An English woman in Lasswade

This is a memoir written by my mother Ellen Wilson in 1991 when she was 76 years old. It is about the life of her Grandmother Ellen Lothian (nee Harris) who was born in 1862 and died in 1943 during the Second World War. It is an fascinating tale worth the telling.

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A sketch of Ellen Lothian by her son Alexander

My Grandmother, Ellen Harris was born in Bicester, Oxfordshire in 1862. She was the daughter of Miss Harris, a maid in a country house near that town; In fact my Grandmother was the offspring of a well-to-do man and his maid! The gentleman, whether from a real fondness for the girl he had seduced or from a feeling of obligation to the girl who was his illegitimate daughter made it plain to his family that he wished to honour that obligation, insisting upon providing for young Ellen’s proper education. In consequence, she was provided for to the extent of a place being found for her in a private boarding school, and she was suitably set up sartorially. According to my Grandmother, she was all packed up ready to embark upon this new life when the gentleman died suddenly.

His family did not cast her off as might have been expected. Instead they arranged for her to be settled in the household of friends who lived in a large country house near Bexley, Kent as under-nursemaid to their children. She would then have been fourteen years of age.

In the ensuing period of years she progressed from the lowly state of nursemaid to become a well thought of and much loved nanny to the family. Her employers were very well off and of some consequence, for the whole household down to the servants, the gardeners and the estate workers lived in some comfort. For instance, my Grandmother had at her disposal as the children’s nanny a dogcart with a groom to drive her and the children around on shopping expeditions to the nearby town or just simply to ‘take the air’ in the beautiful countryside around the estate.

‘Mi-Lady’, as Granny called the Lady of the House, was very beautiful. Granny remembered ‘Mi-Lady’ favouring Pond’s Face Cream and Pear’s soap for the care of her complexion.  There was a Lady’s maid who took charge of ‘Mi-Lady’s’ elegant gowns and clothes and a French hairdresser whose sole occupation was the care of Madame’s hair.

At this time my Grandmother would be in her 21st year and pretty enough for the French hairdresser to display romantic inclinations towards her. She was very petite, fair haired and blue eyed. They had been ‘walking out’ she and the Frenchman, for some time, when suddenly a tall well set up Scottish man arrived on the scene. He (my Grandfather-to-be) had been sent by his father (of Messrs Lothian & Kinross, Wallpaper Merchants of Edinburgh) to the School of Art in London to study Interior Design.

On this occasion he had travelled down from London as assistant to a senior Art Designer from the School who was advising on the decoration of several rooms in the house at Bexley. The arrival of Alexander Lothian at Bexley put paid to the romance between the French hairdresser and Ellen the children’s nanny. The handsome young man from Edinburgh swept my grandmother off her feet.

By the time Art School commission at Bexley was complete Alexander Lothian had proposed marriage to Ellen Harris and had been accepted; the wedding was to take place in Scotland, ‘Her Ladyship’ was quite enthralled with the whirlwind romance and set about arranging for the whole of the trousseau (six of everything!) and the wedding dress which was a marvellous gift. ‘Mi-lady’ and her husband also presented Ellen with a long gold chain and locket, and from the children who had been in her care, there was a gold brooch in the shape of a horse-shoe with the initials ‘B H’ engraved upon it. These two items are now in the possession of my cousin Jane.

So Ellen travelled to Edinburgh with her betrothed to be introduced to his family and to a very different way of life as the wife of Alexander Lothian, On 6th June 1884 they were married in the Lothian family home at 41 James Street, Pilrig, Edinburgh.

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No 10 Polton Road Lasswade

Having left the beautiful countryside of Kent Ellen Harris and her new husband Alexander Lothian set up house in the Bank Building in the little village of Lasswade, a far cry from the luxurious surroundings she had enjoyed in the country house near Bexley. In due course on 8th May 1885 my mother, Laura Ann was born in the house at Bank Buildings, but by the time the rest of their family arrived (Alexander John, William Graham, Harry Dickson and Jessie Alexandra) my Grandfather had bought the Decorating business with house above at Polton Road, Lasswade. He employed between 14 and 20 painters, journeymen and apprentices. The business flourished and as the years went by the services of Mr Lothian of Lasswade were much sought after by the folk who lived in the ‘Big Houses’ roundabout who required his expertise and advice on their interior decorating. He also had an eye for good watercolours and oil paintings, antique furniture and such like his advice on which was also sought by those people who were intent on investing in such things.

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The Lothian family circa 1900s

The sitting room upstairs in my Grandparent’s house was a world of wonders for me. I can see it yet in my mind’s eye with all the wonderful paintings on the wall, the elegant polished mahogany table and chairs, the Chippendale and Sheraton side tables with the collection of polished brass candlesticks and the brass samovar, The corner cupboard held a collection of beautiful Crown Derby and Spode china along with some antique ornaments. The floor boasted a lovely old Brussels carpet and the curtains of heavy jade brocade were tied back with embroidered ties. The mantelpiece was unique in that it had been fashioned from part of a four-poster bed of carved mahogany. On the hearth there were brightly polished brass fire irons and several large brightly coloured foreign sea shells. As children my cousins and I were allowed to hold one of these shells carefully to our ears to ‘hear the sea’. And we did hear the sea.

There was a good upright piano. When I was seven years old I was introduced to the intricacies of playing the instrument by Miss Muirhead of Broomieknowe; one hour’s practice every day but never on a Sunday The Sabbath was a day of rest; the pattern always was the Church Service in the morning followed by Sunday School and the Church Service again in the evening. Granny worked unstintingly for the Church and my Grandfather was an Elder. After the family Sunday dinner Granny would retire to the room upstairs for what she called her forty winks. I remember when I was very small sitting quietly at her knee I would count very slowly in my head up to forty then wait hopefully for her to wake up and talk to me.

When she did, she told me tales of her childhood in Kent. I listened enthralled to her descriptions of the leafy lanes, the meadows full of wild flowers and the wonderful floral displays in the gardens of the thatched cottages. In spring there was the mossy dell where she and the other children gathered primroses and cowslips. Early summer carpeted the woods near her home with bluebells and soon the whole countryside was covered in a haze of pink and white apple, pear and plum blossom. Small wonder that Kent was known as the ‘Garden of England’ – and still is. Autumn came and everyone went picking blackberries for jam, crab apples for jelly and sloe berries which the cottagers made into sloe gin. Then the children plundered the woods and hedgerows gathering cobs, filberts and hazelnuts. The Great Meadow also yielded a harvest of mushrooms. Nothing in the countryside was ever wasted. During the summer too, many people were busily employed in the hop fields gathering hops ready for the brewers. The Harris family was engaged in market gardening near Wantage; probably that is why I inherited the passion for growing plants which has been with me all my life.

I can’t remember Granny talking about her mother. I never found out about her or what happened to her but she did talk at length about her Grandmother, Ann Cowley who could trace a slight connection far back with the writer and poet Abraham Cowley who as well as being a writer of some note in his day was a Government Agent in the reign of Charles II. I still have by me a leather bound copy of the ‘Works of Abraham Cowley’ handed down in the family as a very precious possession.

At the time of these tales told by my Grandmother on Sunday afternoons she would be over 60 years old. In 1920 when he was 61 my Grandfather Alexander Lothian had died suddenly of a stroke. Three years earlier the family had suffered the loss of my Father, Clem Walter who was killed at the 3rd Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917. He had gone off to the war in the first flush of patriotism, leaving my Mother to return to her family home in Lasswade where I was born on 7 May 1915. These two blows must have shaken the family badly but as happens in the scheme of things people pick up the pieces and carry on. The Painting and Decorating business was taken over by Granny’s second son William (my Uncle Bill).

When my Grandfather died my Grandmother went into mourning and like Queen Victoria never came out of her ‘widow’s weeds’. I can’t remember her ever wearing any other colour than black. I recollect strongly her deep love of her Grandmother; it was a reciprocal adoration, and like my Grandmother I was brought up by my Grandmother. She was a very gifted needlewoman and she taught me all I know about that craft, her fine sewing, feather-stitching and embroidery were exquisite. She was also adept at tatting; to my regret I was never able to master that art!

My Mother on her return to her old home applied herself to the household duties, the day to day chores for a fairly large family but Granny saw to all the cooking and baking. She never seemed to work with recipes; it was all in her head. She was an excellent cook providing good and nourishing meals for all her family. I shall never forget Christmas preparations in our house; the delicious tangy smell of orange and lemon peel and the sharp warm smell of rum and brandy when we gathered round to stir the plum pudding mixture for luck. What a busy household ours was! Hands were never idle.

The one complaint about me was that I always had my nose in a book. Reading books was looked upon askance by all the family except Granny. Books were my other great passion and she encouraged me to read all kinds of books and she bought me Arthur Mee’s Children Encyclopaedia for my seventh birthday. That certainly furthered my education! Granny was the one person in my life I was in terror of losing. I worried about that for some time after my Grandfather’s death but as the years went by Granny seemed to go on forever and I stopped holding my breath. She never went back to Kent

The Harris relations came north from time to time; Granny’s nieces Nell and Kathy Harris and a nephew Harry Harris, Then we saw a lot of my Grandmother’s cousin Auntie Laura (Harris) who was already in Edinburgh in charge of the kitchen in the house of the Younger family the well-known brewers. There, as was the custom of the time she was referred to as ‘Mrs’ Harris holding quite an exalted position in the household. We all loved Auntie Laura and visited her often. She was such a jolly plump amusing person so full of wit and humour, She was a first rate cook and we looked forward to her coming to stay with us at Lasswade for a wee holiday. We often visited her in Edinburgh and enjoyed her really sumptuous teas in her vast kitchen while all her staff scurried about getting everything ready for the Family’s meal ‘upstairs’. My cousins and I were allowed to take turnabout standing on a chair to grind the coffee beans; that was the high point of the visit for us — that delicious aroma of freshly ground coffee beans!

Our house at Lasswade had an ever open door. It would not be unusual for someone like Viscount Melville to wander in unannounced, through the shop, right into the kitchen even into the scullery looking for Granny or my Mother or my Grandfather whom His Lordship had really come to see. Then there were all the children going up and down to the school. All the cuts, bumps and bruises were brought to our door for immediate first aid by Granny. She never applied disinfectant or ointment; rather it was “We’ll just anoint this with something to make it better”. The bandaged casualty would then go away, tears dried and happy. She loved and cared about any children who came her way.

Granny also had frequent visits from people collecting for various good causes – The Grass Market Mission, The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, and The RNLI – they all received a donation. There was one lady who came without fail once a year collecting for ‘The Boozers League’; in my childish innocence I thought she was collecting for a handout of intoxicating beverages! Then there was Old Tage the tramp who called almost weekly. The look of the tall unkempt shambling man nearly scared the wits out of me but he was harmless enough. Granny filled his old syrup tin with tea and sent him on his way with a large ‘doorstep’ of bread and jam. One winter he failed to appear and we heard that he had been found dead in a secluded part of the Braeheads. I had always wondered why he walked so funny; it was discovered that he had hidden all his worldly wealth in his boots, winding hundreds of pounds in notes round and round with strips of old cloth like army puttees.

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Ellen with her daughter, my mother, Laura.

Granny never turned anyone away; help was always given when it was needed. In fact it was the way of Lasswade folk; they always rallied round and helped each other when the necessity arose. There was no such thing as the Department of Health and Social Security, only the Parochial Board and Poor Relief and folk lived in fear of that happening to them especially when old and perhaps senile or ‘wandered in the head’ and being taken to Rosslynlee Asylum or the Poor House in Dalkeith.

When war broke out in 1939 Granny was the driving force where our family was concerned and idle hands were frowned upon. Everyone got busy with knitting needles and wool making ‘comforts for the troops’. We made quite a pile of navy socks, scarves, gloves and mittens to send to the men of HMS Edinburgh which not long afterwards was torpedoed while on convoy duty to Murmansk. Then we would switch to ‘comforts’ for the Army or the RAF; it was a busy, busy time.

By the time I was in uniform myself in the ATS serving away from home Granny had suffered a slight stroke, collapsing in Church one Sunday. A year or so later she suffered another massive stroke from which she never recovered, confined to bed, unable to move and in a coma. Her last words to me were: ‘Remind them, Nell to order plenty of boiled ham for your wedding’. That must sound laughable, but village weddings were often held at home or in the village hall and the usual centrepiece of the Wedding Breakfast was a large boiled ham. Generally everyone joined in, cooking and baking to provide a long, long table groaning with food and village weddings were certainly joyous occasions for everyone to enjoy until rationing and other wartime circumstances brought many changes to the old ways of doing things.

When Granny suffered her last illness I was engaged to be married but because of the war it was over two years before my happy wedding day arrived. Sadly she did not live to see that great day. She died on 21st September 1943 and I was given special leave from the Army to attend her funeral.

Ellen Harris was a small woman in stature but she had a great big heart. The whole village grieved at her passing. I shall never forget her, a much loved and loving Granny whose memory lives on in my heart.

Today (1991) I am a grandmother myself in the seventy-sixth year of my age. I hope my grandchildren in their turn will look back in the years to come and remember me too with love.

Ellen Wilson. January 1991.

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