The School Reunion

Have you ever been to a school or college reunion? They can be delightful, terrifying, frustrating, intriguing, heart-warming or puzzling – or a mixture of all of these experiences! I have been to several for our secondary school, King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, where many of us have kept in contact over the years anyway. But the reunion that I went to about ten years ago was completely different – it was for pupils from my first school, where I started when I was only three and a half. And as I was moved from there aged seven, the time frame was in my very early years. As far as a reunion was concerned, it was something of a challenge – a real case of stepping into the unknown, since I had only been in touch with one other friend from there ever since the day I left. The experience led me to think about reunions in general, and how they can affect us, as they stir up memories from the depths. Or not, in the case of some major blanks! I decided to write down my impressions afterwards. This is how it went:

Arrival at Wottonley House School

I look around for familiar landmarks. I’ve stepped out of my car into the dark and wet, and notice other cars also pulling up, occupants getting out and casting an eye about, just as I am. The few lights shining show up a jumble of buildings which don’t bear an exact resemblance to my memory of this place. The main school house looming behind them is very much as I remember it though, a solid Victorian detached villa, which in the eyes of a child was large and imposing. Now I see that it’s a generous, one-family house, but not much more.

The central school house as it looks today

A deep breath, and I’m ready to go in. I haven’t set foot here since I was about eight years old. It was my first school, in Ash, a village near Sandwich in Kent, where I spent four or five happy years. It was known then as Wottonley House and was really, as one former pupil unkindly called it, ‘a dame school’. Indeed, it was started by a middle-aged spinster for the children of parents who were respectable, if not wealthy; they were prepared to pay modest fees to set their child on a rung of the ladder above that of the local Council Schools, as they were known. It aspired to some of the rather grim traditions of British private education – uniforms with ties, exams from an early age, strict rules on behaviour – but it was nevertheless a kindly setting for small and bewildered children. I was only three and a half when I first went, and I loved it. Not that I had much to compare it with! It’s still a school now, but under a new name and management, extended into bigger grounds and extra portacabin classrooms.

So here I am, back again. At the door to the new School Hall the two organisers sit smiling, handing out name badges. Here is Shirley, who has been working indefatigably for six months or more, gathering all the info from the far flung reaches of the internet, contacting someone who knows someone, and following up obscure leads until she has over a hundred names whose whereabouts are known, almost fifty of whom are coming this weekend. We are meeting for drinks on the Saturday evening, and lunch on the Sunday. Her friend and helper Maggie I suddenly remember. The doctor’s daughter, in whose fabulous house and garden we used to hold the Sports Days. It’s to be like that over the next two days, as memory is jolted out of its slumber, and all sorts of names and details bubble up to the surface.

The redoubtable Miss Cowell, who reigned over her school imperiously

I remember some people, and others remember me.

‘It’s Cherry Phillips!’ (my long-abandoned maiden name.) ‘You look just like your mother!’

My mother was a teacher at the same school; no matter that she was 5’ 2”, and I am 5’ 9”, that she had red hair and mine was dark brown, she was plump, and I am – no, let’s face it, not as slim as I used to be. Fair enough.

Now I meet in quick succession a dazzling array of blasts from the past, each arousing brightly-coloured snippets of memory, waving like flags in the breeze. Philippa, who I often played with on Saturdays, and whose mother sang opera lustily as she cleaned the house. Bob, whose father ran the local tobacconist’s shop which also inexplicably sold tennis rackets. (Or did they? Is this a curious trick of memory?) Sometimes the memories are best kept to myself, so I refrain from telling a solid pillar of the community that I remember his big feet with flapping sandals, or remind a well-groomed woman of how she once wee’d in the middle of the classroom floor. I can still see the puddle in my mind’s eye. I get on well with some that I scarcely remember, including an elegant lady who, unknown to both of us, lived close to me in Bath for many years, and some cheerful cousins of Carolyn, my former best friend at the school. (There are twenty-nine of these cousins, she tells me, though not all of them are here, which is probably just as well.) And as for Carolyn herself, we lost touch in our 20s about the time we each got married and started families. But now, to my utter surprise and delight, it’s as if we’d never drifted apart.

Meeting my oldest friend Carolyn – we hadn’t seen each other since the early 70s, having formed our friendship at the age of 4!

To my astonishment, one of our former teachers is also here. She must be well over eighty. Miss Bourne was sweet and cheerful, a safe haven to run to, and someone who would be kind rather than critical. She erroneously taught us that camels store their water in their humps, and that Jesus made a sparrow out of clay which flew away – a story I was fascinated to discover later which is only found in the folkloric apocryphal gospels. Where had she heard that? She also read us good stories after lunch during our enforced rest on thin army blankets on a hard wooden floor. Those restless, uncomfortable half-hours were made bearable by listening to ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Jungle Book’.

And here’s Miss Bourne herself, with Carolyn. I think she was actually one of Carolyn’s distant relatives.

But of Miss Cowell, the headmistress, people tell terrible tales, of how she flew into rages, and pulled them down the stairs by their hair or their ears. I do remember how she snapped and snarled, but she never dared to have a go at me – I had a charmed, protected life there, a teacher’s pet I am told now, under the aegis of my teaching mother. Once or twice I was even sent to stay with Miss Cowell in the holidays, at which point she dropped her fierce manner and became placid, and even motherly. She allowed me to paint large square biscuit tins white, to serve as rubbish bins. It was the first time anyone had let me loose with an adult brush and pot of paint, and I was in heaven. It was hot; I sat in the corridor where usually we left our coats and shoes, an area where in term-time children came thundering to and fro, and in perfect peace I painted away. I just had to take care that the blue bottle flies didn’t settle on the white paint.

The reunion restores fragments of my past to me, but also begins to give me a more objective and disturbing view of how I was then.

‘You had to have a sleep on Miss Cowell’s bed after lunch every day! We were told to be quiet and not to disturb you.’ Golly. Either I was a cute little lamb (I was certainly younger than most at three and a half) or a precocious pain in the butt.

Ah, come on now! I was cute, wasn’t I? Dressed up as the Queen of Hearts for a fancy dress competition, and hating every minute of it.

‘You called your mother Mrs Phillips in class, but Mummy the moment you got into the car,’ recollects our surviving teacher.

Did I? That was quite a feat. And it’s a prompt: I suddenly recall letting slip ‘Mummy’ in class, and all the children roaring with laughter, my face feeling hot with shame.

‘You had been looked after by someone when your mother started teaching here,’ she continues, ‘but it didn’t work out, so she asked if she could bring you to school.’

Interesting. I have snapshot memories of being cared for by a woman called Vera who was unkind and regularly smacked my bottom. Even though, as a small child, I never thought that complaining would do any good, maybe my mother figured out the situation. I was certainly ready to come to school, and have an enduring memory of sitting in the dining room after lunch with ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio, watching the dust motes dance in the sunbeams that were coming through the serving hatch while Mum did the washing up. Through the hatch, my mother asked me from the kitchen, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ Oh yes! I would, I would!

But memory is a trickster, artful in layering recollections together. Perhaps the conversation happened earlier, somewhere else in the house, and I was just remembering it as I sat listening to the radio. It seems odd that she would have asked me something so important through the serving hatch. And, as the former pupils dig into the detail over the next two days, we find gaps and clashes in our narratives. Some things we all remember – Swedish drill in the playground, and a new classroom being built. One person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. With difficulty, we recall that the art teacher was called Miss Painter (yes, really). But I seem to be the only one to recall the big drawstring bag that held masses of polished wooden bricks, some shaped like arches and pillars, with which you could build impressive structures. I wasn’t alone though in recalling ‘Music and Movement’, broadcast through primitive speakers. ‘The sun is out, children, so skip, skip! Oh dear – now a rain cloud is coming! Jump over the puddles.’

Here’s a surviving clip from Music and Movement! With the immortal words, ‘You don’t know where I’m going to hide your balls’.

Photos that people have brought of past events trigger distant memories. I see my mother in one, organising a race on Sports Day. This stirs me up, because here is another moment of her life, just when I thought I there were no more to be found. After her death, my brother and I went through all the photographs, which have since become imprinted on my mind as the total of her recorded life. Now I get a different take on her. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Your mother was a wonderful teacher!’ I didn’t know that. I struggle with this new definition, then step back from my own childhood impressions till I suddenly see her more objectively: at the time, she was still keen and relatively young, with a first-class training from Homerton College, Cambridge. After the disruption of the war and two children later, she was at last having a chance to use all that training. She could teach history, French and English, and play the piano for country dancing.

A fuzzy photo of my mother (right hand side) helping to organise a game at the Sports Day, held in the local doctor’s garden, a glorious place.

My father was teaching in another school in the area at the time, a boys’ grammar school where he was deeply unhappy, under a headmaster whom he hated. Stories about him, which I now heard from a man who’d gone on to that school from Wottonley House, were grim. His temper, always easily triggered, led to swiping his badly-behaved pupils with a metal-topped cane. I feel shame. But Mum, I realise now, was possibly at her happiest. She loved the little town of Sandwich, as I did too. But my father won out in his dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness; we moved house so that he could change jobs. Mum was sad, and I was devastated. One day, out on a walk by the river, I overheard my parents telling my maternal grandparents, who had come to stay, that we were going to leave Sandwich. It as like a bucket of ice tipped over me. I kept the dreadful knowledge to myself, till someone saw fit to mention it to me at a later date. And perhaps that first traumatic experience of uprooting has led to my own desire to switch locations every so often, much as I hated it at the time. As children do though, I adapted quite easily to a new life in the Midlands.

I relish a memory which three of us now share at the reunion. It’s of an extraordinary birthday party; we agree that it was the best one we ever went to, held in the garden of a huge, Lutyens designed house in Sandwich, known as The Salutation. A titled family lived there, with their two daughters and son, all of whom were pupils at Wottonley House. There was a treasure hunt in the orchard for the party, where we were each given a different strand of coloured wool, which we followed through the trees, unwinding it from branches and trunks, untangling it from the web other bright threads, until we reached the present at the other end, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper whose colour matched that of the thread. In dreary post-war Britain such things as coloured tissue paper were a luxury, that is if you could find them at all. ‘I tried to re-create this treasure hunt for a party recently,’ says the now well grown-up birthday girl, ‘but I couldn’t. I asked my mother how she did it, but she couldn’t remember.’

The glorious Salutation, designed by Lutyens, where I often played as a child, and the best birthday party ever was held

And it’s curious how facts can get distorted. Carolyn’s cousin clan begins to discuss their family history, and her older sister Jan says, ‘Our great grandfather was a Brook.’ It’s noisy in the school hall, and Carolyn hears this as, ‘Our great grandfather was a crook’. I, on the other hand, hear it as ‘…was a drunk.’ We discover our mistakes just in time before his reputation is lost forever.

The cauldron of my own past is now being stirred with a long stick. As discussion progresses amongst the assembled guests, sediment from the bottom of the pot floats up and colours the liquid above, producing feelings, vague memories, things that I can almost taste and smell but not name.

We pore over photos, trying to sort out names and faces, and ponder the geography of the school, which has changed. The playground is bigger now, but we recall its former shape, and how it held us all safely at break, the five-barred gate shut firmly while we played. How curious the games seemed to me when I first arrived at school, until I was initiated into them: ‘Farmer may I cross your Golden River?’ ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’ ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Witches and Fairies’. The agony when you waited to be chosen to be on someone’s side, and the excitement when you could finally take part. I also learnt fortune-telling by counting the stones on the plate after stewed prunes at lunchtime: Who will I marry? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! What will I get married in? Silk, satin, cotton rags. How will I travel to the wedding? Coach, car, carriage, dustcart. I suspect this kick-started my later interests in Tarot cards and astrology!

A Press photographer turns up to take our picture. One joker rolls up his trousers to expose his knees, schoolboy style. I and another woman are asked to put our arms around his shoulders and tickle his knees for a close-up shot. Then we all line up, grinning broadly, with our remaining teacher sitting in the middle, arm raised, swinging the old school bell.

The bell is also used by Shirley the organiser to summon us to lunch. She reads out the old rules of the dining room. ‘Line up quietly. Say thank you. When you have eaten your first course, talk quietly to the person on your left.’ Etc. This is news to me! I recall none of it. But along with others, I remember the horror of being forced to drink a bottle of milk in break, sometimes warmed on icy mornings and tasting even more disgusting as a result. Once I found a drowned blackbird feather in it. (Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher? Maybe you did schoolchildren a favour!) I remember too one of the boys being sick after eating stew for lunch, and how I was both fascinated and repelled at the pieces of carrot spewed over the floor.

Visual memories have stuck, too, for me and others there. We had different pictures of fruit and flowers for our coat pegs so we could identify them before we learnt to read. (But did I have a Cherry? Not sure.) We drew pictures for Bible Study – I had trouble with the table legs splaying out sideways for ‘The Feast of Canaan’, but I liked the idea of turning water into wine and threw myself into portraying the ancient story with coloured crayons. We learnt simple French using picture cards for each object. I remember the deep purple of the plum, and the soft velvet of the cushion, each image painted on a varnished and slightly yellowed card.

We can’t quite agree on where the original School Hall was located, where we had Assembly every day. Apparently on my first few days I sent everyone into fits of laughter by calling out ‘Present’ after each name read out on the register. Well, I don’t remember that exactly, but I certainly did believe that saying ‘Present’ meant that I would be given one. At least one, and possibly more if I said it enough times. I must have been a very literal child.

By and large, we were all happy at this school, and the talk has been bubbly, enthusiastic. As the time comes to leave for the long drive home, I recognise, with some sadness, that this is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. I may see some of these people again, and indeed, since then I have done that, but the fact is that all of us will never be in this place together again. It has stirred and moved me, and left me both savouring and questioning the memories from the deep roots of the past.

This account was first written in 2008, and revised and updated for this blog in 2022. Photos below show a further reunion with Carolyn and her sister Jan, when they came to visit me in Devon a few years ago.

My book ‘Your Life, Your Story’ takes a look at the question of memory and of memoir writing. It also shows you how to tease out the stories from your life, and share them with others.

‘Growing Your Family Tree’ investigates the task compiling your family history, especially the aspects of field trips to ancestral places and also the lived experiences which are a part of genealogical research, such as finding new relatives, and discovering secrets from the past.

A Real-Life ‘War Horse’: Memories of Arthur Oakes

Arthur Oakes in about 1985, at the annual Raft Race down the river Barle from Landacre Bridge

In the 1980s, our family lived near Dulverton on the edge of Exmoor, and we quickly made contacts across a broad range of people, both of rural and town origins, and from different backgrounds. Exmoor was a great leveller – our local ‘Lady’ (who shall be nameless) had a rather public affair with her builder, and hippie incomers (rather like us!) mixed happily with Exmoor dwellers who’d been there for generations.

One of our great friends was a farmer called Arthur Oakes. He came into my orbit because he was interested in astrology, which I was teaching at the time. Arthur was then in his early seventies, and one of the most open-minded, innovative people that I’ve ever met. He was born in 1908, and was brought up on a traditional mixed farm, in the days of horses to pull the carts and machinery. However, he turned to organic ways of farming before many people had even heard of it, and was an advocate for avoiding chemicals on the land, and using good husbandry and soil management instead. His memory stretched back a long time – as you’ll read in this interview, his memories of World War I were both sharp and painful. He was keenly observant in everyday life too, always noticing something to share and to laugh over if possible.

The family was not from Exmoor; it seems his father came from the Welsh borders to Norton Lindsey in Warwickshire, and that Arthur himself moved his family down to Exmoor during his own farming career. As a boy, he’d been to Grammar School in Coventry (which had to be paid for in those days – a struggle for his parents to afford) and he used to read everything he could get his hands on.

Arthur also came to a small group that Chris and I were running at the time, called ‘The Journeyman’s Way’, an approach to self-development based on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. (for the background to this, please see ‘Soho Tree‘, a website which I manage with colleague Rod Thorn). He was one of our most regular and steady members.

In terms of social life, he and his family were a lively, jolly lot, and many was the evening we’d get a phone call at about 5pm, saying ‘Are you doing anything tonight? Come over and have supper! Bring the children.’ When we’d get to their farm at Howtown, near Winsford, there would be a merry gathering of a dozen or so people entertaining each other, kids of all ages charging through the house, and generous plates of food set out buffet style, provided by Arthur and Enid’s grown-up daughters Val and Deb. Everyone would mingle and chat until those with small children or farms to run would begin to rub their eyes and head for home.

I valued our contact with the Oakes family enormously, and at one point, when I was writing a book for schools on Life in Britain in World War One, and a companion book on Life in the 1930s, I interviewed Arthur about his experiences. Much later, I transferred the scratchy tapes to digital, as I still have them – and was recently able to send them electronically to Arthur’s grandson, so that they can be preserved within the family.

Arthur Oakes died in 1989, and I attended his funeral on a brisk spring day when the little churchyard was filled with daffodils. I remember him saying a few years earlier, ‘I was watching a stream flow into the river yesterday, and I thought, “This is what will happen to me when I die – a small stream joining the bigger river.”’

You can see Arthur above as he appeared in my book ‘Life in Britain in the 1930s‘ discussing how he thatched hay ricks – the photo of him also comes from the 1930s.

THE INTERVIEW
For this blog post, I’ve highlighted the extract from that interview which has always stayed clearly in my mind – Arthur’s personal memories of World War One, which shaped his subsequent views about war and poverty. It comprises the first quarter of the interview, slightly edited here for clarity, but with the aim of preserving Arthur’s voice. It’s been a moving experience, listening to that voice again.

World War One

CG Could you start off by telling me your earliest memories?

AO My earliest memories were really of the First World War. And the thing that struck me with horror, and has stayed with me ever since, was when the government, towards the end of this 1918 war –about 1917 – got into dire straits, and were requisitioning horses. They wanted them to go over to France and fight, and to pull the transport wagons and the ammunition. And I remember soldiers arriving in our farmyard and having all the horses rounded up and saying to my father, ‘We’re having that one, and that one, and that one.’ There were three that went, which were very much family pets. And one that was a carthorse. They just wrote out a chit to my father, and told him to take it somewhere or other to get his money. They said that the chit gave him the opportunity of having them back for free at the end of the war. Well, we never had them back at the end of the war – there wasn’t any end for those horses – only death.

I remember the soldiers taking our horses, leading them away, and my father leaning up against the wall in the yard and weeping over it. These two ponies were extra special, you know – he’d brought them from Wales with him. He’d used them – he’d had generations of them and bred them down, sending them to special stallions, and they were little workhorses. The ponies took them [Arthur’s parents] to market, they did the shopping, they did the shepherding, they pulled the food around for the sheep, and my father said, ‘I shall never see them again.’ And it suddenly struck me that there was no excitement in war, or any war, there was just misery. Then my brothers went [to war] and it really hit home. I wouldn’t have been very old then.

CG – How old would you have been?

AO – Eight. And up till then, the war had been an excitement.

CG – What had excited you about it?

AO – Well, it had been a total change – we hadn’t got young men working on the farm because they’d been called up. The usual razmataz of soldiers in uniforms, and blackouts too – but the things that were exciting to a boy who’d got pretend guns, suddenly turned into tragedy. And from then on, I feel now that I probably went into myself, because fear suddenly hit me. If they could take the horses, they could take other things that were my solid background, and things might begin to disappear off the road, as it were. It wasn’t long after that that the hay ricks did disappear, because they came to requisition hay to feed the horses on as well. I began to become aware that I was afraid of military dictatorship, military government.

It hit me too when I went to market with my brother in the holidays, to take some sheep along. He was about eighteen – he was ten years older than me –and there was a recruiting officer even in the market, who said to him, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You know you ought to be in uniform.’ And that scared the pants off him. And eventually he was in uniform. But that sort of thing was kicking the world from under me, kicking the solid world from under my feet.

A pony on Exmoor, near where Arthur was living when we knew him. Exmoor ponies are semi-wild, very hardy, and descendants of some of the first hill ponies to inhabit Britain around 130,000 years ago

The Armistice and aftermath of war

Arthur and his brothers worked hard on the farm – it was expected of them, and they would turn their hand to whatever jobs needed doing, whether roundingnup sheep, taking animals to market, or the carthorse to the blacksmith. Visiting the blacksmith was one of Arthur’s least favourite jobs, because the smith had a queueing system, and sometimes he had to wait in line the whole day to get his horse’s hooves and shoes seen to.

AO I think the next great step forward in memory was the Armistice, the bells were all ringing – what a relief! But even then, there were food difficulties. Very much so, because I think they didn’t get around to rationing until the war had ended. Although food stocks were fairly good – if you knew where to get them! I remember swapping bacon for Cheddar with the local vicar! I came down to him with a great chunk of bacon, on a bike, and he loaded me up with as much Cheddar as I could carry back. He’d landed a great hundredweight of sugar from somewhere, and so all these sorts of swaps were going on.

However, soon after that period my father went out somewhere – I was probably rising nine. Came home with the sweetest little pony from somewhere. which he picked up for a few pounds. He said, ‘Look here – you jump on its back, and if you can manage it, it’s yours!’ Of course. the blooming thing hadn’t really been broken in, but between us we managed it – it was only small – black, with a silvery mane, I still remember. That taught me to ride. And during that period – we kept it four or five years – I used to do a lot of work with it, driving sheep from A to B. I hadn’t got a dog, but this pony was as good as a dog – it really was a marvellous little thing.

But I also have the memory of it going, because hard times struck, really hard times. I came home from school one day and missed the pony – it had gone. I said, ‘Where’s Bess?’ and ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘bit of bad news – I’ve had to sell her.’ The rent day had come along, and she’d gone, you see. Those sorts of things knocked security out of youngsters. We had the rug pulled from under us, time after time.

CG – Now this was in Warwickshire?

AO – Yes, we lived close to Coventry at that time. However, he pulled enough money out of his hat from somewhere, and was able to pay for me to have a bit of education at the local grammar school. I used to cycle there as a day boy for five or six years.

Above: the pretty village of Winscombe, Somerset, where Arthur farmed when we knew him in the 1980s.

Below: Tarr Steps, the famous prehistoric stone bridge over the River Barle on Exmoor, where he had previously farmed and where his daughter Deb trained horses for re-enactment and film work.

The Depression Years

AO –It created the first socialism, that thirties did, really and truly, and the poverty had to be witnessed to be thoroughly appreciated and understood, because should they get out of work, which they did, I think it was a pound a week they got as compensation, to keep a family on. [This would compare to about £50 – £60 today.] And what on earth was it? They used to go out and get a rabbit, for which they’d get locked up if they got caught, and they’d pinch mushrooms.

My father got me so annoyed, because he couldn’t see the other side of the coin. These people, in his opinion, were not helping themselves. For instance, he sold a lot of trees off the farm he owned, for a second income He had a lot of big old trees and elms cut down – the trunks were taken away by horsepower to the timberyards, and the tops were left lying all around. And thinking he was doing these unemployed men a good turn, he’d say, ‘Well you can have a top, if you clear it up.’ But these poor men hadn’t even got the tools to work with! They hadn’t got the tools to work with. And he lost patience with them. His generosity didn’t go so far as to say, ‘Well, you borrow my axe’, or anything like that. He thought that somehow or other, they ought to have had one. He could not understand.

It wasn’t much better for his own men working on the farm. He was paying them £1.50 at the time, with a free cottage and free milk and free vegetables, practically feeding them as well. But they didn’t have much out-of-pocket cash. And the rule was that if a man broke his fork, for instance, it was deducted out of his £1.50. One poor old chap, he said, ‘Look, I can’t manage. I just can’t manage, you know.’ These sort of hardships were hitting me, probably turning me from Toryism to Socialism, really and truly. I can’t forget them, because there was real poverty, and real need, and real hardship. And I think if the men got condemned because they took ten shillings up to the pub and blew it on getting drunk, they were to be excused, because their life was a misery, to see their kids in need, and their wives driven frantic. These days it would end up in broken marriages and all sorts of things, but in those days didn’t because of necessity they had to cling together. The necessity just to live, to hang on. It was a horrible state of affairs.

The Wheel of Nature and Life

Arthur’s own family were never short of food, and always had a warm house, for which he was thankful. However, their farming fortunes were very mixed, and there were hard times like when his father couldn’t sell the wool from the shearing. Demand for produce varied hugely. His mother had her own small poultry business, which helped to keep them going, but nevertheless they were never too far from the bread line. But as Arthur said: ‘There was this feeling of self-sufficiency. We could feed ourselves on what we grew’. A traditional mixed farm, like the Oakes’s, could provide grain for flour, meat, butter, milk, eggs and vegetables. And although the overall picture Arthur painted wasn’t rose-tinted, he was at pains to point out that within farming itself, there was always the chance for renewal. The cycles of life and the land breed optimism, because the wheel always turns again:

Farming always seemed to be the remedy – however bad it was, there was always hope in farming. Spring comes along, and you plant a new crop, and you’ve got lambs, and you think things are bound to be better this year, because it’s going to be a bountiful year. And it very often was.’

Arthur was always cheerful, with an entertaining story to tell

Arthur’s departure

A strange thing happened when Arthur died. We knew that he’d got cancer – he was just over 80 by then, but it didn’t seem too serious or without hope for recovery. One Sunday afternoon, Chris and I drove to the Gower peninsula from Bristol. As we traversed some heathland near to the coast, I had the Ordnance Survey map open and noticed an interesting ancient site indicated on our right, called ‘Arthur’s Stone’. It turned out to be a single standing stone, and as we slowed down to take a look, I noticed a curlew standing close to the road, its proud, curved beak in profile. This gave me an eerie feeling. It was also an unusual bird to see, at least in our experience at that time. Then, after we got home, the phone rang, and it was Arthur’s daughter Deb, calling to give us news of his death. I have ever since felt that Arthur’s spirit was set free to bid us and others farewell. Look at his photo above, and you’ll see why the curlew’s beak seems so appropriate!

Arthur’s grave in Winscombe churchyard. His stories featured in both my books shown below

You may also be interested in other life stories of people that I’ve encountered:

Noel Leadbeater and the Secret Army

Walter Lassally: Cinematographer and Kabbalist

Venetia, the Woman Who Named Pluto

Eating Apples – and the Distillation of Memories

Epigram Nine, Atalanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier 1617

Lock the tree with the old man in a bedewed house, and by eating of its fruits he will become young.’

As we get older, in less cheerful moments we may feel that nothing new will happen to us again in this lifetime. But actually, I don’t hold with that idea, as I think there’s always scope for a surprise, or a new activity or friendship which blossoms even at a late stage. It’s true however that there is more behind us than ahead of us, and that our ability and energy become more limited. There’s a painting by Russian artist Vasily Maximov, from 1889, called ‘All in the Past’. In it, an elderly aristocrat and her aged female servant sit together outside their summer cottage – brooding, snoozing, knitting and remembering. But although distinction of rank scarcely matters any more, with a touching sense of kinship as their lives even out, there is also a depressing sense that there is nothing more to expect from the future.

However, that’s not the only aspect of growing old – or it needn’t be. Even for those who experience severe physical limitations, inner change can still occur as the threads spun over the years are gathered together. Maybe there’s a symbolic touch to the servant’s knitting?

I describe one instance of this in my book Everyday Alchemy, about something which happened with my mother. Before I include this extract, though, I’ll add a hasty rejoinder that this kind of change may not be possible for everyone, and a person’s state of being may hinder these gentle transformatory experiences. However, I write about them here in a spirit of optimism. Certainly Michael Maier’s emblem in Atlanta Fugiens holds the promise of this, embedded in a symbolic image of alchemical change.

After the extract from my book Everyday Alchemy below, I’ll follow with a further reflection on my mother’s love story.

Distillation and eating apples

First a preamble, also drawn from the text of Everyday Alchemy: an idea of what ‘distillation’ means in alchemy, during the process of changing base matter to gold.

In alchemical terms, this process of receiving sustenance from the higher world is called distillation. The vapours rise from the ‘cooking’ of the ‘earthly’ substance in the vessel; they ascend and then condense into purified drops, running down again to feed the matter that remains below.

And you may like to listen to the vocal ‘fugue’ which Michael Maier wrote to accompany this emblem; like certain other alchemists, he believed in a fusion of visual imagery, music and poetry to accompany his interpretation of each stage of alchemy.

Epigram Nine
In Wisdom’s garden grows an apple tree
With fruits of gold. Take it and our old man,
Enclose them in a glass house, wet with dew,
And let them stay there many days conjoin’d.
When he has eat his fill of fruit, behold!
The former old man is a youth agai
n.



Contemplating Change
Here we have a somewhat bizarre image of an old man sitting in a glass house, eating apples in order to grow young again. Interpreting this in terms of everyday life, let’s not think of it as a literal turning back of the clock, but instead as the renewal of optimism, hope, and energy. We are at liberty with alchemy to wander between the worlds when we interpret its imagery, and to find a way of relating it to our own lives.

To take part in this process of renewal, one thing is essential, and that is the willingness to change. Sure, life is full of changes, and ageing brings change, but that’s the kind of change that seems to advance without our consent! In fact, the more we age, the more we tend to resist changes, building up habits of comfort and thought and lifestyle. And this is not exclusive to the elderly; if you are over the age of twenty or so, you can be sure that those habits are already setting in. They just become more pronounced with the passing of the years.

When we give up accepting change, we give up on life. And maybe this is inevitable in our closing years. My mother, in her last years, wanted to slow the world down, and make it a place of as little change as possible. She kept more and more to her room, and lost interest in what was happening outside. But at the same time, something else was happening. Her memories began to play a very important part in her life. Ironically, as is often the case with old people, her sense of time began to fail, and her short-term memory was poor. But old memories that had meaning for her resurfaced vividly. Verses of poetry she had learnt as a child came floating into her mind again. She relived her courtship and marriage, and told me the story of her first love affair, which she had never revealed before.

It was soul-work. She was contemplating her life, ordering it, and distilling it. Even at that stage of her life, transformation was still in progress, and she ate of the apples in Wisdom’s garden. It was also work that lasted for a particular time span of about eighteen months, and when that was done, it really did seem as though there was nothing else that she had to do except to cope with the increasingly difficult routines of simply staying alive, until the body itself gave out. On the last day of her life, I arrived too late to see her still alive. But instead of the gloom and despair I expected when I entered the house, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and release. It was a beautiful spring day, with flowers bursting into bloom. In some curious way, I felt that she was at last free to be a part of that. The same day, I went to see the priest about the funeral service, and told him that I couldn’t only feel grief, because there was such a powerful, joyful energy which accompanied her passing. We composed a service which included poems about nature, which she loved.

Alchemy draws its secrets from nature, and from our natural range of experience in life, it but works with them at a higher level. So the natural process which my mother went through is one that we can actively choose to use in our own lives now, without waiting for old age to bring it. The whole principle of taking a process that happens naturally, but using it in a distilled form, means that its potency will be greater, just as in homeopathy the highest potency remedies are those with the least substance in them. (Incidentally, alchemy was responsible for perfecting the art of distillation and inventing brandy!)

Pps 118-119, Everyday Alchemy

The Love Affair

What my mother revealed during that visit, when she showed me the picture of her first lover, stayed with me. It was a kind of strange mother-to-daughter gift, and I do believe that a mother’s gift can be a mixed blessing, even a curse sometimes, as fairy tales and personal experiences readily show. But perhaps that’s a theme for another time! At any rate, it has percolated through my mind since, shedding a little light on my parents’ own relationship, and the hidden emotions that must have remained in my mother’s mind during my own early childhood. Such a close-up insight into our parents’ emotions can come as a shock.

So here’s how this went, in more detail.

On one of my visits to my mother during the last years of her life, she drew a portrait out of her photo box. It wasn’t actually a photograph, but a sketch of a handsome young man.

This was the man, she told me, who had broken her heart.

‘He was my first serious boyfriend.’

Kathleen Owen was a first year student at Homerton Teacher Training College in Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate in another college, and they fell passionately in love. Although my mother – a pretty, slim redhead – was used to going out with boys in her village, this was an affair of the heart of a different order. She pinned all her hopes on him. They exchanged love letters, he gave her his picture, and maybe they were even planning a life together.

‘Then we went home for the summer holidays, and that was it. I never heard from him again.’

Mum may have been a minister’s daughter from a country background, but she was not unworldly. She also had plenty of common sense. So I think her perception that this man was genuinely in love with her was true, not a naive illusion.

‘What happened? Did you ever find out?’

I was caught up in this story, which had been kept hidden for sixty years.

She shook her head. ‘No. I don’t know why he did it.’

Was he too cowardly to pursue a real commitment? Did his parents object? I imagine my mother waiting after she’d returned to the family home in Soham, where her father was a Baptist Minister. Did her glow of joy gradually drain away day by day, as she waited for a letter in vain? Did she have to hide her anguish from the family? I wanted to ask her more, but I sensed that it was a fragile moment, and more than she’d ever revealed to me before.

My mother Kathleen, 2nd from left, with some of her college friends

After she came back to college, the news percolated through that her boyfriend had died, of a burst appendix. But this had happened months after they parted from each other, and wasn’t the reason for his withdrawal. So plainly now there could be no way back – no explanation, and no possible reconciliation. She was heartbroken.

‘And the strange thing was,’ she said, ‘that his surname was Phillips.’

My father’s name, the man she was later to meet and marry, was also Phillips. And thus it was my maiden name too. ‘Joscelyn Phillips, he was.’

She gave me the portrait to keep, plus a photo of him. It seemed to put something to rest after all these years. But there was something more: ‘I kept his love letters until we were living in Sandwich,’ she admitted. This was some twenty years later, in the town where I spent the first part of my childhood. ‘Then, one day, I decided there was no point in keeping them, and threw them into the stove.’

A photo of Joscelyn Phillips – not quite so handsome as the portrait!

I remember that cantankerous old coke boiler in the passage by the back door. My father would carry up the coke from the cellar, grumbling, and prise open the dangerously hot metal lid in order to shoot it into the flames below. A dangerous monster, to which I gave a wide berth. Now I also see it as one which devoured my mother’s young hopes and dreams.

My brother Richard, myself and the dog Russ sitting outside the backdoor of no.12 Upper Strand Street, Sandwich

It was over twenty years ago that my mother told me all this, and although I remembered the story, I didn’t take it any further until recently. And I had forgotten the name of her boyfriend, even the Phillips bit. But luckily, I discovered that I had written it down at the time, and surely I could trace this guy on the internet, with the new powerful search tools not available when I first heard the tale? Family history research is my thing; I know the ropes. Birth, death? College records? Newspaper reports? Should be no problem.

But I got nowhere. Phillips is commonplace, of course, as a surname. And although his first name was more unusual, I discovered that there are many ways to spell Josselin or Joscelyn. I found nothing that matched. His identity thus remains a mystery.

My parents also met at Cambridge, in the early 1930s, where my father-to-be, Ormonde Phillips – from various accounts – was a tall, shy and handsome young man. He was also badly in need of some pleasant female company after an upbringing by a shrewish mother and an elderly, gentle but weak-willed father. He fell for Kathleen, and cemented the relationship. My mother told me that when she heard how badly his somewhat crazy mother had treated him, she determined to make it up to him through her love. I think this became a lifelong promise which helped them to stick together through the rough patches. Dad, unsurprisingly, was not an easy man.

My parents at Cambridge and my father’s graduation day

Their marriage plans, however, were disrupted by the outbreak of war. The preparations for a white wedding with all the trimmings, and a honeymoon in the Peak District, had to be cancelled. Like many couples in a similar situation, a hasty registry office ceremony was arranged before my father was sent off to Salisbury with his call-up papers. I found a newspaper report of the event, held on Thursday September 7th, 1939:

Although Miss Kathleen Florence Owen should have been married in Mansfield-Road Baptist Church, Nottingham yesterday, the ceremony did not take place there. Instead she was married at Gosport, on the South coast. The reason for the sudden change in her plans was that her bridegroom – 2nd Lieut. Charles Ormonde Reynolds Phillips – was unable to get to Nottingham. For the same reason the honeymoon, which should have been spent in Derbyshire, will now be spent at Gosport. Three bridesmaids should have been in attendance, but owing to the change of plans only one could be present – Miss Maisie Owen, sister of the bride. She carried a bouquet of bronze chrysanthemums.

My father’s stay in the army was short-lived, as he was invalided out with pleurisy, and so their regular married life together began not too long afterwards.

My mother as a young married woman, with her favourite dog Judy

And despite some tensions in the marriage, they were loyal, and supported each other in old age. After Mum’s death, I found a card in which Dad had written a poem to her on their 55th anniversary.

This card to all your loving cares
Of me for five and fifty years
Attests, and speaks my love to you.

As time approaches our three score,
Our love must surely grow yet more
And burn as brightly as when new.

So, as we eat our apples, youth does come back in another guise. Memories resurface; hidden love stories can be revealed. Is this a kind of renewal? I think that indeed it may be. Perhaps the title ‘All in the Past’ can actually be a key to transformation, and development of the soul; it points us to the riches which we already have, if we can just recognise and re-live them.

My parents on their Golden Wedding Day in 1989

Stories from the Christening Mugs – Part 1

At an auction about ten years ago, I bought a collection of Victorian christening mugs. I was drawn to their charm and to the idea that each name heralded a story, a story of a life that had unfolded in some way and which I might perhaps be able to trace. I was deeply into family history research at the time, and was also writing a book about life stories, Your Life, Your Story. I made a start on the research but got distracted by other avenues to explore, which included investigating the history of two samplers which had been passed down to me from my mother. Their story is already on my blog at ‘A Tale of Two Samplers’.

And so the mugs decorated the shelves of the houses we’ve lived in since, and look particularly pretty filled with summer flowers. Then, recently, my subscription to Ancestry was about to expire and I decided to have one last go at researching their origins. I dug out my original notes, sorted and typed them, and away I went on the trail.

Objects which have a personal story fascinate me, but if they’re not part of my own heritage or a strand of history that I’m following, there’s a limit to how far I’d be prepared to go in chasing every detail. But it was a pleasure to discover the outline of six of these lives. The other three, as I’ll explain, could not be traced. And then, finally, I also solved the mystery of a named mug passed down through our own family, which I couldn’t understand before.

So let’s imagine these 19th century babies, each one the apple of its parents’ eyes. Each one wide-eyed and curious about the world around, with a future life as yet unwritten. How did it all turn out?

I’ll give the essence of what I’ve found, since unless by some strange coincidence any of these is connected to your own family, you will not be enthralled by too many dates and details. These are stories-in-a-nutshell.

Silvester Rose

Silvester Rose was born on May 16th 1876. An unusual name is a good start for researching family history. In this case, it’s a rather suave name which we might associate with the leader of a swing band, or perhaps a louche artist. However, our Silvester was born into a solid tradesman’s family – his father Fred was a plumber and decorator, and Silvester followed in his footsteps, becoming a plumber’s apprentice when he was in his teens. The family lived in Towngate, Leyland, a few miles south of Preston in Lancashire. (If you’re interested in how the village looked at the time, there are many historical photos here ) In 1904, Silvester married Jane Ellen Bowling, but she died before 1911 when he remarried Sabina Booth, a dressmaker. By that time Silvester was 34, and described his occupation as ‘publican’. Perhaps he was tired of crawling under floorboards to deal with pipes. Perhaps he fancied a more sociable occupation.

Silvester died in 1933, and was buried on 28th January at St Andrew’s Church, Leyland. He was only 56, but had seemingly done well enough in his working life to leave £4002 14s 6d to his widow Amy.

There’s one more element in his life which might play a part in this: in 1909, aged 32, he had become a Freemason, and joined the Carnarvon Lodge of United Grand Lodge of England. He would thus have had solid connections in the area which may well have helped him in business. Did he have children? According to a family tree uploaded to Ancestry, he had at least one child – a daughter called Dorothy Mabel Ellen Rose, born in 1913, who died in 1983 at the age of 69 in the same area of Lancashire. She was given the same name as his mother, Dorothy, the woman who had gazed into her newborn baby’s face back over a hundred years earlier. Who chose his name, Silvester? Fred or Dorothy, or even another relative? That we shall probably never know.

Places and families

Often, in previous generations, people didn’t move too far from their birthplace. Although there are plenty of exceptions, especially the emigrants, who sailed away to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, many life stories ended more or less where they began. Marriages were often to partners known since childhood. Other relatives were on hand to help out with the children. There were economic, social and practical benefits to staying put in your area. Most of the stories I’ve researched here turned out to be about those who stayed local, with one interesting exception.

This painting, ‘Letter from the Colonies‘ by Thomas Webster, was painted in 1852, a time when many migrants had already sailed away from their homeland to the far shores of Canada, America or Australia, for instance. The arrival of a letter must have been a great event, perhaps containing news that was already several months old, but still vital to the relatives remaining behind.

Frederick John Bartlett

Frederick John Bartlett was born in 1877. His is the only christening mug among my collection which tells us where he was born, in Eastbourne, and it seems he stayed there most of his life. His father William was a Bank Manager, and his mother Sara Elizabeth looked after her brood of children at 3, Prospect Cottages, Crown Lane. Frederick himself started his career – and indeed ended it – as a Bank Clerk. He married Emily Adeline Manning, and by 1939 was retired and living with her in Milton Road, Eastbourne. However, he did have one major interlude in his settled Sussex life, and that was serving in World War One. His army records show that he signed up in 1915, and plainly survived his service. According to a family tree on Ancestry, he died in 1954. Is this another quiet life, well-lived, with just a brief foray into the theatre of war?

Next we’ll move on to the only girl commemorated in my set of mugs. Were such mugs ordered more to celebrate the birth of boys, rather than girls? I haven’t yet found a definitive answer to this, but I discovered that Emily Bronte had her own mug, which is now preserved in the Museum at Haworth. Perhaps girls played more with their mugs as children, at pretend tea parties for instance, and they were more likely to get broken? But this is merely a guess.

Emily Bronte’s christening mug, now kept in the Bronte Museum at Haworth

Emily Cranfield

Emily Cranfield came from the Bedford area, where she was born in Roxton in 1863, and died in 1952, at the good old age of 89 years. Her full name was Emily Wilkerson Cranfield, as she was given her mother’s maiden name for a middle name being, which was a common practice in the period. She had strong family connections in the area, yet in all the census entries from 1871 when she was 8, to 1911 when she was 48, and even again in the 1939 Register aged 76, she is never once found living with her own family. Even in her girlhood she was not at home according to the records, and although in adult life she remained a spinster, this usually meant a woman would be more likely to live with relatives, and not try to fend for herself. There is surely a story here, which I have only partially teased out.

Emily’s father, Thomas Cranfield, married Emily Wilkerson, and they had three children – Mary Jane, Emily Wilkerson of the christening mug, and Anne. But Emily the mother died in 1864, the year that Anne was born, and when baby Emily was only a year old. Thomas re-married a Maria Gibbins two years later, in 1866. This was not unusual – the majority of widowers married again as quickly as they could, often within three months, in order to have a new mother for their children and someone to run the house while the man worked to bring in a wage. For a widowed woman, this was equally advantageous in terms of economic survival. ‘Blended’ families were commonplace, despite the perception that it’s a modern invention. My own 2 x great grandmother, who came from a poor family of weavers and miners, ended up with at least twelve children under her roof, both her own, and as step-children from her two marriages to two widowers.

Thomas had already made a big financial commitment, since in 1864, the same year that Emily’s mother died, he had taken on the lease of a large country house and its farmland. As the documents tell us: In 1864 Rev. Robert Delap leased the house, with 749 acres and 37 poles of land to Thomas Cranfield of Roxton, yeoman, for £1,274/0/4 per annum. This lease was renewed in 1873 at a rent of £1,226/16/- per annum. You can also read a list of all the rooms in the well-appointed house at the records here. This was a sizeable holding, and Thomas went on to establish his position as a farmer, finishing his farming career with an impressive 1172 acres under his command in 1881. The gamble paid off.

But perhaps not for his family. Emily is never reported as living there. Was she, perhaps, rejected by her stepmother? Did they clash badly enough for Emily to want to move out when she could? Or was her father uncaring, and uninterested in providing for his daughter?

In 1871 she was named as a boarder at a school in St Peters Green, Bedford, with her sister Mary. A spell at boarding school wasn’t uncommon, and was often favoured by yeoman classes. who couldn’t get a good enough basic education for their children locally, as I’ve mentioned in A Tale of Two Samplers. The house we used to live in in Kingsdown, Bristol, was once a small school, filled with the sons and daughters of farmers from across the other side of the Avon river in Gloucestershire (boys in the house next door – girls in our house, which had a gigantic keyhole lock on the front door!) But the pattern for Emily seems here to be set for all the later years too. In 1881 she was a ‘visitor’ at the farm of Alfred Rogers in Bromham, Beds, and in 1891 she was living at her brother-in-law’s, Frank Hilton, another farmer. Then in 1901 she was working as a housekeeper at Mansion House, Bedford. By 1911, she was a ‘boarder’ with the family of William Barber. Finally, in 1939 (there are no accessible censuses between these dates) she was living on ‘private means’ at Manor Cottage, Kempston, with Mary J. Hilton. According to family trees posted on Ancestry, this was Emily’s sister Mary Jane (b. 1861) widow of Frank Hilton, the farmer referred to in 1891. It seems the two sisters were living out their latter years together as widow and spinster, so at least she was back with one of her own relatives.

Emily seems to have inherited a little money eventually, or perhaps was a very careful saver, as she has her own ‘means’ to live on, and a legacy to bestow at her death in 1952. She was able to leave the tidy sum of nearly £3000 to Marion Hilton, spinster, presumably another member of this Hilton family. But for several decades, she was just the boarder, the housekeeper, the maiden aunt. Was it a sad life? It’s probably unwise to jump to conclusions, based on intermittent records and no personal memoirs. But it certainly seems that she was excluded from the heart of the family, and its fortunes.

More Stories and a Mystery Mug

In the next post, I’ll lead you, via a Mystery Mug, through the stories of the three other christening mugs, whose owners I’ve managed to identify. I’ll also pay brief tribute to the three babies whose identity remains hidden from me. I hope you’ll join me for Part Two.

Tigerlily down Brick Lane

This is the fourth and final story of Tales from Tigerlily

The images in this post were all captured in 2020, on my return visit to the Brick Lane, Sclater Street and Cheshire Street area. But nothing had changed very much since my regular trips in the mid-1970s!

The East End Rag Markets

Tigerlily came to life as a shop in 1974, as a vintage clothes store on Mill Road, Cambridge. But before that, I’d been getting into gear buying and selling through a friend’s stall on Cambridge market. The East End of London was where my serious buying began, in terms of sourcing ‘period clothing’ as we called it then. I drove down there almost every Sunday morning, leaving Cambridge in the dark, and often getting there before daybreak. Sometimes my business partner Helen would accompany me, or meet me there – it was she, in fact, who had introduced me to this extraordinary collection of stalls and sellers, with their treasures and junk, rubbish and bric-a-brac. This sprawling, colourful, ragamuffin of a second-hand market was held around Sclater Street and Cheshire Street, an area which runs across Brick Lane. The streets here were lined with stalls, which also edged into the dilapidated old warehouses, plus improvised sales pitches anywhere there was space. Piles of old clothes, shoes, bicycle parts and knick-knacks would be spread out along the walls and even the pavements. Some were only fit for the dustbin, and may even have come from there in the first place. Others could be treasures, retrieved from attics and forgotten places of storage. I had to be quick off the mark to decided which was which!

The pre-dawn raids

The first buyers would arrive before the day had fully dawned, flashing their torches onto the jumble of goods They were usually dealers, expertly picking out what was desirable stock for their own particular sales niche. It could be antiques, marketable second-hand modern clothes, vintage radios, old machinery, watches and clocks, collectable books, or anything else potentially specialist and desirable. And we weren’t the only ones looking for textiles and clothes. Some of the upmarket and expensive London vintage stores had buyers on the prowl; it was a relatively new type of business, but sellers in places like Portobello Road and the Kensington Antiques Market were already cashing in on the trend. And some had already beguiled the Brick Lane dealers into saving all the good stuff for them. I would regularly watch as a tall, red-haired young woman from Notting Hill and her trendy boyfriend would swan in to receive their piles of saved goods from the favoured stallholders, rather like a royal couple graciously accepting tribute from their subjects. Was I jealous? Of course! I had to get to a similar position – somehow, somewhere. And since these Tigerlily blogs aren’t chronological, you may have seen from the second in the series that I finally cracked this challenge in the rag mills up north, rather than on the streets of London.

Cheshire St and Sclater St- the best streets for bargains!

Some buildings triggered memories when I revisited, like this one which still sells wholesale catering clothing and workwear.
The interior of the same building; other stalls used to creep in around the edges, as indeed they still do now.

As mentioned, it was Helen who was already familiar with the Brick Lane whirl of buying and selling. Before Tigerlily opened, she ran her stall on Cambridge market one or two days a week, making a basic living from supplying crepe dresses, Victorian nighties, men’s jackets and grandad shirts from a bygone era. As I began giving her some of my finds from jumble sales and junk shops to sell on commission, we considered co-ordinating our efforts – I had the transport, she had the know-how. Before we dared to think about a shop, however, we needed to see if we could dovetail our efforts and build up enough of a supply.

Hitches and glitches – and advice on baby care!

So I made these trips to London for a year or two before we opened our shop Tigerlily, and we carried on with our joint expeditions for some time after we began trading. It wasn’t all straightforward – I remember when my hatchback Renault broke down at about 4am on a solo trip to London. No mobile phones back then, of course, and I had to try and hitch a lift home in the dark. I was picked up by a car full of male party goers on their way home. Luckily, they were plainly all shattered by then, the driver was sober, and they were courteously silent for the half an hour or so that it took to drop me off in Cambridge. Another more major issue was that I did a lot of trips while pregnant – my daughter was born just before the shop began trading – and the nausea I felt in early pregnancy was intensified by the ripe smells of the Brick Lane area. The origin of the smells came both from from rotting fruit left over from weekday trading, along with the smell of mould and decay from some of the ancient bundles of fabric piled up at the back of the derelict warehouses. So it wasn’t always a pleasant task, sorting through what was on offer.

After Jessica was born, I sometimes brought her with me on these buying trips, perfectly content in her carrycot-on-wheels, the only transport solution of the day for a small baby. Sometimes I met with East End disapproval – the fashion there was for enormous, shiny prams. And the new edict that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies hadn’t reached these parts, so our progress was greeted with shrieks of horror from Cockney mothers and grandmothers, who prophesied that she would suffocate this way. (Yes, I know, policy has reversed since then, probably several times over.)

Remnants of an even earlier time – these were probably still operational when I visited the area in the ’70s. Now the Bath House is smartly done up, its heritage preserved. Many old buildings had already been swept away then, some because of bomb damage, some because of ruthless redevelopment schemes.

Relics from a passing era

But we did find marvellous things in Cheshire Street and around. One day, I had finished my buying and was sitting waiting in the car for Helen to re-appear with her finds, so that we could start the drive back to Cambridge. She finally arrived, puffing under a load of blue velvet tailcoats.


‘I was on my way back, when I saw these. Some guy had just put them out.’ Apparently, she told me – though I haven’t been able to verify this –they had been worn by the Parliamentary Whips, in the style of 18th century men’s apparel, and were now being scrapped for something more modern. They went like hot cakes when she put one in Tigerlily’s window and I wish I’d kept one for my own collection.


I picked up a full-length hand-embroidered dress once, draped over some railings with a few pitiful items, and on sale for next to nothing. It was made of heavy hand-woven cream cotton, and I think it was probably Palestinian. That I did keep, and wear, for a while. Like Helen’s tailcoats, it appeared just at the last moment in the morning. Although most of the good things went very early, you never knew what you might spot later on. Hence it was difficult, sometimes, to drag ourselves away.


But needs must, and we’d turn for home by about 11.0 – Cambridge wasn’t a long drive away. I’d have emptied my flask of coffee while on the prowl, and on return I’d make myself a large fried brunch, and go back to bed for a few hours. The baby could share my nap, and I’d hope that my husband would look after both children and make our tea! The sorting, washing, and pricing could wait until the Monday.

Some sales pitches tpday still have a pitifully small amount of goods to offer, as was the case too when I used to visit. Below, on a more cheerful note, the Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug which I bought on my return trip in 2020.

Return to Brick Lane

The whole scene has remained vivid in my mind for over forty years, but I never went back again until very recently, just before lockdown in March 2020. I was thrilled beyond measure to revisit the area again. I had come to Spitalfields on a weekend blogging course run by ‘The Gentle Author’ of Spitalfields Life, and I eagerly took the first part of Sunday morning, before our session started, to walk down Brick Lane. I had been to London regularly since the 1970s, but somehow had never made it back to this part of town before.

I experienced sudden surges of memory – landmarks that I didn’t even know I remembered until they were there in front of me, like the railway bridge running over Brick Lane itself. But my most intense state of exaltation came from re-discovering Cheshire and Sclater Street, which had been the prime destinations for our buying trips. I couldn’t conjure up a mental map, but it was as though my feet and deep-buried memories just carried me there unerringly. And some of the stalls were reminiscent of those which had been there all those years ago. The old warehouses were still there, though some were now restored, and no longer full of stinking bales of old clothes.

It was a thrill to buy an old Cadbury’s hot chocolate jug from a bric-a-brac stall in a warehouse I’d once frequented, and mentioning the ‘good old days’ to stallholders brought smiles and recollections to share.

Reminiscing with this seller, who had been coming since he was a boy. Maybe we even met each other then!

I chatted to a seller who described how, as a boy, he used to drive up with his Dad in their pick-up truck, and started unloading their goods before it got light, ready for the first buyers. I even began to think I might remember him and his father, but perhaps it was more of a generic memory of the fierce urgency for sellers to claim their pitches and get the items on display before the customers arrived. People would be trying to take the items off the truck themselves before they could unload, he told me.

I felt that in a tenuous way, I still belonged to the club! I bought a glass pendant too, as a token of my reunion with the markets of the Brick Lane area.

A token from Cheshire Street!

Now, as the morning progressed and my writing course beckoned me to return, I noticed that more people were coming out for a Sunday morning saunter, just as they had in the 1970s. I remembered how, from the shadowy figures running down the street flashing their torches to left and right, gradually the streets filled up with people in the morning light, until it was so packed that you could hardly get from one place to another. Then it was time to go home, and in those days, to drive back to Cambridge, in a car laden with my finds.

This lane used to be our getaway route, when the crowds blocked the main street and we were still nipping back and forth to the car with our purchases. It makes a kind of dog leg around the back of the street, and into Brick Lane.

Those finds were never quite enough though, especially when it came to stocking a shop. So eventually, my forays led to the bigger rag mills, where I made links with the sorters and sellers. Planned, longer trips, took over from the frenzied excitement of Brick Lane in the early dawn of a Sunday morning. But Cheshire Street and Sclater Street remain as my essential memory of hunting for treasures in the debris of the past.

Before I left that Sunday in early March, 2020, I visited a superb bookstall where everything was just £1, and there were several excellent Folio editions available. I bought Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which turned out to be remarkably apt. Within a week, we were in lockdown.

The end of Tigerlily

We ran the shop for about five years, so all in all I had about seven years of buying and selling vintage clothing, antique textiles and linen, and related accessories. Towards the end, I began to weary somewhat of the sorting and washing of bundles of clothes. As a family, too, we started thinking about a move to the country, which we eventually managed, arriving near Dulverton on the southern side of Exmoor. And things had become awkward with Helen, my business partner, with issues from her personal life clouding our working arrangement. Eventually we found a solution: we both decided to let go of Tigerlily, and passed it on to a young woman, who had worked hard and loyally for us for several years. She was delighted to take over, and several years later, when I bumped into her unexpectedly in London, she was still in charge. So I’m glad that Tigerlily had a longer life, and that it has become something of a legend in Mill Road history!


I decided to embrace country living, and to put more time and effort into becoming established as a writer. I kept a few big boxes of old textiles and linen, and sold a little here and there – it was only in about 2010 that I finally put the last batch into auction, little pieces of embroidery, lace and costume which I had hung onto more for their sentimental value. But my trading genes resurfaced in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I founded Firebird Russian Arts, and they still bubble away. Researching my family history later, I discovered that I have generations of shop keepers on both sides of the family! However, as I tell my husband, ‘If I ever start talking about taking on a shop again, please hit me over the head and bring me to my senses!’ Twice was good, but three times would definitely be too many. And my great delight was always the sourcing of the treasures, rather than the day-to-day operations of selling.

The seller who sold me the Venetian glass pendant

You may also be interested in:

Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tigerlily and the Rag Mills

Tigerlily at the Posh End

Tigerlily at the Posh End

Tales from Tigerlily no. 3

This is the third in a series of stories from my vintage clothes shop, Tigerlily, which I ran from 1974 to1979 on Mill Road, Cambridge (at the town end, before the railway bridge, for those in the know about the two parts of Mill Road). We were a destination!


I’ve already described how I bought bin bags of stock from the rag mills, and the next post will be about the street markets I frequented too, but for this account, I’ll reveal how Tigerlily sourced stock in a far more upmarket manner – at the ‘posh end’ of the trade.

Finding Tigerlily treasures at ‘the posh’ end

At that time in the ‘70s, the term ‘vintage’ hadn’t been coined for clothes. Even using ‘period’ was a novelty, and most older clothes were considered only fit for throwing away. In the frugal decades earlier in the century, the majority of people had much smaller wardrobes and couldn’t afford new clothes on a whim, or because fashion dictated. However, at the other end of the scale ‘period costume’ meant couture items and their accessories which might prized as heirlooms, such as hand-made lace, exquisite embroidery, and silk or chiffon evening gowns. Such items rarely turned up in the kind of places where I was searching for stock – rag mills, street markets and jumble sales. But then I discovered that there were some collectable ‘antique’ clothes and textiles which could be within my reach. And the key places to find these happened to be at the high-class auctions in London.

An Edwardian lace blouse – the kind of collector’s item we could occasionally source and easily sell

So off I went to discover the delights and perils of buying at auctions run by Phillips and by Bonham’s, both household names in the world of fine art and antiques. It was an eye-opener. On the pre-sale viewing days, I marvelled at the wonders which were hung quite casually on clothes rails, or folded in old trunks and boxes. There were silk shawls, Edwardian blouses, and slinky silver lame evening dresses. I recall too pleated Fortuny dresses, original William Morris curtains, a set of antique Tibetan Temple hangings, and glorious panne velvet opera cloaks, trimmed with swansdown. Some of these sold for huge prices, others for very little if they were not in mint condition. ‘Good enough’ condition meant that they might be within my price range.

Another feature of these ‘costume’ auctions was fine lace, the prime examples ready to be snapped up by specialist collectors. However, there were also ‘lots’ of lace which had no particular place in a museum or collector’s display, and were thus were more towards my end of the market. So I was sometimes able to buy large cardboard boxes full of lace trims, panels and collars. With the help of a book I acquired, I took a beginner’s crash course in learning the difference between hand and machine made lace, and between some specific types, such as Honiton or Venetian. The lace pieces sold very nicely in Tigerlily, for modest prices.

These gorgeous dresses above were in the iconic style of Mariano Fortuny – which typically sold for a fortune, both in the early part of the 20th century when he was working as a designer, and when they came up for auction decades later. Sadly, they were never within our budget. This quote describes the design:

‘Registered in Fortuny’s name in 1909, his emblematic ‘Delphos’ dress—named after the Charioteer of Delphi—took its inspiration from the chiton, the long woollen Greek tunic, and reflects the craze for Greece whose interpreter at the time was Isadora Duncan. This one-size-fits-all dress, made of finely pleated silk and open to all sorts of subtle variants of neckline and sleeves, was an ongoing success for forty years. Its admirers among the modernist elite included Comtesse Greffulhe and her daughter Elaine, the Marchesa Luisa Casati, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and, of course, Isadora Duncan.’  

Antique lace, of which these are examples, used to come my way in the job lots at the costume auctions. I was able eventually to identify most of the more common varieties. Machine-made lace curtains were also back in favour again. They lasted well, provided that they hadn’t been starched, which tended to rot the material over time.

The perils of lace, chiffon and silk

I also found some dresses and job lots of garments at auction which might have represented, say, the back end of a 1920s wardrobe, or even of a theatrical costume collection. These too went well in Tigerlily, with one notable exception. I’d purchased a large suitcase full of chiffon and silk dresses and nighties from the 20s and 30s, which no one else seemed interested in. They weren’t exceptional, but they were fun, and wearable, with a touch of glamour to them. I priced them up, and started to put them out in the shop, a few at a time.


However, a couple of weeks later, I reached into the box to see what was left, and to my horror, the fabric of a dress literally fell apart in my hand! I pulled out others – they virtually crumbled as I touched them. I realised that whoever had kept the collection hadn’t opened it up for years, and now, as the air began to reach the textiles, they were disappearing like fairy gold in the daylight.


Later that day, a young woman came into the shop, looking anxious, clutching one of our brown paper bags.


‘I bought this dress last week,’ she said, ‘but look at it now!’


I knew what was coming, before she held up the garment, now in shreds. Once a chiffon 20s shift, it was now not even suitable to use as a duster.


‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she continued earnestly, ‘if I’d worn it a few times, but it was only the once!’


I hastened to put her out of her misery, and refunded her money with an apology and an explanation. After all, we didn’t want to get the reputation of a shop whose clothes fall apart after a first wearing.

A flirtation with ‘The Lady’ and Victorian underwear

Another strategy I used at the posh end was to put advertisements in magazines like Vogue and The Lady. They carried ads for ‘dress agencies’ at the time, where, I supposed, impoverished gentlefolk could sell off last year’s ball gown or suit they’d worn to a Royal Garden Party. So my ads were a little different, as I asked for antique or period clothing. Extraordinarily, it worked, and people started contacting me. We would exchange letters or phone calls first to try and establish if what they had to offer was potentially of interest, and if what I could offer financially would be acceptable. Then boxes would arrive by post, if the location was too far away for me to visit. Occasionally, I had to send back a box of unwearable items, but on the whole the surprises were pleasant ones. One in particular was a set of exquisitely stitched and embroidered white cotton lawn underwear and nightdresses, a never-worn trousseau for an Edwardian bride. What was the story there? I was bowled over, and sent the seller a price she was both astonished and pleased to receive. She was so pleased, in fact, that she sent me more!

Victorian ladies’ underwear was often finely-stitched and decorated with lace, embroidery and cut work. Although the drawers weren’t an obvious draw, as it were, the camisoles and beautiful white cotton or lawn full petticoats were very popular. For a while, a Victorian camisole became ‘the’ summer blouse to have – I’m guessing the supply has largely run out now!

There were the ones that got away, however – I arranged to meet one lady at a Cambridge bus stop in the rain to see her treasures. (Why? Perhaps she was just changing buses and couldn’t come any further? I can’t recall.) She opened a ancient cardboard dress box and revealed a perfect fully-beaded 1920s flapper dress in black-and-white geometric designs. It was accompanied by a matching Juliet cap (a skull-fitting cap rather like a bathing hat) in the same delicate fabric and beading. As soon as I saw it though, I realised that it was probably too good for me. It was really a museum or collectors piece, and we mainly sold pieces for wear by people with modest budgets. I couldn’t afford the price she wanted, and regretfully had to let it go. Could I, should I, have bought it? It would have been an investment, but I suppose there’s a chance that it too might have turned out like the box of vanishing fairy gold, and crumbled away. Many 1920s items of clothing were really very fragile, and didn’t stand the test of time. A Victorian cotton nightie can be good for 150 years, whereas a 20s flapper dress might not outlast the decade.

One of the panels of exotic embroidery on a Chinese jacket, which was about to come my way

An old lady’s story

And sometimes, people brought items unbidden into the shop, to see if we wanted to buy them. That was fine, but they could cut up rough if politely refused. One woman brought in a dress she had bought new from a shop in London the day before, and decided she didn’t want. Not vintage – I’m talking about a ‘modern’ 1970s dress, expensive and rather ugly. She graciously offered me 10% off the price she’d paid, which would ensure there was ‘something in it’ for me. Thank you, but no thank you. She was indignant. She plainly didn’t realise that the average mark-up from buying a garment wholesale to selling it from the shop floor is 100%, so even if we had been interested, the discount was negligible. Even to this day, I think many people don’t realise that to cover overheads and make a modest living, many types of shop have to mark up their merchandise by doubling the wholesale price, then adding the VAT.


But there was also a wonderful surprise one day, when a very elderly lady came in, with something in a bag to show me. It was a Chinese silk shawl, heavily embroidered with coloured flowers on black silk, and a deep knotted fringe. I had long admired such shawls, but couldn’t afford the inflated prices they reached at the London auctions. When she saw I was interested, she told me she had other similar items at her home which was just around the corner from the shop. I made an appointment to visit with alacrity.

The richly-embroidered shawl that I bought from the old lady in Cambridge, given to her by a suitor many decades earlier in China. This is how it looks today, spread out over our sofa – the colours are as fresh as when the shawl was first created. Below is the jacket of the ‘trouser suit’ which I still have, and occasionally wear.


‘I was out in China, you see,’ she told me, when I went round. This had been between 1900 and 1920, when she was a glamorous young Englishwoman who attracted the eye of various handsome young men out there. ‘One of my suitors bought me some of these pieces. But I didn’t like him, so I never wore them.’


The items in question were not only the shawl, but a beautiful black silk trouser suit, embroidered with orange and white flowers, birds and fish. They were in pristine condition. She also had an unfinished square embroidery, lacking its fringe but perfect in every other respect, with immensely detailed scenes of Chinese life.


I bought everything, at a price we were both happy with. Some items I earmarked immediately for my own collection. Gradually, over the years, I disposed of my hoard, but these Chinese items are with me or my family for keeps! They are treasured, even if they can’t be out on permanent display. The fringed shawl tends to live in a drawer in case the cats claw it on the sofa. It’s also too awkward to wear, because the fringe can catch in your own and other people’s clothing – as I discovered to my embarrassment, striding grandly up the aisle of a cathedral to find my seat for a concert. The square embroidery, the shawl without a fringe, I’ve passed on to my daughter, and it’s now in safekeeping for my granddaughters.

The incredible square shawl where every inch is covered with intricate embroidery, showing different scenes.

The trouser suit I’ve worn on various occasions, not often, but enough for it to have gentle signs of wear. A few years ago, I wore the jacket to a Gala evening at our Exeter Northcott Theatre. In the social part of the evening, Robert and I got chatting to a couple who admired it. He was British, she Chinese. I was able to tell her, ‘Yes, it’s genuine Chinese embroidery, and it’s about a hundred years old.’


At that point, I felt like an antique myself. After all, the old lady, when she sold it to me, was vividly remembering the days of her youth, and now I’m remembering mine, and the time when I bought it. When does a life story turn into history?

Below: detail from the embroidered silk trouser suit


My Tigerlily dealings took me into some strange situations and up some curious pathways. It was an education, as well as a business. I still enjoy rubbing a piece of supposed vintage fabric through my fingers to detect whether it’s genuine 1930s satin, or a later revival piece, made of artificial fabric. The seams will tell me whether that so-called Victorian nightie is handsewn, or a later reproduction. The feel, as well as the eye, give the clues that you need to pick out a period pieces and appreciate its worth, not just in monetary terms but as a valuable link to costume history, and for the chance to continue its life story into the 21st century.

You may also be interested in:

Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tigerlily at the Rag Mills

Suzani from the Silk Road

A Tale of Two Samplers

On the Loose in Soho

Following on from the post about alchemy, and the role of Hermes as a guide and trickster spirit, I’m going to recount a story about meeting someone who fits that role rather well. This person was indeed a sharp-witted trickster, a glamorous chameleon, and a talented performer. The only thing was that at the time, I didn’t know it, and, probably, nor did he.

This was certainly the look that we aspired to at the time – but as school-age teenagers with limited pocket money, we fell somewhat short of it!

It was 1965, and my schoolfriend Helen and I, aged 16, were spending a weekend in London. This was something we’d had to beg and plan for, getting our parents on side and making all sorts of promises as to what we wouldn’t do in regard to men, drink, and sleazy music clubs. Our mothers only consented to this dangerous undertaking provided we stayed at the respectable YWCA girls’ hostel in Marylebone. Little did they know that even here we would have to fend off the amorous advances of African students who were keen to get to know English girls – they were staying the equivalent men’s hostel down the road. We made sure we kept our interaction to playing table tennis with them and talking urgently about the Queen when things threatened to get out of hand. Actually, we had our sights set on visiting Carnaby Street and Soho anyway, and weren’t keen to get entangled on the wrong side of Oxford Street.

This building in Fitzroy Square, currently the Indian Student YMCA Hostel, was once an International Hostel where we went play table tennis . YWCA ‘Young Women’ were cloistered up the road in an ancient and more dilapidated establishment.

Helen and I today still compare notes on our shared adventures during teenage years. And not long ago, we revived our memories of that lively weekend. What did we actually get up to in Soho? Well, I thought my diaries might help here. I still have all the schoolgirl diaries that I wrote, which cover nearly every year from 11 to 18. I keep planning to destroy them, because they are so cringe-making, but somehow it doesn’t happen. I read out less-embarrassing-but-still-amusing parts if we have a schoolfriends reunion. And they are invaluable for reconstructing I did when. Sometimes, even now they provide me with insights which change my perspective on past events. So I now thumbed through 1965, looking for the right entry. And there it was – what two schoolgirls from Birmingham got up to in the heady streets of Soho, in Swinging London.

Went to Carnaby Street but didn’t see anyone interesting. All the boys walking up and down were trying to look famous. The shops were displaying horrible floral ties and swimming trunks. ugh ugh. Walked to Denmark St (known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’ and the heart of the record industry at the time) …where we met two boys from a  supposedly up and coming group called Davey Jones and the Lower Third. One was called Teacup…Bought them cups of tea as they were impoverished. Went back to Carnaby St after lunch and looked in disgust at more floral ties.’

The next day we returned to central London and Soho. It wasn’t that we didn’t have anything else to do; in fact, we’d had a rather too exciting night. We’d neglected to tell our mothers that the YWCA couldn’t have us for the middle night of our visit, and that we’d fixed to stay in a flat near Dulwich normally occupied by Diz Disley, a well-known folk/jazz musician. (If you’ve followed my Cherry’s Cache blogs before, you may recall that I was deeply and genuinely into folk music at the time.) He’d invited us to crash there, while he was away, but it was a large house with many comings and goings. More specifically, there were some unexpected arrivals into our bedroom during the night, which meant fending off more unwelcome advances. But these particular adventures take up two A4 pages of my diary, and I’ll save them for another time.

We wandered into Trafalgar Square where: ‘We asked two American beats (why do beats always congregate round fountains?) if they would like to climb up the lions to have their photo taken but they said they didn’t do that any more. One of them took the camera, pointed it at our stomachs, and took a photograph. Then we went to Denmark Street. No sign of the elusive Davey Jones or any of the Lower Third. Had lunch in at the café there – two boys called ‘The Ants’ sat at our table. They were quite sweet. One was good-looking and they were chuffed cos they’d made a demo disc.

Helen pays homage to the lion which the American beatniks refused to climb up. I probably took this photo in compensation.

Hmm, so we’d met a few young hopefuls, a couple of would-be pop groups. I typed out the account and emailed it off to Helen, who then vaguely remembered one of the boys. But, as she remarked, they were just one of so many groups now lost without trace. I agreed – it was doubtful that they’d even made a passing wave in the recorded history of the planet. Nevertheless, I thought I would just check…Well, of the Ants there was certainly no obvious trace. I hardly think Adam Ant could be one of the guys in question, since according to Wikipedia, he was only 10 at the time. But what about the ‘elusive’ Davy Jones?

I decided to look a little further. And then, to my astonishment, I found that Davy Jones and the Lower Third had actually released a record shortly afterwards. So they really had begun to climb the ladder!

But the real surprise was when I  read that a few months later, Davy changed his name – to David Bowie.

Oh yes, and as a side note, Teacup really did exist, as lead guitarist ‘Teacup’ Taylor.

David Bowie-to-be was just 18, and he himself could have no way foreseen the meteoric rise to stardom which awaited him. But was he already stepping into the role of the trickster figure? It’s interesting that I was already referring to him as ‘elusive’. 

Perhaps I could apply to go on the ‘true or false?’panel game of ‘Would I Lie to You’ using the line, ‘I once bought David Bowie a cup of tea in Soho, because he couldn’t afford to pay for his own.’

From Davey Jones and the Lower Third to world legend David Bowie…

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Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt

Writing for Jackie Magazine

The Soho Coffee Bar

Tigerlily and the Rag Mills

The second in the series ‘Tales of Tigerlily’

A cheerful guide to the changing fashions of 150 years. We covered from as far back as we could acquire – in practice some Victorian and Edwardian items – to the early 1950s.

This is my second post about Tigerlily, the vintage clothing shop that I opened in Cambridge in 1974. As I mentioned in the first post, keeping the stock going was the biggest challenge. You cannot phone up a supplier and order six 1930s satin wedding dresses, or a genuine old Japanese kimono. You might find a dealer who would do you a job lot of collarless ‘grandad’ shirts – very popular with the guys in the ‘70s! – but probably the price would be prohibitive, as the items had already entered the retail chain, and been upgraded from ‘chuck-outs’ to desirable garments. Buying the ‘bread and butter’ items at the bottom end of the pricing pyramid, where it was up to me to recognise their potential, was the only practical option.

Collarless shirts were in fact our secret weapon. I adored the antique embroidered items that I sold, from Chinese shawls to Hungarian peasant blouses, and took my pick of silk nighties, but it was the less exotic items which made the money. I took a stall every year at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and for those few days, Tigerlily transferred its business to a tent. It was always those shirts which paid the rent and turned a good profit. We could literally sell hundreds over the weekend. Our security arrangements consisted of paying one of my helpers generously to bed down in their sleeping bag among the racks of clothes, given that the official night watch was minimal in those early optimistic years of festivals.

Where do old clothes go to die?

Where to source the clothes? Steptoe and Son come to the rescue!

On the question of resources, jumble sales were ‘entry level’ for hobby traders, as I had once been, but not a serious place to look long term if you have a permanent retail outlet. I’ll describe in a later post how we also trawled the London East End secondhand markets, but even they weren’t consistent as a source for a shop. So I asked myself the question: ‘Where do the unsold items from jumble sales go? And the clothes from house clearances?’ (You have to be a little bit ruthless in this business, realising that you’re mostly dealing with garments of dead people. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially when the deceased hasn’t long left this world.) Well, there were still traces of the old-fashioned rag and bone businesses, (think horse and cart, Steptoe and Son) who took on other people’s throw-outs – I found one or two yards in London, and used to have great chats with a lively South London individual, who’d reminisce happily about life as a street urchin, having fun with his mates. ‘Mum just used to turn us out after breakfast with some sandwiches, and tell us not to come back till tea-time.’ I once bought a fabulous set of Art Deco shop scales from him, which I wish I’d never sold – they went in a trice. Pickings were slim however, even though he kept things back for me.

I then discovered a larger-scale rag warehouse in Kettering, an easy car journey from Cambridge. Probably the Yellow Pages located it for me initially, as I had no contacts there. It was a depressing and smelly place, with not a great deal to offer, but at least I learnt the form there, when dealing with employees rather than sole traders. This was to make friends with one or more of the ‘rag pickers’, ie the clothes and textile sorters, who then save the good bits for you, and get rewarded with tips for their trouble. You pay the going rate to the boss at the warehouse, by piece or by weight, usually a very cheap amount, and a ‘finder’s fee’ to your new best friend. This was a normal practice, and there was nothing underhand about it; the management accepted this, unless they wanted certain items themselves to sell on in a particular way. Our 40s dresses and de-mob suits didn’t fall into that category.

The inside of a rag mill – often not a pretty sight! In the ones I visited, workers often smoked, whether they were allowed to or not, and this often resulted in fires.

Two things were essential to this method of acquiring stock: a hatchback or estate car to pile the black sacks in, and a sturdy washing machine at home to deal with industrial quantity loads of cotton shirts and nighties. Plus it helped to have a strong constitution to put up with smells, and at least some muscle power to heave around the black sacks stuffed full of potential booty. Oh, and a good supply of cash in hand.

The Secret Sources of Yorkshire

I was still on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, one day Mick, the ‘friend’ in question at Kettering, revealed that their bales of clothes eventually migrated up to Yorkshire, to the greater rag mills of Batley and Dewsbury. I was on it, like a terrier on the scent of a rabbit! Before long, I hit the A1 up north and discovered this old clothes Mecca of England. I soon rooted out a few of these warehouses, made friends with a bunch of ladies working there, proved myself a paying customer with the management, and become a regular. We got on, had a laugh, and I made sure I never let them down – I turned up once a month, and paid the ladies well for their trouble.

An old rag mill in Dewsbury, in rather better shape than the ones I visited

The rag warehouses I visited were usually filthy places, mostly housed in old textile mills, with broken windows, and ancient groaning conveyor belts which allowed the pickers to sort the old clothes. But they were also places of wonder. Long before the days of formal recycling, they were a masterclass in how to re-use and upcycle.

‘Where are those going to?’ I pointed at a small mountain of brightly-coloured headscarves.

‘Oh, those are for Nigeria – the women love to wear them.’

‘And those?’ A drabber pile of sober waistcoats, taken from men’s three-piece suits, lay on the floor.

‘Pakistan.’

I could see it in my mind’s eye – the Pakistani men in their long kurta shirts and loose trousers, with a tailored British waistcoat over the top. Smart!

I marvelled at the jewel-like heaps of woollen garments were dotted around, literally in all the colours of the rainbow. Wool could be re-spun into second-grade yarn, and by sorting the items into colours into blue, green, red, yellow, pink, purple and so on, they could be processed in batches.

Crimplene dresses (remember those?) were for ‘the market women’ who ran the second-hand stalls. The ‘hippy gear’ – the vintage clothing – was for people like me. The only thing which couldn’t be re-cycled or re-purposed, I was told, was the material that suits were made from.

‘It’s only good for cardboard.’

But even that gave it a place in the recycling chain. I was amazed at the time, and had ambitions to write an article about it. Sadly, I never did, and I have no photographs either of these extraordinary places. Those in this article are ones I’ve been kindly lent or discovered much later, but they do not show those rainbow piles of wool or cheerfully-patterned scarves.

These photos, from a rag warehouse in the area show the basic equipment used in the sorting process – baskets, nylon sacks and wooden troughs. I brought home some sturdy shallow baskets, plus a number of the bags, which came in handy for years as storage.

While I was visiting these warehouses, I kept an eye out for garments that I might wear, and I picked up some good-as-new cashmere jumpers. The Harris tweed women’s jackets were fabulous too, and just about ready for a fashion revival. This was the thing – you had to have an eye for what was desirable or funky – the image that people wanted to wear. But age and period weren’t everything; even some really old items weren’t funky or stylish enough – they could be too large, too short, or too worn to tempt customers. Our clothes were sold fairly cheaply and were not always perfect, but they still had to be the right fashion for the present moment. ‘50s clothes, believe it or not, were despised, apart from some of those strange old American baseball jackets. You might get away with selling a full cotton rock-and-roll skirt, if you were lucky. At that time, twenty years was all that divided the ‘70s from the ‘50s, and I believe that it’s at least a thirty year gap before styles begin to come back into favour again. Though does that mean that the 1980s are cool now?

A Tigerlily customer remembers:

‘Bought an American style Baseball jacket from here many years ago, early 80s I think, it was black but with red pvc style arms, people would stop me in town and ask where I purchased it, it started quiet a trend back then, rockabilly style with skintight jeans, basketball boots (hi tops) and my hair in a flat top, I felt the dogs Bo**ox in it’. Paul Blowes, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.

Another example of the popular baseball jackets. We found a few from our sources, but dealers who specialised in them needed to organise wholesale import from the USA.

The other side of the coin

The warehouses could also be dangerous places – some that I visited were housed in former textile mills, with broken windows and rickety wooden stairs. Fires broke out on at least two occasions I was there, probably from people smoking carelessly around piles of textiles. Although I loved my trips to the mills, I couldn’t help but observe that in one or two of the mills that I frequented, there was an inherent male bullying culture which made for a volatile atmosphere. The women there told me about the hardships of their lives too, and many were on anti-depressants, which were handed out by their GPS like sweets in that era, with no warning of possible addiction. One day, I witnessed a very young woman, probably still a teenager, who was sobbing her heart out because someone had just drowned a litter of kittens born in the mill. I could really feel with her and for her, but at the same time recognised that she’d have to toughen up if she intended to keep working there. Having said this, other mills were cheerful places, better run by dedicated family firms.

However, whatever the state of the building or the problems of management in the rag mills I knew, I was greedy for the treasures that might be buried in such smelly and sometimes repellent piles of clothing. Just as the alchemical gold is said to be forged from a ‘primal substance’, something base and dirty that everyone overlooks, there was much here which could be redeemed and transformed into new use. And occasionally, there was real and recognisable treasure to be found – one or two pickers who I met had found gold coins and jewellery in the pockets of worn-out clothes in the bales!

I remember those mills with curious affection, and nostalgia. I’d like the chance to pick up a Harris Tweed jacket there today, and some top-of-the-range cashmere sweaters. And although I don’t miss the stink of old clothes and rooting through piles of dubious textiles, I miss that sense that any moment now, I might stumble upon something extraordinary and beautiful.

The pickers reclaimed their own treasures from the piles, as in this specially curated Christmas display!

I would dream of finding my own treasures, such as a gorgeous vintage dress as below. This one is probably from the early 1930s and is most definitely not from a rag yard, but is kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Acknowledgements

The fascinating life and history of these businesses has largely gone unrecorded, to my knowledge. I had no photos of my own, and internet pickings are very slim. So I am very grateful to Judith Ward for offering me photos of her family’s warehouse, taken just before it closed down in 2009. This was not one that I visited, but the shots remind me of what I’d typically see on a clothes-hunting expedition.

Please note that none of the comments about my own experiences relate to this particular business.

The mill of Alfred Ward & Son

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Tigerlily in Cambridge

Suzani from the Silk Road

Tigerlily in Cambridge

Tales of Tigerlily no.1

Does Tigerlily refer here to Rupert Bear’s chum, the charming daughter of a Chinese magician? No – it was the name of my vintage shop in Cambridge, purveyor of period clothing and other delights.

I opened Tigerlily with a friend in the autumn of 1974. I’d had my second baby only six weeks before, and although it seemed madness to go ahead at such a time, I’d been seized by a rush of energy after an exhausting pregnancy. It was the strangest and yet in a way the best time to do it. I was ready for some new adventures of my own, especially while the baby was portable and could come with me. Helen and I signed the lease of a Victorian two-storey shop on Mill Road, Cambridge, and hastened to open up as soon as possible.

For the previous year, on and off, I’d been nibbling around the edges of such a project, learning where to find vintage clothes, and how to sell them. Students and younger people were desperate to get their hands on Victorian nighties, collarless shirts, 1940s crepe flower-sprigged dresses, and ‘30s chiffon ball gowns. My friend already had a market stall selling these, and I’d load my small haul onto my bike and trundle it down to the city centre, for her to sell on commission.

We had the large upstairs of the shop for vintage clothes, along with bags, scarves and some period bric-a-brac. We also had the damp and dingy cellar for storage, but it wasn’t wise to keep things in there for too long! Helen took up residence in the flat at the back. Both the cellar and the flat were the source of future problems, but for now we went with it, while my friends Paul and Arunee Denison sold jewellery, largely from Arunee’s native Thailand, in the small ground floor shop.

The shop was spacious, cheap, dilapidated, but serviceable. From London rag trade wholesalers we bought cheap clothes rails; from an old-fashioned haberdasher’s shop which was closing down in Mill Road itself, we acquired tall cupboards with glass -fronted drawers, a counter, and a wooden till which pinged when opened or closed. We found a fabric covered screen to enclose a changing corner, a few mirrors, a heap of clothes hangers, and that was that. A sophisticated touch (we thought) was to bend wire coat hangers slightly, thus giving the dresses a more stylish look. Within two weeks of signing the lease we were up and running on an astonishingly small outlay. Yes, we were forever contacting the landlords about water running down the inside wall and fungus growing in the back corridor, but we made it work, and also made it look surprisingly attractive.

The only photo I’ve been able to find of our shop in the 1970s, when I was running it. You can see it squeezed in between Boots the Chemist and Hunts, where they sold sports trophies. Here’s a close-up from the same photograph, making it apparent that our shop sign was rather amateurishly painted!

However it was getting harder to find the prize items – there were very few charity shops back then, and some had already wised up to the potential of vintage, or ‘period clothing’ as we called it. Jumble sales were unreliable, although could yield up a few items. And now we needed a steady stream of stock to keep a shop going – it soon became the ‘go-to’ place for students and a whole range of clientele. New grandmothers came looking for antique christening robes for the babies born across the road in the old Maternity Hospital. Antique costume hunters came up from London to – they hoped – snatch a treasure from under our noses. Young men attending May Balls got their vintage dinner jackets from Tigerlily. We kept prices on the low side, and turnover was therefore high.

I bought a 1950s peach coloured ball gown with a label in it from a shop in 5th Ave, New York that I wore to a May Ball in circa 1980. Plus plenty of other vintage clothes besides, which I wore as daily outfits. Happy days! – Helen Balkwill, via ‘Cambridge in the good old days’ Facebook page.


Vinatge American baseball jacket – there was quite a craze for them in the ’70s

In this niche business, sources were everything. You didn’t tell your rivals where you found that 1920s flapper dress, or the velvet smoking jacket. You might even put them off the scent with vague chat about bric-a-brac shops and bequests from a late elderly aunt. London already had some prize vintage clothing stores, such as Cornucopia in Pimlico, where you could drool over extraordinary treasures, selling for sky high prices.

Below left are some examples of the elegant 1930s evening wear that came our way – the bias cut adopted in the period looked gorgeous when silk or satin was used, though must have been devilishly difficult to sew. Day dresses were cheerful, and still showing the influence of the Deco style.

So with a shop to fill, we obviously had to keep up the stock levels and find reliable sources for our supplies. Much of the fun of running such a business, of course, is discovering unexpected caches of clothes (you can see how my love of ‘the cache’ comes in here!). But nevertheless, you can’t keep a half empty shop going on promises of future surprises.

A 1940s crepe dress. Brown was a popular colour for the background, and the crepe hung well, while it was still relatively new. During wartime, clothes were rationed and new dresses scarce, so some of the dresses that we found from that period had become worn and baggy, and were almost unwearable. Some had been darned and mended over and over again. (And, by the way, it’s a myth that in those days everyone sewed beautifully. We saw many clumsy and careless attempts at stitching!) But there were still plenty of dresses which were in good condition, and easy and attractive to wear.
Genuine examples from the 1930s – the textile of the dress on the left includes gold lame thread, which gave a sumptuous look and feel. Such items sometimes came our way. The one on the right has panels made of chiffon , a fragile but ethereally beautiful fabric, creating here the look of an Edwardian train which had come briefly back into fashion.

Helen and I were independent traders, in that we kept our own stock and did our own accounts. We used coded labels and sometimes – I wince to think of it now – stapled these onto garments. OK, it was before the days of the plastic threaded tag, but even so! But we did pool some resources, and she did me a great service even before we opened the shop by sharing her prized destination with me. This was the rag market around Cheshire Street and Brick Lane in the East End of London, where she showed me the ropes. I had the car, she had the expertise, so we would drive down from Cambridge in the middle of the night, getting there in time for dawn, whatever the season. I’ll be writing about this in a later post. But I needed something more than the Brick Lane market, and the story of how I filled the gap will be told too in future posts.

A till similar to the type that we used

It wasn’t just a simple matter of filling the rails with our finds though. We had to sort, check, wash, mend, iron and price the items of clothing. Some might have to go to the dry cleaners. At that time, in what I call the ‘First Wave Vintage’ era, no one really bothered to re-make or re-shape clothes. Either they’d find a buyer, or not. The exception was turning patterned headscarves into ‘handkerchief skirts’. I wonder if that brief fashion will ever come back? And clothing could be smelly, fragile, or reveal unexpected holes, including moth damage. Once, in a second-hand clothes dealer’s attic in Inverness (not my usual geographical area!) I caught a human flea. Believe me, the usual fleas that might jump off our cat or dog and nip us are nothing compared to the insatiable, vicious attacks of the human flea, which I understand is now a rarity. I did suffer for my calling. And as someone who is allergic to dust, perhaps it wasn’t the perfect profession for me!

I should add here that I do think of my main profession to be that of a writer, but I have always enjoyed having another occupation too. I’ve inherited trading genes from generations of shopkeepers in various branches of the family, and have always found the best balance for me is to combine writing and research with a more outward-looking activity. Searching for treasures combines it all, since it’s what I do with my research in order to re-present them in my writing work, and it’s what I did in stocking both Tigerlily and my later Russian arts business.

We roped our friends in to help out in the shop, paying them a modest but fair wage to (wo)man the till, and I had my very own mending and ironing lady who coped beautifully with the jobs that I hated.

I was one of the friends Cherry roped in to help at Tigerlily! I had just moved to Cambridge and met Cherry through mutual friends – so working part-time in her buzzy and post-hippy shop suited me very well! The shop was a great meeting point of town and gown – students enjoying the wonderful clothes and bric a brac that Cherry seemed to have a real knack for finding. It was such fun going through the new stuff after one of Cherry’s shopping sprees: peasant blouses, chiffon dresses, lacy and embroidered delights, even fur coats (we were allowed in those days) some which I have happily passed on to my daughter. – Briji

And overall, Tigerlily was a great financial success, because it was run on a low budget and we could be flexible in how we ran it. I had never heard of a business plan, but it was in profit within the first month. Much later, in the 1990s, when I started Firebird Russian Arts, I knew that there would be no such easy rides this time. I found that I would have to work for three years without taking pay, run proper accounts and learn how to handle financial forecasts. (I leave you to guess how casual my Tigerlily book-keeping was). No more hippy-style set-ups! But it did give me a measure of freedom, at a time when I had small children, and it brought much fun as well as a healthy cash injection into our family life. My children have distant memories of running round the shop and climbing through the clothes rails. And if I felt like closing up early, why not? I smile today when I see the note ‘Back in 10 mins’ on the door of a small shop. I know what that means.

Why ‘Tigerlily’? Well, we played around with various names for the shop, which had to suit not just us but also Paul and Arunee’s jewellery shop below. I wish I could now remember some of the dreadful ones that were put forward! But then Tigerlily came into my mind, and everyone liked it. Later, in the 1990s, I called my Russian arts business ‘Firebird’. Perhaps there’s a pattern here, of two such juxtaposed images creating an identity – the tiger and the lily, the fire and the bird? The Firebird is a mythic Russian creature, and Tigerlily is a striking orange flower. Let’s just say, I wasn’t relying on Rupert Bear annuals for my choices!

Stories of Tigerlily still to come:


Tigerlily and the Rag Mills
Tigerlily at the Posh End
Tigerlily down Brick Lane

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Suzani from the Silk Road

A Tale of Two Samplers

And – as it’s May Day about now! – my post from last year on May Day in Padstow – ‘Summer is a-Coming Today‘.

Refugee Ancestors: A Huguenot family in Devon

On the first of December, 1685, a band of bedraggled refugees landed at Appledore in Devon, and made their way to nearby Barnstaple. They were both sea sick and hungry after a difficult eleven day crossing from the West coast of France. Among them was my 6 x great grandfather, Louis Mauzy, a Huguenot minister, along with his wife Suzanna and at least two children. All the refugees on board the ship were Huguenots, fleeing a new wave of French persecution against their Protestant-based religion. Although they had no friends or contacts in this area of Devon, they were welcomed with open arms by the inhabitants of Barnstaple, who rushed to find them bread to eat, gave all of them lodging and hospitality in their homes, and then helped them find their way into new lives here.

An aerial view of Appledore as it is today, on the banks of the River Torridge

This dramatic story might never have been recorded, but for the diligence of fellow-refugee Jacques Fontaine, who had helped to organise the escape. Many years later in 1722, as Jacques reached the final stages of his life, he decided to write up his life story for the sake of his children and descendants. He made two copies by hand, to try and ensure that it would never be destroyed, and you’ll find the touching way in which he addressed his descendants at the end of this blog. It’s a rarity to find such an extended and accessible memoir from this period.

I have a particular interest in life stories, and have coached many courses and individuals to encourage memoir-writing, along with writing the book Your Life, Your Story. What we don’t write down may soon be lost, so it’s a huge gift to posterity to tell a life story, in full or in part. Thanks to Jacques’ resolution to preserve his story, we have a remarkable first-hand account of the flight of this group of French Huguenots from their homeland to begin new lives in England, and later in Ireland, both in Fontaine’s case, and in that of my own Mauzy ancestors. Jacques’ full-length memoir is entitled Persécutés pour leur foi: Mémoires d’une famille huguenote (Persecuted for their Faith: Memoirs of a Huguenot Family), and written in a very direct and engaging way. (The subsequent translation is a different matter, as I’ll explain later.) Extracts are included here, to bring to life his riveting account of this extraordinary journey. You can read the full set of extracts that I’ve translated via a link to a PDF at the conclusion of this blog.

Huguenot Ancestors

I knew that we had one prominent French Huguenot line in our family tree on my father’s side, which is that of the Despards, who arrived much earlier, at the court of Queen Elizbeth I in the late 16th century, and settled in Ireland as engineers and miners. I plan to write a blog about them in the not-too-distant future, celebrating my illustrious Despard cousin ancestor, the famous Col. Edward Marcus Despard (1751-1803), who fought alongside Nelson, was hanged as a radical, (or as a traitor, depending on your point of view) and who features, in a fictionalised version, in the television series of ‘Poldark’!

But as for the Mauzy family, I knew nothing, except that my 6x gt grandfather Louis Mauzy had been born in France and somehow ended up in Devon. His granddaughter Elizabeth, like my 7 x gt grandmother Alice Despard earlier, later married into the Irish line of my family. Living in Devon myself, I was curious to learn more about the story of how they arrived on these shores.

And I owe it to Jacques Fontaine’s enthusiasm for detail, that the name of my grandfather is actually recorded in his account of the escape from France. I’d probably never have found it though without an internet search for the uncommon name of Mauzy, which led me to the French edition of the memoir, available as a printed book. If I’d simply looked at the English translation, I wouldn’t have found it, as it only refers to a ‘Huguenot Minister’. This English version was produced in 1838 by one of Fontaine’s descendants, and omits many other chunks of text; it also changes the tone, endeavouring to make it consistently solemn and pious throughout, instead of the mix of entertaining digressive rambles and changes of mood which Fontaine himself employed, in an engaging way. If by any chance you’re eager to delve into this life story, I suggest you try the French text if you possibly can, as it has a wealth of detail and genealogy excluded from the later translation.

One of many studies of the Huguenots, and of how they entered into the social fabric of the countries where they took up new lives

The Huguenots flee from France

Who were the Huguenots? They were principally French Protestants who emerged in the wake of the 16th century Reformation, and followed in particular the doctrines of the religious reformer Jean Calvin. (The origin of the name Huguenot is uncertain, but is probably taken from Dutch or German allusions.) They came under attack from Catholics in France, and many were killed in ambushes and by raiding parties, especially in the infamous St Bartholemew’s Massacre of 1572, the time when the Despards in my family tree fled to England and Ireland. For a while, peace between the two religious factions was restored by a treaty known as the Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598. But this stability eventually broke down, and under King Louis IV, persecution of the Huguenots began again. When King Louis XIV ascended the French throne in 1643, it escalated to the point where he directed troops to seize Huguenot homes and force them to convert to Catholicism. Then in 1685 Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, otherwise known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made Protestantism illegal. More bloodshed ensued, and over the next several years, over 200,000 Huguenots fled France for other countries. You can read the full account here, and another produced by the UK Huguenot Society here.

The infamous massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572, painted by François Dubois. No one knows exactly how many Huguenots died, but the number is estimated to be between 3,000 and 50,000

It now becomes clear why this particular party of Huguenots fled to Devon in 1685. But this order of 1685 also forbade Huguenots to leave France, so anyone who wanted to make a run for it had to do so with great secrecy, as Fontaine’s story reveals. Patrols were out, looking for would-be deserters. Anyone caught trying to escape would be punished: the men condemned to row on galley ships, and the women imprisoned or sent to convents. ‘Convert or be enslaved’ was the message. The Huguenot Society tells us : About 200,000 Huguenots left France, settling in non-Catholic Europe – the Netherlands, Germany, especially Prussia, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and even as far as Russia where Huguenot craftsmen could find customers at the court of the Czars. Many of the Huguenots were well-educated and highly skilled in trades such as weaving, engineering, goldsmithing and clock-making, so their exodus deprived the country of a whole class of professionals and artisans.

But one thing puzzled me: in Fontaine’s account he says that while he and the others had to hide while waiting to board their ship, terrified of being caught, Louis Mauzy and his family were already on board, with a passport to leave. Then I discovered that Protestant Ministers were in fact ordered to ‘expatriate’ at this point in time. So to keep his faith, and to keep his family safe, Mauzy was compelled to leave his homeland.

A scene of Huguenot emigration, painted by Jan Antoon Neuhuys

And then, reading further, I learned that, as it happened, this turned out to be his sole chance to escape. The English translation of Fontaine’s memoirs gives a note that: ‘In 1686, The enactments were still more severe. A Protestant taken in the act of public worship was punished with death, and all Protestant clergymen whether natives or foreigners were to be executed. To increase the vigilance of the soldiery, a reward of three or four pistoles [gold coins] was given for every Protestant that was taken up.‘ (A Tale of the Huguenots, Jacques de La Fontaine, translated 1838, p100). So as it turned out, Louis Mauzy had only a few short months to make good his escape to England, during the brief period when he had been ordered to leave. If he had tarried, he and his family would most probably have been killed. Louis Mauzy brought with him his wife Suzanne, née Sannager, and at least two children, a girl also called Suzanne, and my future 5 x gt grandfather who was probably christened Louis, but known later as Lewis, in the anglicised form.

An article on ‘England’s First Refugees’ notes that ‘comparatively few refugees came in 1685, the actual year of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, or in 1686’, so it was only the brave or desperate few who took their chances at this period. I will now let Jacques Fontaine’s story take over.

A historic map of the complex coastline around La Rochelle and La Tremblade, which required much careful plotting to forge a safe route for the escaping Huguenots, plus dealing with tricky winds and currents.

Mémoires d’une famille huguenote

Chapter IX p. 127
In November 1685, Jacques Fontaine realised that it was the moment to try and escape from France with his own family, which included a sister-in-law and a niece. ‘I offered others the chance to come, but the response was that it wouldn’t only be foolish, but simply crazy, to risk such great dangers, since the coasts were all well-guarded, both on land and at sea.’

They arrived at a place called La Tremblade, not far from La Rochelle on the west coast ‘We stayed with a drunkard who was to be the pilot for the English vessel and who spoke English, and because of whom we ran a thousand risks of being discovered due to his carelessness and inebriation.’ After waiting for a few days, they were told that they could leave the next day, and ‘the drunkard’ ordered them to wait for him on the beach at Mus-de-Long. Here he intended to pick them up his boat. ‘We left at night, with a couple of horses to carry our small amount of luggage. Once on the beach, I made a speech to those there, and said a prayer for our situation…a prayer which was definitely uttered from the heart as much as from the mouth.´ They weren’t alone: ‘We were among some 40 or 50 people on the shore, nearly all of them young men and women.’ Things did not go as planned: ‘Some of them didn’t take all the precautions necessary to conceal their escape, with the result that the papists [Catholics] were forewarned, and sent orders that the ship should not depart; therefore, we remained in the dunes the whole day.’

There was a further scare, as the parish priest from La Tremblade had decided to take a stroll in those dunes, with his dog and a companion. ‘They were almost upon us; we had placed ourselves between two little hills of sand, and we could see the dog… But, by divine providence, two poor fishermen, who had already seen us [and were sympathetic to our plight] …made them believe that they were off track. They assured them that if they continued in this direction, they would get lost in the hills of the sand dunes.’ The fishermen thus successfully diverted the priest and his friend onto another path.

Earlier Huguenot refugee journeys in the 16th century, which helped to lay down tracks for those escaping later on.

Since the first attempt at boarding the ship had failed, Fontaine and his family party returned to La Tremblade:

We lodged at the home of a local townsman, where fifteen or twenty of us spent the day hiding in his house. He took us in very reluctantly, as they’d been searching all the houses in order to discover where we were. He was in a terrible state of fear…, because he would have to pay a fine of a thousand ecus if he were caught harbouring a Protestant. Night having come, he finally decided not to run such a risk, and ordered us all to leave his house; this was a little uncivil, but his reasoning was understandable.

“I have,” he said, “damned my soul in order to save my wealth, and I would lose it to save yours! No,” he said, “either do as I do or take your chance elsewhere.”

We considered this treatment to be rather cruel, but we had good cause to thank God later, since less than half an hour after we had left, the authorities came with some soldiers, and visited the house of our host, where they didn’t find anyone hiding. We hid ourselves again as best we could, one here, another there, among the poor sailors’ wives who we found far more charitable than the rich people, and thus we spent the next four or five days.

The area around La Rochelle itself was at this period largely Protestant, which also helped their chances of escape. But their troubles weren’t yet over. The captain of the English ship eventually arrived, but told the group they would have to follow him in their little boats to a place on the coast where he could pick them up unobserved once he’d cleared customs and finished with the official paperwork.

In the dusk of the same evening, on the 29th November 1685, we went on board a little open launch – my fiancée, her sister, my niece and me, two lads from Bordeaux and six young girls from Marennes, and, under the cover of night, we passed the guard boats on the Seudre and got through the current of Oleron without being spotted. Then at ten o’clock in the morning, we got soaked near the Ile d’Aix, at the tip of the Ile d’Oleron. There we waited until our ship appeared. We’d given an order to our boatman that if we were pursued, he should beach his boat as fast as he could, and then it would be simply a question of “Run for dear life!”‘

However, Jacques Fontaine had been lame ever since childhood, when a doctor failed to diagnose his broken leg. Running away was something he couldn’t do: ‘As for myself, who couldn’t count on my legs to carry me off, I had my gun and a pair of pistols, and was resolved never to sell my life and be taken alive.’ All went well though to start with, and they had already exchanged the agreed signals with the English captain, when suddenly: ‘We saw a royal frigate, which was used solely for checking ships, to make sure that no Protestant left the kingdom; if they found any, they sent the men to the galley ships and the women to convents.’ Their own boat lying at anchor would most definitely attract suspicion. ‘And we were only a canon ball’s length away from them!’ The escapees were in a state of utter terror.

A portrait of Jacques Fontaine. He is at pains to explain in his autobiography that the family was once called ‘de la Fontaine’, implying nobility.

The officers did indeed search the main ship, and this is where Fontaine refers to my own great grandfather, Louis Mauzy, mentioning that he had already boarded: ‘They searched everywhere in the ship. But no one was hiding on board; only M. Mauzy, a minister, and his family were there, with their passport. What a blessing, Lord, that we hadn’t already managed to get to the ship! If they had been delayed until an hour later, they would have found all of us.’ They still could not board however, but had to try and keep up with the ship to a place where it would be safe to embark, while at the same time not giving the officers any cause for suspicion. ‘When they had finished, they ordered the English captain to set sail, which he did, and he left with a favourable wind, leaving us behind, and with the frigate positioned nearly between us and him. This was a terrible crisis, because if we returned to La Tremblade, it was a hundred to one that we would not be able to escape.’ The little boat they were waiting in would arouse suspicion if it was still there: ‘The poor boatman, who only had his son as crew, wailed and lamented his plight and that of his son, persuaded that only the hangman’s noose awaited the two of them, since he had already changed his religion.’ This was a real crisis.

Finally, Jacques came up with a ploy to explain convincingly why they were anchored in this spot. The Huguenots would hide at the bottom of the boat, covered by an old sail, while the boatman blamed his presence on unfavourable winds. Fontaine, rather proud of his ploy afterwards, told the boatman what to do while the officials made their inevitable inspection: ‘If those on the frigate asked him where he was going, he would say:”From La Rochelle, and I want to go to La Tremblade.” If they asked, “And what have you got on board?” “Only ballast.”‘ The boatman must also pretend that he and his son were drunk and incompetent, presumably to heighten the impression of poor judgement!

An artist’s impression of Huguenot refugees arriving at Dover. The scene appears to be set at a similar period to the emigration of the Fontaine and Mauzy families, in 1685

It worked! They were then able to board the ship piloted by the English captain, and endured an eleven day crossing, with strong head winds and little to eat and drink. ‘At last we disembarked on the 1st December (old style calendar) at Appledore, in the Bristol Channel, at the mouth of the little river, which flows to Barnstaple. Having paid for our passage, your mother and I only had twenty gold pistoles [gold coins] left between us; but God, who had not led us to a safe country only to let us die from hunger, touched the hearts of the chief citizens of Barnstaple, who having sent for us, all twelve took one or two of us into their homes and treated us with incredible gentleness and friendliness, each taking as much care of the French person they had in their house as if we had been their children or their brothers, meaning that God allowed us to find fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters amongst strangers.

That first bite of fresh bread, given by welcoming strangers, made a huge impression on Jacques and his fellow refugees: ‘I am also compelled to remember, with gratitude for Divine Providence, that first mouthful of bread which I ate, having disembarked in Appledore. Our joy at being safe, and the privations we suffered in the ship, added to the usual purgations from being at sea, with myself in particular being the one most afflicted by sea sickness, led us now to having a great appetite, with the result that the most urgent thing (after giving thanks to God) was to ask for some bread.’

The shoreline of Appledore, as it is today.

But it only took a minute or two before Fontaine, who was an astute trader, as well as preparing to for Protestant ordination, saw a perfect business opportunity:

‘They gave us ‘biscuits’ [baked roundels of bread], as big as plates, which in France would be worth around two sous apiece; and, when we came to pay, they asked us to pay only half a sou for each ‘biscuit’. I was impressed with their good price, but because the man we were talking to spoke only very poor French, I thought he had made a mistake; after asking him several time he always said that each biscuit cost half a sou. Unable to believe this, I gave a little girl a marked sou, and told her to go and buy me bread with this amount. She went to the baker and brought me back two of these biscuits or galettes. That confirmed the price to me.’

The bread, and thus the wheat grain it was made with, were very cheap. He began to hatch a plan: ‘At first it occurred to me that anyone who could send grain to France would make a considerable profit; but my fiancée and I only had twenty pistoles left.‘ He lost no time in checking out the grain market in Bideford the next day, accompanied by an interpreter, and then in borrowing money from other refugee friends already based in Plymouth., and thus he started making his first deals on English soil. One of his projects soon afterwards was to import fancy French items and sell them through his own shop in Exeter – brandy, tobacco and fine wine being among the goods.

Images of Appledore, taken on our visit there in 2018. Many of the houses and quaint cottages in the town date from the period of the Mauzy family’s arrival in 1685. The Customs House would surely have been an important place!

Fontaine’s story continues in the memoir, as he moved with his family to Taunton, where he ran various import and export schemes, some more successful than others. Eventually, they settled in Ireland where a kaleidoscope of adventures continued, including inhabiting a ‘haunted’ house in Dublin and dealing with pirates off the coast of Cork. Jacques died in 1728, aged 70, having written his life story, and prefaced it with this touching dedication:

My dear children,
Having observed the deep interest you have taken in all that has befallen your ancestors, when I have related their adventures to you, I am induced to write down their history for your use, to the end that the pious examples of those from whom we derive our origin may not be lost to you, or those who succeed you.

Translation: With grateful thanks to Gill Yates, who helped me to translate these extracts, and more of the text, from the French. You can read the full text of our translations as a PDF file using the link below.

Barnstaple, in a historic photo from the 19th century. The old buildings on the left were probably there when the refugee party was lodged in the town.

The Mauzy family

But what of the Mauzy family? After this tantalising, eye-witness glimpse of my ancestors on the boat, it’s back to the records, which are scanty. However, the basic outline of their lives is that Louis Mauzy became the pastor of the Huguenot congregation in Barnstaple in North Devon. His daughter Suzanne married André Majendie, and they settled in Exeter where André became a minister for the Huguenot Congregation, possibly at the ‘French Church’ of St Olave’s, or more likely at the second French congregation which existed in the city, its meeting place unknown. Suzanne died as a widow, in Dartmouth on the south Devon coast, leaving her ‘garden’ to her daughter Charlotte, and her ‘silver candlesticks’ to her son John James, along with other bequests. She was buried at St Petrox , an ancient church which stands on the rocky peninsula at the end of the estuary, looking out at the sea which featured so dramatically in Suzanne’s life; she had been one of the refugee party, on board in 1685.

Louis’ son Lewis Mauzy (my 5 x gt grandfather) became a doctor of medicine, married Anne Hutchinson in about 1705, and lived in Exeter; he also left a will when he died in 1727, which establishes some of the family connections. True to his Protestant ethics, the will opens with the mournful instructions: It is my desire to be buryed in the most private manner my body to be laid in a plain black coffin without any Binding and carried to the Grave by six honest and ordinary Men without any other Bearers or Mourning. We do not know as yet where he was buried.

Lewis and Anne had at least five children, one of whom, Elizabeth, married into an Irish Protestant family (with names Long and then subsequently Phillips) and became my 4 x gt grandmother. Among the children of Lewis and Anne is a son, also called Lewis, who graduated from the University of Oxford, where he is recorded in the alumni lists.

St Olave’s Church in Exeter, which served the French Huguenot congregation at one period

I never expected to find a Devon connection in the Irish side of my family history, or to have a first-hand account of how these ancestors escaped from France. They were refugees, and they were welcomed into Devon, which has given me pause for thought in these times when we have our own refugee crises. In one sense, they paved the way, and indeed, the word refugee is said to have come from these Huguenots who fled in fear of their lives. They certainly enriched the life of those countries which which took them in, as they brought their considerable talents and skills with them.

My task here has been to tell just one family story, backed up by reliable sources, but without the expertise of specialist researchers, who devote themselve to the task of Huguenot history. As soon as I can, I plan to go back to Appledore and Barnstaple and look at these places with new eyes, knowing now that this is where the Mauzy family and their fellow refugees landed and began their new lives.

The cross which is the symbol still used by descendants of emigrant Huguenots

Further reading:

Papers

‘The Huguenots of Devon’ – Alison Grand & Robin Gwynn, Devonshire Association Transactions, Dec 1985 (117: 161-194)

‘The Huguenots in Exeter’ – Col. Ransom Pickard, Devonshire Association Transactions, June 1936

‘The Mauzey-Mauzy Family’ – Armand Jean Mauzey, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Jan 1950 (pp 112-119) sourced in JStor

Internet articles

Devon Huguenots – John Lerwill

Devon Towns and Huguenots

Huguenots and Walloons in Devon

Other stories from my family history

The Abduction of Mary Max

A Coventry Quest: Finding a Grandfather

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

Following the Female Line