When a person begins to research their family tree they have to be prepared to uncover things they might be uncomfortable with, the proverbial skeleton in the closet. Long-held family traditions and legends may flounder on the hidden rocks of fact, and Titanic sized tales will often be sunk by torpedoes of truth. Even in my small, quiet family a whole double wardrobe of bare bones has come tumbling out. Some of these lives make for rather troubling reading, but I am a great believer in not judging history by personal or modern standards. I think my psychology training also makes me seek the causes of the events that took place, and in general you can clearly see why lives took the road they did. My research into my family origins is built on entire fact, checked and doubled checked through documented evidence; it is their true story, and often full of detail that they themselves, or later generations chose to omit. There is perhaps a train of thought which says that I should keep these secrets, not hang this dirty linen on a very public global line, but through the years strange coincidences have often occurred during my research, and I have had very supernatural moments that have caused me to conclude that these people actually want their stories to be told, however colourful they may be. We are, in general, raised by our families to hold values, in our youth it is they who lay down rules which become our credo – and sometimes it is rather hard to envisage that these same parents, grandparents, great-grandparents… perhaps, did not lead such virtuous lives as we would imagine they did – one such case is my great-grandmother, Barbara Ross.
My grandmother, Barbara’s daughter, was a family storyteller with an exceptional memory. From the earliest age I would sit at her knee and hang upon her every word as she related stories of her childhood to me, until I knew them so well I felt I had actually lived them myself. My nan’s account of her life up until she met my grandad was that she had been raised in Somers Town, St Pancras, amongst very impoverished folk. She obviously idolised her mother, who was credited with instilling my nan with her extremely high moral values, though, there was also a hint of a vivacious, fun loving woman hidden within the tales too. That Barbara Ross was a strong woman, there is no doubt – my family has a rich vein of women strong of body, mind and determination which subsists within their descendants today. My nan said that when her mother died, she didn’t want to be turned into her dad’s skivvy, so ran off and joined the WAAF under age – never to have contact with her family ever again. None of us ever questioned my nan about what her mum died of, I think we all assumed it was a bomb in the war. We also never really questioned my nan’s bitter loathing of her father – she never had a good word to say about him, although even these tales, told from her point of view, showed glimpses of an extremely hardworking man who loved his family and had a huge pride in how exceptionally clever his eldest child was.
My great-grandmother, Barbara Ross, was born on the 23rd of May 1894, the seventh of nine children, and the first daughter, of William Ross and his wife, Barbara (née Hogg). Her parents had moved to London about ten years before. William had been in the army since 1876, and although he had resigned in 1883, after his return from Egypt, he remained in the army reserve for many years. William had been born in Nairn, whereas his wife hailed from Edinburgh. They had moved to London after William left the army, where he had taken a job as a packing case maker and furniture packer for the high-class furniture manufacturer Maples. Barbara was born at 41 Compton Street, St Pancras, a very poor and rundown area according to the Booth Poverty Map of 1898. In the Booth’s notebooks he describes it as “…very rough, thieves… children very dirty and ragged but well fed”. Though, he noted that there were seven houses on the east side that have been “done up, with clean, well-dressed children from one of them…” given what I know of my great-great-grandmother, this could well have been their house, though it is impossible to know – but clean, well-dressed children in such a rundown area sounds very much like my family. Booth also describes the area as a street with shops, including a coffee shop offering “…a rasher, one egg, 2 slices of bread and butter and a cup of tea, coffee or cocoa for 4 1/2d”.
The next we hear of Barbara is on the 1st of July 1898, when she is registered to attend Prospect Terrace School, which was a very radical project for the time, built in 1890 specifically to provide the poor children of the area a place to learn and play whilst their parents were at work. The family are at this time living at 9 Wicklow Street, Camden – a slightly better, working class area where policemen and cabmen dwell, though Booth had to seek police escort through the surrounding streets filled with “villainy and prostitution” and doss houses at every corner. By the 1901 Census the family are living at 17 Wakefield Mews, a mews of stables tucked away off of Regent’s Square. Booth describes it in 1899 “…small stables used by shops. The rooms overhead are let out to a poorer class”, it would have been in these “rooms overhead” that the 6-year-old Barbara would have been living with her parents and 8 siblings, her eldest brother, John, a sailor of 19, her youngest sibling 3-year-old Maggie, the only other girl born to Mr and Mrs Ross.
On the 5th of January 1902, Barbara’s father died of asphyxia in University College Hospital, after suffering eight days of pneumonia. This would have been a very traumatic passing to witness, especially for a 7-year-old girl. The family were living at 24 Warren Street, St Pancras at this time, a similar poor area to the last. Skip forward nine years to the census of 1911, and 16-year-old Barbara’s world has changed dramatically. Her mother, who up until now had been a housewife, is now working as a char woman, and she herself is working as a “tailoress” or so it says on the census entry. Only Barbara, her brother Charles and her sister Maggie are still at home, although most of her brother’s never live too far away throughout Barbara’s life. They are living in 2 rooms at 31 Euston Street, described by Booth as an area of “all very low people”. Unusually, Barbara appears on two censuses in 1911, I assume that she slept at her place of work too, and this is why she appears on two entries, as we also find her at 9 Colville Place in the Fitzrovia area of London. She is working for Harris and Sophie Schaffer, Russian immigrant tailors. They have four sons, 3 of whom work in the tailor business, the other was a violinist. They are doing well enough to have a servant, and a niece also works with them as a tailoress. Last on the list is Barbara, and here we get the first glimpse of my family’s inherent aspirations, for she may have thought herself a “tailoress” at 17, but in actual fact she is viewed by her employer as an “errand girl”.
In 1911 Barbara also found herself in the newspapers. She had apparently been out all night when her mother went to look for her at 3am. She found Barbara in St George Street, with a man and another woman. My great-grandmother was reportedly “smacked” by her mum and sent home, my Scottish great-great-grandmother then apparently set about the man. You can read the report here.
The fact that Barbara was an unruly teenager is perhaps evidenced by the above and the fact that on the 11th of August 1914 she gave birth to an illegitimate son, Frank Ross, she had been working as a kitchen maid at the time of his birth. On Frank’s birth certificate he is illegitimate, though at his christening Barbara gives his father’s name as “Ernest Ross”, although, I have never found evidence that this man existed. My nan knew her half-brother very well, he was ten years older than her and grew up to be a boxer, “Ginger Ross” he lived with their grandmother. My nan was brought up to believe that Frank’s father had been crushed by a lorry in WWI, and that his name was Bendle. Ironically, there was an Ernest Bendle in Barbara’s life, but she had not met him yet, and he most certainly was not Frank’s father.
If Barbara Ross was aware of Oscar Wilde’s play of 1895, I will never know – but The Importance of Being Earnest does spring to mind in her life story. Ernest C Bendle was a Canadian, he volunteered in September 1914, just short of his 24th birthday, to come to Europe and fight in WWI. He was shipped straight to France, where he rose up the ranks to sergeant very quickly. I am guessing that he met Barbara when he was recuperating in London in the summer of 1915, after being shot in the back on the front line. At this time Barbara was doing her bit for the war effort, working as a checker on the railways. Ernest was from London, Ontario – 15st 7lbs, 5ft 7”, with dark hair and blue eyes, his parents had come originally from England. He claimed to be born in Ireland, but was actually born in Canada, his profession is given as a painter before his enlistment. He also suffered from trench mouth, whilst in the army, and had to have all his teeth removed! The couple married in January 1917, Barbara benefiting from her husband’s army pay, sent to her while he was serving, plus separation pay, paid by the Canadian Army. Interestingly, she had been receiving his pay, as his wife, since October 1916! Barbara had been living with her mother and Frank at 22 Drummond Street, Euston, but as Mrs Bendle she is soon living at 11 Bowles Road, just off the Old Kent Road, south of the river. This was a slightly better area, near a large bus terminus and backing onto the Grand Surrey Canal. Whether Ernest knew about Barbara’s son Frank is doubtful, especially given that Barbara had left her 5-year-old child living with her mother (ironically Barbara’s own grandmother did similar with her father to go off with a soldier, but Betsy Ross is a whole other story).
In April 1919, Barbara gave birth to Maggie P. Bendle, and they sailed to Canada with Ernest in August 1919. Barbara arrived in Nova Scotia on the SS Baltic, with a ship load of other war brides. She then traveled over 1,000 miles from Halifax, NS to London, Ontario. As much as I have tried to discover what happened next, and even after months of trying to track down other ancestors who might know, I have drawn a blank. All I know for certain is that Barbara is documented as sailing back to England in the November of 1919, without Maggie P! Barbara arrived in Liverpool late on Christmas Eve, alone and without her 8-month-old child, it is to be wondered if she managed to get back to London for Christmas Day to see the son she had left behind.
What happened to make Barbara return so quickly, without her daughter, we will probably never know for certain, nor will we know if she ever planned to go back. From Ernest’s extensive military records one thing is very clear, around the time of Maggie P’s conception he was being treated by the army for syphilis. This disease was rife during WWI, but was fully curable with treatment – Ernest got the very unpleasant treatment of the day, mercury injections, and was cured, according to his records. This information is very important given what happens to Barbara next. We have to ask did Ernest tell Barbara about his condition? One thing is for certain, when Barbara returned to Britain at the end of 1919, she was most certainly infected with the disease. We also have to question if Maggie P had congenital Syphilis, which could have left her disabled in some way?
We next come across Barbara in April 1922, she is giving birth to a son, William David Inglett, named for his father. William David Inglett senior, was a stoker in the Royal Navy, having served with distinction throughout WWI and survived being in the thick of the Battle of Jutland. He had married a woman called Evelyn Holt at the start of 1920, but by 1922 he is living as man and wife with Barbara at 11 Stanhope Buildings, St Pancras. Unfortunately, their baby son died at 5 months old, of congenital syphilis and malnutrition. Barbara is present at the death but claims she is the child’s aunt giving her mother’s address at Drummond Street, and the child’s address as Stanhope Buildings, obviously to hide that she must be the carrier of the syphilis. Sadly, if she had admitted to being the mother she could have received treatment at this time, but due to shame, fear… whatever the reason, she chose to cover up the truth. It is possible for a child to not contract congenital syphilis from its mother, which was apparent when my grandmother, Barbara Inglett, was born in February 1924, closely followed by Olga Doreen in 1925, and Betty Joan in 1927. Sadly, little Betty Joan died aged 2 of meningitis, she was also suffering from rickets. The family are still at this time living in Stanhope Buildings, and William Inglett is working as a metal sorter, having left the navy before 1924 and taken casual labouring jobs ever since. The family move to Sydney Street in Somers Town, a notorious slum, which my nan had very vivid memories of, but they were fortunate to not be there very long, as they were scooped up as part of Father Jellico’s 1930s slum clearance (a very interesting topic I will blog about at a later date) – and soon not just they, but Barbara’s mother, and other members of the family, were living in nice new flats, with all the modern conveniences.
My nan’s recollections of her mother was of a very good-looking, clever and resourceful woman who worked extremely hard. My nan remembers her as being an exceptional cook – one famous story was that she cooked for Fortnum and Mason’s displays. My nan remembers her mum carrying a fully dressed boar’s head she had cooked and decorated for the store through the streets to the West End, in the very early morning – such a bizarre story it has to be true. She seems to have been a very kind woman, a typical Londoner who had little but was always ready to share with those who had even less. She brought my nan and her sister up with a very fierce moral code, and as young girls they would leave the house with her words ringing in their ears “If you wouldn’t want me to be seeing you doing it, then you shouldn’t be doing it!” – the seasoned voice of experience perhaps. That my nan had a great love for her mother, and that this was reciprocated, was very evident.
At the outbreak of WWII, the register taken on the 29th September 1939, shows that Barbara is a retired office cleaner, given she was only 45 at the time, it seems surprising she is retired, especially given their financial status – finding this was my first hint that she was unwell. Within months she would have been taken into hospital suffering the horrendous symptoms of tertiary syphilis. I won’t go into details here, the curious can Google them, all I will say is that it would have been horrific for her family to witness this decline. Her death certificate of the 8th of June 1940 says she died of cerebral thrombosis, unspecified disease – which was a kind doctor’s euphemism for tertiary syphilis. How much my grandmother knew of her mother’s condition it is impossible to say – though in hindsight I think she knew that her mum died of syphilis and possibly left to join up blaming her “sailor” father for her mum’s demise; my own first assumption was also that he had given it to her – that was before my research found Ernest C Bendle (who didn’t die till 1956, by the way). My nan was fully aware of her half-brother Frank, who lived down the road with her nan, but I am fairly sure she knew absolutely nothing of Maggie P in Canada, nor her mother’s marriage to Ernest (Maggie P lived all her life in London, Ontario. She never married and died in 1980). As far as my nan was concerned her mum and dad were married to each other, Frank’s father having died in WWI.
I have mentioned my nan’s utter loathing of her father, and I had always accepted her view of him, but a few things have come to light which make me think he was actually a very nice man. For one thing he must have known about the syphilis but stayed and had a family with Barbara, and he gave up the sea whilst they were together – returning to the Merchant Navy after her death. On her death certificate he is named as “W D Bendle, widower of the deceased” – covering the shame of them not being married even after her death. There is also a record of him being a stoker on a boat which sailed to New York, not long after Barbara’s burial. Whilst there, he took shore leave and visited Canada. I don’t know for certain where he went in Canada, but I like to think he made his way to London, Ontario to tell Ernest Bendle that Barbara had died, though he could have done that by letter I guess – perhaps he went there to punch him on the nose? However it was, my great-grandmother had a very remarkable life, and if she had chosen to stay in Canada my family line may never have existed. Barbara Ross (Bendle) was buried in High Gate Cemetery, or so my nan used to tell me – finally laid to rest after a rather colourful life.