Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “jack simmonds”

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.


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.

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