Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Mabel Butler. 1876 – 1946

Mabel Butler was my great grandmother. She was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1876, the daughter of Ephraim Butler (b.1837) and Jane Coombs. Her parents were married in 1863 and she had a sister 11 years older than her called Sarah, born in 1864. It would appear that her parents and sister lived in or around Bristol before they left England. Exactly when they left and why I do not know. I have no copy of Mabel’s birth certificate. I discovered the name of her father from her marriage certificate where his occupation is listed as “independent means” and his status (in 1917) as deceased.

Mabel turns up in the 1881 England census, when she was 5 years old, living with her cousin, William Butler, who is married with his own children. They live in Gloucestershire. By the next census in 1891 Mabel, now 15, is living with her sister Sarah Jane May, who is married to an Albert May. Mabel is listed as a draper’s assistant, her sister Sarah as a draper. She has not moved from Gloucestershire.

By 1901 Mabel is 25 and appears in the census as an inpatient in a London Hospital. However, it would appear that she was actually a hospital nurse but was off sick. The next record I can find of Mabel is in 1905, when her first son, my grandfather, was born in Redhill Surrey. Mabel is recorded as being a laundress of Merstham. She is unmarried. Her next child is Frederick, born in 1908, by which time she is recorded as Mabel Simmonds, though she did not actually marry Fred and George’s father until 1917.The family lives in Heston, Middlesex.

So sometime around 1904 Mabel met a man called George who became the father of her five children. Whether he was George Simmonds or George Lilley when they met I do not know (see the previous blog entry Changing names: the mystery of George Simmonds), but he is recorded as George Simmonds in 1908. What is also unclear is whether George was married or a widower when they met. He is recorded as a widower on their marriage certificate in 1917, but exactly what his status was when he met Mabel remains a mystery.

What is clear is that sometime between 1905 and 1908 Mabel and George moved with their son George (my grandfather) from Surrey to Middlesex, and when they arrived in Heston they let people know they were George and Mabel Simmonds.

Mabel spent the rest of her life in the area around Heston, Lampton and Hounslow west of London. She had 4 sons altogether, George in 1905, Fred in 1908, John in 1911, James in 1913 and a daughter, Mary in 1916. She finally married George in 1917. Her husband was away in the British Army from 1915 to 1919. Prior to the war he had been a market gardener, driving produce from the gardens to the markets. He may have had a greengrocers shop in Heston.

Mabel apparently had some contact with Osterley House, the stately home near where she lived with her family. I met John once some years ago and he said he had been to garden parties at Osterley House when he was very small, with his mother. I have always assumed she was a servant of some kind during the years her husband was away, or perhaps even in the difficult years after the war, but the fact that her father was wealthy (of independent means) makes me wonder if she had some other connection with the English aristocracy. I suppose I will never know. Garden parties were apparently a feature of Osterley House in the late 1800s and presumably into the twentieth century, though during WW1 it was used as a motor instruction camp.

After WW1 the Simmonds family must have struggled as so many did. Her husband returned from his army service, but whether he was able to resume work as a market gardener or as a carman I am not sure. His death certificate in 1928 records him as a pipe layer, which suggests he was only able to find work as a laborer after the Great War. He was only 54 when he died, 10 years after the conclusion of the war. Mabel would have been 52.

In 1923 her first son, my grandfather George, left for Australia. he was 18 and she never saw him again, though she wrote to him until she died. In 1926 her third son, John (Jack), followed George to Australia. He was only 15 and would never see his mother again. James, who they called Sonny, died in 1928, when he was only 14. Mabel’s husband George also died in 1928. So in the 5 years from 1923 to 1928 Mabel lost three of her sons and her husband, though she had contact with George and Jack in Australia by letter until she died.

Fred, who was born in 1908, was unmarried and stayed with his mother until she died in 1946. He was in the British Army during the Second World War. Mary, Mabel’s only daughter, born in 1916, married Percy Richards in 1939, when she was 23 and her mother was 63. She had some children so Mabel did at least have the joy of those grandchildren before she died.

Mabel was hoping to move to Australia after the Second World War, where together with Frederick they would join George, now married with three little girls, and Jack, who was single. She never made it, because she died in 1946, shortly after Frederick was demobilized. Frederick did migrate however, as did Mary and Percy. What happened to Mabel’s sister Sarah is a mystery to me. But perhaps the greatest mystery for me surrounds her birth. Who was her father really, Ephraim Butler, and why were Mabel’s parents, Ephraim and Jane in South Africa when she was born. What happened to them that meant that Mabel grew up apparently parentless, living with relatives in and around Bristol in the 1880s and 90s? The other mystery is the Osterley House connection, which Jack remembered so vividly when I met him in the 1970s before he died. Was Mabel a servant, or did she really have connections with the aristocracy because of her father? I wonder if I will ever be able to discover more of Mabel Butler, my mother’s English grandmother.

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