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:
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:
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:
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…
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