Gathering The Threads (London Competition)
Never been to London, never really had the inclination. Costs a fortune and to be honest, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not one for museums and art galleries and theatres, and they have the same telly down there as they do up here. I’d rather spend the money going abroad. At least you can guarantee the weather.
I’ve got no connection with London myself, although my Gran came from there. Her family lived in the East End originally, before they got bombed out during the war. I suppose there’s family still there, but Gran’s not in touch with anyone now.
Gran talks about it sometimes. Quite lot, actually, especially in the last few years, she’s always wittering on about it. They lived in Wapping, by the river. Her family lived either there or Shadwell from hundreds of years back, and the men all worked on the river. Thames boatmen, Gran says, they had rowing boats they took up and down carrying cargo, or people sometimes. Gran says she knew Canary Wharf when it was full of ships loaded with all sorts. And St Katharine’s Docks and Jamaica Wharf. My Auntie Julie took her back a few years ago, to show her what they’d made of it, but Gran didn’t like it. She got upset. She said the place wasn’t alive any more. Auntie Julie said it was alive, it just didn’t smell and men didn’t go to an early grave from overwork and bad nutrition and smoking, like Gran’s own father. Gran got the hump and she and Auntie Julie were barely speaking when they got back.
One of Gran’s great-uncles, and her great-grandfather, they won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, which was a race for the Thames boatmen, goes back hundreds of years. They still do it now. The great-grandfather, he won it in 1876, and the great-uncle in 1897. There’s this website, ‘Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide’, all about the river, and they have a bit on the Doggett’s Coat and Badge and a list of all the winners going back to 1716. Auntie Julie looked it up. Gran’s always had a photo of the great-grandfather, in the weird get up they wore, breeches and a fancy jacket, and a big oval shaped badge thing on his arm. He’s sitting in one of those old fashioned stuffed armchairs, side on, hair like a skinhead and staring at the camera. I didn’t even know they had photos in 1876. Gran got it from her father and had it on the wall in her old house, before Grandad died, with a photo of her dad Reg, in his first world war uniform, and her mum Florrie. We didn’t know the exact date of the 1876 one until Auntie Julie looked it up. She googled his name, and Doggett’s Coat and Badge, and there was the same photo, on the internet, with his name and the date. It was crazy. This bloke, my great-great-however-many-times-granddad, staring out at me from a hundred and forty years ago, and all over the internet. It gave me the shivers. Auntie Julie said, that’s your link with the River Thames, Wapping and Shadwell, that’s where you come from. I said I don’t come from there, I’ve never been anywhere near it, you might as well say I come from Africa because that’s where we all came from originally. Auntie Julie said, well you Google some photographs of your African ancestors then, smartarse.
Auntie Julie’s keen on all this family history stuff. She’s done a lot of poking about on the internet, and she found some cousins in Australia we never knew we had. Between them they came up with this family tree for Gran’s side, going right back to 1772, some bloke born in Bermondsey, which is also by the river, who got married in a church called St Andrew by the Wardrobe, in Blackfriars. I don’t know if that’s near Bermondsey, or what they were doing there if it isn’t. Weird name for a church. Auntie Julie said it’s near a castle where Edward III kept his official robes. She said it’s a Wren church, Wren who built St Paul’s, but it isn’t because it’s been rebuilt twice. It got burned down at some point and they rebuilt it, and then it got bombed during the Blitz so they rebuilt it again. So it’s not really anything to do with the first church, or the wardrobe. Auntie Julie also said it was Shakespeare’s church for a while. If it was the same church, it would be weird to think of some great-great-something-grandparents getting married in a church where Shakespeare used to go, but it isn’t, so it’s not weird really.
Gran says when she was very little they lived in this old house in Wapping. Reg was brought up there, and his mum and dad had the upstairs and Reg and Florrie had the downstairs. They had a pump to get their water from, and gas lights, and the toilet was outside and shared with other houses. Florrie had to look after the parents-in-law as well as her own five kids, and the mother-in-law was a bitch. Somehow Florrie and Reg got the money for a new bed, their marriage bed, but when they got it to the house the mother-in-law took a fancy to it and said she’d have it and they could have her old one. Gran says Florrie talked about that until the day she died.
Gran’s grandfather kept chickens, and a goose, despite being in the middle of London and with no garden. Gran was afraid of the goose, it used to chase her and anyone else who was around. Then her grandfather made all the children watch while he wrung its neck one year for Christmas dinner, and Gran says she never ate a bite.
I asked Gran why Florrie never argued about the bed, and having to look after the parents-in-law, but Gran said it was just like that then, you did as you were told. Also Florrie was grateful to have a home at all. Her mum, Elsie, went into Colney Hatch lunatic asylum when Florrie was sixteen. Gran says Elsie had melancholia, like depression but they didn’t have the pills in those days. Elsie’s husband was an alcoholic, even worse when he got back from the trenches, and he used to beat up Elsie and the kids – he broke Florrie’s nose with a chair when she was eight years old, and Florrie had the bump all her life. He wouldn’t have anything to do with the kids after Elsie went into the asylum, and the three younger ones were sent to an orphanage. Gran told me that one night they tried to run away, because it was so horrible, and the people in charge set the dogs after them. Later on, Florrie had some of her brothers and sisters to live with her and her family - Reg must have been a saint - and she wanted to get Elsie out of the asylum to live with them as well, but this was after the second world war and the doctors said Elsie had been in the asylum too long, she’d never adapt.
Elsie went into Colney Hatch in 1919, and she died there, though it was called Friern Hospital then, in 1971. Florrie visited Elsie every month for all those years, even during the Blitz. The only time she didn’t visit was when she was having kids or one of the kids was ill. My mum remembers her going, in her best coat and a hat. She always took pastries, because Elsie had a sweet tooth. One day, she had to tell Elsie that the next sister down had disappeared during the Blitz, and after the war she had to tell her that the oldest boy had died of a brain tumour. Elsie didn’t seem to understand, and Gran said Florrie thought that was worse than if she had.
Just before the second world war Gran’s family – minus Reg’s mum and dad - got moved out of the old house in Wapping, and rehoused into a flat, newly built, indoor toilet, running water, electric light, everything. Gran said Florrie was over the moon, so proud of it, and one day someone came round to take some photos of them all. Florrie was never too sure who he was, she thought it might have been someone from the council. So, fast forward to when Auntie Julie took Gran to see the docks, and they also went to this exhibition of photographs from an old magazine called Picture Post, because the photos were about the East End. Auntie Julie thought it would be interesting for Gran, although Gran mainly moaned about her feet hurting and the price of a cup of tea. Then all of a sudden Auntie Julie turned round and Gran was staring at one of the pictures, tears streaming down her face. It was her family, all sat round the kitchen table in the flat, Florrie, Reg, Gran, her brothers and sisters and, standing beside them, Florrie’s brother that died and her sister that disappeared. The photographer had been from Picture Post and the photo had been in the magazine and everything, though no-one ever thought to tell Florrie and Reg. There was another one of the same group, in slightly different positions, this one with Gran eating a piece of bread and jam. The blurb beside them said they were pictures taken of families rehoused after slum clearance in Wapping – Gran said Florrie would have been mortified to have her name associated with slums, so maybe it was just as well she never saw it. Auntie Julie spoke to the people at the exhibition and in the end Gran got copies of both photographs, and she was dead chuffed, although she still cries whenever she looks at them.
Anyway, poor Florrie, just over a year after she moved into her lovely flat, they got bombed out and lost everything. They were rehoused in Dagenham this time, and it was a good move really, because they got a proper house, which had a big garden because it was on the corner. Reg grew lots of vegetables and apparently he wanted to have chickens, and maybe even a goose, but Florrie put her foot down.
After the war Gran trained as a nurse, at Paddington General, and she met my Grandad at a hospital dance. His family came from south London, Wimbledon, where the tennis is. They didn’t live in that part though, they weren’t posh, although they were a bit posher than Wapping. My Grandad was born and brought up in Plymouth, because his dad Arthur was in the navy, but his mum brought the three boys back to Wimbledon when Arthur was killed in action. She was dead proud of Grandad because he passed the civil service exam and went to work in the Admiralty. After that he worked for BP, and he and Gran travelled all over the world. They never lived in London again. Grandad’s older brother stayed in Wimbledon until the day he died, but his younger brother moved away, and all Gran’s brothers and sisters did too. Later on, my mum came up here to go to University, where she met my Dad, which is why I’m a Tyke through and through, and is also how Auntie Julie met Uncle Graham when she visited one time, and why Gran ended up living in Yorkshire with the rest of us. So all our roots are up here now.
Auntie Julie’s going back down to London again in the autumn, to do some more family history stuff in the archives. I don’t really know why she bothers. She asked me to go with her this time, said she’d take me to The Prospect of Whitby, which is a famous pub that all the East Enders know. I said, it’s a funny name for a pub in London, not much prospect of Whitby down there, but she said it was named after a famous ship. But I can’t say I’m really much bothered about that, or about seeing Docklands, or the church that was a wardrobe, or the council house in Dagenham, which is privately owned now and has a conservatory, according to Google Earth.
After all, it’s nothing to do with me really.
Author's note: Not too sure about the copyright for the Picture Post photos, so haven't included them.