THE STORY OF MY MATERNAL GRANDPARENTS
By Jennifer Ball
This article was originally published in the April 2007 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Of course my Nanny Sole, as I always called her, was not really a Sole at all but as she bore the name through nearly fifty years of marriage and four of widowhood I hope you will excuse me from including an account of her early life in these pages.
She was born Victoria Fergusson on the 7th March 1876 at 9 Little Somerset Street in Aldgate in the City of London. The eighth child in a family of ten, she was baptized, as were all five youngest of the siblings, at St Botolphs Church in the High Street. As she grew up Victoria would have appreciated that the church in which she worshipped was designed by the same architect as the Mansion House, the official address of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. She would also have been aware that Aldgate had housed many illustrious residents among them Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Daniel Defoe, Sir Isaac Newton when he was the Master of the Royal Mint and even more important to her future development, Sir John Cass, who 'built and endowed a school in his native parish to educate the young in the knowledge of the Christian religion according to the principles of the Church of England.' This school opened in 1710 with close connections with St Botolphs, which still continue today.
Unlike my Grandmother, her parents were born south of the Thames but she was always adamant that the North side was the best. Her mother died when she was thirteen. Her father, Samuel Joseph Fergusson, was in the shoe trade, as was his father before him. Victoria often told her children that her father was a gentleman. None of them ever met him, as he died aged sixty, on the 3rd September 1893. I was impressed to find that his death had been certified by Wynne E. Baxter, the Coroner for the County of London, and the man who had been responsible for most of the Jack the Ripper inquests in that autumn of 1888. His insistence to detail had made him famous and earned him a place in the index of any serious books about the murders.
My Grandmother never mentioned the murders to me or their close proximity to her home but she did leave me with a lovely picture of her, as a child, walking from the Minories near the Tower of London through fields of lavender to collect milk from the dairy. I quote now from a letter dated 9th October 1985 from the Archivist of the Sir John Cass Foundation:
“Victoria Fergusson's admission to the school is recorded in the Minutes of 15th July 1887. Her age is given as 11¼ and her address as 5 Swan Street. She left school in 1892 aged 16. The minutes for the 11th March 1892 record that she was given a suit of clothes, a bible and the usual address from the Trustees. You may be interested to know of two other Fergussons who are mentioned in the Minutes at that time. Frances Fergusson was admitted to the school in July 1890 and left in 1886. Alice Fergusson left school in 1881.”
Frances and Alice were two of my Grandmother's sisters. My mother Connie Sole, alone among her siblings, was also educated at the Sir John Cass School. Her bible, I remember, was covered in fine black kid leather and embossed in gold with the school crest. There was also a large oval shaped, silver coloured tin badge, again embossed with the school crest.
When she left school my Grandmother obviously wished to continue her education and attended evening classes at which she won many prizes. She loved poetry and Shakespeare and I have a programme dated 29th January 1903 at which she is billed to give a recitation.
On the night of the 1901 census, Victoria is aged 24 and staying as a visitor with a friend and work colleague, Frances Story and her family in West Ham. Both girls occupation’s are down as Druggist's Sundries Assistants. They worked for Johnson and Jurgenson, a Swedish Company. Victoria has added the name Beatrice to her own and I found it interesting that her sisters Frances and Emma became Frances Violet and Emma Rose at around the same time. Probably fashion dictated that a second name was desirable to make one more attractive. It must have worked as Emma married Frank Warby in 1897 and Frances married Edward Sole in 1904. It was perhaps through her sister's marriage that Victoria met Edward's brother William who was to become my Grandfather.
William Sole had been born in 28th October 1879 at 55 Tower Buildings Wapping. He was the younger of the two brothers. A sister had died at two years old. Their mother, a widow when she had married the children's father, married for a third time when he too died in 1884. This marriage produced two further daughters, Lily and May Stevens. They must have been a happy family because my Grandfather remained in touch with them all his life. He was profoundly deaf as the result of an illness contracted as a child. As a young man he was a keen cyclist. He was 27 and a Tea Sampler at New Crane Wharf, where he spent all his working life, when he married my Grandmother at St. John of Wapping Church on the 31st March 1907.
William was always Will to his wife and their first child Victoria Daisy was born on the 3rd April 1908 at 21 Brightlingsea Buildings Limehouse. The second Constance Lillian on the 31st October 1910 at 10 New Tower Buildings, Wapping High Street and at the same address on the 11th October 1913 their third child William Edward Ernest arrived. Vic, Connie and Bill were all baptized less than a month after their births at the Parish Church of St. John of Wapping.
My mother loved her father and would always refer to him as 'My poor Dad.' She told me that her mother spent a lot of time involved with the church where the Vicar was the Reverend Scandrett. Nan belonged to the Women's Group at the Church and her readings of literature and poetry were appreciated there. My Grandparents were regular cinemagoers and would enjoy a drink in a pub. They loved Folkestone and Felixstowe and these were places at which holidays were taken for years. They often travelled on the boats that left from the Tower Pier.
Of course I only knew them for the last twenty or so years of their lives but have many memories of both of them and the flat in which they lived. By the time I was born, they had moved into number 12 New Tower Buildings. This was on the third floor and at the end of the balcony. Once inside the front door, that of the lavatory was directly opposite and the kitchen with its stone sink and iron mangle with big wooden rollers, gas cooker and table in front of the window would be on the left.
The living room was on the right with its black leaded range, high mantelpiece and mirrored shelves above. In winter there was always a glowing fire in the grate. A piano stood against the far wall with photographs on the top, and cream coloured shelves containing china and cups hanging from hooks above that. On the wall opposite was a beautiful piece of furniture. Dark highly polished and nicely shaped my cousins tell me it was a gramophone but I never heard it played. A table was in the centre of the room covered with a chenille cloth and bentwood chairs to hand when needed. A small round paraffin heater was often in evidence, and in front of the fire were two high backed arm chairs with low well worn wooden foot stools nearby, polished from use. The floor was covered with lino but in front of the hearth and its brass kerb and fire irons was a hand made rag rug of black, green and cream colours. The sepia picture on the wall intrigued me because I knew my Grandmother disliked it. It stayed because my Grandfather had put his foot down and that was unusual. It was of a shack in the outback somewhere with a woman and line of washing blowing in the breeze. Personally I agreed with Nanny.
Apart from the door back to the hall, there were two other doors off this room. One led to the small bedroom and the other to the front room overlooking the High Street and its glimpse of the River Thames. This room was rarely used and contained a black leather chaise-lounge. My brother and I would fling ourselves on this from the doorway and slide the length. A bookcase full of books behind its glass doors, boxes of games and a small table in the comer which held pieces of cut glass, of which my Grandmother was fond, completed its contents. One thing was different about this flat to all the other homes I knew. It had no radio.
Nanny made mixed spice buns and fairy cakes, loved Osborne and Marie biscuits and always used Palmolive soap. One of my earliest memories, and it was well before I was three, was of standing on the lavatory seat in my Nanny Morgan's flat in Old Tower Buildings. When I did this I could wave to Nanny Sole if she was standing in the kitchen in New Tower Buildings. This was great fun but when Nanny Morgan found out she said it had to stop. I knew better. I figured that if I didn't flush the lavatory until after I had waved, Nanny Morgan wouldn't know. I am afraid the ensuing mess when I slipped one morning was enough to put me, a fastidious child as well as a crafty one, off for good.
I remember too, late one Sunday afternoon, quietly leaving the flat in Old Tower Buildings to enjoy a visit with Nanny and Granddad Sole in New Tower Buildings. When it was time to return I went down the two toned, pink walled, flights of grey stairs admiring as I always did the sparkly bits in them that gleamed beneath my feet. I walked along the High Street but when I got to the top of Brew house Lane I hesitated. It was dark and the fog was swirling and despite the lamps I could not see to the bottom of the Lane or into all the shadowy comers. I tried hard but was frightened to venture further. Returning to the flat Nanny Sole told me that if I was not big enough to go home on my own I had better not come round again. Granddad simply put one his coat and scarf and took me back to the top of the Lane. He stood and watched while I ran into its shadows and was still there when I paused half way down to wave before completing my journey.
Connie Simpson born in 1925, the daughter of my Grandfather's half sister Lily, once told me the following-
“I used to look forward to Monday evenings as a child. We lived in Limehouse and my Uncle Will and Aunt Vic would come over and they and my Mum and Aunt May would go for a drink in a pub called the Eight Bells in Three Colt Street. Sometimes we would have a fish and chip supper when they came home and Aunt May would play the piano and my Mum would sing all the old music hall songs. Aunt Vic would always ask for Just a Song at Twilight. This was her favourite and we'd all sing together. Uncle Will was deaf but he'd always laugh at my Mum's singing. When they went home he would give me a shilling, a lot of money then and he would always slip my Mum some money as well. I was always listening to the gossip. We were a happy family and they were happy times.”
Nanny Sole lent me two books when I was about sixteen because she found that I enjoyed poetry. One was her copy of Shakespeare's Collected Works and the other the poems of Tennyson. She asked me at a later date if I was enjoying them and I answered truthfully that I was and was told in that case I might as well hang on to them. I have them still and her inlaid wooden writing box that I loved playing with as a child. She used to say “It will be yours one day”, and it was given to me after she died.
Life and the Second World War had raged around my Grandparents flat. The landscape changed but inside things remained the same. My Grandparents had been married for forty nine years when my Grandfather died in St George's in the East Hospital on 20th April 1956 aged 76. He was a man loved by his family and respected by friends, neighbours and work colleagues. He had been retired for twelve years when he died but men left their homes and the wharfs to line the street with caps held and heads bowed as his coffin passed.
I married the following year and my Grandmother pressed ten pounds into my hand at the reception. An amount equal to a man's wage at the time, it was a generous gift given with love. Her son, my Uncle Bill, would call in every week after work on a Friday but she died alone in the flat that had been her home for so long in June 1960. She was aged eighty-four.
The marriage which took place a hundred years ago this March produced three children, six grandchildren, eighteen great grandchildren and to date, thirty nine great, great, grand children. Yes I did only know my Grandparents for twenty and twenty four years of my life but they remain part of it and me forever.
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