In 1888 at a small farm called the Rossa or Rossa Bach in North Wales a girl was born and was given the name Lillian. She was the last of 15 children and said she lived a fairly easy life as there were plenty of older children to help out round the farm. She never said much about her life on that farm and her child and grandchildren got the distinct feeling she was slightly ashamed of her background. One story she did tell was that at about the age of 4 she ran to tell he mother about the wonderful strange cat in a kitchen cupboard, one of her brothers was called and threw 2 farm terriers into the place and, after a great deal of noise 2 live dogs and the carcass of a massive rat was removed. Another tale was that for 75 years her maternal grandfather cut a hazel stave from a coppiced stump outside the door and walked into the hills only coming back for his evening meal; he did this every day until he was 90 when he arrived home saying he felt very tired and would sit down, which he did and died peacefully in that armchair by the fire.
Despite the poverty you would expect from a large family living on a hill farm the family did receive a certain amount of assistance from the local lord because, as rumour had it, Lillian’s father, was that gentleman’s half brother. This may also be why, unusually for a poorer rural family, they were part of the Anglican congregation which Lillian found annoying; she told us that the local Chapel services sounded much more cheerful than those of the Church. It was also noticeable to her that several of the boys were given excellent positions in other houses, one (Pen, who was the only one she named) even becoming the stable master at a large house in London. This job enabled Pen to invite members of the family to London to watch the procession at Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897). She remembered being hoisted on her brother’s shoulders to see the Queen and being severely disappointed by the “tiny, shrunken, old woman in black bombazine”.
Sometime between 1906 and 1908 the unexplained ability of Lillian’s father to ensure his children were well placed allowed Lillian to enter St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington as a nurse trainee. At the time the premier Nursing School was the Nightingale, attached to St Thomas’s hospital but nurses were trained elsewhere and (at least in London) expected to give the impression of being sturdy middle class women. Perhaps helped by this it was during Lillian’s time as a nurse she met a man from a wealthy Midlands family and was courted by him.
His name was William and he was a bit of a black sheep having “run away to sea” where he (eventually) became the Captain of an Eastern Telegraph cable layer. It is a sign of how greatly life has changed in the past 110 years that when she went to visit his family she was completely unaware of how to use the water heater (the geyser) in the bathroom. What his family thought of this young woman is not completely unknown but despite this, somehow, the two were married and William used his authority as captain to allow Lillian to sail with him to the ports he was using as a base of operations; in the years before the Great War she visited Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu, Port Said and, finally Capetown, just at the outbreak of war.
The war gave seamen such as William somewhat different duties. Telegraph cables were important as they provided secure communications for the “Great Powers” and so were a target of both sabotage and espionage. William sailed without her, doing work he would not describe. All we do know of that time is that he was torpedoed (from which Lillian said her husband never truly recovered) and that, unusually for a member of the Merchant Marine, he received 2 decorations. Whatever happened, at the end of the war William and his wife purchased a small house in Hampshire and, in 1920, their only child was born.
What is know of the following few years is just as fragmentary, but William sailed to work in the Indian Ocean allowing his wife and their infant daughter to come with him on the later voyages. Part of this was in South Africa where, after a time spent in Cape Town and Durban it was necessary to take an inland jaunt to Johannesburg where tea was taken with the Bishop. Lillian said that whilst William was away sailing from Durban there was time for her to take trips into the surrounding bush as far as the Kwa-Zulu Valley of 1,000 Hills and Bloemfontein . In that last place Lillian was entertaining other Westerners but there was a bit of a drought so that milk was in short supply which made tea a real problem. One of the servants had a solution, well actually she was a wet nurse with a supply of milk to hand, so the problem was solved although not in a way that could be explained to Lillian’s guests. After William had finished in Durban the two of them headed to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. where William demonstrated his remarkable ability to hold his breath by sitting on the bottom of Zanzibar harbour for (what Lillian said) was 5 minutes.
How and why William and Lillian went back to Britain is unknown but it may have had something to do with William’s next work which was something secret based round Aden. He was gone for 18 months to 2 years when Lillian received a telegram from the Company saying that the Captain had been very ill and that he would need to be collected from Waterloo Station. She rushed to London and waited but was unable to recognise her husband as he had wasted horribly. Her nursing experience must have helped her as she brought the ailing and mentally dull man back to their house. Many years later it seems the symptoms she described him as suffering bore a resemblance to Gulf War Syndrome.
William was no longer employed by the company but, luckily he was in receipt of a small annuity from Eastern Telegraph and, I think there were investments, but it was 1929. Everybody suffered in the crash that year, Lillian and William included, but William’s health kept deteriorating and the medical costs kept mounting. Their daughter who had been briefly able to attend Cheltenham College was withdrawn because of lack of money. Then the disaster, William died in 1932 and the annuity ended though Lillian was entitled to a tiny company widows portion.
You might think that as William’s family was wealthy they might be willing to assist there seemed to be some feeling that the “lower class girl” who had “trapped” William did not deserve support. For whatever reasons first possessions were sold and then the house, but it was a buyers market at that time. For a time Lillian lived with a friend as a nurse/companion and waited whilst her daughter finished her education. Eventually Lillian was assured that certain friends in South Africa would help support and that the pension she did have would be sufficient to live upon. Like many such dreams these proved to be illusions.
Thrown back on her own resources Lillian rose to the occasion, she took a job as a cook/housekeeper/companion to a wealthy family in Johannesburg but it was not easy. The family was Boer and looked on, well everybody, as beneath them. Lillian was expected to manage the “Bleck” staff and was expected to speak to them in a polyglot, disgustingly called called “Kitchen Kaffir”. She managed but never had a good word to say about the Boers afterwards. Things came to a head when Lillian noticed one of the houseboys was missing. Speaking to the other staff she found out that the lad lived in a shed in the garden, a place that a white woman was specifically barred from entering by the family. Seeking permission from the “lady” of the house she was told something on the lines of “the filthy little skellum is probably drunk,” but that Lillian could check if she wanted.
The shed was cold, damp, draughty and lacked a bed or even any personal possessions. All there was was a single blanket on the concrete floor under which was a young man shivering with the high fever caused by smallpox.
The family were unimpressed but after what must have been a flaming row Lillian was allowed to take the pony and trap and deliver the boy to the isolation hospital. By this time word of the affliction had gone round the house so it was only by bullying and her own efforts that the horse was harnessed. The sufferer she had to lift in on her own. Then there was the night-time journey to a hospital which was unhappy about receiving a “black boy” at that time of night. Though she never explained fully it seems that after returning to the house and disinfecting the trap Lillian gathered up her daughter and her few belongings and somehow travelling to Capetown and a ship home.
By 1937 Lillian was in London pressing her old colleagues at St Mary’s Hospital to admit her daughter to SRN (State Registered Nurse) training the next year. Amidst all of the too-ing and fro-ing of the past decade she had somehow been able to see her daughter through Matriculation which allowed the hospital to accept the girl. Lillian and her daughter now lived in a small flat near Little Venice and, probably, supported herself by working as a day nurse and cooking help to elderly ladies.
It seems very silly to say that the years of the Second World War and the austerity following were easy but after the disasters of the previous 12 years they probably were. Her daughter completed training, married a doctor (almost compulsory if nursing legends are true) and Lillian’s first grandchild was born. The only real flies in the ointment were, firstly, that the father-in-Law was just as stubborn and bull headed as Lillian had become and, secondly, that the market for nurse/companions without the SRN qualification had dried up so reducing Lillian’s income. Then in the mid-1950’s troubles hit again, Lillian’s son-in-law committed adultery close to the birth of his second child; being an, otherwise, honourable man he offered his wife one of the new and purportedly easier divorces.
It is difficult to understand today how bad divorce in the UK was 60 years ago. These were not no fault divorces; a guilty party had to be chosen, a fake assignation set up with a professional co-respondent, then a fake discovery by a specialist private investigator with a camera and only after this to court. There a judge would decide fault and mitigation, local and sometimes national newspapers would report. Both husband and wife were castigated by public opinion and would often have to leave home because of persecution. This whole process rendered Lillian’s daughter an emotional wreck and, wherever she went, there were always the whispers of “You know she’s divorced!”
Lillian took charge; she, her daughter and the 2 grandchildren moved at first to Hampshire. At first the seemingly generous maintenance payments (alimony), Lillian’s small pension and the income her daughter could make from nursing made for a comfortable, if isolated, life. But as the 1950’s slipped into the 1960’s things became not quite as easy; neither Lillian’s pension was “index linked” nor did the maintenance payments increase with the cost of living and sometimes, for some quite good reasons, those payments were not made at all.
When the 1960s closed Lillian had to deal with another hard problem, for nearly 15 years she had vilified her daughter’s ex-husband but suddenly her daughter called upon by him to help when his second wife died of cancer and she went to him. What is more she was forced to realise that her daughter had remained in love with him for the whole time. They re-married in 1969.
Whatever happened, Lillian handled it. She handled the appalling callousness of her daughter’s employers, the large Sudanese gentleman who showed up on the doorstep wanting her granddaughter to be his wife (number 3) and the vicar who wanted to do a special blessing of her grandson’s bedroom. All she needed in return were 20 or 30 unfiltered cigarettes (Senior Service for preference) and a quarter bottle of (bad) brandy per day. Mind you, she could be generous with the brandy; one Christmas, when asked for the secret of good brandy butter advised that, “… itsh esstremly difficult,” having partaken rather too well of that excellent product in all its alcoholic glory.
There has been so much missed out of this potted biography, Lillian’s nickname of “Gypsy” or “Jip”. The man on the steamer home at the start of the Great War who was to be executed for spying. The priest who (reportedly) had an unholy interest in her. Most especially her appearance has not been described. Lillian said said she was always best described as “handsome” although the earliest photo we have of her with her child shows a distinctly pretty, indeed beautiful, woman of about 30. That photo shows a woman with silver hair for it seems it lost all colour during the pregnancy.
Lillian was a wonderful and difficult woman; I am proud she was my grandmother.