My grandmother’s grandmother
by Harry Pope
My grandmother was born in south London in 1891. She wrote these words as family history when she was 74, which I transcribed onto my computer. There are many sections, this is only a very small part of her story, which I will share with you over the coming months.
I first remember her when I was about 5, walking down the street with her. She was dressed in a black beaded mantle, which was a cape, with no sleeves. A black bonnet covered with beads and tied with a broad ribbon under her chin sat upon the back of her head. Her skirt was of stiff black silk, this was her usual out-of-door clothing so I expect I saw her wear it many times, else perhaps I should not be able to remember it.
She lived with us, at first, 5 sons, in a house in Elsey Road, Battersea. My parents and myself and my sister lived in Grayshott Road about 10 minutes walk from my grandmother’s house. So from about the age of 7 years I used to go to do my grandmother’s errands for her during my dinner time from school. Sometimes she only wanted goods from the shops nearby, but often I had to climb a very steep hill to get to Lavender Hill where the shops were. I remember my grandmother in those days, about 1900, as a very stately, upright, rather stout woman.
She did all the work of the 5 roomed house, the washing for all her sons, and the cooking. She was an excellent cook, her cakes and bread were delicious. When she was left a widow in her 40’s she had to go to work as a cook to keep her 4 young sons who were still at school. The older ones were all at work. She liked a drop of whisky and I was sent sometimes with a small bottle to get it filled with whisky. I forget how much it cost, but I think it was a few pence.
She also liked a bet on the horses. She followed a tipster named Larry Lynx in one of the papers. She put her money on with the man who came round selling firewood and oil. I think she only betted a shilling at a time.
Many of the people in the road were having the gas laid on in their houses, but my grandmother would not. She did all her cooking on an open range with an oven at the side and the kettle and saucepans on the top of the fire. She had to light the fire to get the kettle to boil to make a cup of tea, even on the hottest day in summer. How the women worked in those days.
As I remember her about 1900, she was a strong healthy woman her only ailment being a ‘bad leg’, for which I had to go to the doctor for ointment. She had a small amount of money in the post office which she had saved from her betting or from the money she had from her sons for housekeeping. She used to give me her post office savings book and a shilling, sometimes it was two shillings, and say to me ‘take this to the post office and don’t tell anyone’.
Otherwise she was completely dependent on her sons. There was no widows pension or old age pension in those days. If a parent could not count on having some help in her or her old age from their children the only thing they could do was to go into the workhouse. Dreadful places, I went into one or two when I was small to visit people who had been forced to go there.
My grandmother took snuff. She had a black enamelled snuff box that she kept in her pocket. Her pocket was a large lined affair about a foot square that she kept tied round her waist under her apron. In it she kept her money, her snuffbox and handkerchief and anything else she valued. These pockets usually lasted about 6 months and then a new one had to be made. Sometimes I was put to sew it.
Then in 1903 my grandmother became ill with bronchitis which turned to pneumonia. She had become very fat. She was ill for some weeks, my mother keeping a steam kettle going in her room on an open fire night and day. Also my mother was constantly making linseed poultices while the pneumonia lasted. Grandmother’s room became the focal point of the house, at least our part of it. Grandmother’s bed took up a large part of her room. It was a double bed with two immense feather beds on it that had to be shaken up twice every day. I slept in it for a time with her until she got too ill. It was very, very comfortable, more comfortable than the springiest mattress of today, but oh how dusty it got. Until she got ill my grandmother had washed the feather bed mattress covers every year at spring cleaning time, emptying out all the feathers and then putting them back again when the covers were clean and dry. I remember seeing her with feathers sticking to her face and her hair covered with fluff and small feathers.
She was scrupulously clean and used to bathe in a tin tub in front of the fire in her room until she got too fat. Then my mother used to wash her. She wore her hair parted down the middle and drawn into a bun at the back. Her hair was still black, she used to rub Vaseline into it every day and she had all her teeth with not a sign of decay when she died at the age of 68 in 1905.