Chapter 3 Maudie and Mary Ann
My parents grew up only a few miles apart; my father in the rough back streets of Luton, and my mother in rural, pretty Leagrave. Both lost their fathers when they were young, for different reasons, and their mothers raised their children in poverty. For the working classes the early twentieth century was a pitiless period , long before the advent of the Welfare State. Despite their poverty, both mothers had aspirations for their children. Grandmother Darby wanted my father to have a good education and learn to play the piano, something unheard of in their slum area. Grandma West wanted my mother to be a lady, speak correctly, dress with elegance, and raise herself out of their struggling community.
My grandfathers were not good role models. One died from syphilis, and the other, a philanderer, deserved the same.
Alfred West was born in 1878, one of four brothers brought up in Chesham, then a village in Buckinghamshire. When he left school at twelve he was apprenticed to a bootmaker, then became a stable groom, and finally a sewing machine salesman.
After two years Alfred was promoted to the role of assistant superintendent. He spent much of his time on the road, selling machines to housewives and small companies, virtual sweatshops. One of his duties was to collect weekly payments from the women who either rented their machines, or were buying them on hire purchase, ‘on tick’ or ‘the glad and sorry’ – glad to have the item, sorry that it needed payment.
Alfred was the ideal salesman. Tall, handsome, courteous and friendly, with dark hair and eyes and a ready smile. He was also a Lothario. It was during his travels that he met the inexperienced, trusting Maudie Fisher, a tiny, delicately built girl, with a mop of curly hair which she brushed back severely. She was working as a servant at one of the big houses he visited. When he met and courted unworldly Maudie , she fell in love at once. He was twenty-seven when they married, while she was two years younger. Her naivety allowed Alfred to seduce her, so that by the time they married, Maudie was pregnant.
Maudie might have dreamed of a long and happy marriage, but she was destined to be a widow before she was forty, and to watch her husband die in excruciating pain.
It is likely that Alfred caught syphilis sometime before he married Maudie. Statistics show that the most probable time for a man to become infected is between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine, when he is at his most sexually active. The first symptom of this terrible disease, a chancre or sore on the genitals, rectum or mouth, lasts only a few weeks before healing spontaneously. Usually, no ill-effects are felt, so there is a good chance that the sore might be overlooked. The contagious period is over within a few months, then it enters a dormant phase which might last for several years before destroying every organ in the body, including the brain.
At the time of her marriage in 1905, Maudie knew nothing of Alfred’s condition, nor would she have been aware that such a disease existed. It is unlikely that Alfred knew he had syphilis, or that an early, agonising death awaited him. He had certainly ignored the transitory symptoms, not realising their significance. But as any cure for the disease was still largely controversial and experimental, recognition of his condition might not have helped him.
Within three years Maudie had given birth to two sons. By this time the family had moved from London to Leagrave, a village on the outskirts of Luton, where Alfred worked as a salesman and collector for another sewing machine company, Quarry MFS.
In 1911 it became clear that Alfred was suffering from some puzzling complaint. His family became alarmed at his symptoms. Grandma West always kept her silence, but in later years, Jim, the eldest son, spoke of the fear he had felt at watching his father’s gradual loss of control over both temper and body. Alfred’s muscles began to weaken as locomotor ataxia, or syphilis of the spinal cord, set in. He found it difficult to walk, staggering round in pain, with an unco-ordinated lumbering gait. But it is doubtful that his illness was diagnosed at that stage. Although syphilis was far more prevalent than today, little was understood about its progression. It is often termed ‘the great imitator’ as many of its symptoms are indistinguishable from other diseases.
Alfred went on to father two daughters, my mother Violet, and Lily, before he became too weak to stir from bed. He lay there, helpless and incontinent, and then the disease moved inexorably to attack his brain, causing irrational rage and confusion.
My mother was born in 1912, and she remembers being terrified of his ugly moods as his pain became more intense. Around that time the doctor became aware of the nature of his illness, for his death certificate states that locomotor ataxia had been present for six years. The length of time he had suffered from the earlier stages of syphilis was open to conjecture, for the doctor who certified death, had also written ‘specific disease’ with a large question mark next to ‘years’. The shock for my gentle grandmother must have been tremendous, but she rallied in her quiet, determined way and nursed Alfred to the end.
And the end was bitter. The pain intensified yet further as his death grew nearer. His body became totally ulcerated and his limbs lost all power. My grandmother did not reveal the true nature of his illness to her children, then or ever. The shame was too great and also she may have feared having the disease.
Jim, the eldest West child, was ten when Alfred died. His torture over, his body was placed in a coffin in the parlour, to lie there until his funeral a week later. Grandma told her children that their father had kidney failure, which doubtless he did as death approached. None of the children ever knew the truth, until Lily, out of curiosity, sent for his death certificate more than fifty years later. Ironically, she was not so much shocked as irritated that the truth had been kept from them. By that time her brothers and sister were dead, so she could not share the discovery.
It is difficult to know whether there were any generic health implications. Grandma West was nearly seventy-seven when she died, but that does not mean she had not contracted syphilis, as in some cases it can cure itself. Alcohol probably hastened Jim’s demise . He died at the age of seventy-three. He also seemed healthy for most of his life. However, the second son, Titch, died from kidney failure at the age of forty-four. My mother, Violet, was physically ill, and also vulnerable to emotional stability, for much of her adult life. Lily, the youngest, lived to a very healthy old age and died in 2004, at the age of ninety.
It would seem that only the middle two of the four West children suffered ill-health, Uncle Titch and my mother. On this evidence it seems unlikely but not impossible, that syphilis played any part.
With Alfred’s death in 1917, Maudie faced serious problems. She was not afraid of hard work, but a job outside the home and young children were incompatible. Her brother-in-law, Sid, offered a solution: he would take baby Lily into his home and bring her up with his daughter. Sid and his wife were even prepared to adopt Lily.
Maudie could not accept the thought of losing her daughter permanently. She would accept their kind offer, on several provisos. There was to be no adoption, even though adoption up to 1926 was an informal affair, the birth parents able to demand their child back at any time. Lily must never forget that her real mother was Maudie, and the visits between Leagrave and Chesham must be frequent. Finally, Grandma insisted that as soon as she could afford the arrangement to come to an end, Lily must be returned home. This was agreed, but Lily never returned to the house in Leagrave, except as a visitor. She became deeply attached to her aunt and uncle, and it was decided that it would have been cruel to uproot her again.
Although Grandma suffered through losing her daughter, this kind of arrangement was common at the time. There was no benefit system to protect against poverty, and so relatives and friends would take on the child of a bereaved parent, or the illegitimate child of a young, impoverished mother, and raise the child as their own.
Throughout the years that followed, Grandma and Sid kept to their word. Each week, they took it in turns to make the bus journey to and from Chesham or Leagrave, some twenty miles. Grandma must have taken comfort from the fact that Lily was happy, for it had broken her heart to part with her three-year daughter-old daughter, her youngest child. But she was a stoical woman, who accepted the inevitable. She had no chance of working and looking after Lily. The other children could go to school, and if they missed their little sister at first, they were young, and other matters quickly occupied their minds. And Maudie was much too sensitive and generous a mother to allow them to see her distress.
Hardship for Maudie was the norm, but her fragile appearance hid a determined strength. She had lived through some terrible years, nursing her husband, never understanding what had changed the easy going man into an irrational monster. Maudie worked hard, cleaning the homes of the rich in the area, proving her worth to her employers. She also could sew, and doubtless made good use of the sewing machine Alfred would certainly have acquired for her, free of charge, in his working days. By making herself invaluable, she always made sure she had plenty of employment, so that her children were well-fed and warmly clothed. When Jim and Titch left school, life became easier, as they brought their weekly wages home.
As Grandma had refused to break contact with her daughter, she was never to experience the shock my mother received when seeing her daughter for the first time six years after her birth. The decision my mother made to give up her child must have been coloured by the fact that her sister Lily had been happy, despite being removed from the immediate family environment, and Grandma had also appeared content to the young, self-absorbed Violet. It is interesting to note, however, that my mother never told Grandma about the adoption of her seventh child and made numerous excuses not to see her during the months when the pregnancy was evident.
As she grew up Violet, was indulged. She was the only girl at home, spoilt by mother and brothers. A photograph of her, taken at the age of fourteen, suggests an air of quiet confidence, as if she is aware of her looks, knowing she is admired. Her hair is fashionably bobbed to below her ears, a dark, shining cap with a natural wave. She is unsmiling, her lips firm. The jaw is strong, giving a hint of her wilful personality. But her eyes are dark and vulnerable, underlining the complexity of her nature.
This was the age of the professional family photograph, a symbol of pride among the poor. This picture is not the only one of the young Violet. Other photographs followed at regular intervals, and in each she is exquisitely dressed and groomed. Grandma’s aspirations for her daughter are clearly revealed.
When she was a little girl Violet dreamt of becoming an actress. Grandma taught her to be well-spoken at a time when accent was one factor that separated the rich from the poor. She also taught her to recite poems. Two of these were My Two Dollies, and The Naughty Kittens, ingrained on my memory, as in later years, my mother made Jill and me learn them, too.
Grandma encouraged Violet to look smart, and often brought home clothes outgrown by the daughter of one of the families she cleaned for. These were all of excellent quality, but my mother objected strongly to Grandma insisting that she wore one of these gifts, a three cornered hat. Violet did not wear that hat for long, for she always got her way. A psychiatrist told me that she would have absorbed the fact that her father’s rage and tantrums brought immediate positive response at an age when she would not have realised why.
Violet rarely considered the consequences of her actions, for she quickly learned that there were usually none. As a small child I would listen in awe when she told me that. Grandma would remonstrate, ‘Oh Violet, how could you!’ but her tone was always too gentle to excite fear of repercussion. Jim tried to take on parental authority but she was much too bright and devious to succumb to that. She told me when I was thirteen, that her mother and Jim forbade her to bleach her beautiful dark, curly hair when she was the same age. She listened to them gravely, then went out into their tiny scullery and dyed her hair to a brassy blonde. I held my breath. ‘Did you get into terrible trouble?’
My mother laughed. ‘Of course not.’
Ironically, she would have beaten her own children black and blue for such defiance, followed by another good hiding when my father came home.
One of my mother’s problems was this lack of correction. She knew that tantrums and defiance usually brought her what she wanted. My grandmother was vulnerable where her daughter was concerned. She missed her daughter, Lily, mourning the fact that economic necessity had caused her to part with her three-year-old, and Violet received the love and attention meant for two daughters.
At school Violet knew she was popular, confident, good at netball, envied for her looks. She was tall, and held herself straight and with poise. But even at that age there were signs that her health was not perfect. One Saturday, at the age of twelve, she was playing in a school netball match, when she fainted. As she came round she heard a confident American accent. ‘I’ll take Violet home in my car. Mildred has been wanting to make a friend of her for some time.’ Mildred Stott was easily the wealthiest girl in the school. An only child, she was given everything she wanted, and was the envy of the class. Her American nationality gave her a glamour and mystery. It was doubtful if any of the pupils knew anyone else from outside the British Isles. A friendship began between the two girls, which lasted many years, and it is easy to see how the impressionable Violet began to want things that Mildred took for granted. Most of the girls in the class wanted Violet for their friend. But when Mildred appeared on the scene, Violet wanted her company alone. It was a friendship encouraged by Grandma. Mildred was part of a class she wanted her daughter to join.
In 1926, when she was fourteen, Violet left school as was the norm for the times. She began work in an office, showing skill in book-keeping. This brought her promotion with an even greater sense of her own importance. But what mattered most to her, was that she had money to spend as she wished. Life began to be exciting. The attention from the men she worked with was flattering and enjoyable. Away from her mother’s scrutiny she could laugh and flirt without the gentle reproaches she found so irritating.
It was then she met Aubrey Darby.
A few miles away Aubrey had grown up with his mother. At the age of twenty-one he still lived with her. He also had been raised as the youngest child of a mother struggling to cope without her husband’s income.
Mary Ann Darby appears to be a contradictory character, a careful, responsible mother, who wanted only that her children should be able to raise themselves out of poverty. In this sense she and Maudie West had much in common, as neither allowed their parlous situation to stop them pushing their youngest child on to higher things. In very different ways both were abandoned by their husbands.
In other ways the two women were very different. Mary Ann had her own fluid interpretation of veracity: she had no qualms about lying about her age on official documents such as marriage certificates, and so the dates and ages on birth and death certificates, and censuses, don’t tally.
Mary Ann Woodward was born in Flamstead, near Dunstable, in 1862. Fair- haired, blue- eyed, she was the seventh of nine children, seven girls sandwiched between two brothers. Nothing is known of her childhood except that she lived in a two- up, two- down house on the Beechwood Estate, near Markyate, ten miles from Luton. Her father was a gardener on the estate. Even today the surrounding countryside is peaceful and unspoilt.
Although she was born eight years before elementary education became compulsory, Mary Ann and her siblings were not illiterate. Before the 1870 Education Act their parents had ensured that their children had a basic education.
Like Maudie, Mary Ann went into service when she was twelve, and nearly eight years later met and married Herbert Goddard. He was only sixteen. On the marriage certificate Mary Ann’s age is recorded as sixteen, Herbert’s nineteen. Perhaps Mary Ann did not want it to be known she was older than her husband, although as the ages for the couple are reversed, it is possible that it was a clerical error. If so, it was one that Mary Ann did not wish to correct. What also makes such a mistake unlikely, is that she took six years off her age when she married Walter Darby, thirteen years later. He was also younger than Mary Ann, by six years. Yet the 1911 Census records her as two years older than Walter. It is hardly surprising that her children were always confused about how old she was.
Pregnancy might have triggered Mary Ann’s marriage to Herbert Goddard as he was barely old enough to wed, but if so, she did not carry the baby to term. There is no record of children for six years, unusual for the time, especially as the highly fertile Mary Ann bore eight children. Her older sisters gave birth outside wedlock, with monotonous regularity, never putting the father’s name on the birth certificate. Then, as now, it was illegal for an unmarried mother to officially record the father unless he was present at the time of registration or gave written consent. A reluctant father, perhaps already married in some cases, could just refuse point blank. There was nothing that legally could tie him to the baby. This was a time when contraception was of doubtful efficiency, and illegitimacy was common. Various home-made concoctions were used such as slippery elm and raw potato, but they usually failed. It was a hypocritical age with shame attached to pregnancy outside marriage, but young desire was often stronger. The nearest Anglican church to Markyate was a three mile walk away. So there was not even the thundering from the pulpit to act as a deterrent.
All Mary Ann’s children were born in wedlock. Then, in 1895, after thirteen years of marriage, Herbert Goddard died of tuberculosis. He was thirty. For most of those years Mary Ann would have nursed an increasingly sick husband There were four children to consider, one boy, and three girls, including twins. There was also a lodger, taken in to supplement the meagre family income. This lodger, a cousin of Herbert’s, was Walter Darby, my grandfather.
Herbert died at the end of January, and by early April, Mary Ann had married Walter. This might well have been a shrewd move to save her from the workhouse, but the fact that she was pregnant with Walter’s baby, does give the matter a different conclusion. This was backstreet living, where survival was key, and little time was given to considerations of sexual morality.
Walter was a soldier, honoured in the Boer War. From this he received a small annuity. He had always wanted to join the army, and had attended the Royal Military Asylum and Royal Hibernian Military Schools, for the sons of rank and file soldiers. They would have provided a harsh education, making Walter tough and probably callous. Disaster struck when he tried to enlist for the army at fifteen. He was turned down as he was too short: he termed it ‘too small’ when he was finally accepted at eighteen, and asked to state why the army had previously refused him. Even so, he was only five foot six when he did manage to enlist. He and the diminutive Mary Ann were suited to each other, at least in size.
The army enrolment form gives a picture of Walter, dark hair and eyes, with no marks of sustained beatings on him. In the days when the army was renowned for its harsh discipline, a new recruit would be examined carefully for marks of previous beatings, so that soldiers could not accuse their superiors of scars previously received. Both army schools attended by Walter had been castigated for their inhumane treatment of the pupils, and any recruit who had attended them might well be covered in old wounds. The document does add, however, that his forehead bore several scars. He weighed barely nine stone. Part of the reason for this might well have been malnutrition. This delicate physique was inherited by only one of his children, my father.
When he left the army after the Boer War, Walter became a general labourer, turning his hand to whatever work he could get. This, together with the annuity, gave the family an adequate living, and the Darbys were considered well off by the standards of the time. Walter managed to change that, by wasting money on extra-marital relationships.
From the beginning Walter was a philanderer. Anecdotal family records that the Goddard children resented their step-father, as Mary Ann was frequently left alone with her ever expanding family, to cope as best she could.
Walter frequently left home, only to return when his latest affair was over. My father records in his book, A View from the Alley:
No star pinpointed the location of my birth, yet my father who was
drunk at the time, said it was ‘a bloody miracle’
My father had thought that Mary Ann was forty-nine at the time of his birth, but she was forty-three. He writes:
The old midwife, without conceding an immaculate conception,
warned I would either be an imbecile or commit murder.
When Aubrey was six, Walter stopped returning home, but set up house with a woman, round the corner. My father remembered being dressed in his oldest clothes and sent round to the house where his father was lodging, to ask for money. His mother’s humiliation stayed in his memory.
For a while Walter kept in contact with his family, and then, with the outbreak of war in 1914 Walter joined the army again, but at the age of forty-four was too old for combative service. He loved his time in the army, and was sent to Egypt. The Great War rewarded him with another medal, and a pension for sixty-five weeks only, of twelve shillings, while Mary Ann received three shillings weekly. Walter did his best to distance himself from his wife, and stated on his army records that his next of kin was his mother.
Finally Walter left the area for good, and the family had no idea where he had gone. But records show he went to Nottingham where it seems he made a bigamous marriage.
Nothing more is known of Walter until the early 1940s. Mary Ann declared she was a widow and found a new job in a hat factory. She spent her days working, and raising her younger children. Life was bleak and hard, but she never lost her spirit and her hearty laugh. But the pretty, slim girl had been replaced by a dumpy, short workhorse.
The children by her first marriage were now adult, although some still remained in the tiny family home. During Mary Ann’s second marriage there had been four Darby children born, my father the youngest. It was these four children whom Walter Darby deserted. Years later my father took his revenge.
One day in the early 1940s, Walter turned up at 322 Luton Road. It was a weekday afternoon and my father was at work. Walter, shabby and seedy looking, tried to muster his old patter: ‘You are a beautiful woman; my son is a lucky man.’
When my father came home, he got no further than the hall. ‘Dabber, your father is here. I’ve put him in the front room with a cup of tea.’
‘You’ve done what!’ This was no question, but an explosion of sheer fury. My father seized Walter’s collar, the tea cup falling into the hearth and smashing irrecoverably.
No conversation. No comment. Walter was literally dragged down the hall and kicked out the front door.
My mother stood uncomprehendingly in the hall. ‘He seemed such a nice old man. I thought you’d be pleased to see your father. You told me he was dead.’
My father said nothing. He straightened the runner in the hall and fetched a broom and piece of card, to clear up the broken remains of the cup. An unusual quiet hung over the house that evening, but not another word was uttered on the subject.
We heard from cousin Norman, some years later, that Walter had also been to Ebbw Vale where his eldest son, Wally, lived. Wally was Mayor of Ebbw Vale and, according to my father, the young Aneurin Bevan’s political agent. A firm believer in tolerance and altruism, my uncle discovered that he could not apply those principles to Walter. His actions had been identical to those of my father.
Desperation had driven Walter to seek out his sons. He was in his seventies, living in destitution in Nottingham. It was there he died, in 1948, in a hostel for down-and-outs. He fell and fractured his hip, and the shock proved too much for the old man. The coroner provided the information for the death certificate so it is probable that none of Walter’s family knew what had happened to him, or even where he was.
Back in Luton, Mary Ann had struggled to raise her family. My father may have said ‘her word was law’, but while she worked long hours he felt free to roam the streets with his pals. He found a job with Mr. Clarke the butcher, and worked there, before and after school. When Aubrey developed appendicitis, it was kind Mr. Clarke who diagnosed what was wrong, after Gran, the local self-styled midwife and layer-out of bodies, had prescribed castor oil, and the doctor had charged half a crown to declare it was jaundice. My father wrote of Mr. Clarke:
His knowledge of sick animals stood me in good stead, for he asked
Ma to get more expert advice and he would foot the bill.
My father was taken to hospital for his appendix removal; as he was wheeled down to the operating theatre he glimpsed his mother in her best outfit, sitting bolt upright on a bench…how many times had she worn it…too few…I felt proud that she wore it for me.
He gives a vivid description of his mother’s clothes, saying she was:
dolled up in a russet-coloured costume with leg-of-mutton sleeves,
suede buttoned boots, and the flat cloth hat trimmed with pheasant’s wing feathers.
It was important to Mary Ann that she should look smart at this time of great anxiety. She had done her best for her son. By this time several half crowns had been paid to the incompetent doctor. In a household where every penny counted, that must have been a terrible drain on resources. Kind Mr. Clarke had saved her son from almost certain death. But the delay meant the appendix had burst, and in that pre-anti-biotic age, appendicitis was a deadly ailment. Now, all she could do was wait, hope and pray. Earlier that year, Gladys Mary, a daughter by Mary Ann’s first marriage, had lost her fight with nephritis and died in great pain; now Mary Ann sat by the bedside of another seriously ill child.
After the operation Aubrey took a long time to come round, and when he was finally returned to the ward his mother was waiting.
My first conscious impression was of my mother sitting by my bedside. She looked worn out in spite of her get-up, and I wished they would send her home to bed.
Aubrey was happy in hospital. He had a long stay and got up to mischief round the ward:
I sat on the bed of Miss Bachini who had St. Vitus Dance,
But she didn’t dance whilst I sat there.
Leaving was difficult for him:
Loving care and kindness, such as I had never known from outsiders before, had been inflicted upon me to such an extent, that I dreaded the reality outside those walls.
His mother bought him a new outfit to wear for the journey home on the tram, short nicks, Norfolk jacket and cap with ear flaps. The conductor commented that Aubrey looked pale.
She countered by asking him if he expected to see a Red Indian. I relaxed, contented. Ma was still the same.
Back home, to the same musty odour of rising dampness and overcrowded habitation, there was a vase of daffodils on the table. Mary Ann’s embarrassed denial that they had been bought for him, told Aubrey that they had. She was excited and grateful that he was home and well, and had arranged for him to start piano lessons the following week. Her son was safe: now she wanted him to achieve all he could in life. Piano lessons were a start. Aubrey was horrified. He knew she could not afford them, and to have piano lessons would make him a laughing stock of all the other urchins in the area.
I waxed eloquent in my own cause. ‘Get to bed!’ cried Ma, without
recourse to a threatened bashing. My first night home, I suppose.
When he was twelve, my father took the Labour examination, which allowed boys who reached the required standard to leave school, and start full –time work. Mary Ann was against this, but Aubrey was adamant, for he felt that he had learned all that the sparse curriculum was offering. He passed, and the Headteacher wrote in his log book that it was ‘very discouraging,’ to see such intelligent boys leaving. In fact, he visited Mary Ann, to ask her to leave her son at school, as he was so able. Mary Ann’s pleas to Aubrey to continue his education, were unsuccessful. Reflecting, years later, my father wrote:
‘Darby,’ the Headmaster said, ‘It’s no use asking you to stay at
school, is it? You know it all.’ Little did he know how that remark
hurt, because a little persuasion at that time would have kept me at school. He made up my mind for me, so I departed with a chip
on my shoulder, to make a living full time.
That chip, in one form or another, stayed with him for the rest of his life. Ironically, he chose to forget that both his headmaster and mother had originally urged him to stay at school, and he had refused. In fairness to him, his school could offer no higher education than he had already received, and his mother could not have afforded grammar school fees. Had he stayed he would have probably become a pupil teacher, and been paid a pittance.
The job with Mr. Clarke, the butcher, became full time for a year, before my father went to work in the busy hat trade as an odd job boy. Tiring of this, he went to work at the Diamond Foundry, which affected his lungs so badly that he had to leave. The working conditions in foundries were appalling, with little consideration given to health hazards.
The Great War brought fresh loss to Mary Ann. Her son, Frederick George, signed up despite being only sixteen. In 1916 he lied about his age to join the Royal Navy and went down with his ship shortly afterwards. In the dying moments of the war another daughter, Emily Maud, died from the influenza that ripped through the country.
After the war Aubrey managed to obtain one of the coveted jobs at
Electrolux in Luton, where a thriving domestic appliance factory was in its infancy. It was there that he demonstrated his quick grasp of the workings of machinery. With increased confidence, he was soon able to apply for a foreman’s job at Bagshawe Conveyors, an iron foundry in Dunstable, and stayed there until he retired, nearly fifty years later.
It was at Electrolux he met Violet West.
A View from the Alley, by A.S. Darby, was published in 1974, by Luton Museum.