26 February 2009

The Death of a Child

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.

19 comments:

Nota Bene said...

You know so much of your family history. That's truly sad, thought provoking but beautifully written.

aims said...

Oh my! What sadness!

I doubt I would have done as well as your grandmother. She was incredibly strong wasn't she!

GoneBackSouth said...

Gosh that's powerful stuff. In those days I guess people didn't talk about their feelings, they just bottled them up. What a tragedy for your grandmother, thanks for telling us her story. x

Sparx said...

God, how beautifully written and how sad. I really don't know how I could cope with the death of a child, although I have several friends who have survived this, some more recently than others. I think you are right as well, grief can pass down through generations.

Kit Courteney said...

THIS is the sort of 'history' that fascinates and intrigues me. Real stories about real people.

Beautifully written.

Strawberry Jam Anne said...

Sad news indeed of the Cameron's son - their beautiful boy. The loss of a child is unimaginable.

Also a tragic tale of your family Rosiero. It is interesting though to learn what people had to suffer and endure not so long ago.

In my own family one baby cousin died at 6 days (not sure now of what) and another cousin died at 18 months of meningitis. His brother, born later, also contracted meningitis at about 2 years old and fortunately recovered. I remember witnessing the grief of my aunt and uncle. A x

Fern said...

Such a sad story, your poor Nan must have suffered in silence for so long. I was shocked to discover that my mother was not an only child but in fact had a brother who died in infancy, it was never spoken about. I have occasionally thought about the uncle I would have had and I am sure you must wonder about what your aunts would have been like.

Flowerpot said...

how utterly terrible - both for the Camerons and your family. But a fascinbating peep into your family history.

cologneblog said...

A very interesting text, and rather sad. Thank you for sharing your family story with us. It seems that a lot of people are 'digging' right now, e.s me. I want to make a photo book with texts and photos of my parents and ancestors.

Expat mum said...

Goodness. Two in one week just boggles the mind. Poor family.

Almost American said...

As I've been researching our family history and finding other stories like this I wonder what the family must have gone through. I was always told that Victorians dealt with death differently because they dealt with it so much more often, but I wonder . . .

One of my husband's ancestors had twin daughters die - and within a few months the family had emigrated from London to the USA. I have no idea whether the emigration was already planned or if it was a reaction to the deaths.

One very distant Australian cousin had 7 of her children die in infancy - then the 8th not only died, but the mother died as a result of the delivery.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

That was a hauntingly beautiful story and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I love history and this certainly makes for fascinating historical reading.

How hard it must have been, we can't begin to imagine can we.

CJ xx

Retiredandcrazy said...

I hope you are writing all this down for Kay. Unfortunately I didn't get interested in geneology until all the old folk had died and now there's no-one left to ask and it's so difficult to piece things together.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

It is amazing how things happening years ago affect us, and remember, also our children and our children's children. write it all down, its valuable in so many ways.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

My grandmother was born around the same time and grew up not far from Bermondsey. Even when I was a nipper, when there was a funeral in the street the neighbours would all stay indoors and close their curtains. Some of my friends today think that was cold and uncaring, but it was the way things were done back then. Like the Pink Floyd song: "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way." Good story, well told. Those were interesting times. Would love to hear more about your family history when you've got time.

DulwichDivorcee said...

So sad, but so beautifully told. If only your grandmother had had your writing gift, she could have found some solace that way x

blogthatmama said...

I don't think anybody could ever get over the death of two children. How sad Rosiero and also for your mother.

rosiero said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments. I am sure my grandmother would have been pleased to read them. As I mentioned, she used to hate it when people clammed up about it, as if the children never existed.

Kelloggs Ville said...

That is so sad. And yet so lovely that it isn't forgotten and I think that is really important.