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Bessie Webb

My grandmother (Nana)

2nd February 1902 - 21st June 2001

Her story:






told through her written and tape-recorded memoirs and by means of interviews with me, sometimes together with my aunt Mary.

1) At Home

2) School

3) Family
& the impact of WW1

At Home

I was born on February 11th 1902 at a suburb of LONDON called Earlsfield. My earliest recollections are of the age of 5 years living in a small house in Brixton, after a few months my parents moved to a larger house still in Brixton which had business premises attached to the house and was to become known as "Webb's Hand Laundry".

me: What was the house like where you lived as a child? Was it the laundry downstairs and the house upstairs?
Yes, well, the laundry you went right out to the back garden. The house was on the pavement.
(me ) So people came and brought their laundry?
We had a washing machine except for what we called the wringing, before they were dry, they came out of the rinsing water and put in the wringer. I've turned that wringer many a time.
(me) And was that powered by electricity?
We hadn't got electricity. We had it after, a long time after. The washing machine was driven by, I don't know what you call it, by some kind of mechanism. It had a big wheel at the side and you twisted and it set it running. When we had fine weather we used to hang them out in the garden, we had 15 or 16 lines, full. We used to put them through the wringer. You had to put the irons outside the fire, all round, fitted in, went in a slot, that meant you had to keep a fire going. I've seen the irons all red hot. You had to be careful.
(me) And then upstairs?
It was the house, at the side, yes. My mother used to work so hard. I used to iron all the handkerchiefs, teacloths.
(me) And did your brothers help?


(me) Can you tell me about when you were a little girl?
Oh when I was a little girl. Well I went to school in St Matthew's Road which was, I don't know if it's still there now
(me) Well I looked on the map and St Matthew's road is there and it's got two schools one at each end.
Yes, well we had the church down at the bottom of the road and the school was up towards the middle of the road. It was a very nice school, I liked it. It was only we didn't have a real classroom for our age and we used to have to sit on the steps of the school and we had a very very nice time there. But one thing I do remember about it and that I've often told the others that at that school I was about 11 or 12, about 12 I think, and I was in that school and the headmistress at the school her name was Miss Kett. I liked her, she was very, very good, but a lot of the girls didn't. But we had a bit of a set-to one day. My brother had given me a nice large skipping rope, a very nice one.
(me) which brother gave it to you?
That was Will, William, and on this day I'm going to tell you about I'd got the skipping rope out and was skipping on the pavement and the girls came up and said 'let me have a go, let me have a go' and eventually I had nearly the whole of our class skipping. And, oh dear, one girl, her name was Johnstone, she said, 'look at them, they're skipping there on the pavement' and she turned around and she went up the few steps of our classroom and she went up to Miss Kett and she said 'Miss Kett, you know Bessie Webb' because my name was Webb then, 'Bessie Webb is skipping outside' and she said 'she's what?' and she came to the door and called me in and she said 'what do you mean by this skipping outside on the path?'
And she said 'she's out there with a skipping rope, skipping with all the girls' and of course I was called in the classroom, what did I mean by skipping out there, and whose rope was it, and I said 'well it's my brother's rope and he let me have it'. And she said, 'oh he did did he? All right, go and get it in', and she went out and fetched this skipping rope and she threw it on the fire. Oh I was so upset. She said, 'how dare you skip out there on the pavement, don't you know this is a school?' I cried and she sent me back to my room. But I never forgave that girl for going and telling her, I mean she could have put the skipping rope in a drawer and said, 'well, it's there, but you're not going to have it until you go'. Anyhow, I got over that episode and I never spoke to that girl again.

(me) No, I don't blame you! So what kind of things did you learn at school?
All the arithmetic and history, and we had one teacher who took domestic science and we had a lesson on domestic science and she said one lesson 'Now we're going to talk about domestic science. Now what do we do?' ' We just listen to you miss,' and she went on and she said 'well, domestic science means that you are learning to keep the house clean and tidy and other little jobs like that' and so she went on about it she followed that up by another subject and she said 'what do we do in domestic science' and we said, 'we clean and polish things and make the room look nice and tidy.'
(me) And what was your favourite lesson at school?
I don't know. I don't think I had one. Well, I suppose reading, I think, was one of them anyhow. I used to love reading.
(me) Do you remember the books you had to read?
The books we had. We had a book, I think it's one of my aunts had the book called What Katy Did, we had, I know we had that book. And various other small books.
(me) Did you do music at school?
Music, Yes, Miss Kett took them. Singing. And I was picked out to sing a contralto and we went to Crystal Palace to sing with the 5000 voices. That was very good, we spent the whole day there and we were allowed to go and look around the grounds of the palace, Crystal Palace. That was very good.
(me) And how old were you then?
Only the once, it was a special. I think it's a memorial of somebody that ran this 5000 voices. There were so many picked from each school to sing and I happened to be one of them.
(me) And how old were you?
I suppose I was about 12 then. I must have been quite that. We had all those other children from other schools and there was an article about it in the paper but I wasn't lucky enough to get a paper, there were only so many allowed for each school and I couldn't get one. It was an article about the 5000 voices.
(me) Did you have toys as a child?
No, I hadmy brother Edward bought me for Christmas one year a shop with little bags ofa green grocer's shop I think, I know I used to take the beans out of the bag.
(me) Was it made of wood?
Laughing. Yes. No, I never had any toys.

Click here to see Bessie's school History exercise book from 1915 when she was 13 years old.

(me) Did you go to a primary school and then a secondary school?
No, I went to a church school.
(me) and that was for the whole of your schooling?
That's right. Yes.
(me) and how old were you when you left school?
Fourteen. That was the school leaving age, 14.
(me) And was it unusual for young girls your age to leave home, have a career and be independent?
Yes, very unusual, they used to leave school at 12 and whatever they went to they went. How things have changed!
(me) Did you have lots of friends your age when you were growing up?
No, nothing to speak of. There was a friend lived next door but one and across the road there was two friends. They were very close people there, around, there was a married couple that had grown up children. At the top of the road, they were grown up, he used to take bets, horse racing, none of them ever won. And the doctor, his house was at the top of the road, Hopewell, his name was, had him for years, as far as I can remember.

3) Family & the impact of WW1

Both my mother and father came from large families and as a small child I spent my Summer and Christmas holidays with two maiden aunts Bessie and Polly. They lived very orderly lives, the mornings were devoted to household chores, then they would wash and change and I had to be very quiet and read a book or do drawing whilst they rested. One of the other sisters was a court dressmaker. I think that was Phoebe. I used to go over to their house and sit on the floor and take all the cottons and put them all nice and tidy and straight.
But the trouble was you see, even though I had so many aunts and uncles, they never visited us, any of those, there was only Aunt Bessie and Polly that ever visited us. None of the others, well for one thing they couldn't get on with my father, they hated the sight of him. The only time I ever knew my mother's twin sisters, Rose and Lily, was when she used to take me, perhaps on a Sunday, to visit. And Sarah, she was the one that had a laundry, I was the only one that was ever taken to see any of them. I mean we were cut off from all the relations, we didn't know any of them, because, as I say, no one would have anything to do with my father.

The road in which we lived was called 'Church Road', but after a few years it was changed to St Matthew's Road as at the bottom of the road was the Parish Church which I believe was one of the churches built to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo.

There was a church school a few houses along from my home which I attended. I enjoyed my days at school, especially as I grew up and went in the higher classes. There, one day a week, we had to walk about a quarter of a mile to a larger school where we were taught housewifery and swimming. Another lesson I looked forward to was singing; at Christmas time the family always went to Aunt Bessie's and I stayed for a few days. She and Aunt Polly were father's sisters, neither of them married and they lived a very orderly life, they did the housework and the cooking in the morning and rested in the afternoon when I had to be very quiet and read a book or do drawing. During the summer holidays they would take me with them to another married aunt who lived at Southsea. Aunt Bessie began to teach me to play the piano and to sing little songs. I grew very fond of her.

I got on very well at school and when I got to the top class the headmistress took the class for singing.
The Crystal Palace used to have a choir consisting of five thousand voices of children from schools all over England and two years running my school went. I was lucky enough to be in our school choir and I remember how excited we were told we had been chosen to go to the Crystal Palace.

I had now turned 14 years and so left school. I had for a long time attended Sunday School. One of the teachers asked me what I was going to do. She was a milliner and owned a shop, so asked me if I would like to learn how to make hats. I told her I would like to very much: my mother was quite willing but my father said 'No, you have to stay home and help in the house and the laundry'.
Well, the least said about my father the better, he drank too much and was cruel to my mother and eldest brother Will. Brother Eddie would not stay at home. Ronald, who was younger than I, could do no wrong in my father's eyes.

The war was started and my brother Edward went to war and was killed. He was married to a very nice woman and had twins, Cecil, who died when he was 13 with meningitis, the other, Edward, lived but I lost contact with him.

Me: Do you remember when you found out that your brother Eddie had been killed in the war?
Nana: Well I heard vaguely that he had been killed in the war, but they didn't say whether it was definite or not, but after a while, it came out that he had been killed.
Me: Did your parents receive a telegram? How did you find out?
Nana: Some of the soldiers were still around, that were there. That's as far as I could find out.
Mary: Did somebody come to the house to tell you?
Nana: That was by telegram, they had a telegram.
Mary: How old were you? Teenager? About 15?

Nana: I don't know how old I was then. Could have been a little bit older than that.
Mary: So Ronnie would have been a little boy.
Nana: Ronnie? Yes.
Mary: So Ronnie would have been about 5 when Eddie was killed. Can you remember it? Your mother must have been very upset.
Nana: My mother was, terrible upset.
Mary: And what about Gladys, cause Gladys had twins, didn't she.

Nana: She did.
Mary: Must have been ghastly, to have been expecting twins.
Me: Yes, they would only have been a year old.
Mary: And he would have never seen them. I wonder how they managed in those days.
Nana: I often wish I could go back and go over all that. I wish I had taken more notice of the goings on

To chapter two


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