Friday, 19 February 2016

A cricketer's grave

No real change to report with my bad toe, but I've abandoned the ibuprofen gel and I'm using tablets instead. It seems to be slightly more effective for pain relief. And possibly for the swelling as well, for the digit in question looks less puffy today.

I tried an experiment too. I remembered that my brown Dubarry boots had plenty of toe room, and when I tried them on they did indeed allow me to 'walk' without exerting pressure on my bad toe. I say 'walk' because it was a careful series of movements, rather than anything done in a natural way.

At least I could drive comfortably in those boots. So I went down to the beach at Seaford, just to get out and enjoy a change of scene, and possibly go for a very quick stroll along the promenade. But the very strong cold breeze kept me inside Fiona. However, I did get to stretch my legs a bit inland, at Seaford Cemetery of all places. It was much more out of the wind.

For some reason the grave of M---'s Aunt Nellie's husband Walter Stephen Fox had popped into my mind. I'd searched for this grave in April 2006, and had actually found it - this was when I was still engaged in helping M--- with her family genealogical research. I'd taken photos of the grave and its position at the time. Here are three of them:



As you can see, Walter's grave was close to a distinctive clump of trees. The gravestone said this:

WALTER STEPHEN FOX
OF BRENTFORD, BORN WOKINGHAM
SON OF CUCKFIELD FAMILY.
DIED SUDDENLY SEAFORD, MARCH 28 1954
EVER IN OUR THOUGHTS.
GREATLY MISSED. 

Two things strike me about this wording. First, it has a telegraphic brevity. It's too clipped. It needs a few extra words, to make it less like a newspaper headline. Perhaps there was a communication problem with the stonemasons. Second, there isn't a hint of any religious feeling - something that was surely still the conventional thing to express in 1954. Walter was, after all, born in 1882, and I'm thinking that as a conventional child of the Victorian age, he would have wanted on his gravestone some mention of a happy resurrection in heaven. 

I actually know quite a bit about him, as I do about Nellie. M--- had access to many photos and other documents relating to their lives, both pre-marriage and post-marriage, and I still have photographic copies of the whole lot, along with derived notes of my own. I can't of course discuss Nellie - she's part of M---'s family, and out of bounds to me - but Walter married in from outside the family, and so he's fair game. I can write something about him. I hope I do him justice.

These are the notes I made in 2006, taken from the documentary evidence and the photos M--- had:

Walter's family
Walter sent a postcard to his mother Annie on 1906 1024 to 38 Langborough Road, Wokingham, Surrey.

Walter had a brother George, who (rather unluckily) was killed at the very end of the First World War, in 1918, actually dying after the cessation of hostilities (presumably of wounds). The CWGC website gives details of George’s (and therefore Walter’s) parents. George’s wife is named.

There is also a photo-postcard from someone called Alex - a clergyman - who may have been just a friend of Walter’s. His address on 1907 0710 was 52 Hulbard Street, West Ham. He was writing to Walter at 54 Dudley Road, Ilford, Essex.

How Walter met Nellie
[M---] says it was through an introduction agency. He was 13 years older than Nellie. They did not have any children.

Walter’s job
Walter was described as a ‘Secretary’ on the 1927 marriage certificate, and his death certificate in 1954 describes him as a ‘Wholesale Grocer’s Secretary (retired)’. On the back of the 1954 grant of Probate is the stamp of ‘James Bradbury & Son Ltd, Wholesale Grocers & Provision Merchants, Brentford, Mdx’, with the handwritten endorsement ‘Registered 14th Sept 1954’. Presumably Bradburys had to see the Probate in connection with Walter’s pension - as as former company secretary he might well have received one - and perhaps Nellie was entitled to something as the widow. Clearly Walter worked for Bradbury’s for a long time, and had an important position in the firm.

Among Walter’s earlier photos is one of a staff outing for the employees of ‘Bradburys’, and there is a later photo (about 1930) which includes Walter and some crafty-looking characters who must be the directors. One of them seems to appear in a still later works outing photo. 

There was no trace of Bradbury’s in an Internet search (including the Companies House website) in late April 2006. It could have been taken over, but [even] if not, Bradbury’s wouldn’t have survived much beyond 1980. By then the heyday of small retail grocers on street corners (which firms like Bradbury’s supplied) was over. Supermarket chains were beginning to get a stranglehold on their market.

Walter himself
He was clearly actively interested in sport when young, football in the early days around 1900, then cricket in the 1920s and later. The photos show him in cricket gear when in his 50s. The impression is that he must have been pretty fit most of his life. But [M---] recalls that he was deaf in one ear. He died aged 71 of a ‘coronary thrombosis’ and ‘ulcerated tubercular glands of neck’. His gravestone describes the death as sudden.

His grave
In Seaford cemetery. [Found by Lucy] on 2006 0401 – see the photos. 

I researched the house at Seaford where Walter died - called Prem Mahal - and put together these early-fifties maps:


This was the house itself back in 1954 or shortly before:


In 2006, some fifty years later, it looked like this:


And these were the notes I made:

Prem Mahal was the name of a bungalow at the west (seaward) end of Bishopstone Road, Bishopstone, Seaford, East Sussex. By 1951 it was numbered 1a Bishopstone Road, and by 2006 the name had been long forgotten. The postcode is BN2 6BR.

The property was built on a slope, and included a spacious back garden with - like the house itself - wide views of the (then) almost undeveloped downs opposite, and the sea over to the right. In front, rolling up to the house, was a sloping front garden, mostly lawn, with a curving driveway that led to a garage on the west side. The provision of a garage might have been a little unusual for the time (late 1920s to mid-1930s). [Lucy] researched the Indian name of the house (Prem Mahal) and found that it means ‘Palace of Love’ - which probably [suggests that] the first owner [was] a retired civil servant, back from colonial service in India.  

[M---] had the impression that Nellie and Walter lived at Prem Mahal for a while, not just for a short holiday, perhaps renting it. Walter died there suddenly in March 1954. The Death Certificate shows that he was visiting, and that his normal home was still Adelaide Terrace in Brentford. So he and Nellie were indeed only on holiday. A local directory for 1951-52 lists W H Bellemy as the person in residence, and he was presumably the owner and a friend of theirs. (This can in theory be checked with the Land Registry, but their charges are too much) A few of Walter’s later (or last) photos show Prem Mahal, and one of them has a lady sitting outside the front door. She doesn’t seem to be Nellie, and may therefore be Mrs Bellemy.  

[Lucy] visited Prem Mahal on 2006 0519. It wasn’t hard to decide which bungalow it was, as the layouts of the front drive and side path were the same as in 1954, and the building itself was essentially unchanged. But at some point it had acquired a completely unsympathetic roof extension on its landward (east) side. It looked as if the bungalow had been converted into a number of rooms to rent. [Lucy] took some photos from the road, but this made two of the residents (young men in their late twenties) come out to protest. It seemed that certain people in other bungalows further up the road had been making complaints, and they had thought [that she, Lucy] was photographing with malicious intent. They changed their attitude when [she] explained the actual purpose of [her] visit, and something of Walter Fox’s connection. They became a lot friendlier, eventually pointing out a driveway which led to the rear, inviting [her] to go up and see the property from there. They also suggested that [she] speak to a man named David next door at number 1, who was a longstanding resident interested in local matters, and who might have information on the Bellemys and the bungalow. They themselves weren’t locals, and had no idea that the bungalow had once been known as Prem Mahal.

Those young men were pretty aggressive until they realised why I was so interested in their house! Then they couldn't have been nicer.

And, finally, here are some photos of Walter from 1900 onwards - just a few out of many I possess of himself and his family. On the back of one of these photos, cricket is described as his 'first love'. I think he must have been incredibly keen.


That's the photo showing Walter standing (left) behind the three directors of Bradbury's. Have you ever seen men with craftier faces? Devious wheeler-dealers and no mistake! Let us continue.


Personally, cricket leaves me unmoved. But Walter clearly revered the game.

All this certainly adds meat to the bare-bones information on the gravestone! You feel you can, in large measure, appreciate what he may have been like as a real person of flesh and blood. And this only skims the surface of all that might have been known, but is now lost. Even as it is, though, it's a positively encyclopaedic collection of facts and photos compared to what I know of Mum and Dad's own parents. I was - and remain - envious of any family that has preserved an extensive collection of old family documents and photos. If you have such an archive, you must regard it as precious, and never throw it away.

Back to today, and my very careful footsteps through Seaford Cemetery. It would have been painful to trip up or stumble. I quickly found the clump of trees, but being there on the spur of the moment, I hadn't come armed with those location photos from 2006. I couldn't see the gravestone, and I failed to find the grave.

I wondered if they had removed the gravestone for some reason: there were a number of graves without one. And yet it wasn't a tall affair, that could flop over and crush somebody. I'm thinking perhaps of some absurd 'health and safety' directive. Maybe it was just being cleaned up.

If any member of Walter's family reads this, then please forgive my interest in him. It would have been the same with any well-documented life that came my way. Mum and Dad weren't interested in preserving much of the past, and we were a small family anyway - so in consequence there is very little left for me to examine and cherish as 'my' family history. I feel starved of forebears that I can know. My personal background is full of 'missing persons' whose histories I can never now discover. In such a situation it's surely natural enough to 'adopt' another family, a family that has documents, and pictures with names and captions. It fills a gap, an emptiness.

Walter would have been thirty-eight when my Dad was born in 1920. I only vaguely (and briefly) knew Dad's father. But, up to a point, I can get to 'know' Walter and other people like him, and they supplement the meagre 'real' family.

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