I don’t think I’ve ever said much about my father’s mother. It’s a slightly sensitive subject, or it was to him, anyway.
Helen was only 16 when she married my grandfather, whose name was Selwyn. Honestly, who calls a baby Selwyn? It’s a name to grow into, for sure. Anyway, he was about ten years older. I’m pretty sure I have mentioned the fact that she was quite sophisticated for her age (if that’s the word), though it was 1909. Her father owned a brewery, Youngs Crawshay and Youngs, in Norwich, and a number of pubs too. It was death duties that scuppered the business in the end – but that’s a story not to be told, because it’s not especially interesting, except to those involved.
Helen was married at 16, had her first baby at 17 and, only four years later, her husband went off to the war. She was rich and spoilt, a habitual drinker – I know little about her, but I should think it wasn’t too hard for a charming man to catch her eye.
In the family, she was known as a Bolter – that is, she abandoned her small son and ran away with her lover. But I’ve put two and two together over the years and realised she had no choice. My father’s half-brother John was five years younger than he was; clearly Helen became pregnant and was obliged to leave. Welwyn did the decent thing and divorced her, so that she could marry Colonel Wake (in those days, it was impossible for the ‘guilty party’ to instigate a divorce and, if there were any hint of complicity between the unhappily married couple, they were not permitted to divorce either) and, a couple of years later, a second son, William was born.
I think my grandfather married again too, but I don’t know this for sure. Young Malcolm, my father, was packed off to his grandparents in London, where he spent a lot of time ‘below stairs’, picking up a rich Cockney accent, soon eliminated at his prep school in Oxfordshire. He spent holidays with his godparents in Wallingford – they had a lovely Arts and Crafts home, which I visited as a child, with a garden that ran down to the Thames. I think I have written about his childhood, so will leave that to go back to Helen.
My mother once told me that she found a couple of letters between young Malcolm and his father, Selwyn – “Your mother would like to know what you would like for your birthday?” “Please tell my mother that I want nothing from her for my birthday,” which shows how hurt and abandoned he felt, but he had to put a brave face on it later. My grandfather’s second wife died and Colonel Wake died of cancer, leaving Helen pretty well penniless. Selwyn was a gentleman, she had young sons and was the mother of his son too. He did the decent thing and offered to marry her again.