Sunday, June 17, 2012

A memoir for Alice Holroyd

On Friday, 15th June, our granddaughter Samantha was looking through some store boxes for documents my wife was after, when she came across and old photograph, loose, by itself. It was of Alice Holroyd, the unmarried sister of my maternal grandmother Emily Butler and therefore my great aunt and our children’s great great aunt.

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She was born, I think, in the Bethnal Green area of London, though the surname has a Yorkshire origin and there was still some recollection of these northern roots when I was a child. One claim was that the family had a blood link to George Stephenson, the Northumbrian engineer who made the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives, a line inaugurated in 1825.

Alice Holroyd, Auntie Alice as I knew her, spent her working life as a primary school teacher in West Ham, East London having trained at Goldsmiths College in Lewisham.

She often used to visit us at 5 The Green Walk in North Chingford on the north eastern outskirts of London. This was my grandparents’ house and we stayed with them during much of World War II and later after my grandmother died. Alice also used to come to Bush Barn Farm at Robertsbridge in East Sussex to where we moved in 1952. My parents left the farm in 1962 and Alice died in 1967 and I reckon the photo above, showing Bush Barn Farmhouse and the front garden, was taken around 1960. The central windows just to the left of Alice’s head are those of the bedroom that I occupied on and off for 8 years during the 1950s.

As a schoolteacher Alice knew how to be strict and often told me off when I was a small boy. I was intrigued by the fact that she was a vegetarian, although when she came to stay with us for the Christmas festivities (as she usually did) she would indulge herself in a few slices of ham.

Alice had many stories of her years as a teacher in the East End of London. Sometimes if a West Ham United football match was on the television she would remark of one or another of the players “he was one of my pupils: a naughty little boy.”

Many of her stories referred to her wartime experiences. She told us once that she was leading a small crocodile of her infants along the street when a German flying bomb came over and the engine stopped, which meant it was going to fall somewhere nearby. Not being within easy reach of an air-raid shelter she made the children lie down on the pavement. The bomb landed a safe distance away and they all got up again and carried on.

In her retirement Alice lived in a small flat in Wembley Park, quite close to the now demolished national sports stadium, with a female companion who I think she had known most of her life. I went to stay with them once for a couple of days.

Because of her age Alice did not qualify for much, or maybe any, pension so my grandfather, who was reasonably well off, provided most of her income.

A kind and perhaps rather lonely woman, but one who did much good in her life in a modest way. I was fond of her and I think she was not only fond of, but interested, in me and the other members of the family. The nephews and nieces and great nieces and great nephews (aka niblings and great niblings) of childless adults obviously have a special significance.