Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

George Simmonds, market gardener and grocer of Heston, Middlesex

Heston, Middlesex

Heston, Middlesex

I was named David for my grandfather, George Simmonds, whose birth certificate decidedly lists three names – George Frederick David. But who was he named for? His birth certificate lists no father – his mother is listed as Mabel Butler of Redhill, Surrey. Grandpa George was born in 1905, but it is not until the census of 1911 that I can find a clue as to his father’s identity. By then, George, age 6, lives with his younger brother, Frederick, aged 3, and their parents, George and Mabel Simmonds, in Heston, Middlesex, near Hounslow. His father is, according to the census, a Nurseryman, an employee in a market garden. Unlike his older brother, Frederick’s birth certificate does record his father – George Simmonds, gardener of Heston, Middlesex.

So was this George Simmonds the real father of my grandfather? Or did Mabel have him with someone else? Later documents from George Simmonds senior’s life record his full name – George Frederick David Simmonds – so it seems likely that my grandfather was named after him, even if his parents were not married. The fact that Mabel and her son moved to Heston, Middlesex, soon after he was born (and certainly before 1908 when Fred was born), and that they moved there with George Simmonds, who thereafter always recorded himself as the father of George and his siblings, suggests that that was exactly who he was – my grandfather’s father.

But who was this George Simmonds, my great grandfather? In the 1911 census he records his birth as having been in 1876 in Walton-on-Hill, a village in Surrey between Redhill and Reigate. But the birth indexes for that year and that area record no George Simmonds. The probable solution to this puzzle is that George Simmonds apparently started life as George Lilley, at least that is what my grandmother told Mum before she died. And there is a George Lilley born in the right area (the birth indexes for that year indicate Epsom, Surrey) and approximately the right year (1874). There is a certificate of baptism dated 12 July 1874 which indicates that this George Lilley’s full name was George Frederick David Lilley, son of George and Mary Lilley, of Kingswood, Surrey.

Even if my great grandfather’s origins are a little unclear, from 1908 onwards, when he was around 34 years old, George Simmonds’ name pops up repeatedly in various official records. 1908 was the year that my grandfather’s brother, Frederick, was born. The family lived at that time at 1 Gilbert Cottages, Heston, and George was a gardener, “not domestic,” according to the census. As I mentioned, in 1911 he was a Nurseryman, employed in a commercial market garden, which is almost the same thing. In his WW1 records his occupation prior to enlistment is recorded as “Carman,” employed by Craig, Hanson and Craig, Maryville Nursery, Heston, Middlesex.

I have a copy of a letter written by a certain John Westman to my mother in 1972. John Westman was a friend of Fred’s who Mum managed to track down, and in her request for information about her father’s childhood in Heston, John wrote the following:

If you get to Heston Church and facing the road opposite, New Heston Road; and about 500 yards on your left there are two shops standing together the first one is a grocers and the next one is a fish shop (chips as well) directly opposite Heston Library and Swimming Pool. It was there that your Dad was born or his parents moved into when he was very young. Fred was born there, George’s father your Grandad had a greengrocers business and I can see him now with his donkey and trolley in a barn opposite where now is the entrance to Heston Park. I wasn’t very old then, but all of us children loved his donkey.

I know now, of course, that Grandpa was not born in Heston, though his brother Fred was. Mr Weston’s second guess was more accurate, that he moved there with his parents “when he was very young.” It would seem that after their arrival George Simmonds built up some kind of business in Heston, at least that is the way John Weston remembered it, and that he transported produce with a donkey and trolley. That might explain his occupation as “carman” on his war records.

My great grandfather, then, between 1905 and the outbreak of war in 1914, lived in Heston, Middlesex, with his wife, Mabel and their growing family. He was a gardener, a nurseryman, and a carman. He was already over 30 when his first son was born, and at the start of the war he had just turned 40. His life before he moved to Heston remains something of a mystery. If he was indeed the George Lilley that I believe he was, then I will be able to construct more of his childhood and young adulthood. But to do that I really need some documentary evidence of his name change, and to date such a document eludes me.


Nurse Mabel Butler and The South Eastern Fever Hospital

Ambulance at The South Eastern Hospital, 1906

Ambulance at The South Eastern Hospital, 1906

In the year that Queen Victoria died, 1901, my great grandmother, Mabel Butler, was 25 and unmarried. According to the census that was carried out that year she was a hospital nurse at The South Eastern Hospital, Avonlea Road, Deptford, London SE. However, the census does not specifically say that Mabel was employed at the hospital. In fact, it says that she was an inpatient at the hospital, but that her occupation was “hospital nurse.”

Many questions come to mind. Was The South Eastern Hospital her workplace? Did she also live there? Or was she a nurse at another hospital but for some reason admitted to The South Eastern Hospital as a patient? The last record of Mabel before 1901 was from the 1891 census 10 years earlier when she lived with her sister Sarah May in Bristol, and worked as Sarah’s assistant in a draper’s business. In the intervening years she had “left home” and become a qualified nurse. Why did she decide on this particular profession? How did she come to be living and working in London, after a childhood and early adulthood in Bristol? What was involved in becoming a qualified nurse at the turn of the century? What illness had Mabel contracted that resulted in her admission to hospital as a patient?

The most likely answer to the first of these questions is that she was indeed a nurse at The South Eastern Hospital, and that she did indeed live there. Nurses at that time were generally young single women who when they married left their job to take care of their husbands and families. They usually lived on site at the hospital in which they worked. A Nurses Home was built at The South Eastern Hospital in 1893, and Mabel presumably lived there. If she was sick enough to be admitted to hospital then it would be natural that it would be the hospital where she worked and lived.

As far as the other questions are concerned I can only guess at answers. Mabel decided to become a nurse at some stage between the ages of 15 and 25. Nursing as a profession was in its infancy in the late Victorian era: Florence Nightingale had founded her training school for nurses at St Thomas’s Hospital in London in 1860, the first secular nursing school in the world. Florence Nightingale herself was 81 at the time of the 1901 census. It is possible, I suppose, that Mabel trained as a nurse in that very school, if she trained at all. There were few to choose from then. Why she chose nursing I don’t know. I also don’t know when she stopped working as a nurse, but it was at some stage between 1901 and 1905 when her first son, my grandfather, was born.

The South Eastern Hospital, or Deptford Hospital as it was also known, was one of a group of hospitals constructed in a ring around London in the latter half of the 1800s. They were known as “fever hospitals” because they were largely for the treatment of infectious disease. Smallpox was a major health problem in London in the 1800s, but by the end of the nineteenth century smallpox cases were mostly being cared for on old ship hulks in the Thames. The hospitals were reserved for other infections, particularly typhus and scarlet fever. It is not unlikely that Mabel had contracted one of these “fevers” and that on census day, 1901 she was unluckily in bed.

According to the website, Lost Hospitals of London, “in 1901 an architect was appointed to prepare a scheme for permanent buildings on the very restricted site. The plan included the erection of staff quarters, receiving rooms, isolation wards and 4 new 2-storey pavilions at an estimated cost of £76,000. The Hospital closed in 1904. The 70 members of staff were laid off with a month’s notice, and only the Medical Superintendent, Matron and Steward retained. Building work began and was completed in two years. The Hospital reopened in July 1906 with 496 beds.”

But by 1906 Mabel was living in Heston, Middlesex, with her husband George Simmonds and her son of the same name, my grandfather. At the time of George’s birth in August 1905, Mabel was in fact living in Redhill, Surrey. Her occupation is listed on George’s birth certificate as “laundress of Merstham.” It is possible that she was one of the 70 members of staff who were laid off in 1904, but for some reason she chose to take a position as a laundress in Merstham rather than finding work somewhere else as a nurse.

Why did she move south to Redhill? Was it because she had met her future husband George Simmonds, and that he came from Surrey? How did they meet, and where? And was he called George Simmonds when she met him or George Lilley? When they finally married officially in 1916 George recorded his status as “widower.” Was he already a widower when they met, or was he still married? George was a few years older than Mabel, and the research I have done to date has led me to believe that in 1901 he was married to a girl called Rosetta and that they lived in Reigate, Surrey, under the name George and Rosetta Lilley. What happened to Rosetta? Of course it is a guess, but I have even wondered if perhaps Rosetta died of a “fever” in The South Eastern Hospital in Deptford.

Growing up in Victorian England

Gloucestershire, Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge from the North

Clifton Bridge, Bristol

My great grandmother, Mabel Butler, and her sister Sarah were orphans. Sarah was 11 years older than Mabel. They lost their parents in unclear circumstances when Sarah was about 14 and Mabel was 3. Their parents, Ephraim and Jane Butler, lived in Bristol when they married in 1863 and Sarah was born 2 years later. Mabel was born in South Africa in 1876, but the circumstances of her birth are also uncertain.

In 1881 Mabel was 5 and Sarah 16. Mabel lived with an adult cousin, William Butler, and his family, in St George, Bristol (see the previous blog, The Butlers of Summerhill House), while Sarah lived about 50km away in Gloucester with an aunt and uncle, William and Louisa Hemmings and their son, William who like Sarah was 16 that year. Oddly, Mabel also lived with a cousin named William who was of the same age – William Butler, the first son of William and Esther.

As mentioned in the previous blog, Mabel as a five year old lived in a fairly well-to-do home. Her adopted family, the Butlers, had a successful family business in the manufacture of chemicals, chiefly tar. The Hemmings family were probably not as prosperous, but the fact that the census lists a domestic servant (Martha Monk, age 24) as part of the household, and that they had the means to take in not just Sarah who was 16 but also another cousin, Roberta Russell, who was 13 in 1881, suggests that they were reasonably well off. William Hemmings was a potato merchant and farmer according to the record, and both Sarah and her cousin William were assistants in the business, Their address, 79 Northgate Street, Gloucester, is however in town, so if William was a farmer he must have had property in the country too. I wonder how much contact Sarah had with her little sister in Bristol?

Sometime between 1881 and 1891 Sarah met and married Albert May, and moved back to Bristol. In 1891 she was 26, living with Albert at Staple Hill, Mangotsfield, which is in current day Bristol about 5km northeast of St George, where Mabel had lived with her relatives as a younger girl. But by 1891 Mabel, now 15, had moved in with Sarah and Albert, who had no children at that stage. Albert was a traveling salesman and Sarah is listed as a draper, a cloth merchant. Mabel worked as an assistant for her older sister.

Mabel then, despite her mysterious and rather exotic origins in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, grew up largely in Bristol in Victorian England in the 1880s and 90s. Bristol must have been an exciting place to live then, a thriving and growing industrial city. The engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was perhaps one of its most famous inhabitants, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864, the year before Sarah was born, stands today as a monument to his many achievements. Bristol was the home of Methodism after John Wesley had founded the first Methodist Chapel there in the 1700s, and during the 1800s this movement bore fruit with the growing middle class beginning to engage in charitable works: George Müller, for example, founded his orphanage in 1836.

Thomas Hardy was a well known novelist of the time: Tess of the D’Urbervilles came out in that census year of 1891, to a mixed reception. In fact, the Oxford Companion to English Literature says “the publication of the novel created a violent sensation” being seen by many reviewers as “immoral, pessimistic and extremely disagreeable.” I don’t imagine that Mabel read it, not at the age of 15 anyway, but perhaps Sarah was tempted to see just what all the fuss was about.

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