Poor Old Soals
by Geoff Knott
This article was originally published in the August 2002 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
I never knew my great grandparents. Annie Soal (née Corps) died eight weeks before I was born, and Edward James followed before I was three.
From some of the clues I’ve been able to put together, though, for the couple and their six children money must have been pretty scarce - just enough, one might say, to keep body (Corps) and soul (Soal) together!
It seems likely that Edward couldn’t find work in the immediate locality of Petersfield, Hampshire in the early years after they married, on 21 Sept. 1895, in Annie’s home village of Empshott, about 5 miles away. Their first four children were born at Havant (Edith Margaret - ‘Ede’, 1896); Godalming, Surrey (Jessie Elizabeth - my Gran, 1899); Westbourne, Sussex (Edward Percy - ‘Ed’, 1901); and at Havant again (Amy Constance - ‘Ame’, 1903).
They had settled at Petersfield by the time their last two children arrived (William Ernest George ‘Bill’, 1905, and Charles ‘Char’, 1908); Edward had found work as a coachman/groom/gardener for the Seward family, of Borough House. They lived in one of the couple of dozen cottages (possibly at that time tied) atop Borough Hill. The cottages in the front row overlook Borough House, and are separated from it by some 200 yards of an old sand pit. They have magnificent views southwards over the rooftop of the big house to Butser Hill and the South Downs. My mother lives in one now: a few years ago she lived in one of the back row cottages, which, like Number 7 where Edward and Annie lived, has a view northwards (over the adjacent railway line and the old laundry) to Stoner Hill and the Hangars.
When, in the 1980’s I first became interested in family history, I recorded (as notes or sometimes on tape) Gran’s stories about her younger days. In one of these stories she described bath night - a once a week event for the whole family, in a galvanised ‘bungalow bath’ in the kitchen. It was preceded by a visit by the children to a shoe shop in town, where they collected old shoe boxes for fuel to heat the bath water in a big copper. I wonder if memories of this chore influenced (great) Aunt Ede when she agreed to marry George Wateridge, the son of a local coal merchant of the same name? Aunt Ede had another habit that may have been a hangover from this early 20th century bath night ritual: she never in her life bought perfumed toilet soap: only household soap - remember the thick green Fairy bars?
Annie would sometimes take the children to Empshott, to visit their grandparents. Gran described a visit.
“I can see the place now. There's Cheshire Home (as it was later) there at the bottom of Stairs Hill. Over this side there was an old rough lane. Go on up the hill and there were two cottages, nice cottages. We had to go up about four stone steps to get through the wicker gate, and that was Granny's. That was on the left hand side [of the road]. The old chap had a lovely garden. His wife was a so-and-so. She was invalid in bed, but she was a terror. When she was up, she wouldn't let him smoke indoors. He had a pig sty at the bottom of the garden, with his pigs, and we used to get over the stile and get off down the lane. We loved it up there. We had to walk from Liss station, us kids, up to Greatham Corner, and turn left, [and all the way] up to Grannie's. I remember, going round Greatham Corner. Mum always used to say 'Not much further!' ”
From Liss station to Greatham Corner is about 1½ miles: Greatham Corner to Stairs Hill is about the same - no mean distance for a child as young as (great) Uncle Char, who could have been no more than six, since Gran left home to go into domestic service at age fifteen.
Perhaps these walks, like bath night, had their influence in later life. When Bill was fifteen he was already a keen cyclist. He cycled from Petersfield to Portsmouth and back - a round trip of about 35 miles - to visit his new born niece Eileen. And in the 1950’s Ed bought a new model Ford Popular 100E, widely advertised (I seem to recall) as the ‘first car sold for under £400.’
To help make ends meet, Annie took in washing. “When I was a girl there was an old lady, a Mrs. Knight, who lived in Petersfield, in Church Path. She was the local Midwife. My mum used to do her laundry for her, and I often used to collect it..., and take back the clean washing. She always used to give me a piece of cake; and sometimes I would visit her just for a slice.”
Another of Annie’s customers was Bill Butler, whose son, Bert, Gran was later to marry. “As soon as his youngest child, Bert, was old enough, old Bill Butler pushed the lad off into the Navy, so that he would be free to marry this Mrs. Knight, who, like him, had been widowed some years before. Bert and I had known each other, because my mother also done the laundry for Bill; and after Bert and I were married, I learned that, like me, as a child he had often visited old Mrs. Knight, hoping for her cakes.”
“After the death of Bill Butler, his children would have nothing to do with their stepmother, and at last she made up her mind to go into the Workhouse - and in those days Petersfield Workhouse was a pretty dreadful place.... I took her to the Workhouse. I cried all the way home.”
Gran remembered the misery of domestic service, at Froxfield. “I was about 15, I suppose. I was going daily to a job down High Street, and sleeping home, of course. This job came up, and it was arranged that I should go to a certain house near the Heath.... I had to be outside that house at a certain time. The previous night, my Dad took a tin box.... with all my clothes in - a brown tin box, I can see the bloody thing now - and there would be a pony and trap there, to take me up there. This pony and trap turned up, and he went in and got my tin box; and I cried from there all the way.
Yes, it was dreadful; dreadful. And yet we had everything to eat. We had nearly the same to eat in the kitchen as what they had in the [family], because they got their own farm stuff, the dairy and all. Silvesters, it was, brother and sister.
We was allowed home once a month. Every Sunday morning the kitchen maid and I had to go to church. Oh, what you had to put up with. And you had to walk back. I had to walk from there to Petersfield, on my day off. And do you know, my poor old Dad used to come to the bottom of Stoner [Hill] with me, and I had to do the rest of it by myself. And I had to be in by six.
I stuck it for several years, then one of the girls that worked [and] lived up there, she got browned off with it, and she said, 'Let's pack up, you and me, and we'll go down to Petersfield and get a job down there,' so we went and got a job in Ramshill, a big house opposite the cemetery, that's now an old people's home. We only stayed a month. We had half a herring each for our dinners. It was a Miss Luker there.”
The obituary by Lizzie Love mentions the children often going hungry, and that Bill started his working life at Fuller’s Provision Merchants: Char worked at International Stores, just across the Lavant Street/ Chapel Street junction. Both stores feature in photographs in a book ‘Petersfield Seen And Remembered’. Fuller’s photograph shows the delivery boys, one of whom may well have been young Bill. Maybe they were sent to work there in the hope of staff-discounted provisions.
About 1923/4, after almost 20 years, Edward left the employ of the Seward family - who had perhaps acquired motor transport, and no longer required a groom. That was also about the time the Soals moved to 49 Rushes Road - support for the notion that the cottage at Borough Hill was tied to the job. He became a gardener at Churcher’s College, where he remained for the remaining 23 years of his working life. He retired in 1946 to nurse Annie, who was ailing.
This unlikely union of names happened twice: Edward’s brother Arthur married Annie’s sister Sarah Corps. Edward and Annie were parted only by death: Arthur and Annie went one better, and died together, in a WWII air raid - but that’s another story. n
See obituary of William Ernest George SOAL, written by Lizzie Love, ‘Soul Search’, December 2000
‘Petersfield Seen and Remembered’ by Des Farnham and Derek Dine, pub. 1982 by Hampshire County Library
Edward James Soal’s Obituary appears on page 40 –Ed
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