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Martha Mary Herriott

(These memories of Martha Mary Herriott are by Joan Goddard with Brenda Peacock. Some names and parts of the narrative have been altered or amended to help understand and clarify who it is who is being referred to).

Martha Mary Herriott, was my grandmother. She was probably born at Denton, near Newhaven, Sussex with the surname ‘Jarman’. She was baptised on 4th June 1865 in the school house, as the church was under repair. Martha’s father was a farm bailiff and his first wife had died, leaving him with young children including Martha was three months old at the time.

In the course of time, her father married again and had yet another family and Martha was brought up in the care of her grandmother who subsequently died when Martha was three. After this, she was in the care of aunts who lived in the Ouse Valley villages of South Heighten and Tarring Neville.

Martha had, at an early age, to get up early and scrub the farmhouse kitchen floor before the rest of the household got up. She went to school in a little cottage run by an old lady. Brenda and I once went on a 1920’s “char-a-banc” ride with their Grandmother Martha, round the Lewes area and she pointed out the cottage where the school was, to them. She told them that she was allowed to pick and eat the strawberries in the garden when sent out to play. I think you see it, on the opposite side of the river, one of a pair, if you stand on the riverbank at Piddinghoe.

When she was eleven years old a label was tied round her neck and she was sent, by herself, like a parcel, to London to work, in service, at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. The only thing I know about her time there is that she very much enjoyed, in her time off, walks on Hilly Fields, a well-known local open place on a 1ittle hillside somewhere between Greenwich and Peckham.

The next known about her is that as a young woman at 30, she was working as a cook at Montpelier Crescent, Brighton.

Henry Wilson

Young Henry John Wilson, was a painter and blacksmith and at that time was employed on refurbishing the exterior of the house and, quite impervious to heights. He is reputed to have had a hand in putting the roof on St. Bartholomew’s Church, Anne Street, said to be the tallest Parish Church in England. He was mounting the long, long, ladder (no scaffolding) and glancing down to the basement window of the house, he saw working at a table near the basement window young Martha with her big brown eyes, soft dark hair and very ‘roundey’ figure. “That’s the girl I am going to marry” he said to his companion – and he did just that.

Martha married Henry Wilson on the 24th September 1887. Their first home was in rooms in a small house in the Hanover area somewhere, but by 1891 they were living at 26 Washington Street with Henry’s father who was also called Henry, and with his brother George.

Martha and Henry had ten children only four of whom survived into adult life,

Their first daughter, Elizabeth Mary was born on the 11th December 1890 but didn’t survive. Alice Daisy, (Penny Jenkin’s grandmother) was born on the 29th October 1891, the following year. Another child, Harry was born in 1893 but died the following year. William Joseph (Bill) was born in 1895, and photos show that he had a deformity of the spine. Following Bill, came Maud in 1897 and Charles in 1898 but they both died within three weeks of each other in 1900. Finally Fed was born in 1901 and Rose, who was my mother, was born on the 6th December 1903. It must have been such a terrible blow having four children die within such a short space of time.

As well as being a painter, Henry also used to get jobs at the ‘Royal’ as a ‘super’ in the me1odramas – one that he was in was the once famous “The Only Way”, toured throughout the country by Fred and Julia Neilson-Terry. An adaptation of Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Henry would arrive home after performances late at night and call out in the darkened house in deep and sepulchural tones “Prisoner 79 – prisoner 79” as he had heard the aristocrats in the play being called to the guillotine – it chilled my mother Rose to the marrow!

In summer when there was plenty of painting work for Grandfather Henry my mother Rose remembers that life was quite reasonable for them all, but in winter, when outside work was not possible, money was scarce and life was hard.

Rose always used to call the Cabbage White butterfly ‘the painter’s friend’, as its appearance in the spring meant that the weather was warm enough for painters to start decorating the exteriors of houses again. Those, of course, were the days of slow-drying oil bound paints.

Henry came from a family of, by now, quite prosperous builders, but his father, the eldest son also a Henry, took to drink and was cut off from the family dramatically with the proverbial shilling, as was the Victorian custom. Great Grandfather Henry ended his days in the Workhouse – with D.T.’s, and my mother remembers him being allowed out on Sundays to visit them. (Delirium tremens, also called DTs or alcohol withdrawal delirium (AWD), is a severe type of withdrawal from alcohol). As a seven year old Martha remembers being deputed to take him back on Sunday evening to the Workhouse to make sure he did now wander into pubs on the way home instead.

Very often Grandfather Henry got a bit “merry” himself and would come home singing “Twankydillo”, and once, quite inconsequentially, he pushed an empty barrow-boys barrow all the way home from the town. Quite a lad, I believe.

He had been a regular soldier in the Rifle Brigade and Martha always wore his cap badge at the neck of her blouse every day of her life, and it went to her grave with her. I can remember it at eye level as I sat on her lap as a child – the Maltese cross surrounded by a laurel wreath banded by ribbons on which were printed the battle honours of the regiment – the spelling of some of the foreign battle-fields were puzzling to a child. He spent quite a time stationed at Gibraltar, and used to tease our Grandmother Martha with tales of lovely Spanish ladies.

When he left the army he joined the local “Volunteers” and when Queen Victoria died two “Volunteers” from Brighton were allowed to be chosen to help line the route of the funeral procession. Being tall and handsome and a good soldier Henry had the honour of being one of the chosen pair.  Unfortunately he had a nasty boil on the back of his neck at the time and the rough stiff upstanding collar of his uniform jacket gave him a miserable time.

Much of his work took him away to work in the Sussex countryside. When my mother Rose was fourteen he was working away somewhere through a cold and wet spell, and he took a bad cold and came home at the weekend. So ill was he that he could scarcely walk along the street, and neighbours assumed he was drunk. In fact he had pneumonia and within days was in the Deflis Ward of the R.S.C. Hospital, where he died after a fortnight aged 48 on the 21st May 1906. He left my grandmother Martha in difficulties, with a young family. Daisy (Alice) would have been fifteen when her father died and Rose, my mother, was only three.

Poor Martha not only had this sadness to cope with, but two- year old baby Rose and young Bill had been both ill with pneumonia too. Much anxiety was felt for Bill who was crippled with curvature of the spine, but the doctor said “Don’t worry about him – he has enough spirit to carry him through anything – you look after little Rose”.

Not only did Martha have this grief to cope with, but earlier little Maudie and little Charlie had died, one aged a year and ten months and the other aged three years, from complications from measles. As the family came back from the funeral of one child the other died, and Henry was so overcome that he fainted as he came into the passage way from the front door.

Martha was left penniless – no government help. She had to go out and find what work she could to support the family. In fact she was so hard up that she had to go to the Parish Relief Board for help, and had to stand before them being severely cross questioned before being given two loaves of bread.

She had better off relatives living in Jamaica Road, Bermondsey (their exact relationship I was never curious enough to enquire when young). I think the father must have been one of Martha’s half brothers. He had three daughters Rose and Annie and one other whose name I forget. Rose was always called Rose Waters but, since she married a bigamist when she grew up, I am not clear whether Waters was her maiden name or her married name. She was a nurse and worked for some time in Johannesburg. She remained friendly with my mother Rose and used to visit us until the late thirties.

In desperation she wrote to the father of these daughters asking him to lend her ten shillings. He was at this time a lay-preacher and the reply came back – “Martha, it is a very bad principle to borrow. God feeds the sparrows and he wi1l feed you”.

So it was back to the pawnshops with the sheets that were not in use on the beds any week, in on Monday out on Friday – and also the plates not immediately required or use were also pawned. She also used to do domestic work for a Mrs Antonini, who had a daughter about the same size as Rose, who was very glad of the nice clothes kindly handed on from Nancy.

Photos taken of Martha during the latter part of her life show here to be a very large and rather jolly lady, however she was housebound and would have been very frustrated at not being able to negotiate the steep stairs down to the living room in the basement.

Martha died on the 15th April 1931 from myocardial disease and arterio sclerosis. She was buried in the Brighton and Preston cemetery (plot ref XC 724). There is a granite headstone and kerbstone. Her son Bill was buried in the grave with her, and her daughter Rose’s ashes were later scattered on it. Both their names appear on the headstone.


Continue reading: Daisy and Fred Wilson