Something old, something borrowed. My wedding day, October 12th,and for the third time in its history my grandmother’s locket is adorning a bride.
I suppose its nothing special, a lover’s gift, oval in shape made of warm rose gold. The front is traced with a delicate pattern of ferns and flowers, the reverse is smooth and shiny to glide with ease over fabric or skin. Both sides have a few scars, We’ll come to that later.
The locket opens like a book at the touch of a thumbnail. Inside there’s the photo of the hero of our romance, Percy Lee, my grandad. At first sight you might not spot his potential for this starring role. He’s a tall man with a toothbrush moustache, the black and white photograph can’t show his stunning blue eyes; his expression is serious and rather strangled in consequence of the height and tightness of his wing collar. I never knew him but he was remembered as a sweet natured and gentle man.
Percy was born in 1881 into a large and raucous family near Wakefield. His mother, Jane, was the first of the three fecund wives of a farm bailiff called Tom Lee. For a bit of peace and quiet Percy went to work on the railways as a ‘number taker’ in his early teens. This rather elliptical job description turned out to mean the lad responsible for collecting the safety tokens carried by train drivers to ensure only one train at a time could access a single track line. Once he’d acquired a good grounding in safety and logistics as he trained as signalman, his occupation for the rest of his life.
He was working in Bradford when he met fate in the shape of a sharp tongued lass called Annie Foster.
Annie, my grandmother, had tumbled up in the South Yorkshire village of Wombwell, the daughter of Ellis Foster, a colliery blacksmith with hard fists and a short fuse, and his decidedly resilient wife, Ann Elizabeth Worrell. There were twelve children, ten made it to adulthood. This was an achievement – I have another set of great-grandparents who only managed to rear three out of nine!
Education was minimal. Great-grandfather Ellis was fined at least once for failing to send the children to school. They left education on their thirteenth birthday at the latest and were put to work; the boys down the pit and the girls into service or off to the Halifax textile mills. Annie was bright, tough and could sew very beautifully. How she retained her enthusiasm is a mystery; her father was in the habit of disciplining her by cutting the buttons off his heavy, moleskin work trousers and forcing her to sew them back on.
In spite of a distinct lack of parental encouragement Annie acquired a decent standard of literacy and was good with numbers. By thirty she was housekeeper and mainstay of a wealthy family in Halifax. They were none too pleased when she left them for her handsome signalman.
Percy gave the locket to his bride to be on the train, the first time he took her home to meet his father, Tom, Ellen, (stepmother number two) and his many siblings. Percy and Annie married in 1911; the locket is visible around Annie’s neck in their engagement photograph.
The other picture in the locket is a rather severe portrait of Mabel, my mother, Annie and Percy’s daughter. Born in 1919, she was a bit of a surprise as Annie was well into her thirties by this time and she was destined to be an adored only child. There is a picture of her aged about twenty months, standing on a chair, plump and rather imperious, wearing a white dress gorgeously pin-tucked and embroidered by Annie. Its a pity her parents were relaxed about her need for education, it would have been the making of her, but instead she began work in Courtauld’s Mill in Halifax at the age of fourteen. By all accounts she had fun; she became a rayon warper and earned a decent wage. This was a blessing as Percy died of a heart attack in 1938.
Mabel carried on at the Mill throughout the war. They were making fabric for parachutes so she wasn’t called up. Instead she joined the ARP, learned First Aid and spent her evenings fire-watching in trousers!
Mabel married my father, Jim, in 1950 at the age of 31. The wedding photos capture her at her most elegant, in a closely fitting blue dress with a stylish peplum waist. The dress, which she had made herself, was her ‘something new’. Annie’s locket, doing duty as both ‘something old and something borrowed’ hangs around her neck.
I was born ten years later.
I mentioned the locket had some scars? Well, the infant Mabel bit it one night when it dangled, shiny and tempting, within range of her new teeth while Annie was putting her to bed. Mabel certainly left her mark; a well defined row of tiny tooth marks on both back and front of the locket. They remained until the1970s when Mabel had it repaired after Annie’s death. In fact the little dental impression proved more enduring than Mabel’s own teeth; like many working class women in the 1930s she had them pulled at the age of nineteen to be replaced by a nice, durable set of plastic dentures.
And the locket? Well if I close my eyes and hold it gently between finger and thumb I can still detect faint irregularities disturbing the smooth contours of its surface. Annie, Percy and Mabel are all gone now but the ghosts of Mabel’s tooth marks remain to remind at me of its very central role in my family’s history. I don’t have daughters but I do have granddaughters and one day I hope each of them will wear the locket on an important day in her life.