It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910,
King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men.
(George Banks, in the film, Mary Poppins)
My grandfather’s birth seemed to have marked the beginning of his family. On his birth certificate the space under “father” is blank, his mother’s name is listed as Mabel Butler, but his full name is listed proudly as George Frederick David. He was born in St Johns, Redhill, Surrey, and his mother, aged 29, was a laundress. How Mabel Butler, who was orphaned as a toddler, but grew up with relatively well heeled and apparently God-fearing relatives in Bristol, ended up as a laundress and unmarried mother in rural Surrey, is a story I would love to discover, but which at present remains beyond me.
The next documentary record of the family is 1908 when his brother Frederick George Simmonds was born. On Fred’s birth certificate, the father is listed as George Simmonds, mother as Mabel Simmonds formerly Butler, and the family home is in Heston, Middlesex, near Hounslow. They lived at 1, Gilbert’s Gottages. George was a market gardener. My grandfather George, was nearly 3. A respectable, but presumably rather poor, little family in another rural community, but this one west of the metropolis. George was by now about 34 and Mabel 32, the proud parents of two little boys. John (Jack) would come along in 1911 and James (Sonny) in 1913, so that when war broke out in the summer of 1914 they were a family of 6 with four boys under 10.
Hounslow was an agricultural town in those days. Heston was a smaller village a few kilometers to the north. One of the few sources that I have which describe that time is the following description from a letter written in 1972 to my mum, by John Weston, a contemporary of the Simmonds boys:
Heston at that time was either Brick fields, Farms, Market Gardens or Nurseries taking their produce to either Brentford or Covent Garden Markets, no mechanical transport in those days when roads were pot holes, ruts and puddles. The local school was close to the church, was then a church school serving a community of 2 miles radius, approx under 200 children in all.
My great grandfather, according to John Weston, had a little greengrocer’s shop in the main street, Heston Road. He also apparently worked at Maryville Nursery, and had “a donkey and trolley”. Mabel was a housewife, raising her growing family. They moved house a number of times in those early years: Fred’s birth certificate marks their address as 1 Gilbert’s Cottages, John’s as 10, Courtney Place, and the father George’s war record lists the family address as 1, The Circle, Lampton. None of these addresses survives today, the whole area having been extensively bombed in the Second World War and later rebuilt.
Edwardian England has found its way into the imagination of modern TV-viewers with the release of the wildly popular series, Downton Abbey. The older screen production, Mary Poppins, depicts another, not quite so well off family in London of the same era. But neither of these families provides a good picture of the kind of life the Simmonds family led. Life was tough for the lower classes in those days, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad life. People worked long hours in low paid jobs to make ends meet. The children often went hungry. But even if entertainment was much more basic and a relatively small part of life for the average family, not part of daily life as it is today, there were surely moments of fun and excitement. John, when I met him as an older man in his seventies, related the excitement of poaching for rabbits with his father in the woods around Heston. Children had fun, even if they were often forced into work, even at the tender age of 12 or 13, after an elementary education.
But it was a time of great change: the British Empire was at its peak, and the whole world was an open door, full of possibilities. Geographical movement within England and throughout the British Empire was increasing. Despite vast differences between rich and poor, and a traditionally rigid class system, movement between the classes was also becoming less unthinkable. Questions were beginning to be asked. Interest in socialism, so foreign to the English mindset and threatening to the upper classes, was growing, in England and throughout Europe.
Of course nowadays when we think of social movement we imagine it in terms of upwards migration. “You can do anything you want, be whatever you want,” we tell our children. Contemporary society focuses on getting rich – and emphasizes that anyone can be successful. We hear stories of personal disasters but we prefer to imagine our own lives in terms of improvement – climbing the social and material ladder.
But Mabel Butler seems to have taken a different path, choosing downward mobility when she married George Simmonds. It would be easy to think that her first pregnancy was the result of a social blunder, and any number of possibilities come to mind. I prefer to think that Mabel’s pregnancy was the result of a relationship with a young man with whom she somehow fell in love, but who happened to be poor, from a rural background. She may have come from rather better social circumstances, another level in the class strata, but something brought them together and as their acquaintanceship grew into something deeper they must have struggled to know what to do with their love “across the classes.” But like humans since time immemorial, they found themselves overwhelmed by desire for each other, and inevitably Mabel ended up pregnant with their first son, my grandfather George. The move to Heston was the best solution to what must have been an awkward and embarrassing situation for the young couple: they could build a new identity and life together as man and wife (though they actually didn’t marry till 1916) and go forward into the future as a happy, and growing family, despite their relative poverty.
It must have been hard for Mabel, in some ways, to abandon the society connections of her past, to choose a life as the wife of a poor gardener – trolley driver – greengrocer. Her cousins were wealthy manufacturers, even her sister continued in the “middle class”. Mabel chose poverty, but perhaps she was happy, even if life was tough. She was of course 29 when she had her first son, and one can wonder why she had not met and married earlier in life. Whatever the story that led to her first child and subsequent life with George and the rest of their family, she appears to have been determined to make the best of things. Her finer connections, of course, did not disappear just because she was married and relatively poor. Heston is situated beside one of England’s stately homes – Osterley House – which appears, oddly enough, in Mabel’s life during those pre-war years. But that will be the subject of another blog.
The Edwardian period is sometimes imagined as a romantic golden age of long summer afternoons and garden parties, basking in a sun that never sets on the British Empire. This perception was created in the 1920s and later by those who remembered the Edwardian age with nostalgia, looking back to their childhoods across the abyss of the Great War. The Edwardian age was also seen as a mediocre period of pleasure between the great achievements of the preceding Victorian age and the catastrophe of the following war. Recent assessments emphasise the great differences between the wealthy and the poor during the Edwardian era and describe the age as heralding great changes in political and social life.
(Edwardian Era, Wikipedia)