Christmas Day: Expect the Unexpected!

I’m not sure what most people expect when they start on family history research. In my case there was a lot I already knew, and plenty of well-trodden ground, so I was fairly confident that except for ferreting out a few quirky details I would probably not make much new progress.

I had never in my life imagined that I would end up acquiring, and investigating, a whole group of distant (both in family terms and geographically) Chinese and part-Chinese relations, who would open up the hitherto staid and predictable landscape of yeomen and minor clerks to present me with gold miners, coal trimmers and market gardeners on the other side of the world.

I’m acutely aware that I haven’t yet produced a family tree so you’re going to have to take my word for this for the time being. However, let’s do it this way: Alec Atkins (1922-2001) was my father (I’m one of the awful manipulative children he complains about in his letters). Leonard Atkins (1897-1986) was his father. (Leonard has a story all his own; his diary of the First World War was featured in Michael Portillo’s Railways of the Great War.) Leonard’s father was Tom (1869-1941), who hasn’t appeared very much in these posts so far, and Tom’s wife/widow was the Emily of The Mother Problem.

Tom’s mother was Mary Jane (1845-1910). We don’t know who Tom’s father was, because Mary Jane was never actually married – although she did have two children. This was a surprise to me; I only found out accidentally that Tom had an older sister, Mary Maud, and whether my father knew or not is unclear. However Tom does seem to have been in contact with her until the end of her life.*

Mary Maud (let’s call her Maud, from now on) appears on the 1881 census living in Frome and working in a factory there. However by 1885 she’s in Australia, married to a Chinese market gardener, and having her first child – Violet. Maud married twice, in fact, both times to men of Chinese origin, and had two sons and two daughters. One of the boys died as a baby, and the other son remained unmarried, but in due course both daughters married (one twice within the Chinese community, one outside it) as a result of which there are numerous Chinese and part-Chinese second cousins of my father and third cousins of mine to be tracked down. I’m not including any names here, because (a) some of these people are still alive and (b) I’ve discovered through being in contact with two of Maud’s great-grandsons that they are a little bit reclusive and publicity-shy. I don’t know their reasons for this, and I’m not going to speculate; I’ll simply take them at their word. The family history information quoted above is a matter of public record, however, and if anyone else cares to spend time and money investigating they could easily come to the same conclusions as I have.

I mean no disrespect to people of Chinese origin when I say that, fascinating though it is, this is proving a very difficult area of research. Names have often been transcribed incorrectly, for example, and usually by people with little or no understanding of Chinese languages or naming conventions. Also, they seem to have considered ‘China’ to be sufficient description of where the individuals were born, whereas even a province name would have been more helpful; China covers 3.7 million square miles but has always had a very efficient bureaucracy – tracing these men’s exact birthplaces might almost have been possible if we’d only had a little more information to go on.

What’s puzzling me at the moment is when and how Maud travelled to Australia. (Her name does not appear on any of the passenger lists I’ve been able to consult.) It’s likely to have been as part of a charitable endeavour, with people from underprivileged backgrounds being recruited to start a new life on the other side of the world, not unlike the later Child Migrant Programme. Whether Maud was satisfied with her decision or not is impossible to say unless any correspondence from her comes to light – which could well happen, as there are family archives held by another second cousin of mine that I hope one day to be able to access. How Maud met either of her husbands is also a fascinating question; knowing where she landed in Australia – probably Melbourne or nearby – and what work she did after arriving might be useful in that respect.

I had only really scratched the surface of this investigation ten years ago when I suddenly found myself running a small business which proceeded to eat up most of my time. Now that the business is being wound-up, I’ve returned to the research with better resources and a clearer idea of what I’m looking for – but with much less energy. However, although I plan to continue sharing the letters, photos, clippings and diaries that I have in my extensive collection, I’ve decided to confine any future new research to those relatives on all sides of the family who went to live in Australia – including the one who eventually came back with his tail between his legs. If I ever get to the end of this line of investigation, I’ll return to the Huguenots on another branch – just as well-documented as the Chinese, but suffering from the same difficulty of being strangers in a strange land and often having their names transcribed incorrectly.

Watch this space, as the saying goes, for future updates as and when they become available!

*That correspondence between Maud and her brother continued at least until the mid-1920s (and probably longer) is borne out by two pieces of evidence. The first is that Tom and Emily’s bungalow in Exeter was named ‘Whittlesea’, the name of the town in Australia where Maud and her family lived. The second is that one of Maud’s great-grandsons sent me pictures of Leonard and Eva’s wedding and of Alec as a baby – the latter one that I had never seen before but of course recognised him instantly. This means that in about 1924-25 there was still an exchange of correspondence, and as Maud did not die until 1940 I can see no reason why it wouldn’t have continued for at least another decade. If the packrat tendency extends to the entire family, there may still be letters in an attic somewhere that could shed considerable light on some of these unanswered questions; if only my second cousin Sara would get in touch again, we might be able to join forces to find out!


Sunday 5th December, 1959

Alec to his parents:

Dear Mum and Dad

Thanks for your letters, good wishes etc. I hope to catch the 3-5pm Paddington to Bristol on Friday and the first available connecting service after that whatever that might be, probably 5-32pm or 5-50pm if they still run.

Glad to hear that Mums cold is getting better. I am sorry to say that Christine is not making much headway. She has not kept anything down for about a week and although cheerful keeps on being sick. Dr. tested for appendicitis yesterday but negative. Doug says she is looking thinner. She cant feel too bad as we often hear her singing and whistling. Hope it is only the results of some gastric germ.

We have been having trouble with Susan all this week. She woke in a paddy about 9-0 pm on Tuesday and we eventually gave her a good smacking. We had to take her down stairs as she woke Carol. When downstairs she was very sick and I thought she had the same as Christine. It was all due to flem. Anyhow after an hour with us she said she was ready to go back to bed which she did and went straight off. Since then we have had disturbed nights with her. Of course she puts on such a spluttering and coughing act that we dont know whether it is genuine or not.* I think it is a bit of both. She is not above trying it on. Carol needless to say is back in our room. We hope to move her back to-morrow if to-night is quiet.

Did a spot of shopping in Eastcote yesterday and took June and the girls to meet hair appointment. Unfortunately the hairdresser had a shocking cold so only cut Junes hair and left the girls till some time in January. To-day we went to West Drayton for a flying visit. Out at 11-00am and back at 1-0pm. It takes no time at all as you know by car. I am afraid the cars cooling system has developed a leak, the evidence is in the anti-freeze on ground after car has left any time. Also overnight it loses about a wine bottle full of water. I have probably lost all my anti-freeze by now. Have checked all the hose clips and pipes but as they are fairly new no trouble there. Mr Jackson No. 91 who owns a Maintenance Garage in Kenton says the water pump is leaking. He is going to give me an estimate for fixing the heater and will repair the pump at the same time. He will have to as heater works off the same system.

Yes I realise that it is five years off the payments on the house. Not any noticeable reductions yet though if any. I calculated at the time of taking out the mortgage that no appreciable reduction would be noticed until after the seventh year. (First Seven Years are the worst )

Your suggestion re. sideways transfer is not new to me. I had already tossed that one into the middle . Things are now warming up. Now that the N.U.R. have stopped playing “No consultation ” we have got the go ahead to put in Banbury Yard Scheme. Last week there were eleven jobs in the 1285 to 14XX group advertised. Geoff has been waiting for those and no doubt he will apply. Budworth had an interview with Phillips the electrical people at Croydon. Says he had a good one but will not get anything. He has put in for all of those jobs. They are only three grades higher than those we hold. The thought of so doing is ridiculous but the unpleasant thing about it is the possibility is that he might get one. I think I will wait for the next raft. If Bames gets anything out of this lot my position will be bound to be stronger. Note you will have some apples ready. Do not make bundle too heavy.

You really must acquire a power drill for that sawing. Doug has bought one and it really does away with the hard labour bits and enables one to concentrate effort on the finer points of measuring etc. The circular saw attachment cuts through small peices of timber but unfortunately does not tackle those that are “ log – size “. I am surprised to hear that White Fly still lingering. I can not place that sort of insect. We have not been bothered by such things this end. Too cold even for slugs. He has had strip lighting fixed up in has garage and has been working out there all day to-day building himself a work bench.

It has been pouring most of the day to-day as it did during the night. There is quite a wind blowing. Yesterday I did a little concreteing. Just enough to give me a smooth run-in instead of the stop that was present before. Have now used up all my cement. Just as well as it will not keep in the damp of winter. Have had to leave car in sideway the last couple of nights as cement not dry. Shall have to get out of the way early in morning to let Doug go to work.

Xmas trees fetching wicked prices here. They are asking 5/- for some about 1ft high. You might think about growing some. You have the room and it would not be more than a couple of years before they reached saleable proportions. Note Mother getting to be quite a Cactus addict. We have not bought any more since we last saw you. We have enough trouble keeping our present stock alive and safe from damage.

Carol still improving. She can say snatches from a number of nursery rhymes and songs. They both like travelling in the car but I have to have them in back seat with June as Susan in particular will not sit down and tries to grab all the controls etc. She has fallen a few times at corners but it does not make her any wiser. There is fortunately plenty of leg room and can accommodate shopping bags, potty and oil can in passenger compartment of the back without cramping. Susan went to Sunday School again to-day but cannot get much out of her. When I collected her she had to say good bye to the Dolls House, and put all the things away. Her teacher said she loves that Dolls House.

We did not go anywhere to celebrate our fifth anniversary. We could have gone to the pictures but the films shewing did not tempt us away from T.V. After all there is a lot to be said for not turning out on rainy evenings. Note also that George Morris has moved at last. Has he really been in that flat all this time. Did Phillip Morris leave the railway, I have a feeling I heard that he had. Well will see you some time on Friday. If I have to catch a later train will let you know.

Cheerio for now and love from June, Susan Carol and Alec

*Note that this manipulative creature is just three and a half years old.

Friday 4th December, 1959

Leonard to the family, once again on the reverse of Timetable 179, Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bormingham, Stourbridge Junction, Kidderminster, Bewdley, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Wellington:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for your letter received on Tuesday and you should have had Mum’s the same morning. I see by date above it is five years ago today you were married. Congratulations to you both and very best wishes for the future. It’s also five years off the payments for house and although very little difference as yet in your pay packet it is that much further towards the place being your own. That was a splendid effort of Susan’s and the drawing shews she can put her ideas on paper. Noted they both keep you on your toes. They used to say “Boys will be boys” but we must alter it to “Girls will be girls”. Good job the hand bell was used in Sunday School as presumably she was not allowed to bring it home. Yes we heard from Geoff that you had called on them having lost your way when out in car shopping. They were pleased to see you and said “How the girls have grown.” Stella was apparently away working in Watford (query in Marks and Spencers). Geoff made his usual annual visit to Ireland last week* but crossed over one night and recrossed the next – cut the trip by two days this time. I also see British Railways dispensing with their Christmas [illegible] cards this year – about time too.

Thanks for information re your Parcels effort at Paddington – the electronic computer will save hours of calculating work by the sound of it. So manning has gone to Euston – query whether he would be an applicant to get back on WR when suitable sideways vacancy occurs. Don’t think I’m a Job’s comforter but things like this happen all too frequently. Note your remarks re garage and I agree the arrangement of the door on garage at Whittlesea is an ideal one but must obviously cost more*. I believe Don & Geoff fixed it between them but it’s a job I should not like to tackle.

Yes we heard Bill Harper had finished and am wondering how he will pass the time as he has no known hobby and no garden on house – he lives in Brislington not so very far away from the Newmans who we visit two or three times a year.

I nopte re: apples and will pick out some nice ones from the Bramley Seedlings [sic] and Jersey Beauty – the former are the best cookers and can be used from November onwards whilst the Jersey beauty is eater and cooker but must be kept for a while as at the moment they are very hard. Should keep until February or March in good keeping season but you must keep your eye on them as season not so good. Weather here has been pretty bad but not so foggy as in your area.

We went to Weston on Tuesday and although we came away again about 7.0 p.m. had to run through blankets of fog for most of journey.

Apart from sawing wood up for logs and chopping for firewood have not done very much out of door work since I last wrote because of wet state of ground. The pond filled with water overnight but soon returned to normal level (top of deep part) when it stopped raining – have not yet been able to mend leak although have had a couple of goes at it. House next door still empty and garden now looking like a piece of waste ground. I notice the broad beans Cornish put in for me on Nov 5th are breaking through the soil and about 25% of my spring cabbage plants look as if they may recover in due course. There is still a lot of white fly about in spite of frost and torrential rain and greenstuff generally is going to be scarce later on. We are using cabbage which normally would not be cut until towards end of January.

Am glad to say Mum is much better although still troubled with a cough – these appear to be very common at present – she will write to June in reply to her letter later. I’m still getting on alright but as mentioned above have not done any serious gardening yet – fortunately the weather would have stopped me in any case.

Shall be looking forward to seeing you next week and you must let us know time due Yatton or Clevedon.

No more now – all the best once more and lots of kisses for Susan & Carol.

Dad & Mum

*’Whittlesea’ was the name of the house in which Emily lived before she began her peripatetic lifestyle (see ‘The Mother Problem’). It was in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital premises at Wonford in Exeter but I have been unable to establish whether or not it’s still in existence. The derivation of the name is an interesting one; it was named for the town in Victoria, Australia, where Emily’s sister-in-law Mary ended up living. Mary is an interesting character whom we’ll be meeting in more detail at a later stage. At any rate, it sounds as if a segmented sliding garage door may be what Don and Geoff installed on the premises, and what Alec was craving. When he did get one, many years later, he decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

Sunday 29th November, 1959

Alec to his parents:

Dear Mum and Dad

Many thanks for Dads letter duly to hand. Very sorry to learn that Mums cold is not much better. Hope that by she will have shaken off the worst of it, and on the mend. I cannot recall so many colds on the chest reported as there are this year. Christine has had one for a long time and has so much flem ( phlegm) that it has made her quite ill. She had to present the boquet at the Methodist Church Christmas Fair. She was picked from all the Brownies. She did it all right apparently although we were not there to see.

A bad day to-day, poured, did not go out myself but June took Susan to the Sunday School and collected her again. Not worth getting the car out as only at the bottom of the road. It seems have been a special service to-day as all the children were issued with some sort of musical instrument to play during a Christmas Carol and they gave Susan a hand-bell. June said she never heard such a row.* Told Susan that Grandad would be pleased to hear she was a bell-ringer.

As you will learn from Junes letter we sprang one on Geoff yesterday. Went into Harrow for shopping purposes and found a suitable car park. Bought a map to find way back as did not fancy right hand turn across two rows of traffic out of car park. We estimated our position on map and planned route accordingly. Unfort­unately we were not quite where we thought we were and found our planned route was taking us into Pinner. To avoid this I tuned into Headstone Lane and decided to look in on Geoff as we were passing the door. He was very surprised to see us, and had not heard that we had got car.

Manning, one of the four special Bs has got an out of category Job at Euston, I think it is in Work Study. There is a bit of weeding etc going on. This reduces the field, and benefits me in that he was the In Situ Freight Man. Next move in the Paddington Parcels census is to code the information received in order for to be fed into Electronic Computer. The answers we expect to from it will tell us the following. Number of parcels (a) Received at hourly intervals throughout the seventy-two hours. (b) Ditto from all the Region subdivided into areas. ( c ) Ditto to all the other London Termini and – in the case of Paddington – delivery rounds. ( d) Combination of (b) and (c). 4) Ditto by train titles. (f) Delay involved in getting traffic from trains to Parcels Office for sorting. (g) Delay in getting ditto from P.O. to public. There are 101 useful or interesting statistics to be obtained from the facts available. What follows that largely depends on the stats. produced.

Shed still standing. Will not be able to build combined shed and garage as you suggest as I understand use of wood is illegal for garages. Shall buy a pre-fab concrete garage in due course. He [presumably Doug] would have liked garage with up-and-over door, but thought it would be far too noisy if made of aluminium. Chap next door to him has one but his is made of asbestos and is very noisy. I like the design of the Whittlesea door. It should be quieter in operation. Found Carol on front room window sill two or three times yesterday. Had to take table away. Heard that Bill Hodge retired last week.

I suppose you try a drop of the Sloe wine when you have to reduce quantity. Very glad to hear that Dad passed as fit by Doctor and next interview not for four months. Hope for better news of Mum soon. Glad to have some apples from you. Of course the kids like eaters but as you have none available will accept anything you care to send. It would be a good idea to wait till I come down then could take them back myself. Children still progressing. Carol sings part of Baby Bunting and is a proper pickle. Susan gets more independent every day. Will do anything except what she is told to do. Enclosed is a sample of Susans drawing. Fortunately the supply of scrap is practically inexhaustible. Well all the best for now, more next time.

Love from June, Susan, Carol and Alec

*Alec’s inability to say anything nice about his children will become a theme. They are always a nuisance, an imposition, a trial, and getting in the way of things he wants to do. He didn’t want children in the first place and never learned to take any pleasure in them; they were just what June wanted, and part of the price of being married to her.

Wednesday 25th November, 1959

Leonard to the family, once again on the reverse of Timetable 179, Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bormingham, Stourbridge Junction, Kidderminster, Bewdley, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Wellington:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for letter received on Tuesday but sorry to hear about the colds and hope you are much better now. As you say quite a lot of people are suffering from the same complaint and mum is one of them. She has had and still has a rather nasty one making her cough a lot but it is certainly better than it was a few days ago. Pity you had to do a spell of night duty at that particular time but unfortunately it frequently happens that way. Note the special census you were doing at Paddington – what is next more in connection with the information obtained? Glad to hear you have mended a few things on car but that steering should be looked at by a proper mechanic. Noted you are getting expert at demolition work at least as far as the shed is concerned. You will have to tackle the problem of building a combined shed & garage further down the garden. So Mr Grey has bought a new one then – pity it was such a shocking day for its erection. The latest idea of course is to have one with a door that swings up and over – so much better than the old method of double closing doors like mine. You must be getting used to driving again by this time.

We shall be very pleased to see you if you can get down for a short weekend Alec and only wish it were possible for you all to come but we quite understand the position and it is no pleasure for the children travelling at this time of year when they are so young. Susan up to her nonsense again and now teaching Carol – a lively couple I’m sure – you must have eyes and ears all round you. Anyhow they are both growing up.

A letter from Geoff this week says Rebecca is being confirmed on Monday next the 30th. It is her birthday on Dec. 4th and we think she will be 13.

Note your pantry now in bedroom (sounds a bit Irish) and serving a useful purpose. Shall be looking forward to a taste of the Carrot Whisky in due course – have not tackled that one myself yet. The slow wine (now in greenhouse) is still working fast and about once a week I have run a drop off into a bottle or the wine would be up into fermentation lock. This is the stuff I told you consists of only sloes and sugar and I think it is going to be good.

Very nice of June’s Mum and Dad enquiring of us – please remember us to them next time you see them and we hope they are keeping as well as possible during this spell of rainy weather.

Yes Clevedon AFC have done very well again this season and I notice they are home to Ilford next round.*

Mum and I motored to Clifton Bristol on Monday where I saw the surgeon in the afternoon. He gave me a good examination and said everything going on alright. Said he would like to see me once more in four months‘ time. So far as I’m concerned I feel fine and have been busy again on garden and in garage. Yesterday morning I put in 18 currant bushes (6 each red, white and black) that arrived about 9.30 a.m. – the holes had been prepared before I went into Hospital. This morning have given the garage a good clean up. What about apples? Should like to get some up to you somehow. Is it possible to repeat arrangement we made for plums and is your office number still Paddington 29? We only have cookers left (except Jersey Beauty and these are very hard until about February or March – can then be used for cooking or eating), but they would come in useful. The eaters were a small crop this time and turned bad very quickly. Could send on some Jersey Beauty – Lanes Prince Albert and/or Bramley Seedlings. [sic]

Have a nice show of Chrysanths in greenhouse and sold one or two bunches – also sold nice lot of cooking apples.

No don;t bring any old trousers down with you Alec – no heavy jobs outstanding at present but there will be plenty later on as you will be able to see – perhaps next time we come to Ruislip I had better bring my old clothes & help put up garage – or remove wreck of shed.

No more now – Mum will write later on and give you more news.

Cheerio for now – lots of kisses for our two little darlings.

Dad & Mum

*It looks as if they may have beaten Ilford, as their website records. They played at the time on a site at Teignmouth Road, which was their home from 1949 to 1992, and now – renamed Clevedon Town – have their own purpose-built stadium with a capacity of 3500, 300 seated.

Sunday 22nd November, 1959

Alec to his parents:

Dear Mum and Dad

Hope you are both keeping wall in this uncertain weather. We seem to be getting everything from fogs to gales , Thunder and Lightening and hevy and continuous rain. (Spelling seems all haywire to-night,- perhaps due to lack of practice) As you know have just finished a spell of nights. Only three twelve hour nights were involved but they came at a bad time as I had a very heavy cold. We all have had them, beginning with the children. This time they are down on the cheat, and this seems to be the fashion as most people have coughs and sore throats.

We took a census of the parcels traffic arriving by train at Paddington and this involved counting each parcel and taking details of every fifth. To do this we had three teams of two men in the parcels office to watch the “Benchmen” unload them from the trolleys and sort, and three men on the station labelling up the trolleys with the correct train titles ( from which they were originally unloaded) In three complete days we had about 33,000 parcels and full details of about 6,600. This coming week we are doing the same for the outwards parcels but in this ease a great deal of the information wanted is already available to the Parcels Department through existing records.

Car going well. Have mended the trafficators. Fitted new boot lock. Mended main door lock, and tightened up the steering. The car is so tight a fit in the space provided outside back door that I have already pushed in the front of the shed a couple of times. Solution is to go inside the shed and kick it out again. Not much room left in shed now as you may imagine.

Dougs new garage arrived last Saturday and we put it up. It arrived during a heavy shower of rain at lunch time and we were both soaked. We spent all Saturday and a lot of Sunday getting it up. My cold started to come on Sunday morning so did not do a lot outside on that day. He has got an aluminium on steel framing type garage. The sides and ends are pre-fabricated and only require bolting together there are three trusses, the two end ones boing formed by the end sections. We had a bit of a job getting the doors to swing level and clear of the ground but eventually got them right. He paid about fifty pounds for it but it resembles more of a barn or cow-shed. We do not favour that particular type ourselves but must admit it is simple to erect and serves the purpose.

We went over to Ealing again on Friday in the car for June to do a little shopping and to-day we went to West Drayton to see the folks They asked after you both and hoped that you were both well. Carol was a bit shy and has been very crotchety since returning but is now asleep. Heard a noise a few nights ago and went up to investigate to find Susan attired in a pair of Junes shoes and sitting on top of the stairs. Have put the pantry up again in small back bedroom. It is now next to the airing cupboard and between it and the door. The top section is being used for wine affairs and the lower for coats cases etc. The wood is in quite good condition but the colour is a bit out. Can rectify that when room next decorated.

Talking about wine have had a go at Noel Whitcombs Carrot Whisky. Have made half gallon and hare varied the ingredients as follows. In lieu of wheat have put about ¼lb of pearl barley, and in lieu of handful of raisins have used sultanas. Must admit the whole concoction smells super.

Failing any other objections, I hope to come down to see you for the week-end of December 12th. If you have got any heavy jobs you want done and are putting aside for later attention if you will let me know I can pack old trousers etc. Susan did not go to Sunday school last week because of her cold but she went again this afternoon. She has been very naughty lately and Carol is getting to be as bad. They are a couple of dears though. See that Clevedon has got through to first round of amateur cup again. How do they do it. Well thats all for now. Thanks for your letters. More anon. Love from June, Susan Carol and Alec

Monday 9th November, 1959

Alec to his parents:

Dear Mum and Dad

Thank you for your letters, sorry for the delay in sending my reply. Glad to bear that the kitchen is complete at last and that Landlord and Landlady both getting on very well. Assume Devonia will now be classified as one of the Stately Homes of England and that you will now charge admittance to the populace on Sundays. With the new view of the lawn it must, be very posh. I expect you will want to start rearranging the bushes etc to improve the view. Should go steady on the work though although you may feel better each day. Should not think there can be much wrong with driving the car doubt whether that can impose much of a strain. By now you will have had the Dr.s report, and shall be interested to hear it.

We are getting out of the mess of alterations to kitchen, fence and shed. I have finished the kitchen all but the shouting. It is all filled in and painted and waiting the gas people to come and move the stove so that I can start on the other end. Doug and I re-aligned the shed and fence last weekend so that can keep children one side and the car the other. The shed has been cut back to half its length and has to function like that for the time being. We now have a fence which runs from the front of shed for about two feet in the direction of the Benns and then turns 90 degrees and runs to the edge of the coal bunker that is nearest to the Grays. A high door links the coal bunker to the house.

We went to Ealing in the car on Saturday, it was not a very good day the fog was patchy. The steering is a bit loose but have mended the trafficators.

Racked off the plum wine yesterday. It tastes super. There is a warmth about it that is striking. Have about ten pints of apple which is going on very nicely. You have a good opportunity to make some more yourself until able to resume heavy gardening.

Susan again went to Sunday School this week but you cant get much out of her. She enjoyed Bonfire night as she was allowed to see the big Bonfire in the field and went next door to share Janets sparklers etc. As I was working late I was unable to be home that night before she went to bed but we had our small display the next night and Christine and Janet came and shared Susan’s fireworks. Carol continues to make good progress. June put her back into Susans room a couple of nights ago and she seemed to have no objections. I have to work nights again next week and probably the week after but they do not come round very often so cant complain.

They still have not filled the Assistant D.O.S. job at Paddington. The equivalent job in the Birmingham District was filled by the S.M. Wolverhampton whose job Don* is reputed to have applied for. It has poured with rain all day to-day but we can still do with the water I suppose. Pulled up the Dahlias yesterday and for the moment have put them in the shed. Shall have to dry them off and keep indoors away from frost. Well hope you are both keeping fit. More next time. Love from us all.

(not signed)

*If the reference is to Donald Atkins, Leonard’s brother – which seems likely – this is very surprising; he was getting towards the end of his time with the railway and the upheaval of moving from Somerset to Wolverhampton would have been formidable. Whatever the truth of this rumour, anyway, Don stayed where he was at Athelney and was probably a great deal happier for it.

Thursday 30th October, 1959

Alec to his parents:

Dear Mum and Dad,

I am writing this letter to Clevedon only on the assumption that will have been let loose by the time of its arrival. Please let me know if there is any delay in release.

Thank you both for your letters received since I last wrote. Glad to know that Dad is going along fine although somewhat handicapped. I note that the news leaked out in Bristol, but so far I have not heard of any similar leak this end although many people ask after Dad from time to time.

We had a proper fandango last Sunday. On the previous day Peter drove Pauline over in his new car after fetching June and Susan over to West Drayton. Apparently he asked June if she thought I would be interested in having his old car for round about the price he paid for it. Of course she said she would consult me but that it sounded too good an opportunity to miss in view of the condition of the car. I was asked if I was interested but would not give him an answer until I had had an opportunity to discuss it. We made up our minds to have it over night and next day I telephoned him to say so, but he was out. When he returned he said he had sold it and was delivering the car that afternoon. Mr Baker and he then got their heads together and put the sale into reverse. I got the tip that the car was ours and then got Doug to give me a hand to get the fence down so that car could get in. We had just finished when up comes Peter and two friends in two cars. Of course the darn thing was too big to go in clear of Doug’s runway. There then ensued a discussion as to whether it would be best to move the coal bunker or take shed down. We settled for taking front and part of one side off the shed. By so doing have got it cross-ways with front wheels on small lawn in front of shed and rear wheels on concrete apron in front of the place where shed door was. The fence has been temporarily rebuilt round it to keep children in. Considering the age (1939) it is in very good condition. It has a reconditioned radiator, three reconditioned tyres, and one fairly new. One new inner tube, complete heater awaiting fixing, brakes recently adjusted, two new brake hoses, lighting system overhauled, new front wheel bearings. The make is Vauxhall, is twelve h.p. grey, new inner roof lining, good upholstery and carpet. The engine is in very good nick and so is the battery. Despite all the rain and the fact that it has been standing idle all the week I have been able to start with the starter on about the second or third attempt each day. Defects are, doors which cannot be looked, windows that slip down without being wedged, and trafficators that do not work. When I can get round to it, I think I may be able to do some of those jobs myself.

Kitchen still progressing. As you know with the removal of the pantry a large gap had to be filled in the plaster. I have done so and sanded it down and have since filled in some remaining irregularities in the surface. I hope to sand these down on Friday night or Saturday and put on the primer at once. Given sufficient time to dry I shall then ( I hope ) start putting on the undercoat. The kitchen dries fairly quickly so there should not be too much delay between coats. I have to take up Dahlias soon but don’t know when I shall find time to do that. Shed will have to be rebuilt and some concreting done also new design of fence erected so that I can run in easily. I don’t intend to get garage just yet but hope to stand the vehicle in front of the shed which will be repositioned about ten feet to the rear of present site. Sorry to learn that your kitchen arrangements still holding fire. Should have thought they would have finished by now. Are they part time only?

Not much news about Susan’s Sunday School last week, we were really too busy to listen*. Carol says Cheerio mornings now. Susan says that when she has grown into a big girl she will have a big Grey car like Daddy and Uncle Eric. She has been out kissing the sidelights. Well that is all for now, more next time.

Love to you both from June, Susan, Carol and Alec

*Well, what does that tell you?

Wednesday 21 October 1959

Alec to his parents:

Dear Mum and Dad

Thank you both for your letters duly received. Glad to hear Dad getting on well, and that stitches came out without any trouble. Nice to be able to watch proceedings. Good job the food is first class, nothing like spending time in hospital with a poor appetite or poor fare. Dont worry about spelling I hit so many wrong keys and doubles that it just does not matter. Communication is not just a matter of correct spelling.* I hope Mother is making a note of your new eating habits and is laying in a stock of tongue, Spaggheti, Prunes etc. You must be very high up where you are. I imagine you to be very close to the turning off to go over suspension bridge. The names of the roads mean nothing to me ( except that of Park St which I know to originate at the Tramway Centre ) I agree that the course you followed in getting your op done in Private Hospital is the best. There is no question that it is best to have these things done at times and conditions of your own choosing rather than have to wait about maybe for months. Crabb who is the Assistant Regional Treasurer Euston, and who lives in the Fairway, told me that back last Spring he had got his name on the list to go into Mount Vernon Hospital for the same op. He cancelled his holidays in case he was called and had to forfeit any money he had deposited. I saw him a day or two ago and he is still waiting. I know that Fifty Quid is a substantial sum to you in your retired state, but it occurs to me that the amount is extremely reasonable. Before the War I am sure that the charge would have proportionately higher. I am afraid I have to report that both Susan and Carol have caught colds again. Susans I am sure is due to running round in the-mornings and getting out of bed etc.** She has been repeatedly warned about this and scolded but to little effect. June took her down to Sunday School again this last Sunday, and Carol and I went to meet her. When I noticed all the others coming out I went in to collect her. They had given her a nice little bunch of flowers wrapped up in newspaper. She came out dangling these. Since her return June had to play the piano for her so that she could sing ‘Amen’ when it stopped. She said we all walked round the room and put our pennies in the box. She was singing snatches of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ so some of it is going in and sticking. Forgot to tell you that as result of my razor going out of action had to go back to the old steam razor. Of course I left it on Bathroom Window. During the day Susan was sent up to wash her hands and as she had been gone some time and things rather too quiet, June crept up to see what she was up to. She was only shaving with the razor and had nicked herself in a couple of places on the chin. Blood was streaming down her chin on to cardigan. No damage done of course but just shews what she gets up to. Note your wishes re location.Had a chat with Peter Morris to-day, met him quite by accident. He is looking a bit drawn and haggard, and I formed the impression that it has shaken him up very much. He tells me that he is enjoying the “Gentlemen’s Hours”. Mothers drawing of Grandad in Hospital – very good. Note bowl of grapes at left elbow. It sounds nice to have sink unit and fridge, especially if you say it quick but believe meit will have to be a gradual process. First job is to transfer the gas cooker then we will consider what next to do. Mum will be pleased when all the work is finished, and I am sure the result will justify any temporary inconvenience. As kitchen now has fine view, why not swap kitchen and dining room over – make a change. Junes Mums birthday to-day. They are both keeping pretty well. June still knitting. Norman Thorne had his interview with Briant to-day (after Annual Leave) and is reported to have said “He does not want an Assistant he wants a new Head of Passenger Train Section”. Well there it is for now. Hope you are both as well as the circumstances allow. Love from June, Susan, Carol and Alec

*Nice to know! After years of proof-reading and editing other people’s work I don’t take the same relaxed attitude, however, and it’s a real struggle sometimes not to correct Alec’s dodgy spelling and punctuation. Considering how strict he was over such matters when we were children, there is more than a touch of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ here … i.e. one rule for him, and one for everyone else.

**Yes, I’m sure it’s medically attested that waking up early and getting out of bed is the cause of disease. In fact if everybody stayed in bed all day we’d all be healthier. This goes along with the rubbish about never sitting on the seat in a public toilet (“you can catch nasty diseases that way”) and never allowing a dog to lick your face. If Alec and June had spent more time worrying about things that mattered and less time worrying about things that didn’t – including what the neighbours would say and whether reading ‘boys’ books’ would make one grow up ‘peculiar’ – their lives, and the lives of their children, might have been a lot happier.

Monday 19th October 1959

Eva to the family:

Dear Alec June Susan & Carol

Many thanks for the letter. Glad to say dad is going on satisfactorily but don’t know when he is coming out. He was to have had the stitches out on either Sunday night or this morning. It is a nice hospital but a drag to get up there it is on Brandon Hill in Upper Byron Place makes me puff.

It would be far better to come down when he is out; no point in going to the hospital as its nothing serious.

So you are having a sink unit & fridge* very nice too. After the mess we have had & still have I began to wish it had never been started but it looks much better & bigger. It was to have been 3ft longer but my guess is that it’s more than that a lovely big window taking in all the garden opposite & through the side to the lawn. They had a job with the sink unit though were here until 10.30 Friday and 9.30 Saturday, haven’t seen them today yet. What remains to be done is painting & tiling. I have a strip light over sink as the one light would not be sufficient.

We had a terrible gale here Saturday night. We are all right but next door (empty) house shed roofing came off in strips. It will disappear altogether one day if they don’t live in it.

Glad you are all feeling better, can breath with this colder air & its much colder.

I expect you have also hear from Dad so I will finish now as have some more to do. Has June finished her knitting yet?

Love from us all,

From Mum

*At this time neither of my grandmothers had a fridge; they both had pantries/larders and the old-style tin kitchen cabinets in which dry goods were stored. It’s easy to forget, from our relatively privileged modern position of being able to stock up our fridges and freezers and always have something in reserve, what a treadmill it was for housewives to keep the family fed in earlier times. June’s mother lived among shops and could easily go out every morning for meat, bread, vegetables and other perishables; June had a long walk, which included going up and over a hill (so literally ‘up hill both ways’) to the Fine Fare supermarket – there was no bus service – and had to carry everything back herself until she caved in and bought a trolley. Some tradesmen did deliver, but you still had to go down to their shop and choose your goods in person and they would bring them round to you later in the day. Buying a fridge, although it was a big-ticket item and still fairly uncommon, would have made a huge difference to her life. And people who paid out huge sums of money for ‘deep freezes’ and drove out to farms to buy ‘half a cow’ were as legendary to us as nineteenth century polar explorers; they were at the forefront of something that was seen as wildly exciting and adventurous at the time, but which has now become far more commonplace. Sixty years can bring an awful lot of changes, not just for individuals but also for the world.