My treat – today in Ludlow


It could have been summer today – warm enough to sit outside without a coat. Well for heavens’ sake, just look at that sky. And what better place for a meander on a dreamy autumn day than Ludlow. It is one of Shropshire’s loveliest towns, and has more antiquity than you can shake a stick at.

The castle, whose ruins dominate the skyline, was begun over a thousand years ago during the Norman Conquest of Britain. It was built to secure the border with Wales, and was one of the first stone castles in the country. Over ensuing centuries it figured in all manner of political machinations including the York v Lancaster Wars of the Roses.  When the Lancastrian side won, the victor, Henry Tudor, shortly to become Henry VII claimed Ludlow Castle. He later gave it to his eldest son, Prince Arthur. In 1501 Arthur and his bride, a fifteen-year-old Katherine of Aragon, came here for their honeymoon.  A year later Arthur was dead. Katherine was then betrothed to Prince Henry, Arthur’s brother, but it wasn’t until 1509 that they were married. By then Henry was king. Their marriage endured for 24 years before things went horribly wrong. And we all know what happened next – Anne Boleyn and some serial beheadings.

So enough history. Here are some more views – my treat to you:








It’s a wonderful world…


Earlier in the week, and in between leaf gathering for the allotment leaf mould project, finishing off a short story about Swahili spirit possession, I took myself on a wander around Wenlock’s byways to see what was what. We are very lucky in that respect. Our town is compact, having grown up around the medieval Wenlock Priory. One minute you’re on the High Street, the next you’re out in the Shropshire countryside. And there’s just so much to see out there.

This wild clematis, aka Old Man’s Beard, caught my eye (above and below). It was arching over the path beside the abandoned Shadwell Quarry, and had then anchored itself on the fence. I like the congruity of the barbed wire and the twining plant stem.

It comes into its own in the autumn with its feathery seed heads, and as you will see in a moment, it is an impressive climber.

During the summer it mostly creeps greenly through the trees and you tend not to notice it. I’m also grateful to Richard Mabey’s treasure book Flora Britannica for reminding me that another country name for this plant is Traveller’s Joy.  Mabey tells us that the plant was christened by 16th century botanist and herbalist, John Gerard who named it  thus because of its habit of ‘decking and adorning waies and hedges, where people travell’. He sounds like a sound chap, to pay tribute to the joy-making qualities of plant life.


Like many varieties of clematis, this one does have medicinal properties – for kidneys and skin complaints – but as the whole plant is very acrid, it requires careful preparation. The most common traditional use is to roll the dried stems and smoke them as cigarettes, hence the plant’s other names of boy’s bacca and smokewood.

But this next plant is definitely one you do NOT want to consume in any form, despite its being related to cucumbers. All parts of White Bryony are poisonous and cattle deaths from eating it have been well recorded. But in autumn it is so very beautiful, and twines through hedgerows like strings of red and gold amber beads.


The roots, though, are particularly toxic and grow very large. In 18th century Britain they featured in the mandrake root scam. Mandrake is a Mediterranean plant with a root that looks pretty much like a naked man or woman. It was in great demand as an aphrodisiac and narcotic. (If you know your Harry Potter, you will know that mandrake shrieks when it is being uprooted.) Unprincipled persons of the rabbit-catching variety thus began to fashion bryony roots into the highly desirable mandrake root. It was by no means an easy process either, and involved several phases to complete the subterfuge. Presumably the recipients did not live to tell any tales.


And here are some crab apples, Malus sylvestris  in Latin, woodland apples. They make brilliant, jewel like jelly which is good on toast or with roasts. Mabey says they are the ‘most important ancestor of the cultivated apple, M. domestica. More than 6,000 named varieties have been bred over the centuries, of which probably only a third still survive.’

I found these, a little bruised, beside the old railway line that once served Shadwell Quarry. Now a footpath, this is one of the town’s most attractive places to walk. Ash trees and ivy overhang the track these days, and it has an other-worldly feel, far removed from industrial quarrying, trucking and smelting .


It is hard to imagine that steam trains once came chugging down this track. The branch was built specifically to haul away Shadwell limestone to use as fluxing stone in the iron-smelting industry. In 1873, alone, 22,500 tons was shipped out of Wenlock.

You can walk ‘there and back’ along the path, or there’s a longer circular route that takes you across fields, and down the lane to the Priory and into town. Out in the fields I found that the rose-hips, fruits of wild roses,  were doing pretty good jewel impressions too. They are also known as heps or itchy-coos.


The fruit have hairy insides which are a powerful irritant (and presumably much known to aggravate the coos or cows), but once removed, the hips have highest vitamin C content of any common native British fruit. During World War 2 and into the 1950s there was a national campaign to collect hips to make syrup according to Ministry of Food guidelines. It involved much mincing, stewing and straining, and a lot of sugar which I think was possibly counterproductive health benefit-wise. Nonetheless, caring mothers spooned it into their children.  Some of us will still remember the taste.


Finally a note about this post. Apart from celebrating the Shropshire countryside, it’s also inspired by 1) Lucile Godoy at Photo Rehab and Perelincolors who in Tech of the Month have been urging us to ‘fill the whole picture’ in our compositions. See their blogs for some useful guidance. (Photos here taken with a Kodak EasyShare 380).

And 2) by Jo’s Monday Walk.

Happy composing and walking everyone.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Climate change before my eyes? Sweet Peas on 28 October


Up at the allotment my teepee of sweet peas has been flowering since June. Twice I have thought they were over, and thought of pulling them up. But here they are (photographed yesterday) still budding and blooming, and it’s nearly November. The sky is pretty impressive too.


In fact there’s a lot going on on my plot. My cabbages and Brussels sprouts have grown another six inches in the last few days, and are fighting their way out of their protective enviromesh. The leeks are fat and juicy, and the courgettes are still (just) producing a few fruits. The new strawberry bed is finished, the asparagus mulched, and the over-wintering onions and field beans are in, and sprouting. And, most exciting – to me at least – I have created two huge new compost heaps. Next up, is leaf collection to make leaf mould. It’s a slow process, but worth doing for seed compost. This week on BBC Gardeners World, Monty Don, told me to gather every single leaf because they are so precious. So I shall.

Because if ever I heard a mega-tactic to avoid writing, then this is it. Sorry, can’t write the novel. Must pick up leaves – one at a time.

Actually, I have been writing, though not the novel. Two short stories completed in the last few weeks. In fact today it’s far too wet to go out leaf collecting. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a leaf from the sweet peas’ book, and go and grow the masterwork.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


They call it the Slave Grave, but who was I.D.?



Here lieth the Body of I. D.

A Native of Africa

who died in ths Town

Sept 9th 1801


God hath made of one Blood, all nations of Men. Acts 17 ch. ver. 26


Our recent outing to the Bishop’s Castle Michaelmas Fair (see Summer came back on Saturday and took us to the fair) wasn’t all giant bubbles, stilt walking and steam traction engines. In the graveyard of St John the Baptist parish church there is a mystery. In the north east corner, and well shadowed by English ivy, holly and hazel is the finely carved gravestone dedicated to an African whose only identity is indicated in the letters I.D.  Also, unlike the other memorial stones, the inscription is sited on the western rather than the eastern face. It is hard to read now, and even harder to photograph.


There seems to be some strong indication (see the quote below) that I.D. stood for John Davies. ‘I’s’ were often used interchangeably with ‘J’s’ in old records and inscriptions, and the only burial record for around the date on the gravestone 9th September 1801, is for one John Davies on the 12th of that month. There is apparently some original annotation in the church record that links this name to the gravestone.

So what can be deduced from this scant evidence? Clearly whoever undertook to bury the African did not spare any expense. The stone is beautifully carved. The Bible quotation also indicates their disposition towards equality in a line that was also quoted by slavery abolitionists such as Dr Joseph Priestly. I.D. may not have been a slave at the time of his death, but a free man and/or the servant of a rich landowner. It was usual for slaves to be given their masters’ names. Yet the elegance of the stone itself indicates someone who had attained high status, and was very highly regarded.

In an interesting article in the  South West Shropshire Archaeological Society no 19, 2008, Judith Payne discusses the evidence. Firstly, she says no record can be found of a John Davies living in the town of Bishop’s Castle. However, this does not preclude his being a slave or servant – perhaps to gentry who owned a house locally as well as elsewhere. It had long been the fashion for wealthy Britons to have black servants.

She also suggests that he might have been travelling with someone connected with the abolitionist movement, since abolitionists were active and had much support in Shropshire. A 1790s petition against slavery delivered from the county was nine and half feet long, and in November 1793, Thomas Clarkson, a prominent campaigner, was known to be visiting Bishop’s Castle.

Another possibility is that I.D. belonged to the household one of the land-owner politicians who around 1801-2 was attempting to end  the Clive family’s political control of the town. Bishop’s Castle was a notorious rotten borough.  Payne also posits that the reason for the simple I.D. instead of the full name, was because whoever buried him, knew that this was not his true name. That he was placed in a Church of England graveyard further implies that he was a Protestant.

I also had the notion that whoever had I.D. buried, might not necessarily have known him. They were perhaps some local benefactor with a passion for abolition, someone who wished to make reparation for the shame of slavery by giving some poor itinerant black man a decent burial.

And there we have it. The mystery remains. But the stone itself has been listed by Historic England. Here is what they have to say:

 We have no absolutely certain information about the person commemorated by this headstone. However, the burial register records the internment of John Davies on 12 September 1801, and contains an historic annotation linking Davies with the I.D. tombstone. Shropshire is not notable for its links with the West Indies and the slave trade, but it seems likely that ‘I. D.’ came to Bishop’s Castle or to one of the country houses hereabouts, at least initially, as a servant. The quality of the headstone, with its elegant inscription and decoration, suggests that the person commemorated held a certain status, whether as a servant or not. The biblical quotation is one sometimes employed by abolitionists, and its levelling sentiments suggest that the person responsible for erecting the memorial was sympathetic to the movement. The positioning of the tomb is very curious, it being turned away from the other graves in the area. This headstone faces west, towards an ancient yew tree; the inscription is therefore hidden from general view.

Historic England listing



We are not ones for religious dogma in the Farrell household, but as we left I.D.’s grave, and walked away from this picturesque English churchyard, we were heartened by this small monument of human compassion with its fierce sense of justice. Why in the name of the universe does skin colour matter? Why should people be judged superior on the basis of whiteness. Why do many still look down on people of colour because they were once enslaved? If the palaeontologists are correct, we are all Africans under the skin. And if Africa is where we evolved, then everyone’s ancestors would have been some shade of brown.

But this unsolved mystery is not the end of this particular story. At the top of Bishop’s Castle’s steep main street that leads up from the church, we came upon a current and timely expression of human compassion. Someone had placed a notice in the window of their house:


Written in response to Ailsa’s Travel Theme: letters – and commemorating a visit to Bishop’s Castle where different ‘letters’ came together to form powerful messages of common humanity.


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Life, the universe and everything: all is (extra)ordinary


I whinged a lot during the year about this and that at the allotment – too much wind, too much rain, not enough rain, not enough sun, too many slugs, an invasion of dandelions and buttercups, too little compost, but even so – yes, even so – I have had a magnificent harvest, and it has made us, along with a few friends and relatives, and many of Graham’s workmates very happy.

Excess runner beans have been recycled into a surprisingly delicious piccalilli-type chutney; cherry tomatoes have become tomato chilli jam, or Chillied Out Tom, as Graham named it when making the labels. I’ve made only a few pots of ordinary jam since we do try not to eat much sugar – raspberry, strawberry, damson, and we have a freezer full of field (fava) beans that I’ve discovered convert into the most delicious bean hummus if, after cooking, you relieve them of their skins, and add lemon juice and garlic.

Today, over half way through October, and I am still picking peas, carrots, beetroot and courgettes, and the last of the summer lettuce. Then there are the winter crops coming on: various kales, leeks, caulis, cabbages and Brussels sprouts. This week, too, I’ve been making a new strawberry bed, planting out Elsanta, and Alice varieties, and ordering a few Flamenco which are ever-bearers – fruiting from spring to the first frosts. Then there were overwintering onions to put in, Radar, being a reliable variety, and also garlic beds to make.

I have routed the tomato jungle from the polytunnel apart from a few plants, and it’s a relief to see some space. While I was doing this I came nose to nose with a large toad, which was very pleasing, once we’d got over being scared of each other. Eat more slugs, please toad. I’ve planted out the tunnel’s raised beds with winter salad stuff including purslane, winter lettuce, bunching onions, chard and lamb’s lettuce. I’ve sown a few seeds in there too, just to see what will happen – some herbs, rocket, and various Chinese leaves and mustards. As it gets cooler I will cover those that emerge with fleece.

Otherwise, it’s been all systems go, tidying the plot. This afternoon I was taking down the runner beans and their canes, and digging over the bed, but I was doing it to the heady scent of sweet peas that are lingering on. I also have some jewel coloured nasturtiums growing in the corner of the polytunnel. They smell delicious whenever I open the door, and of course you can eat every part of them – flowers, leaves and seeds, so I’m hoping they’ll keep going into the winter.

There’s just so much to be grateful for in this extraordinary world of ours, though we’d do well to nurture it a bit more so it can continue to nurture us.



Tales from the walled garden #4: more about Alice


A day or so after I had posted the last Walled Garden tale, When Alice met Charlie , I came across a mislaid fragment of a letter from my Aunt Evelyn. I think she had written it while we were still living in Africa. For some reason I have only kept the part that mentions my grandmother Alice. I’m not sure either what prompted Evelyn to launch into some family history, but this is what she says:

My mother was born and brought up in Streatham, a suburb renowned for its many ‘stage’ residents who were top Music Hall and Variety stars before the 1914-18 war. She knew them all and could sing their popular songs. She was the first female member of the Streatham Sainsbury’s branch when it opened on Streatham High Road. Alice Eaton (as we was then) became bookkeeper-cashier at the smart new grocery and provision store – all mahogany fixtures, and gleaming tiles and marble-topped counters.

Evelyn goes on to say that Alice’s stage customers included stars like the male impersonator, Vesta Tilley, comedian-actor, Dan Leno, singer of risqué songs, Marie Lloyd, and Vesta (Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow wow)  Victoria.  It is hard to imagine the demure Alice of the photograph (this was taken in 1910 after the birth of my father, Alex) singing rollicking music hall songs, and I’m pretty sure she would not have sung anything truly racy; but I can see that she may well have conveyed to my father her own delight in Streatham’s glamorous souls.

He in fact spent his long life expecting to be whisked off to a glittering world of fame and fortune. And in between, he veered between the somewhat contrary personas of Peter Pan on the one hand and, in his own words, the play boy on the other. It is the sort of fantasising that might well have provoked a man like Charlie to throw an axe at his only son. He believed in standards and showing by example, and clearly Alex had exasperated him beyond reason. But all this came much later, after the move to Cranleigh when my father was off on late-night escapades, and thought he could elude Charlie by returning to his bedroom by climbing up the drainpipe.


Marie Lloyd in the 1890s; public domain image


Alice and Charlie spent the first thirteen years of their marriage, living in a rented three-storey semi-detached house on Sunnyhill Road, Streatham. It was only a stone’s throw from Angles Road where Alice had been born and brought up, and also in walking distance of her widowed mother’s boarding house on Barcombe Avenue, part of Leigham Court Estate.

Sunnyhill Rod c1900

This view of Sunnyhill Road is much as it would have been in my grandparents’ day. They lived here until January 1918, when Charlie was appointed head gardener at Redhurst Manor. This photo is from the Sunnyhill Primary School website, the school my father probably went to.

Recently amongst my aunt’s papers I discovered a telling glimpse into Alice and Charlie’s first weeks of married life on Sunnyhill Road. I found it in a small notebook that I had thought contained only my grandmother’s small archive of family recipes. However, several pages in, and following on from the instructions for making plum pudding, boiled brisket and apple pancakes, I came upon five weeks of household accounts, covering the second  month of their marriage from October-November 1905.

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The biggest and most important expense was the weekly rent of 5 shillings and 9 pence (20 shillings to the £1, and 12 pennies to a shilling). This also included payment for gas for the cooking stove and lights. Today, by breath-taking contrast, an internet property site lists the next door identical house as having a weekly rental value of £750, and a sale value pitched at around  £800,000. I think Alice and Charlie would have been speechless with disbelief to hear of such colossal sums of money attached to any property they might have lived in. Here it is below, looking a bit sorry for itself in more recent times. I remember my father telling me that, as a small boy, he stood in the passage between their house and the neighbours’, and watched the WW1 zeppelin raids on London…

156 Sunnyhill Road

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Alexander Charles Ashford – warrior brave c. WW1


The other repeat payments in Alice’s accounts were 6 pence for the doctor (perhaps settling a bill on easy terms?) and 6 pence to the bank, which was presumably their weekly savings. Then there was a shilling a week for coal, and a few pennies to the oilman for paraffin to light the household lamps (gas lighting apparently didn’t necessarily make for the best illumination if you needed light to see what you were doing). We can also see that the main food staples were bread and milk, plus a good three shillings’ worth of meat, and a little fish, making a total expenditure for the first week of October of one pound, one shilling and ten pence.

The rest of the notebook is filled with recipes, mostly of the ‘plain cooking’ variety, and clearly geared up to feeding a husband who worked out of doors. There are sturdy suet  crust puddings that required three and more hours of steaming – jam; prune; sausage and onion. There is also a steamed jam sponge called ‘Kiss Me Quick’ Pudding. She does not stint on butter, sugar, treacle, lard, dripping and eggs.

I was also surprised to find her using curry powder, and cayenne pepper, and in her ginger nut biscuit recipe, something that she calls ‘growing ginger’. I’m guessing she means fresh stem ginger. But then why should I be surprised? As a long-time employee in a Sainsbury’s upmarket grocer’s emporium, her cooking horizons were bound to have been  broadened.

I never met Alice. She died three years before I was born. But despite the stodgy sounding recipes, I do know she was a good cook. And I know this because my mother was not, but when on those occasions she prepared the dishes that Alice had taught her to make, the end result was invariably delicious. As a small child, I used to sit in my high chair, and post most of the food mother gave me into the dribbling mouth of our yellow labrador, Heather.  But there were some things I would never have shared, nor could eat enough of – Alice’s creamy long-baked rice pudding with a toffee-crisp skin, delicate egg custard dusted with nutmeg, fly-away Yorkshire puddings, shin beef broth, mouth-watering little oaty cakes. I can taste them still, decades on.

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Alice with Charlie in 1949, the year she died. Flanked by my parents, Peggy and Alex and RAF the dog. Alice is 66.


And so it was that Alice went on nourishing us, long after she had died. She had been an invalid for years, and sometimes wheelchair bound. Before Evelyn married in 1946, the burden of caring for Alice most often fell to her. Yet Evelyn herself had suffered much unaddressed trauma during the war, having been bombed while travelling on a train from Guildford to Cranleigh  (see The Many Faces of Evelyn Mary Ashford). She also had a full-time job in a department store, as well as spending nights on ambulance duty. But once Evelyn left home to marry her war-time sweetheart, it was Charlie, then around 75 and still working as a gardener, who took on the caring role.

In her last letter to Evelyn, the only one I have, Alice is clearly struggling to get over a bad spell, and has been occupying herself with knitting. She starts off explaining how she has adjusted a pattern to make a pullover of a length that she knows Evelyn’s husband, Geoff, would prefer. I gather from a parting comment that they were working on this project together, and Alice wants Evelyn to understand her adjustments. Despite her physical difficulties (and they are not explained) the tone of the letter is very cheery, and chipper.

It begins ‘My Dear Nip’,  Evelyn’s nickname, and a family joke. It is an allusion to the ‘nippies’ or speedy waitresses of London’s J Lyons & Co tea shops, and to Evelyn’s own swift way of doing things. Once the sweater details have been dealt with, Alice goes on to assure Evelyn that they are coping without her, and that although ‘Dad is down 35 shillings a week’ he is not going back to work until Alice is able to get about again. She says he has turned the mattresses on her bed and shaken them up well, and remade all with fresh linen, and how he has been to the village to order coal and pay the milk bill and buy three eggs. She then says,

he came back and made our lunch. While having it he said, “I don’t see why I can’t make some pastry, say an apple pie for Sunday.” Well, I said. It is easier than a cake to make, so I guess he will Have-a-go. Really, all he has cooked for me has been very nice. So you see us old folks can manage.

Alice then turns to family gossip, and ends the letter, ‘Ever your loving Mother,’ followed by a final knitting instruction: ‘Don’t forget length under arm.’

It seems a fitting note to end with. Also, I am suddenly seeing my grandfather in whole new light, one uncoloured by my father’s view of him. I think he was a good soul, and that he and Alice were good souls together.

Finally, here is Evelyn, Nippy incarnate (you can compare her to the original HERE), aged seven, and setting off to the 1930 Cranleigh Carnival with Ronnie Russ. The caption says ‘Nippy and Bob’ so I’m assuming they are based on comic strip characters of the day. Does anyone know?

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Alan Turing Revisited


Alan Turing Memorial 1912-1954, Sackville Gardens, Manchester: sculptor Glyn Hughes


Over at Travel Words, Jude’s October Bench series calls for shots of benches with someone or something on them. This reminded me that I hadn’t posted these photographs of the Alan Turing Memorial, taken on a bright and early April morning in Manchester. I like the way someone has placed a cherry blossom behind his ear – symbolic perhaps, but affectionate too. I feel that if he had been alive now, living in world that is rather more enlightened about sexual mores, he would have enjoyed the gesture.

I have written a little about Turing’s life in an earlier post – An Intricate Mind. His is a mind we could have well done without losing before it had reached the natural conclusion of its great thought processes. And since no opportunity should be lost to counter any lurking bigotry, I’m repeating here what I said in that post:


Here is the statue of man whose decoding of German Enigma Code is credited with shortening World War 2 by two years, and so saving thousands of lives. After the war, working in Manchester, he played a key role in developing ‘Baby’, the first digital computer. He had the brilliance of intellect and foresight that should have been considered a national treasure. Yet in 1952 he was charged with engaging in homosexual acts, tried and convicted of gross indecency. The penalty was prison or chemical castration through the administration of oestrogen. He chose the latter. But because homosexuals were considered security risks, he forfeited his security clearance. In 1954 he was found dead. At the inquest the coroner concluded he had committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He was forty two.

There have various theories about his death: that he staged it to look like an accident; that it was in fact an accident; that he was assassinated. In any event we can only guess at the scale of his future contributions to the domains of science, mathematics, and computer technology had he lived. In 1950, concluding his article in the journal Mind, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, he himself said:

 We can see only a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

In 2013 Turing was granted a royal pardon, and British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, expressed his regret at the way the eminent mathematician had been treated. Today, Turing’s great-niece, Rachel Barnes is lending her support to the campaign Turing’s Law that wishes to see 49,000 others given posthumous pardons. She says that while the Turing family was delighted by Alan Turning’s pardon, they felt it unfair that it was not extended to others similarly convicted.

Turing relative demands pardons for gay men convicted under outdated laws

And all I can say is: see where bigotry takes us. And if you want to see what kind of funny, humane man Alan Turing was, and discover something of his intricate thinking, then read the article Computing Machinery and Intelligence at the link above. It begins with the words:

 I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Tales from the walled garden #3: when Alice met Charlie

Charles Alice 2 (2)Charles Alice 2 (3)

I think I can safely say that  my genetic make-up, in parts of its configuration, is down to a malfunctioning umbrella. At least this is what I gather from my Aunt Evelyn’s brief account of how her parents, my paternal grandparents got together.

But before we get into the umbrella business, please meet my grandmother, Alice Gertrude Eaton, a grocer’s cashier from Streatham, London (I have a notion that it was an early Sainsbury’s store because the emporium’s founders, John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury had the policy that ‘lady clerks made the stores run better’), and grandfather, Charles Ashford, head gardener, born in Twyford, Hampshire. You have seen them in their latter years in my earlier posts from the walled garden (see: #1, #2)

In  many respects they are an unlikely couple. Alice was a city girl through and through. She is perhaps unusual, too, in that, as a young woman, she had a responsible cashier’s job in a big grocery store. There were racy theatrical connections too. Her customers were the music hall stars of the day (The first Sainsbury store was in the theatrical quarter of Drury Lane so this may well have been where she worked). G H Elliott, a well known variety star, whose trademark act (I’m sorry to say) was to perform minstrel-style with blacked up face and wearing a white dinner suit, was also some sort of relative. He made his first recording in 1904, and had a long recording career. Alice was very proud of the family association. Then one of the witnesses on her marriage certificate is her older brother, Charles Kisber Eaton, a professional cricketer. It seems their father, also Charles, a plumber gas-fitter, had backed the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1876, the year his son was born. Kisber was the famous, Hungarian-bred racehorse that also won the Grand Prix de Paris the same year.

Charles Kisber Eaton: it’s quite a name. The Eaton family then, it seems, had a bit of urban edge, the kind of street-wise flair that grandfather did not. He was a countryman, my aunt said, to the soles of his well polished boots. And so how did he end up marrying a Streatham girl? Well here is the backstory according to my aunt:

I must now tell you a bit about my father.

He was born in a village called Twyford, near Winchester, the second son of a family of eight – four boys and four girls. He left school when he was 12 years old, and went to work at Twyford Vicarage as a pantry boy. He got up in the morning at 5 am – sometimes earlier – stoked the kitchen fire, cleaned all the boots and shoes. Next he filled the coal scuttles, got the wood and paper ready for laying the fires and all before cook and the house maids appeared at 6.15. Next job was to clean the front steps and polish the brass on the front door, and then sweep the drive down to the front gate. After this he had to help the maids carry cans of hot water for the family to wash or bathe.

After breakfast there were knives to clean, followed by further fetching and carrying for the rest of the day. Twice a week he would have to walk into Winchester (5 or 6 miles each way) to collect a special brown loaf for the vicar’s wife. The coach man would very often pass him on the way, but was not allowed to pick up little Charlie Ashford. But he was well fed at the vicarage and grew into a tall, strong boy.

Perhaps he grew tired of all the household chores for when he was about fifteen he went to work at a great house called Arle Bury Park, at Arlesford, north of Winchester.

This time Charlie Ashford went for outdoor work and became a garden boy, one of a staff of eight. There he lived in the gardeners’ bothy with some of the other men and boys, and had to take turns preparing meals for his elders. He was reasonably happy there, for although strict, the head gardener was a kind man who saw that the boys were fairly treated and taught to be good gardeners.

After several years of learning his trade, he went to Streatham in London, to a big house in Leigham Court Road where he worked for the proprietor of the Church Times. It was a good job with plenty to do, and he could spend his spare time exploring 1900s London.

And so here we have countryman, Charlie, roaming London’s streets in his spare time. The 1901 census has him lodging on Barcombe Avenue, Streatham. By now he is 26 and his landlady is Louise Eaton, a 54-year old widow, who is ‘living on her own means’. She is Alice’s mother, and the means appear to be income from running a boarding house. It is a substantial red-brick three-storey terrace house. Alice is also living there with her three sisters Ellen, Harriet and Jessie (the last two are listed as dressmakers) and brother Charles, of race horse fame and the professional cricketer. There are three other boarders besides Charlie, all gardeners. And at the time of the census there are also two visiting grooms. A full house then.

My own feeling about Charlie Ashford is that he was a taciturn, self-contained man, who needed a bit of a prod when it came to courting young ladies. Perhaps Alice, who was nine years younger, had worked this out. Perhaps her sisters had dared her. In any event, one Sunday afternoon at Barcombe Avenue, when it was too rainy for Charlie to go out on his usual city explorations, there was a loud knock at his door. When he opened it, there before him was a slim young girl in her Sunday best. She was flushed and agitated. She thrust an umbrella into his hand and stammered, ‘T-t-take my umbrella. The t-t-top’s come off’.

And so it began. Alice and Charlie were married in September 1905 at St. Leonard’s Church, Streatham Common. In January 1910, their first child, my father, Alexander Charles Ashford was born. Here we have another ‘grand’ name, although to be fair to my grandmother she had simply wanted to call him Alec. For some reason the vicar thought this was not a real name, hence the Alexander. My father always told me that when he joined the armed forces in WW2, and the recruiting sergeant asked for his name, the scathing response on hearing it had been ‘And who the devil do you think you are? A ruddy author?’

In fact my father was always a fame-seeker, hoping to be ‘discovered’ at every turn. Perhaps it was his mother’s tales of meeting people like Marie Lloyd in her shop, or hearing her admiring talk of G H Elliott. He was anyway a ‘mummy’s boy’, and increasingly so as he persisted in earning his father’s disapproval. Alex rather revelled in the tale of the day when his father grew so enraged, that he threw an axe at his wayward son.

And now for the full picture from which I extracted the portraits of Alice and Charlie. Here, between them, is Alexander Charles aged three. As family portraits go, I feel this is quite striking:

Charles Alice 2

And next, here is a photo taken around 1919 when grandfather was engaged as head gardener at Redhurst, and moved his family from Streatham to live in a country estate cottage. Alex is eight or nine here, and isn’t he so pleased to pose – and with that barely felt touch of his mother’s protecting hand on his shoulder:

Charles Alice 1

This next photo is of Charlie by himself at Redhurst and was also taken around 1919. Perhaps he does have a bit of dash after all:

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But mostly his life was about doing the ‘right thing’ without making a big show of it. I discovered among my aunt’s papers a little book that was Charlie’s school prize at the age of six.  The inscription to the little boy in this ‘improving’ slender volume is telling. I think he probably took its message well and truly to heart: waste not, want not…

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And finally another glimpse of the kind of man he was. The following is an inscription from a gravestone in the village graveyard of his Twyford birthplace that he has written down, perhaps from  memory in later life. I think the word ‘earth’ should be ‘death’, but either way these words still resonate:

This world is a city with  many a crooked street.

Earth is a market place where all men meet.

If life were a merchandise that men could buy,

The rich would live, and the poor would die.


As for Alice, she spent much of her life from middle age onwards as an invalid, and died aged 65. It is not clear what ailed her exactly, but the burden of care usually fell on my teen-aged Aunt Evelyn. Evelyn was born when Alice was 40, thirteen years after Alex. My mother used to say that Charlie claimed that Evelyn wasn’t his when he first found out that Alice was pregnant again. Evelyn herself said she grew up feeling that her parents had reached a stage in their life where they didn’t want to be bothered with rearing a child. She said she never knew her father with anything other than his snow-white hair.

And so were they a happy family? Who can tell? This last photo from Evelyn’s album would seem to say so. And yet…?


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Pushing the boundaries: welcome to my new web design page

The following themes are now available at this address:


‘The Miss Haversham‘



‘Galadriel’s Garlands’









‘Web Apps ’



‘The Neuron’


When I looked out of my bedroom window this morning all was dull and dank. There was no view of the Edge, only fog on the field that in the past two days has been  harvested, harrowed and re-sown, and is anyway looking gloomily autumnal. But when I walked out into the garden I found every leaf and stem was glittering with dewy webs.  So much spinning and weaving in the night – a thousand spider-stiltskins run amok. And even if you don’t like spiders, you can still admire their fog-enhanced artwork. Well, can’t you?