Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “heston”

George Simmonds World War 1 service

Heston War Memorial

In 1905 (I believe) George and Mabel Simmonds moved with their son, my grandfather, to Heston Middlesex, which is in the Hounslow district. I have written about George and Mabel’s life prior to this in other blogs. Over the next 9 years three more sons were born: Fred in 1908, John in 1911 and James in 1913. So when war broke out in 1914 they were a family of 6, with four boys under 10. By then they lived in the neighbouring village of Lampton, at an address which no longer exists, but which was called The Circle, and was opposite the Black Horse pub in present day Lampton Road. The family must have heard stories of the first five months of the war through press reports and the propaganda machine of the British government, with repeated calls for volunteers. There were probably already casualties from the little community in west London which they had made their home.

Early in 1915 George Simmonds too volunteered. He was probably around 40 years of age. Up until then he had been working for a market gardening business as a carman, transporting fresh vegetables to the markets of London. According to a letter to my mum, from a friend of Grandpa Simmonds’ family, George had a donkey and a cart, and also a little grocery in the high street of Heston village:

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.

Presumably because of his occupation, but possibly also because of his age, George was not sent to the Western Front, but was allocated to the Army Service Corps (ASC). I have a copy of his Service and Casualty Form, which was filled in after the war in 1919. It lists his army service during the four years from 1915 to 1919. The only other document I have found is a Disability Claim, also from 1919, which provides some more details. More than that I have not found. But from these forms I have gleaned the following:

George’s “service towards limited engagement” was reckoned from 9 January 1915. From that date to 28 January 1916 he was on “home” service, but since there is no specific company or regiment recorded for that time I assume he was training, though a year seems a long training period for a job for which he must have already been reasonably qualified. From 29 January 1916 to 31 August 1916 he was posted with 483 Company, which was a horse transport company, to the 27 Divisional Train in Salonika in the Mediterranean. He appears to have spent some of that time in a military hospital on Malta. From September to November 1916 he was back in England but from 20 November 1916 until early 1919 he was in Ireland, presumably Dublin, initially with 615 Company (mechanical transport) but from the beginning of 1917 with 866 Company (horse transport).

The only disability for which he made a claim was rheumatism, and according to the Disability Claim he was treated for this condition both in Malta and in a “Voluntary Hospital” in Lancashire. I have not been able to find any references on the internet to such a hospital, though there was a Mental Hospital in Rainhill, near Liverpool, which might fit the description. It certainly appears to have received WW1 casualties, but whether only psychiatric patients or also general medical cases were admitted I have not been able to ascertain for sure. There is no mention of a psychological disability on the form.

There was unrest in Ireland for much of the war, notably the Easter Uprising of 1916, but that was before George arrived. However, it would appear that the British army maintained a garrison in Dublin throughout the war to “keep the King’s Peace.” It would appear George was involved in that activity, though he was, as mentioned, with the ASC. It is likely that he was involved in the procurement and care of horses, of which hundreds of thousands served in the war, but I have not been able to find anything much on the internet about the ASC in Ireland in WW1. A few histories of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corp, as it was renamed at the end of WW1) have been written, but I have not yet been able to see these as yet.

George Simmonds served his time in WW1, therefore, in England, Ireland and Greece. Only the latter, his 6 months in Salonika in 1916, was overseas service, and there were no major offensives in that particular theatre during the time he was there. So he was not involved in active combat, though he appears to have suffered some ill health during his service years. I suspect, however, that he suffered more than the rheumatism that was listed on his claim form. He died in 1928, at the age of around 53 or 54, only 10 years after the end of the war. As a child I was told he had died from lung damage resulting from gas warfare in the trenches. This seems unlikely, as I am not sure that gas was used in Salonika, and as I mentioned there were no offensives fought during the time that George was there. He would surely have listed such damage on his claim form if it was true.

But something significant must have happened for him to land in hospital in Malta and in Lancashire. I will record my thoughts on that in another blog.


Mabel and Osterley

A question that has fascinated me is how Mabel Simmonds, formerly Butler, of Heston, Middlesex, wife of a market gardener and carman before WWI, could have been invited to garden parties at the spectacular Osterley House, which was so close to where the young family lived, but so far removed from the life they lived. Mabel was probably around 30 when she and her husband moved to Heston, from Surrey where they had been living, and where their first son, my grandfather, was born. In the years that followed their arrival they had 4 more children – Frederick (1908), John (1911), James (1913) and Mary (1916). In 1923 my grandfather left for Australia, and a few years later his brother John went out to join him. James died in 1928, as did their father. Mabel was by then 52 years old, with two of her children still at home with her, Frederick, who was 20 and Mary, who was 12. They lived at 1, The Circle, Lampton. Mabel had been together with her husband, George, for 23 years when she became a widow. She remained a widow until she died in 1946, and though Mary married and moved on, Frederick remained with her until she died. After Mabel’s death both Frederick and Mary (with her family) left for Australia.

The thing that stands out as I have tried to get a picture of this family’s life through the few documents I have been able to track down on the internet, is the relative lowly status of the family. They were an ordinary bunch, living in ordinary circumstances. But Osterley is not an ordinary house. It is a stately home, and the people who lived there were aristocracy.The owners of the house were the Earl and Countess of Jersey, but who were they I wonder? The people who were invited to Osterley for the famous “Saturday to Monday parties” (see previous blog), were prominent people in society, writers (like Henry James), politicians, explorers (like Ernest Shackleton). But Mabel Simmonds lived in another world, in the village next to Osterley. In Victorian and Edwardian England these worlds did meet of course, but surely not at garden parties, unless the one was in service to the other. They were not equals.

The answer to the riddle must surely lie in her earlier life. Mabel was 29 when she had her first child, my grandfather, George. But though she lived in Surrey then and worked as a laundress, and had previously been a nurse in London, she had grown up in Bristol, where she was a member of the famous Butler family. The Butlers of Bristol had humble origins further north in England. The father of the family, Joseph Frearson Butler, came from a little village called Risley, between Derby and Nottingham. He married a local girl, Sarah Theobold, when she was 15, and together they had 14 children. Sarah died when she was 48, in 1850 (from exhaustion I imagine!). Her youngest was only 3 years old. Joseph remarried and moved to Bristol, where his son lived.

Bristol had become the centre of a Butler family empire, not because of Joseph, but because of his first born son, William, who was born in 1819. As a young man he had moved south, and worked for the great engineer, Brunel, in his railway building projects. Railways required sleepers, and these were wooden, but wooden sleepers required preservation to prevent them rotting away. The product that was used for this purpose (creosote) was made from tar, and there was a tar works in Bristol which William ended up managing, in connection with Brunel’s engineering works. Apparently a fire almost destroyed the tar works in 1863, and William, 44 years of age, was able to buy the plant from the owners. He built the business up again and became one of Bristol’s most successful businessmen, and presumably extremely wealthy.

My great great grandfather Ephraim, Mabel’s dad, was one of William’s younger brothers. He was born in 1837, also up north, so he was 18 years younger than William. Ephraim must have also moved south, for in 1863, the same year that William took over the Tar Works, he married a girl called Jane Coombs, in Bristol. I assume Ephraim ended up working for his older brother, though I have no definite evidence of this. Ephraim and Jane seem to have had two daughters, Sarah, born in 1865, and Mabel, born in 1876. There may have been other children in between, I have no record. But within a few years of Mabel’s birth, both Ephraim and Jane were dead, and the girls were left as orphans.

William Butler had a whole lot of children. His first son he named William, and when Sarah and Mabel lost their parents, this William junior was already in his late twenties, married to Esther, with three children of their own: Mary, William (the third!) and Joseph. William took his younger cousin, Mabel, into his home where she grew up, together with his children (her “cousins once removed”). William junior by this time was managing the Tar Works, and the family was prosperous. They had servants and a governess. His son, William, who was the same age as Mabel, in his turn later took over the company, William Butler and Co. Mary, who was 5 or 6 years older than Mabel, was like her “big sister”. Mabel’s real sister, Sarah, lived in Gloucester with other relatives.

What kind of relationship Mabel had with her cousins is impossible to know, but there is no reason to think it was a bad one. Although Mabel travelled a different journey to them in life, she would surely have remained in contact. They were her closest family in many ways, even if they were rich and she was poor. By the time she was a young mother, in the years leading up to the Great War, her cousin (once removed), William (the third), was also in his 30s and running the successful business in Bristol. It is easy to imagine that such a prominent member of Bristol society should be invited to Osterley, though exactly who he knew and what his connection was to the great house and its owners is hard to know.

Mabel lived in Heston village, close by Osterley. She was like a sister to William. When he was at Osterley it was only natural that he should call on her, and why not ask her along to the parties at the big house? John (Jack), her third son, was a happy little lad. He could come too. Jack was 3 when WWI broke out. Perhaps it was those happy years before the Great War that he first visited the majestic house with his mother. Uncle Jack was old when I met him, a man who smiled easily, his face tanned and wrinkled from a lifetime in the Australian sun. But he remembered with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle those garden parties at Osterley, from another age and another world.

Uncle Jack remembers Osterley

The only one of the Simmonds boys that I ever knew was John (Jack), my grandfather’s brother, who must have been in his 70s when I met him one sunny day in Brisbane – could it have been in the 80s?. I can’t remember how we came to meet him, where we met him, or why. I was with Mum, but why we were in Brisbane I don’t know. My impression even now is of a cheerful man, enthusiastic, smiling. He talked a lot and he laughed a lot. It was then that I learnt that he had come out to Australia to join his big brother, George, in 1926, when he was only 15 years old. I can imagine the letters that had come back to England from George the adventurer, by then a stockman in the wild Queensland outback, spending his days on horseback chasing cattle, his nights sleeping under the stars in the bush. It must have conjured up exciting images in the mind of young Jack. There is no doubt that the world was different then, life was harder and perhaps people were tougher, but it must have been a wrench just the same for their mother Mabel to relinquish another of her sons to the distant colony of Australia. James was only 10 and Mary still a little girl of 7. Fred was also still at home, 18 years old when Jack headed off for the far side of the world.


An Englishman in the Australian bush

A few memories stand out in my mind of what Uncle Jack said of his early years. One was of poaching with his dad in the woods around Osterley House, which was near their home. Osterley must surely have had a gamekeeper, so there must have been an element of excitement to any poaching that was done, specially for a young boy. Jack was only 3 when the war broke out, and surely his memories of poaching with his dad were not before that. When his dad moved back home for good in 1919 he was 8 so his memories of nightly trips to rabbit traps on the Osterley estate must have come from the years after the war. Whatever the case, he related the story with glee in his eyes, and I got the impression even then that Jack was an adventurous spirit, like his big brother George, the grandfather I never knew.

The other of Jack’s recollections that caught my attention was his memory of garden parties at Osterley House. I thought little of it then, but I have often found myself wondering what it could mean. Jack said that he remembered going to such parties at the big house with his mother (see note below). I assumed at the time that this meant his mother must have been a housemaid there, but that doesn’t add up. Mabel would have been in her thirties, and married with 4 children. She surely would not have been a housemaid at Osterley in such circumstances. I hope to get to Osterley at some stage and get a feel for the place, and I will write about it then. Jack mentioned a set of Dickens novels that his mother, or he, received as a gift from some notable person who they met there. He also mentioned that many famous people came to garden parties at Osterley, and Ernest Shackleton was one that came to his memory.

Who, exactly, did Mabel know at Osterley, why was she there, and when was this? Was it before, during or after the war, or all of the above? Could it be that the choice of Heston as a home for the family was somehow steered by these connections? And what did father George think of it all? After all, his involvement with Osterley was as a poacher on the estate, which seems in stark contrast to Mabel’s as a guest of Osterley’s garden parties.

From British History online:

During the late 19th century it was the scene of much entertaining, notably at ‘the Osterley Saturday-to-Monday parties’ started by the Earl and Countess of Jersey in the eighties. These were largely attended by prominent Conservatives and also by several writers who have left descriptions of Osterley in their works. Among these was Henry James, who depicted it as ‘Summer soft’ in The Lesson of the Master. During the First World War part of the park was used as a motorinstruction camp and the whole property became a Home Guard school in the Second.

An Edwardian family

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)

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.

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