It has been a difficult decision as to whether now is an appropriate time to make public some of the details of their lives but I decided it would be wrong not to include my two most important ancestors among the 52 ancestors in my 52 weeks challenge.
Mum had a lot of 'downs' in her life but she was an example to us all of how the human spirit can overcome these ‘downs’ with a cheery smile and a positive attitude.
Mum was born towards the end of World War 1 on 5th March 1918 in Wandsworth, South London and christened “Jennie Sylvia Hill”. She was the middle of three daughters, with her sister Peggy being older than her by 7 years, and Pamela being 3 years younger.
Her father, William Hill, was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge and a successful journalist and writer. Mum rarely mentioned him but, when she did, she told me he had DIED when she was very young and she didn't remember anything about him. Whether that was what her mother told her and she believed it, or whether she actually knew the truth but was too embarrassed to tell anyone, we will never know. The truth was very different and still too sensitive to be told and is covered by The Family Skeletons and Secrets Act.
Jennie went to Balliol House School and then to Fulham County Secondary School in South London. She always freely admitted that she was not at all academic but this never seemed to have bothered her at all. She may well have left school without any formal qualifications. She was good at and enjoyed sports. She would sometimes say that if she had been brighter she would have liked to have been a PE teacher. It is likely that Jennie left school at the earliest possible opportunity.
I found this certificate in her belongings after she died - she would not have been amused at the careless mis-spelling of her name !
Jennie met my father, Derek Bird, at the Selfridges’ swimming club. Derek was working in the buying department at the time. Apart from swimming they also shared an interest in ice skating. They met in 1935 when Jennie was just 17 !
Derek asked Jennie to marry him for the next few years “on every street corner in London”, but she kept refusing him saying she was much too young to get married. He said he knew she would eventually say yes and that he would wait. In the meantime she continued to go out with other boyfriends and I believe she even had another guy propose !
Derek was a regular guest at Fourtops at the weekends, and he and Jennie enjoyed sailing and messing around in boats. It was a happy and fun time for them.
After the war Jennie took up work again as a children’s hairdresser and may have gone freelance. She certainly went out to people’s houses and cut children’s hair in their homes. Since her territory was North London, which even then was a very affluent part of the country, she met, and was fortunate to be befriended by, some very wealthy and kind people.
They were still living at Ellerton Lodge at this time and seemed to enjoy a good social life despite Derek’s disability and the shortages of the post-war years. They continued to socialise with some of the friends they had met during the war, including Derek’s commanding officer in the Royal Artillery, Major Johnnie Craddock. Jennie, also by now a very good cook herself, often recounted stories of wonderful dinner parties hosted by the Craddocks. It was a family story, never authenticated, that Fanny had asked Jennie to help her on her new television show but she refused as, at the time, she had two young children to bring up. Johnnie was therefore enrolled as her foil and they became the first ever celebrity TV chefs. I think the nation lost out but I benefited from this decision. Mum was a good cook and I was a good eater – jam sponge and cream was a favourite, as was her cherry cake not to mention her dumplings and Yorkshire puddings.
Between the end of the War and my arrival on the scene, they travelled quite a bit in Europe, visiting France, Austria and Switzerland, often going on holiday with groups of friends. A few of their holiday snaps are posted below.
After the war, there is little doubt that Jennie and Derek wanted to start a family and must have been upset that this didn’t happen naturally. In view of the fact there was still 40 years to go before IVF would became available, they decided to adopt, which in itself was quite a brave move at the time.
One of Jennie’s wealthy hairdressing clients had done the same and she put them in touch with an adoption agency in Knightsbridge, London. It wasn’t an easy task to persuade the agency that they were suitable parents. For a start Jennie and Derek needed to move to a house with a garden appropriate for children. To this end they purchased a three bedroomed house in Brookland Rise in The Suburb which was for the princely sum of £3,200, having negotiated a reduction of £450 from the asking price due to it's dilapidated state. Jennie also had to give up work so she could devote 100% of her time to care for the child.
I was born in September 1954 and adopted 7 weeks later on 10th November. To help Jennie learn about caring for babies and to satisfy the Adoption Agency’s exacting standards, a nanny was employed for the first year or so following my arrival.
Mum often said that they were married for 15 years before I arrived and that they were more than ready for a change in their lifestyle at this point. This is possibly why they were such good parents and provided such a stable home – they weren't pining to go out and party at night.
In 1958 my sister Sue was adopted. The family was complete.
It was a condition of the adoption that we were both brought up with the knowledge that we were adopted, and this was accomplished by a charming story which was told over and over again usually, but not always, at bedtime. Mum used to tell us of this couple who dearly wanted children but couldn’t and that we had been chosen and we were special.
We acquired our first car when I was a baby which I immortalised by calling it the ‘pop-pop’. It was a three wheeler with an instantly recognisable engine note !
Quite soon after my adoption a great family tradition of holidays in Trevone, North Cornwall, began. This continued right up until the late 1960s and continue's with me and my kids to the present day. However, in a three wheeler and before dual carriageways, the journey of just over 300 miles had to be done with an overnight stopover. Each year we spent at least 2 weeks and sometimes 3 in Trevone meeting the same like minded families year after year. Dozens of us regularly built huge walls of sand, seaweed, surf boards and anything else we could get our hands on to keep the tide off our favourite rock and to keep the grown-ups dry. Mum was sometimes a little pessimistic by taking the rug, wind break and picnic basket back to the car but she always came back to sit behind the wall while us kids protected her for as long as possible from the inevitable.
We didn't watch much television, perhaps because it was in black and white with an unreliable reception. We tended to sit and watch 'Watch with Mother' and then some of the children's programmes like 'Crackerjack' which I think were only on for an hour or so between five and six o'clock. At this point I would lay my cards on the table and state that we were a Blue Peter household and not a Magpie household – Susan Stranks was a little risqué for Mum, and Valerie Singleton evidently more suitable. I remember Mum helping me make models out of washing up bottles and the middle of loo rolls.
Our childhoods were full of the usual minor ups and downs, but generally uneventful and fairly typical of a middle class North London family. As Dad was originally a country boy from Sussex, trips to the countryside at the weekend for a picnic were frequent and much enjoyed.
Apart from her previously mentioned love of cooking, Mum particularly enjoyed her garden and gardening. We had a lovely compact garden which was her pride and joy. I never really appreciated how much effort must have gone into that garden until I tried keeping one of my own !
Mum was extremely house proud. She cleaned and dusted every day, everything had to be in its place. She was always full of energy and enthusiasm, enjoyed listening to classical music and reading.
Their first grandchild was born in 1982, followed by another in 1984. Mum and Dad were both very proud of their grandchildren and loved seeing and spoiling them.
You would think that after bringing up two children that they deserved a long and happy retirement together ? It was not to be. Their life was turned upside down yet again when Dad suffered a negative reaction to drugs he was taking and this caused him paralysis and other complications. All their retirement plans went out of the window and their plans to travel were in tatters. I will explain a bit more about how much their life changed in next weeks blog but suffice to say Mum cared for him for the last ten years of his life without ever complaining - certainly not within earshot.
Dad died in 1989.
One of the saddest things, I think, about Mum’s life was that every time it looked like she was at a point where she might have a chance to enjoy life, life came up and kicked her in the teeth. Her marriage just before Dad was called up, Dad’s wartime injury and the deterioration after that in his health especially when he retired from work had understandably restricted them and then, sadly, after he died, when she could have let her hair down, some spark went out in her as well. Somehow all the things that she was now free to do just didn’t appeal. Her life had constricted so much during Dad’s final years that she couldn’t find her way back into real life.
Mum stayed on in the same house they had lived in since 1953 and initially seemed to cope very well. She certainly would never admit to being lonely or unhappy, and she always seemed to keep herself busy. However, she refused to go away on any holidays and hated leaving the house for any protracted period of time – even a couple of days coming to us at Christmas was an ordeal for her.
By the early 2000’s, it was apparent that her mental state was deteriorating. She was obviously finding it difficult to cope, but despite encouragement, she wouldn’t consider a move to more suitable accommodation. This was a distressing time for all of us as we were powerless to help her as she was insistent that everything was fine. In 2004 she collapsed at her home and was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital where she managed to recover physically after being critically ill. However, it was apparent that her mental state had deteriorated a great deal more than we had realised.
We initially found her a place at Verulam House in St Albans which is next to my office and was where my wife's parents spent their last few years. It is a palatial place but, as we discovered, no use whatever for those with dementia. After looking around for somewhere more suitable we transferred her to nearby Oak Tree Manor where she moved to in February 2006. Dementia is an awful thing although the worse she got the less she was concerned about those normal conventions which had dominated her life and she lost her normal inhibitions. In her own way I think she was happy there even if she wasn’t aware of where “there” was. Three years later in January 2009, aged 90, she drifted off and died peacefully in her sleep.