Guest blog by Lindsay Eavis (playing Constance Aspinall (b. 1880) in ‘Small Histories’)
Being the elder of the company I have memories of an earlier age and of an upbringing of austerity during the mid twentieth century. I also have a memory of earlier times from the stories told to me by my parents dating back to Edwardian times when they lived in back to back houses in cobbled streets echoing with horse hooves, trams and clogs. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather playing me a tune on his harmonica and telling me he’d played it in the trenches of the Somme. I was 4 years old when he died and didn’t understand the significance of what he was saying to me. If only I could turn back the clock.
I know times were tough. I was always reminded of how lucky I was growing up in post war Britain without rationing and with inside sanitation – but what must it have been for Constance’s generation who were dying out before I was even born. I had to start researching.
The internet is wonderful (if only my dad had lived to see it), but it has its limitations. Yes, it could give me statistics about infant mortality, diet, working conditions and home life, but what I really wanted was a personal account, an oral history, but sadly I had no-one to ask as the earlier generations of my family are now dead. It then dawned upon me. Why go searching online when I have my own family’s details to hand from my family tree research. Once I started delving into this my connection with Constance blossomed. I’d like to share this emotional journey with you.
My paternal grandparents were born in 1874 and 1877. My maternal grandparents in 1894 and 1896. They were Constance’s generation. I only knew one grandparent, the one I described earlier, the others had died before I was born; two before they had reached 40. I started researching my family tree over 25 years ago and the first place I started was with my mother’s mother, Polly Bassett (nee Marsh). She died in 1930 aged 34 from peritonitis brought about by a burst appendix. My mum was 11 years old and the loss of her mother so devastated her she would never visit the grave – it was too upsetting. When mum died, my sister and I decided to seek it out. This was before online searching was available and the staff at Bury Cemetery were wonderful. They found the grave in which were buried my grandmother, her parents and one of her grandparents who was called Polly Frankish (died 1911 aged 59). Nearby in an unmarked grave was Polly Frankish’s husband, Robert (died aged 43 in 1891). In the same grave were 17 others …… all children. At the time, staff claimed it held more bodies than any other grave in the cemetery. Of these 17 children, one was 14 year old John Frankish, son of Robert and Polly. 15 others were their grandchildren all aged 3 years and younger. One daughter of theirs appears to have borne a child more or less every year. She had 11 children but only 2 survived into adulthood. These infants are in the grave. The discovery was nothing short of an emotional bombshell. How was it possible to cope both physically, mentally and emotionally with such tragedy? Further research using census data show that Polly and Robert lived in an area very close to Bury town centre where most of their children also seemed to settle. My own mum was born in one of these houses and recalled how cramped they were. In 1881 there were 8 people living in 22 Back Tenters Street, Bury with no inside sanitation, most probably only one bedroom and a cast iron range for heating and to use for cooking. Women of course had responsibility for the running of the home and it was hard labour without today’s modern appliances. Each day was allocated a task; washing on Monday, baking on Friday etc. The information on the census returns show that in the majority of cases the ‘wife’ of a household in this area also went out to work as labourers in the cotton mills. As did children from the age of 12. I find it incomprehensible to imagine what their lives, what Constance’s life must have been like. Domestic labour, employment, multiple children and childcare. Poverty, disease and death around every corner. How did they cope? Then, as this generation were maturing into middle age the world experienced the carnage of the First World War and the loss of many of their loved ones, sons and brothers. In old age the conflict of the Second World War emerged. Their resilience is astonishing.
As I was growing up I was ingrained with a sense of justice and doing the right thing. I was taught to be grateful, to be sensible, take responsibility and be stoical in the face of hardship. Emotional trauma had to be suppressed because life is tough and you just have to get on with it because there’s no alternative. No good moping. Now I totally understand where these values have come from. That said, there was also love, laughter, silliness and an ability to remain optimistic when times were tough. Thank you to all my ancestors …… and Constance. You have my utmost respect and gratitude. You’ve made me who I am today. Rest in Peace.
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