Two years ago, around Christmastime, my grandma and I sat in her living room – she in her big armchair by the French doors where the birds would come to feed all through the winter, and I on the floor surrounded by boxes and that thick old-paper-smell – and looked through her photographs.
My grandma passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 91, and today at her funeral I spoke about her early life through the photographs we explored together. They illustrate the life of a remarkable woman whose features – her dark eyes, her inclination to mischief – I see reflected in my cousins, my sister, and my mother, every day.
Joyce was an indulged first baby, born to a family which had known real poverty. Her mother was employed by a tailor to make button holes, but gradually the family of three brothers and two sisters built a tailoring business of their own, and owned their own factory. They always remembered and looked after the tailor and his wife who had employed her mother Nell. By the time Grandma was born, they were able to give her everything they had not been able to receive themselves. (Just look at the fur around her little coat in the photograph below…) What a shock it must have been for her when her sisters arrived!
As a baby at a photographer's studio in London
Joyce walking on the left, alongside her little sister and my great-grandma Nell
Behind the big London house, with her extravagant doll's pram
I couldn’t resist including this odd little photo of her with the policeman. Looking at photographs of her that snowy night in December, one thing which struck me every time was how easy it was to pick Joyce out of a crowd. In her school class pictures, with little girls wearing identical uniforms and identical bobs, you only had to search for the one with the glint in her eye, the little spark of naughtiness or rebellion, to know you’d found Joyce. Grandma was a wonderful story-teller, and she had many tales to tell of getting into mischief: like when the boys would bring mice in their pockets into church, running them along the hymn book shelf to make the congregation squeal, or how she would always make a noise in the cloisters at secondary school, and would be punished by having to learn inches of Paradise Lost.
Joyce and policeman
In hat and gloves
My grandma had a great and lasting love for dance throughout her life, especially ballet and ballroom. Though she wasn’t allows to go on stage professionally, it was I ballet classes that she first met the Furneaux family. My Granddad, Cyril, was famously in charge of the curtains - but he was never her dancing partner. She and Granddad loved going to see the stars of the ballet, and it remained something she enjoyed – with my mother at the theatre in Norwich in her final years, and on film – until she died.
Joyce in ballet class, en pointe
Joyce was sixteen at the outbreak of the Second World War, and the whole family of children was evacuated together – all the cousins – to be looked after by their maternal grandmother. Five girls and one boy moved from south London to be looked after by their grandmother on a farm in Hinton-St-George, Somerset.
From the photographs, it looks like an idyllic thatched village, but Grandma had a huge fund of stories about life there. Hardships, like having to light the terrifying boiler each day to have hot water, but fun and games too: learning to ride a horse and breaking her collar bone; cycling wildly down the hill into the watercress beds, grown in sewage (!); tickling trout in the local river. I can’t help but feel that she must have been like a whirlwind in that sleepy village...
However, tragedy touched her when her grandmother, skipping in the farmyard, suddenly fell, breaking her skull and dying immediately. I was an event which haunted her. She left the other children, now being looked after by their Aunt Rose, and returned to London in 1941, taking up fire-watching duties and, by all accounts, throwing herself into life in London during the Blitz. She would tell of how one night, having been out dancing with her friend, the girls stood in the street staring up at what they thought were dog-fights in the sky and admiring the spectacle and sounds of explosions in the distance. Their father ran out, chasing them indoors with the news that it was the new Nazi weapon – the doodlebug – that was causing their entertainment. Though she had harrowing stories, of the local cemetery being bombed, and the cinema, it was always evident in her stories that this was a time when she felt alive, young, and full of potential. The young woman who looks out of this photograph with such intense, determined eyes was just 18.
At 18, back in London during the Blitz
She married Cyril when he returned from the war in 1947 – a marriage which lasted 54 years. It looks like a glamorous affair, with beautiful clothes (of course!) and a reception at Frascati’s in the West End. At this time, she must have been thrilled to be able to wear lovely clothes again, picked off the hanger at the factory or appearing at her mother’s with a bolt of velvet so that she could be sewn into a gown in the evening, with Nell waiting to unpick it on her return. A lover of hats, I remember her telling me – with that mischievous glint – how she would buy the hat and then go to the uncles to be set up with a matching suit! Her love of clothes lasted all her life. Her last outing was with her friend Margaret, to buy new, bright outfits, because she had lost weight and wanted some which would fit her properly.
With my granddad on their wedding day
At the window
Photograph taken on their first anniversary
Here, in the last picture, we have the young couple at the iconic Festival of Britain – like so many other British people, looking into the post-war future. Along with the incredible fox fur, and almost overlooked in such a glamorous outfit, is a gorgeous pair of shoes which my mother remembers dressing up in as a child. My grandfather is carrying a briefcase, and a state-of-the-art camera.
He will go on to record Joyce, relaxed in a punt during a day trip on the river, and feeding the ducks with Linda in St James’ Park, as I would some forty years later. In one extraordinary set of tiny prints, Granddad spies on her from the window of their holiday apartment, buying ice cream – I think – from a man in the street below, and dawdling under a tree in the afternoon light.
I have no words to express how very precious these photographs are to me, now that it is my job to archive them safely and preserve their stories. The last time I saw Grandma, after I had shown her my own images from a wedding I photographed a few weeks before, she sent me back to her house – just down the street from the nursing home – to fetch the photographs we had looked at together that night in December. We spent almost two hours (a long time for her then) revisiting their stories. Yet, although I marked down the names of faces, left to right, in each formal wedding picture, and laughed with her at those remembered tales which featured the antics of her sisters and cousins, I was inevitably drawn back to the image of the dark-eyed woman with the fearless, knowing smile, who held such beauty and courage, and who told such wonderful stories.
Grandma and Granddad, on their 40th wedding anniversary
With baby Sarah
Four generations of eldest daughters: my cousin Clare, Auntie Vivienne, Grandma Joyce, and Great-Grandma Nell
Hosting the annual Christmas pudding baking session with my cousins and I (l-r: Clare, myself, Helen [behind] and Sarah)
With Shirley during blackberry season