By train through George and Mabel’s world
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.