OH, WE HAD BEEN SUCH a happy family. Our mother Grace was a beautiful woman, slim, elegant, even glamorous. She made not just her own clothes but also her children’s. In fact, we were so beautifully dressed that people thought we were better off than we were. Her sense of style was also reflected in our home, where she was not afraid to be innovative and unusual in the way it was decorated. My father too was rather dashing. I can remember him in calf length tweed breeches, called ‘plus fours’, with long Argyll-patterned socks and highly polished brogues, or smart trousers in Prince of Wales check, for the Prince was the style icon of his day. They made a very handsome couple.
They met in rather a romantic way. My father was very musical; indeed he boasted that he could play six instruments. In his late teens he formed a dance band which performed at small events round North London and one evening when they were playing in a church hall in Kilburn, he spotted a beautiful, auburn haired girl amongst the dancers. It was Grace.
He and his band had just been offered the chance to play on one of the great Cunard liners that plied the Atlantic at that time, but he and Grace fell so deeply in love that he could not bear to leave her. They were married in December, 1928, when Grace was 23 and Charles a year younger, and three years later my sister Patricia was born.
On the 15th of April, 1937, my father bought a motorbike and sidecar. My mother was otherwise engaged, giving birth to me. When, two weeks later, she walked down the steps of the Middlesex Hospital with me in her arms, she took one look at this new acquisition and said tartly:
“I’m not going home in that thing, I’m catching the bus.”
And so we did.
My grandparents, Frederick and Florence Davis, were far from pleased when Charles first married Grace for they felt he had married beneath him. Frederick, after all, was a journalist whilst Grace’s late father, Albert, had worked on the railways as stoker. And whilst the Davis family lived in middle-class West Hampstead, Grace, her widowed mother and siblings, lived in a semi-basement flat halfway between Paddington and Kilburn. Frederick and Florence conveniently overlooked the fact that their son, who was not as academic as them, was a builder and decorator by trade. What’s more, they underestimated their new daughter-in-law’s rather wonderful family.
Albert and Elizabeth Jones had eight children, four boys and four girls. All of them had red hair, ranging from my mother’s deep auburn to her brother Tommy’s flaming copper. Poor they certainly were, for raising a large family on a labourer’s pay must have been hard, especially at a time when the country was still struggling to recover from the devastating social and economic effects of World War One and the Great Depression.
And yet, despite their poverty, this was a happy family, as vibrant as the colour of their hair; a musical family where everyone had a beautiful voice and someone was always singing, and a family where, if a child had talent, it was given free rein to blossom. When they grew up, one boy became an Anglican priest, another, a senior army officer, whilst the youngest two joined the RAF and the Navy. Grace and her sister Doris became skilled dressmakers, and, at the time of her marriage, my mother worked for Singer as a manageress and demonstrator of dressmaking techniques. As for Rose May, she became an opera singer, a member of the world famous Carl Rosa Opera Company. Violet, the youngest, was a waitress – a ‘nippy’, as they were called – at Lyons Corner House. It was this which so incensed my grandmother. “A nippy?” she exclaimed to my father, “a nippy? We can do without a waitress in the family, thank you very much.”
In fact, her own family’s achievements were similar to the Jones’, in that they too progressed from extreme poverty. Florence’s great-grandparents, Robert and Ann Radford, were greengrocers who lived in the St Pancras area of London. However, they clearly believed in education, as their son Christopher, who had once been their errand boy, became a police court reporter and highly respected journalist on the Morning Chronicle, one of the country’s leading newspapers. Family legend has it that Christopher was a friend of Charles Dickens, helping him in research for his books. As Dickens had also been a court reporter, albeit earlier than Christopher, it is entirely possible that they met.
His son, Robert, also became a reporter and, more remarkably, so did my grandmother Florence, for when she was 14 she joined her father in his profession. He was a ‘penny-a-liner’ who wrote his stories on sheets of paper sandwiched together with soot – a precursor of carbon paper – and then touted these copies to whatever newspapers seemed most likely to buy them, for, literally, one penny per line.
On Florence’s first day, she accompanied her father to the Marylebone Coroner’s Court. I can imagine her: a tall, well-built girl in an ankle-length black skirt, little button boots, probably a high-necked and frilled white blouse and most definitely a little hat tilted forwards on her head. I can visualise the dark interior of the courtroom and its sombre atmosphere. As the Coroner entered an usher called out “all rise,” but as Florence stood, her head was jerked backwards and she let out a piercing shriek – someone behind her had tied the ribbons on her long plaits to the back of the bench. History does not relate what happened next except that the young reporter who carried out this naughty prank was Frederick Percival Davis, whom she married five years later.
My grandmother claimed to be the first woman reporter, but we have no way of proving this. What is certain is that, whilst there have been women journalists for hundreds of years, these were usually writers contributing articles to various publications. Florence, on the other hand, was a working reporter with a nose for a story, so perhaps she was, if not the first, at least a trail-blazer. After working with her father, she graduated to a newspaper and had only to hear a horse-drawn fire engine clatter by, its bell clanging, or the sound of a policeman’s whistle, to grab her coat and run. The editor, seeing her empty chair, would ask:
“Where’s Florence?” And everyone would shout:
“Where’s the nearest fire?”
Frederick and Florence were married in 1904. Within ten years, however, their family life, like so many others, was disrupted by the advent of World War One, when Frederick marched away to the carnage of battle, leaving behind him a wife and three children. Florence became a working mother when she took over her husband’s job on the Marylebone Gazette.
Unlike other young men in the family, Frederick survived the war, although he never recovered from his exposure to mustard gas attacks on the Western Front. With his lung function severely impaired, he eventually became an invalid and Florence the family’s only breadwinner. With a sick husband to care for and a family to support she realised she could no longer work in a newspaper office. Over the years Frederick had bought a string of cottages and even a farm, all of which were rented out. However, when the family solicitor informed her that the properties were mortgaged, he added:
“It would be very bad for a woman in your position to be saddled with debt. You must get rid of them at once.”
And so, instead of providing her with a steady income, she sold all but one cottage in Essex and bought a shop on Fortune Green in West Hampstead. She started by selling paraffin for oil stoves and lamps, gradually adding dried goods such as rice, tea, sugar, dried fruits and flour – a combination of stock, which would now be impossible. The shop stood in a rank of three, the other two being a vet’s practice and a dairy. Coincidentally, all three were owned by people called Davis, and they soon became known as Doggy Davis, Oily Davis and Milky Davis.
I adored Granny’s shop, with its odd yet strangely comforting aroma of food overlaid with paraffin. Neat bundles of kindling wood were stacked in front of the mahogany counter, on which stood a pair of brass scales, a graduated line of weights, a big metal till and a pile of thick blue paper. A flight of deep wooden drawers covered the wall behind the counter, each with a brass handle and a sign showing its contents. There was nothing I liked better than to watch Granny as she served customers, shovelling things up with a small wooden scoop, weighing them, then tipping them into bags which she skilfully folded and twisted from a sheet of the blue paper. I was allowed to ‘help’ by counting out Oxo cubes from a big glass jar or scooping dog biscuits from a sack behind the counter. Best of all I liked to press the button on the till which pinged out a drawerful of money.
Frederick’s health eventually deteriorated so much that he had to go into a nursing home, where he remained for the rest of his life. By now, all three of Florence’s children were married, so, to generate extra income, she took a lodger, an elderly butcher who rented the top floor of the three-storey building. Andrew Beard was a gentle, quiet man who kept himself to himself. However, I adored him and always insisted on clambering up the stairs so that he could sing to my dolly and me. At the age of three, I came down and announced to the assembled family that Granny was going to marry Mr. Beard. This was seen as screamingly funny, especially as my grandfather was still alive.
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