I don’t know a great deal about either of my grandmothers. All I know of my mother’s mother can be put in a few sentences. Her name was Janet Farmer, she was the 9th of 10 children, born when her mother was about 44 years old – apparently there was a child every three years, starting at the age of 20 – and my grandfather was her first and only sweetheart. They married and then she died, leaving an 18-month-old baby, my mother. A short 25 years of life and there are only two more personal snippets I know. She had her appendix out at the age of 21 and she was a church organist.
I have no entry into the heart or mind of my other grandmother, but there are more anecdotes about her. I don’t know if I’d have liked her but she would have been interesting to know and I’d have loved to hear her reminisce. No question of that, she died 50 years ago when I was a little child.
She was only 16 when she married, in 1909. Rich and spoilt I suspect, she was already something of a drinking girl. Family history relates that, on their return from honeymoon, they called on friends of his parents. “Come in and sit down,” welcomed the lady of the house hospitably. “You must be tired out and longing for a cup of tea” – it was about 4.30 in the afternoon. “Actually,” drawled Helen, “I usually have a gin and tonic about now.”
Champagne for breakfast was her preference too, apparently. This was Edwardian England, it must have been outrageous behaviour in a provincial town.
Both she and my grandfather came from wealthy families. Her family money came from beer. A Norwich brewery called Youngs, Crawshay and Youngs. Her parents lived at Alpington House, a large house on Lowestoft seafront that later became a convent – and I went to the convent school next door. The chapel, the library and the dining hall were in my grandmother’s parents’ house.
Maybe the marriage would have worked if it hadn’t been for the First World War. My father was born in 1910 and a couple of years later, they moved to their newly built house by Oulton Broad. It was a large, three-storey house in a couple of acres – the building materials were brought down the river by barge.
Then my grandfather joined up and went off to the war. Helen was left with a small son, whose care was in the hands of a nanny, a houseful of servants, time on her hands……. She was still only just in her 20s. She met another man and she bolted.
I do not know if she gave warning to anyone or simply vanished. I don’t know if she had been found out. Nor what pangs she felt, to leave her little boy. Times were quite different 100 years ago. A ‘fallen woman’ was despised and vilified and there would have been no question that she would have been allowed to take her son. The law would not have permitted it.