Saturday, 22 September 2012

William Taylor (1890 - 1972), confectioner and tobacconist

William Taylor was my grandfather. He was born on 28 June 1890 at 4 West Street, Charlton in SE London, the seventh of nine children born to George and Margaret Taylor (nee Smiles). George had been a driver in the Royal Artillery. His first child was born in Newcastle, his third in Bengal, East India, his second and fourth in Woolwich. It seems likely that these places were his army postings. By the time of William’s birth he had left the army and was a general labourer. William’s birth certificate shows that his mother, who came from Newcastle, was illiterate. West Street was in an area where poor people lived.

The 1901 census shows George Taylor (aged 50, a labourer), Margaret (47) living at 7 West Street, Charlton with their children George (24), Jane (19), Charles (16), Margaret (14), William (10), Samuel (9) and May (6). The 1891 census shows two additional children namely Ernest (b 1878) and Thomas (b 1888).

William’s father died in 1903. His mother married Morris Samuels in 1911. The census that year shows the family still living at 7 West Street. The household consisted of Morris Samuels (62, a ships storekeeper’s labourer), Margaret Samuels (56), Charles (26), William (20) and Samuel (20) Taylor, all ammunition labourers (Charles at Vickers and Maxim, William and Samuel at Woolwich Arsenal). The census return says that there were 4 rooms in the dwelling. It must have been crowded in 1901 when there were 9 people living there !

On 26 May 1912 William married Gertrude Amy Wilkins at the Holy Trinity Church, New Charlton. They were both aged 22. William’s occupation was a labourer at the Royal Arsenal. Gertrude was the eighth child of nine born to Henry William Wilkins, a dining house keeper, and Jane Wilkins nee Cornwell, who was born in Kelvedon, Essex.
Gertrude and William on their marriage day (1912)

William and Gertrude later had three children, Eric William who was born in 1913, Vera Gertrude born in 1916 and Ronald Albert born in 1918.

William and Gertrude’s address on 31 August 1913 when their eldest son Eric was born was 22A George St, Woolwich Dockyard. George Street is now called Woolwich Church Street and the building occupied by William no longer exists. Number 22A was on the south side of the road, close to the junction with Prospect Place (now called Prospect Vale). It is about half a mile from West Street, where William grew up. The Kelly’s Directories for 1912, 1913 and 1914 list “William Taylor, newsagent”, at 22A George Street. However, William’s occupation is listed as “Labourer, Royal Arsenal” on both Eric’s birth certificate issued on 29 September 1913 and on the record of Eric’s baptism at Holy Trinity Church, New Charlton on 19 October 1913.

World War I started in 1914 and the Royal Arsenal was very busy making munitions and equipment for the army. By 1916 William and Gertrude had moved to 503 Abbey Road, Abbey Wood where Vera was born on 22 February 1916. Her birth certificate shows that William registered the birth. His occupation is “Labourer Royal Arsenal”. The house was close to Abbey Wood Station and no longer exists. A section of the terrace that contained 503 was demolished sometime after 1958 (the house appears on a map of this date). The site of 503 is now an access road to a car park. However, house number 505 still exists, showing what 503 looked like.

Military conscription was introduced in 1916 and on 15 February 1917 William was called up. His enrolment paper gives his address as 51 Charles Street, Woolwich, age as 26 and 6 months and trade as “explosive worker”. His height was 5 feet 6 inches and chest 32 ½ inches. He joined the Army Service Corps, who had various tasks including transporting supplies for the army. William’s army record states his rank was Driver (the ASC equivalent of Private). Most of William’s army service was in the UK. His conduct sheet says that he was at an army camp in Blackheath in 1917. In October that year he committed the offence of being absent from camp and was awarded a punishment of 5 days CB (confined to barracks). He committed the same offence in November and this time got 14 days CB. He got 7 days for another offence in December 1917. William was posted to France on 13.7.18, leaving Southampton on the SS Nirvana, which arrived at Le Havre the following day. He seems to have been unwell for most of the time he was in France until the end of the war. He was admitted for treatment of dysentery on 17.8.18 and again on 15.9.18. He was ill with diarrhoea on 31.10.18. The war ended on 11.11.18 but William was not demobilised from the army until 29.5.19. I have William’s campaign medals, which were the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. They are engraved on the rim with his name and service number T-292600.

I have an embroidered birthday card which says inside “From Bill with love to my wife Gert xxx.” It is labeled “Made in France” and so could have been sent by William while he was still abroad in January 1919 waiting to be demobilised (Gertrude’s birthday was 1 February).

In 1919 Gertrude and her children were still living at 51 Charles St, Woolwich, which was the address of her older sister Ethel Suter nee Wilkins (b1881), whose husband (a coal merchant) had died in 1914. Ethel had a daughter, Doris (b1903), and a son, Herbert (b1906). Herbert Suter died of influenza on 12 February 1919 aged 12. William’s wife Gertrude also caught the disease. William was granted leave on the 15th February to come home but she died on 19th February 1919, aged 29. Gertrude’s death certificate says that William was present at her death. Herbert and Gertrude were both buried in Plumstead cemetery, victims of the influenza pandemic that killed many millions of people across the world.

William and his children continued to live at 51 Charles St, Ethel Suter’s house, after Gertrude’s death. According to a family story, Ethel threatened to stop looking after the children if William did not marry her. On 30th November 1920 William married Ethel Suter at Woolwich Registry Office. He was 30, a labourer at the Royal Arsenal and she 38. The witnesses were Ethel’s eldest brother Albert Wilkins and his wife Beatrice (known to my parents as “Aunt Beat”). William and Ethel had a daughter, Betty Ethel Taylor, who was born 31st December 1921. 51 Charles Street was renamed 16 Brewer St in that year. The house was at the northern end of Brewer Street, not far from St Mary’s Church. The site of the house is now occupied by John Wilson Street, a dual carriageway that forms part of the South Circular Road (A205). Ethel died on New Year's Day 1933 aged 51 and was buried in Plumstead Cemetery in the same grave (which is unmarked) as William's first wife Gertrude. Probate records state that Ethel Taylor of 16 Brewer Street, Woolwich (wife of William Taylor, a coffee stall keeper) died on 1st January 1933 at St Nicholas Hospital, Plumstead. Administration of Ethel's estate (£407 14s) was granted to William. The fact that probate was needed shows that Ethel held some money (probably from her first husband) in her own name.

From 1934 to 37 the electoral registers show William and his children at 105 Brookhill Road, Woolwich. The house was close to the junction with Angelsea Road. Its site is now occupied by the garden of a block of flats. The 1935 and 1938 Post Office directories show that William ran a confectioner’s shop at this address. His occupation is given as “Shop Keeper” on the marriage certificate of his daughter Vera, who married on 11 September 1937.

My father told me that William used to act as an unofficial bookmaker as a sideline. Vera recalled that money was often in short supply, but when the family could afford it, they would get dressed up and go to the greyhound racing at Catford.

William married a third time in 1938 to Eleanor Mary Bateman nee Peall (known as Nellie). He was aged 47 and she was 43. Nellie had four children from a previous marriage. They were Victor (Vic born 1923), Constance (Connie born 1924), Clare (known as Midge) and Peter (twins born in 1931) Bateman.

The family (including my father, then aged 25) moved to 116 Sandy Hill Road, Woolwich in 1938. The house was rented (it was owned 1958-72 by the Reverend Howard AG Belben of Sheffield and the rent was £75 pa). It had a confectioner’s shop at the front which William and Nellie ran. There was a school nearby which was a good source of customers.

The 1939 national register shows William (a labourer doing munitions work) living at 116 Sandy Hill Road with his wife Eleanor and sons Eric (a general grade assistant  working for the London County Council) and Ronald (a grocery porter). Also living at the address was Eleanor's daughter Constance (a glass operative) and one person born after 1918 (presumably William's daughter Betty).

William stayed in Woolwich during the Second World War. The area was heavily bombed because the Royal Arsenal was located in the town.  I have his air raid shelter ticket, which was issued on 3 Feb 1941 and gives his occupation as shopkeeper. He seems to have worked as a clerk in 1944 as this is his occupation given on my father’s marriage certificate in February 1944.
The electoral registers show Nellie’s sister, Clara Goodchild, her husband and son living with William and Nellie at 116 Sandy Hill Road in 1945. Nellie’s daughter Constance (Connie) is recorded as an occupant in 1946 and 1947. Nellie’s son Victor is listed from 1947 to 1951.

Betty, William’s daughter, got married in 1946. The marriage certificate records William as a witness and his occupation as tobacconist.

London Post Office directories for 1940 to 1955 have entries for Mrs W Taylor, Confectioner at 116 Sandy Hill Road. There is no entry for 1956 onwards, indicating that William and Nellie closed the shop in 1955 (when William reached the age of 65).

I remember visiting Grandad and Nellie at Sandy Hill Road with my parents when I was a teenager in the 1960s. We entered the house by the back door, which was along an alleyway. Grandad and Nellie would be huddled over a small coal fire in their lounge, a rather dingy room. Grandad didn’t say much. My sister Evelyn’s memories are “I remember Grandad as a rather scary old man always smoking very thin and wispy roll your owns. I didn’t really like going to their house, which was long and thin and dark. The closed shop at the front was a fascination and there were always piles of cigarettes in big boxes on the piano. The most interesting thing was a bath in the kitchen covered by a large marble slab to make it a worktop. We were not allowed to go upstairs. I liked going out into the back garden, which was bright and sunny after the gloom inside. It was mainly vegetables with lots of little paths between the beds, which were nice to walk round. Auntie Nellie was a large motherly lady who spoke with a country burr of an accent.” Vera’s daughter Valerie remembers playing cards with Grandad on her visits to Sandy Hill Road and rolling cigarettes for him.
Nellie and William c1965

William had ulcers on his legs towards the end of his life, which restricted his mobility. He died on 14 January 1972 aged 81 at the Brook Hospital, Greenwich. The cause of death was bronchopneumonia and cerebral thrombosis. He was cremated on 25 January 1972 at Eltham Crematorium. He died without making a will and so his estate (£1035) passed to his wife, who died in August the same year aged 77.

The house at 116 Sandy Hill Road is still there, although the shop front has been changed to a window. The school building opposite has been converted into housing.

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