My mother was born in 1913, 18 months before the outbreak of the First World War. Her father, John Black, was the youngest child of a family of 16, his oldest brother having been born in 1861 with him bringing up the rear in 1883. There was at least one set of twins, but I have to say all those years of child bearing don’t bear thinking about!
His father Alexander, was a Scot who moved to Belgium around 1872 to manage a tannery in the Flemish speaking part of the country. This resulted in my grandfather being born in Belgium and growing up with Flemish as his first language. He spoke English with a accent until his death in 1971.
According to the 1901 census my grandfather had returned to England and was living in Battersea with two of his brothers, Stanley and Ronald known in the family as Rog. By 1911 he was living in Fulham with the same two brothers, his mother Sarah, then 73, and his sister Jessie.
My grandmother, Henrietta Eynon, was the daughter of Anne and Henry Eynon. Henry was a builder based in Fulham, though originally from Tenby in Wales. I believe Hetty, as she was known in the family, was part of her father's second family, his first wife and children having perished in a smallpox outbreak. She had two brothers, Louis and Henry, and it's a bit of a mystery why the firstborn was called Louis and the other two both were named after their father. Also somewhat puzzling is the fact that Louis is spelt the French way rather than Lewis which is the common Welsh spelling. I always thought that it had been changed along the way, but no, the spelling in the early census records is Louis.
I believe this table was commissioned by great-grandfather Henry probably around 1860. Uncle Louis had it after him, then my mother and now me. It's lovely to think of the family sitting round it for 150 or so years.
I am not sure how my grandparents met. But I know my grandmother trained at the Polytechnic in Regent St as a Stenographer and that in his later years my grandfather was a manager in the city office of Grosvenor Chator a paper manufacturer, so perhaps they met via work (this does ring vaguely true in my memory). She was a vivacious redhead who loved to dance, which my grandfather did not! So when they went to dances he would ensure her dance card was full reserving the supper dance for himself and repair to the card room for the duration!
John and Hetty married in 1911 in Fulham. Their first child, my mother, was born in February 1913. Amazingly they didn’t have a name prepared - or perhaps they were hoping for a boy! They asked Hetty’s brother Louis, who was to be godfather, to name the child and he choose Hilda, a name my mother hated for the rest of her life (although she was very fond of uncle Louis). She used to tell the story of her naming and, I think, was hurt by it for her whole life and never to the best of my knowledge tried to find out why they couldn’t think of a name. I have wondered if it was a particularly bad birth or my grandmother suffered from post-natal depression, but I guess we will never know now.
Their second child Mary was born 15 months later, in May 1914, as far as I know they managed to name her without outside assistance. It was obvious to me, even as a child, that my Aunty Mary, who I adored, was my grandmother’s favourite, whereas my mother was very close to her father.
Then came the Great War.
My grandfather joined up and was sent to the front in Belgium where he became the unofficial interpreter to the official interpreter. He was not allowed to be an interpreter as he was English rather than Belgian, but as he was posted to the part of Belgium where he grew up he understood the local dialect rather better than the designated official. I have often wondered if his interpreting activity kept him out of the front line and thereby saved his life. He would never talk about the war though, apart from the odd funny story. When, aged 16 or so, and full of Wilfred Owen’s poems, I tried to ask him about it he clammed up completely.
I still have two of the postcards he sent home from the front and reading them always makes me feel emotional
Whilst researching for this blog I have discovered a document which seems to indicate he didn’t sign up until 1917 which is puzzling, you can see it below and it's definitely him as I recognise his handwriting and the address is correct. It also conficcts with the fact that one of the postcards he sent my mother is clearly from 1914/15!
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
My mother's memories of the war revolve around having some of the Belgian cousins, who were of course refugees, staying with them, together with Grandma Black, who was by all accounts a very scary individual! She also remembers taking cover under the kitchen table when the Zeppelins went over. But in some respects life obviously proceeded as normal as is evidenced by this Christmas Card from 1915.