In Search Of Lost Time In Eyam And An Outbreak Of Plague


This very unusual wall sundial is to be found above the Priest’s Door on the east side of Eyam parish church in Derbyshire. It dates from 1775, and was designed and made locally. I discovered it when were in the village doing a spot of family history research – not researching in any organised way I might add – more a matter of walking ancestral paths and acquiring a sense of place. Eyam is anyway a village with an awful lot of history, not least the story of how its inhabitants dealt with an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665-1666 by imposing a cordon sanitaire around the village boundary, and for over a year sticking to it so as not to spread the disease to neighbouring communities.

Over the fourteen months that the outbreak persisted, 280 out of the 800 population died. It is thought the infection arrived in a parcel of fabric, sent in late summer from London to the Eyam tailor, Alexander Hadfield. The package was opened by his assistant, George Viccars, and it was he who was the first to fall ill and die. Thereafter, the disease spread rapidly throughout the autumn, slowed over the winter, and returned in full force in the following spring and summer. In the worst month of August 1666 seventy eight villagers died.

Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine was managed by the young village rector, Reverend William Mompesson, and Nonconformist minister Reverend Thomas Stanley. It was agreed that every household would bury their own dead and, in a bid to  maintain morale and give comfort to survivors, church services were held in the open air so people could gather together, but not too closely. Local landowner, the Duke of Devonshire, and others from neighbouring villages saw that supplies of food and other necessities were left at the village boundary.

It is a harrowing episode that demonstrates great human resilience and bravery, not least by the Reverend Mompesson, whose own wife was among the last victims. And today, as you wander around the village, the event continues to be marked by commemorative plaques outside the cottages that were once the homes of the families who were particularly afflicted.

It could seem mawkish, crass even, to make a visitor attraction from this horrific episode, but somehow it isn’t. The village quietly embraces you in a reflection on shared humanity – now and back through time.  In fact the sun dial says it all: Induce animum sapientum –  cultivate an enquiring mind. And then on the two supporting stone corbels, which you can’t quite read in the photo: ut  umbra sic vita – life passes like a shadow.

I especially like the way that when it is noon in Eyam, the sundial shows the relative times in Calicut, Mecca and Panama, to name but a few of the far-flung places inscribed on the dial. It also includes a chart for longitudinal adjustments of local True Sun Time to Greenwich meantime, and throughout the year. Somehow it is uplifting to feel that in this isolated Derbyshire village, and over the centuries, the gaze of its inhabitants has extended to a world beyond its village boundaries.

So far I haven’t mentioned why we were visiting Eyam or explained presumed family links with this locality. Researches into the Fox family of Callow in Hathersage (covered in other posts) suggest that a possibly direct ancestor, one Robert Fox, yeoman farmer and lead miner, was living in the area between 1678 and 1699. I have a copy of his will and household inventory, so I know he owned 13 cushions and several field beds in one or more parlours. There were no Fox plague victims in Eyam, although Robert Fox’s second wife, Margaret Mower, had lost an uncle, Rowland Mower. His will is included in the 1842 book by local historian, William Wood, The History and Antiquities of Eyam ~ with a full and particular account of the Great Plague.

The Fox family connection is all a bit of a yarn, which may never be unravelled. So for now some more views of the village:P1050536

Eyam Parish Church and its 8th century Saxon Cross complete with Celtic influences.








This is Eyam Hall, very much post-plague, and built between 1671-6 and incorporating a much smaller existing property in the heart of the village. Its builders were newcomers, the land-owning-merchant Wright family, and their arrival signified revival, and an increasing interest in developing the lead mining potential the area. Landowners large and small were keen to exploit this highly valued mineral. And although lead had been mined across Derbyshire since Roman times, there is almost a ‘gold rush’ feel about the exploitative zeal from the late 17th century.

It is possible that post-plague opportunities around Eyam attracted the likes of putative ancestor, Robert Fox. My band of fellow Fox-hunters has not been able to establish if he was an incomer or if there were existing family connections with Eyam. His father was a tenant farmer at The Oaks, near Highlow, a few miles away, and he and Robert’s brothers may also have been involved in the lead business,  possibly smelting.

Robert owned four small parcels of lead-bearing land in Foolow, two of which adjoined Wright land. When he thought he was dying in 1691 and wrote his will, he was very concerned to make it clear he had ownership of them, and that the proceeds of his property should be managed by his brother and brother-in-law for the upbringing and education of his four children – James, William, Mary and Robert. In fact he did not die until 1699, and it is not clear what happened to his family. We think the eldest James became a shoemaker in Eyam, and that Robert was possibly a very successful joiner in Wirksworth, the lead mining capital of Derbyshire. William is the one we have our eye on as the possible ancestor for the Callow Foxes, but his baptismal record has so far proved elusive, which is most annoying when we know that his three siblings were baptised in Eyam church. Ah, well. Such are the fascinations and frustrations of tracking down traces of families long past.


From: William Wood The History & Antiquities of Eyam 1842

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past



P.S. A number of readers have asked what became of 3 year old Joseph Siddall. The Eyam Museum researches seem to indicate that there were in fact two surviving Siddall children, and they went to live with relatives in Sheffield, not that far from Eyam. There is quite a dynasty of Siddalls in the Eyam-Stoney Middleton area of Derbyshire, so they would not have been left without any family connections.

Textures Of My Ancestral Landscape


These are some of the landscape textures that my maternal ancestors, the Fox family of Derbyshire’s High Peak would have known well – windswept moors and weathered scarps of millstone grit. They were yeoman farmers and lead miners, and they made a living from this bleak and beautiful country for hundreds of years.

Family legend has it that the Foxes arrived in England with William the Conqueror, but Fox is a name with Germanic origins so they may well have been Saxons, belonging to the conquered rather than to the conquering forces. The earliest records for Foxes in the Hope Valley, and Offerton in particular – where my Foxes farmed until the end of the nineteenth century, are around the thirteenth century, although I and my fellow Fox researchers are yet to establish direct lineage from these times.

There were centuries of prosperity when various family members lived in large stone farmhouses, made ‘good’ marriages, and owned land and lead mining concessions, but by the early twentieth century there was only one member of my Fox line left in the area, and he was living modestly in Eyam. The family farm of Callow where he was born, and by then owned by the Duke of Devonshire had been relinquished with a farm sale in 1892.   High rents were besetting many Derbyshire farmers at this time. The Mr Fox mentioned in the sale advertisement is my great great grandfather, George Brayley Fox:


The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent

Saturday 29 October 1892

Callow Farm Sale

Important Sale of 23 cows, heifers, steers and calves, two horses and foal, 30 sheep, hays stack, three wheat stacks, seven oat stacks, farm implements etc.

Mr Hattersley has been honoured with instructions from Mr Fox who is give up the Farm, to sell by Auction on Wednesday, Nov 3, 1892, the very superior LIVE and DEAD FARM STOCK, as briefly enumerated below:

Black Mare, believed to be in foal, excellent worker;

Valuable Brown Horse, six years old, with splendid action, believed to be sound, and quiet in all work;

Roan foal by Bedford;

One Cow in calf for December 25th, four in-calf cows for April, two barren cows in milk, four very choice heifers in calf for April, two barren heifer stirks, five strong bullock stirks, five spring-reared calves, 11 superior stock ewes, six fat sheep, one two-shear ram, 12 strong lambs, two very fine ducks, one fine drake.

Samuelson’s 2-horse combined mower and reaper, nearly new with additional shafts; wood tippler, horse rake, Cooke’s wood plough, set of wood harrows, nearly new; set of three harrows, swingtrees, fallow drag on wheels, stone roller, with shafts, horse turnip hoe, sheep troughs, joiner’s bench and tools, quarry tools, hay rakes and forks, 2 1-horse carts, winnowing machine, wheel chopper, with rising mouth, in excellent condition; corn chest, cart gears, stone cheese press, lever ditto, cheese rack and boards, nearly new; vats, garths etc, cheese pan, two brewing tubs, two oak chests, and a portion of furniture.

One stack of very prime new hay, three stacks of wheat, five stacks of white oats, two ditto of black oats and a quantity of table and other turnips.

Sale to commence 12 noon.


Every item here tells of great intimacy with the land. Just to read this notice gives me a painful sense of roots yanked up. I feel the touch and then the loss of the fine ducks, the strong lambs, the black mare in foal, the oats and the stone cheese press; even the turnips and the quarrying tools. But I would like to think, too, that somewhere in my bones are still traces of that High Peak millstone grit, the hardiness and courage that it took to carve a living from these uplands, and in my lungs the sharp, clean air of the moors of Longshaw where earlier generations of my family, so it is said, grazed four hundred sheep on their own run, and also owned the shepherd’s byre, that dating from 1399 was later sold and expanded into a handsome house for the Duke of Rutland’s agent, and is now the well known inn, Fox House, just outside Sheffield. Somewhere within this sturdy stone carapace is the earlier shepherd’s dwelling of quite another texture.


copyright 2016 Tish Farrell


This week at Black & White Sunday, Paula has given us the theme of ‘texture’. She also included a quotation by novelist British Paul Scott, which is very much responsible for my take on the challenge:

“The past becomes a texture, an ambience to our present”

P.S. Paul Scott served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in India during the World War Two. He wrote the phenomenal Raj Quartet, set in India during these years, and which was made into a very excellent TV serial back in the 1980s. The TV version is available on DVD, and with its all star actors is well worth watching. But read the books too.

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 #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

The birds: who, where, when?


Evelyn Mary Ashford 1923-2013


Some time-travelling is definitely called for  to unravel the context of this photo. It was scanned from a tiny loose snap found inside in my Aunt Evelyn’s photo album. Frustratingly, there were no accompanying details. I am sure, though, that it is Evelyn. Also the girlish pose would suggest late teenage years. Since she lived in Cranleigh, Surrey, and nowhere near the sea, and as I’m assuming that working people did not go on holiday during war-time, my guess is that this photo was taken sometime before the summer of 1939.  There is no clue either as to location, or who the photographer might have been. There is only this frozen moment in time as Evelyn throws bread to the gulls, the paper it was wrapped  in pressed by the breeze across her knee.

Evelyn died this autumn at almost 90 and a half. She lived a good and creative life despite many set-backs. Somehow this striking shot of her amongst the wheeling birds captures much of her spirit.

For  more of Evelyn’s story see earlier posts:

Grand girl, great prospects…?

The Many Faces of Evelyn Mary Ashford

Eve trig 1

© 2013 Tish Farrell

For more birds:

Ailsa’s Travel Theme Birds


Zebra Designs and Destinations

Figments of a DuTchess

Postcards from home and away…

Edge of the Forest

Grand girl, great prospects…?

Eve trig 1

Pitch Hill, Cranleigh, Surrey


Don’t you feel the rush of energy as you look at this photograph? An impulse captured, hopefulness personified. The gaze is so sure, the balance perfect with no hint of a wobble. It makes you ask: what is this young woman surveying? How does she see her future? And with a stance like that, isn’t it bound to be glowingly brilliant?

If I tell you that the year when this snap was taken was 1937, whatever  image you have just conjured will fragment into uncertainty. With hindsight we can see what her young eyes cannot: soon there will be war, some six years of it.

This, then, is my aunt, Evelyn Mary Ashford, who was ninety in June 2013. I have told the story of the 1942  train bombing that she miraculously survived here.  But since I wrote that post I have found an aftermath photo of the actual incident.


Photo from War on the Line by Bernard Darwin, Middleton Press

Evelyn, then, was the daughter of the Head Gardener at Redhurst Manor, Cranleigh, one Charles Ashford of Twyford Wiltshire, and Alice Gertrude Eaton, a former accounts cashier from Streatham, London. My father, Alex, was born nearly thirteen years earlier than Evelyn, and by the time she was born, her parents were middle-aged, and my grandfather’s hair already white. This is how I remember him too, for he was long-lived, although a Victorian through and through – a passionate gardener and meticulous horticulturalist typical of that era.


The Ashford Family c. 1930

Grandpa Ashford 1952

Charles Ashford c1952 in his late 70s going rough shooting with Smudger.

Evelyn was around fourteen years old when the Pitch Hill photo was taken. I imagine it was my father who captured her on the trig point. The week before her fourteenth birthday she wrote an essay for her English homework. It is called “I had sixpence…” and gives a surprising insight into this particular village girl’s mind.  Seventy six years on, it still has resonance.

“Money! What a lot that word means today. Everyone is out for as much as they can get, the businessman in the City goads his employees on to fight for supremacy and money.

What would I do if were a millionairess? How should I plan my life?

First of all I would find a home, not just anywhere, but where I should be happiest. Preferably I should live in Devonshire. To be out on the open friendly moors, with the tang of sea in my nostrils, warm streams of pure air fanning my cheeks and the sound of the sea breaking upon the rugged rocks.

Another thing that I would delight in, is travel. To see the great places of the world renowned for mighty deeds and people. Rome, Venice, Athens, those beauty spots of the world. The ruined Coliseum, the forum, the mighty arena once thronged with sturdy, carefree Romans, with swinging togas. The gondolas, moonlit canals and gay masques of Venice, that city of song and laughter…

To return to England and my Devonshire home. One of my favourite pastimes would be reading. A large shady room with deep armchairs, soft long piled carpet that deadened all sound and a baize door, with shelves packed full with books on all sides, a veritable sea of books. Kipling, Stevenson, Edgar Wallace, Horler, ‘Sapper’, Dickens and all those famed authors. That would be the domain of my heart. What strange people would flock down from the shelves to meet me: Sam Weller, Drummond, Pickwick, Jim Hawkins, Kim, Tommy Tradles, Madam Defarge and lord of them all, Sidney Carton.

Oh! But I am thinking only of myself. My money would not be spent on myself along. There are millions of others who would know none of the joy I have experienced. I mean to make myself prominent in government affairs; to get into Parliament if I possibly can. The working class must have more freedom for they are hemmed in on all sides by government officials. What do we pay taxes for but to keep fat officials in the lap of luxury? That is what I would be all out against…”

She concludes by saying that on her death all her wealth would be shared equally between her chief friends and interests.

 And of course she is not dead yet, although she is very poorly, and she no longer communicates on this plane of existence. All her young and adult life, she did whatever she could to help other people, this despite feeling sorely thwarted by a lack of education. My grandfather made her leave school before she could sit for her Primary School Certificate, and anyway would not have been able to afford for her to go on to high school. Instead, she looked after my grandmother, and then was apprenticed to Gammon’s Drapers in Cranleigh, working a twelve-hour day. 


Evelyn with my grandmother in the 1940s.

Like so many bright women of her generation, her true talents were never fully nurtured or allowed expression. She married a man, a war-time sweetheart, whom she once described as “a good man”, but who was in no way a kindred spirit. Their married life was also blighted for the first fifteen years by having my grandfather living with them. This was  a terrible trial by any standards, for he allowed them no privacy, and Evelyn found herself endlessly torn between father and husband.

But for all her domestic ups and downs, she never stopped learning, any way she could, or passing on the things she had learned. Now, though, her gaze looks inward rather than out into the world. Perhaps she is back in the walled garden at Redhurst, watching her father in the big glass houses, propagating primulas or grafting peaches, or getting her knickers green, sliding on the velvet lawns that were cut by garden boys leading the  big horse-drawn mower. Or perhaps she is thinking of the young American bomber pilot whom she did not marry, but to whose family she wrote breathlessly chatty letters about doodle bugs and food shortages during the last years of the war. “Dear Momma and Pop” those letters begin…


Evelyn around 4 years old in the Redhurst kitchen garden where her father ruled.


The legal profession talks of ‘lack of capacity’ when it comes to consider the fitness of people like Evelyn to participate in the man-made fiscal world. She lacks capacity. She does not talk. She cannot read or write anymore. A couple of years ago when we first went to see her in the Welsh nursing home where she lives, and before her so-called capacity had totally shipped out, she was able to tell us that she was happy enough there because she had “so much to think about.” So I’ll second that, Evelyn Mary Ashford Gibbings. In my mind’s eye I stand on a trig point too, and I salute you for a life well lived. For although you never realised your entire capacity, at least  in the sense that I understand it, as a creative person exploring their full potential, you are  still a hero. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!


Evelyn feeding the gulls, unknown date and location, possibly 1940s.

copyright 2013 Tish Farrell

The Many Faces of Evelyn Mary Ashford

Evelyn 1 scanned

What does this face say to you? Naivety. Candour. Wistful intelligence. Vulnerability.  A time long past?

It is clearly an ‘old photo’, a studio shot. I also happen to know that it was made for wide circulation, part of the subject’s own personal war effort during the early 1940s when she tirelessly wrote cheering letters to numerous servicemen fighting overseas. This is my aunt, Evelyn Mary Ashford, my father’s little sister, thirteen years his junior. In a few weeks time it will be her ninetieth birthday, and although many who know her will mark this day with cards and kind words, it is unlikely that she will fully understand; these days her mind quite inhabits another zone.

Her corporal self, however, lives in a nursing home in rural Wales where she is well cared for. Hers is a strong old body. She has survived a Luftwaffe bombing, diabetes, breast cancer, strokes, repeated acts of medical negligence and, most recently, recovered from a broken hip.

Like many women of her generation, her spirit has also borne years of thwarted ambition, the denial of the higher education that her village school essays prove she deserved. As a country girl she has believed herself socially inferior. As a childless woman she has felt a misfit. As a daughter she has  sacrificed her own longings to ‘be someone’ , first to leave school at fourteen years old to care for an invalid mother, later to take in a domineering old father whose presence further blighted the first fifteen years of her marriage. And while the physical wounds of the 1942 bomb blast were exquitisitely repaired – her face was miraculously re-constructed over four years by Professor T P Kilner, a pioneer in Plastic Surgery for disfigured service personnel – the psychological effects of her experience were never addressed.

In the end, you could hardly see the scars as the later photographs below clearly show. But for years afterwards Evelyn reported the emergence of glass shards from all parts of her body. Also there were the years of  disfigurement between admissions  for plastic surgery to St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, and later to Stoke Mandeville (then a military hospital) where she received her final round of surgery alongside service amputees and burns victims. It was while she was here that she read letters to a young Canadian from the Royal Canadian Engineers. A landmine explosion had blown off his right leg and arm and left him partially blind. She and other patients were also shocked to see the arrival of the first victims released from the Belsen concentration camp. This is how she describes the scene in some lecture notes:

“All along the wall of the Main Hall there were stretchers lined up. Each one carried a skeletal form covered in a grey army blanket which barely disguised the fact that there was very little flesh on brittle bones. Gaunt, hollow eyes turned to look at us. ‘How are they ever going to put those poor souls right again,’ someone said.”


I of course have only known the older Evelyn, so I cannot say what it would have been like for her to suffer multiple facial injuries – to effectively ‘lose face’ in all senses. She was nineteen when it first happened, in love, the shining light of her village, and she also earned a living in a very public place as an assistant in Whites, a big Guildford department store.

The effects, though must have been devastating. But then how do you begin to come to terms with your own injuries when you know that others were suffering far worse, or were dead, or that your particular wounds were considered a civilian casualty, and not the product of heroic self-sacrifice in action? Self pity, then, was not only NOT ALLOWED. It was seen as positively unpatriotic. These were the years  of the ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘grinning and bearing it’, both hard to pull off with glass-torn flesh. There are, though, some later passing references to unresolved issues. After the bomb blast Evelyn suffered from blistering rages which only her husband, Geoffrey Gibbings, was later to help her to overcome.


Married life c.1953


It was December 16th 1942 when the German pilot of the Dornier 217 strafed and then dropped three bombs beside the 1.34 pm Guildford to Cranleigh train. It must have been half-day closing because Evelyn’s account, written a month afterwards, says it was a Wednesday and she was going home from work. The train on this line comprised only two carriages, and she and two other White’s girls, Marjorie and Avis, were the only ones in their compartment.

Evelyn remembered the greyness of the day, the black silhouettes of trees across the farm fields, a swirling misty rain as they approached Bramley. She also said she felt an unaccountable depression. Avis was reading a book, The Sun is My Undoing, and Marjorie was leafing through Evelyn’s copy of the London Illustrated News. Suddenly, as she and Marjorie were chatting, there was a terrific clatter along the train roof – like a shower of hail. Next she says it was

as if someone had given me a crack on the head with a giant hammer and I was going down and down, then round and round into eternity.

When she came to, she found herself hanging out of the corridor window with the remains of the door hung around her shoulders. Through the glassless window she first thing she saw was the three Canadian soldiers who had got on the train with her at Guildford. They were beside the track. One was badly cut and his clothes were in shreds. He held his companion  as they sobbed together like children. The third soldier was dead, lying against their knees with a handkerchief over his face. In her muddled state, and before she passed out, Evelyn remembered thinking that they must have been in an accident, and that one of the soldiers was dead. Poor things, she thought.

When she surfaced again it was to find that her own clothes in shreds and that the valise she had put on the seat beside her was pierced through by a shaft of wood. Marjorie had disappeared completely, and Avis lay under the debris, apparently unscathed but dead, with the usual quiet smile on her face. Later, it transpired that Marjorie had been blown out of the carriage. She had lost an eye.

In a 1944 letter to one of her many war-time pen-pals, a young American trainee pilot, Evelyn describes what happened next:

at last I ended up in hospital with no face or clothes to speak of…I opened my one good eye and saw a handsome face smiling down at me. This boy, as he looked to me, was in shirt sleeves and I, thinking he was a student, and being very light-headed…reached up and patted his face saying, “Hello, Sunshine” with the result that he had a lovely blood-stained cheek. He turned out to be the hospital’s leading surgeon and ever afterwards was known as Sunshine Allen.

Seventy years on, there is no way of knowing if Evelyn remembers any of this. Over the past few years she has grown increasingly confused, and after several strokes has been unable to speak very well – a declining state generally described as ‘having dementia’. I know it is said that unresolved anger is a feature of dementia, and there may be a big element of this in Evelyn’s mental retreat – years of repressed frustration perhaps. But wherever her mind is now, I feel it is there, somewhere, tracking in a parallel universe. It is our loss that we can no longer communicate with her in this new world.

As the keeper of her notebooks and letters, the fragments of her life, I now find myself the custodian of her memories. This of course is flawed in many ways. A long family feud meant that I did not really get to know Evelyn until later years. We wrote to one another while I was in Africa, and I knew she always led a hectically busy life within whichever community she and my uncle had made their home. I never had the chance, or even thought to ask her about her life; how it had really been. I knew her only in the present where she was an expert horticulturalist, seamstress, good cook, great reader, great letter writer, dedicated Women’s Institute judge and committee member, animal lover, church goer, former small-time sheep farmer and generous friend to anyone need. I also knew that my mother had been deeply jealous of her.

Evelyn’s archive is not extensive. It includes some of her village school essays from 1936-7, notes for lectures given to her gardening club and the W.I, and a fraction of her lifetime’s correspondence with friends around the world. There are also two day-books of newspaper cuttings and her commentaries upon current affairs dating from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Finally there is a notebook of creative writing pieces.

My aunt wanted to be a writer; was so thrilled when my own work began to be published. All her life she strove to cultivate herself, and on all fronts. There appeared to be no subject that did not interest her. Coming from a background with a Victorian father who thought it more important that his daughter be apprenticed to a draper’s than to go on to high school, and then marrying a stalwartly middle class man who thought wives should stay at home, she later sought her educational opportunities within the seemingly unchallenging sphere of the Women’s Institute’s Denman College. Here she attended all manner of courses whenever the chance arose, then passed on her knowledge wherever she could. At seventy nine, and much to her husband’s bemused irritation, she went to word processing classes so she could write up her lecture notes in a more orderly fashion. Clearing her home, I found her notes on the letters I had written from Africa. Naturally she had turned them into one of her talks.

But perhaps in the end it is best to let the photographs of Evelyn tell their own story. Here, then, are some of the many faces of Evelyn Mary Ashford, glimpses of a life well lived. She truly is an inspiration to all who have had the pleasure to know her.


Evelyn around a year old. She was born at Redhurst Cottages, Cranleigh, Surrey in 1923. Her mother Alice, was a Streatham girl and former cashier for Sainsbury’s. Her father Charles Ashford was Head Gardener at Redhurst Manor.  (Below) Aged three, in the walled garden at Redhurst. Her life-long interest in horticulture began in this garden, listening to her father’s instructions to his men.



The Ashford Family, my father Alex at the rear c. 1930

Eve trig 2 scanned

At Pitch Hill, aged around fourteen (1937). This was her last year at school. In an English exercise of that year she wrote: “These are the things that I want in life: 1. A library of my own; 2. All Rudyard Kipling’s Works; 3) lots of money so that I can make poor people happy.” She also wanted to have lots of REAL friends and play Madame Defarge in a stage version of Tale of Two Cities. The people she most wanted to meet included Jean Batten, famous New Zealand aviator, H.G. Wells and Alfred Hitchcock.


In 1941 the 2nd Royal Gloucester Hussars were billeted in Cranleigh where Evelyn’s family lived. This is how Evelyn met her future husband Geoffrey Gibbings. He is taking the photograph of this, the ‘Hoy Gang’ picnic on Pitch Hill. Later that year the 2nd RGH was posted to Libya to fight in the North African Campaign. Evelyn did not see Geoff again until the end of the war.


Evelyn as an ARP (air raid protection) volunteer (left). Looking after mother (right). On the roof of White’s department store with her fellow assistants (bottom).


War’s end and engagement to Geoffrey Scott Gibbings. He twice escaped capture by the Germans while fighting in the desert. (Below) At the New Year’s Eve Southampton Motor Club dance c.1955. After the war, Geoff worked in the motor trade for the rest of his working life. Somehow this last photo tells you everything you need to know about Evelyn. May her dance go on in some part of her mind.


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And many thanks to Su Leslie for her inspiring Shaking the Tree blog on her family history.

©2013 Tish Farrell