The news that Conservative leader David Cameron's six-year old child died yesterday is very sad news indeed and there is probably not a person in the country who would not want to extend their sympathy to the Cameron family. It was even enough to unite all political sides of the House of Commons yesterday - an event rare in itself. The loss of a child in any circumstances is a thing none of us can begin to understand fully unless it has happened to us, whether the child was able-bodied or handicapped, ill beforehand or not, in pain for a long time or a short time. Small wonder, then, that there is counselling for parents who have undergone such a tragedy. Or at least there is now, thank heavens.
The story got me musing about the case in my own family history. My maternal grandmother was born at the close of the 1800s in Bermondsey, South London. She was one of twelve children (they certainly had large families in those Victorian/Edwardian days) and life was hard and poor, but happy. As a young child she used to play on the newly-built Tower Bridge on the top level, 143 feet high, (which incidentally was closed to the public in 1910, as jumping off it was a very popular way for some people to commit suicide). Among the children she played with were some brothers and sisters from an equally very large family in the neighbourhood. She particularly fancied one of the boys as she grew up and they began to court (or date, as I suppose it is now known). Surprisingly for a working-class lad leaving school at 14, he managed to get a job as a junior in a bank across the river in the City and my Nan considered him to be a very good catch indeed. Unfortunately, events got in the way and he volunteered in 1914 to be one of the first to fight for King and Country in France and Flanders. He was only 21 in 1917 when a bomb exploded and shattered his leg and eye, causing his part in the war to be over, as he had to have that eye removed. My Nan still thought he was a good catch, though, and they married after the war. He had returned to his job in the bank but because he only had the one eye left, he found it very hard to add up very long columns of figures in small hand-writing (adding up in his head, mind you - no calculators then, you know). The strain on his good eye was such that he was having bad headaches and could not cope. He had no option but to leave the bank and try to seek work elsewhere but with only one eye, bad headaches and the moving shrapnel in his body, it was difficult for him to get suitable work in an already depressed post-war era.
By that time, my Nan and Granddad had three daughters. In early 1925 in a pea-souper fog all three children (aged 3 years, 18-months and 6-weeks) went
down with whooping cough and double pneumonia. There were no antibiotics in those days, so infection was either something you fought on your own or surrendered to. The three children were admitted to hospital, but sadly the 6-week-old and the the three-year-old died within days of one another IN THE SAME WEEK. Only the 18-month-old (my mother) miraculously survived, although it left her with a weakened heart for the rest of her life. My grandmother and grandfather must have felt beside themselves. There was no counselling in those days... you just had to gather your skirts and carry on. I remember my Nan telling me years later that the worst thing she found to deal with was when friends or neighbours would actually cross the street to avoid talking to her, as they did not know what to say. If only they could have raised the subject with her and mentioned the children's names, she would have been comforted, but instead they shunned her and would not bring the subject up at all, as if the children never existed. Looking back, I don't know how my grandmother managed to cope. My grandfather, much later, had a job he could immerse himself in, but my grandmother was on her own at home bringing up her surviving child. In middle-age, she moved from house to house never settling. If she could not move house, she would move the rooms around,swapping the bedroom for the lounge and vice versa. Or if she could not do that, she would move furniture around within a room. All signs of restlessness and a troubled mind. In her old age she was almost agoraphobic, refusing to go out, even to buy food, and would rely on her husband or, when he died, my mother to do it for her.
To lose two children in a single week must have been dreadful for her to bear all her life, but I seldom heard her speak of it. The only hint of what she must have been going through was a very large, old sepia photo (of her three-year-old daughter - I don't suppose she even had time to get a single photo of the six-week-old) which always hung larger than life in a gilt frame over the mantelpiece of her bedroom. Now my grandmother is dead, that picture is now wrapped in brown paper and resides in a cupboard under my mother's stairs. It is something my mother will never part with as it is all she has of her older sister. I doubt I shall ever be able to part with it, when time comes for me to take the picture over. It is the legacy of my grandparent's grief which is still affecting generations almost eighty-five years later.