Battersea Girl by Martin Knight
In 1973 when I was 15 years of age I elected to take three Certificates of Secondary Education (CSE) as the culmination of my comprehensive schooling. In the hierarchy of school-leaving examinations of the time these were the bottom rungs of the academic ladder, behind the ‘O' level and the ‘A' level. Their purpose was, perhaps, to give some focus to boys and girls who lacked academic ambition and application but showed some signs of having absorbed some of the teachings of the previous five years.
The three subjects I chose were the only ones I enjoyed and the only ones I paid any attention to: English, History and Art. It was no coincidence that the teachers of these subjects at my school all treated their pupils as human beings and had the skills and the enthusiasm to make the subjects interesting. Most of the teaching staff I had come across were counting time to either 3.30pm, the six-week long summer holidays or their eventual early retirement. The History mistress was a young lady fresh from teacher's training college and it was she that suggested I investigate my family history and build my examination project around that. She obviously believed there would be more chance of me seeing that through than a study of the Napoleonic wars or medieval crop rotation systems. I was aware of some of our ancestry from my parents but most importantly my paternal grandmother was still alive and living in Battersea at 85 years of age. She knew it all. She'd been telling us for years but nobody had been listening.
Grandma lived alone in a council flat on the top of Lavender Hill, Battersea and fortnightly on a Saturday I always accompanied my Dad to visit her. As a young boy it was exciting; the train journey up to Clapham Junction and entering the mythical land of London; the red buses, black taxis, busy markets and general hubbub not then familiar in the semi-rural Epsom where I lived; the climb up the pavement hill and the last second visit to the off-licence to buy her a large brown bottle of Guinness. On entry to her flat I was immediately immersed in a dark and Samk world. The curtains were nearly always drawn (my grandmother was such a contrarian she probably opened them at night) and a musty smell of old empty biscuit tins prevailed. Besides a tiny kitchenette and an even tinier bathroom the flat consisted of one room dominated by her large imperious double bed with Jesus Christ looking serenely down at the pillows from a crucifix on the wall above them. At the foot of the bed stood a small table covered in a leathery tablecloth and with a chair at each end. On the table lay Grandma's magnifying glass and the Daily Express. Her habit of reading through the glass was a cause of great amusement to us children. In the corner was a television that was already ancient and sported a preposterous aerial like an upturned tuning fork on top of and dwarfing the actual set. Compared to our home, which itself was only a three-bedroomed council house her living accommodation seemed to me like a cupboard. Sometimes she tried to persuade us to accept a piece of Christmas cake or a ham sandwich but Dad normally said we had just eaten. ‘The problem is,' he advised later, ‘there's no telling which Christmas exactly the cake dates from.'
Dad explained to her that I was producing a family history for my schoolwork and asked if she could help by putting flesh on some old bones starting as far back as she knew. In a flash she transported us back in time by 150 years by producing a prayer book from her bedside drawer that had belonged to her grandfather and had his pencilled inscription on the inside cover.‘
It says Patrick Bradshaw, I thought his name was James,' queried Dad and Grandma told us both then how he had come over to England from Ireland when the potato famine of the 1840s struck thereby interrupting a centuries-old pattern of agricultural living and that he changed his name to combat prejudice against Irish immigrants. In a single sentence she had tied the family into the general history of the country and beyond and so began an unfolding of the family ancestry that became ever more fascinating and convoluted as we led her down particular roads on numerous subsequent visits.
Her recall was vivid and precise and we heard of men making a living on the Thames and a river that had claimed the lives of at least two close family members, the discovery of a drowned aristocrat's body and the curse of the ensuing reward, of labour strikes and family feuds, of suicides and fatal accidents, of poverty and depression, of the spectre of drink, murder and wars, of the bombardment of Battersea by the Luftwaffe but also of the love, the loyalty, the laughs and the weddings, babies and trips to the Kent hop fields that made life bearable. Indeed she was never maudlin or sad as she recalled these often harrowing passages of her life. That was life. That's how it was. Everyone she knew was in the same boat. Although she took great pride in the strides made by her descenSamts and recognised the growing comfort of the modern world it was a boat she would have happily climbed back in to if she could.
There was so much information to go on and Dad warned that we should not take everything she told us for granted. Much of what she had revealed was new even to him and he was sceptical. When she made an aside that she attended the great cricketer W. G. Grace's funeral because she was, for a time, his charlady Dad interrupted. ‘Are you sure Mum? I haven't heard that before?' ‘Course I'm sure. You couldn't mistake ‘im, could yer? Not with that bleedin' long beard.'
We visited Somerset House in London and collected what birth, marriage and death certificates we could and these in turn would prompt new questions. Sometimes she may have had a small detail wrong but generally everything we found backed up what she was telling us. We visited the newspaper archive at the Lavender Hill Library almost next door to my grandmother's flat and confirmed many of the other events and circumstances she described.
In a very short period she gave me enough material to knock up my project and I focused mainly on family events that tied in with known historical ones and submitted the thing. It was all blue ink and felt pens interspersed with glued in copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. Pride of place went to a copy of a letter sent to my grandmother from Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, commiserating with her on the loss of her husband in the Great War. Miss Benthall, my young History teacher, praised the finished product highly and was amazed at the amount of research she thought had gone into it. I did not let on that nearly everything had come from my grandmother's lips and bedside drawers. When I was eventually awarded a Grade 2 CSE rather than the Grade 1 she expected Miss Benthall said it must have been because of a poor performance in the written examination. She was right there – I never sat it. My interest had moved on. Whilst I continued to visit my grandmother right up until her death at 100 years of age in 1988 I never really dug much further on the actual family history front but continued to absorb the stories she told me. Events of seventy years earlier were recounted as if they were yesterday. What she said to him and what he said to her. Who was a rum one and who wasn't. Sitting at that table and listening, now sharing the Guinness as an adult was as close as I could get to travel back in time without a Tardis of my very own.
In the last couple of years I have had my interest in genealogy reawakened mainly by the Genes Reunited internet site, part of the Friends Reunited stable. Within a few weeks of my uploading the family tree, as I knew it, I was contacted by two separate site members who shared the same great great grandfather in Battersea. Dots were quickly joined and even more of my grandmother's apparent musings were confirmed. It led to the discovery of two living relatives – a niece and a nephew of Grandma - both now in their 80s and both still living in Battersea. They told me so much about my grandmother's middle years. It was a delight to find them because not only did they share Grandma's facial features but also they spoke with that distinctive old Battersea accent that I thought I would never hear again and had often tried to conjure up in my mind. If Genes Reunited continues to grow at its current rate, within a few years everyone really will be connected and all will be able to see at a keystroke in exactly which way. From Genes Reunited I moved on to the 1901 census site and from there to earlier census information from various other portals. My searches took me to war graves, the records of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, newspaper archives, police records, war diaries and much, much more. All this practically without leaving my desk.
Slowly but surely a picture built up of my family history with detail I could never have imagined. More importantly I now had a context to my grandmother's eventful life that had not been easily attainable 30 years earlier. Belatedly I began to appreciate (as much as one can that does not live it) her life and her times. I regretted laughing at her quaintness, her quirkiness, her superstitions and antiquated ideas. I realised what a remarkable woman she was and decided the least I could do was write a book about her life. As she would say – you couldn't make it up.
Therefore Battersea Girl is a novel of sorts but it is chiefly a story of my grandmother's long life. I have borrowed from the library of poetic licence and inserted a couple of fictional themes and characters and merged one or two others, I have mixed up some names, places and events because after all I am not the only person descended from and connected to the characters in this book, and I have guessed what the various people did and said in different circumstances. I have had to follow a number of thought processes in deciding what made certain people do certain things. Nevertheless I would estimate that 80 per cent of the events recounted did actually happen and are supported by documentary evidence. For me, the remarkable thing about this life is how unremarkable it was for the period. So many people I have had contact with who are researching their family histories have found similar stories and patterns. If the book prompts just a few people to mine their family's past and derive just some of the enjoyment and fulfilment that I have then I judge it to have been a worthwhile exercise and Mum, don't fret, we'll do your side next.
Martin Knight, July 2005