Was my grandmother Ida unhappy? I’ve been thinking about this today, thinking of the few photos I have of her, and trying to remember things my mum and her sisters might have said about her. Ida’s life cannot have been easy; her mother, Lois, after whom I was named, was an ordinary woman, born in Northamptonshire to a basket maker. The family moved from place to place in Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, which I think was more common than is often understood, just as we move from place to place today. Her father was a basket maker – it’s tempting to think of baskets as the small things we see today used for light domestic and maybe garden duties, but in the days before plastic, basket-ware was a hugely important, and endlessly recyclable and renewable item. Baskets were of all sizes from the small domestic to the large industrial, everyone had them and needed them. The family ended up having a factory in Nottinghamshire, basket making on an industrial scale.
The basket maker’s wife died and he married again, inheriting stepchildren and having more of his own. Somehow,, Lois met and fell in love with Louis, a wealthy Australian. He had emigrated from Tasmania to London to join his family; his parents had travelled to Tasmania in the 1830’s as business people, import and export and became very wealthy. They had returned to London where they had both been born, and lived in a house on Regent’s Park. He joined them some time later and worked as an importer of wool and other goods and obviously was a man of means. Without a doubt Lois and Louis loved each other, and it would seem obvious that they might marry… but they didn’t, because they couldn’t. He was a Jew and his family were important and respected members of the Jewish community, it was unthinkable that their son should marry a gentile.
Lois and Louis never married, but they had a home together, and they had five children; their middle child, their only daughter, was my grandma, Ida. It must have been a strange secret life; what a woman my great-grandma must have been to have lived with a man who she could never marry, and who was only with her some of the time. He also lived with his mother, his father had died shortly after he returned from Australia – and there must have been terrible rows in that house on Regent’s Park. Lois had to pretend she was married to him, and yet on the censuses she appeared as a visitor or housekeeper – although the children always had his name. As if that strange and secret life was not difficult enough, for Lois and her children, it was made so much worse when Louis, walking out with their eldest son, fell down in the street, maybe with a stroke, or maybe a heart attack, and died. Ida was eight when her father died, her brothers were aged sixteen, ten, four and three.
Lois was estranged from her own family, apart from a couple of sisters who kept in touch, but fortunately, although Louis’s family would have nothing to do with her, and did not acknowledge her as partner of their son, they supported the family financially. The children would visit their Jewish grandmother, and several of their uncles were very kind to them, and money was given to be taken home to Lois. Ida would have been a young girl, what must it have been like to live this double life – so different from that of her little friends, and no doubt that side was kept a complete secret. It must have made her very guarded and careful, and maybe cautious about who to trust, and yet loyal to her brothers and mother. Her Jewish grandmother died when Ida was eleven, but her uncles continued to support the little family.
Looking at photos of her at home with her mother and brothers she doesn’t look sad or unhappy, and there are pictures of her dressing up as if the family were having fun, and her sisters-in-law look kind and friendly young women. The family when Ida was becoming a young woman look happy and contented, whatever the sad history and loss of their beloved father. I think Ida must have told her own daughters about these times, speaking in a somewhat guarded way, and maybe implying that she had been married to their beloved father. I have no way of knowing, Ida died when I was only eight years old, but I wonder if she carried a sadness with her all her life, and a way of keeping her thoughts and feelings private, even from those she loved. She was born at the end of the Victorian age, but that middle-class sense of decorum and propriety, mixed with guarding the secret that she was not only illegitimate but half-Jewish, must have impacted throughout her life.
More to come.