A Glimpse Behind the Curtain (ii)

This the story of my great-grandmother, Lois, imagining her life in 1911…

If you had knocked on the door of 27 Kilburn Priory, some time in 1911, no doubt a neat and polite maid would have opened it and enquired your business. If you were a stranger then maybe she would have taken your card and withdrawn to find out if Mrs Walford was receiving. If you were a friend, or maybe a relative – Mrs Walford’s sister Sarah for example, then you would have been shown in and welcomed.

You would have been received into a comfortable home, with a piano, bookcases full of books, pictures and paintings on the wall. Your hostess would have been gentile and polite, warm and welcoming. However, if you were a new acquaintance, you might have detected a certain reserve; maybe she is wondering how much you know… or do you know… or maybe you know nothing.

Mrs Walford was born Lois Penney in 1853 in a pretty little village in Cambridgeshire. Her father was a basket maker in the days when baskets weren’t the small domestic items we use today, but often huge – like the plastic  and alloy  containers industry and logistics now use. No doubt her father worked on a small scale, but later his son, Lois’s brother had a factory in the Midlands. So, Lois came from an upwardly mobile family, typically Victorian with nine brothers and sisters, and a half-brother and sister.

Somehow Lois met a man further up the social scale, a man not just from a different class, not just born in another country on the other side of the world, but a man who was a Jew. His family were very wealthy and his cousins mixed with the highest people in society including royalty, musicians such as Rossini and Arthur Sullivan, industrialists and financiers, and writers such as Oscar Wilde. How did Lois and Louis meet? He had recently arrived from Tasmania where he had been born and brought up, he was eight years older than she and now worked in the City, dealing mainly in wool. So how did they meet?

In this story, set in 1911, it doesn’t really matter where or how Louis and Lois met and fell in love. There were many reasons why they couldn’t marry, mainly it is supposed, because he was Jewish and she was a Gentile. His family were very religious nd much respected in the synagogues they attended. Louis died tragically after they had been together for maybe seventeen years… been together because they weren’t married and  lived almost as man and wife with the five children, George, Horace, Ida, Edward and Nelson.

On his death she would have been destitute except for the charity of Louis’s mother and family… but a distant charity; the children when young went to visit their grandmother in her John Nash built house on Regent’s Park, or one of Louis’s brothers, and they would come home with money for Lois. She was no doubt set up in a house in Windermere Avenue in Willesden, and then in the  house in Kilburn Priory.

The children must have known that their parents did not marry; the children must have known that their mother was not Jewish – and it is probable that while their father was alive they were brought up with Jewish traditions too.  The two younger boys probably did not remember their father very well, although their were several paintings of him in the house. After Louis’s mother died, the children were all baptised into the Church of England – maybe Lois was religious, maybe she thought being Jewish was not an advantage for children without a father.

Which was the worse thing in respectable England in 1911 – being illegitimate or being Jewish? Certainly having five illegitimate children would have shocked and horrified Lois’s neighbours had they known. To them she would have seemed the most respectable of women, to be admired for her fine family she was bringing up alone, and brought up to be the epitome of well-mannered, courteous, successful and accomplished young people.

Behind the respectable curtain there must have been a secret shame, a defiant pride in having the courage to be with the man she loved, and a continual anxiety in case anyone discovered her secret. She must have worried for her daughter Ida, would she find a husband, who would look after and support her?

Lois must have been a strong and determined woman; in our family her name is a by-word for good manners and ‘proper’ behaviour  – ‘Grandma Walford wouldn’t like it!‘ In her photos she is unsmiling… but she must have been a very loving mother, as her children became in turn loving parents. I am proud that I was given her name.

Ida, her brother Horace and his fiancée, Lottie

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