Pat W’s story

In the ninth of our Grandmother stories, Pat was submitted by Katrina, Claire and Jim.

A talented athlete, Pat lost her mother when she was a baby and was brought up by her cantankerous aunt, but didn’t have it easy.

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Martha Ann Washington (known as Pat) was the seventh and final child of William and Martha Ann Washington, born in Cambridgeshire in 1890.

She was the final child because her mother (35), died from puerperal fever after the birth. Pat, christened Martha Ann after her mother, was just 43 days old.

Her father was now in a sad and difficult but not uncommon, position. He was widowed with six children and a tiny baby needing immediate care. Being a farmer he needed to work. His older daughter was 12, old enough to run the house but not to look after a new baby.

Pat was lucky. Her aunt Mary Ann, known as Rebecca, was married with two young children of her own and she agreed to take the little one in. As often happened, no formal arrangement was made. Rebecca had recently lost a baby girl of her own but wasn’t able to feed the baby herself, but her neighbour Ellen Burden was and did.

Ellen had three young children, the youngest a baby that she was still feeding. Conveniently the two families had rooms in the same house but whilst Rebecca’s family had four the larger Burden family only had two. Ellen would surely have found the money she got by being a wet nurse very useful.

Rebecca lived in Plumstead, London, 80 miles away from Littleport where Pat was born.  Family stories say Pat was taken there by cart but this seems a bit unlikely. Trains had been running there since 1847 so this was more probable. But whichever way it would have been an uncomfortable journey and feeding the baby would have been a problem.  Spoon feeding or bread dipped in milk was common but difficult to do successfully and even harder on a long journey. Pat was tough, she survived.

Whilst it is romantic to think that Rebecca was only too pleased to take in the baby girl as she had lost her own, it seems that the truth of the matter may have been a bit different. Pat’s childhood was a little difficult and whilst she was not unkindly treated it is clear that she was treated differently to Rebecca’s two natural sons. This may have been down to gender, resentment or simply a clash of character.

But Rebecca didn’t have an easy life either. In August 1891 she gave birth to Winifred meaning that she was pregnant again when Pat was 8 months old. I hope she didn’t suffer from morning sickness!

Rebecca was now caring for two youngsters, 18-month-old baby Pat and the new baby Winifred. Her husband was working as a steel foundry labourer, a hard job but not excessively well paid. Pat’s brother George, a railway engine stoker, was also living with them. I imagine his contribution to the family pot would have been very useful but it would also mean more work for Rebecca.

Sadly at the end of 1891 baby Winifred, just 3 months old died from internal catarrh and canker, often caused by a weak immune system and poor nutrition. Family stories suggest that Rebecca blamed this loss on Pat, feeling she didn’t have enough time and possibly energy, to look after her own daughter as well as she would have liked because she had Pat to care for.

Martha Whiting Group c1900 Greyscale 1200dpi

When Pat was 18 months old her father William, married again and had three more children. Pat didn’t rejoin the family. In fact, it wasn’t until she was about 11 that her sister Flora (known as Florrie) visited and explained to her that she wasn’t Rebecca’s daughter. Florrie later became Mayor of West Ham for the Labour party and eventually had a block of flats named after her.

Martha Ann Washington c1903

Their father visited sometime later and it was during his visit that she learned that her birthday was the 27th March and not 31st which is what she had been told. This must have been a very confusing time for her and she must have wondered if there were going to be any more revelations.

Pat went to Burridge Grove School for girls. She didn’t miss school often and had good attendance medals to prove it. She also became a skilled swimmer and diver (women’s diving was in its infancy at the time) and won medals for gymnastics. More unusually she joined a local fencing club which at the time had a male fencing master. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about this, just a photograph to prove it. For someone so active and talented it must have been difficult to have to give up sport when it was discovered that she had a heart murmur.

Martha Whiting Bottom Right Fencing c1907 1200dpi

When she left school she became apprenticed to a tailor but hated it so she went to work for Cliner & Co, an electrical company, as a machine magnet winder. She proved to be no walk over there and whilst the Foreman used to swear a lot she would on occasions swear back.

Washington Family Group c1910-001

It was in 1914 when romance entered her life. She met her future husband at a Good Templars Club (a temperance club). Retrospectively this is quite amusing as in later life she became very fond of the odd glass or two of sherry! Pat, the story goes, was asked to sing but part way through forgot the words. A young man in uniform stepped to her rescue and the rest is history.

She and James Whiting courted for a year and were married in June 1915 in Catford, London. Pat wore a new blue costume with a pink feather in the hat. There was no honeymoon as James was in the army and had only four days leave.

The War Illustrated - J G E P Whiting

There was obviously some tension around the wedding. Catford was where James’ family lived and they were both staying with his parents before the ceremony. Pat’s cousin Henry, who she grew up with, was one of the witnesses but Rebecca didn’t attend the wedding at all but stayed at home and went to a funeral instead. When Pat and James got back home, Rebecca, for some reason declared that they weren’t really married. It was a mixed faith marriage so maybe Rebecca was unhappy about that. But whatever the reason it was not the best of starts. There is no doubt that both were strong-minded forthright women.

James returned to fight and Pat stayed with Rebecca. A while later Aunt Nance, James’ sister, brought the news that James had been injured and was in hospital at Richmond. He received a head injury during the war which he never fully recovered from. He was mending telegraph wires in France when the Germans broke through the line by shelling. Whilst sheltering by the corner of a building he was hit on the head by a piece of iron guttering. He carried on without going for medical attention and without sleep and was later awarded the DCM.

But afterwards he suffered from very severe headaches and quite violent mood swings which made him quite difficult to live with at times. Her daughter Kit had quite distinct memories of having to tiptoe round the house to avoid making any noise that might disturb him when his head was bad.

Things with Rebecca didn’t go well. Kit recalled: “Rebecca gave Mum (Pat) such a bad time that an old neighbour got her rooms in Raglan Road.”  This is where Pat’s first two children were born. It is one of the rare occasions that the family unit lived alone together. They moved from these rooms to Norland Street in Lambeth.

After the war the couple lived in a flat in Camberwell. Times were hard and they had to pawn a signet ring and an engagement ring to pay a gas bill.

In 1922 Rebecca’s husband Henry died. Rebecca, never an easy woman, in later life became cantankerous.

At first she was cared for by her daughter in law, Ethel, the wife of Harry (born Henry), Rebecca’s eldest son. Ethel found the old lady too difficult and it was deemed best (by whom we don’t know) for Pat and her family to move back to Plumstead to look after Rebecca instead. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when Harry suggested that Pat and her family should pay rent for the privilege!!

They lived together for the next eight years. Pat received little or no help from Rebecca’s natural children and apparently little thanks from Rebecca as she was after all only doing her duty. Pat’s final two children, Catherine (called Kit) and Kenneth were born here.

So, Pat had her hands full. An ill husband, four young children and an irascible foster mother. Rebecca in her later years was incontinent, bed ridden and demanding. Pat’s life would not have been easy.

When Rebecca died in 1930 she left an estate to the value of £685.11s.3d. It is said that she kept a sock of sovereigns under her mattress, but no one admitted to finding it! The Maxey Road house and furniture, which for the last eight years had been Pat’s home, was left to her sons. She did however bequeath £60 to Pat.

Pat used £5 of this as a deposit on a house in Greenford, which cost £600. So began a calmer and more stable period in her life until the Second World War. In Greenford they could hear buzz bombs coming and as a precaution Pat would pin heavy curtains under the sills which would be full of glass some mornings as the window had blown in.

Aunt Pat's house

In September 1940 pinning the curtains was not enough. The house was bombed, while she was out paying the gas bill. No one was hurt, and even the cat survived, but most of the family possessions were lost. They slept at first in the boiler room at the Catholic Church then spent some time with Honor Blackman’s family. Later they shared a large rented house with most of the family and Aunt Nance to boot. Four women using one kitchen!

The Greenford house was rebuilt in 1948/9 and the large family cluster moved back in!

Gradually the children moved out until 1954 only Kit and her husband Peter and Aunt Nance were left.

James devised a grand plan that the older members of the family should club together and buy a ‘retirement house’. A bungalow in Prittlewell was bought and Kit & Peter were ‘encouraged’ to find somewhere of their own!

James died December 1956 and two years later Pat had a stroke. She went to live in Orpington with Kit and her family. Time for someone to look after her.

She recovered well and lived for another 30 years. She remained button bright and sparky throughout these years and continued to know her own mind.

She died in November 1989 in Norwich aged 99 and was buried in Southend with her husband James and Aunt Nance.

A confident, caring and highly independent woman. She remembered waving a flag at Queen Victoria’s carriage on her Diamond Jubilee and described the Queen as a little, fat lady! She lived through three major wars and had clear memories of watching the troops marching out of Woolwich Barracks on their way to the (second) Boer War.

She brought up four children, nursed her husband and foster mother, survived the house being bombed and recovered from a stroke. A redoubtable lady indeed.

Cousin Pat

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