Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “mabel butler”

Four Victorian families

Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of 18 and remained the English regent until 1901 when she died, the longest reigning English monarch to date. The 1800s in England have come to be known as the Victorian Era, a time of tremendous change in which the British Empire was the greatest power in the world. It was an exciting century in which fortunes were made and empires both individual and national were built. It was a time of great optimism and great achievement, but it was also a time of poverty and suffering for many people. England may have been a paradise for the wealthy but for the poor life was a continuous struggle for survival. Even the rich were not immune to pain and suffering in a world where medical possibilities for the relief of disease and the prevention of early death were extremely limited.

For the majority of the poor there was little hope of rising above their circumstances and migration was an attractive option if they could afford it. Thousands left England every year for the new worlds of America, Canada and Australia, among other countries. The statistics indicate that between 1840 and 1860 somewhere between 4 and 5 million people left Britain, and the great majority of those who left were poor. In America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand there was the lure of gold and the dream of riches tempted many.

The Holford name is English, but as I have written before, it was not originally so; it was changed from Holdorf at the end of the First World War. John Holdorf, who arrived in Australia in 1856, was born Johann Holtorf, in the Duchy of Holstein, in present day northern Germany. John Holdorf (1828-1898), the first Australian of the Holford line, married another German migrant, Caroline Fischer. However, in the line that leads to me in any case all the subsequent Holdorfs and Holfords married British women. Charles Holdorf (1869-1954) married Florence Stacey, who though Australian born was the daughter of an English migrant. Charles Holford (1899-1977), who was the next in line and my grandfather, married Winifred Ross, whose father had come as a child to Australia from England. Ian Holford (b.1933), my dad, married Gwen Simmonds, my mum, whose father was also an English migrant, though Mum was born in Australia. As for me (b.1961), I am married to a Swede, and one of my brothers is married to an English girl. We Holfords may have a strong streak of German, but grafted in are English and Scottish, and a little further away the Irish, but they are another story.

In the mid nineteenth century when our German ancestors left Europe, there were four families in England whose descendants would be grafted into our tree. The first was the Stacey family. William Stacey was born in Bedford, north of London, in 1831. He married Caroline Hedge and they had two sons, George and William. Caroline died at a relatively young age and the boys were left motherless. When he was 16 George left England forever and settled in Australia, while his younger brother William remained with his father in England. George later married Mary Atkinson, an Australian born girl from Berrima, New South Wales and they settled in Goulburn. Their first child, Florence, married Charles Holdorf. George’s father, William, still in England, remarried and moved to London. He was a shoemaker, so he presumably did not live in poverty, but his life was unlikely to have been easy. He never saw his first son, George, again. What prompted George to leave at such an early age is uncertain. Another story waiting to be uncovered.

The second of the Victorian families was named Ross. James Ross was born in 1827 in Scotland. He married Mary Marston and they moved to Birkenhead, near Liverpool where they started a family. One son was named William and he was a child when the family migrated to Australia. As a young man he married Alice Hickson and together they had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, Winifred. She married Charles Holford, my grandfather.

The third family was that of George Lilley and his wife who I believe was called Mary. George was born in 1839 in Surrey, south of London. He was a farm worker. They had a son, George Frederick David, born around 1876. The younger George changed his name from Lilley to Simmonds, and married Mabel Butler. They had five children, the first of which was my grandfather, my mother’s family. He would migrate to Australia after the First World War, in 1923. His daughter Gwen would marry my father.

The fourth family, and the one I have the most information on, was the Butlers of Bristol. Mabel, as I mentioned, married George Simmonds. Her father, Ephraim, was born near Nottingham in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. He was one of a large family and his oldest brother, William, became rich and famous through his tar distillery in Bristol. That story has been partly told, but since I have more information on this family there will be more stories to follow. Ephraim followed his brother to Bristol and became a shopkeeper, selling umbrellas I believe. He married a Bristol girl called Jane Coombs and they had three daughters, the youngest of which was Mabel. However, only the first two were born in England because Ephraim and Jane decided to migrate to South Africa in the late 1860s. Jane died tragically in childbirth with Mabel, who never knew her mother. Her father, a few years later decided to return to England with his three daughters, but also died tragically on the voyage home. The three girls were orphans and were taken in by the family. Mabel’s story has also been partly told elsewhere in this blog, but there are still lots of gaps to fill in, more stories to tell.

Four Victorian families are therefore a part of our family history: the Staceys, the Rosses, the Lilleys and the Butlers. The first three were poor, the last was rich. Probably the reason I have most information on the Butlers is precisely this: their wealth. Wealthy people have always tended to leave more traces of themselves than the poor. However, the branch of the Butler family from which I am descended fell on hard times and ended up poor, with the seemingly inevitable result: emigration to Australia. The fortunes of these families were very different and each illustrates a different aspect of what it meant to be English in the nineteenth century, in the Victorian era. I hope to be able to tell more of their stories in the entries to follow.

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My mother and her ancestors

Last week, 23 January, was my mother’s birthday, or at least it would have been was she still alive. Mum died in 1999 on August 28. We were living in Sweden at the time, our twins, Hanna and Samuel were not yet two years old, and Isak, our youngest, was not even born. Our return to Australia was planned for October or November, when my brother Peter and his wife Sarah, then living in England, were also planning to move to Australia. When Dad phoned us to tell of Mum’s illness, an aggressive pneumonia which progressed rapidly to septicaemia, Peter and I immediately booked flights, arriving in Tamworth, Australia almost simultaneously a few days later. Mum died the night after we arrived, plunging our family into a dark time of shock and sadness.

That was over 14 years ago and as always, life goes on, despite the hole that is left by the passing on of a loved one. There is still a deep sadness that comes over me at times, at birthdays and anniversaries especially. I was thinking about Mum the other day and her life, and her background, which of course I would love to know more of. I get so annoyed that I cannot ask her about how things were, though of course I heard much of her life when she was here to tell us. And Mum was a great teller of stories.

What I don’t think I ever realised properly was that Mum was only first generation Australian. Her father was English, growing up in the west of London, migrating to Australia in the twenties when he was 18 years old. His parents, the grandparents Mum never met, were both English, though his mother was born in South Africa for reasons I have not yet been able to ascertain. Mum’s mother was Australian born, but both of her parents, Mum’s maternal grandparents, were Irish, having migrated to Australia when they were young. The circumstances of these migrations I have yet to discover, though doubtless Mum could tell me if she was here. So Mum’s grandparents were English and Irish.

Mum’s English grandfather, George Simmonds (previously George Lilley), was in the British army in WW1, as I have written about previously. Her Irish grandfather, George Byrne, who lived in Australia, was born in 1861, and was therefore 53 years of age at the outbreak of war 100 years ago, too old to serve. However, Mum had one uncle on her mother’s side, Uncle William Byrne, who was born in 1895, and was therefore 19 at the outbreak of WW1. He served in the war too, but the details of his war service I have also yet to discover. I would also love to know more of how Mum’s mother, my grandmother Gertrude, and her four sisters, experienced the First World War, since it must have had a profound effect on their early lives. Three of those sisters, Kathleen, Frances and Isobel, never married. I have wondered if part of the reason could have been the lack of young men at that time, so many having embarked for Europe never to return?

Mum’s grandparents, George Byrne and Susan Hickson, were both born in County Kerry, Ireland, in the 1860s. How they came to Australia and when I have yet to discover, but they met and married there, and raised a family of five girls and a son. That son was the WW1 veteran, William. Three of their daughters, as mentioned, died as spinsters. I remember visiting them in the Blue Mountains when I was a child. They all lived together at that time, and I remember thinking how polite and fragile and odd they all were. We had tea in their living room, in a little cottage in Springwood, if I remember correctly. It never occurred to me at that time that they had once been young and vibrant and full of life and dreams. For children, old people have always and only been old.

I don’t remember ever meeting Uncle William, so perhaps he died before I was born. I believe he married but never had any children. And thus that branch of the Byrne name was lost. Gertrude Byrne, my grandmother, became a Simmonds when she married, but her three surviving children were girls. Mum became a Holford, Auntie Dorothy a Murdoch, and Auntie Joyce never married. So the Simmonds name in my family has also passed into history, only two generations after my great grandfather chose it. My grandfather had three brothers, all SImmonds, but as far as I am aware none of them had any sons to carry on the family name.

Mum’s English grandparents were George Simmonds (originally Lilley) from Surrey, and Mabel Butler from Bristol, and her Irish grandparents were George Byrne and Susan Hickson, both from County Kerry. I have pieced together Mabel’s life more than any other. I am getting to know George Simmonds, bit by bit. George Byrne and Susan Hickson, the Irish, are complete strangers to me. Perhaps I can become acquainted with them too in the years ahead.

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Osterley Estate

Osterleythroughtrees

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.

OsterleyPark

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.

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