My paternal grandfather, John George Legon, known as ‘Pop’, died when I was very young. He has had a bad press. An East Londoner who lacked ambition, he started work as a gas-fitter and finished up on the same (low) grade. ‘Pop’ was not renowned for spending what limited money he had on others; when it was his round in the pub, he was to be found in the ‘Gents’; when my parents married in Cheadle, Cheshire in August 1942, he didn’t attend, not wishing to incur the expense of purchasing a suit.
My mother recalls that when he once bought her a gin his ‘generosity’ didn’t further extend to the purchase of the tonic. Pop took no interest in the school reports of his three children merely enquiring as to where he should put his signature. A combination of heavy smoking and riding his bike through the polluted air of the capital resulted in his premature death from lung cancer.
My paternal grandmother was Amelia Legon (nee Stanley). From a London (part Irish) background, she switched to Protestantism in adolescence declaring “Catholics take from the poor and give to the rich”. My first impression of her – in the 1950s – was of a strict lady. She was not a ‘fun’ grandma. In the years that followed, details of her hard life filtered through to me: employment as a bookbinder, the loss of a child in infancy, a loveless marriage after her mother had vetoed a more promising suitor.
Grandma Legon had a lifelong passion for reading; she was a smoker, her drink was bottled Guinness. She had no interest in cooking or baking; her younger son (my Uncle Paul) held up one of her cakes and enquired of the company which musical it brought to mind. It was“Maid of the Mountains” Her eldest child (my Aunt Maud) with whom she had a difficult relationship, in later life declared what a terrible mother she’d had with never a hot meal on the table to greet her on arrival home from work. Grandma even struggled to make a cup of tea without bits floating in it.
A self-educated, intelligent woman, Grandma was often outspoken. “Why can’t everyone in the world speak English because it’s the easiest?” She loved to criticise.
On a family holiday in Ilfracombe, she treated the shared dining table to her opinion of the proprietor’s latest stodgy dessert; “Another of Chris Collis’s erections!” The young couple adjacent didn’t know where to look and my father had to take her to one side about her use of vocabulary. In 1972, my brother having driven her home from her 80th birthday ‘celebrations’ in Norfolk and being eager to be on his way was admonished for “leaving her all alone on a Bank Holiday.”
Grandma Legon lived for her final quarter of a century in a ‘jerry-built’ bungalow in Collier Row, Romford, Essex. The main feature of the outside lavatory was a toilet roll holder bearing the slogan; “Don’t sit here all day dreaming of that £75,000” (which was the top prize on the football pools at the time). If she had won the money, she’d probably have distributed most of it round the family. She died in 1977 aged 85.
Years later I learnt of her affair around 1920 with a gentleman called George Lamb and I couldn’t help but think more of her as a result. She was feisty; she could certainly be “difficult”; she was never a sweet, little old lady. I’d like to have known Grandma Legon better and appreciated her more.
My maternal grandfather, James Claughton, died around the same time as my other granddad. He has had a good press. A draughtsman by trade, he became a prominent member of the community in 1930s Oldham – including serving as Worshipful Master at the Masonic Lodge – after building up his ‘white goods’ business. The outbreak of war led to customers defaulting on their credit agreements, bank loans couldn’t be repaid and everything was lost including the family home. Undeterred, he returned to draughtsmanship – this time in Stockport. Generous, sociable and witty, he enjoyed sport and liked nothing better than a game of bowls with his pals down the local. Granddad’s downfall was his heavy smoking and over-eating for a man of his (short) stature. He suffered a thrombosis in a hotel room in Porthcawl, South Wales when on a business trip.
The grandparent I knew best was maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Frances Claughton (nee Pearce), who lived to the age of 93 – the last thirty years as a widow. Trained as a seamstress and dressmaker in Oldham, she supplemented her pension for many years by taking in sewing. Grandma was a ‘home bird’, content to listen to the radio (‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ and ‘Sing Something Simple’ were particular favourites) and to watch ‘Songs of Praise’ (joining in lustily) and ‘Coronation Street’ on her black and white TV set: “I don’t want a coloured one.” She walked great distances even at an advanced age and if there were blackberries or raspberries to pick en route then so much the better.
For Grandma charity began at home. There were two groups: family and ‘outsiders’. At Christmas she would put amounts of cash into small brown envelopes for her daughter (my mother, Marian) and her son (my Uncle Gilbert) and lesser sums for her four grandchildren. Door to door callers got short shrift; “We’re collecting for fallen women.” “Well, they can pick themselves up!” It was just as well there wasn’t the need to go into detail as to how the women had “fallen” as Grandma’s knowledge of what people “got up to” was, to put it mildly, limited. Much to my father’s amusement, she shared her observation that “men who didn’t get married, often found a nice man friend”.
Grandma enjoyed shopping and cooking – with ‘potato pie’ her signature dish. Even small amounts of alcohol went to her head although she kept a bottle of Bulmer’s cider in the sideboard for when my brother and I visited as teenagers – and I visited her a lot. Sometimes her friends were invited for a game of whist, other times it was Bingo in a local hall. A highlight was a coach trip to Blackpool where she would watch as I experienced the excitement of the amusements of the Pleasure Beach before we went on to tea at her brother, Frank’s. We were very fond of each other.
By her own admission, Grandma Claughton wasn’t a learned woman although she was able to write a good letter. She hadn’t inherited the artistic talents of her father nor could she match the intelligence of her husband. Her grasp of geography was sketchy. (On passing through Stratford, East London, she confessed: “I didn’t know Shakespeare came from round here”.) Nevertheless, she was good company, kind and supportive. As I grew older, she imparted two pieces of advice: “Never get married” and “Never fall into the hands of money-lenders”. On both counts, I never have.