Elizabeth Winter (nee Foster) April 29th 1925 to June 6th 2015 Part Two

I am very grateful to my mother’s cousin’s daughter, Peggy Robinson for sending me some more material about my mother’s early life since I wrote my first post about her last week. I was relieved to learn that what I had written was more or less correct although I learnt for the first time that Peggy’s grandfather, Joseph Grave, also lived in the tiny miner’s cottage that was pictured in last week’s posting. I did not mention him because my mother never did. What I did learn was that the poor man lost his wife to the terrible Spanish ‘flu epidemic in December 1918 and then his baby daughter to the same illness just a month later. I try to picture a household led by my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Young after she had lost her two sons to the Great War of 1914-18 and a daughter to the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that came with the war’s ending.

It is Peggy Robinson’s belief that my grandmother, Jane Foster, went into a deep depression after she lost her first son, John at the age of just one month just after Christmas 1926 and that she rejected her daughter, my mother, during that time. It was when her second son, Thomas (my uncle whom I have never met) was born in 1934 that my mother went to live with her grandmother, uncle and cousins. I cannot help but note that my grandmother gave her two sons the same names of her older brothers killed in the war who died when she was fifteen and then seventeen years of age. Was there some attempt to keep them alive through these names; a hope that was dashed when baby John died in 1926? What is certain was that my mother was born in total innocence into a world trying to come to terms with terrible loss. Anyone who was in Britain in the autumn of 2014, the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the war,  will have seen how that loss still haunts this country.

The more I reflect on my mother’s early life the more grateful I am that she gave so much love to her five children, of whom I am the eldest. I cannot say that she was physically affectionate. I have no memory of hugs in my childhood. Fortitude in adversity was expected of each one of us from a very early stage in life. But she created an atmosphere of profound security in her home which was all the more remarkable considering the fact that by the time I was eight years old in 1963 we had lived in seven different homes as my father took us from one farm to another. If I have an instinctive sense of home and of heaven then it is one shaped by memories of walking home after school through the woods on dark and frosty winter’s evenings to the light in her kitchen and the warmth that came from it as the door opened mixed with the delicious smell of soup kept warm upon the stove.

My mother and father were also people of great honesty and generosity and faith too. The year was shaped by the seasons (how could it not be if you grow up on farms?) and by the church’s calendar. I have much to be grateful for to them in this as well. Faith and duty were closely linked to both my parents. I don’t think they had much sense in those days that God might be gentle and kind.

But I would not want to give the impression that life was a stern affair in our home. My mother never lost the sense of fun and mischief that I described last week. Many who knew her have spoken of the sound of her laughter and I remember it too. For me the memory that stays strong within is the sound of laughter coming up from the living room in which the television was. She used to make sure that we were all packed off to bed after seven o’clock in the evening and after that the day belonged to her. Her laugh was big and free and she loved to laugh. My mother always seemed to have friends. I wonder if that is at least in part because of her laughter. I certainly remember when we worked on the fruit harvests together in my late teens that she would laugh a lot in the fields among the other workers. I also remember that she enjoyed bawdy jokes which was a little embarrassing for her son!

I am now deeply grateful for both the solidity that my mother  sought to create and for the laughter too. I don’t pretend that life was always easy. There were many struggles and great sorrows along the way. I now realise that in early childhood you believe that your parents have somehow lived for ever and that parenthood is some kind of eternal quality that they seem to possess in some innate manner. If you become a parent yourself then you realise that you always seem to feel a complete beginner no matter how long you have been one and I have been a parent for twenty-one years now. Your children are always presenting you with challenges (and joys too!) that you did not anticipate. Perhaps we all need both to forgive our parents for not being god-like enough and to forgive ourselves too if we are parents. If our parents did their best then we have much to be grateful for.

My mother’s last years, especially after my father died, were a great struggle for her. Those who loved her and visited her would sit with her while she wept or sat in silence. Who knows how she was dealing with her long life? She never told us. We are all grateful that her passing, when it came, was so peaceful and pray that she may now Rest in Peace and that Light Perpetual may shine upon her. She gave little indication what she would like from us which was typical of her except that she would like her ashes to be scattered upon the top of Dent Fell in West Cumbria. Dent is the first climb for those who undertake the Coast to Coast walk across England devised by the great Alfred Wainwright and although only about a thousand feet high it dominates the sky line for all who live on the West Cumbrian plain which lies just above sea level. It will be a special day when her family gather there to give her remains to the land where she grew up and to the love and mercy of God.

Elizabeth Winter (nee Foster) April 29th 1925 to June 6th 2015

James Street, Cleator Moor

On the West Cumbrian coastal plain in the North-West of England lie a string of villages near the once important sea port of Whitehaven the most important of which are Egremont, Frizington, Cleator and Cleator Moor. Due to deposits of coal and iron-ore they enjoyed a brief flourishing at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th and in that time attracted considerable immigration from Ireland both Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist. As has been the nature of the flourishings of the Industrial Revolution once the earth has been stripped of its treasures the people who worked on them, who built communities and shared histories are more or less left to fend for themselves and it was into such a community that my mother, Elizabeth Foster (known as Betty as a girl) was born. There was still a mine in Cleator Moor until the 1960s and I remember playing on the steep sided heap of slag there with local boys and watched the steam locomotives as they pulled trucks of material away from the mine. I spent my summers with my mother’s family and loved it although I did not understand the question, “Are you a Cat (a Catholic) or a Proddy-Dog (Protestant) ?” having been raised in the gentle South of England. In the second summer I spent in Cleator Moor the slag heap was gone and we played on the disused tracks of the mine railway. And my mother’s family were Protestant and very strictly so.

It was into this world that my mother was born. I wish I could tell you about her parents, my grandparents, but I know almost nothing about them for at some point in her early life she was taken in by her grandmother and lived the rest of her early years at 2 James Street, Cleator Moor, a tiny miners’ cottage with a toilet in the shed in the yard and no indoor bathroom. It was a household of women for the First World War had robbed them of men and my mother’s uncles, Tommy and John are both buried in military cemeteries in France and Belgium. It is said that their father died of a broken heart soon after. Their mother did not however, taking in her  grand-daughters, Annie and Winnie as well as my mother. It was a household full of images, the photographs of young soldiers on the mantlepiece. My mother did not know who they were and she did not ask. She did not know why Christmas Day was so sad either. It was years later that she learned that it was on Christmas Day 1918 that her Uncle John died from his wounds, sustained just before the war, in a military hospital in Belgium. I have seen his photograph. He was hardly more than a boy.

My mother revered her grandmother and stories about her were a part of my own childhood. I hope to meet this brave woman some day and to do her honour. She used to make my mother walk to Frizington each Sunday afternoon to visit her parents. After her grandmother died she never went again. I never met my grandparents or their son, my uncle and know nothing about their lives. I am not sure that I want to find out.

I must not give the impression that life was only cold and hard although growing up in the Depression with very little money must have been hard. My mother tells stories of winning a race at Sports Day at Montreal Primary in Cleator Moor. I have seen the certificate! She also loved to go dancing and for her, the outbreak of the Second World War meant interesting new dancing partners. She spoke of the slightly dangerous (and exciting?) French Canadians stationed nearby and Polish officers with their formal manners. They bowed stiffly to her when asking for a dance. She also spoke of having to climb in through the coal hole when she came home as the door to the house was locked against her.

I realise that this posting could become very long indeed so I must continue more quickly but I loved the stories of the mischievous side to my mother’s character and her sense of adventure too. She left Cleator Moor at the end of the war, heading down to Preston in Lancashire and from there she would go dancing in the Blackpool Tower ballroom getting the last bus back to Preston and walking alone through the darkened streets of the town. She also spoke of an insurance policy in her name maturing and how she spent it all on one holiday in Blackpool. But my own particular favourite story of her mischievous sense of fun was how, after she began to train as a nurse in London, she had been on a visit home and when returning by train fell in with some American soldiers. They must have been delighted to meet this very pretty nurse (I have seen photos from those days and she was very pretty indeed!)  and by the time they reached London she was rather drunk. It was my father who met her at the station and who, on greeting his very tipsy girlfriend bidding farewell to her new American friends, took her gently by the arm and steered her away, acting as if nothing had happened. My mother told me that it was at that moment that she decided that he was the man for her.

I have got slightly ahead of myself and must go back a little. My mother’s travels had by this point taking her to London where she trained as a nurse at the isolation hospital at Joyce Green in South East London. The hospital was by the banks of the River Thames situated there so that in a time of an epidemic in the city the sick could be loaded up on boats to be transported down the river to the hospital. The hospital required a farm to supply it, especially in times of emergency, and it was run by a young man called John Winter, my father.

My father had been raised in London, the son of Bert and Lucy Winter. Bert, my grandfather, was a London black cab taxi driver and my father’s first job before the outbreak of war was at Covent Garden Fruit and Vegetable Market in the heart of London. As with many men of his generation the war opened up doors that had until then been closed. My Father served in the Royal Artillery during the war, taking part in the Normandy landings of June 1944, and the battles through western Europe and into Germany, and when he was finally demobilised from the army in 1947 as a Sergeant Major he took the opportunity to go to Agricultural College and and spent his working life running farms. My mother and my father married in August 1952 and I was born, their first son, in February 1955.

I will write more of their life together in another posting soon but will end here by saying that my mother loved her new family. Her mother in law was good, strong and very kind and my mother wrote to her every week sharing news of her growing family. My grandmother told me years later that she too had been very drawn to her own mother in law who was good and kind, and as I was later to learn, Italian! I love the fact that I am descended from so many immigrants on both sides of my family! But what I mainly want to say here was that both women, my mother and my grandmother were drawn to strong, kind women. I have much to be grateful for to all the women in this story I have told so far.