George Simmonds as a baby
I’ve been trying to imagine the world in which my grandfather, George Simmonds, grew up. I never knew George, because he died when he was only 50, 6 years before I was born. He was born in England, in Redhill, Surrey, in 1905, but his parents moved with him to Heston, near Hounslow west of London, when he was an infant. Heston and Lampton remained his home until he migrated to Australia at the age of 18 in 1923.
His 18 years in England were lived at a time of massive change, a time in history which for me represents the transition from the old world to the new. When George was 9 the First World War broke out, and early in 1915 his father volunteered and spent the next 4 years in the Royal Army Service Corps. George, and his younger brothers Fred, Jack, and James, and his sister Mary, lived those early years of their lives in the shadow of that great conflagration. Their mother, Mabel, was one of the thousands of war wives that raised their families alone for those four years (often much longer for those whose husbands never returned). George’s father, who was also named George Simmonds, was never posted to France, where so many thousands perished. Indeed, he spent a large part of the war in Ireland, and his only continental service was in Greece, for 6 months in 1916, involved in the Macedonian Front, the so called Salonika Campaign. He was a driver, not an infantryman, and was spared the wholesale slaughter of the trenches.
What was it like, I have wondered, to grow up in pre-WW1 England, not as one of the wealthy and privileged, but as one of the ordinary people? The Downton Abbey TV series has given us a window through which we can enter into that era a little, but of course everyone in England was not either living or employed in a country house like Downton. According to his army records, my great grandfather was a “Carman” before the war, which the dictionary indicates is “a driver of a streetcar or horse drawn carriage.” The 1911 census lists George senior as a “Nurseryman,” who worked in a market garden. Market gardens were one of the main sources of employment in the Heston and Lampton area at the beginning of the twentieth century, providing vegetables for the city of London. They were transported by road or rail into the big London markets every day. That, I imagine, was what my great grandfather did.
Having said that, there was some connection with a great house in my grandfather’s family. Only once, many years ago, I met John Simmonds, my grandfather’s brother. He was 6 years younger than Grandpa but he followed his brother to Australia as soon as he was old enough, in 1926 when he was only 15. The two of them kicked around together in the Australian bush for the next 6 or 7 years until Grandpa finally married my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, a Sydney girl. Uncle John, who was a cheerful man in his seventies when I met him one sunny afternoon in Brisbane, told stories of visiting a big house near Heston with his mother when he was a child. That house was Osterley, set in the midst of extensive gardens and woods, where John said he used to poach rabbits with his father and brothers.
The odd thing in all this is that John said he sometimes went to garden parties at Osterley with his mother, and met various famous people, one of which was Ernest Shackleton. I remain puzzled to this day as to how, or why, Mabel Simmonds and her little boy John should have been present at garden parties at Osterley House. The natural explanation is that Mabel was in service there, and that she took John along when she was working. But the 1911 census lists Mabel simply as “wife” aged 35, and I have no record of what she did later, during the war for example, when her husband was posted away with the army. John was born in 1911, his brother James in 1913, his sister Mary in 1916. If he was 5 or 6 when he went to Osterley with his mum it must have been during the war years, but perhaps it was after. I don’t know if I will ever get to the bottom of this mystery, but it certainly adds some color to my wondering about the early life of my grandfather and his brothers and sister.
Color is something that does not come to mind when I think of those days. All the pictures I find on the internet or elsewhere from those times are black and white and I think of that world very much in greyscale. But I suppose that is more a perception than a reality. I have one photo of my grandfather as a toddler, and one photo of his father when he was old and in hospital. I have begun to delve into that world through the wonders of the internet, and books which I come across which describe those times.
Grandpa George left no written record of his childhood that I know of. I was never able to ask him, and I never thought to ask Mum about it when she was alive. But they were tumultuous times, times of change and excitement, of tragedy and triumph. I suppose most of my research will end up in just imagining, but it is an addictive pursuit. Who was George, what did he think about? How did he experience his early years and what made him decide to migrate to Australia, five years after the Great War had finally come to an end? He never saw his mother or father again, though all his siblings eventually came out, except James, who died in England aged 14.
So I will read and think and imagine and write, and we will see what comes of all that. Hopefully some interesting blog posts are coming…