Mary Ellen Hampson was my father’s mother and therefore my grandmother. The only memory I have of her was that of visiting her shortly before she passed away in 1956. I was only 5 and this is one of my earliest memories.
Here are Kenny Marshall’s recollections of Mary Ellen Stevenson.
The Liverpool Courts our folk lived in were described as the worst slums in Europe. There were 20-odd houses (we’d call them flats) grouped around a central court with just a single tap and a single lavatory to serve the eighty or so people living there. Naturally, chamber pots were much in use and they were emptied into an open drain that ran down the centre of the court. The cholera bugs must have rubbed their hands with delight when they saw that. Life expectancy in the early 1900s was just 19 so it was probably even lower in the 1870s-1890s. They must have been as tough as old boots to survive.
Gran spent some time in a Catholic girls’ orphanage – probably after her Dad died. She hated every minute of it and she grew to detest nuns and all they stood for. In particular, she resented the way their public image was manipulated. On Sundays they dressed in smart uniform dresses to be marched to St Mary’s Church, Highfield Street. You can almost hear the locals admiring them, saying how well they were looked after. But the minute they got back it was ‘off glad rags and on again with old rags’. That sort of behaviour was probably common in those days. We cannot find any records of her stay in the orphanage. Not surprising really. The church was noted for being very backward in coming forward with records.
Agnes (her mother) remarried in 1901 to William Lewis Jones. Gran thought the world of him and he was known to her children as Grandad Jones.
Gran married Grandad in 1907. They shared a house with the Browns for some years, probably so that the girls would be company for each other whilst their husbands were at sea, but as the families grew they moved into their own houses. Mary Brown nee Fowler was Grandad’s half-sister.
Gran had 12 children. The last, David, was born when she was 43, and the first grandchild, me, came along two years later. Two of the children died in infancy. She named her eldest daughter after the two grandmothers – Harriet Agnes – and she, my Mum, hated it for the rest of her life! Harriet became her First Lieutenant, looking after the other kids whilst Gran had her babies. The others called her Bossyboots. Mum missed a lot of schooling – in those days and circumstances the authorities did not seem to be too bothered about it – and her one regret in her later life was not so much her lack of learning as the fact that she was a good swimmer and she never got the chance to achieve what she might have done.
The 1920s seem to have been their most prosperous years. Grandad was a sea captain and by the end of the decade he was affluent enough to buy their own 12-roomed house (40 Newstead Road). That was most unusual for the time. I don’t think anyone else in the family owned their houses until long after the war, when the next generation had no option. The house was big enough for Harriet to stay on after she was married and continue her role as Bossyboots.
In the 1930s life became a lot harder. Grandad lost his job in the depression so their income dropped sharply. The Great Depression hit seamen very hard as trade shrank and ships were laid up. It was just as well that the older children were at work by then and able to add their meagre earnings to the kitty. One of my earliest memories is of being woken up early in the morning by Gran shouting up the stairs to wake Lily and Mary for work. Invariably she ended up coming upstairs, shouting all the way, and standing in their bedroom, which was diagonally opposite ours across the landing, until they did get up. They really liked their kip those girls.
The 1940s were not good years, either. The war brought shortages, queues, rationing and air raids. I remember one of my aunts getting ‘hysterics’ during an air raid. It was not the sound of the explosions that did it – by the time you heard them if you were still alive you were out of danger – but the whistle of the bombs as they came down. In those days the cure was a sharp slap on the face. ( I wonder what it is in these PC days?) I had never known Gran to smack any of her children but she gave this one a good right-hander. It worked, but it must have upset her to do it. Eventually, the bombing eased. Then, in 1942, she lost Grandad. In 1943 her latest son-in-law, Peter Morris, Lily’s husband, was killed during the invasion of Sicily. In 1944 her son, George, came home from the tank battle at Caen without his legs. And then, when the war was finally over, and things could be expected to slowly return to normal, she lost two sons, Jack and Albert, and a grandson, Norman, in the Penstone disaster in 1948.
In the 1950s Gran was, technically, on her own. All her children had grown up and married. She still lived in what we used to call the kitchen. (It had been the kitchen in the glory days of the house, but by then the cooking was done in the large back kitchen.) Lily and her family also lived in the house – in the rooms that we had used in the thirties and early forties – so she was never actually left alone, and her other daughters, especially Harriet and Mary, used to call in to see her every day.
From as long ago as I remember we had been taught that Gran had a weak heart so we mustn’t bother her, but she kept going until 1956. She took ill whilst she was on holiday with Ruby, down in Becontree, but she had no intention of dying there. I happened to be home on leave at the time so I went down with Mum to bring her back. I must say that British Rail did an excellent job of looking after her. We got a taxi in to Euston. There we were met by a porter with a wheel chair who took her straight to a reserved carriage. At the other end there was another wheelchair which took her to Uncle Bert’s taxi. And so to our house. Gran settled in and seemed to improve, but it was soon clear that she wanted to go Home. She stayed with us for a while but, eventually, she got her way and was taken to 40 Newstead. She held on there until Christmas was out of the way and then on December 28th she departed this realm. Rene remembers that when she was dying she reverted to her old religion and began reciting her Hail Marys.