleman.”
Gentleman or not, he managed to produce six daughters of whom my grandmother, Lilly was the fifth. There was a gap of some years after the first three, and something happened to the family fortunes, very similar to what had befallen Pa. The three older daughters got an excellent High School education and were turned out as highly marriageable young ladies. One was called Clara – a figure of some grandeur and awe to my mother and Aunt Maude. One of the others married into the Music Hall side of the theatre, and did quite well financially. Auntie Maude remembered being lifted up as a very little girl on to the bar of one of London’s music Halls. She was made a great fuss of by some of the performers – presumably after a matinee. She found it exciting, but rather grotesque and frightening. Perhaps they were still in make-up.
Great Grandmother’s name was Startin. And one of her sisters was a professional actress, performing with Charles Keane’s company. Some programmes have come down to me showing Miss Stanton was among those appearing in Midsummer Night’s Dream before the Queen at Windsor. Also some pictures of Ellen Terry in action with some other actresses. One of whom I believe to have been Miss Startin. My mother told us that she had been introduced to Ellen Terry when a little girl – perhaps because of this connection.
By the time the three younger girls were due to be educated, they had to make shift with something very basic indeed. And there were few, if any, invitations to the sort of parties where rich and eligible young men could be met. Nevertheless Granna, without any of the advantages enjoyed by her elder siblings, always managed to behave en famille, like the Dowager Duchess of Muckshire, although a cheerful warm hearted cockney woman frequently broke through the veneer.
I don’t think Granna ever worked for her living. In the home, most of the time I was there, there always seemed to be one or other of the three daughters on hand to do the housework. She could cook and cook well – but only when she had to. Pa was the most obliging husband and “did everything for her” but I never knew him to do anything that could be conceived of as “woman’s work” except cook his own early morning porridge. Whatever his virtues, he was a Victorian. On a Sunday morning, what Granna loved best was to be-throne herself in a high backed carpet upholstered chair in her kitchen corner, give orders and keep a general eye on the work going forward while busying herself with the Sunday Express skeleton crossword.
I don’t know how long it was after he married Lily Brumwell that Pa started working at Morgan and Scott, a religious publishers in Paternoster Row. I am equally ignorant of where they lived at first. But they both claimed to be true Cockneys “born within earshot of Bow Bells.” So did their two elder daughters, of whom there were four respectably spaced. Maude Eleanor, early photographs show she had her own rather placid beauty. Gertrude Kathleen (Truda), my mother, added a touch of glamour with her long blonde hair. Dinah (Did) caused a dark shadow over the family by contracting TB and dying apparently rather gracefully at the age of 19 or 20. Shades of “Little Women”?
Did had had a long engagement to a man whose name I forget. I don’t think however he was a soldier in 14/18. As was the custom then, Did had been storing things, including baby clothes all through the war. And perhaps her fiancée, as Granna said of some other people (like me) he lacked a “bit of gump.” Anyway she wasted away – probably tired of waiting.
Irene (sorry I can’t remember her second name. She must have had one. Granna delighted in naming everything in sight) was always known as Reenie. She was full of bounce and vitality, strikingly pretty with flicks of red in her hair. I always think of these two sisters of my mother as Auntie Maude and Auntie Reenie. But for the purposes of speed and clarity, since I want to write about them as young women before they became Aunties I will simply refer to the trio as Maude, Truda and Reenie.
Granna was always very proud of having been married in Stepney Parish Church – a lucky church with a legend of the Fish and the Ring. In very distant days, a fish was caught nearby which contained a ring, which, it was claimed, somehow came from Rome and was the very same as that worn by St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. Far fetched! Well Granna believed it.
The earliest family picture I have seen was of a house in Chingford – well away from those bells. Quite a pretty cottage with a rose garden and three of the little girls at the garden gate. At some point when she was still quite small my mother had a serious illness and she always claimed that it was on this account and on doctor’s advice that the family moved out to Leigh-on-Sea. But Chingford on the borders of Epping Forest is quite a salubrious area, so I wonder if cheaper rent for a house and the availability of a cheap season ticket were also factors. And it must have occurred to Pa that there were opportunities for boating and shooting on the estuary marshes. The Morenas re-set up home at 56 Rectory Grove, Leigh-on-Sea well before the 14-18 war. Granna promptly named it Frogmore after the Royal Lodge. Perhaps after all there was a bit of tongue in cheek in her notions of grandeur.
Frogmore was a typical mid-Victorian semi; Hall, Front Room, Back Room (which could well have been, but wasn’t, called the Parlour or Drawing Room) cupboards under the stairs making a sort of vestibule leading to the kitchen. This was a small room – but it was where the life of the house was lived. And through it you went down a step into a stone floored scullery with a copper in the corner. Outside the back door was a lean to structure, open to the wind and grandly referred to as the verandah, which housed a mangle and various meat safes and vegetable racks. The scullery was very small indeed and narrow. Out in the cold, through the back door turning right and sharp right again you’d find the WC/Rejected picture gallery. (the French would call it le Salon des refusés).
Gas lighting on the ground floor – three bedrooms upstairs where you needed a candle had no artificial light. A storm lantern (Granna called it Florence) was kept lit from dusk to dawn on the verandah. At some point the copper (rarely used) was scrapped and a gas stove put in. But the bulk of the cooking – all of it in winter – continued to be done on the kitchen range. There were ovens on each side of the fire, and a complex system of levers and shutters controlled where the hot air went. My mother was in her element cooking a large family meal on it; but keeping it soot and smoke free was tricky – and it was murder if it got temperamental.
No hot water system, you note – just one cold water tap in the scullery. There were French Windows in the back room, rarely used, which led to a concrete passage at the side of the house. Much of the wall space taken up by a big zinc bath. And there was also a capacious water butt and hand basins of various sizes for transporting the soft rain water indoors. Pa was particular about his shaving water. (He had a set of cut throat razors, which he kept carefully stropped I was too scared to dream of touching them.)
In spite of these difficulties everybody in the house had a bath on Friday or Saturday night. Large saucepans were boiled on the range, emptied and re-filled again. The kitchen became thick with steam. You could have had a Turkish bath. Weekdays, people had to be adept at topping and tailing while standing in a somewhat smaller galvanised bath which was also used to transport wet clothes to the mangle. Upstairs in each room stood a handsome matching bowl and large jug of cold water. Hot water was never carried upstairs unless someone was ill. On the other hand, chamber pots were liberally used – and somehow got emptied in the morning without offending anyone’s sensibilities. Perhaps because of what now seems to us appalling difficulties, there was an enormous regard for keeping things clean and decent.
The front room. Here Granna had her best furniture: a single ended sofa, two fiddle-back armchairs, a couple of Hepplewhite style upright chairs, a rather nice bow legged mahogany centre table. Either side of the fireplace – books floor to ceiling, (I have mentioned that Pa worked for a publisher. I must also make it clear he was a voracious reader) and a collection of ferns (not surprisingly an aspidistra) in florid art pots. It was never used. The general theory was that if quality people called they could be entertained in style. In practice the Queen never came. No fire was ever lit, although the best brass fire irons were kept brightly polished, so it was very cold in winter. And its bay window heavy lace curtained and never opened faced south and was stiflingly hot in the summer. It was not exactly forbidden to such as me but it was frowned on. “What are you doing in there, David?” All I was doing of course was nosing into some of the books. I had two favourites. One was Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with wonderful illustrations (no not the Tenniel, I came to them much later, but in 1920 costumes drawn by one Harry Rowntree. Alice was dressed exactly like the little girls I saw in the park). The other was Don Quixote with numerous engravings (possibly by Doré).
I say never used. There were exceptions. Pa sometimes exerted some authority. The French windows I have mentioned were made on commission presumably for a female colleague who lived in Daventry. My cousin Pete went up with him to help carry them on and off the train on a Saturday morning. Granna grumbled and protested but supervised the laying of the dust sheets over her precious furniture. There must also be some truth in the great boat-building legend. Both my mother and Aunt Maude were great romancers, and the latter was a fine raconteur making cumulative points towards a comic climax. But Granna still showed signs of exasperation at it many years later. Pa kept a boat moored on the flats opposite Bell Wharf in Leigh Old Town. One of his longshoreman friends was an Irishman called Vinn O’Grady. Vinn’s old boat had disintegrated at its mooring and he wanted to try his hand at building another. Where to do it? Granna always said that Pa told him, “Well there’s an unused room in our house. Come and use that.” It seems more likely that some commercial deal was done – although Pa was never any sort of commercial sharpster. Anyway Granna’s protests were swept aside. (Aunt Maude said Vinn had great Irish charm and could blarney anyone into doing anything.) The keel was laid down and Vinn began work. Pa, commuting to London each day, had no hand in the building. When the cross-beams began to be put to be put in place, he began to worry. He had thought that the tiny dinghy he thought Vinn had in mind would just go through the centre window of the bay. But now it was becoming clear that the boat was going to be too wide. “Not to worry!” said Vinn, “I’ve measured it.” Blarney again. He was wrong. Mid week the boat was finished and had its first coat of varnish. Vinn started to dismantle the window. “You’ll have to wait till Walter has some time at the weekend,” said Granna. “This is our responsibility to the landlord. Don’t you touch anything!”
In the event Pa had to superintend the engineering work to arrange the boat’s exit. Not only did the window have to come out, but some of the brickwork. Balks of timber had to be put in place to support the upper floor. Then the bricks and mortar had to be replaced carefully. Reenie, the youngest in the house was posted as lookout in case the landlord hove into view. Rented property– remember!
I am sliding in and out of what I remember actually happening seventy years ago, and what I remember from hearsay (little pitchers have big ears) of what happened before I was born. I heard tell of two boats Pa had down at Leigh before “Inky”, which I knew and loved. In all those glorious 30s summers before the war Pa always managed to load most of the family into this small boat. Granna, a bulky woman, sat in the stern. There was room for two adults amidships and one smaller adult in the bow (no seat, v. uncomfortable). And a couple of youngsters like me could be squeezed in somewhere. Sometimes I was allowed to sit inside Pa’s left arm and “helped” him row. No-one else was allowed to row though my cousin James was, from an early age, very handy with boats. And off we would go for a day on the Ray sands.
The bit of Essex coast which comprises Leigh, Westcliff, Southend and Shoebury has a narrow piece of mixed sand and shingle beach backed by a sea wall. This is fine for family fun at high tide – although very crowded. However the ebbing tide retreats at least a mile and a quarter leaving a desert of soft mud. At that point you reach the channel known as the Ray, where there is navigable water at all times. The Ray works its way inland and eventually forms the narrow bit of water that divides Canvey Island from the mainland. There are dangerous currents where the Ray meets the main channel and the Thames; but at low tide there is a huge and wonderful playground of hard sand (ideal for softball cricket) between the two main channels. There is also a subsidiary channel, the Leigh Creek with almost enough water to float a small boat even at low tide. This was the route used by the fleet (yes, in those days more than a dozen) of “Bawleys” or cockle-boats, which worked the cockle industry at Leigh. Cockle-boats makes them sound small but they were four times the size of “Inky.” Our family knew a lot of cocklers quite well – but had no direct interest in the trade.
Granna loved a trip on the water – although she couldn’t swim and never took a dip. (In that her grandson James took after her). She bestirred herself, as at no other time, in organising the picnic side of these trips. She it was who made the sandwiches, sent out for fruit and counted it, made flasks of tea and made sure there was plenty of lemonade and ginger beer (both home made). The technique was to load the boat at Leigh shortly after high tide and Pa would row us out, pick his spot, ship oars and wait for the boat to ground. This was the boring part, waiting for the waters to recede to paddling depth – but eventually there we were high and dry. Sometimes when the party was too large, a few adults would try to go by tram to Thorpe Bay, strip down on the beach and walk, slither and slide out over the mud at low tide. Swankpots like my cousin Peter would then swim across the Ray to join us. Otherwise it needed careful timing for Pa to ferry them across. Once the boat was high and dry, there was no moving until the tide came in again. The return home of the “mud” party also needed careful timing- you had to carry your clothes remember! And you needed to be back ashore first before the tide came in in order to wash off the mud, which was quite unpleasant if you let it dry on your legs.
“Inky” survived until in the last year of the war Pa died. She had not had her annual painting for a couple of seasons. James had the hulk transported to his mother’s house with some intention of repairing the boat to make her seaworthy again. But in any case James was by now doing vital Government work in Poole and simply could not find the time. And rather sadly, “Inky” had to be dismantled for scrap wood.
Granna never cared for knitting, whereas neither Maude nor Truda could sit down for five minutes without producing some sort of work in hand. However she did enjoy crochet work – and had made all her own antimacassars and doyleys for the front room. (Come to that, for the back room furniture and her grand chair in the kitchen as well.) What would she crochet next? She invented a new hobby for herself. After all her daughters were grown up and away, two of them with families of their own, she acquired a small black jointed china doll – at the time of the birth of a royal princess. She called it Margaret Rose. “Daphne” a mature much larger lady of similar colour joined the family a short time later. These two icons had new outfits twice a year. Granna got Maude to cut out the dresses for them – but Granna herself would make them up, “smock” them and embroider them decoratively. They had short frocks for summer and longer rather Edwardian style for winter. And they each had a beautifully patterned crocheted coat to keep her warm. These two creatures dwelt permanently on the best sofa (never otherwise sat upon) in the front room.
Granna ran a sort of family savings bank. No interest paid, but the moneys, kept in separate jars on the kitchen dresser. I believe that four accounts, one for each of her daughters, were opened very early in my grandparents’ married lives. With typical cockney humour, she called it the Diddl’ems Club.
Granna always sorted out her financial affairs on a Saturday afternoon. There were a great many knick-knacks and ornaments in Granna’s house, one of which was in the form of a Negro’s head, quite large and round. He wore a detachable peaked cap on his head and was the temporary recipient of household bills, like the water rate, and the gas bill. How these were ever paid I do not know and it certainly did not worry me at the time. The landlady, a Mrs Hardwick would call for a chat (and of course the rent) every Friday. And Granna never moved out of her chair when there were daughters or grandsons on hand to do errands. “Just pop over to the Grocers and get me….” Was the constant cry. But perhaps once a month she would, as she said, put on best bib and tucker and go to some local government office and pay the water rates.
She kept two purses. One in her hand bag for personal use, the other for household expenses (including the rent) on the mantelpiece. This was a heavily concertina’d piece of machinery.
Granna’s banking system was very simple. Every Friday evening she would spread the chenille cloth on the dining room table, put the weekly housekeeping money on one side and turn out her handbag purse. There were jars for my mother and Reenie. And one for her own holiday fund (two weeks at the seaside – different resort every year; much careful planning.) And one for each of the grandchildren. My mother used her Didl’ems money to but her share of Christmas Turkey and the ingredients for Xmas pud. and mince pies.
I have mentioned Pa worked for a publisher. They did no printing at Paternoster Row, but they did a great deal of book binding – particularly sample books with blank pages. Pa was an expert on all stages of this process. Smallish special orders they fulfilled themselves (highly profitable no doubt); larger commissions they farmed out to bigger binders and took much trouble in inspecting them when they came back. Pa loved books both inside and outside. He introduced us to classic English literature. In particular, he loved adventure stories. He put me on to “Treasure Island” , “The Three Musketeers” R.M Ballantyne, Harrison Ainsworth and Fennimore Cooper’s Red Indian sagas. He’d read ‘em all – and Dickens of course too. And would discuss them – “Have you got to the bit where…Oh, but I mustn’t spoil it for you. Oh and by the way, have you read “Tom Sawyer? I’ve got a copy somewhere.” He would never pass a second hand bookshop without having a browse. This is a trait which I inherited to some extent but which has re-surfaced again in spades – in my son Christopher.
After the 14-18 war Pa was doing quite well and had risen to some sort of junior management position. One of the high-spots of Granna’s life was a week she spent at Keswick at a big book fair where he, carpentry skills to the fore, was in charge of Morgan Scott’s display stand. Granna evidently was welcomed by the Directors and used as a sort of PR filter, introducing potential customers to the top brass. She had golden memories of this week. This was perhaps not only because of the beauties of the Lake District, but also because for the only time in her life she was doing something which could be described as “gainful employment” – unpaid of course, the gain was self respect.
Come the financial crash at the end of the 20s (serious biography raises it head here) and the firm had to be slimmed down. A takeover converted it to Marshall, Morgan and Scott. Mr Marshall was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Pa thought himself lucky to be kept on. Granna however was very bitter about it. She said to a friend she was entertaining to tea, not of course in the front room: “….Kept on as a common or garden workman…” I don’t doubt that MMS were quite glad to have such a creature about the place, who knew all about the various pieces of machinery and who could repair them if necessary.
Pa occasionally sold some books privately – usually those with beautiful bindings but dull inside. Books of sermons for instance. I think Don Quixote also went in this manner. But he got a good price for them. But the inward flow of Jack Londons, John Buchans Zane Greys etc always greatly exceeded the numbers going out. Three rows of such volumes were stored on the sofa in the front room. Despite Granna’s protests, Daphne and Margaret Rose had to pig it in the back room along with the rest of us.
Fish, Great Aunts and other Animals
A weekend at Frogmore involved the disposal of a great deal of food – particularly fish. Pa used not to work on Saturday afternoon. The train would usually get him home by about 3 pm. He would change and set off, accompanied by any available grandsons down the steep hill, impossible for cars, to Leigh, old town to buy fish. There was a sort of co-operative of local boatmen, in addition to the cocklers, who caught fish for local sale in boats very similar to Inky. There was a shop to market their catches which made sure of a steady stream of customers by also importing directly from Billingsgate. Dabs, flounders, small plaice and occasionally quite a large skate, off which a piece would be cut to order and rock salmon (though Pa rather distrusted that) were regularly bought for a shilling or two. If, as there often was a full house at Frogmore, Pa would supplement the local fish with herring, if in season or kippers if not.
The people who caught the local fish were all old men. Their days of going out cockling in the bigger bawleys were over. There was one old man who no longer had a boat. He was universally known by his nickname, Phut, to rhyme with gut. He fished with his feet at low tide with no equipment other than a large bucket and spade. He had very sensitive feet, Pa told me, and could feel where the dabs and flounders had buried themselves in the soft oozy mud. Somehow they still managed to breathe. These fish were quite small – but fried up beautifully into the sweetest fish I ever tasted.
A high tea was had by all on Saturday evening. If my mother was there – and of course she normally was, when I was young – she would clean, fry and flour the fish in a regular production line style. But, in later life – when I was say eleven or twelve, sometimes I was there without my parents. In that case Granna would ? herself and, When the chips were down, no-one could ready a fish for the pan with more speed and efficiency. There was usually enough to give everyone a cooked Sunday breakfast too. And there was always a dish of cockles, winkles or shrimps for Sunday tea. Sunday lunch at Frogmore was always a sit-down affair. The big round table (nice piece of mahogany with a massive carved pedestal) was covered with a chenille and then a linen cloth. At Xmas there were 12 or 13 squeezed in if Maude’s whole family (the Walters) came. This was usually Boxing Day, they had their separate do in their house to the (then) extreme north of Leigh.
A regular visitor to Sunday lunches however was Maude’s dog, Bob. The first you knew of his arrival was of a nose nudging at your knee. No-one would ever admit to letting him in. He was the most mongrel of mongrels – too big for a terrier, yet not big enough for a hound. His coat was short, uncurled but shaggy. To the touch it resembled coconut matting. In fact his colouring too gave him the overall effect of a doormat. His tail had never been docked. On the rare occasions he was pleased with life, he would give you a hefty thump on the back of your calf with the said appendage. He was docile and house trained having the run of Maude’s garden. I believe she thought it was good for her roses. He had excellent road sense and never had a lead on him. He would make his own way from Maud’s to Granna’s crossing en route the main London-Southend arterial road. He was a bulky clumsy old thing. He could never, ever have been a puppy. His attitude to life in general was of gloomy despondency – very similar to AA Milne’s Eeyore. He had large soulful brown eyes and constantly called for sympathy by sitting in front of a person and holding up his front paw. He would stay in contact for as long as anyone cared to hold the proffered limb. It was never Bob who broke the contact.
He had two pleasures in life. Eating and sleeping – the former being his consolation for life’s woes. Each time I visited Granna’s he had put on more weight. His legs sometimes looked like those of a piece of badly designed furniture – too near the corners to support the middle. The pleasures of love were too much bother for him. When I was about ten, I had a frisky little dog called Pat – a mongrel – but she was a pretty little thing for all that. My mother would warn me when Pat was coming into season. I was instructed to keep her on the lead for a few days – and try to keep other dogs away from her. (Come to think of it, that was the nearest either of my parents ever got to discussing sex with me – ever!) In season or out, Bob paid little attention to Pat. Nor she to him. Fairly benign toleration was all either of them offered to the other.
Pa kept a caged bird, a linnet called Bobby, who always seemed happy enough. In those days no-one, but no-one thought like Blake : A robin redbreast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage.” How opinions do change. Pa looked after the bird with particular loving care, trimming its toenails occasionally and making sure there was abrasive material on the bars of the cage on which to sharpen his beak.. From the country a tiny bouquet of choice herbs would be brought back for Bobby to peck on. He was a vain little thing. He had a bell which he would ring persistently if he felt he was not getting enough attention. And he had a mirror with which to examine himself after preening. On Sunday mornings when Pa raised the house with Souza marches on his wind up gramophone, Bobby would join in with a colouration set of trills.
When the bird died at a ripe old age, Granna could have what she yearned for. And the milkman obliged by finding a pretty white and tortoiseshell kitten. He assured her it was a Tom and had been “arranged” when he was little. Granna called him Nunky – for after all wasn’t the cat in some sense uncle to us grandchildren. All went well for about a year until (like all tortoiseshells I believe) Nunky proved all too feminine. She produced a scrawny black kitten flecked with ginger. Unfortunately Nunky was as confused as the rest of us as to what sex he/she subscribed to and proved to be the worst mother since Medea. Maude, something of a cat specialist, (after all she had five) was called in but even she could not get Nunky to nurse her offspring. He was bottle-fed for a week or so, and then the self same milkman took him away, promising to find him a good home.
Then and only then did Nunky behave like a mother and deeply mourned her loss. She pined, went off any kind of food and took to wandering off for days on end. Eventually she found her way home – but in a pitiable state. She just would not feed or take care of herself.
It was then that Granna felt particularly lonely. She was glad that Bob the dog called as often as he did. And she would spend hours holding the old fool’s paw in the long weekday afternoons.
There was another person in the family, apart from Bob, who demanded a fair amount of sympathy. Everyone was sorry for Aunt Nell – none more so than she herself. This is, perhaps unfair. She did have a very hard life. Properly she was my great aunt, being Granna’s younger sister. “This is your great aunt Nell,” said my mother when she took me to see the old lady. “Not very big, is she?” was my response. I don’t think our relationship ever recovered from this bad start.
Nor was my introduction to my other great aunt much more auspicious. This was Pa’s younger sister, Fanny. When I was about four (pre-school anyway) my mother took me to see Aunt Fanny about some business or other. I think it was probably when Pa was in a London hospital having a stomach operation. It was a long journey from Chelsea to Seven Sisters Road – at least two buses. We walked from the bus stop and stopped outside a shop. “What does that say?” I demanded (I was just beginning to read). “A Betterton” said my mother. “Aunt Fanny married a man named Betterton,” “And that?” “Bespoke bootmaker,” she said, hurrying me into the shop. “That’s enough questions!” We passed an interesting man mending a shoe and went behind the shop into a long passage which appeared to be built of foot-wear. From floor to ceiling on both sides stood rack upon rack of footwear. Eventually we reached a small door. Mother knocked and we went straight in. It was a small room with a blazing fire in a very big grate. (This was high summer, I remember being in a short sleeved white shirt and jacket.) On the mat was a big black cat. He took a careful look at me and then went back to sleep. It was a gloomy room and vastly over-furnished. Facing the door sat an old lady. Pinched, sharp faced, thick lensed spectacles and curious lop sided grey hair. She scared me rigid. Why not? She was a witch.
When we left my mother marched me straight through the shop and towards the bus stop. “Haven’t I told you often enough not to stare at people?” This is the sort of question to which there is no satisfactory answer. “And why couldn’t you speak a word, all the time we were there?” Another unanswerable question. “Aunt Fanny is a very nice old lady. How dare you be so rude to her?” We mounted the bus in silence and started home. Eventually I said, “She has such funny hair.” “It’s a wig,” snapped my mother. I had no idea what a wig was, but Mother eventually softened enough to explain. “She had shingles. That’s enough questions.” We proceeded on our silent sulky way home.
I knew what shingle was all right. We had recently taken a day trip to Brighton. Mother loved Brighton. Rotten beach! You couldn’t make sand castles, and you couldn’t paddle because it shelved too steeply. A year or so later I was waiting my turn at the Barber’s and passing the time as one does by reading the notices. “Upstairs Ladies’ Salon” one proclaimed. Right at the bottom under the price for a perm, shampoo and set, it said shingle. I think the price was two and six. That solved the mystery. The ways of women were far too deep to probe further. I’m not sure that even now I understood quite what was meant by bespoke.
I never saw Aunt Fanny again, but when we came to live in Colchester in 1967 we quite often drove along the Seven Sisters Road. The shop with Betterton’s name on it was still there.
There were several words which were considered too rude for a little boy to use. “Woman” was one of them. It can only be the remains of an ultra-polite upbringing which caused me to refer to my Great Aunt Nell as a lady. Whatever defines a lady was certainly not part of her metabolism. Indeed I think she would not have wished the classification for herself. None of the posh airs of the eldest Brumwell sisters had rubbed off on Nell. Granna once told me that all her life, somehow, she had to be dogged (or do I mean bitched?) by Nell. Everything Lily did, Nell had to do too. Everywhere Lily went, Nell tagged along. So it was with resigned acceptance, rather than pleasure that Granna greeted her younger sister’s decision to move down to Leigh with her family. She and her husband and little girl, Queenie took a house a couple of streets away from Granna. Uncle Ted reeves, some fifteen years Nell’s senior took to his bed soon after the move and never left it. His bed was moved to their front room so that he could watch the world pass his window. He wore a workman’s peaked cap, a collarless flannel shirt and a a choker – and he melt. Not so much body odour but of the sick room. Little Aunt Nell was banished to the back room whenever he had a male visitor – even as small a one as me. His conversation was heavily punctuated with grunts. I say conversation, but to me, it seemed more like an interrogation. When he had had enough of me he would yell “Nell! Make the boy a cup of tea!” And I would go and join her in the kitchen. I would make my eventual exit via the back door. To my shame, I would avoid passing in front of the old curmudgeon’s window – even though this made the journey back to Granna’s more than a quarter of a mile instead of just over one hundred yards.
To be fair to the Reeves’s I never knew Queenie who died (TB again?) before I was born. They were probably jollier before tragedy struck. Aunt Nell never laughed. The only thing that gave her pleasure, it seemed to me, was Shirley Temple films. And of course at that age I was too much of a boisterous red-blooded lad to have any time for such soppy tripe. It is only now that I am covered with shame that I had so little sympathy with the poor old widow who had lost her only child.
Whereas Granna set great store by a certain genteelness – and only occasionally failed to carry it off, Aunt Nell was cockney through and through. Vulgar (let’s use this word) and proud of it. And she delighted in pricking any balloons of pretentiousness in her nieces – and in Truda, my mother most of all.
As an illustration of this trait in Nell’s character, I must explain that, in spite of inventing the name Truda for herself, my mother hated abbreviated names. It is not one of my foibles, but the Walters side of the family, if any of them ever read this, will have noticed that I always refer to my elder cousin as James. I picked this habit up entirely from my mother. Everyone else, family and friends called him Jim. I have some sympathy with my mother over this. Gertrude is not the prettiest of names. Nell never called her anything but “Gert”. It did not go down well. In the 30s there was a regular very popular programme called “Music Hall” A pair of excellent comediennes were often heard on it – Ethel and Doris Walters – And what were the names of the two fictional char-ladies they played? Why Gert and Daisy (or was it Dais?) Calling her Gert or Gertie always made Truda incandescent with rage, but she had to keep it bottled up.
“Come off it, Gert!” my great aunt would say, making the monosyllabic name sound as ugly as she could – rather like a belch in fact. The comparison is well made. She sometimes came to lunch on Sundays and she alternated between hiccoughs and fruity belches. Occasionally she might say “Pardon” very loudly. On one such occasion my cousin Peter caught my eye and I collapsed into hysterical giggles. I was told to take my plate into the kitchen and finish my meal there. Of course Bob the dog followed me. He knew just how I felt and offered me a sympathetic paw.
Old man Reeves had in healthier times been a member of the Fellowship of the Buffaloes, and a framed certificate hung above his bed to prove it. This seems to have been a friendly society run on Masonic lines. There was a Ladies’ (there’s that word again) section rather like the Rotary’s Inner Wheel. There was a difficulty when it came to giving themselves a name. Now the female of Buffalo is, one gathers, cow. And invitations to Bring-and-Buy sales, headed The Cows of Shoreditch, say, invite one and all….Well it just wouldn’t do. So it was decided they would call themselves the Lady Glades.And each Lady took the name of a particular flower. I can’t remember if Nell was Bluebell Glade or Primrose Glade – but you get the general idea. To my sub-adolescent mind there still seemed to be something decidedly indelicate in the image of rampant Buffaloes descending on luscious Lady Glades – and voraciously devouring everything on offer. I think, however, that as the widow of a Buffalo, Aunt Nell had a small pension.
Just like most of the rest of the girls in the family, I don’t believe Nell had ever undertaken “gainful employment.” But she worked like anything keeping her little house spick and span. Black leaded stove, scoured front step, brassed fire irons – everything that could be polished shone brightly. She spent her spare hours planning an elaborate funeral for herself. This involved a coffin with silver handles, silver knobs on top of the hearse, black plumed horses to pull the carriage and paid mourners to walk behind. This was all written down (I don’t believe she left a will) and there was some sort of fund to pay for it. I’m sure the money was quite inadequate. Knowing my mother had some talent for organizing, Aunt Nell, many years before she died, approached her to handle the obsequies. Mother , sad to relate, laughed; and said she would have nothing to do with it. So the next in line was Maude. She, always the diplomat, said she would see what could be done when the time came. Nell was content with that. In the end of course, she was buried quite decently near Queenie and Ted, but with very little fuss.
Not quite so weird as in Shakespeare, nor so triste as in Chekov. But their lives were very closely intertwined. It is to Granna’s credit that all three of them had something of a surface gentility. They spoke with a sort of Edwardian uppercrust tone (which could not always be said for Granna herself) and were well mannered – in short presentable.
She must have married Valentine Walters shortly before the 14-18 war broke out. He was already an up-and-coming barrister. He was in the Army (Artists’ Rifles ?) during the war. I don’t think he ever went to France. Like most of his generation he was very reticent about his military experiences. The young couple took the house next to Frogmore and in 1916 (I think) Frederick James Brumwell Walters was born. He had seen his father in khaki often enough to make the following anecdote seem to have the ring of veracity. One afternoon he was in the care og Granna when a regiment of soldiers paraded (a recruiting drive perhaps). The first company passed and everybody came out of their front gates and raised a bit of a cheer. A second company came into view. “Look Grandma!” James exclaimed, much to her embarrassment and the mirth of her neighbours. “Here come some more Daddies!”
Val never took silk, but he did financially pretty well out of his profession. He was a public school boy (Dulwich) and he made very little effort to hide his feeling that he was a cut or two above the family into which he had married. He was a fusspot of a man. And, when irritated, he would speak faster and faster and his voice would escalate upwards very rapidly into incoherence. He used to play a trick with his false teeth which he thought might amuse small boys, but which transformed his face into something grotesque and frightening rather than funny. There was always a lot of fun in the Morena household, but Val never seemed part of it.
His two sons, realising his rages were quite ineffectual lost all respect for him. Where other families talked of Dad or in my case always Daddy, they called him Fat – to his face. He was not in fact a particularly fat man – and I was always puzzled by this contemptuous name for him. “Oh Fat!” they would say to me. “Don’t take any notice of him.” It is only while writing this, all these years later, that it occurs to me that Fat is a possible abbreviation for Father. For that matter they called their mother Mew, which I always took to be a reflection of her weak attempts to scold them. But in her case the nickname (based of course on her initials) was always tinged with affection. Val used to commute to London, as did many Leigh men, and I think quite early on his family saw little of him. And the boys soon developed individual interests at the weekends.
Granna told me that when the boys were quite young they would sometimes go to meet him at Leigh Station. He would descend from the train, bowler hat, impeccable black jacket and striped trousers, neatly furled umbrella, chatting to several similarly uniformed gentlemen. And after a day playing in the woods, two rather grubby scallywags would be waiting for him. They sometimes let the side down even further by calling out’ “Hurry up Dad! ‘Addock for tea!”
My two male cousins, however, by the time I was five or six, had very individual personalities and very rarely indeed did they do anything together. James, eight or nine years my senior, was clever academically, particularly in the sciences. He cultivated the stance of an eccentric loner, made a point of wearing totally unsmart clothes. He never seemed to change them – navy blue jumper and rumpled trousers, which had perhaps had once been grey flannel. I never remember once seeing him in a collar and tie. I admired, almost to idolatry his attitude to life in general. He was, it seemed, highly amused by those of us who cared to be involved in the 20th century rat race of style, manners or appearance. Not that he was lacking in friends. He had an extensive circle, including some girls, but of course I was far too young to be involved with anything he did with them. But he was always very friendly to me – and often made me laugh with terse dismissive comments on the foibles of mankind, always with a twinkle.
Peter, about 4 years older than me, enjoyed the pace of the Jazz age, and was in the thick of every trend. School never ranked high in Peter’s priorities, yet at Junior School the promise of a bicycle spurred him into winning a scholarship to join his brother at the prestigious Westcliff High School. This was the last academic success Peter enjoyed. But he enjoyed himself hugely in other directions. I remember (he was perhaps 10) his entering, unbeknown to the rest of the family, the Southend Carnival as a Zulu. No-one seemed to know what exactly he had used for his black body make-up or how he had acquired his shield and spear. What was certain was that scrubbing with hot water made no impression. Eventually it wore off – mostly on Mew’s sheets.
Not long after this he was given for his birthday a Robin Hood set – a hat with a feather, a target and a bow and couple of arrows. The family had moved shortly after 1918 to a custom built mock Tudor house of some size – 4 bedrooms – in the northern extremities of Leigh/ It had a porch supported by a stout square wooden pillar, an ideal position for the target. “Look out Fat!” cried Peter, just as his father came home unexpectedly early and reached the porch.. Val turned just in time and was lucky to escape with no more than a nicked ear.
“The Hawthorns” had an extensive garden. It was probably architect designed, but like many houses, thrown up in the post-war building boom, it suffered from careless building. The back of the house suffered endlessly from subsidence, which no amount of underpinning and patchwork repairs ever managed to put right. Maude loved her garden and put in much time and effort. There was always a good floral show.
This was despite the ravages of Peter and his friends – a collection of neer-do-wells who based their lifestyles on “Our Gang”. This was a series of short B-pictures to be seen in the mid 20s to early 30s. There was very little traffic in this stockbroker area of Leigh and the gang would run in and out of one another’s gardens – and excitement on excitement for a rather well brought up London boy – they were allowed to play in the street. I was welcomed into the gang as a sort of cadet.
A favourite game was roller-hockey – same rules or lack of rules as ice hockey with a lot of body checking. The “puck” was a small off-cut of timber about three inches square and the sticks were umbrellas and walking sticks. These had run out by the time I was kitted out. I was put in goal as I had no skates. Eventually someone dragged up from the depths of his garden a piece of rusty piping with a curved end. With it I defended valiantly and dangerously. Only when the game was abandoned was it discovered that the handle of my stick was covered with some sort of tar or mastic material. I was in the doghouse for days.
At the very top of Kingswood Chase, very near Maude’s house, Eastwood Woods began. This was a dream setting for games like “Release” or “Prisoner Base” or simply seeing who could creep up on the gypsy encampment before being spotted. In those days these were the real thing – stews being cooked over an open fire, swarthy faces and dirty though once highly coloured clothes, caravans, horses and dogs, which sometimes saw us off ignominiously.
James in my eyes was a magician. He could make gunpowder! There was an occasion when he organised what I believe would now be called a “controlled explosion” in Maude’s back garden. Some of the rose bushes suffered but there were no other casualties. Bob the dog had guessed that something was afoot and had betaken himself to sanctuary at Granna’s. A day or two later Peter found himself alone in the house and attempted to emulate James’ exploit. Unfortunately James’ explosive recipe necessitated the final powder being dried out for a strictly limited time in an oven. Peter got the timing wrong, which resulted in considerable damage to the kitchen – and the loss of his own eyebrows.
The Leigh part of the family were all movie mad. Granna and Maude would go to the pictures sometimes three times a week. There were at least five cinemas in the small town. What else should ladies of leisure do? Peter, too, of course was a keen cinema goer and he would often treat me while pocket money lasted. You can guess what sort of film was the favourite of Peter and his friends, when I tell you that gang warfare broke out in Kingswood Chase. Somehow or other, Peter acquired an air gun. Other members of the gang had cap pistols or pea-shooters. Ill equipped hoodlums like me had to manage as best they could by raising two joined fingers and crying “Bang! You’re dead!”
Peter and I were making a last stand against the hordes of G-men. “You creep out and get round the back and take them in the rear,” said Peter Al Capone. “I’ll give covering fire.” I was fortunately some distance away from Peter when I was hit. It hurt like hell. The games was abandoned. I was smuggled doubled up into Peter’s room, stripped and examined. Fortunately the skin wasn’t broken, but I had a weal across the front of my stomach as though someone had hit me with a cane. It took some days to disappear. I was bribed with a bar of Fry’s Five Boys Chocolate Cream and swore a deadly oath never to reveal what had happened. This is the first time I have said anything about it.
Maude had some nice furniture, particularly in her front room. Unlike the one in Frogmore, this room was very much used. Jigsaws were done on her best mahogany extending table and board games (James’ speciality, not Peter’s – not real enough for him), games like Monopoly and Buccaneer which I have never outgrown.
There was also a back room. This had no particular use. It had a Pianola which was fun. It was quite funny too, as for example, juvenile feet tired of pedalling towards the end, say, of the William tell overture, the horses of the rescuing cavalry galloped more and more slowly until eventually theuy expired with a wheeze. James, however, was passionately interested in engines. He had a model railway. Bassett Lowke was the maker’s name. None of your Horby clockworks. This one burnt real coal and was driven by steam. . When he was seventeen or so, he scraped together enough money to buy himself a motor bike. Maude used to say he never rode it except home from the dealers. The bike took up residence in the back room, and during the next couple of years or so, it got taken to bits. Everything that could be disassembled was unscrewed or unbolted, labelled and hung up on a system of clothes lines, rigged from the picture rails to the central light fitting. Drip trays were organised and Maude’s second best furniture was covered. Sketch plans were meticulously drawn up. So that, eventually, (5 years) the bike could be re-assembled and sold back to a dealer – probably not the same dealer. James then bought a car. It was quite a staid looking Morris Oxford (I think). But again it was more tinkered with than driven.
Peter in his teens was a “Brylcream Boy”. Clothes were quite important to him too. Ties and hats were carefully chosen – particularly those that helped a fashionably louche appearance. Well polished shoes, some of them co-respondent and a sharp crease in the trousers. (More ironing for poor Mew) Sartorially James never budged. Val had a car in the mid thirties, but it was not often seen in Leigh, being mainly garaged in London. And in 1938 Peter made it a three car family by buying an old three-wheeler sports car. It was, of course, red and barely road-worthy. He took me for a ride in it once, which, although I never admitted it to Peter, was about my most hair-raising experience ever. I remembered when I was training as a navigator and the aircraft flew into an electrical storm and lightning played around the airframe thinking this was not as bad as that ride in Peter’s “Red Peril.”
When he was sixteen or so, Peter bought a trumpet. His hero was Nat Gorella and the house echoed to Dixieland jazz with Peter trying to join in. James abominated jazz. He liked classical music – particularly ballet music. Each brother had his own wind up gramophone in his bedroom. The resultant battle of sound in the living room or stairwell had to be heard to be believed.
The brothers were at pains not to show a glimmer of affection for one another. James always referred to Peter as “the brat”. But I believe there was a close bond between them.
There is no disguising the fact that Maude had a rather unhappy life. But (unlike Aunt Nell) she was always excellent company. I cannot remember anybody ever saying a word in Val’s favour. Maude never said anything to me about him either way. But he seems to have treated her very badly. From what I heard the other women of the family say, I built up a picture of him as a sort of Fairy Tale wicked wunkle. He can’t really have been as bad as all that – probably just your average pitiably flawed human being.
Pa delighted in telling the tale of Val and the boat. Not long after he married Maude, Val was in Frogmore one Saturday tea time and heard there were plans to “go down to the boat tomorrow”. Val’s ears pricked up. Boating was something he knew how to do. Could he make up one of the party? “Certainly,” said Pa. “Always glad of an extra hand. Be at Bell Wharf at 9 o’clock.” Now Pa always said he had no intention of deliberately deceiving Val, but at 9 o’clock there was Pa waiting at Bell Wharf with a longshoreman. The tide was just right – full ebb – and the boat was high and dry. An apparition arrived. It was Val in white duck trousers, whitened tennis shoes, white shirt with dashing yellow spotted cravat, navy blue blazer and a yachting cap.
“Ah, good of you to come,” said Pa, wickedly handing Val a brush and a paint pot, and setting off with his friend across the mud. “We’ll just get her done nicely by twelve and with luck, she’ll be drying nicely by the time the water gets in.” Val followed gingerly. Now it was well known that the more nervously you se foot on muddy ground, the more likely you are to slip which is of course what Val did. Up flew his arms to try to restore his balance. And paint spattered the carefully Cowes like apparel. “Don’t laugh!” Val pleaded. “Or I’ll go home!” – Another oft repeated catch-phrase from the family book of Quotations.
In the mid 30s Maude was very seriously ill. Since nobody ever told me what the illness was, I rather assumed it was some major obstetrical problem. Truda went down to Leigh to be at the hospital daily, and was at the bedside when a blood transplant was suggested. Unfortunately tests revealed that she was too anaemic to be of any help. Val was sent for – and refused point blank to be even tested. Reenie was next in line – and her blood was OK and all ended happily. The episode did little to improve the younger sisters’ opinion of Val.
In the late summer of 1939 when I was still a couple of months short of my fourteenth birthday I stayed for several weeks with my randparents. My father was Headmaster of a school within a stone’s throw of Euston Station. Evacuation plans, laid the previous year had to be updated and finalised. And, late in August, they were put into effect. My mother went with Father and the boys to the Bedfordshire countryside. She acted as unpaid billeting officer and General Matron. So Pat the dog and I were packed off to Leigh. Not that we minded.
“Do you think there’s going to be a war –ever?” Granna asked her milkman-cum-cat-dealer. She rarely used the dread-word, but she made it sound extra-ominous by giving it two syllables. “’Fraid so, Missus,” was the reply. “But it’ll be over by Christmas, won’t it?” “Dunno about that, mum. Took us four years to beat the Kaiser. Prob’ly six to see off this ‘Itler bloke.” What an ignoramus! Couldn’t he read the papers? Didn’t he know that Pripet Marshes would completely bog down the German tank corps? And that the gallant wonderful Polish Cavalry would soon mop up the lot of them?
On the Saturday I went down to the old town with Pa as usual to collect some fish. The weather was glorious and we could see the channel and the Kent coast very clearly. “Look at that!” said Pa pointing with his stick. A string of three or four smallish grey Navy boats were swinging around and approaching Chatham Dockyards. Now youwill remember that Frogmore had no electricity and the radio worked from a heavy glass accumulator which needed re-charging every few days. There was a still more ancient crystal set, but it only had one set of earphones. So, keen military strategist that I was, when I heard the PM would be speaking to the nation during the course of the morning, I set off for the Hawthorns, with its booming radiogram, taking Pat with me.
Auntie was pleased to see me. As always she had a couple of female friends in for mid-morning coffee. Reenie had come over on the bus from Chelmsford. Peter was there playing Dixieland Jazz from upstairs. James was in digs in Poole. Val was in London. There was a minor problem when Pat discobvered Maude had five cats. She thought chivvying and chasing them round the house could be no end of fun. “Look!” said Auntie. “Take that dog out into the garden and calm him down. Heaven knows what’ll happen if she meets Horace. He’ll think nothing of taking out her eye. “ Horace was the biggest of Maude’s cats. Black, old, bad tempered and with a ghastly looking cataract covering one eye.
Pat and I went and played in the garden with a stick and it was promised that when Chamberlain came on to speak, the back doors would be opened and I would hear perfectly well. In the event Peter and Aunt Reenie joined us in the garden. Pat sat down, still but tense, listening too. At the end of the speech a couple of minutes of sombre quiet ensued. Then peter (someone had to say something) said: “I bet there’ll be some big ships floating around now!” Reenie had a fit of hysterical giggles. “What’s so funny?” asked Peter. Reenie glanced at me, crossed to Peter and whispered in his ear. “My goodness, yes!” exclaimed Peter. “That’s true too!” and the pair of them let out a guffaw. I was furious at being left out of the joke. Some time afterwards I got Peter on his own. “What was all that about with Auntie Reenie?” I demanded. He explained that she had misheard a single letter in the word “ships”. “I wish I had said that,” he went on to say. “It sums up what I feel about politicians.
Val (where was he? – I hear you ask) was carrying on an affair with a lady called Sophie. Forced overnight and even over-weekend stays became more frequent and early in the war he bought a handsome flat in Queens Gate Mews – a love nest. It would be very dramatic to say that Auntie never knew anything about it until Val was killed outside the law-courts by a doodle-bug sometime early in 1944. But apparently Val was quite brazen about it – and on one occasion (so my mother said) actually expected Maude to entertain his mistress at the Hawthorns. Maude was the most gentle of creatures and would put up with almost anything. But she surprised my mother and father with the determination she showed when Sophie tried to insist that the Queens Gate Mews flat had been bought for her, and that Val would have left it to her if he’d made a will. I don’t believe the case went to court – probably just a stiff exchange of letters between rival firms of solicitors. Maude won the case and I believe had quite a lot of fun for a short time making use of the flat as a London pied-à-terre.
It was earlier that James had a furious row with his father – or so my mother said. He had taken an excellent degree at Birbeck and was now working in Poole – on explosives for the government. He swore (again my mother) he would never touch a penny of his father’s money. There was however no question of “touching” until Maude died – by which time marriage, children and grandchildren had somewhat altered his perspective. As if Val’s treatment of his mother was not enough there was further nastiness in the woodshed.
Val had become closely associated with an old lady, who had no immediate relatives, an imposing house in Hadleigh and a stash of money. When she died she left all of it (apart from some trifling bequests) “to my friend and advisor Valentine Walters.”
“Of course,” Peter told me when he had left school and he was in the army.” “Old Fat was an absolute crook. I don’t doubt most lawyers are.” Before joining up, Peter had settled down a bit. He had joined the ranks of commuters from Leigh to London and worked as some kind of clerk in a firm of bankers when he left school with little in the way of qualifications. He joined the army shortly after Dunkirk and was a driver with the Essex Regiment. James had tried to get into the Navy. He wanted to be in submarines. But he was rejected – not only because he was doing work of national importance but because of his eyes. Or perhaps their lordships of the Admiralty knew a thing or two about this applicant. They perhaps knew if he got anywhere near a submarine, he’d start taking it to bits.
The Southend district was considered a danger area – being on the direct bomber route to London. In the event it did not suffer greatly from Air Raids but occasionally “copped it” when the Germans turned back from London without having delivered all their bombs. Maude with both sons away and a husband more often in London than not, became an Air-Raid Warden in the district where she lived. I don’t know exactly what training she underwent – but when I spent a couple of evenings at her A.R.P. post, there seemed not to be much to do except liaison with other similar posts by telephone. There were 6 or 8 people there evenings and nights. The atmosphere was extremely free and easy. A collection of single fun-loving forty-somethings letting their hair down. (no couples of course – one partner had to stay at home to watch out for incendiaries on the family property). It was exciting, I believe, for Maude. Lots of rather risqué badinage. She, as a raconteur, was in her element.
1944 must have been a terrible year for Maude. As if losing her husband was not enough. (Despite everything she was still firmly attached to him.) Driver Peter Walters was killed in Normandy 9 or 10 days after D-Day. To make it worse, Peter, who had been something of a Lothario since his school days, had finally found the girl he wanted. He and Audrey were planning to get married “on his next leave”. Maude kept in touch with Audrey for about 10 years after the war. But Audrey eventually got over it and married as a mature woman. Auntie had to mourn Peter alone. To cap it all what must have been one of the last flying bombs landed very near the Queens Gate Mews. It was not a direct hit on Maude’s flat, but the damage was extensive internally – ceilings down, furniture ruined etc. etc. I do not believe she ever lived there again – but sold it (for a good price) shortly after the war.
My mother was a hugely energetic and generous woman. She never spared any personal effort to try to make those she loved happier. As an example: from Autumn ’37 to Summer ’43 I was at an all boy school. There were a hundred of us boarders and about 250 dayboys. The meals were adequate but never haute-cuisine. This, I believe, was something which was in the school’s founding tradition. It was, in effect, a charity foundation from the early eighteenth century to educate a hundred poor scholars of London. As the war set in, the food was somewhat sparse as well as Spartan, and anything beyond bread and butter (I mean marge) for tea became a great rarity. Every one of the summers I was there, after careful arrangement of dates with the Matron, she would descend on us with a huge basket of strawberries and enough cream to put a generous bowl in front of every boy. Sometimes strawberries were very scarce and mother had to scour various markets for the fruit. But she never failed.
Truda hated abbreviated names (I’ve touched on this before). She would have a fit of the vapours if anyone ever called me Dave or Davey. And she never called the dog anything but Patricia. The dog didn’t seem to mind. And I sometimes fell into line over the dog as I always had (and still do) over James. My father was called Arthur George. Neither of these appealed to Truda. She noted that my father signed himself Arthur Gee Buxton. Truda seized on this and started calling him Geoffrey, a name she must have fancied. And this is how she introduced him to her family. The name caught on and his teaching colleagues began to call him Geoffrey. But Truda’s face would become like a thundercloud if anyone called him Jeff.
Truda tolerated most of the Buxton clan. She was very fond of my paternal grandmother and loved Geoffrey’s (there I’m doing it too) younger sister, Alice, treating her very like a sister. But she and Ethel, my father’s elder sister never got on. Perhaps this was mainly because my Aunt Ethel never called her brother anything but “that boy Arthur”.
I don’t know for certain what Truda did when she left school. I believe she worked at a florist’s shop in Leigh for a time. But it soon became apparent that she had a remarkably rich contralto voice. Somehow or other it was trained and in her teens she began to sing publicly at garden parties and Amateur Reviews. In the early part (and possibly just before) the 14-18 war, she worked at Kynoch’s on Canvey Island. The name is still seen on shot gun cases. But I believe in Truda’s day they made ammunition for all kinds of small arms. She rose to being some sort of fore-woman. And of course there were canteen concerts.
Val had some connections in show business. And Truda always acknowledged a big debt to him for getting her started as a professional. She appeared in Concert Parties at seaside towns in the summer and in Panto at Christmas. She was quickly promoted to Principal Boy – Dick Whittington, Robin Hood, Prince Charming – Truda had played them all. She starred in one London show (not I believe the only one she appeared in). It was called “Dream Girl” at the Scala Theatre. She met my father during the war, and after it. When he was doing a teacher training course, he seems to have followed her around particularly in the summer breaks. To him the beautiful Truda Morena must have seemed quite a capture. They married in 1921, by which time she was supporting him financially. The marriage was kept secret, even from her family. Apparently for a professional actress, it was something of a handicap in those days. There was, I believe, some resentment from Granna and Pa. But no lasting hurt. And then, when I was on the way, the marriage was made public and Truda took a firm decision from which she never wavered. She never worked again.
When Monica left Perth Rep. shortly after we were married, and came south in search of the next job, Truda said to Monica. “Now look! Don’t go telling everyone you are married.” Of course we never made any secret of it.
My father might have made some initial difficulty if she had wanted to return to the profession. But if she had really wanted to, I don’t believe he would have stood in her way. And I suppose there was the question of me. But, come to think of it, none of Granna’s three daughters ever worked gainfully after marriage. I might have mentioned when discussing Maude that, before she married Val, she was fully trained and worked as a skilled cutter and dress maker. The family rather imposed on her trade: for instance, in the Spring, Truda would buy remnants of Liberty materials, get her sewing machine in running order, and invite Maude to come up to London for a few days. Behold! Spring and Summer outfit. What job or jobs Reenie had before marriage, I do not know. But she certainly never worked after her marriage.
In 1947, directly I came out of the air force, I landed a job at Perth Rep. and told my parents that I was going to make the theatre my career. I had expected some opposition from my father. In fact none came from him at all. Mother went “ballistic.” I had informed them by letter before demob. Maude subsequently told me she had never known Truda so hysterically upset about anything – ever. I came home on demob-leave and said the contract for my first job was signed and sealed. Mother, of course, then rallied somewhat and spared no effort in kitting me out with make-up and a wardrobe. In those days actors were expected to provide all their own clothes for modern plays.
The first job was in the Rep’s Xmas pantomime. After that the plays were going to be legit. The Front-of-House Manager, Jimmie Montgommery, was an ex-music hall comedian who had retired to the other side of the footlights some years before. His advice was sought and freely given to all straight actors in the “Dick Whittington” company, who had to learn some of the skills of the Variety Theatre. After a week’s rehearsal, I was having a drink with Jimmie and asked, without saying why, if he’d ever heard the name Truda Morena. “Good God, yes!” he said. “Wonderful voice. Near the top she was! Whatever happened to her?” He was amazed when I said she’d given it all up. I still find it difficult to understand.
Truda had a lot of drive. The energy had to go somewhere. When I was about 2½ we moved to a ground floor flat in Beaufort Street Chelsea. This house had four flats, the other three being crammed full of Welsh people. The owners lived on the second floor, and after a year or so, the senior Mr. Rees, becoming increasingly arthritic, arranged a swap with us – which was handy, because there was only one bedroom on the ground floor. Poor Mr Rees had to take to a wheel chair if he wanted to go out. The front door of 123 was up a flight of stone steps – so the Reeses decided to sell the house and move elsewhere. We drew heavily on Truda’s PO savings, mortgaged everything in sight and bought the place.
Truda was a pretty benign landlady – at any rate to start with, and she regarded her tenants as friends. This worked well in the uyears up to the war. She used to entertain the whole house (though not the basement tenants) to Sunday lunch and I don’t believe she charged. She used to reason that she might as well cook for six or seven as just for three. Errol James, a jolly little pharmacist, lived on the first floor. He was an excellent pianist and the household would gravitate regularly to his flat for a musical soiree. Not much booze (at least until I went to bed) but lots of quite witty chat. And out would come the Community Songbook – “One More River” (topical verses occasionally ad-libbed by my father) “Shenandoah” “Early One Morning” (treble obligato, blush, blush, applied by me. After some show of reluctance, Truda would give us “O Peaceful England” or “Smilin’ through”. Alas the happy atmosphere did not survive the war.
Errol left to get married just before the war broke out and the flat passed to a friend and colleague of his who was gay. Not flamboyantly so, but he was not particularly secretive about it either. My parents always chose to ignore what was going on under their noses,. Unfortunately, just after the beginning of the war, the ground floor flat was let to a couple of sisters – a secretary and a nurse if I remember correctly. They were Irish and deeply religious. They disapproved violently of the sort of entertaining done on the first floor. As the war developed, it was sometimes hard to tell which was more noisily violent: the air raids outside or the row between the ground and first floor tenants. In the early days of the heavy blitz the household congregated in the basement. Later on because the basement’s son’s fiancée was always there, another Catholic, and kept everybody awake with incessant “Hail Maries” which the ground floor girls joined in vociferously. We stayed upstairs and took our chances. There was a period when the sisters took to putting saucepans on the stairs as booby traps against the first floor tenant and his guest was marooned if the aerial war grew hectic.
When I went into the air force Truda began to find another outlet for her energies. She had always been a good organizer. Even before the War, ahe had done voluntary work in the local hospitals, distributing books to the patients. But now the work increased and she became an important figure in the League of Hospital Friends. During the War of course this work included trying to trace missing young men in the forces who probably didn’t know their nearest relative was ill in hospital. And from this, at the end of the War, she became a Conservative member of Chelsea Borough Council. She was re-elected many times, finishing as Deputy Mayor in the Council’s last year of existence. Mother never stood as a candidate for the new council of Kensington and Chelsea. She said she didn’t like the architecture in or out of Kensington Town Hall.
I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember her second name. Granna loved to use both correct names when talking to me about my mother and my aunts. I think she felt it put her daughters in their proper place. It was probably something fairly grand – Victoria or Alexandra say.
The youngest daughter was the last and longest to be employed as my grandmother’s unofficial charwoman. Maude told us Val had put his foot down about it. Presumably when they moved from Rectory Grove to Kingswood Chase. There was quite enough work to do at the Hawthornes – he said – without having to march down to Frogmore twice a week. My mother cleverly lived in London. So Reenie was elected. My earliest recollection of her was a bustling figure, bristling at all angles with long handled brooms and feather dusters, hands and arms loaded with dusters, rags, bottles and tins, hair covered with a scarf and with a rather dirty overall. Thus laden she would struggle through doors and up the stairs. I used to enjoy seeing her work. I don’t think it occurred to either of us that it might be proper for me to lend a hand. Of course I was very small when this period in both our lives started. But I think my maleness let me off rather than my size.
She was married to a telephone engineer whose name was John Bishop Wood. They lived in Southend, a tram ride away, near his parents. I believe Reenie had difficulties with Mrs. Wood. She was critical of the way her daughter-in-law ran the house for her beloved only son. Reenie always thought (and never hesitated to say so) that Truda was a snob. Yet Reenie had a touch of snobbishness too. She liked to have her letters addressed to Mrs John Bishop-Wood. Perhaps this was, after all, to placate her mother-in-law more than sheer snobbishness.
She was a pretty girl (as I have said) and very vivacious and she would sing as she worked. She had a repertoire of Marie Lloyd type songs which, now I realise, she would inflect with a faux-naif suggestiveness, lost on a pre-adolescent boy. But they were fun all the same. When there was a chorus, I would join in and we would hear Granna from below call out, “How’s the work getting on up there?” She was very amusing and varied with a chain song where the chorus got longer and longer with each verse and ended “And the tree was in the hole, and the hole was in the ground, and the green grass grew all around and the green grass grew all around.”
So it was no surprise to find out, years later that Reenie had had ambitions to follow Truda’s footsteps on to the professional stage. It seems she had sung in public at Fetes and Soirees and built up a soubrette act. Truda’s strength was in the heavier emotional stuff. Truda said to me after I had been professional for a year or two, “Oh Reenie had talent all right. But I told her she needed to learn a thing or two before I would be happy to recommend her. She could get an audience laughing. But she never knew when to stop. Her personality flowed round the stage, distracting from anyone else’s performance. She never knew when to stop!” And very late in her life in a rare sombre moment, she said, “I suppose I could have done more to help her.”
The friction between the two sisters was not absolutely continuous. They got on pretty well together weekend-in and weekend-out, and laughed a lot. Truda liked to run things and Reenie was rather rebellious. She was the most volatile of all the family. When she was happy, she was very very happy. And when she was cross, well, we certainly knew about it.
Reenie hated Val and made no attempt to hide it., even to his face. Truda didn’t like him either, but always managed to keep friendly on the surface for Maude’s sake. She had, after all, been a very successful actress. And what is acting if not dissembling? There is no evidence for anything I write here. Val, as a lawyer would make short work of it. It is all hearsay and remembered from a long time ago. However I cannot resist a conjecture of mine – for which there is really no evidence at all. I think it likely that the two girls, at different times and before they were married, received some sort of sexual pass from Val. Truda, perhaps it would surprise people outside the profession, was extremely strait laced, prudish, one may say. If I’m right the pass was made after the help into the theatrical world had been given. In Reenie’s case it would have been before.
As with Granna and Aunt Nell, Truda’s relations with Reenie could well be a simple case of younger-sister-itis. Truda related a tale that when she was about 8 or 9 she and a friend of hers had been given a doll’s pram for Christmas. They decided they would put on their smartest clothes and show off by wheeling their dolls down Leigh Broadway. And the whole effect was spoiled by Reenie tagging along (she was perhaps 4 years younger). This problem probably got worse still when Truda began to attract boyfriends.
Reenie thought of herself as Pa’s favourite daughter. Pa always seemed to me to be very even handed between the three girls. But no doubt there was some truth in Truda’s idea that her youngest sibling had been spoiled rotten.
Pa liked to go for a walk before Sunday Lunch. The regular trip was to Hadleigh and back. There were exciting castle ruins to clamber over, if youngest grandsons, as usually were, were in the party. If Reenie was coming to lunch at Frogmore, she would arrive early enough to make one of the walking party. Jack, her husband, was a very thin man, and had a long ashen-grey face. He was often unwell with bouts of rheumatic fever. He mostly ducked out of these family get-togethers, and was never one of the hikers. He stayed at home building super-duper wireless and (eventually) TV sets. I wonder – in hindsight whether he cared for Reenie, acting her role of favourite daughter quite so fulsomely.
Truda never more in her element than when preparing a big meal, regularly got it ready to serve at one o’clock. It was, unfortunately, quite often that the walkers did not return until nearly three. There was then an atmosphere that lasted the rest of the day. Aunt Reenie bore the brunt of Truda’s black resentment of slaving away while her sister was enjoying herself.
Came 1940 and we all thought we were going to be invaded. The council warned everybody within a certain distance of the coast, that their houses might be requisitioned for defensive purposes. Frogmore was shut up. Pa, in his seventies now and still working, came to London and lived with Truda, Geoffrey and me. Granna was sent to Llanfaifechan in North Wales where she had spent a couple of holidays. She got on well with her landlady – a Mrs Thomas. However at some point Granna had enough of the beastly Welsh mountain wather – probably the spring of ‘41 when Hitler was deeply occupied with Russia – and home she came. They staggered on for a bit, with Pa living in Chelsea and going down to Leigh at the weekends. Nobody was happy – but after all, there was a war on, wasn’t there?
In the winter of ’42 came the very heavy bombing in the city. Colossal fires raged round St Paul’s and the whole surrounding area was burnt to a cinder. No more work for Pa. Strangely enough Morgan and Scott had been similarly burnt out by a Zeppelin raid in 1917. “I never thought they’d hit the same place twice,” said Pa. He retired back home to Leigh and Granna with a great deal of stuffing knocked out of him. Maude kept an eye on the old couple. But it was not an easy time. Maude doubtless felt her sisters ought to do more so in the early summer of 1943, Truda decided to go to Chelmsford to have a council of war with Reenie.
As it happened I had just left school. I was now enlisted in the Air Force, on deferred service and due to go to Cambridge in October to start basic training – at the same time as doing preliminary work on a degree course in history. So I was free to accompany my mother. We arrived in Chelmsford mid-afternoon and found no-one at home. We waited around until about five when Reenie turned up, breezy as ever. She was wearing a full nurse’s uniform, starched head-dress and collar, immaculate apron with a red cross on the front and a rather fetching black (navy?) cloak. She looked stunning. She was all affability. I’d no idea you’d be so early. I’m on flexible duty. And Jack is repairing telephone wires. Lord knows when he’ll be in.” In we went, tea and biscuits were produced, and the conversation turned on “doing our bit”.
Now Truda hadn’t known anything about Reenie being a nurse. She was fully trained – what is more. I believe what she was was called a V.A.D. Not paid of course. Was she not a Morena? Reenie was very fond of me and encouraged me to talk about my prospects. I wanted to be a navigator. And what was Truda doing?
The answer was – or seemed to be – not a lot! Truda was rather at a loss for words. She could (and should) have mentioned that she had organised a Fire Watching rota for the residents of her end of Beaufort Street. And that when 123 was straddled by incendiary bombs, she had, with a stirrup pump put out three incendiary bombs during one raid. She could have told of her tireless work in the hospitals. Instead she mumbled something about serving on the committee of the Third Feathers Club. This was a Boys’ club which had had, before his abdication as King the patronage of the Prince of Wales. Truda mentioned two fellow committee members, a Mrs Dennison-Plender and the Marquesa de Castel Moré. “Who’s she when she’s at home?” asked Reenie. “In her former marriage, she was a Mrs Dudley Ward – a friend of the Prince of Wales,” said Truda playing a small trump. “Oh that tart!” said Reenie producing her ace. She turned immediately to me and invited me to come and stay with her free weekend or so before I went up to Cambridge, “There are lots of interesting historical places in Chelmsford I’d like to show you.” But a somewhat frosty atmosphere has descended on the meeting and I don’t believe the problems at Leigh were ever discussed.
Reenie did not always win these sisterly sparring matches. When I was about seven or so, Reenie had fitted herself out with a new coat and hat for Xmas. The coat was light green and the hat (rather like an inverted mixing bowl with a brim) was in a darker green. Evidently it toned. Reenie and Jack looked in on Xmas Eve. Truda was busy cooking. Whatever it was (it may have been mince pies) flour was involved. The kitchen, as always, was full of people. A great deal of fuss was made of keeping the outfit away from the pastry board. Reenie decided to play it safe and went through to the back room to take it off. This gave Granna, bethroned as usual, Maude and Truda the opportunity to make faces at one another indicating that they were not bowled over by the fashion parade.
Every year Granna would brew a few bottles of rhubarb wine. And this year the vintage was not quite ready for Xmas, but it would perhaps be ready for New Years Eve. The bottles were “working” in the vestibule cupboard between the back room and the kitchen. Reenie returned to the kitchen, pausing only to hang coat and hat on a hook inside of the door of this cupboard. Granna called out her customary warning. “Don’t touch those bottles! They’re working.”
Ten minutes of friendly family conversation ensued. And it became apparent that this year Granna had made not simple rhubarb wine but rhubarb champagne. There was a loud explosion from the cupboard. No-one knew immediately what had happened. There was an awful silence while the penny dropped. Reenie was the last to realise what had caused the bang. She marched to the cupboard and rescued her splendid outfit; now alas drenched with stringy pink foam. “There!” said Granna. “I told you not to disturb those bottles!” Reenie marched straight out of the back door, calling out “Come on Jack! We’re going!” He, simpering a bit, followed meekly enough. The back door slammed and Truda said quietly: “Don’t laugh or I’ll go home.” The hysterical laughter which followed this must clearly have been heard by the Bishop-Woods.
The Last Trump sounds for Frogmore
In the winter of 1944, the old folk were still, as they say “at home”, and Maude, who was having a dreadful year year anyway, losing Val and Peter was keeping them going, looking in on them pretty regualarly. Pa had an accident, badly scalding his feet, and Maude took them both up to the Hawthorns. What an awful year she must have had! To cap it all, Pa blamed Granna for the accident and, after years of being a model husband, turned against her. He died shortly afterwards. A will was found (hand written but quite correctly made out). My father was named executor. Everything he possessed was left to his wife. Unfortunately, he mentioned her name – “my wife Lillian”, he had written. In my memory he never called her anything but Lil. When my father set about proving the will, he anticipated that there might be some difficulty with Pa’s name. There was no birth certificate – how could there be? But the problem lay elsewhere. Granna’s birth certificate was at hand, but her name was Lily. How, the probate people said, were they to know he didn’t have another wife, called Lilian, tucked away, somewhere? I ought to have mentioned that a lot og Pa’s personal papers had been kept in the safe at Paternoster Row – savings certificates among other things. In the rubble, miraculously it seemed at first, was the safe, apparently unharmed, but too hot to handle for a couple of days. When finally it was opened there was nothing inside but black charred paper ashes. Sorting all yhis out was trouble enough for my father, but it was nothing compared with what happened when the three sisters sorted out the personal possessions.
He managed to arrange a meeting with the three of them at Frogmore. I wasn’t there, but I imagine he used his head-masterly tone. Granna was left with absolutely no capital and it was his duty to see all the effects were disposed of in a way that gave maximum help to her financial situation. And off he went to see a possible local lawyer about the books. The vultures fell on the spoils. To be fair to Truda and Maude, I believe they took minor curios and odds and ends which were of no value anyway. But Reenie wanted the guns and seized the moment when my father went out. “If your husband wants to know where the guns are,” she said to Truda. “Tell him I’ve taken them…I’m the only one who knows how to look after them properly. My father was very p[articular about his guns. And I’m sure he would be glad to know I’ve got them.” Of course my father blamed Truda for failing to stop her.
Granna had already had a couple of minor strokes, and Maude had nursed her through them. She stayed up at the Hawthorns for the best part of a year, but soon she needed full time nursing, and she spent her last years in hospital. As well as Maude, Truda was a frequent visitor and Reenie came over from Chelmsford occasionally. When Monica and I came down to London from Perth in 1949, Truda thought it would be a good idea for her to meet the rest of the family and of course I wanted to see Granna.
We had a very pleasant afternoon in Chelmsford. Reenie was always very nice to me, and clearly took to Monica too. Jack showed us his latest home-made TV. True, Reenie did, at some point, make a remark about Truda’s “Oofham-poofham friends in London”. But the moment passed quite pleasantly. This was the last time I saw Reenie. When Granna died there was some dispute over the funeral arrangemernts, which of course Truda organised. Very well, Maude subsequently told us. But not well enough for Reenie apparently. It is, quite seriously, somewhat on my conscience that I never made much of an attempt to reconcile the sisters, particularly as my mother towards the end of her life, spoke of her regret that she and Reenie had drifted apart.
And so to Granna. She was always quite cheerful when we went to see her. She would wander quite happily in and out of the distant past. She reminded me (I had but totally forgotten) that I had once said that if I went into the theatre, I would use Morena rather than Buxton as my stage name. This was true, I remembered, now she came to mention it. I must have been six or seven at the time. A t Leigh, I used to get into her bed early in the mornings. Eventually, when I was eight, she said this would have to stop as I was getting too big. Pa would get up and catch his commuters’ train at just gone seven, after having brought her a cup of tea. And I would join Granna for an hour. We would discuss the ways of the world. Of course, I wouldn’t have changed my name. I had upset my immediate family quite enough already, without, as it were disinheriting them.
“Hello Granna,” I said. “I’ve brought someone to meet you.” Monica came forward. “Oh,” said the old lady roguishly. “I know who you are. You are Lulu.”
I never saw her again. I couldn’t go to the funeral because of theatre commitments in Coventry. But a day or two afterwards a small packet arrived from my mother. “Granna wanted you to have this,” said the message. I had completely forgotten but memories came flooding back. It was a ring of thin gold with an elaborate pattern worked on it. She always wore it below her wedding ring. Apaarently it was quite usual in Victorian times to war a “keeper” so that if you lost a ring – in the washing water, perhaps – it would br the “keeper” and not the sacramental ring. Granna in those warm morning cuddly sessions had explained to six-year-old me all I needed to know about marriage. She’d be buried with her wedding ring. And I could have its keeper.
Auntie Maude had given Monica an attractive cabochon ring in a setting which was somewhat the worse for wear. It was a big oval cornelian stone and Auntie thought it might be useful as a piece of stage jeweller. However a Coventry jeweller took Granna’s keeper ring and made a simple but attractive setting for this stone. Monica is very fond of it. And each time I see her put it on – well I think of the Morenas.