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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell