MEMORIES OF NINETY YEARS
Extracts from the memoir of May Wasson (nee Tree) - June 1980
I was the first girl in the family, already having three brothers, George aged 6, James aged 4 and Ernest aged 2.
My father, a basket maker, came from London about 1885 and started a business. His father and brothers followed him and worked with him, it being the family trade. An exhibit of my grandfather’s, a wicker governess cart, was on show at the 1851 exhibition in Hyde Park. My father rented a large barn to work in, as basket makers needed quite a large space ... Each man had a six foot plank. His tool box was his seat, but often he would [sit] down on the plank, especially when making large hampers, etc. My father came down here because at that time Foots Cray was surrounded by farms, growing hops, fruit and vegetables. He did very well. He had a workshop built in the small yard at the back of the house, and had a flourishing business. The workshop he had built later became the local Fire Station, and later on a Mission Hall. He did so well that he had a house built in Suffolk Road with good workshops, large garden, orchard, meadow, stables and all he needed.
I think I was about six years old when we left Jubilee Road … My mother had had two more children. A brother, Harry and a sister, Olive. Harry was born when I was two and died the day before my third birthday. I don’t remember him but my mother talked about him. She kept a tiny pair of boots, which he wanted because the other boys had boots, a spinning top and a reel of pale blue silk. My father’s youngest sister had sat with him when he was ill and he had played with the silk and ravelled it all up. My mother never parted with them. When he was buried six of the bigger school girls carried his coffin to the grave suspended on white ribbons.
My father liked having a daughter and I remember in my early years he took me about a lot, walking in the country around the village, and often to London … I have been with him to Covent Garden Market in the early hours, where he went to get orders for baskets from farmers. He used carrier pigeons for messages, so that my grandfather could make a start on an order if it was urgent. Besides making thousands of baskets for farmers, my father made laundry hampers, cradles and wicker chairs and rattles. He also used to have delivered to him, I expect from breweries, van loads of gallon stone jars which were encased in wicker. They looked very neatly done. There was a lot of work attached to the making of baskets. The bundles of rods were delivered, of various sizes and lengths. These had to be soaked in water. We had two very large tanks and as my brothers got older they had to do this. They had to be timed. Each tank held about eight bundles. They were put in and wedged down with bars of wood. Every Saturday the tanks had to be thoroughly cleaned. The apprentices, or my brothers when they were old enough, did this. They then filled them with clean water. Sometimes the boys would stop and have a game in the water before putting in the rods. The men finished work at twelve o’clock on Saturday and came into the house to be paid. Then we children, as we got old enough, had to go and clean up the workshops. We didn’t really mind as we thought it profitable, because as the men worked they had to cut the ends of the rods off, and as each basket was finished it had to be what the men called “picked”, which was cutting all the little ends that poke out. These we used to rake up, put them in a basket and sell to people to light their fires. As Suffolk Road was built up it was a popular road for policemen to live, and their wives were our best customers. We used to get one penny a basketful. We also got money on empty ginger beer bottles.
My father was a very good workman himself, and so made us all work. Even my mother worked. She painted the farmers’ names on the baskets. He also taught her to cane chairs. As the family grew, I had five more sisters, Olive, Ulundi, Priscilla, Norah and Eva Mary. My mother gave up working on the baskets, but she still did chair caning. One thing she was adamant about, she would not let him teach us girls. My mother had such a hard, worrying life that it was not surprising that when she was 58 she had a stroke from which she never recovered, although she lived another four years. My father then taught Priscilla to cane chairs! …
As a boy, my father liked soldiers. Living in London he was able to see many ceremonial affairs. He remembered as a very small boy being taken by his mother to see the funeral procession of the Prince Consort who was the husband of our Great Queen Victoria. He decided that he would become a soldier on horseback.
When he was old enough he went to enlist in the army. He was told that he was not tall enough for a cavalry regiment. In those days a man wished to serve his country, so he was very disappointed, but he was accepted in an infantry regiment. A year later he had grown and was now tall enough, but how could he achieve his ambition? He could not transfer from a foot regiment to a cavalry regiment. In those days if a man wished to leave the army he could be bought out, but he had no money. He had an aunt who was fond of him. He went to her and told her he did not like the army and was very unhappy. She provided the money and he was released. A little time later he was accepted in the First King’s Dragoon Guards. How proud he was and how he enjoyed life in the army. It must have been a very hard life in those days. His uniform was very smart. He wore a red coat, white belt, white gauntlet gloves, a wide yellow stripe down dark blue trousers and Wellington boots. He had to learn how to keep this in perfect condition, and also how to groom his horse and look after the equipment.
Now he began to see the world. His regiment was sent to India. Whilst there he took on the task of managing the soldiers’ theatre. He produced and acted in plays. He had had very little schooling, except in the army, but he improved his education as much as he could. In this he was helped by the young lady whom later on he married. She, of course, was in England. She wrote out the parts for the plays and through correspondence made him a fairly good scholar.
Queen Victoria at that time became Empress of India. He saw much of the celebrations that took place out there, often of course doing duty.
Soon after his return to England the regiment was again ordered abroad. This time to South Africa where the Zulu war had broken out. It was a terrible experience. In a diary he wrote at that time he told of the wonderful reception he had from the people, but he also told the stories of the frightful things they saw. He told of the finding of the body of a young French Prince who had been proud to join the British Army and to fight for England. He also told of the many superstitions of the Zulus, and of the capture of their King.
Perhaps because of all this he did not talk about his further experiences of war. He was in a war in Africa again, and later on in Egypt. He had received four medals and was proud of his service.
The time he had signed on for was now at an end. He went back to the family trade of basket making, married, had a family and I suppose thought his life as a soldier had ended.
Then the Boer War broke out and he couldn’t resist the call. He joined the army again as a reservist in his old regiment … He didn’t go to South Africa but was sent to Ireland, where he met some of his old friends and I am sure had a good time. He had frequent leaves. It left my mother to carry on the business and care for the eight children. Only one of my brothers was working and he only as an apprentice to my father. He had to get other work and became a plumber’s mate. He was so good to my mother and to all of us. My next brother, Jim, got what was then called a labour pass at school so that he left at thirteen. He went to work as a garden boy at The Elms on Sidcup Hill, then occupied by Mr and Mrs Shea. This lovely house is no longer there. All that remains is the coachman’s house, still as it was with its four tiny windows …
It was during [the Boar War] that soldiers were first put into khaki uniform. It proved to be a great success and has been used ever since. It saved the men a lot of work, and the main thing, they were less visible to the enemy. In 1901 Queen Victoria died, a very old lady. Soon afterwards the [Boer] war ended and England settled down to a happy time of peace.
Then the 1914 war began. This time with Germany. By this time one would have thought it was out of the question for my father to join the army again. He was still a very upright, smart man. He dyed his grey hair, presented himself at the recruiting office, took some years off his age and was accepted in the Army Service Corps. He went straight to France, was quite happy and wrote very cheerful letters. Then one day an officer noticed his medal ribbons and knew by them his age. He was sent back to England and discharged. Even then he didn’t give up, but managed to get into khaki again, and until the end of that was guarding German prisoners of war in a camp in England.
Each year after that his greatest pleasure was to attend the anniversary dinner of his old regiment, and to go the following day to the Guards Memorial Service in Hyde Park. As long as he was able he also walked in the procession to the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Armistice Sunday, proudly wearing his medals … When World War 2 started he was well over 80 but still working. As he was making baskets to be used by the army he could feel he was still doing his bit. He died towards the end of the war [and] his old regiment sent a flag to drape his coffin …
[Writing of when George Tree was in Africa …]
My mother could no longer cope with the business, and the workshops, etc were let to another basket maker, a Mr Wells from Ruxley. My mother continued with marking his baskets as it earned her a little and she could do it without leaving the baby.
I don’t think soldiers wives received any allowance. There were charities collected to help. One was the Prince of Wales Fund. Rudyard Kipling wrote a song to urge people to help this cause. The chorus went as follows:
Duke’s son, Cook’s son, son of a millionaire,
Fifty thousand horse and foot
All bound for Table Bay,
Each of them doing his country’s work.
Who’s to look after the kids?
Pass your hat for your credit’s sake and pay, pay, pay.
[Paraphrased from The Absent-minded Beggar.]
From this fund my mother received one shilling each week for each child not working. Later it was doubled.
The lady who lived at Frognal House, Mrs Marsham-Townshend, drove to our house each Saturday morning in a carriage and pair, with coachman and footman. My mother had to go to the carriage to receive the money. My mother was a very proud woman; it must have hurt her to do this, but I realize how difficult it was for her to manage. My eldest brother, who was only fifteen when the [Boer] war started, took a lot on his shoulders.
In 1902 the Boer War ended and my father came home. He was home in time for the Coronation of King Edward VII. I remember him dressing Olive and me in yards and yards of Red, White and Blue ribbon, and buying us very pretty paper bonnets …
My father didn’t stay home long. The business was gone. We had to leave the house. He left my mother to cope alone. She took a small new home on the site where the Twopenny Gaff had been. My father went to South Africa and joined the South African Mounted Police. He wanted my mother to join him with all of us but she wouldn’t. After a year he came back and we moved again into an old house in Cray Road, 2 Woodfall Villas. It had a cellar large enough for him and my grandfather to start basket making again.
By this time I was nearly fourteen and would have to leave school. Jim had run away and joined the Army, although a bit under age. He didn’t want to be a basket maker. Neither did Ernest [who] was working as a houseboy at a school in Bromley called Quernmore, a boys’ boarding school.
On December 31st 1917 my eldest brother George died in France. His wife Connie was left with a baby boy about one year old … My mother never got over George’s death. He had been so good to her always and of course, until he joined the army, had always lived in the village. He never missed a day popping in to see her.
I wanted my mother to stop going to work. All she got was two shillings a day … I said I could give it to her [May went into service on leaving school, and was now married]. She was only going to one place two days a week, working from 9am to 6pm. When she told her employer, she persuaded her to still go but leave early so that she could be home before me.
In the July of 1918 my mother, although only 58, had a stroke from which she never recovered, but lived another four years. The morning she was taken ill I had, on my way to the station, put a note in the doctor’s letter box asking him to call as Norah was ill. When I arrived home from work I went upstairs to ask Norah if the Doctor had been. She said yes. I asked her where mother was and she said I think she is ill, as she is in the middle bedroom lying down. When I went in I could see she was certainly ill. I thought the doctor said Norah had influenza and that mother had it as well. I sent for the doctor again to look after her. Ulundi had Eva for a time as it was the school holidays. My mother was in bed for several weeks, but was quite helpless and could not converse at all. Eventually she was able to get up and be downstairs with us, but she could not tell us how to do anything. My years in service were no help in running a home as I had never done any cooking. I managed the ordinary plain food, but mother had always had a baking day on Fridays, and we missed her lovely cakes and pastries. Norah and I decided we would have a baking day on Saturday afternoons and we learnt by our failures! Mother always looked happy watching us, I was happy being at home. I was only a child when I went into service and was away so many years. I went to work all day until I had to stay home to look after mother and run the home. Olive went to Connie’s in the September but it was only a few minutes walk so every day she came to see us. Ulundi came home with her husband every weekend. She was also expecting a baby and she and I made the layettes for both the expected babies. Ulundi had worked as a dressmaker before she was married [and] I was always a good needlewoman, so with her designing and cutting out, we did the sewing by hand and when they were finished they were very elegant. None have survived as we all used them …
Ulundi had her baby in January 1919. Olive had hers in March 1919. The war [had] ended in November 1918, so of course this was going to make a difference to our lives. It was a sad time for Connie. With the war ended we could plan our futures, knowing our husbands would be returning. Connie’s parents and sisters had gone to Canada before the war started so she decided to join them, which she did as soon as she could. Olive was married to Connie’s brother. They were the next to go at Easter 1919. Ulundi came and lived at home until her husband was released from the Record Office and they went [to Canada] in the early summer. David [May’s husband] was not demobilised until September 1919, and of course we had to go back to his job in the Police Force in Burton-on-Trent … Priscilla, now 21, left work before I went. I was worried but hoped she could cope. However, soon after I went my father came home again, and I thought they could manage … I always worried about my mother and home, especially as Eva was only 13, but I didn’t go home for eight months, as I thought with my father there he would see that everything was all right. However, Olive left her husband and came back to England the following June. She came to me first and we went home together as she was going to stay there. We thought everything very neglected. I only stayed one week, but in that time we both worked hard, and bought new curtains, and when I left everything was nice again. Olive had to go to work, and Priscilla looked after Eric the baby, and I felt happier about things. However, Olive didn’t stay long. She preferred Canada, so after a few months she went back, but didn’t live with her husband. I don’t know how she managed as she didn’t correspond much. She seemed to have good jobs. She was stewardess on the boats that went on Lake Ontario and for a long time she worked in a Country Club. For the rest of her working life she was working at Eaton’s in Toronto as a receptionist in a restaurant. She belonged to the Salvation Army, and I presumed that they looked after Eric. Unfortunately she became a drug addict, and because of this, she lived for ten years under the care of a Captain and his wife. This was by the order of the Court. She must have been very happy with them as at the end of the time she bought a house, but only stayed in it for a short time. She sold it to Ulundi and went back to the people she had lived with. Eric had been educated by the Salvation Army. He was musical and played in a band …
I still worried about my mother and after Olive went back to Canada, I started going home more frequently. My daughter was born in 1921. David thought it a good idea if I went home to have the baby. I think really that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to cope, as at that time I had no very close friend who I could have asked to help out. Also Priscilla was getting married and wanted me to make the dresses for the wedding. David would stay with another policeman and his wife. It did not turn out a good idea at all. When I got home everything was in chaos. My mother was much worse and neglected. Priscilla seemed so irresponsible. The doctor hadn’t seen my mother for ages. In those days each visit had to paid for and as really there was nothing that could be done for her except care and attention, he only came when he was sent for. I sent for him and he said that she must go into hospital. If she stayed at home she would need a nurse. He knew that was out of the question, so he told me to talk it over with the rest of the family. My youngest brother didn’t like the idea. The only other suggestion I could make was that after my baby was born I would have her at my home. He said that would take her away from them all, so into hospital she went. I don’t think she really knew us, I just don’t know. When two of my cousins went to see her dressed in black because their father had died, she pulled the coat of one of them as if to ask “why?“. As their father was really my mother’s only relation, her half brother, to whom she was devoted, having brought him up, they said “It’s the fashion”. My mother couldn’t speak. She lived another year and a half and was only 62 when she died…
My mother died in 1922. My father sent a telegram asking me to come to see to everything for him. Jim, who lived in Yorkshire, met me at Derby. She died on November 11th. I think it was the first time they kept Remembrance Day, and I was at the service when the telegram came. I came home on the Sunday morning and stayed a few weeks. Norah was getting married on December 23rd, so it was a sad time for her wedding.