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

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

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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:

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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:

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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

Tales from the Walled Garden #2: back to the potting shed


This is my Aunt Evelyn in around 1927. I’m guessing she’s about four years old when this photo was taken. She’s in the walled kitchen garden at Redhurst Manor, Surrey, where her father, my grandfather, Charles Ashford, was head gardener. In Tales from the Walled Garden #1  I included an excerpt from Evelyn’s description of what she calls her father’s ‘holy of holies’, the potting shed. She spent much time there as a small child, ever under strict instructions to be good. Here’s some more of what she remembered:

The potting shed was filled with a wonderful mixture of smells of the sort you find in a ‘20s hardware store. Tarred string was the main one. Then there was the strange jungly smell of the raffia hanks hanging on the door. It suggested faraway places. There was bone meal, fish meal, sulphate of ammonia, Clays fertilizer, Fullers Earth, Hoof and Horn – everything to help bring in good crops – and all stored in wooden bins with brass bands and rivets and a wooden bushel or half-bushel measure on top.



And now Evelyn will show you around some more of her father’s gardening domain. She’s even drawn you a map:


Let me take you down the steps from the potting shed and into the kitchen garden. To the left there is a very long, narrow border under the high brick wall. This is where the herbs are grown for the kitchen. Either cook comes herself, or she sends the little kitchen maid to pick what is required for the day. It might be mint or parsley, chives, tender little spring onions or sprigs of fennel for the fish course – all the herbs in their season. If cook comes to the garden in summer, she also makes a quick inspection of the fruit cage to see what is ready.

With the exception of strawberries, all the soft fruit is grown in the big cage: fat red or yellow gooseberries, raspberries, luscious loganberries, all the currants – red, white, black, and later in the season the enormous cultivated blackberries. Many times I have slipped into that big cage to pick the huge fruits, especially the gooseberries, crouching down between the rows, hoping I wouldn’t be seen. These large red varieties, Prince Rupert, Wonderful  and Roaring Lion are hardly seen now, but those monsters of my childhood were a joy to eat straight from the bush. I never liked cooked gooseberries.

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Our kitchen garden soil was heavy yellow Surrey clay, and so enormous quantities of lighter stuff had to be dug in each autumn. Also a number of green manure crops were grown to be ‘turned in’ before food crops were planted. One of my father’s favourites was groundsel. This was dug into the big plot where brassicas would be planted.

In spring I would be sent out with a bucket and thick leather gloves to gather the lush green tops of nettles. This was not my favourite task. These nettles went in trenches beneath the seed potatoes because they contained a lot of iron. All sorts of natural substances were added to the soil of that garden. The only chemical preparation my father bought was Clays fertiliser and perhaps Bordeaux Mixture. Everything grew extremely well for him. Everything was tended with loving care. Season after season this was the pattern of things in the gardens of our estate.

Within the mellow brick walls the sun beat down, warming the fruit in the cage, the trained trees on the walls, and giving warmth to all life in the rich soil so that all the fruit and vegetables flourished.

On the walls were trained the top fruit: William pears, yellow plums, Victoria plums, nectarines, quinces, medlars, and some very special apples. Tucked into the angle of the south facing wall, which was the warmest spot, were a fig tree and a lovely peach. Below each wall was a deeply dug bed, and towards the potting shed there were artichokes, celery, spinach and, surprising for those days, sweet corn. My father was very good at growing sweet corn, and it was a great favourite with the Major.

Next to the big fruit cage a few rows of catch crops were grown. These included lettuce, carrots, early peas, and beetroots – anything else that had a short season. Across the grass path was the asparagus bed. This would have taken a long time to prepare and bring into production. It would have been a Sabbath Day’s job to dig the trenches north to south, two feet deep at least and filled with well rotted manure, light compost and a good sprinkling of silver sand worked in well. The raised bed should be salted as this is helpful to the plants and discourages slugs and weeds. A good bed should last twenty years.

My father grew wonderful asparagus. There was plenty for cook to prepare for the house, and the surplus was sold at the village greengrocer. I can still recall succulent dishes of this delectable vegetable, dripping with butter and served up for Sunday dinner at home.

We didn’t know how lucky we were all those years ago. So many good things to eat every day, and game from the numerous shoots that the Major held on his land. All the fruit we could eat in due season, and a good roof over our heads in the gardener’s cottage at the edge of estate.

To be continued.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell