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Phil & Grandmother 'Auntie Elsie'.jpg

Phil and Grandmother
'Auntie Elsie'

Yes the object I’ve chosen is a Royal Doulton flowerpot. It’s something I’d, I’ve always known my whole life really. It belonged to my Grandmother and it was something I’d always admired because I’ve always been interested in antiques and older items, and it was something from a very early age that I liked. And she told me she was given it by an old lady during the Second World War.

My Grandmother was born in Clapham and during the 1930s they moved to Plumstead near Woolwich. And by the time war broke out in 1939 she was actually working in the Woolwich Arsenal and she was packing cordite into the end of the bombs, and her fingers all went yellow. By the early 1940s the bombing started and they were evacuated to Bedfordshire to a tiny village called Harrold. And it was n. . . her next door neighbour, old Mrs Coleman, gave this Doulton flowerpot to my Grandmother as a thank you for looking after her. So I’d always known it, it was always on her side. And then when I became interested in antiques and collectables and things, it was one of those things you could actually look at the bottom of it and see all the stamps. And it stamped, it’s stamped Doulton Lambeth and it’s dated 1877. And there’s lots of scratch marks underneath so you can see who actually potted it originally.

I’d always liked it. I always had a feeling that I might inherit it cos she knew that I liked it. But my Auntie Pam also liked it and was a child in the war, remembered Mrs Coleman. And she, my Granny wanted to give it to me but felt that she couldn’t, so she gave it at some stage to my Auntie Pam. When I moved to Portland, where I am now, my Auntie Pam came to visit, with my Mother and my Grandmother Elsie, who was very elderly by now; she had dementia and it was getting gradually worse. She was about ninety-two, ninety-three, still had a good sense of humour, and we visited and had a lovely time. And erm my Auntie went home, wrapped up the Doulton flowerpot and gave it to me as a present, as a house warming present cos she knew I’d always liked it. And she had had probably ten or fifteen years with it by then herself, and she was very pleased to give it to me. Unfortunately my Auntie now is erm in an old people’s home. She’s been very ill recently and strangely I was helping clear out her retirement flat with my niece, sorry with my cousin, recently and I actually found the letter that I wrote her to thank her for this flowerpot. So erm, that’s sort of quite ironic really that I’m talking about it now really, so. 

When I think of erm Elsie, my Grandmother: she was born in 1910, she was a very tiny woman, she had size three feet, er very practical. She was called Elsie du Pré. Or she’d a called it Elsie doo Pree cos she was a right saff Landana! She was the oldest of nine and she came along because her father, Gordon du Pré, he got the maid in the family way. Her maiden name was Millage and basically he was kicked out of the family. And my Granny always told me that her grandparents were French, hence the du Pré surname, and that they made the blinds for Harrods. And I didn’t know whether this was true or whether it wasn’t, but she was the eldest of nine and then the next batch came along. One by one by one, and eventually her father ran off with the sister-in-law in the 1930s. And we found out since had another eight children and they didn’t know about the first nine. And I met one fairly recently on a family history site and actually met up with her, and she was so surprised to find out that he’d bred as much as he had. But anyway, he was kicked out of the household, Gordon was. This was 1910, erm in London not far from Battersea area, and he then set up home. But my Granny always said that they were French, that’s were it came from.

So starting doing, to do the family tree I found out that they weren’t French. I went back another seven or eight, nine generations and they were actually Huguenots, and they came over in the 1660s, 1680s to London. And they were all very practical; they were all goldbeaters or silk workers or fancy box makers. And so she inherited that, because all of her sisters, all of them, were erm worked with materials. They
were seamstresses, they were milliners - they made hats, they, they did everything. And whatever it was, if she, if my Granny saw you in a dress and she went, "Ooh that’s nice" she’d go upstairs draw a pattern and make one. And it was probably made better than the dress you were wearing. And if one of them liked the pattern, they all had the same pattern. And they all followed whatever, each one had the same sort of style of clothes whatever era it was. They were very, very trendily dressed, all of them for whatever era they, they were in. And er, she can remember in the 1920s, er when she should have been at school, she used to make a lot of the beaded dresses with all the tassels on with the flapper era. And she’d just sit there with a needle, and you just sit there with these beads, putting thousands of beads, black beads on all these cotton strands. And that was something that she did. Er, she didn’t unfortunately do very well at school because she was too busy making clothes and repairing clothes for her er, her teachers and people that she’d met.

So, very strong woman b. . . ah, she was a Taurean and she had a very short temper, and not very popular with certain people. She. . . I liked her and she liked me but if she didn’t like you that was it, you had no chance. But I always had a very s. . . big soft spot for her and I think of her very fondly. Erm, she’s been gone about eight or ten years now but she lived a ri. . . she lived to a ripe old age. But unfortunately the last few years were horrid because the dementia was so severe that she didn’t know what was going on. And she actually died of dementia. Now normally people die of heart failure or something brought on by dementia, but actually the dementia was a first not a secondary. And apparently it can be put down as that by the doctor because everything had forgotten how to work. Just nothing, nothing worked anymore and she just, everything just failed because of the dementia, which was quite shocking.

They all had a sort of look about them. They were very, very sort of, not glamorous but they were all very precise in what they wore and how they looked. And if they all turned up you’d be a little bit - they scared the hell out of my dad when he first met my Mum when one, he said they all came down to stay, because they were quite a fearsome lot really. But erm, she was a character. She, I remember erm she always looked much younger than she was cos she used to go to the Turkish Baths in Bournemouth and have a steam every week. So even when she was in her eighties you’d have thought she was in her fifties because she just looked so much younger than she was, and she always dressed well. So it was always quite a shock when she was told to sort of move off bus seats cos they, these were meant for older people, and she said, "Well I’m eighty-two, how much older can I be?" And she had this little cockney sort of South Londony accent, like Irene Handl. So she, when you heard her talk you didn’t expect this voice to come from her; you expected quite a classy, lovely voice and this little, "Yes dear, cou’se yes, in the wa’er" sort of voice would come out. So erm that was, that was always quite funny.

She erm, when she visited Portland, erm the only time she came when she had quite bad dementia. We were sitting in the garden with my Mum and ma partner and Angie next door and Auntie Pam, and they were talkin’ about old days and things they’d done and talkin’ about Fred (that was my Granddad). And we were just talkin’ about, "Oh yeah, Fred used to do that on the. . . when he used to go gambling with the horse racing." and all the things he’d used to do, cos he was quite a character to say the least. And erm Elsie was sat there with a confused look on her face and she looked at me and turned round, she said, "Are you talkin’ about ma Fred?" and we went, "Yes". She said, "He’s not dead. Is he!?" And Ken was thinking oh my God she doesn’t know that her husband’s dead. So my ‘tactful’ Mother and Auntie turned round and say, "Yeah cou’se he’s bloody dead!" "Ah, ooh yeah. Ooh yes, yes. Yeah cou’se he’s dead. Yeah, yeah." And we were all thinking oh my God. So I have to say this has always been a bit of a, bit of a one liner for us since then really. Because you know that’s unfortunately the, the way she was. But she was fine with it when she’d realised. But erm that’s unfortunately the way of dementia really. She was quite used to the family. Ooh yes. They, they’re all, they are, they are quite straight-forward.

It’s quite nice. I do worry; it’s, it’s always a worry having something that you’ve been given that’s precious. Especially something that’s breakable and erm I have to say Elsie used to break lots and lots of things. Most things she had had been re-glued at some point where she’d knocked them off, or chucked them through the dish washer. So it is amazing that it has survived as well as it has. So erm, it is something I do try
to be quite careful with. I do use it. It is a little flowerpot, so you can put plants in it. Erm but it is something I try to be careful with. Erm but then to be fair, if it did break, that’s the way life is and I’ll probably glue it back together the same way Elsie would have done. So it still carries on.

I don’t really think of having a faith. I’ve always believed in compost theory really - that we’re just born and then it all goes back to dust and ashes and recycling. I’ve always thought that. I do think things can be left behind and I’ve always felt, especially something bad happens in a situation, that you get a nasty sense that things are left behind. Erm certainly I’ve had that in places where I’ve been, where you get this  overwhelming horrible feeling and you don’t know why, and then you discover that someone was either murdered there or it was a horrible situation. So I do sort of believe in that, and things can be soaked into objects that you can’t really quite explain and that we always know something ourselves. When you knock on the front door of people’s houses you quite often know if someone’s in or not. Even though they’re not and ya think they are and you sort of know they’re in, erm when, and they’re hiding from, or whatever. There’s always something weird. And I also feel that’s the same with people, especially when they’re towards the end of their lives and they can be given the permission to go. And it’s very common for people when they’re in their last, just right at the end of their lives and there’s very little going on. And they’re about to go and they die on their own because the person that’s sat with them for hours and hours and hours just pops out for a coffee, come back and they’ve gone. And that happens a lot because I think people do feel some electrical energy off people and I think people are aware at a much deeper level that other people are around them. So I certainly believe in that. But I don’t believe in really, in a faith perspective at all really. I just believe in humanity more than, more than that.

The pot itself is a nice tactile thing. Erm it’s been, it’s a very basic flowerpot. It’s been turned. If you picture an ordinary terracotta flowerpot, it’s very much like that with a hole in the middle, out of very thick clay. And the it’s been decorated, if you imagine like a pointy stick, it’s been decorated with leaves and flowers and then it’s got a multitude of glazes all round the outside; mainly sort of greens and blues. But very, very overly decorated. Er so it would have taken the person a fair old while to make it, so it wasn’t a particularly cheap item when it was new. And erm it has got a nice sort of glossy feel to it. And it is something people notice. Often you can have possessions, and I have too many nonsense ridiculous possessions all over the place, but it is one of the objects that people do actually comment on and notice. And they, they like it generally. People do notice it.

I remember Elsie, when I was a child, she was always spoke her mind. She never erm sort of said some, I dunno she was always saying things out of turn but she was funny. We were walking through Bournemouth Square, I was probably about ten years old, and this woman walked passed me (and this is probably the late 1970s), and this woman walked past me in this fabulous creation that she was wearing. And my Granny looked her up and down and said, "Cor, look at her! She looks like a sack o’ shit done up ugly." Which when you’re ten, it’s not exactly something that you expect from your Grandmother. She always spoke her mind and she was actually very funny when she wanted to be.

My Auntie’s earliest memory in the war was when they were still in Woolwich and Plumstead, and they were in the air raid shelter. And my, Elsie hated being in the air raid shelters, so she’d go up and down with a tea tray to all the other neighbours, giving them tea and stuff, and she wouldn’t come in. And my Auntie said, "I can remember her, cos she had very skinny ankles" and she can remember Fred, my Granddad, grabbing her by the ankles and literally dragging her into the air raid shelter. And as they, as she came crashing in, a bomb hit nearby and blew all of her windows out at the back. And she was out there shouting, going, "You broke ma bloody windows!" So yeah, that’s the sort of character that she was.

And she just did stuff. Her father was a builder, Gordon, and being the oldest daughter she had to help him, because she did. So even though she was tiny, she used to tile all the pubs in the local area, as all the pubs used to be tiled in the front. She was a good tiler and she always told me the reason that they tiled them was because they didn’t have lavatories. So that kind of now makes sense, and they used to swill it all
down. So when she got older she then erm used to be, do barmaiding as well as painting and decorating. She was a very good paperhanger. And I can remember her paper hanging in her seventies and eighties. And she used to paper ceilings by starting at one end and then run along with this roll of wallpaper and a broom, and squish it along the ceiling. And that’s quite a feat but she was very good at it. And anything
like that, she’d turn her mind to. She was always demolishing walls in the houses that she bought. If she turned up in the house and she’d think well actually, that is ridiculous having a wall there, so she’d go up in the loft or the room upstairs, take up the floor boards, knock out the first lot of bricks and then take the wall out, and then render it and then plaster it. So that’s quite amazing for a woman of that time to have been as practical as she was, but she didn’t really have a lot of choice early on because it was survival, really. When I was, again this is probably the late ‘70s, erm so she was pushing seventy, she’d bought this bungalow and she knocked down the wall between the toilet and the bathroom. And she’d just knocked the first brick out, I’d come in from school and she’d knocked it straight on and into the toilet and smashed the toilet. So she was swearing quite well when I arrived. So I can picture that as well. But for her that wasn’t a problem. She just unbolted the toilet, took it all apart and re-plumbed in another one. So it’s quite amazing really. So she was a very, very practical woman. 

She wasn’t easy sometimes but I did like her and she liked me; I think that’s what it was. And she taught me lots of things: she showed me how to make puff pastry, she showed me how to paint, how to decorate, and how to. . . and she was very good. And she never minded you, even as a young child, she always was happy for you to join in and touch things in the kitchen, and just do stuff. It was never a problem. It wasn’t, "Oh you can’t touch that, you can’t do that". It was very much, "Yeah if you wanna do it, do it" and she’d give you anything. And the problem was, you could never say you liked something because she always gave it to you. And she was, she’d give anything away. So she was very good like that, she really was.

But when she was in her, I think early fourties it would have been, could be a bit later than that, erm my Auntie Pam was expecting her first son. And Elsie was feeling a bit, just under the weather really and she was putting on a bit of weight. So she went to the doctors and he said, "Well Elsie, sit down" you know "Have a drink, have a cigarette, or whatever." What is it 1962 or something? Might have been la. . . mi. . . could have been late ‘50s actually. Anyway, she sits down and erm, "Well I’m sorry to tell you but you’re erm seven months pregnant" and she had no idea. She thought she was going through the change and had put a bit of weight on. So my Auntie Jackie came along and erm, so she actually had four, had four children in the end. My, my Auntie Pam being the oldest, my Mum being the next born, Uncle Dave, and then Jackie. So there’s a, quite a gap between the si. . . well it’s about er twenty years between the oldest and the youngest. So erm, she became a Grandmother and a Mother at virtually the same time. So she said I, you can’t call me Mum, obviously her daughter did but the grandchil. . . it’s just weird. So she was always known as Auntie Elsie cos she had children and grandchildren at the same sort of age. But then I think it kept her going having a young daughter. I mean now it doesn’t seem that old, fourties is when people now ha. . . start having children. But back then, that was certainly old.

It’s a shame that I wish I could have told her about her du Pré lineage. By the time I found out it was, the dementia was too bad, and it would have been nice to tell her about. And also she never had any photographs of her father. I had some from her half sister, which she’d had. So it was weird to see photographs of the house they lived in in Benfield Street, which is now demolished; it was cleared in the slum clearance of the 1960s. Er but it was weird to see the house. I’ve got photos of ma Granny sitting on the steps with all her fa. . . with all her sisters and brothers. And then there’s pictures of Gordon, her father, with actually the board out the front saying - G du Pré Builder, which I inherited or got copies of from her half sister. So it’s sort of weird, cos ya know it’s the same house.

But she was a survivor and she was a grafter. Y’know, she never stopped working. She always, she never actually went out to work but she never stopped. Well there was no need to get builders in cos she did it all. You know, she’d knock out a fireplace and knock out a whole chimney stack and do all the major building work and not think anything about it cos she says, "Well why get somebody in!?"

So she was, y’know quite amazing.

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