Grandmothers and others

I'm conscious that there's not a great deal in this blog about grandmothers, despite the title. They are always with me though, so this page is a little introduction to those souls who people my mind, and keep me company

Nanya was my maternal great grandmother. Daughter of an Irish Methodist preacher, John Henry Atkins, and his wife Anne. She was born, the last but one of 11 children, in County Cork, but spent a significant portion of her life in Liverpool, where the family moved in around 1870, when she was 9. She was a painter - a "gifted amateur", I have her paintings all round our house. Family myth has it that, at some stage while the family were still in Ireland six of these children died in the space of a fortnight from one of those childhood illnesses that carried so many off in the Victorian period. The story goes that one of the children was father's favourite, "a little girl who he used to carry round on his shoulder". They were called Eleanor, Eliza, James, Anna, George and Frances. Their father, shattered by the family's tragedy, lost his faith. Certainly the records show the loss of three close siblings in a week in early 1860, the year before Alice was born,another in 1865 and two whose death dates are not recorded, they simply disappear. This may well have been what prompted the move to Liverpool, where the whole family ran a drapery business. Their father died in 1880, and their mother, the two older brothers Henry and John, and Harriet, Alice and Annie, to continue the family business. 

Alice met my Great Grandfather, Howard Coleman Rowe as a result of her friendship with Louie, his sister. His family came from Wexford, where his father had been Mayor several times; the family had a corn mill and were quite well off. He was a struggling apprentice during their courtship, working to qualify as a chemist, travelling around England and also involved with the very early stages of the Labour Party. For a time he worked on their very early newspaper The Labour Leader, writing articles for them. During this time he and Alice were writing to each other and I am lucky enough to have all their letters tucked away in a couple of shoe boxes (carefully wrapped in archival tissue). After their marriage Howard and Alice moved back to Ireland, living in Arklow where he ran a business as a chemist. He became known in the town as Dr Rowe, and, had she been born in later years, I think my Grandmother would have followed him into the family business. tragically, he was to die in 1914 at the age of 44. Their daughters, Connie, Ethel and Rhona would have been 18, 16 and 14 at the time. 

Alice, left with a failing business, awoke one night to a noise downstairs. Going down, she found “a Sinn Feiner, hiding on the ground floor, gun at the ready”. She sensibly beat a hasty retreat, but decided that this was not a safe place to be with her three daughters and sister. Instead of joining their older brother John and his six maiden daughters in Frodsham, Cheshire, or her husband’s well to do family in Wexford, just down the coast, the ladies got a map of the UK out and Ethel closed her eyes and placed a pin firmly into its surface. The South Coast could not have been further from their brother without emigrating, and another brother had done that already!  

So, Connie, Ethel and Rhona, found themselves in Sussex by the sea in 1921 with their mother and Aunt. The girls now had to work to support the family, while Alice and Annie took in lodgers and Annie earned a bit extra with her needlework. Constance, who was as fragile as her father, taught piano and did secretarial work. Ethel, slightly less fragile, also taught the piano, looked after “a little boy” and played the piano for silent movies in the Gaiety Cinema. She was already engaged to my grandfather, they married in 1923 and had one daughter, my mother Rosemary in 1926. Rhona, who inherited her mother’s stronger constitution, worked as a secretary for a local firm. She also married in 1923, choosing the son of one of the partners in the firm; they had their daughter, Cecil in 1925. Here are both little girls with their Mums, sitting beside the beach huts in St Leonards enjoying  the summer sunshine. Cecil is on the left and my Mum, Rosemary at the right.

Alice, always aware that her eldest daughter, Connie, was the most fragile of the girls had “prayed for years for a girl husband for her” since she felt she would never survive the rigours of childbearing. Being also the most spiritual, Connie found herself interested in something called the S.S.K.T.P. (Society for Spreading the Knowledge of True Prayer), an offshoot of the Christian Science movement. Here she met Evelyn Cowland, five years older than her, a lesbian who delighted in dressing and presenting herself as a man rather than a woman. She was known by her nickname, Harry. Their relationship blossomed and Alice, feeling her oldest daughter should not be deprived of a wedding, arranged one for them, in their back garden going by the pictures, with Ethel and Rhona as bridesmaids. 

Connie and Harry went off on honeymoon in their car, driving out to Iden Lock, just outside Rye, where they rented/owned a summer cottage by the River Rother, called Sedges. This proved too small as their nieces were born, and family visits increased in size, so Harry, being the daughter of a London builder arranged for Nirvana to be built, having the raw materials brought up from Rye by Barge - perhaps they met Harold Parson, a "true Ryer". This became a wonderful place for the family, in various combinations, to stay and I have told it's story elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Ethel and Rhona, as both their girls got slightly older, and needed school fees to be paid, began writing to supplement the family income. Each had three novels published in the 1930s, and three and two respectively in the 1950s, along with numerous short stories for women’s magazines of the time.

By 1938 Alice was in very difficult financial straits and “practically starving”. This might imply neglect on the part of her daughters, but Alice was a very proud woman, “a force to be reckoned with” who did her housework at night so the neighbours wouldn’t know she had no maid. Mum remembered staying with her and being told not to ask for any expensive food. “We had ham and bread every day, and at night she would tuck me into her big feather bed next to her, it was lovely”. She moved to Cheam to live with Ethel and her family, with Connie coming up from time to time to help with the nursing. She died there in 1942. A letter from Ethel to Rhona telling her the news comments, “poor little darling, I hope she is happy now”.

So that is how I come to be writing a blog, in Sussex by the Sea in the 2000s, because of the putting of a pin in a map, in Arklow, in 1921.

Ganna - Ethel 

Ganna was my pet name for Mum's Mum. When my father died in 1968 and Ganna's husband Gerald died the same year, it made sense for Mum to move to Hastings. It might have been better for Mum had Ganna come to us, but we were in a small house in Petersfield and there was just us, whereas she was in a large'ish house in Hastings and still had Harry, living just down the road, to consider - Connie having died in 1966. Ganna was the middle of the three Rowe girls and one of the two who had novels published, Rhona being the other. I've blogged about Ganna's novels here, so you can have a look to see what they were all about. Here I'd like to say a little bit about who she was. 

I always felt that, if I had to loose my "Daddy", I couldn't have asked for a better person to take over as my second parent. I was eight when we moved back to Hastings, and I found myself in the care of this kind, loving disciplined woman. Mum had to go back to work full time to provide us with an income and so Ganna became my primary carer. Never angry, harsh or unfair she treated her only grandchild with compassion, fun and an unspoken expectation that I would behave myself properly. She walked me the mile to and from school every day, despite turning 70 that year; she gave me tea when I came home and she spent hours telling me tales to keep me amused. George Penny was a favourite, a special penny belonging, of course, to a little girl, that kept falling out of her pocket and rolling off on adventures. She had a wonderful store of little sayings - we used to call them "Irish'isms" and daft rhymes. You can fine one here, but another appears to be a old Irish counting rhyme, variations of which seem to be numerous. Here's Ganna's version, which I was always challenged to say all in one breath - a huge delight.

Onery twoery dickery davey
Halibo crackery henery navy
Discum dandum mericum time
Humbledy bumbledy twenty nine
Lurum lyrum limbo lock
Five miles to seven o'clock
We sat and we sang 'til daylight sprang
Then up jumped Thades with a long rod
And poked us all from wig to wag
Else my dear will you lend me a spear
'Til I go to the forest and kill a fat deer.

Imagine my great indrawing of breath when I'd made it to the end, and her broad smile of complicit enjoyment. She also had a fine store of tales of fey happenings; the fairy that lived behind the wainscot at the top of the stairs in Arklow when she was a child; the incident where, when Gerald was fire watching in London during the War, he felt an unaccountable urge to go through a door into a house. There he found a group of people in Victorian dress, sitting by a fireside. As he entered the room they turned towards him, faces alight with expectation, then faded into nothing, leaving just the bombed out shell of a building before him. She too had an odd experience when visiting Batemans, Rudyard Kiplings old home in Burwash. As she was leaving she felt she had left something behind - went back to a side door, mounted the stairs to a non-public part of the house and entered a room, all the time feeling that she was in a quite familiar place. She opened a drawer in the dressing table there "to get her comb" and suddenly realised that she had no idea what she was doing there. A sort of ghost story but with no ghosts. She was also prone to "sensing things". The year my Dad and Grandfather died was the culmination of two years of deaths in the family, six in all, which in a small family was quite a lot of loved ones to lose. She always said she had dreamt of a great flock of swans drifting downstream at the start of 1966, and believed these had been a premonition of those precious souls leaving the family.

She was a quiet spoken woman, never raising her voice but having what my Dad always referred to as "the power in the eye that bends the will". She had a way of looking that ensured I knew I had disappointed her, and I never wanted to do that so, I guess, I mostly behaved myself. Mum used to talk about her twitching her lip - that was enough to bring Mum to heel. Like Connie she was involved in the Christian Science Church, playing the piano for some services, reading from Mary Baker Eddy at others. She took her faith very seriously and was a deep thinker; we would have all sorts of discussions as I grew older, about this and that - sadly forgotten now. She also was a very fine pianist, with long strong fingers that could span an octave and at least two extra notes - fingers that she could also entwine about themselves so that each one curled over the next all the way to her little finger in a squiggle of knuckles and smooth soft skin. She was a good needlewoman too, probably having learnt from her Aunt Annie - Nanya's sister, and had a lovely cushion, now long lost, which she had embroidered with a little mouse nestled below some sheaves of corn and red poppies. I'd love to have that now. As I grew into a teenager, wandering the streets of Hastings barefoot in scruffy jeans and t-shirts from gigs I'd been to, we began to grow a little apart and, when Mum remarried, Ganna rather withdrew into her room. She died at the age of 83, when I was nearly 21, falling ill late one evening while sitting in the chair that is now behind me, here in my study. She had lost consciousness and we tenderly moved her onto her bed and called the Doctor who diagnosed a severe stroke. Mum sat up with her overnight, but I went to my bed. Unaccountably, I woke early in the morning, having heard what sounded like a deep sighing breath in my ear and the echo of those vibratons that shiver in the air when a bell has just sounded. I rushed down the three flights of stairs to her bedroom on the ground floor and arrived just in time to be with her for her final minutes. Mum and I supported her each side as she drew her last breaths, safe in her bed and enclosed by our love for her. I have always wondered whether my strange awakening was somehow triggered by her imminent passing, my fey Grandmother calling me to be with her at the end.

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