My Grandmother’s Century

In the midst of the First World War, on 11th November 1916, my Great Grandparents Alfred Newman and his wife Clara (née Gilbert) became parents again for the fifth time. This time they welcomed another daughter – Edna – my Grandmother, to their little Ely family.

Today, in 2016, marks what would have been her 100th birthday.

2016 has been a hard year, although I’m sure that 1916 was harder. However, partly as a result of the four family funerals I’ve attended so far this year, I’ve found myself in what was once her family home, and for the first time seeing the mass of photographs, keep-sake tins of bits and bobs, letters, a passport, and other ephemera.

My grandmother would certainly know hard times too – witnessing her older brother Wilfred being sent home to die in 1929 after exhaustive treatment in hospital for septicemia and tuberculosis when he was just 16yrs old, and hearing the news that her little brother Owen had died on a Japanese hospital ship after it was struck by a torpedo off Singapore. There would be more.

In particular, these photographs are letting me see my grandmother for the first time in her younger years. So far, the youngest photo I have found of her is when she was bridesmaid for her older sister Phyllis, and she stands beside her, and their brother, in 1935. This is my grandmother at 18/19yrs old – just a teenager – but to me, she’s unmistakeable.

Phyllis Newman and Sidney Fitch wedding group in Ely, 1935.
Phyllis Newman and Sidney Fitch at their wedding in Ely, 1935. My grandmother is second from right, with their brother Leslie Newman on the far right. Photo: Andrew Martin.

Within two years she would walk down the aisle with my grandfather Percy Martin, although perhaps somewhat hurriedly, as my uncle was born just 6 months later.

Their family grew in Little Downham, a village near Ely, but it wasn’t without difficulties.

Until a fortnight ago, as I had watched her oldest son’s (my uncle’s) coffin be lowered into his grave, and eventually turned to walk away, my mother tells me that this uncle was not the first to be buried there. This confuses me, but she relays the snippets of information that my aunt has told her and my father over the phone just days beforehand. There was another sibling – Malcolm – who my aunt (being his sister) believes is buried somewhere there too.

Edna and Percy, my grandparents in happier times. Probably Hunstanton during the 1950s.
Edna and Percy, my grandparents in happier times. Probably Hunstanton during the 1950s. Photo: Andrew Martin.

It was a shock. I thought I knew all my aunts and uncles, how had I never known about this one, and how had I not just spotted it anyway in the records? So I’ve set myself the challenge of identifying his burial plot. That’s in progress, and will need my detective work to find the cemetery plot map.

The next day, I searched through the birth and death indexes at freebmd, and sure enough, baby Malcolm Paul Martin was there. His birth in a neighbouring county hospital, his death in the hospital at the city of Cambridge – away from where the family’s other children had been born, and far outside of where I’d suspect him – if I’d ever suspected there was another child to find!

The sadness of spring 1958 was revealed.

This must have been so very hard on my grandparents, with my grandmother, now in her early 40s, giving birth prematurely to her final child. He hardly stood a chance – not just because he was premature (there’s no indication of by how much), but he would have been struggling to feed and grow strong due to having a cleft lip, and his weakness meant he stood no chance against the pneumonia. He was just 2 weeks old. My father hardly recalls him (as he was only young himself), my aunt remembers only a little more. My uncles never said a thing.

After the breakdown of her marriage to my grandfather in the early 1970s, she remained living with my uncle, and was already a doting grandmother to my aunt’s children, but clearly missed them dearly as they were based in the USA. As my sister, my UK-based cousins, and I came along, she proved to be just as doting to us.

I remember staying with her and my uncle on a few school holidays and playing with the kids next-door. I remember where my grandmother kept the sweets (in plain paper bags on the tray on the sideboard) which caused me to develop my light-footedness in aid of the liberation of countless aniseed balls.

Edna with Claire and Andrew, circa 1984.
Edna with my sister and I, c.1984. Seems the Christmas excitement turned me into a demonic child that year. Photo: Andrew Martin

I remember (and still have) a couple of the Christmas toys she saved up to buy me in my childhood – and I found a letter just last week whilst clearing my uncle’s house, where my mother is explaining to her what the toy was that she’d paid for in 1983. That was quite a lovely little find.

My parting memory of her is sleeping in a hospital bed. The same hospital where she’d had Malcolm almost 40 years earlier. I didn’t understand what was happening as an 8yr old in 1986, but my memories can take me right back there in an instant.

I wish we’d known each other for so much longer, but I cherish the memories of the time we shared.

Happy 100th Birthday, Grandma.

Happy 101st Birthday, Percy

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s 101st Birthday. Here’s a little ‘happy birthday’ nod to him, and some photos from his life.

Today would have been my paternal grandfather’s 101st birthday.

Percy Martin was born on the 1st October 1913, as the third of four sons of Daisy (née Burnell) and Herbert Martin of Little Downham, Cambridgeshire.

In 1917, during the First World War, when he was only a little over 4yrs old, his father was killed in a train accident in Boulogne, France.

Paternal Grandfather, Percy Martin (1914-1991)
Percy Martin (1913-1991), outside St Owen’s School, Third Drove, Little Downham.

Percy appears to have gone to St Owen’s School on Third Drove of Little Downham Fen, alongside his Martin brothers and cousins.

The Martin family in about 1916.
L-R: Sydney James, Daisy (née Burnell), baby Cyril, Percy, Herbert, and Herbert George Martin – circa 1916. Within months, Herbert would be killed in a train accident in Boulogne, France.

The photograph above shows the four sons and their parents – within less than a year, his father was dead.

His widowed mother, now with four sons all under the age of 8yrs, eventually re-married in 1919, and had three further children – half-siblings to Percy.

Edna and Percy, with Percy's half-sister Edith Shelton, visiting the seaside, circa 1935.
Edna and Percy, with Percy’s half-sister Edith Shelton, visiting the seaside, circa 1935.

Percy married my Grandmother Edna in 1937, and together they had four children, although they later divorced. Percy re-married to Irene.

He worked mostly for the Great Ouse River Authority in Cambridgeshire.

I was fortunate to know my grandfather for about 13 years (both grandfathers as it happens), and whilst it saddens me that I never really got to know him, and not at all as an adult, I’m pleased that we were able to spend a little time together.

Percy died on 9th September 1991 in Ely.

Happy 101st Birthday Grandad.

In Pictures: Father’s Day

Celebrating Father’s Day 2013 this weekend – check out my photo gallery of 14 of my ancestral fathers.

It’s Father’s Day here in the UK this Sunday, so in the same way that I marked Mother’s Day with a photo gallery, I thought that I would do the same for my paternal and maternal fathers.

Interestingly, there are fewer photographs of my male ancestors. This will of course be down to one or two instances where illegitimacy leaves them absent, but maybe the luxury of late-19th and early-20th century meant photography was only afforded for their wives?

Paternal Fathers

Maternal Fathers

Happy Father’s Day!