Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “November, 2013”

Osterley Estate


We found ourselves at Osterley on the last day of the season, Wednesday 30 October 2013. It was a chilly autumn day, but the sun was shining in a blue sky. We had driven up from Gatwick via the M25 and through the outer suburbs of south west London toward Hounslow, where we had joined the slow traffic moving along Wellington Road (where my great grandmother lived before she died in 1946), then turning into the Great West Road (A4) toward London city. I thought of the letter Mum received from John Weston in 1972, which I have at home in my files, where he describes the Great West Road, “opened in 1922”. When we lived in England in the early 70s the M25 had yet to be built, there was no M4 (which could be called the “Greater West Road”) and the A4 had nothing like the volume of traffic it has now, a four lane highway leading out of London toward the west country.

A sign to Osterley directed us up a small suburban street which ended in another street encircling the great estate. We drove through the gates and left the streets of London behind, entering another world. The long drive led through fields of green, cows grazing peacefully, dark and quiet woods beyond the meadows. The house and its estate are owned by the National Trust now, since they were given to the state after the Second World War by the then Earl of Jersey. The house is not visible from the city streets. The avenue of oaks by which we entered the estate is not the main drive up to the house, which enters from the other side of the park. We parked the car beside the fields and wandered through a copse of trees which screens the house from the outside world, autumn leaves and wet underfoot. Emerging we skirted a lake and caught sight of the columned portico of this grand house that is Osterley.

It was, as I mentioned, the last day of the season. Now, as in its previous glory days, Osterley House is largely closed down for a part of the year, and on the day we came there was a distinct feeling that everything was winding up for the coming winter. Osterley has never been a permanent residence, at least not since the present grand edifice was built in the mid eighteenth century on the foundations of a previous tudor mansion that had stood there since the Middle Ages. The Child family, who came into possession of the house in the early 1700s as repayment of a debt, were immensely rich and rebuilt the older house which was falling into disrepair, but made the new residence a showpiece of architectural and design excellence. No expense was spared in the rebuilding and redecoration, but it was created largely for entertainment purposes, although they used it as their country residence in the warmer months. Of course there was a “skeleton staff” of more than twenty servants and workers in residence all through the year and for them it was their home. But the owners had another house in London, in Berkeley Square, and it was only when the trees were in full leaf and the grass was green and lush that they relocated to Osterley. The house eventually came into the Jersey family through various marriages, but after the Great War it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain because of the huge costs. It remained in the family until after WWII but now it belongs to the nation.

The garden parties which became famous in the late 1800s were really long weekends when the family invited guests to enjoy their summer residence with them. They were socialite affairs, for the successful and aristocratic, and many famous people came to mingle and gossip with the English elite. It was the height of the Victorian era and Britain ruled the world. The garden parties continued into the twentieth century, at least until the war broke out in 1914. In those first decades of the 1900s my grandfather was growing up in the villages nearby, first Heston, and later Lampton, which stand next to each other on the western and south-western perimeter of the great estate. Now these villages have been swallowed up into the London suburban sprawl. It is a very different scene now to a century ago.

For us, Osterley was a pleasant glimpse into another world. We walked through the house, stopping to listen to National Trust guides who told us stories about the rooms and their furnishings, and the people who once lived here. The glory of the former days is preserved as a museum, a reminder of how life was at one time for the rich and famous of English society. The gardens and estate around are as beautiful now as they were then. But it was hard for me to transport myself back a hundred years to when my grandfather grew up in this area, and imagine what it was like for him running over the fields or through the woods chasing rabbits, or how it could ever have been that his mother Mabel Simmonds could have attended one those famous garden parties.



Redhill to Hounslow in 1905

Last Monday I returned the car we had rented for the week to an office in Crawley and was being driven back to the B and B where we had stayed overnight in Horley. It was 6.45am and the traffic around Gatwick was already heavy. The driver complained about the traffic. “The other day,” he commented, “I needed to go up to Hounslow. I set the satnav and it told me that it would take 45 minutes but the traffic was so heavy on the M25 that the time got longer and longer and in the end it took over an hour and a half.” We had done the same trip the week before (see previous blog, By train through George and Mabel’s world), also with the help of a GPS and via the M25, and it had taken over an hour for us too.

Hounslow, near Heathrow, is not really that far from Horley, near Gatwick, where we were staying. Horley is a stone’s throw from Redhill, where Mabel Butler had her first son in 1905, George Simmonds, my grandfather. Nowadays, if there is no traffic, it probably takes even less than 45 minutes from Redhill to Hounslow, but it was different a hundred years ago when my great grandparents, Mabel Butler and George Lilley made that journey. I sat in the rental car staring out the window into the darkness of the autumn morning and found my thoughts wandering back to them and the move that marked the start  of their life together. How long did it take in 1905, I wondered? There was no M25 and there were few cars. The roads were probably dirt, and must have been muddy when it rained. They may have travelled by train into London and out again to Hounslow, or more likely, since George was a furniture carman, by horse and carriage.

But they may not have travelled the journey together, considering the circumstances of their move. Mabel had just had their first son, my grandfather, but she was unmarried, and whether it was general knowledge in the area that George Lilley was the father I don’t know. Perhaps she moved alone, to escape the comments of a disapproving community. Redhill was a small place then, and Mabel was not from those parts. Perhaps she knew few people in the area. She was from London, and had grown up in Bristol and the West Country. She was not a girl, already 29 years old when she had her first child. Perhaps she moved to Heston without George, perhaps she knew someone there who was willing to take her in, an unwed mother unable to work, with a newborn baby. But George could not let her and their son disappear from his life. So he came after her. But it is also possible they made the move together. I imagine it was hard to do things secretly in those days, as it is today.

The truth is I don’t know exactly when Mabel moved, or what the circumstances of that move were. What I do know is that her address in 1905 was St Johns, Redhill, and she was unmarried, but in 1908 her address was Gilberts Cottages, Heston, and her name had changed to Mabel Simmonds, her husband was George Simmonds. So some time between 1905 and 1908 she had moved from Surrey to Middlesex, and her “husband” George had moved there too, though whether they moved together or not I have no way of knowing. How they got there and what they took with them I don’t know either. But they settled initially in Heston village, by Osterley, and, apart from moving house a number of times, remained in that area for the rest of their lives.

Garden party at Osterley 1908

osterleygardenpartyI found this picture on the web. It is a print which was for sale on ebay. It depicts a garden party at Osterley in 1908, a few years before Uncle Jack (John Simmonds, my mother’s uncle) was born. Some seventy five years later I met him in Brisbane and he told me about the garden parties he had been to at Osterley with his mum when he was a little boy. Could she have been an invited guest? Seems far-fetched, but truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. The caption under the picture reads “A meeting place of all society: Lady Jersey’s garden party.” More likely that Mabel was a servant, but why would she have taken Jack there? Questions without answers.

Osterley Park 1920

ImageThe Park is but nine miles from Hyde Park Corner, and the District Railway has planted a station just outside its walls, but in ordinary times, when one steps across the road, and passes through the lodge doors, the roar and traffic  of the city might be a hundred miles away. The tall elms fling their shadows across the paths, the cattle graze tranquilly in the long grass, the water fowl splash and dive in the lakes, just as they may have done when Sir Thomas Gresham disturbed them with his oil and paper mills. During the late war, part of the Park was used as a motor instruction camp, but that is now deserted.

Over all hangs the blue transparent haze known to artists as peculiar to the valley of the Thames, which enriches and softens the luxuriant vegetation of the surrounding country. The red towers of the house with their white angles, and the stone balustrades of the roof, appear above the dark spreading cedars. Up the old walls climb fragrant magnolia and smooth ampelopsis, and along one whole side of the house runs a marvellous wisteria which tries, with soft green tendrils and purple tassels, to clamber into the windows and peep at the tapestries within. Farther away flourish golden yew and many another variegated shrub, while the passing weeks of spring and summer are marked with the glowing masses of rhododendron, the pure white and rich odour of the giant syringa, and the blossoming of pinks and roses.

As Sunday evening draws in, the peals of distant church bells are the only sounds which come to break the quiet of a home near the town and yet, seemingly, so secluded from the world; then these cease and the song of nightingales alone disturbs the slumbers of Osterley Park.

M. E. Jersey, Osterley Park and its Memories, 1920

By train through George and Mabel’s world

Old Surrey map

Old Surrey map

We have been in Surrey. We flew into Gatwick airport the other night and stayed at a B and B in Horley. We caught a train the next day into London, passing through Redhill, Merstham, Norwood Junction and New Cross before finally getting off at London Bridge. We did not plan it that way, but coincidentally the train we happened to be on passed through many of the places that feature in the lives of my mother’s ancestors that I have been researching: George and Mabel, the English grandparents she never met. The map above shows some of these places.

My grandfather was born in Redhill, Surrey, though he would likely not have remembered it. His parents on the other hand, especially his father, knew it well. George Lilley, my great grandfather, was born, I believe, in 1874, around Banstead, Surrey, very likely in the tiny village of Walton-on-the-Hill. However, as a child he appears to have moved northward with his father and sister, toward London. When he was 6 he was living on the northern side of Croydon, on the edge of Norwood. At the age of 16 he was back in the Banstead area, where he lived at Mint Cottages, Banstead Place (now seemingly called Mint Road). At 26 he was married and living in Reigate, at 14 Cecil Road, an address I cannot find on any map. His wife Rosetta died and they had no children. When George was 30, around 1905, he moved with his second wife, Mabel, to Hounslow in Middlesex, and left Surrey behind, along with his name, Lilley, changing it to Simmonds.

George’s father was a farm labourer. George himself grew up in rural Surrey and the first suggestion of his occupation is in the 1891 census when he was 16 and listed as an agricultural labourer, the same as his father. What that means is unclear, but presumably he was a farmhand too. However, in the next census, in 1901, George Lilley’s occupation is listed as furniture carman. Somewhere along the line he had moved away from farming to the transport business. However, he must have had green fingers, because in later life he worked in market gardens around Hounslow, but it would seem his main involvement was in the transport side of things. In WW1 he joined the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) and worked presumably in transport.

Mabel Butler, my great grandmother, grew up in the West Country, mainly Bristol, but moved to London some time as a young adult, where she became a nurse and worked at the South East Fever hospital in Deptford. The hospital was renamed a number of times, but at one stage it was called the New Cross Hospital. It does not exist now, though I believe some of the buildings still stand. When Mabel had her first child, my grandfather, George, she listed her occupation on his birth certificate as “laundress of Merstham.”

Somehow Mabel Butler of suburban Bristol met George Lilley of rural Surrey. They had a child and moved to Hounslow, where they made their home. They changed their name to Simmonds, probably around the same time. They had four more children between 1908 and 1916. They finally married legally in 1917.

I sat on the train staring out the window as we headed into London. We stopped at Redhill and I tried to imagine what it looked like in 1905, the year my grandfather was born. We passed through Merstham, and I wondered where Mabel worked as a laundress. What did laundresses do in 1905, before the advent of washing machines? Why was a nurse working as a laundress? The hills of Surrey became more and more densely built up as we rolled north through Croydon and stopped at Norwood Junction. I tried to imagine what Norwood looked like in the late 1800s when my great grandfather was a lad. His address in 1881, according to the census, was Glen Cottages, 2 Cobden Road, Croydon. According to google maps that spot is just half a kilometre south of Norwood Junction station. We headed north again toward London, stopping at New Cross, where my great grandmother, in 1901, was a nurse. The train finally came to its terminus at London Bridge and we disembarked for a day in London.

The next day, yesterday, we left the guesthouse in Horley where we had been staying. We stopped in Redhill to get some things from the shops. There is a big, airy shopping mall called The Belfry just off the high street. Mabel would not recognise the Redhill of today. We set the sat-nav for Osterley House but somehow got off track and found ourselves motoring through the wooded hills north of Redhill village. The leaves were changing and there was a chill in the air, but the sky was blue. The hills of Surrey are very beautiful, quiet and peaceful away from the busy thoroughfares.

We emerged from the woods onto the infamous M25, another feature of our day that Mabel could never have imagined. We joined the swollen rush of traffic heading west and north toward Heathrow, but turned off before we got there and drove through the streets of Hounslow, up Wellington Road, where Mabel died in 1946. We turned into the treelined approach to Osterley House and estate. We parked the car and walked up a sweeping driveway toward the great old house which featured so clearly in the memory of Uncle Jack when I met him in Brisbane back in the 80s, memories now a century old.

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