I grew up in a house full of secrets, where conversations would end suddenly as I walked into the room and grown-ups would change the subject to things deemed more suitable for young ears.
Children know when adults are hiding things, even if they are too young to understand the complexities of relationships, so I developed a thirst for the “truth” of the matter.
That led me to my first career, as a national newspaper journalist, but I always had it in the back of my mind, that there was a story to be told about my own family’s secrets.
My earliest years were spent in the care of my maternal grandmother, Annie, who lived with her half-sister, my Great Aunt Elsie. They would tell me about the old days back in London, showing me pictures of my great gran Emma Chick and even my great-great gran, who worked as laundresses in the slums of Notting Hill and Acton, which was known as Soapsud Island, at the turn of the last century and the years between two world wars.
Researching All My Mother’s Secrets, I was horrified to learn about the squalor the laundresses worked in. Diseases such as TB and scarlet fever were a rife, hours were long for little pay and the conditions were squalid and dangerous, with floors awash with filthy water and scalds from searing hot irons just a part of everyday life. And the worst thing was, some of the laundry maids were just children - as young as 12; and that had included my Nan.
As I grew up, certain things were Just Not Talked About – such as what happened to my Nan’s father, Henry Austin, who she had been told, had “gone away to the First World War and never came back.”
I also learned that there had been a Great Uncle George, my gran’s brother, born in 1915, who died young, of tuberculosis. Great Aunty Elsie’s dad was a laundry hand, who Emma Chick had married as the First World War was drawing to a close but no-one spoke much about him either, other than to say he was a bit of a bad tempered bloke at times.
My Nan died when I was 12 and that sparked my mother’s interest in family history. This was in the 1980s, before the internet, and through her, I learned how to research births, marriages and deaths, on microfilm and from dusty old registers held in libraries and at the National Archives in Kew.
But try as we might, Henry Austin, who we knew had worked as a cabbie, driving a horse-drawn hansom cab around London’s bustling streets before the war, simply seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
It was after my mother’s untimely death from cancer that my Great Aunt Elsie let slip something which made me even more determined to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She believed that Great Uncle George’s father might not have been the mysterious Henry Austin but someone else, within the Austin family, who had lived with my great gran for a time, after he was widowed.
It inspired me to look again, with fresh eyes, and this time, I found Henry Austin had died, not in the Great War, but in 1906, when my gran was still a baby. So, Emma Chick had lied all along, but the question was: Why?
I won’t spoil the plot by revealing all the secrets just now, but I was able to find out who George’s father was and what had happened to him, after he went away to fight in the Great War. And in a sense, sadly, he never came back because he was such a changed man, so the story my Nan was told was partly true.
It’s easy to judge someone for lying to cover up a scandal but I believe Emma Chick did what she had to do to try to hold her family together, to avoid public shame, during the upheaval of the Great War. I am proud of her, and all the other laundresses, who toiled for such little reward, with the wellbeing of their children uppermost in their minds.
*ALL MY MOTHER’S SECRETS by Beezy Marsh is published by PanMacmillan on August 9th, priced £7.99. Available in ASDA, Waterstones, WH Smiths and good book shops as well as Amazon. https://amzn.to/2Hlh0fr
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