We are grateful to Jack Pridham who spent his childhood years in Thornbury and wrote a book of his memories of the town and his family. In this extract he describes his aunts Annie, Rose and Dorothy Symes. You can read other extracts of Jack’s memoirs by clicking on the links in the left hand column.
The photo on the right below shows the three of them with their sister Ellen.
Annie (Nan), the second eldest in the family, lived a rather mysterious life married to Charles Pitcher, Thornbury’s postmaster who was also involved in local government: Charles or Charlie as he was normally called, came from a well established family of builders and undertakers in the town with a base just a few doors down from The Plain, in Gloucester Road. The Pitchers got on well with the Symes and Nan’s cousin, also called Annie, married Charlie’s brother, Ernest. This brought together a great network of family connections linked by marriage. It was rare to walk in the town without seeing a member of this Mafia!
Old photographs suggest that Nan, with three young sons, Christopher, Arthur and Gerald, my cousins, was a happy extrovert spending family holidays with her favourite sister, Dorothy, at places like Torquay, where her siblings could not afford to go.
In my Council School days, I often went with mother up to the Post Office for tea with Auntie Nan. Her house was interesting with a sitting-room behind the letter sorting-room, a dining room behind that and a kitchen at the rear opening up into a lovely garden with views across the Close (the Playing Fields) to the Severn. The kitchen possessed a second set of stairs to go aloft and for some reason, like so many other ordinary things, they fascinated me: delusions of grandeur, perhaps – a house with stairs for the servants and stairs for the family? Uncle Charlie rarely appeared – he worked odd hours in the Post Office – and the boys were rarely at home. Apart from the boys at Christmas-time, the Pitchers rarely came down to The Plain. I probably saw more of Charlie as a Postmaster than as an uncle. I was his part-time telegram boy for a short period working usually at unsocial hours when full-time staff were tucked-up in bed. He would contact me by telephone, Thornbury 3213, when my services were required and I am constantly reminded of taking a telegram out into the country early one frosty, Christmas morning. It was before breakfast: and I cycled to Shepperdine, 5 miles there and 5 miles back, for which the recipient rewarded me with a princely, shining sixpence. A healthy but not lucrative occupation!
The early Nan was always cheerful and friendly but as time went by she became more and more of a recluse and cancelled appointments and avoided people by claiming ill-defined poor health. She became quite emaciated, her voice became faint and she just slowly died! Family members often said that she should pull herself together – this was their recipe for most illnesses – and there did seem to be a Symes’ ‘mental element’ involved in her condition which might have responded to the family advice. However, the real cause of death was kept very quiet if, indeed, it was known. It may well have been cancer. Uncle Charlie later married that nice Miss Davies, my very first primary school teacher. She retired early from teaching to look after her elderly mother and when she died Miss Davies went to help out in the Post Office: here the new romance probably began and my teacher became my ‘step-aunt’!
(we have been able to supplement Jack’s memories with more details – click here to read them)
Poor old Auntie Rose came next in chronological order. She led a lonely life and was the only child who did not marry, apart from Christopher and Gwen who were not blessed with longevity. It was long after she had died that I discovered that she had had a boyfriend who had been killed in WW I. She was the child who inherited her father’s house and business although they brought her little pleasure. The profits from the shop took a downturn shortly after or perhaps just before, she took over and she had the family mortgage to repay which was a difficult burden. I lived on The Plain with my parents and Rose for about 20 years so I knew her well – and was rarely out of her ‘good books’.
Rose was plagued with ill health throughout her life and usually looked pale and frail and like Fan, spent a lot of time dozing in her ‘granny chair’ in the front sitting room next to the shop. Here she could hear the shop bell ringing in the passage and five or six faltering steps carried her to her customers. Rose might have been in the “Guinness Book of Records” for having survived the most surgical interventions whilst suffering from a chronic disease and, ipso facto probably had one of the strongest constitutions in the family. Before she passed away in her late 80s she had had both breasts removed, an appendicitis, peritonitis, a ‘floating kidney’ fixed, operations to relieve mastoiditis on both sides of her skull and tonsillectomy: there were other things I have forgotten, I am sure! Her chronic problem was not properly diagnosed but it may have been Crohn’s disease or some other inflammatory bowel complaint with almost continuous pain and requiring frequent trips to the bathroom. She took all kinds of medications to no avail and for much of the time must have felt thoroughly miserable. As the years passed by she received less and less sympathy for her condition and, I think in some quarters, her problem, rather like Nan’s, was thought to be psychosomatic – in Rose’s case, a belief that I very much doubt!
Rose was generous, as far it was possible for her to be generous. Her nephews and nieces treated her with respect but they only visited at Christmas-time and no presents exchanged hands apart, perhaps, for a glass of sherry in the visitors’ direction. She was close to sister Nell, existed with my mother and was tolerated by father. A lifelong friend was her cousin, the other Annie Pitcher, neé Symes (whose lineage is much too difficult to explain) who lived at the top of Castle Street and ran a little sweet shop almost opposite, at the bottom of High Street. She made a delicious yellow ice cream in a wooden tub: it was not always available but when the word got out that another batch was in preparation a small queue formed and waited until the mix had frozen. Not an easy task in summer when, sometimes, there was a complete system’s failure and both the ice cream and the queue melted away. A second cousin was on Rose’s regular visiting list – Maurice Symes, the ironmonger/blacksmith and his sister, Edith, and wife, Lou. One of my treats was to be taken across the road to Maurice and family on a Saturday evening to play cards and have a late supper which in the appropriate seasons, always included young onions from their garden – a taste that I have never lost! Rose attended the Baptist Chapel into her late middle years; she had friends in the congregation including Harry Phillips and his wife. Harry ran the Mills & Phillips Painting and Decorating firm and also played the cornet in the town band. His ‘co-director’, Bob Mills, was much taller than Harry and they complemented each other well when faced with decorating both picture rails and skirting boards. Both men violated the rule that lead paints and accompanying solvents are bad for you – they were immersed in the stuff all day long without reducing the life expectancy statistics and for that matter, so were most householders! The old-fashioned paints – brown and cream were the popular colours of the day – were difficult to apply; they streaked and ‘ran’, took days to dry and then, finally, ‘bubbled’ in the sunshine. Like fucus air bladders and fuchsia flower buds, paint bubbles, when spotted by children, just had to be popped hence ensuring that the cycle would need to be repeated and that Mills & Phillips (or Hawkins or Pitchers or Tuckers – there were several options in the town) would be kept in business. In the days before the expansion of DIY, professional decorators were more affordable and many people used them.
Aunt Rose, the sickly woman, outlived all of her siblings and most of her friends. She spent her latter lonely years in her ‘front room’ overlooking The Plain, tippling “Johnny Walker “, just occasionally, and curling the ends of her thinning hair with pipe cleaners every night. The shop and the old sitting room behind was leased on two separate occasions to local people whose businesses subsequently failed and one, unbeknown to the family (who trusted solicitors!), had negotiated a lease which gave them a percentage of any part of the estate that was sold! I do not remember Rose’s funeral – I think I was abroad when she died.
Grandma’s fertile years continued until she was 47 during which time she presented Charlie Symes with three more daughters and a son. The first of this younger group was Dorothy who was not well known to me. I believe that like the other children in the family she went to the Council School and therefore must have been submerged in the Gloucestershire dialect both there and at home. Somewhere along the line however she developed a rather gushing, ‘plummy’ intonation which swamped the quiet and rather timid voice of her pleasant husband, Sidney Harriss Gayner, the milliner/draper in the High Street. The Gayners were a very old Thornbury family with records going back to the 1500s when a Mychell Gayner was a weaver probably living in “Senytmaryes Strete” (‘Back Street’). One hundred years later the family had moved on to become blacksmiths who were always in trouble because they failed to observe the rules of the ‘conformist church’; not attending Easter communion for example! In 1756, a John Gayner was fined 6/8d for, “throwing suds and offensive things in (an appropriate place) Soapers Lane”.
Returning to Oxbridge accents, perhaps Dorothy’s was developed in order to match her perceived importance of the Gayner lineage who as ‘movers of cloth’ in the ‘Back Street’ had migrated to the ‘Front (High) Street’ in just over 500 years. It was difficult to know who was impressed by the change of voice certainly not many of her contemporaries. If they had been asked to conjugate the verb “to be”, for example, they would have replied, “Oi be, thee bist, w’em, you’m and they’m”, and in the event of an outbreak of, say, food poisoning, they just might have inquired of Dorothy, “Ow bist Dot? Oy ‘avn’t seen much of thee lately. Oy ‘ope thou asn’t ‘ad the collywobbles loiyk old Fred”! Neither my parents nor Rose ever mentioned ‘the voice’ to me, but it must have contributed to the barriers that were being slowly erected within the family group. To my knowledge, only one other sibling, Nard, spoke in a similar but less contrived manner probably through contact in later life with civil servants!!
Sid Gayner always found moments to chat with me. At one time I could boast that my Uncle Sid was the Chairmen of Governors at my second school, Thornbury Grammar, not that this relationship gave me any obvious advantages neither did his membership of the Parish Council, to which Uncle Charlie Pitcher also belonged. Dorothy when caught on the step of “Coronation – or something – House” where the Gayners lived over the shop, would offer a large smile, a couple of bland sentences and then disappear quickly indoors as though she had just heard a saucepan boiling over. I sometimes looked up the handsome staircase and wished I would be invited in!
The Gayners produced two lovely daughters, Pam and Jean, who went to school in Bristol and, hence, were rarely seen. They both served in the RN during the war, as did Arthur Pitcher, and both girls married men who became bank managers – as was Arthur Pitcher!
Dorothy Gayner’s only real family connection was with her sister, Nan Pitcher. She died in 1964 or ’65 after a short illness; she was a very large woman so her death did not come as a surprise. Sid followed her a few months later: he had suffered from malaria most of his life – infected at Gallipoli, I believe, but the Gayner constitution allowed him to pursue a very active life in commerce and local government. He passed his genes on to his elder daughter, Pam, who lived to a ripe old age; Jean, the younger one was not so lucky – she collapsed and died when she was visiting her sister who was terminally ill in hospital.
(We have been able to supplement Jack’s memories of Dorothy and Sidney with other details – click here to read more)