Once, when we were chatting, mum spoke of how she used to have to go to the pub on a Friday night to get her father’s wages before he drank them all. I knew this story already, but this time I heard something new: our neighbours didn’t have that humiliation, mum told me, and their father was only a bus driver – while we came from Good Stock! All my life, I’ve heard her saying this sort of thing, and never picked up on it – but this time I stopped mum. I asked her what exactly she meant by this strange comment?
Her mother used to say it, apparently. But that was all mum really knew. She did, however, know that her mother had been partly brought up by her grandmother, that’s to say my mum’s great-grandmother, Mary. And that this Mary, who came from Cornwall, had been ‘a lady’. I myself knew that mum’s family, although poor, had considered themselves a cut above my father’s family who were rough and ready working-class cockneys. Nevertheless, they never had to go down the pub on a Friday night to stop their dad drinking away his wages!
I realised that, all through her childhood mum had been made to feel dissatisfied; as if, in some obscure fashion, she’d been robbed of her birth right. I remembered that mum and her sisters always felt cheated that they hadn’t had the benefit of a good education, or the social advantages they felt they should have had. So, as I haven’t been in the mood to do very much else, I started to do some research into mum’s family history.
What I’ve found out so far has been quite unexpected. I still don’t know how or why Mary travelled from Cornwall to London – which was quite a journey to undertake 200 years ago. But once in London, she does seem to have had a lot to do with a family whose surname is the same as her mother’s, so they could be her cousins. I hadn’t realised that this surname might possibly be aristocratic although apparently it can be, and I was surprised to see that, when this possible cousin, John Henry, signed the baptismal register for his eldest child, he revealed he had a string of middle names, all of them with aristocratic links.
My first reaction was that they must be a very junior branch of an ancient family and were trying to maintain their prestigious blood ties even though they weren’t particularly wealthy. Apart from the coincidence of the surname, I can’t as yet prove a direct link between the two families, but they do seem to be intertwined: as witnesses at weddings; as beneficiaries and also executors of wills; Mary’s husband is godfather to John Henry’s son; and, at different times, they all live at the same address in South London. First my great grandparents, then Mary and her second husband – then John Henry who dies there and his son takes over the address. Sadly, the house was bombed in the war and no longer exists, so I can’t take a look at it. The family connection continued to the next generation. Two of John Henry’s children were witnesses to the wedding of one of Mary’s daughters.
When she herself gets married, John Henry’s daughter lists her father’s full name and the string of names is even longer than I’d realised, perhaps because there was more space on the marriage certificate to list them all. And all of them with the same aristocratic ring. However, by now it’s clear that the family have little or no money. And so, again, I feel this family are clutching at straws. They might not be well off – but they have Bloodlines!
Just like my grandmother. I know she inherited a couple of houses (worth a fortune at today’s prices!) a shop and a laundry, yet by the time my mother was growing up, they were poor. My grandmother had to go out to work as a cleaner and a cook. The businesses, the property all sold off – presumably because her husband was an alcoholic and a wastrel. But! She came from Good Stock! I started off mocking my mother for this claim; now I’m beginning to think there may be a grain of truth in it – a grain of truth that has blighted my mum’s life and stopped her appreciating all the good things she had, but which her mother brought her up to believe she was too good for.
I don’t mock people who held onto this lifeline. My generation had more opportunity to make their own way in the world. There are still class distinctions, of course, but there are more chances to get on – even if you don’t come from the ‘right’ family. But the fact is, I think my grandmother’s pretensions have blighted my mum’s life and I’ve begun to feel I understand her a bit better.