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This is my first story! Jane Austen doesn’t need to worry about the competition, but I’ve enjoyed researching aspects of my grandmother’s life and trying to breathe life into collection of facts from newspapers, census data and oral history. Comments/suggestions much appreciated.
It was Monday May 24, 1920 and a Bank Holiday. The atmosphere was festive as people from all over Bristol were lured to Shirehampton by beautiful weather, panoramic views and the prospect of a tour of the docks in Avonmouth. People arrived in droves – on busses, cars, carts or bicycle. Doris’ youngest sisters – twins Irene and Margery – were excited by a day off school and a picnic on Penpole Point. Doris grabbed their hands as they approached the busy High Street and then smiled as they reached the other side and the girls sprinted over fields towards the famous beauty spot.
Despite the energy of her little sisters and the holiday atmosphere, Doris was in a pensive mood as she clambered over the rocks that led to Penpole Lodge and the large stone Compass Dial – an ancient marker used for navigation by ships on the River Avon. The Great War was in the past, but Penpole always made Doris think of her Uncle Frank Bolton and the many happy days she had spent here with him and Aunt Polly as a child. Polly was her mother’s sister. Uncle Frank and Aunt Polly lived just across the road from her parents. They were childless and showered their attention and love on their nieces and nephews. The Smith children treated the Bolton household as a second home – indeed, Doris’ sister Daisy lived with them for a while when the twins were born and her poor mother was exhausted and overwhelmed. Uncle Frank had gone into the navy at the start of the war and perished in the battle of Jutland. Doris felt tears prick her eyes as she remembered the dreadful day they got the news of his death. Aunt Polly was heartbroken and moved back to Gloucester Road in Bristol to live with her mother Emily Cummins and unmarried sister Bessie. Doris felt as if her world was torn apart, her sense of security fractured. Although the loss of Uncle Frank was a grievous blow, Doris had to admit that her family was lucky compared to some. Both her older brothers, Percy and Harold, had made it back from the great war as had her naval cousins, Charlie and Arthur Cummins. So many families had lost their boys. Doris’ friend Loui Sansum had lost both her brothers, Nelson and Roy. Loui would never recover from the loss.
Once she reached the Lodge Doris saw the girls clambering all over the compass dial with friends. Satisfied they were safe and occupied, she relaxed and took in the spectacular view. Looking southeast she could see the village of Shirehampton and beyond the River Avon as it snaked towards the Severn Estuary. The famous docks at Avonmouth – where her father and brothers worked as dockers – were clearly visible. In the distance she could see the river Severn and the Welsh hills. The landscape before her had been changed dramatically by the recent conflict. In the middle distance, between the village of Shirehampton and the docks, she could see the Avonmouth remount depot. Thousands of horses and mules – many from Canada – were brought to the remount depot before being transported to the conflict. Doris felt a sting of pity for these creatures most of whom died in terrifying circumstances. She could see the new houses that had been built to accommodate hundreds of workers who were needed to run the remount depot, docks and new factories in Avonmouth. Turning towards the north-east she could see Factory 23 at Chittening on the bank of the Severn.
Chittening! Her hands clenched involuntarily as she remembered the short time she worked there. Known locally as “HM Factory”, all workers – including Doris – signed the official secrets act. Official secrets! That was a joke! Everyone in the surrounding villages knew exactly what was going on. The factory made “Hun Stuff” – lethal Mustard gas to be used on the enemy. The gas was manufactured in Avonmouth near the docks then transported the short distance to Chittening to be put into shells. Hundreds of local girls were recruited to work at the factories. Like most of the Chittening girls, Doris had wanted to “do her bit” to win the war and bring her brothers back home. She had willingly signed up for the work, even though she knew that filling the shells was a difficult and dangerous process. However, she was not prepared to be treated as “disposable”. Winston Churchill seemed to think the gas shells would win the war, and the workers safety was a secondary consideration. She felt a hard knot of anger as she remembered the many people who had been injured for want of a little care. Poor Bobbie Beech – his left hand was useless. All scarred up and his fingers permanently curled. Then there was Ethel Issacs – a weeping sore on her leg that would never heal. And so many girls – including Doris – had chesty coughs that never quite went away.
The weight of the past few years was heavy and Doris looked towards the future with a mixture of hope and apprehension. So many young men had been killed that she wasn’t sure she would marry and have children of her own. Her mother was urging her to go into service. Chittening had been dangerous and physically demanding but it also gave her a sense of independence. She wasn’t in a hurry to live with some old lady and be at her beck and call all day. Maybe she’d look after her parents as they aged. There were some lovely houses going up in Sea Mills for workers – “homes for heroes”! Each house had three bedrooms and a garden with plenty of room for a greenhouse, a pond and vegetables! Such a change from the cramped 2-bedroom terraced house they called home. Emerging from her reverie, Doris turned away and caught sight of her mother’s old friend Sarah Seammel accompanied by her new boarder, Arthur Prestwich. Doris waved and went over to say hello.
This story is centered around my paternal grandmother, Alice Doris Prestwich, nee Smith. She was born in Lodway, Somerset, but lived most of her life in Shirehampton. She married my grandfather, Arthur Prestwich, in 1925. Arthur was from Ashton-Under-Lyne and moved to Bristol after WWI because it was easier to get a job (he may have been in a WWI hospital in the Bristol area.) Doris came from a big family — two elder brothers and 4 younger sisters. In 1920 the youngest Smith girls – twins Irene and Margery – would have been about 10 and my grandmother was 20.
Paragraph 1: Shirehampton is now an unremarkable working class suburb of Bristol. Before 20th century industrialization the area was dominated by the Kingsweston estate and was a known beauty spot, mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels Emma and Northanger Abbey. The best views were to be had from Penpole Point. Penpole is now sadly overgrown, but as a child I can remember sweeping views of the Severn and Welsh Hills. The landcaspe I saw was very industrial – quite different from the pastoral beauty of the 18 century!
The Western Daily Press (WDP) of Tuesday May 25 describes “many motor coaches” carrying people to and from Bristol on the Bank Holiday. The Royal Edward Docks were opened in 1908 by King Edward VII. They were considered state-of-the art. Tours of the docks were also popular and mentioned in the WDP article.
Paragraph 2: My grandmother always honored the memory of her Uncle Frank Bolton who was killed in the battle of Jutland. She named my father Frank in his memory. This is the only oral tradition I have to go on. From the 1911 census I know that Frank Bolton and his wife Polly lived at 45 Priory Road in Shirehampton with their niece, Daisy. The Smith family lived at 52 Priory Road. Daisy was one of my grandmother’s younger sisters. In the 1921 census, Polly Bolton, widow is living in Bristol with her sister Bessie Cummins. Loui Sansom was a real person and married Jeffery (?) Goffe. She tended the war memorial in Shirehampton for the remainder of her long life and earned an MBE (?) for her service.
Paragraph 3: the description of the view from Penpole is from my own memory plus paintings/photographs from the early 20th century. The Shirehampton/Avonmouth area was especially important in WWI because of the remount depot, docks, and factories. Hundreds of local people worked in these industries as well as many more who moved into the area.
Paragraph 4: my dad told me that his mother worked at a munitions factory in WWI. She never talked to me about her experiences or even mentioned that she worked in munitions. I don’t know for sure she worked at Chittening, but it seems likely. Because Chittening was top secret, I can find very few mentions of the factory in the press at the time. There are no details of casualties in the local papers. A lot of this history was unearthed when a local Bristol theatre company put on a show called “Gas Girls”. Google Avonmouth Gas Girls or Chittening Mustard Gas for more details. Robert Leslie Beech was a real person and his injuries are documented. I have no idea if my grandmother knew him. Ethel Issacs is made up, inspired by Maude Issacs who was a real “Gas Girl”. My grandmother was “chesty” all her life. I don’t know if there is any connection to Chittening.
Paragraph 5: this paragraph inspired by discussion/articles in local Bristol papers. Post WWI, there was a lot of discussion around how difficult it was to persuade young women to “go into service”. Doris’ parents, Thomas and Emily, were in service as a servant and coachman before moving to Shirehampton in the 1900s where Thomas worked on the docks. In addition, there was a “Garden City” movement to provide decent, spacious, healthy housing for working people on the on the outskirts of cities with each house having a garden for vegetables. Thomas and Emily Smith ended their days in one of these new houses in Sea Mills, a couple of miles from Shirehampton. My grandparents moved to another such house post WWII and the garden, with a pond and greenhouse, was their pride and joy. My grandparents married in 1925. The 1921 census shows my grandfather, Arthur Prestwich, living as a boarder with a widow Sarah Seammel, aged 55. His address is given as Bradley Crescent, one street over from Priory Rd. I don’t know when my grandparents met.
I was born and bred in Bristol but now live just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. My daytime job is in astronomy, but I also love to hike and sing in any choir that will have me! I’ve been collecting facts about my family history for years, but now am finally ready to weave some of the facts into stories.
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