Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandmother’s birth. She was born on 9th August 1892, which means that if she were still alive she would be 122 today. That is 164 days younger than the age attained by Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified person who ever lived, who died in 1997 (though a Bolivian man called Carmelo Flores Laura, still living, is reputedly 123). I like to think, therefore, that she could still be alive and vying with Signor Flores Laura for the distinction of being the oldest person in the world.
My grandmother actually died on 9th February 1979, when she was eighty-six and a half. She outlived all of the famous people who are listed as having been born on the same day as she except for one: Thomas Fasti Dinesen. I’ve never heard of him – I’m indebted to Wikipedia for this piece of information – but apparently he was a Danish recipient of the Victoria Cross who died on 10th March 1979, about a month later than my grandmother. Significant events that happened on her actual birthday include that it was the day that Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a two-way telegraph and (of more interest to me and perhaps to readers of this blog) the first day of the trial of Lizzie Borden, the celebrated American murderess.
Every year when this date comes round, I pay a small, silent tribute to the strong, elegant and feisty woman that my grandmother was. She was in domestic service all her working life, a period which began when she was fourteen and did not end until she was seventy-four, with a very short break for the birth of my mother. She started her career, Tess of the d’Urbervilles fashion, as a poultry maid, working for an elderly lady in her native Kent. During the First World War, she trained as a nursery nurse at Bart’s Hospital and worked in London for more than a decade, looking after the two daughters (one was adopted and much younger than the other) of a Scottish diplomat. She then moved to South Lincolnshire to take up the post of housekeeper to Samuel Frear, the last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. He lived at a large house called The Yews. It’s still standing, just off the main Spalding-Surfleet road. During the Second World War, after Mrs Frear’s death, she moved to Spalding to another housekeeping job, this time working for the Hearnshaw family. They lived in a substantial three-storey house in Pinchbeck Road. Her final post was as lady companion to a very old lady called Mrs James, who lived at The Laurels in Sutterton.
Sausage Hall, the house that features in the next DI Yates novel (to be published on 17th November) is partly based on The Laurels. I can remember visiting my grandmother there when I was a small child.
When Mrs James became too ill to be cared for at home, my grandmother finally retired, to 1 Stonegate in Spalding, one of three mews houses built in 1795. These houses have since been renovated, but when she lived there they had hardly changed since they were new: the toilet was at the end of the short back garden path and, although she had a bath, it had been installed in the kitchen: there was no bathroom as such.
This house (the one on the right of the three in this picture) suited her well, because it was a short walk from Spalding town centre and just over the road from Spalding Parish Church, which she attended several times during the week and up to three times on Sundays (always clad in hat, gloves and stockings, even on the hottest of days).
As it happens, I’m just reading Servants: a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge. This is a meticulously-researched book. Although accessible, it is much more scholarly than many books I’ve read on the subject, which often fall into the trap of reading like a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
Many of the things that Lethbridge describes remind me of my grandmother’s accounts of work in the world of domestic service, but with one exception: she clearly never found the work demeaning and, although she must have been respectful towards her employers, she certainly did not kowtow to them. In fact, she gave me the impression that, in her day, trained servants were in such short supply that she could pick and choose whom she worked for and certainly earn a respectable salary.
My guess is that this was not because Lethbridge (or, indeed, my grandmother) has exaggerated the nature of the employer-servant relationship, but because my grandmother generally worked in a stratum of society not much covered by Lethbridge’s book: that of the upper-middle classes. Thus my grandmother was neither subject to the rules and strictures that servants in the grand stately homes had to observe, nor was she obliged to suffer the petty tyrannies and hard labour imposed by a ‘jumped-up’ lower-middle class mistress who could afford only one servant. The people for whom she worked were kind, enlightened, appreciative and wealthy enough to be able to pay for charladies, gardeners, maids-of-all-work and outsourced laundry services.
This is not to say that my grandmother did not work hard; I’m certain that she did. I know, for example, that when she was working for the Hearnshaws, she was accustomed to cook Christmas dinner for sixteen people. But the work that she did was appreciated and she had time to devote to her own preferred leisure activities: reading (especially geography books, a passion with her), fine embroidery and Christian worship. Each year her employers enabled her to take an annual holiday, either at the seaside or walking on the Yorkshire Moors.
She lived a long and useful life and, I think, it was overall a happy one. Reading Lucy Lethbridge’s book (which I thoroughly recommend), I am grateful to those long-gone employers for the way that they treated her.
Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday. Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892. If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded. I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.
My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died. Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life. She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses. Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match. She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house. People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays. She had standards.
You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events. Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria). She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family. Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches. She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike. She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP. After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts. She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.
These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them). Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born. It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:
- Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
- Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
- Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
- The General Electric Company was founded.
- The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
- An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
- The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
- Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
- The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home. It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
- Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
- It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid. Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.
The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s. There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned. When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone. Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride. In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.
All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.