A Tribute to my Mother
on 25th April 2021 which would have been her 100th birthday
My mother was born Gwen Gray on 25th April 1921 in Croydon. As the centenary of her birth has been approaching, I’ve been remembering some of the stories she told me about her early life in 1920’s Gloucestershire Sadly, her mother Beatrice, nee Wade, died aged 35 just seven months on from giving birth to my mother. This prompted a mental breakdown for her husband Robert, who was ten years her junior, his grief aggravating a shell injury to the head which he got during service in the first world war. So Mum was cared for by her sisters Ethel and Queenie. They were working single women and arranged for her to go to a children’s home in Wandsworth drawing on the legacy left by my grandmother who had been a secretary and personal assistant in a whisky company.
At age four Mum was ‘adopted’ by a schoolteacher Edith Leslie then teaching in Minsterworth primary school. In 1920 Edith Horn had married a travelling salesman – Mr Leslie – who turned out to be a bigamist ‘married’ to three other women. This was discovered when one of his other ‘wives’, a nurse from Devon, came to stay in the local Inn to see what was expected to be one of the more spectacular of the “Severn Bore” tidal wave events in that year. Her ‘husband’ was living in the schoolhouse with Edith and my mother. When the nurse saw him walking along the road, she confronted him and discovered his betrayal – of both herself and Edith the schoolmistress who had adopted my mother. This led to a trial in November 1925 in Bradford, during the course of which Leslie was charged with bigamist marriage to three women and £1000’s fraudulent deception from them. The police in their enquiries discovered a trunk with over 5000 letters to some 200 women whom he had conned in the previous decade.
Edith was not at all lucky in choosing her partners. Her next attempt at marriage also ended in disaster. She married a local farmer Mr Hislop. Not long after the wedding he returned home with two pheasants and gave them to her to cook. She put them in the oven feathers, innards and all. He laughed, how he laughed! She left taking my mother with her. They walked through the counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, sleeping under hedgerows and wherever they could find some shelter, eventually ending up in a hostel run by some nuns or other religious women somewhere near St Austell. I think ‘Mrs L’ (as she remained known) was then rescued by one of her brother’s Frank Horn – whom my mother knew as “Nunc”. He was one of a family of bakers who settled for a time in Thornbury giving a home to my mother and his sister who continued her teaching in Patchway primary school. Nunc, I think became ill with emphysema from working with flour and they may have moved at some point into Bishopston to stay with a relative - mum attending Bishops Road School Bristol - but then returning to Thornbury.
As well as helping in the bakery my mother drew water from the Thornbury village pump for villagers who had not the time or strength to do it for themselves, earning a little pocket money. As a senior pupil at Thornbury School, she helped teach the younger students. Aged 14 she went to work in the village post office which then operated the local telephone exchange. She was taught how to raise the local brigade in the event of fire. The first time she was left on her own the 16C Thornbury Castle went on fire! She managed to do what was needed. At sixteen she went to work in the Bristol Telephone exchange where she made some lifelong friends including my late (and also much loved) godmother Sheila Besant. At this point in her life, my mother was put in touch with her father whom she met only the once when she was eighteen. This arose because she had been using the surname, Leslie. The civil service/GPO were insistent she use her birth certificate name which was Gray. Whoever was in charge of the Bristol GPO knew of her father (may have been a relative?) and asked if she would like to meet him. It was rather a strange meeting, in Whitehall, London, at a cocktail party. Robert, her father according to family hand down stories spoke six or seven languages including mandarin Chinese. All my mother remembers of that meeting was this very tall red headed man asking her if she would like to meet a Chinese man – and turning away from her – and then back, having shrunk by about a foot, and adopted wizened Chinese face features! Who was this man?
I grew up thinking all these stories rather fanciful, but several elderly relatives mentioned things as my teenage years progressed which bore out some of what my mother had told me in response to my enquiries about who my ‘other gran and grandpa’ were. She more than once said to me she would like to find her father. But if he did not look for her, she thought maybe it would not be right to go in search of him. When my late friend Candy Atherton did some family research for me, she discovered Robert Gray, having served in the military, had become a clerk in the inland revenue but then spent many years in the police service. Candy’s research discovered he lived until 1963 – so until I was 14 and my mother 42. He had remarried and his wife was called Linda. As for the bigamist marriage – well in doing some idle googling while writing this piece I discovered that the story of Mr Leslie was in the Gloucester and Cheltenham news papers in November and December 1925…even more dramatic than my mother had told me
Candy discovered another (for me) amazing story on grandmother Beatrice’s side – which gives me a link with Plymouth - which my mother never learned of - and I only came to know about after her death. Beatrice ‘s maiden name was Wade (my middle name). Mums, great, great grandmother was Mary Ann Eagan, who was spirited away from Devonport (where she was born in 1808) by one Barnabas Wade, a boot and shoemaker from Orford in Suffolk. There she founded a Wade dynasty of tradesmen and those earning their living on ships and in docks. Over the years they migrated down the east coast to the Port of London and Bermondsey where my grandmother was born in 1886. She and Robert Gray met when he was 17 and she 27 – they married in 1917.
My father met my mother in 1947 when he came to work on the Bristol Brabazon at Filton as a young engineer. They shared digs in Frenchay Bristol. Married in 1948, with their early years together spent in Scotland, they moved between there and Devon over the decades between then and their last years spent in Exeter.
Mum died in 2004 aged 83, just a few short months after my father (who had heroically been her main carer through several years of dementia) had himself died from heart disease. We interred their ashes in the ground around an oak sapling which has since grown into a yet young tree – in the Killerton Estate, a place they both loved and visited frequently over the many years of their life together. I smile every time I remember the early years of my life which were for the most part happy and secure. I appreciate what they – particularly my mother - gave me - far more than I did when they were alive. On the hundredth anniversary of her birth in writing this tribute to her I miss, love and think fondly of her with massive gratitude. She was a great one for coming up with an appropriate saying to fit the many circumstances which daily life throws our way. Today the one that comes to mind is one of her most oft repeated “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever. Do noble things, not dream them all day long” - best pay attention to this, as it becomes more obvious as each day goes by that “time best not to be squandered”!