A Sense of Belonging

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We human beings need to feel a sense of belonging. Being part of a group, knowing how we fit in seems necessary to our well-being, to our very sense of self. I suppose one of the reasons why we want to trace our past is that very need to understand the group, or family, we came from and what has made us into the person we are today. And perhaps to use that comprehension to heal things from our own past which may have been holding us back in some way.

Which sets me thinking about orphans, refugees, the displaced. How much harder must it be for someone who has been forced, or has chosen, to flee from everything and everyone they hold dear, and start again in a new place. To create a new story, find a way of belonging in an alien place. A place that is not always very welcoming.

Windrush

no irish sign

A case in point – imagine being part of the “Windrush Generation”, invited by the “Mother Country” to leave the Caribbean and come to the UK in order to help with post war reconstruction.  Only to be met by hostility and signs like this one. And NOW, more than half a century later, our contemptible Government is the instigator of new regulations which have questioned whether the Windrush immigrants and their children have a legal right to stay in Britain, to be treated on the NHS, stay in employment, be able to keep their homes. I cannot express just how shamed and disgusted I feel that this is happening to these people in this day and age. All the belated grovelling apologies just don’t seem enough.

Until 1965 (UK Human Rights Act), it was not illegal to put the above notice in your window . It occurs to me that my own Irish mother could have seen signs like that as she went about her business in 1950’s and 60’s Glasgow, though it’s my impression that Glasgow saw less of that kind of racism due to its strong links with Ireland over the years. But still, my Mum, the alien! She who became more Scottish than the Scots, whose love of her adopted land ran strong and deep and true. Here are her own words as she was approaching home after one of her Russia trips.

It was lovely to see our first glimpse of Scotland, dear old Scotland, so green and small! And do you know all our roads are curvy and the walls around our fields, and our houses and farms and hills. Lovely.

In some ways displacement from Ireland to Scotland might not seem such a huge distance to travel – not like someone coming from a faraway land where faces are a different colour, tongues speak a different language and the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life so different as to be almost unrecognisable. It’s no wonder that migrants, whether fleeing from war and oppression or just looking for a better life, tend to gravitate together in expatriate communities. They often struggle in the face of what can be a suspicious and hostile new world.

I find it sad that instead of welcoming the stranger with open arms, so often backs are turned, excluding them and even turning them into scapegoats for the ills of society which have nothing to do with them. Our present British Government tends to pander to these prejudices. And as to the current American President! He seems to have forgotten the wonderful words carved on the Statue of Liberty.

We all belong to one another. The more I explore my family tree, discovering yet further  distant relatives, the more it is brought home to me that families, in fact humans, are really just variations on a familiar theme, sharing the same basic feelings and instincts. I can’t imagine there’s a single person whose heart doesn’t break at the sight of that wretched little body on the shoreline. It helps me to remember that whether we are high born or low born, rich or poor, a rogue or a saint, we are more alike than we are different…

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multi-cultural face blog

 

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Things Fall Into Place

One of the first things you learn when delving into family history is not to believe everything you are told! Memories can be notoriously inaccurate, and with the best will in the world it’s very easy to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, especially when you WANT something to be true. That’s why I’ve tried to be careful in this blog only to include “facts” and stories that can be otherwise verified in some way. Things like birth, death and marriage certificates, photographs with inscriptions, letters, address books etc. etc. And of course there’s the plethora of public sources that are available to us nowadays – census returns, civil registration indexes, military records, passenger lists…

Of course that doesn’t mean you always get everything right, or that the information is in any way definitive or comprehensive. I’ve tried searching for myself on Ancestry.com and there was no sign of me in the birth register, electoral roll, or anywhere else. Good job I have my birth certificate to reassure me that I really do exist!

Granny in Cork
We believe in you granny!

So, despite one’s best efforts, sometimes you just have to take a leap in the dark and plump for a particular solution to a problem while keeping your fingers crossed that you’re not going to have to revise it later.

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So, with all that in mind, let’s get back to the question of the Mystery Granny that was exercising us in my last post. You may remember that I was hesitating to identify the old lady in the “Four Generations” 1922 photograph as Sarah Thompson because of the conflicting idea that she might be “Granny Bentley”, as pictured in the Fort William christening photograph of 1936.

The lady from the christening doesn’t look unlike either of the other two, but could she really be an older version of the lady on the left (Sarah?) nor, I think, is she tall enough to be Alberta. In any case she’s wearing the wrong style of clothes to be either of them. So, I’m going to come off the fence and say that I believe it IS Sarah Thompson, Alberta’s mother, in the Four Generations photograph.

And then Cousin Steve Bentley throws me a curve ball in the shape of some more photographs featuring the brick wall!

Same wall/fence, same chairs, same occasion – Sunday morning on the Lawn. But what lawn? Where are we? Could it be Blackpool – some of the photos of the 1927 holiday were taken in front of a very similar looking brick wall…

blackpool #19
Mary, Donald and John getting down and dirty in the garden.

But none of them show the wall/fence, and surely if this is the “sweet spot” for taking photographs, at least some of them would. Also, remember that the Blackpool pictures were from 1927 and the Lawn photos from 1922. So no, I don’t think it’s Blackpool. We need more clues.

At this point I’m going to tell you some more about Alberta Bentley, nee Thompson, my father’s grandmother. Throughout my childhood, my Dad talked a great deal about Fort William and his MacFarlane relatives, but very little, if anything, about the Bentley side. Perhaps he didn’t know very much, or had forgotten. Both Laurence and Donald, his uncles, appear in his address book, though not Alberta. As children we knew about Beatrice, the English mother who had so tragically died when John was young and who he had loved so much he’d called his first-born child after her.

So, part of my purpose here was to find out more about this namesake of mine, where she came from, what she was like. I quickly discovered that any information about her that my Dad’s father George might have had was most likely destroyed in that bonfire he instigated shortly before he died. I do regret that loss, take it almost personally. I can understand that George might not have wanted to pass on these items to his second family, but surely he could have handed them down to his three older children, Beatrice’s children, John, Mary and Donald, who would certainly have cherished them.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I started looking up the public records, and while I had no success in finding me, I did manage to find one Frank Bentley from Cleckheaton in Yorkshire, who had married Alberta Thompson from Sowerby Bridge in August 1896. He was 25, she 23. The 1901 census shows them living at 11 Victoria Terrace, Cleckheaton with daughter Beatrice, 3 years and son Laurence age 1. Frank is listed as being a “Professor of Music and Assistant Schoolmaster” – rather intriguing! Maybe that means that he took pupils for singing and piano.

vintage-piano

By the time of the next census, 1911, we find Alberta listed as Head of Household, Widow, with daughter Beatrice 13, son Laurence 11 and son Donald 8, living at 56 Logan Street, Market Harborough, Leicestershire. So we look at the death register and find that Frank had died in Yorkshire in 1904, aged only 33, the same age as his own daughter would be when she died 28 years later. I don’t know the cause of Frank’s death, still trying to track down the death certificate.

I have many times speculated about why Alberta, as a young widow, had moved to Market Harborough with her three little children after Frank died. Perhaps there was family there? But at least it explained why Beatrice and George were married there, though my own researches did rather grind to a halt at this point.

And then last month came a positive flood – well a healthy trickle – of new photographs and snippets of information courtesy of Steve. I started to learn facts – Donald and his wife Doris had been known as Don and Polly; Donald had been a Chief Inspector of Taxes until he retired and had worked for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, for a period; Laurence and Hilda had lived in a house named Rylands when they first married. And new names started to appear – Queenie and Reg Eaton, Ernest Blockwell, Florence Bush, the Naylors. Not to mention Vera, a WW2 refugee quartered with Don and Polly who had eventually married Queenie and Reg’s son Bernard. I know! It’s all starting to get a bit complicated! So before I get too diverted let’s turn our focus back to the brick wall question.

Steve came up with this picture:

Winnie 1933 - Copy

And here’s a segment of a letter to Polly written in 1977 after Don’s funeral and signed “Winnie”.Winnie segment 1977

So who was this Winnie that had been so close to Don and Polly; who had always had Don in her life? Neither Steve nor I had the slightest clue. Then it occurred to me that I might have in my possession the key that could unlock the whole puzzle.

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This birthday book belonged to Beatrice. It was given to her in 1911 when she had been part of the Wesleyan Prize Choir who had performed at the May Festival that year (see inscription below). And in turn my Dad gave it to me years and years ago when I was still a teenager. When I think of how little he really had of hers, it means a lot that he entrusted this precious little artifact to me.

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I think this was probably how I first learned that my grandmother’s maiden name had been Bentley. And besides being a treasured possession, this little book has proven to be an invaluable source of information in the past year, for Beatrice faithfully added all her MacFarlane relatives to the family and friends who were already recorded in here. Not to mention, one by one, the inclusion of her own children as they made their appearance into the world.

So I hunted through the birthday book looking for all the Winnie’s. I found four and was drawn to Winnie Naylor, birthday 22 November, as the name Naylor had already come up on the back of a postcard. A quick search in the 1911 census and what do we find but Winnie aged 4 months in the household of James Alfred Naylor 33, his wife Harriet Annie Naylor 32 and son Alfred Naylor 3. Address? 28 Logan Street, Market Harborough! So I’m thinking the Naylors are close neighbours of the Bentleys at number 56 and there you have the connection.

But wait! There’s more! Look further and you’ll see that also recorded as a visitor on census night is one Sarah Thompson, widow, age 70. Alberta’s mother! AND actually (from the records), Harriet Annie’s too, the final confirmation being the entries in the birthday book: Alfred Naylor, Winnie Naylor, HA Naylor, Beatrice’s cousins and her Aunt! And, it turns out, her own little boy Donald was born on the same day as his great Aunt:

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alfred and winnie

Steve and I had been a bit puzzled as to the identity of the boy who is posing for the “Sunday Morning on the Lawn” photo sitting on Laurence’s knee in that rather familiar fashion. But it all makes perfect sense if this is his young cousin Alfred. And this here has got to be Alfred with his little sister Winnie, don’t you think? Also, remember what I was saying about having to revise previous statements? Well, I think I was so excited by the idea that I had a picture of Beatrice with her brothers that I didn’t look too closely

Donald, Alberta, James

at the chap in the deck-chair. Looking again, it’s clearly NOT Donald. This is Donald at Laurence’s wedding, to the left of Alberta, and the fellow on the other side of her looks like the deckchair chap – perhaps this is Uncle James.

Something else that now makes sense to me is what took Alberta to Market Harborough in the first place. If her sister, and possibly also her mother, were already there, what would be more natural than to move near to them – in fact only a few doors down – in order to get their support now she was a lone parent. Or she might have brought Sarah, also a widow, with her from Yorkshire.

28 logan street

Are we ready to say where the brick wall was? Googling the addresses reveals that 56 Logan Street no longer exists, but number 28 does and in fact was up for sale quite recently, so here’s the picture from the schedule. It’s a 4-bedroom semi-detached RED BRICK villa. In 90-odd years the garden has been so completely remodelled that it’s impossible to say whether it was definitely the backdrop for our photoshoot, but it could have been. The way I see it, the photos, so palpably domestic, must have been taken in either Alberta’s or the Naylors’ garden. I’m sure that Alberta’s house would have been similar to her sister’s, or possibly a little more modest – you can “walk” down Logan Street via Google today and still see lots of these Victorian brick villas and terraces.

Go back to the photographs and look at them all lolling around in the garden, reading the paper, fooling around, obviously totally relaxed in each other’s company. Can’t you just imagine one or other household members strolling down the street to spend that sunny Sunday morning with the rest of the family and keep company with the sister who had come all the way from Fort William to show off her first born son. Later, Beatrice, Alberta, Sarah – and John! – got dressed up in their best clothes and posed for the Four Generations shot. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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One final little gem from the pages of the birthday book – a photograph of the 1911 choir pasted behind the front cover. Can you spot the 14 year old Beatrice? That’s her second from the right in the back row.

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of Granny Bentley, and a Seaside Holiday

four generations

The mystery began with this photograph, found among the collection of loose photographs we fell heir to when my mother Nellie died in 2015. There are no names, just the caption “Four Generations.”

To start with, I do know that the two seated on the right are my Grandma Beatrice with my dad John on her lap – you’ll maybe recognise them from previous posts. I reckon this is probably the spring of 1922 when John would be 7 or 8 months old (born 30 August 1921).  The older lady standing beside Beatrice is her mother Alberta Bentley – you can see the strong family resemblance between them. I thought that the granny in the bonnet was likely to be Sarah Thompson, Alberta’s mother, but I didn’t actually know it, and I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive in 1922 – she was born in 1841, and would thus have been 81 in this picture – not impossible.

Further intriguing clues are contained in some pictures of a family holiday, marked Blackpool July 1927, which I found pasted into a ragged little scrap book. They show Beatrice and the three children, John, Mary and Donald, enjoying a family holiday by the sea. Their father George doesn’t appear in any of these photographs, so either he’s shy and always behind the camera, or he might have had to stay at home in Fort William and keep the business going. Here are the children having fun on the beach.

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John, age 6
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Mary, age 4
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Wee Donald, 2 and a bit, looking cool in his shades

So far so good. But we also have some pictures featuring our elderly lady, who, if it IS Sarah, would by this time be a rather magnificent 86 years old.

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Here she is with Beatrice and the three children
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And now Alberta has joined the group as well

Here’s a better view of the house, with… who?

blackpool #14

Again, I have been unclear as to the identity of this gentleman. I thought it was probably one of Beatrice’s brothers, but had no other evidence to give me a positive identification.

Enter Steve Bentley, stage left! As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently made contact with this third cousin on the Bentley side, and he too had photographs which included the lady we rapidly started calling the mystery granny, as he was no nearer to a definite identification than I was. However, he was able to confidently identify Laurence Bentley for me, which meant that for the first time I was able to put a name to the chap having fun with the children – it’s their Uncle Laurence.

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John looks as if he’s wondering when it’s going to be his turn to be tickled.
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I think I’ve got the strings tangled
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Here, let me help you old chap

You might be wondering why I am so hesitant to identify this “mystery granny” as Sarah Thompson, it does seem kind of obvious. Well, part of the reason is that I’ve heard from a couple of sources that after Beatrice died in 1932, George and the children used to get visits in Fort William from “Granny Bentley”. She even carried on visiting long after George had married his second wife, Jessie MacPherson. The story goes that she was so moved by the warmth of her reception that she converted to Catholicism! This is supposed to be a photograph of her attending the baptism of George and Jessie’s oldest child, George. You’ll recognise a somewhat older Mary and Donald on either side of her.

mary and donald and ...

BUT George was’t born until 1936. If it’s the same person, that would take this “Granny Bentley” to the grand old age of 95, which is really pushing it a bit. Besides, wouldn’t she be Granny Thompson? It’s Alberta that would be Granny Bentley. The final thing that makes me think that this line of enquiry might be a red herring is the following picture that I know is of George’s christening (it says so on the back). Notice that Mary and Donald are wearing entirely different clothes.

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But on the theory that the best mysteries should be scattered with red herrings and cliffhangers, I’m going to leave this question up in the air for the moment, and turn the focus back to Blackpool and the family holiday.

I wondered what might bring Beatrice and the children to Blackpool at this time. Why Blackpool, and why were so many members of her family there too? It could be that they’d taken a house for a big family get-together, perhaps in advance of Laurence’s wedding which was due to take place in the September (I don’t think Beatrice was able to attend her brother’s wedding). Or this could be someone’s home. The Bentley family had settled in Market Harborough after Alberta’s husband Frank had died in 1904, but I know that she eventually ended her days in Blackpool.

And Beatrice… I suspect that whether she knew it or not, by this time she was already in the grip of the dreadful disease (TB) which would eventually end her life. Cousin Steve showed me a letter written by George after Beatrice had passed away in which he mentions that the first time Beatrice left home to be admitted to hospital was five years to the day prior to her funeral. Five years! If that’s true, then by the end of this year, the year of their Blackpool holiday, Beatrice would have started the long slow decline towards her demise.

Which makes these photographs all the more poignant and precious to me. I’d like to end this post by sharing some more of them with you.

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Happy Easter from the wee Pickles…

Easter bunnies

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The wee Pickles – John, Mary and Donald, my Dad and his sister and brother, as depicted in this drawing by John, age 9, from 1931. I have to confess that I’m not totally sure that the above picture IS of John and Mary and Donald; maybe it was just three bunnies that appeared in the garden on Easter morning! But the photo was tucked away among lots of others from those far-off childhood days, so why should it not be them?

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog – and it’s been going for just over a year now – has been the endless rooting around in old papers and photographs in order to try and weave together something approaching a credible account of the past. If you’re lucky there are captions or clues in the photographs themselves, but often there are no notes, nothing to tell you who the people are, what they are doing, why there are there. And then occasionally you hear a throwaway remark or come by some new fact which enables another part of the jigsaw to fall into place. I suppose it’s a lot like detective work.

So why am I telling you all this? Well, by the sheerest luck, I happened to come across one Steve Bentley one day when I was fiddling around with my family tree on Ancestry.com You can examine other people’s trees as well as your own. My attention was drawn to Steve’s when I noticed that we had various ancestors in common, namely my grandma Beatrice’s Bentley relations. I was aware of the existence of her brothers Laurence and Donald – they both appear in my Dad’s old address book, and I seem to remember Christmas cards being sent and received for some years – but I’ve never written about them before, as my knowledge of them was more than sketchy. But suddenly, thanks to Steve, I now have a photograph – albeit faded – of the three siblings together, some time round 1920, either just before or just after Beatrice married. (See my post “Beatrice and George” for that story.)

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L to R:- Beatrice, Laurence, Donald

Turns out Steve and I are third cousins – Donald Bentley is his grandfather – and we’ve spent the last week exchanging photographs and trying to catch up on over 100 years of shared family history! It’s all very exciting, but also confusing, and more than a little mind-boggling, as you can imagine. One of the best things was discovering that we had a few photos in common, which serves to confirm the connection and has enabled both of us to put names to some of the faces which were previously unidentified.

I’ll be coming back to this particular jigsaw once I’ve had more time to work out how everything fits together. In the meantime, as a little taster I can show you photographs of Laurence’s and Donald’s weddings. First Laurence, who married Hilda Asquith in 1927, when he was about 27 or 28. That’s the happy couple in the middle, with Donald third from the right and their mother, Alberta Bentley next to him. I don’t know who the others are,  but I’m thinking the girl on the left will be Hilda’s bridesmaid, and the older pair on either side of Laurence could be Hilda’s parents.

Laurence wedding 1927

And then we have Donald, who was about 30 when he married Doris Glover in September 1932. Donald and Doris are in the middle and I don’t know anyone else – perhaps Laurence, Hilda and Alberta were in other photographs. Steve tells me that the bridesmaid to the right of Doris is named Queenie Eaton, and she and Doris remained friends for the rest of their lives.

donald and doris wedding 1932

Finally, we have this 1919 portrait of Beatrice which beautifully captures her at a moment just before she would marry George and eventually become the mother of the wee Pickles.

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The Ties that Bind – a love story for Valentine’s Day

These characters are fictional, any similarity to any persons, living or dead, is probably intentional…

The scene is an old fashioned hospital ward with high ceilings, big windows and curtain rails above each bed. It is mid-February, but a weak winter sun lights up the room. It is quiet, a lull in the middle of the afternoon. The only sounds are the quiet beeping of a monitor and the low murmuring of some staff at the nurses’ station. There is a rumble of distant traffic.

There are about 10 beds, only a few with any occupants. All are asleep or unconscious.

Three women sit by one of the occupied beds, Molly’s bed. One holds the old lady’s hand, the other two are talking quietly, heads close together.

There are some more figures around the bed, but none of the living can see them.

BRIDGET: Come on here Maeve, what the hell are you doing over there? Let that poor boy die in peace.

MAEVE: But he’s got no-one Bree, he’s confused, like our wee cousin Paddy, remember him? His name is Simon, surely it wouldn’t do any harm to just hold his hand until his Ma and Da come? I heard that nurse say they’re on the way. That one, with the red hair.

BRIDGET: Oh, bring him over here then, but stay behind me, I don’t want him confusing poor Molly. It’ll not be long now, maybe once Christine and Frances get here.

MAEVE: Oh, are they coming then?

BRIDGET: Audrey got a text message, they’re on the way from the station now. Which you’d know if you weren’t so busy poking your nose in other peoples’ business.

LIAM: Girls! We’re supposed to be here for Molly, not bickering like children.

MAEVE: Ah Liam, you always were the peacemaker. Sorry Bree. What about the grandkids, will they be here, and the little ones?

BRIDGET: Honestly Maeve you’ve a head like a sieve! The boys were here yesterday, don’t you remember? And the girls brought the wee ones in last week.

MAEVE: Ah, was that yesterday? I DO remember, it’s just this time thing, it’s a bit hard to get used to when you’ve come back from eternity. Those boys are fine young men, sure, one of them even has a tattoo.

LIAM: Ah, that’ll be young Joe, Vera’s boy, did you see the muscles on him? He’ll soon be rowing for the University I wouldn’t wonder. Or boxing.

MAEVE: Oh no, Vera wouldn’t like that, I think.

BRIDGET: Well Vera will just have to lump it. And who cares what YOU think anyway? You always did want to be the centre of attention, right from when you were a child. Ma and Da were far too soft on you.

MA and DA: No we weren’t!

MA: She was poorly as a baby. She was the wee lamb you needed to wrap in a blanket and feed with milk drop by drop.

BRIDGET: Ahh, maybe so, but she could always wrap you round her little finger so she could! She was the favourite.

LIAM: No, Da’s favourite was always Molly, remember how he’d always take her with him to mend the walls?

SIMON (whispering to Maeve): Is that your Mum and Dad? How come? You seem so… sorry… old. And they seem younger. I don’t understand.

MAEVE: Yes, that’s me Ma, and me Da. They died when they were a lot younger than me. I was older when I passed. You see?

SIMON: No, not really. They died? You died? And me? Did I die?

MAEVE: Yes son, you were in a crash, don’t you remember? Your motorbike? I heard the doc telling the nurses, massive brain trauma they said, no chance of survival, and sure enough you just slipped away before they could even stick a needle in you. Look that’s you over there, they drew the curtains around you when you stopped breathing.

SIMON: That’s…me? I don’t remember anything. I want to see.

MAEVE: They’re just waiting for your Ma and Da to get here and then a porter will take you to the Mortuary. You can go in and look – just pass through them curtains, that’s it.

GRANNY: Hello Simon

SIMON: Granny? But, but…

GRANNY: Come here my lovely boy, let me give you a hug. We’re just waiting for Betty and Alan so you can say good bye, I heard that red-haired nurse say they were stuck in traffic.

SIMON: Mum and Dad? But, Granny! You’re… I mean, I was at your funeral… is that really you? You’re just the same as I remember you, you even smell the same. You feel like granny. Mum and Dad, will… Will they see you?

GRANNY: It’s only spirits that can see spirits Simon. But we will all meet up again, eventually.

MAEVE: I’m away back to Molly now Simon, you’ll be fine now your gran’s come.

SIMON: Thanks Maeve, for helping me understand.  And Molly, is she…?

MAEVE: My sister, she called to us. It’s the ties that bind, you see, the blood ties. And the one true love, of course – that’s yer man there at her head. Jack. She’s missed him every day for 30 years. And he’s missed her too, and all the family. He’d have loved to have been a great grandad, there’s nine little ones now you know.

SIMON: Why are there so many of you here? I’ve just got Granny.

MAEVE: Ah sure, her passing’s not been as sudden as yours, she had a big stroke and she’s been unconscious for a month and more. And she’s a very old lady, the oldest of us. 95.  Her mind has been wandering all over the place for years. She’s even forgotten the house she lived in for 50 years. Her thoughts just go back to Ireland, and to Jack.

Ah, here’s Frances and Christine arriving at last. I need to be there, Molly will maybe be able to let go now. You can come back over and watch if you like…

SIMON: Granny? Do you mind…?

GRANNY: Away you go, I’ll just stay here and watch over you until your parents get here.

SIMON: I’m sorry, Granny, I guess you’re not supposed to die when you’re only 19.

GRANNY: Things are as they are Simon. And I have you now, it’s Betty and Alan who have lost you, who have to say goodbye to their child.

There is a murmur of voices as Vera, Audrey and Lizzie greet Christine and Frances.

LIAM: Look, she’s stirring a little, I think she can feel those kisses on her cheeks.

MAEVE: And the tears.

BRIDGET: Come to us Molly, we’re waiting for you, dear sister.

MOLLY: Bridget? But…

LIAM and MAEVE: Hello Molly.

MOLLY: Liam! Maeve! And Mam and Da! I’ve been dreaming about you all.

And Jack! My poor dear Jack!

JACK: You’ve been asleep a long time darling Molly, but now the girls have set you free, free to fly to me again. Look at them, they’re holding hands just like they did when they were children.

MOLLY: Oh Jack, have you been there this whole time? Look at poor Lizzie, she looks worn out.

JACK: She’s come here faithfully first thing every morning and sat with you all day. And Vera and Audrey have come after work and made her rest and eat. And Frances and Christine would come up from London when they could.

MOLLY: Our girls, so full of love. They’ve always made us proud. And Jack, we have grandchildren, and they have children.

JACK: I know Molly, I’ve only ever been a whisper away from you, and now you’ve come back to me.

MOLLY: Oh, but I’ve got so old, so very old!

JACK: Nothing like that matters any more my darling. And anyway, you are the same to me as that day we first met. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, in life and in death. I loved you then and I love you now and I will love you forever.

MOLLY: Oh Jack….

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To Kiev and beyond – more of Mum’s Travels

Last time, we left Ellen just about to pack to travel from Moscow to Kiev. Let’s pick up the thread from there.

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18th May Wed. 

Bykovo Airport, then a lovely flight 1 hr 10 min to Kiev. Lovely, gorgeous place, full of nice flowering horse chestnut and poplars. Fantastic drive in from airport up in the 80’s. Every street is lined with seats. Thousands of Tourists. The Hotel – Rus – is the one built for the foreign athletes for the Olympic trials. The Stadium is next door.  Went for walk after lunch, different from Moscow. People very friendly, talked to old lady. Built on River Dneiper which is very wide. Had ice cream. 

Went to see the Ukraine Ballet Co in the evening –  very dramatic, I loved it. Theatre beautiful Venetian style. Walked home.

19th May Thur.

Went to the Beryoska shop but did not buy anything apart from book about Kiev. I could spend a lot on books but they are so heavy. 

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These are just a few of the books Mum collected over the years! She also brought back souvenirs, but it was always books that first caught her attention.

19 to 23 May – Five days packed with yet more cultural delights. Here’s just a taste of them – click on the pictures to read the captions.

Let’s go back to Ellen’s diary for a description of what she regarded as the highlight of the Kiev visit. First, an anecdote…

We also went into a Hospital grounds and a shabby-looking man came and talked in English to us. His phrases were very flowery. He said he was a Doctor, but if so I’m the KGB – or perhaps it was a mental hospital!

After lunch the Highlight. We went to the Monastery of St Anthony, and went into the Catacombs. A monk, Anthony – and Theodacious – lived in caves near the River Dneiper in 1051. In 1070 they started to build the Monastery. The Catacombs are a series of caves which were burial places as well as for the Monks – I bought a book about them. The soil is such that it preserved the bodies and many of them are housed in caskets with glass tops. The bodies are quite short, in vestments with embroidered cloths over the faces, but the little brown hands are on view. St Anthony’s cell is there and what looks like little alcoves where they lived. Full of Grottos and treasures but an unbelievable place. They are still venerated as saints – I have never heard so much about Saints and Religious matters. Lovely weather, in 90s.

On Monday 23 May, the group headed off to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) for the final leg of the tour. Again, here is a montage of just some of the wonderful places they visited.

Our bus – the Leningrad Driver is so polite, he gets out first and helps each of us off! The others in Kiev and Moscow just looked out the window – though I always made a point of chatting them up! And thanking them for being so kind – you can do these things when you are a granny!!! We have a Leningrad guide, Katerina, a lovely girl – vivacious, lovely English. She has a great sense of humour! Like, Peter the Great’s hobby was dentistry – he used to take out teeth for free!

Katerina took us into the Winter Palace and showed us right through the Czar’s private quarters. Such rooms of gold, porcelain dinner services – the one presented by the English with the “green frog” lovely and the Clock under the mushroom. Fabulous wealth – I am not surprised the serfs rose and swept them away! Such opulence I never saw, furniture from France inlaid with gold and ivory, beautiful rooms and each room had its own theme and colour. The dining rooms and gold legged chairs and – oh I could not describe it all, you’d have to see it.

Tonight we went to the circus. Very good. Quick acts and some great acrobats. Beautiful horses and Cossack-type riding. Dogs, monkeys, 8 tigers, 7 lions. High wire walkers, 2 porcupines, rats, a cockerel and a young clown who was best of all. The tigers and lions were naughty all over the floor and the smell!!!

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After breakfast went with Guide to the House of Friendship – once a palace which Catherine II presented to one of her Courtiers, a most beautiful place of marble and gold, We went into a big panelled room and were met by 8 or 9 Russians who introduced themselves. There was a girl who translated, two engineers, a science and maths lecturer (a grandmother by the way), some teachers and an old boy who seemed to be from the Politburo. They invited us to form groups and ask them questions.

I went and sat beside a girl who turned out to be a post-graduate student of English, which she spoke quite well. Her mother had been in England and Scotland 8 years ago. She asked me about what kind of house I had, if I owned it, about my family, if we were diet-conscious, and what we ate – she was very hefty and had trouble dieting. She worked hard at English and played the piano. I told her all about our government, our orchestras, and film making, our election! The Loch Ness Monster (she had heard about it). I told her I believed in Nessie! I told her all about Dad. She gave me a carved spoon as a gift and we exchanged addresses. I must send her something from Scotland. Her name is Vera.

My chat turned out to be the most successful – they all talked about education and said afterwards they did not get any satisfaction of the visit. But I disagreed. Privately I think they all tried too hard to impress the Russians, who are not easily impressed. Vera told me about her mother, her holidays – she has been to Rumania and Bulgaria – but would like to come to Scotland.

After lunch we went to the Hermitage. After a while the crowds and noise got too much so five of us went for a sail on the River Neva, 2 hours out on the open deck. I enjoyed it so much. Only 70 Kopecs. I saw the Cruiser Aurora. Then back to the Hotel, dinner and dress. We went to hear the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Wonderful music. 

Sat 28th May.

Breakfast and a bit of shopping. I went across to the Monument of the Leningrad Freedom Fighters. As memorials go it is superb. There is an underground way in. Full of flowers, an eternal flame. There are groups of sculptures, dark bronze, and an underground museum. Most dramatic place. Rows of lights flickering – one for everybody who is buried there. Showcases where there are mementos of the siege. A continuous film at which teachers give a commentary to groups of school children. There were older people there who had lost loved ones – the siege lasted for 900 days and nights and thousands of people starved and were killed by the German shells. There is a violin in one of the cases presented by Shostakovich. An old Russian woman who was crying told me whose violin it was. Makes you think – these people really suffered.

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At 12.15 we got on the bus to go to the Airport. A lovely drive, sun shining. Had good look back at Leningrad and took last picture.

3.30 pm. I am sitting on the plane next to the window.  My five medals are placed as follows: 1 in the Kremlin, 1 just outside the wall in the Convent of the New Maidens duck pond! 1 in Kiev near the Hotel, and 2 in Leningrad in the River Neva. Our Lady will do the rest. Now I am just longing to see my loved ones – funny, I’ll be home by teatime.

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Ellen loved her family dearly. At the same time, she remained a self contained person whose instinct was always to rely on her own inner strengths. And not always easy or comfortable to get close to, at least not perhaps until later years. That’s why it has been such a delight to catch a glimpse, in the pages of this diary, of another Ellen, a more relaxed, mischievous, unencumbered Ellen, free to be truly herself with like minded people who shared her passions.

It was lovely to see our first glimpse of Scotland, dear old Scotland, so green and small! And do you know all our roads are curvy and the walls around our fields, and our houses and farms and hills. Lovely but so small! Even our blocks of flats look small, great to see individual houses. The lack of officialese at Glasgow Airport was just lovely – just a couple of guys standing there as if they would rather go for their tea! And best of all a little man on the tarmac waving two red flags – we all laughed at that, after the headphones and walkie-talkie things in the Russian Airports! Mary Chapman, Dinah McKay and I took a taxi from the Airport home and I was so excited to see my Grace and Catriona – who gave me a lovely welcome. I am glad to be back. I have had a fabulous trip – the most amazing holiday anyone could have. I shall never forget Russia in the warm sun. I hope they can come over here to sample our ‘Scotch Mist’.

Finito. God bless. Mum

In the next decade or so, most years saw Ellen – and Mary Chapman! – intrepidly signing up for one cultural tour after another. In 1986 it was to the Baltic, when she fulfilled her desire to revisit Moscow and Leningrad (where she and Mary were as likely to branch out on their own as to follow the official itinerary) as well as Tallin and Riga. Over the years, the passions that they shared for history, art, architecture, everything, took them on tours in Italy, France, Estonia, West Germany, as well as numerous interesting historical locations around Britain.

By this time, Ellen, with her inexhaustible thirst for knowledge, was a member of the archaeological society and various history study groups; she took art courses ranging in style from the Italian renaissance to Cubism, two classical music courses and she obtained diplomas in French and German. A true journey of the mind and a chance, at last, to indulge in the learning she always felt had been denied her as a child.

Visits to the family also took Ellen to Holland, the Cotswolds, Tyndrum, Switzerland, London. She also visited her family in Ireland and had them come and visit her in Glasgow. Ellen’s final long-distance trip came in 2001, when my sister Grace surprised her with a ticket to New York and the pair of them took off together for the Big Apple for a few days of sightseeing. Here she is, aged 78, still eager for new experiences.

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Travels with my Parents – Dad, part 2

I’m not sure exactly when John returned home after his War service. He was discharged from the RAF in June of ’46 and I don’t think he went straight back to Fort William, but worked in Glasgow for a while. If you’ve been following this narrative, you’ll remember that the story goes that John and Nellie met at 50 High Street when he came home from the war, and fell in love more or less at first sight. I think this must have been 1948 or 49. But it does seem rather odd to me that I’ve not been able to find any pictures of them together, in what must have been their courting days. The only clue I have is this snap of John, inscribed on the back “To dearest Nellie. With all my love. – John. 7th Dec ’50”

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You can be sure I’ll keep digging! But, I’ve diverted myself, this is supposed to be the story of John’s further travels around the world and how he came to join the Merchant Navy.  It seems kind of obvious that John didn’t really have much of a clue as to what he was going to do with life as a civilian. He hadn’t been to college or university, in fact by all accounts his secondary education hadn’t been a great success, as he kept running away from school (he was sent away to be educated by the monks at Fort Augustus). He doesn’t seem to have ever shown any interest in becoming a chemist like his father or joining the family business, or maybe it was that George didn’t encourage him, who can tell? I do know that Dad used to complain that here he was, home from war and being treated like an errand boy. Not a happy situation.

Anyway, the one thing John WAS trained for was radio telegraphy, so, probably prompted by Nellie, he eventually went on a course to convert that RAF training into a “proper” qualification that he could use in civilian life. My understanding is that paying for a land-based certificate was just out of reach of their modest resources, so he went for the “pre-sea” one provided by the Ministry of Transport, which of course meant that he was all set for a life on the ocean wave. (You can click on these pictures if you want to read them better.)

John joined the Merchant Navy on the 28th of November 1952, and spent the next five years serving on ships throughout the world: the SS Lismora, Salveda, Pendeen, British Lancer, Olympic Mariner, Kaladan, Bhamo – names which conjure up a certain romantic image of the seafaring life. But in truth this is a life of charts and routines and regulations, of long periods at sea and short shore leaves… fortunately all brought to life for us in John’s photographs. Here’s the first page of his Merchant Navy album. As you can see, it hasn’t taken him long to acquire a distinctly nautical look!

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The Salveda was John’s second vessel and was a salvage steamer. Others were tankers or cargo ships, engaged in the post war boom in international trade. In some ways it was the final hurrah for these craft before they were superseded in the mid fifties by much larger container ships which would see the process of globalization begin in earnest.

These voyages took John all over the world, from Russia and the fjords of Norway in the north, west to Canada, south to Africa and Venezuela, and east to Burma, with many, many ports along the way. Here’s just a sample:

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Of course trips ashore punctuated much longer periods at sea, so naturally there are also pages and pages of photographs of shipboard life. I think I can remember my Dad teaching us this clapping song A sailor went to sea, sea, sea / To see what he could see, see, see / But all that he could see, see, see / Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea. – which of course he know from experience!

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Again, there is that sense of the crew being in a kind of reality bubble, forming their own makeshift family unit during those months-long voyages. But, unlike the RAF years, this time, John DID have someone waiting for him at home – the faithful Nellie. I can’t look at these pictures and read John’s discharge book (listing all the voyages) without also thinking about what would have been happening back home while he was thousands of miles away, and it makes you realise what a very divided kind of existence this was.

Nellie Pendeen

When John and Nellie married in Glasgow on 18 March 1953, John had been home from sea for 5 or 6 days, and departed to take up a new post a mere 4 days later. He spent the rest of the year on board the SS Pendeen with only a day or two between voyages, so Nellie travelled south and visited the ship at Surrey docks – this photo is dated 25 September ’53. I wonder if she had come to tell him that she was 5 months pregnant! They would have spent that Christmas together as there’s no voyage noted between 24 December and 7 January. At that time their home was a flat in Pollokshaws Road, near Queen’s Park in Glasgow and I think that at least until they were married Nellie was working as a housekeeper.

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John was probably in the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea when I was born on 24 January 1954, so this picture dated 25 March probably marks the first time he would have met me, aged 2 months. It must have been a flying visit as his ship, the British Lancer, was due to set sail the next day. There was another short visit in June (more pictures of Queen’s Park!), but most of 1954 and half of ’55 was spent traversing the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. And then, when he had a 10-day break in March ’55, John bought the flat at 31 Rathlin Street, Govan which would become our family home for the next 7 or 8 years. John headed off on a long voyage to Venezuela at the end of March, so I’m thinking that it wasn’t until he came home in September that we would have moved to Govan. That September also saw us travelling to Ireland, no doubt so that Nellie could show off her handsome husband and baby daughter to her family.

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Then followed a rather longer period of domesticity, as John didn’t return to sea until the following July, which means that he would have been around for Nellie’s second pregnancy and the birth of my sister Ann on 23 June. After that he went back to sea and spent the rest of 1956 on several voyages to Africa: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana. Whenever he came home John would bring exotic souvenirs – elaborately carved tables and boxes, an inlaid tray, an ebony carved head of an African man, toy camels made of leather. This picture shows Ann, nearly two, sitting on one of a pair of deckchairs he brought back from somewhere. Our flat in Rathlin Street was tiny, but there was always room for another artifact, becoming an integral part of our childhoods and which we shared between us when it came time to divide the contents of the family home almost 60 years later. These are my ornamental carved spears.

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Going back to our timeline, there was a family holiday in Fort William in June ’57, when Nellie must have been expecting again, though this time, John went back to sea until about 10 days before the birth of Mary on 28 November. With three children and a wife who was spending long periods essentially as a single parent, something had to give, and the next year, 1958, saw John’s final voyages, on the MV Bhamo. Looking more carefully at this page from our family album, I now realise that these pictures show John’s two eldest daughters making a farewell visit to his ship.

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John’s last voyage was to Burma, where he took these pictures of some pagodas in Rangoon. They didn’t made it into the album – I found them in an envelope marked “to be entered”. Maybe he just never had the heart…

I am unashamed to say that I’ve always regarded my Dad as something of a hero – I guess I’m not alone in that! Whenever I watch old war movies such as The Dambusters or The Guns of Navarone, there he is being played by Gregory Peck or David Niven or Richard Todd. I only have to hear the first few bars of 633 Squadron to conjure him up, clear as day. Yet I don’t even remember that period when he was away so much. I’ve been told that I used to refer to this tall, handsome person who drifted in and out of family life as “the man”.  What I do remember is a steadfast, dependable presence who would hold your little hand in his big one and make you feel safe.

John plainly loved his life at sea, as he did his days in the RAF. But in the end he loved his family more and as far as I am concerned the most heroic thing he ever did was to put it all behind him, come home and don the uniform of a bus driver. It wasn’t an easy choice, in fact in weak moments he would refer to the “sacrifice” he’d made.  Surely that’s what courage is. To be faced with perilous uncertainty and do it anyway.