Thursday, 4 February 2010

Doodles and Fiery Jack . . .

I have been having a tidy-up of papers in my office today and found an e-mail sent to me by a lady in Canada, who took it upon herself to do some research on my behalf, 9 years ago now. I had quite forgotten it until I found her e-mail which I'd printed but now it has inspired this post.

My husband's maternal line comes from Scarborough in North Yorkshire. This seaside town has been the destination for several camping holidays when our children were younger. I can remember walking along the Marine Drive skirting North Bay with my family, rounding the corner and all the glories of the fair hove into sight. "This is MY sort of town" my son announced (he was about 8 at the time). Had my husband's grandmother (Maria Margaret) married Doodles the Clown , his family would doubtless still be there - and I would probably never have met my husband in fact, as he wouldn't even be the person he actually is! I suppose Doodles and Fiery Jack, his clown sidekick, must have been working a travelling circus which came to Scarborough. By the time Gracie Fields filmed "Sing as we Go" in 1934, they were at the Tower Circus, Blackpool.

Curiously, it was a circus which killed - albeit indirectly - my husband's g. grandmother. She had quite an unhappy history and she, along with her mother, were the two skeletons in my m-in-law's cupboard that she was unhappy about - one only surfacing as a deathbed confession and the other being a total shock to her when our family history revealed it! Anyway, in late Victorian times, once a woman had a family - and particularly if she had parted from her difficult husband - finding work to keep the wolf from the door was never easy, and so my husband's g. grandmother took in washing. She lived in a little back street in Scarborough, a terraced house that even more than 100 years on is pretty well unchanged I should think from when she lived there (apart from the yellow paintwork). When we found it and crossed the street to take a photo, an irate occupant came out to tell us to scarper! I think she thought we were taking incriminating evidence or something!

These were little houses with just a couple of bedrooms and a scullery behind, where all the washing was done in a copper built into a brick base in a corner of the room. Delicate things were washed by hand. The huge cast iron mangle stood in the small yard out back, the yard being backed by a thin brick wall which ran along the length of all the properties in the road. This house had a resident ghost, which appeared at the top of the stairs. My m-in-law said her mother would tell it to "get behind, Mrs Grey".

The circus regularly came to town. Whether or not Maria Margaret went to see the circus - had a free ticket perhaps? - or just met the circus people when dealing with the washing, I don't know. Anyway, she got to know Doodles well enough for him to propose - and she turned him down. Perhaps she was in love with her fisherman then (he is mentioned in passing in family history) - she had a little piece of jewellery of the cheapest kind that was a sweetheart's gift, and she kept it all her life. Perhaps he was drowned. We will never know.

Anyway, around 1900 the circus washing brought in more than just dirty clothes. It carried Smallpox, and Emma caught it. She was very ill and only the kindness of neighbours, including red-haired Aunt Sally with her screeching parrot, who lived opposite out-back, but a couple of doors up, kept her alive. They would cook meals and then push the plate along the wall with a long stick and it would be taken indoors by Maria Margaret. I suppose the same plate was used each time and scalded clean with boiling water. Emma's son George had by that time gone for a drummer boy with the "Death and Glory Boys" - the 17th Lancers and was in the Boer War. Maria Margaret nursed her mother as best she could. Emma never really recovered though. The Smallpox left her with severely weakened kidneys and she died of kidney failure in 1901. There was no money for a headstone.

Whenever I hear the name Scarborough, the family historian in me pricks its ears up, and I think of Scalby, and North Bay, and South Bay, and the lovely beaches, and the steep narrow pathways up from the shore to the town. The steep bit at the Scalby Mills end of North Bay where my late m-in-law, aged only 7 or 8, and in charge of her baby brother and sisters whilst her mum worked at the local laundry to pay for their holiday, once let go of the pram and her baby sister in it went shooting down the hill and ended up ploughing into the beach . . .

I think of them all trailing, tired little mites, with their mother, on a hot summer's day - probably around late August 1916. She is dressed in the deepest mourning. Her hair has turned white overnight after hearing within the space of two weeks, of the death of her brother and then her film-star-handsome husband. She is pushing a wisp of white hair off her forehead, sticky with sweat, the dust her boots kicked up from the dry trackway turning her hem grey. The pram jolts the baby, who is teething and grumpy, and the toddler on her hip wriggles as she walks, whilst the two eldest plod behind her, too tired to be interested by the butterflies fluttering along the wayside flowers. She is going to see the sisters B**dy, closely linked to the family, and living by that time, probably in genteel poverty, in a little run-down cottage in the lanes beyond Scalby. Little A, her eldest, at 6 years old, is looking out to sea and watching the war ships of WWI anchored off-shore and, the concept of death being alien to her, wondering if her daddy is ever going to come home . . .

HERE is a link to the Creative Commons pictures of Scarborough . . .


  1. Hullo BB,

    Lovely post. You reflect the hardship and tough choices of life in those days very well.

    I did a project in Scarborough about 2 years ago but never got to stay very often due to other jobs on elsewhere so every trip was a flying visit. I remember the road from N/castle to Whitby then Whitby to S/boro was a real drag to drive and highly dangerous with the risks drivers took on the twisty roads.

    Never did get to walk along the shore like I had promised myself.

    must do that sometime......

    {sings quietly}
    'Thanks for the memoreeeee's'

  2. What a sad story,there must be so many stories like this hidden in all our family backgrounds, life was very hard in those days especially for a woman struggling to bring up a family alone.

  3. I grew up just down the coast from Scarborough -- in Flamborough. I recognize your description of the old cottage with a back scullery as just the same as in Flamborough.

    A few weeks ago you very kindly gave me permission to draw one of your black and white calves,from a photo on your blog. I finished it the other evening. I plan on posting it on my blog tomorrow. I was very pleased with how he/she came out.

  4. This is so interesting...there are hundreds of stories held by one family tree and I find them all fascinating. Great post!

  5. ER - I often think that fact is stranger than fiction and some of the stories which unravel during family history need writing down and a bigger audience.

    Chris J - I expect you still miss Home. Especially as it's so different to where you live now. Loved the drawing of the calf, btw.

    Rowan - I think the hardship suffered then beggars belief at times as there was absolutely NO net to catch folk when they fell down the ladder of life. The stigma of an illegitimate child was absolutely dreadful too - hence the deathbed confession . . .

    Al - if you ever get back to Scarborough, I can recommend a stroll out to the end of the little lighthouse pier, ice cream in hand, and a walk up through the steep streets to visit the Castle, and Ann Bronte's grave nearby, and of course, that walk along the beach . . . You may even see the little ship chugging about South Bay, which used to be up on the pond near Oliver's Mount - a replica of a Spanish galleon (I will have to get OH to jog my memory about its name).

  6. What an evocative story BB.
    A strange thing - I was in a charity shop today and found a brand new tea towel showing scenes of Scarborough. Maybe an unused gift to a Grandma now passed away? I bought the tea towel for the memories it brought back to me. Happy days out and a seaside holiday at Scarborough when we lived in Yorkshire and our boys were small.