This 18-page piece was written by my great great aunt in 1970. It tells the story of the Mabille family in Belgium and the Cripps family in London and how they came to meet.
It was originally written by typewriter and was photocopied and reproduced so everybody in the family who wanted a copy could have one. I spent the best part of a day typing it all up (7500+ words) and now it is online for everybody to be able to read! Enjoy…
In the year 1767 the Spanish Army of Occupation was still in the Netherlands. Their Headquarters were in Binche, a prosperous little town in the Hainaut Province, and the staff officers, having discovered that the standard of education in this little country was the highest in Europe, had in many cases, brought their daughters over from Spain to be educated in the Convent Schools there.
One of these Officers, a lesser member of the reigning Bourbon family, had placed his daughter Esmeralda as a pupil at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Binche, where her father was stationed and could keep a rein on this high-spirited girl. She was pretty in the Spanish type of beauty, with dark complexion, flashing black eyes, full of fun.
Esmeralda was happy enough at the Sacred Heart Convent School but she was now 15, and began to feel irked by the strict discipline there and longed to go out into the town and join in the merriment now it was Carnival time. She thought a lot about this, and finally evolved a scheme. Her Cousin had visited her at school. He was older than Esmeralda and would be accepted by the Nuns as a suitable escort.
Ferdinand was her willing slave so it was not difficult to range for him to call for her at Carnival time, when they both went into the town. They stood on the pavement and watched the procession pass – a brass band leading followed by the Gilles in their tall ostrich plumes and baskets of oranges. Ferdinand explained: “The Gilles, the men in the neck-to-toe overalls and feather head-dresses, are representing the South American Indians with its hieroglyphics copies of the totem pole which the Indians danced round”. “But are there ostriches in South America?” asked Esmeralda. “No” her cousin replied, “the Indians use the feathers of the native birds, but ostrich feathers are more decorative – you see they are five feet high and very difficult to wear. Very expensive too. The boys in costume without head-dresses are apprentices and will not be Gilles for five years, giving them time to save the money.”
They found themselves pelted with oranges which the Gilles carried in plaited straw baskets, and they soon noticed that only those not in costume were so attacked. There were large bands of gipsies, Indian girls, and all sorts, dancing through the streets with bands playing tradional music. They followed the crowd to the Market Square where a band was playing dance music and Esmeralda coaxed her Cousin to join with her in the dancing until they were both breathless, and sat on a bench to rest a while and watch the people.
“How handsome these Netherlanders are“, she thought. One in particular she had noticed, fair-skinned with dark eyes and tall with a proud bearing. It seemed he, too, had noticed her, for he was soon bowing before them. “You will permit me?” he asked her Cousin, who looked far from pleased, but Esmeralda leapt to her feet smiling at the young man. As they glided round on the cobbled Square she felt she was walking on air.
“My name is Emeralda” she said, “what is yours?”
“I am Leon Mabille” he told her, “my father is a wine merchant and we live just outside the town. You are a stranger here?”
“I am a Spaniard, but I am not a stranger, for I am a boarder at the Sacre Coeur Convent School.”
They chatted until the dance was over and he took her back to her cousin. Esmeralda introduced him to her Cousin Ferdinand who seemed more friendly. He had been thinking that the young Netherlander might introduce him to some of these pretty Netherland girls. He was missing feminine society in the Barracks.
Secretly Esmeralda was very taken with the young Netherlander. She liked his soft voice and shy ways – so very different from the Spanish boys of her acquaintance at home.
The two young men found that they had a lot in common and it was arranged that Ferdinand would call at the Sacre Coeur Convent for Esmeralda one afternoon the following week when she would be free from her studies, and Leon would bring his sister Blanche to meet the Spanish cousins.
The following Wednesday the little party met. Blanche Mabille was very much like her brother, a little stiff at first, but a happy laughing girl of Esmeralda’s age, and the quartette had a happy afternoon together. Ferdinand spoke French with a strong Spanish accent, and they laughed together at his strange mistakes in French. The Mabille’s spoke only pure French, but the peasants spoke a patois into which many Spanish words hard infiltrated, and was much easier for Ferdinand to understand, he said.
The Mabille’s knew everybody in town and so, in future meetings, of which many took place, the party increased and the Spanish cousins had lots of fun. Ferdinand was so happy with his many new-found friends that he had not realised that Leon and Esmeralda were falling deeply in love.
One Summer’s afternoon Esmeralda was summoned to the Visitors’ Parlour where her father was awaiting her. He had just returned from Spain and brought her loving messages from her mother and brothers. Then he said “I have arranged with Mother Superior for you to leave the Sacre Coeur at the end of this term. You will be sixteen years old then, and it is time to think of marriage. On your return home I have arranged with the Alberto family for your betrothal to Carlo.”
“Oh no, Papa, he is not good. I am told he keeps a mistress in Madrid.”
Her father frowned. “That is finished. It is well for a young man to have sown his wild oats before marriage. He belongs to a noble family and is a good choice. He will make you a good husband.”
“No, no!” said Esmeralda, “I do not wish to marry him, – I will not.”
“Hush. You no longer think nor speak like a Spanish girl. It is time you returned to our homeland.”
He was very cross, kissed her coldly on the cheek and departed without discussing the matter further.
Esmeralda was desperately unhappy. Her pillow was wet with her tears that night. “I must tell Leon” she thought. But she had to wait until the following Wednesday when Ferdinand called for her, and every moment lost was precious. Ferdinand had arranged to meet their Belgian friends in the town and they were to go to Cannes, take the boat to the Isle Ste. Marguerite and spend the afternoon there. Leon was driving a pony and trap when the cousins met him and there was a room for Esmeralda and Ferdinand. Three of the young men came on horseback and a fourth drove their sisters and cousin in a carriage. They tethered their horses and sailed across to the Island where the boys spent the afternoon fishing and the girls did their tapestry work and chatted and later they danced to the playing of the guitar which Ferdinand had brought with him.
Esmeralda had not told her cousin what her father had said, but when an opportunity occurred, she told Leon. He drew her away from the party and spoke with great emotion. “I love you, Emeralda, very much. I know I am not worthy of you, but I wish to marry you. Darling, will you marry me?”
“Yes, oh yes. I would sooner die than marry anyone else.”
“We must go away together before you have to return to Spain. Time is getting short.”
“Yes, but where can we go?” asked Esmeralda.
“I have friends in Charleroi who would help us. I will arrange something dearest. Be ready next time we meet. Blanche will arrange you valise. We must join the others now for Ferdinand is looking for you.”
It was some weeks before the young lovers were able to elope, Esmeralda wearing her school uniform, but Leon had thought of everything. He had a horse in the woods nearby and after swinging her on to the mount he sprang up before her and they went like the wind.
Ferdinand was very anxious when, at the end of the afternoon, he found both Leon and Esmeralda were missing. Leon had told Blanche nothing of his exact plans, and although she had been asked to pack a case of necessities for Esmeralda, she did not know exactly when they planned to run off, so she was saved that embarrassment. Ferdinand went with her to her home, but her parents knew nothing of Leon’s whereabouts and he had not yet returned. So Ferdidnand was forced to return to the Sacre Coeur to tell the Reverend Mother that he could not account for Esmeralda’s absence. She was very angry and said that he had betrayed his trust and must go immediately to her father and tell him what had happened. This he did, and met the fury of his Uncle’s anger. Before the end of the week he was sent back to Spain in disgrace.
Leon and Esmeralda were married quietly in Charleroi and Esmeralda wrote to her father telling him she was now Madame Mabille, wife of a commoner, and deliriously happy as she would never have been had she married Carlo Alberto. She begged her father’s forgiveness and permission to present her husband to him. But he never forgave her and wrote a bitter letter telling her that he never wanted to see her again. She had brought shame on her family and he would no longer acknowledge her as his daughter.
Leon and Esmeralda made their home in Binche and the Mabille family grew very fond of their Spanish relative. Their first son favoured his mother, and his Uncle Ferdinand made a secret visit in order to be present at the baptism and to stand as Godfather. In the course of time little Ferdinand had a sister and four brothers. Emeralda lived very happily in her adopted country surrounded by her family, though she sometimes longed for the warmth of the Spanish sun in this damp cold country.
A century had passed since the days of Leon and Esmeralda but there were still Mabilles in Binche, carrying on the family business as Wine Merchants.
Auguste and Rosalie Mabille were facing a crisis in their lives. The damp climate of the Lowlands had undermined poor Auguste’s health and this year’s bout of Bronchitis was so bad that pneumonia had set in but the careful nursing of Rosalie had brought him back to health. Today Dr. Lebrun had called to see him and had declared that Auguste would not live another year in this damp cold climate and that he must go to a warmer, drier climate. It was a terrifying proposition. There were five children to think about. However, Rosalie was a great support to her husband and being very practical refused to see any obstacle in their path. Together they began to make plans. The Mabille family was close-knit and all began to make plans. A more senior and distant branch of the family occupied the Chateau Mabille outside the town, and owned the extensive wine business where Auguste worked as Representative. He must now take up an entirely new occupation, but what? And where?
Auguste’s sister Octavie, domiciled in London as Lady’s Maid in a titled family, spoke to her Mistress, who had a warm feeling for the Mabilles. She made enquiries in her circle and it was found that a Mrs Holland, a wealthy English lady, had just bought a large Estate in the South of France and was needing a Steward to manage it – one she could trust. It was accordingly arranged that Auguste and Rosalie should journey to Pegomas, near Grasse in the South of France, to take up residence at ‘Terra Blanche’, a beautiful house on the Estate.
Another of Auguste’s sisters, Teresa, was now Sister Saint Marie-Clare at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Binche. This was a high-class Boarding School and would have been much beyond poor Auguste’s means, had not Sister Saint Marie-Clare been able to arrange free places for her two little nieces, Blanche and Octavie, to remain as boarders at the Convent School. Ursmer, the eldest boy, would remain in Binche too, staying with his Uncle Emil where he would have the company of his cousin Emil who was the same age as himself, and the two boys were great friends; two younger boys, Alphonse and Augustine would travel with their parents to the South of France.
The day drew near for the parting. The whole town went to Mass to pray for this family in their hour of need; forced to take such a journey and things so disturbed in France too!
Blanche, now 8 years old, and Octavie, 5 years, had started at the Sacred Heart Convent School a few weeks before the departure of their parents. Papa told them to be brave and reminded them that they would not be alone, Ursmer would be in the town staying with their Uncle Emil and their holidays would be spent with their/Catherine (Aunt and their cousins Marie, Helene and Fernand. Mamma told them to be good girls and to write and tell her all the news every week, and she kissed them goodbye with tears streaming down her face.
Life passed serenely at the Sacred Heart School. Their cousin Helene, who was the same age as Octavie, was also a day-pupil there. The nuns were strict about deportment a manners at the table. The English girls sat together and were not permitted to dip their bread in their coffee as the Belgian girls did, and they handled their knives and forks in a strange way, also they spoke French strangely. Octavie was glad to be a Belgian girl and to do the things the English could not. She wondered if the French girls in Pegomas were like these English girls. One of the girls in her dormitory was a Countess, and several were boarders because their parents were in the Congo. It was so cold in winter in the dormitory that the girls had to break the ice in their showers before washing themselves in the mornings. However these were normal conditions in the year 1865, and the girls were up early to hear Mass before their lessons.
The years passed slowly by and the highlight was the Carnival at the beginning of Lent. There was always an Aunt or Uncle ready to call for them when they would join their cousins and enjoy the fun. What activity there was beforehand. In every house, sweing parties, for girls must have a new frock for each of the three Carnival days.
When Octavie was 11 a dreadful Smallpox epidemic struck the town and they were not allowed out for weeks. “Come and see all these funeral processions” said Blanche, one day, from the window. Octavie joined her, and watched the sad scene.
“Aunt Sainte Marie-Clare says the Pox comes from France, and they are eating rats in Paris.”
“Oh, poor Papa and Mamma – are they having to eat rats too?”
“No! They are a day’s journey from Paris and safe in the Midi. Aunt Sainte Marie-Clare says the Austrians are all round Paris and won’t let any food go in and the people are starving.”
“But Great-uncle Jean is in Paris!” Blanche was silent, for this worried her too.
“When we pray for the sick and dying tomorrow morning, we must say a prayer for Great-uncle Jean as well.”
Blanche would be 14 next birthday and would be going home to Pegomas. How Octavie envied her. Ursmer had already gone and had written telling them about their little sister Leonie, who had been born in Pegomas, and about the hot sunshine and the warm waters of the Mediterranean and how Papa drove them all on Sundays afternoons to the sea where they swam and fished, and all the new friends he had made there. Pegomas, he told them, was only a few miles from Cannes, and they went by boat to the Lerin Isles which lay offshore and were so beautiful.
This story will now be concerned only with Octavie, for I, Daisy, the narrator, Octavie’s sixth child, can only relate what she has told me when I, as a schoolgirl, was avid for details of her early life.
Having reached 14 years, Octavie left the Convent School and Tante Catherine put her on the train for Paris, where she was met by her Uncle who had left Binche and was now a Restaurateur in Paris. He was waiting for her at the Gare du Midi when she arrived tired and bewildered. Since the journey to the South was a further 12 hours journey, it was arranged that she should stay a few days in Paris with her relatives. Her cousins took her out and showed her the sights – marks of cannon balls on the walls of buildings and other marks of the horrible war only three years ago. She was taken to visit her Great-uncle Jean who had lost a finger in the Siege. He had taken the precaution of storing some food in his cellar, being a far-seeing man and realising that supplies might be cut off. One day, during the Siege, he went down to get a little food out of the safe hanging on the wall and a sans-culottes who lay on his belly on the pavement looking through the fanlight, shot at his hand as it reached out, and the result was that he was a finger short. She spent three happy days with her relatives in Paris and left for Pegomas with many loving messages for her parents and family. She was a pretty girl, as were all the Mabille girls, and her Aunt was a little anxious about her travelling so far alone, and put her in the charge of a lady who said she would be happy to see her safely to Cannes.
I will leave it to the imagination of the reader as to her homecoming after nine long years. Blanche was no longer there, for she had secured a position as Companion to a lady and was travelling with her. Her brothers were strangers and teased her a lot, but she loved little sister Leonie, a chubby child, very fair and oh so French!
Ursmer was in England and was in service at Stanmore, at the Country Seat of Mrs. Stanley, the lady who owned the Estate in Pegomas where his father was Steward.
Octavie soon got into the rhythm of life at Terre Blanche. At Harvest-time the peasants from Piedmont, over the frontier in Italy, came to pick the olives and were housed in huts on the Estate. So poor they were, and some with tiny babies. Mamma was moved to compassion and would cook little dainties for them and send Octavie with a basket to take to them. The Italian women were embarrassingly grateful, would fall on their knees, her her hands and call down the blessings of all the Saints. But the men were inclined to be troublesome at times, and to fight with knives. Green figs, oranges, vines, etc. all were grown in the hot Southern sun. Papa crushed the grapes in a large wine-press and the vats we lifted and carried down the steps to the cellar under the house, where it was delightfully cool. The family were forbidden to go down there.
It was late one afternoon, soon after Octavie’s return that Alphonse did not turn up for his evening meal. All the family searched and searched all over the Estate, but nowhere was he to be found. Papa went into the village but none of his friends there had seen him. Papa returned and in desperation looked in the cellar. There was Alphonse, lying unconscious on the floor totally intoxicated by the fumes – he had not touched a drop. He would have died if he had not been found in time. That was why the cellar was ‘out of bounds’, but Alphonse was the naughty one. Augustine was Octavie’s favourite. The house always seemed full of young people. Friends of the family, gay and lively. One young man, a mature youth of seventeen summers, fell in love with Octavie. She was developing into a flirt. Having spent her life up till then in a Convent, she was now the centre of attraction amongst her brothers’ friends. So she encouraged Phillipe and he made a declaration of love and was told to see Papa. Phillipe was really serious and stated his intentions and prospects to Papa who stamped down on his proposal. “Octavie is a Northern girl and at 15 is far too young for marriage. I know the girls here marry at 15, but they attain womanhood earlier. It is out of the question for Octavie to marry at her age.” Poor Phillipe was crushed and love-lorn. Papa was very cross with Octavie and feeling the situation was dangerous, took the only course of action he saw open to him. Octavie was sent to Paris where a distant Cousine had a Modiste Establishment in the fashionable rue Ste Honoré, and would be able to use her as an Apprentice.
Paris did not suit her after the open-air life of the South. She was not unhappy there, she renewed her acquaintance with her cousins and learned to sew quickly before sewing-machines were in use, and acquired a taste for good clothes which served her throughout her life when she had a family of five girls to dress. However, even in a first-class establishment, conditions were appalling from today’s standards and she slept in the workroom and became anaemic, eventually becoming desperately ill with Yellow Fever. Back to Pegomas she went to recover in the hot sunshine and fresh sea air. Phillipe was no longer around for he had entered a Monastry, knowing there was nobody else in this world he would ever want to marry, since he could not have Octavie.
Octavie spent the Summer with her family at Terre Blanche and, having fully recovered, a position was secured for her as Governess to two Scottish boys and she was to teach them French. She was happy enough to take up her new position in Scotland but these boys, full of high spirits and rather spoilt, led her a dreadful life. She had led too sheltered a life to be able to cope with them. They nick-named her ‘Brussel-sprout’ and teased her unmercifully. She found them quite uncontrollable and wrote home telling her father how unhappy her plight was. He loved her dearly and immediately arranged that she should join her elder brother Ursmer at Stanmore where she worked for a time until a suitable post as Companion or Governess was available. These weeks at Stanmore were very happy ones. Her command of English was very inadequate and she was able to improve it under friendly surroundings. There was a large staff at the Manor House at Stanmore and amongst the maids was a pretty girl named Jennie Cripps. Jennie became a close friend of Octavie and they spent their free time together. Jennie belonged to a large family and had many brothers who sometimes joined them when they went to London on the stage-coach, driving behind four horses with the coachman blowing his horn. She thought England, in the Autumn sunshine, was a lovely place to be. But all good things come to an end, and a position was offered her as Companion to a Miss Costa. She went to Upper Berkeley Street for an interview at the family’s town house, and was engaged for the post.
Miss Costa was a girl of around Octavie’s own age, very charming and Octavie grew to love her and stayed with her until she married at 23. Octavie went everywhere with Miss Costa, to the family’s box at the theatre and other festivities in the season and to the Continent with her out of the season. She much enjoyed her visit to Alsace where she saw the world-renowned clock with the figures of the twelve apostles which circled round Christ and genuflected before him, all except Judas Iscariot – he did not kneel. South a dense crowd gathered at 12 o’clock on a hot Summer’s day to see the movement of the clock that several fainted and had to be carried out, (maybe their tight corsets had something to do with their indisposition!)
Octavie saw a lot of her Cousin Helene Beaudoux, who was now Lady’s Maid to Lady Clifford of Chudleigh (sister to their Aunt Octavie’s lady). In the season Lady Clifford would take a house in London bringing her staff with her, and so the girls got together, and would visit their Aunt Octavie in Eaton Place and another distant cousin joined them.
Octavie now knew most members of the Cripps family, and Jennie’s elder brother Harry was rapidly falling in love with Helene Beaudoux, and Arthur Cripps was noticeably attracted to Octavie. They had good times in a party together getting up early and visiting Covent Garden Market and other things one can do in London. The boys found the Belgian girls merry and vivacious and real good fun. London was gay in these far off days when Queen Victoria was on the throne. There appeared no cloud on the horizon, when suddenly Harry Cripps was stricken with chest trouble. A Specialist said a sea voyage would save him from a slow death from tuberculosis. The obvious place to sail to was West America, where his Grandparents had settled rather late in life. Poor Harry, now deeply in love with Helene, was devastated at the thought of having to leave her and begged her to marry him and go West too but even though she too was in love, she could not bring herself to go so far away from those she loved in Binche, her parents and sister and brothe. From London she could visit them from time to time, but America in these days was so very far away. Meanwhile the romance between Octavie and Arthur had developed.
Whilst with Miss Costa, Octavie went on a week-end visit with her to some friends in Chislehurst. One Sunday they went as usual with their host and hostess to Mass at the little Church in the village. Before Mass had started there was a stir in the Church and the whole congregation rose to their feet as a grand lady entered with her Lady in Waiting. “Who is she?” whispered Octavie. “Hush! It is the Ex-Empress Eugenie. Her only son was killed by the Zulus this year.” She looked sad but so beautiful, her lovely red hair greying, she walked proudly and was every inch an Empress.
Another time, at a function, Octavie met Monsieur de Lesseps (who built Suez Canal), a very very old gentlemen. The French Revolution which wiped out the French Aristocracy, also wiped out the purity of speech and only the speech of working people remains, but this man was a descendant of one of the few remaining Aristocratic families. “To listen to him speaking French was like listening to music – a lovely voice speaking perfect French” Octavie said.
The years passed and Octavie went home to Pegomas to enjoy the sunshine and visit her family once a year, sailing on a cargo ship from London Docks for economy sake. Her father, a sweet, gentle, kindly man, was looking rather frail now, but her mother had not changed much, steadfast as a rock, still with her strong Belgian accent, with the coffee pot sizzling on the hearth all day and grinding the coffee beans in a mill between her knees. The local people referred to her as ‘the Belgian woman’.
On her last visit before she reached her 23rd birthday she asked her father’s consent to her marriage with Arthur Cripps. Arthur was not a Catholic but was agreeable to be married in the Catholic Church and to give the necessary promises, for he had proposed and this had been discussed between them. Her father was happy for her. Ursmer had given a good report of Arthur and from what she told of his family he knew he was a good man and also Octavie was now used to the English way of life.
Miss Costa was engaged to be married too, and wanted Octavie to go with her to her new home. She was very sorry to lose her and kissed her affectionately when she learned of her impending marriage. All was arranged and the marriage was celebrated in the French Church in Soho with all the Cripps family present as well as Octavie’s cousins and Aunt Octavie. Her brother Ursmer gave her away.
I will skip the first three years of their marriage except to say that in three years they had not been blessed with a child, which was a great disappointment to them both. At this time they were living at Leytonstone, and there, at the end of the third year, Augustine was born, to their great joy. Meanwhile Ursmer had bought a Tobacconist shop in Lewisham, and was courting a very pretty girl named Gertrude. Arthur decided to set himself up in the same way and took a tobacconist shop in Westminster Bridge Road. Here, a year later, Rosalie was born, then the next year Louise, and fifteen months later Voilet. Life ran smoothly, but with the family increasing Arthur looked for wider fields. The children were rather cooped up in central London, although with the old ‘Canterbury’ Music Hall next door, the Artists would come into the shop and take the little ones in to see the show, and the older ones much enjoyed going behind the stage.
After some years Arthur took over a Tobacconist shop in Fleet Street, right opposite the Law Courts, where he worked very hard for long hours, resulting in a flourishing business. The gentlemen from the Law Courts patronised the shop and the newspaper men from Fleet Street also bought their tobacco and cigars there. There was much intelligent conversation and life was interesting in spite of hard work.
Arthur had bought a house in Brockley, a growing district with open spaces and new houses. A Belgian Maid was engaged to help Octavie in the house, an orphan girl from the Orphanage attached to the Convent in Binche. She proved a true and loyal help to Octavie. Doxie remained with the family for many years, until her marriage, and loved little Augustine and all the little girls. A second son, Arthur, was born in Brockley and Octavie hoped, with his arrival that her family was now complete. However, after four more years I put in an appearance, which was rather a blow. Before I reached two she found her family about to increase again and decided this way too many! So Dad decided it was time she had a holiday and arranged for one of his sisters to look after the home whilst Mamma went home to see her people, taking me with her. Uncle Ursmer came with us bringing his little daughter Blanch. Whilst at Pegomas I learned to walk in the same walking chair which had been used for this purpose for my Aunts and Uncles. Lily waited for some time after our return before entering this wicked world.
So now we were seven. Augustine was attending Aske’s Haberdashers School and Rosalie went to the Notre Dame Convent School in Westminster Bridge Road, where they would get a good education. On November 19th each year the shop window became a grand-stand arranged with seats and the whole family went up to town to see the Lord Mayor’s Show from the window looking on to Fleet Street. Those were the days!
However, poor Dad was to be dogged by ill fortune. His hard work was crowned by such success that it attracted the attention of that big organisation Salmon & Gluckstein who envied his position and a representative came to him offering to buy the business. He was happy there and had no idea of selling but they threatened that if he did not accept their offer they would break him and open up in competition in the empty premises next door and undercut his prices. He knew they would do this. It was a crushing blow and he talked it over with his father. With a family of seven to raise and educate he looked for something equally remunerative and decided on a Public House. A boyhood friend, Harry Weeks, had been in the publican line and would go in with him as barman and knew the ropes, his father said. So Dad took over the Palace Tavern in Charing Cross Road, engaged a pretty barmaid with copper-coloured hair and started business. Mamma had to help him, of course. There were sandwiches to be cut and light refreshments to be prepared and assistance in the bar when necessary. It was larger then than the same Pub is now, a cinema having been built on part of the site. Dad thought that being in the centre of London was a good thing and put every penny into it. (The Brewers knew it was no good, or it would not have been a ‘free’house).
The family left our nice house in Brockley where Lily, Arthur and I were born, and started life afresh in the heart of London.
The first spell of bad luck; a bad smell pervaded the place and all the drains had to be taken up and fresh drainage installed. All the family suffered and I, a toddler, was the worst affect. The poison went to my eyes and a Specialist said, on one visit, that there would be a crisis that night and if there was not a turn for the better, I would be blind the rest of my life. Dear Mamma spent the night on her knees by my cot and my sight was saved. There were rats round the place and the ladies of the town frequented the bar with their clients. At the end of the year poor Dad was declared bankrupt… From then on there was ‘no more hay in the haymarket’. Augustine and Rosie were withdrawn from their respective schools and sent to the Board School (no L.C.C. then). With the help of his father Dad bought a Tobacconist and Newsagents in Old Kent Road with the posh name ‘The Old Kent Cigar Stores’. It was a densely populated neighbourhood, which meant good business – or did it? The seller had seen the writing on the wall. The depression had shown its ugly head and it got worse and worse and worse.
However we, the family, had some good times in Old Kent Road. Poor Mamma fought hard against our environment and life seemed full of restrictions; you must not say ‘aint’ etc. Dad was worried about the family being cooped up in such a restricted area, and on Sundays used to hire a trap and take us all out to the country in Kent or to Blackheath and Greenwich Park. Later, in the less opulent days, he would take us on the ‘two-penny tube’ to St. James’ Park where we would gambol in the park and drink a glass of milk freshly milked from the cow kept in the Park.
Arthur was pronouncing his r’s in the French way, which worried Dad, and each morning after breakfast he would put him through his exercise, so that it was a standing joke in the family “wound the wagged wock the wagged wascal wan”. Cousin Blanche also did not pronounce her r’s the English way and amused us when she sang her favourite songs ‘Sweet Memowies’. I had picked up from Mamma the missing aspirate and Dad would say to me “You have dropped something!”
Now for the romance around me. Augustine had many friends – a group of boys and a series of girl friends who always seemed to be named Alice. Louise was a happy girl, always ready to see a joke, and Augustine’s friends loved her. Rosie was a pretty in a rather foreign way and was said to favour Grandpa Mabille. I suppose we were not a bad-looking bunch – ‘would pass in a crowd with a shove’ as our brother Augustine would have said. Augustine had a deep sense of humour and with five sisters declared he was “under petticoat government”. Dad was tied to the shop from 6am till midnight, with just a rest in the afternoon, in spite of which I can still see the twinkle in his eyes when I confronted him – I was a chatterbox.
At 17 Rosie was working at Peter Robinsons in the Showroom. She used to pick up bargains at sales time, such as light stockings at 6d a pair when everybody wore black ones, and she didn’t care, but wore them with a relish. She dressed very fashionably and always followed the latest style. At Peter Robinsons she met a young Belgian of good family who had come to London to ‘learn the business’. His father owned one of the largest stores in Brussels and was very wealthy. On the Sunday when he was invited to tea Lily and I were wildly excited. At 6 and 8 years old the romances of our sisters were the highlight of our lives. So we sat with our faces glued to the window waiting for him to arrive. Eventually he came in and our best bibs and tuckers we were, in turn, introduced to Leon Pillon. I loved Leon. He was a regular visitor to our house from then on. He bought Rosie expensive jewellery and enormous boxes of chocolates every time he took her out. Many more than she could eat so ‘the kids’ got them. He took her to the theatre in the best seats and finally proposed marriage.
Now Mamma was always happy to have someone who could talk in her own language. In O.K.R. she made no friends. She was a shy, retiring nature, and also had nothing in common with these people. So she talked to Leon in French, which we could not understand, and told him that Rosie would not have a dot (dowry) and so such a marriage could not be entertained. Leon, madly in love, said it was not necessary for Rosie to bring a dot and his family would not expect it. So she talked to Rosie and pointed out that with five daughters, and business going down… a dot was out of the question. If she married without a dot his family would despise her. I think the affection was more on his side, for Rosie was not terribly upset and continued to enjoy his generosity until his father came to London at the end of his year in England, and stayed at the Savoy Hotel and asked Leon to bring her to meet him. But when Leon said she must come to the Savoy to meet his father she flatly refused. Sheer fright, and realising that this was a prelude to marriage. It was the end of Leon’s year in England and he went on to Germany and sent Rosie a postcard every day with the stamp stuck on the picture side, much to the astonishment of Lily and myself. He came back unexpectedly one day about a year later and I was in the shop mending a puncture in my bicycle when he, in his immaculate suit, got down on his knees and did it for me. He really was nice. During this year Henri Fried, a distant cousin of Rosie’s age came to stay with Uncle Ursmer. The plan was for him to get a job for a year or two and learn English. He was very French and very excitable and caused a mild sensation in Old Kent Road. He would stand on one side of Old Kent Road and when he saw Rosie on the other side would scream RO SA LIE! There was soon keen jealousy between Leon and Henri, which finished by Augustine and his friends making a ring round them while they fought it out in Marcia Road – a slum area close by (where I was convinced that all the girls had fleas and swore, and I was probably right in those days). We had some lovely parties during this period, in the little room upstairs, over the shop where poor Dad would constantly request “less noise”. Lily and I missed all the fun as we had to be packed off to bed at the usual bedtime. However, there were compensations. Lily was a chubby smiling but highly strung child, as fair as I was dark. I was scarcely two years older but felt responsible for her happiness and behaviour. We were always together and Mamma often called one by the other’s name so that we both answered to both names.
At 21 years Augustine was given a party, and as Henri Fried was still in London, he came, and Augustine’s friends, and Alice Taylor to whom he was on the point of becoming engaged. It was an evening to be remembered. Augustine, with marriage in view, planned to go to America where the Cripps Uncles already were and would help him to get a job, etc. He had no prospects working in the shop with Dad. So a family portrait was taken and in due course off he went.
Lily was a very friendly, smiling child. I was more like Rosie, a little proud and not easily won over, so young men who wanted to approach our sisters through us asked Lily, not me. A few doors away was an Italian fruiterers with a good looking son with flashing eyes and lovely teeth. Charlie, was his name, and he would stop Lily in the street, give her a bag of the most luscious fruit and say “Give this to your sister Rosie with my love”. Lily would obediently take the fruit to her big sister with the message. Whereupon Rosie would eat the fruit and say “You tell him to keep his love”. I don’t know whether Lily gave the return message to Charlie, quite possibly she did, but this did not deter him. Then there was Doris Ashman, whose Uncle Ray lived with them. Ray worked in his father’s sweet factory in the Borough and got off the bus outside the shop at night in his working clothes, looking somewhat disreputable. He and Rosie did not know each other but had been spoken of by Lily. Ray would shout loudly on seeing Rosie “Hello Rosie” in a silly voice, whereupon Rosie would toss her head. This amused him, especially when Rosie told Lily “You tell Doris’s Uncle Ray not to call after me in the street”. Ray was of Spanish blood and this amused him and made him worse. Eventually, when they became acquainted, he would call in with his cousin Reggie, both in evening dress and top hats and take Rosie and her friend up to the West End for the evening. He looked a different fellow then. He joined the family on Sunday nights, and was a good addition. He would turn the gas low and tell us ghost stories to make our spine quiver.
They were happy days. The house was always filled with young people. Not much money but we got by. Looking back, Mamma worked hard as well as Dad. She helped in the shop when the racing papers came in and the hordes of betting men invaded the shop; prepared three cooked meals a day, kept the house going with the aid of an untrained girl of 15, and on Saturday night she would cook sausages and we could bring in our friends, and on Sunday afternoon any friends we liked to invite to tea were welcome. She loved company and liked to see us happy. But there were times, on hot summer days when the dust settled and not a breeze, and when cane baskets came from Southern France containing Mimosa, grapes and green figs, when she would tell me about the heaven which was Cannes, and I formed a resolution that one day I would go and see for myself.
Within twelve months of the family portrait being taken Dad was taken from us with Pneumonia. Mamma’s life was a struggle then but she never expected much from life and was content so long as she had her family round her. She lived till 1940 when she breathed her last with the enemy bombs falling all around. I shall remember her wonderful unselfishness and loving kindness and Dad’s wonderful sense of humour in the face of adversity until my own life is ended. On this sad note I must end this Saga.
Daisy Hélène Eugénie CRIPPS.