THE WRITER’S LIFE
I’ve rarely been asked why I’m in someone’s garden, but I’m metaphorically looking over the wall of one now, from the inside. I’m writing my planned family history book, and in a different comfort zone than my usual ones. I’m finding it a fascinating journey of discovery, and although it’s planned as a gift to my parents, the style I’ve adopted may widen the audience beyond those it’s intended directly for.
The book is the story of my parents, and all the places they’ve passed through. For me, the greatest interest is the domestic servants. But those they worked for and the houses where they lived are full of stories which wouldn’t be told if those parents of a future writer hadn’t happened. So I thought I’d share a rough draft introduction, of how things came to be, and how the journey started.
Yra De Mesa
A quiet history
I can imagine what life in 2042 will be like, when my children are in their 30s, because I’m normally a science fiction writer. I can find out what life was like a century before, because I can research history. I’m a writer who can imagine many things, but my parents can tell me the facts. That’s why I decided to write this book.
This is the story of a working class family, who passed through some of England’s fine estates; of a gardener and groundsman, a cook and matron, and two kids. One of those was me, so I decided to use the hands my parents gave me to give something back, a book about small lives, with a lot of heart. It’s a brief history, of people who might otherwise have passed through undocumented.
The Laker family name was originally an occupational one, where others are characteristic. If I wasn’t a Laker, I might be called Smallman, or Shorter, those being descriptive names. If there were two Steves in a group, they might be assigned second names to differentiate between them, and in most pairs of Steves, I’d be the smaller one (interestingly, my maternal nan’s maiden name was Shorter). But as an occupational name, Laker was one who fished on lakes, where a Fisher might fish rivers or streams. It’s also a residential name, where those who lived by lakes became known as Lakers (of the lakes).
I’ve not traced my own family back far enough to discover which we are, and some of my genealogy enquiries have pointed me to emigrants to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One thing I’m sure of, is that we’re from a group originating in Kent and Sussex, which grew to include many other families. What I’ve found is that my own family line can be traced back through the working classes: farm labourers, factory workers, gardeners, caretakers, cooks and housekeepers.
So they were all probably very nice, hard-working people, who helped and supported many others. The problem with those working class people, is that there is scant record of them. But they did leave their marks, in houses, on landscapes and in gardens. They made things, they repaired and made good, and they made stories. Few would be noteworthy outside their social circles, but they played small, quiet parts in changing times, like millions of others in the silent majority of untold tales.
The first character to emerge into this story, is my dad, George, on 6th February, 1942. Then Rose, my mum, on 22nd January, 1945, both to farm labourers. I never met my maternal granddad, as he died of Tuberculosis, along with my young uncle John, who gave me my middle name. I met the other three, and often wish they were still around to tell their stories at greater length. Like so many things, I left it too late. But I can go further back in history later, as the future reveals more of it so that it can be documented.
For now, the first chapter opens on 18th March, 1967, when mum and dad married. Things happened when people were younger then, so when I came along in 1970, mum and dad were 28 and 25. My sister Lisa arrived in 1973, to compliment my parents’ one sister each, both Margarets.
It’s said that most people will have a first memory around the age of two or three, and it was in 1972 that I remember dad saying, “Don’t touch that.” This wasn’t so much an early sign of how life was going to pan out, as a quick lesson in motorbike mechanics: Chrome exhausts are hot.
Before us kids came along, dad had a motorbike, which mum would ride pillion. When I came along, they got a sidecar, so me and mum could sit together. It was only when Lisa arrived that we upgraded to a family car. Money was tight, and I quite like the idea of being a biker aged two, even if I was transported precariously in a motorcycle sidecar. Health and safety forgot those days.
The first family car was a red 1966 Reliant three-wheeler, as a motorbike license also allowed the holder to drive a three-wheeled car. That was later replaced by a 1971 model, which somehow chugged mum and dad in the front, with mum’s mum and sister on the back seat, my sister and me perched on their laps, on family holidays and days out. We’d alternate between years, one year spending a week in Bournemouth or on the Isle of Wight, in a chalet or caravan, and the next we’d go on days out, to zoos and beaches. Those were us kids’ favourites (when the grown-ups would tell us we had to go home, to get a bath and have dinner. “But we’ve been in the sea all day, and there’s a fish and chip shop over there”) but there’d always be at least one day when we’d visit a stately home or a museum.
Those odd days were mainly for my auntie. Margaret had a keen interest in history, and especially royalty. I wonder now what she’d make of the world. She could access the internet, where once she visited libraries and borrowed books. But back then, exploration and discovery were to be had in real places. And at the time, my sister and me had no interest in where we were, unless there was a maze or a decent park, where dad would normally get lumbered with us. While mum and her sister had life’s rich tapestry to enjoy, he had a picnic blanket.
All of this revolved around a house in Wateringbury, Kent. Old Hoy Cottages took their name from The Kentish Hoy public house, which was already known to be in operation in 1807. The earliest landlord I can trace is a Stephen Walter, who’s listed in Pigot’s National & Commercial Directory of 1828. According to a Wateringbury Remembered blog, the building pre-dates the pub, with the original structure damaged by fire, but retaining examples of Crown Post roofing, a form of French architecture popular from the 11th to 16th centuries. The pub ceased trading around 1892, when it was bought by Richard Henry Fremlin, who converted it into two cottages in 1894. The property was further divided sometime before the Second World War, and that’s where we lived.
I found an obituary for Mr Fremlin, in an extract from the Parish magazine from 1916, from the Wateringbury Local History Society:
The name of Richard Henry Fremlin will be remembered in Wateringbury long after those who were privileged to know him personally and now mourn his loss shall have passed away. For 45 years, or thereabouts, he lived his bachelor life at May Lodge, the house attached to Upper Mill Farm, which, with the Lower Mill and “Wardens,” the old home of the family, he inherited from his father, James Fremlin, on the death of the latter in 1881. May Lodge had at one time been occupied by Dr. William Rutter Dawes, F.R.S., the astronomer, and afterwards by Mr. Arthur Fremlin, who went to live at Court Lodge, Teston, in or about the year 1870. When Mr. Richard succeeded his brother Arthur in the management of Upper Mill Farm the house was but a small one: before entering into residence he enlarged it, and he added to it again at a later date.
After a time he was asked by his brothers at Maidstone to assist them in the management of their growing business there. The additional responsibilities which he thus undertook made his life a busy one, so that he had little time. And being moreover of a retiring nature he had little inclination, to enter into what is known as public life. But he fully recognised the responsibilities of his position and opportunities in the parish.
In early days he joined with his brother Ralph and his friend Mr. E. J. Goodwin in carrying on a night school in a cottage in Old Road: those were times before the State recognised the importance of elementary education. His name appears for the first time in the minute book of the Vestry in the year 1873. In 1879 he was elected to serve on the new Burial Board, and also on the Sanitary Committee which created a drainage system for part of the village. In 1884, at the time of the enlargement of the north aisle of the Church, he was elected by the people as their Churchwarden, an office which he discharged continuously, with the exception of one year (1891-2), until Easter, 1897.
Under March 25th, 1889, there appears a vote of thanks to the Churchwardens for the many services rendered by them to the church and parish; and again under March 27th, 1894, “to Mr. Fremlin and Mr. Jude for their liberality in connexion with the new organ erected in the church in the course of preceding year.” Without being an expert musician he was very fond of music and took much interest in the musical rendering of the Church Services.
For the last twenty years, the period for which the writer can personally testify, though Mr. Fremlin was not fond of attending public meetings, no movement projected for the welfare of the parish was carried out without his careful consideration and backed by his generous financial support: the enlargement of the schools in 1896, the building Parish Church Rooms, the erection of the Lych Gate in memory of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria; the establishment of the Queen Victoria Memorial Essay Prize, may be mentioned among the public undertakings which the place owes in a great measure to his assistance; and he was always ready to lend a willing hand to any request for assistance of a less public nature—in fact his kindness cannot be measured, for he was a man who always preferred to keep in the background and to do good by stealth so to speak.
It was a great joy to him to be able to share the pleasure of his plentiful garden with friends—a garden which he was continually extending and stocking with precious plants collected from all quarters of the globe, and indeed lovers of flowers came from all parts of the world, one may say to make his acquaintance and to see his treasures. During the spring and summer months the grounds were thrown open on Wednesday afternoons to the public, and many parishioners habitually availed themselves of the privilege thus accorded to them. A man of wide culture and reverent mind, albeit of independent thought—” no doubt we shall have what we want there,” he replied simply to a friend who going round his garden with him, connected its beauty with a reference to the hope of the future. That was not long before he began to be confined to his house by his last illness, borne throughout bravely and patiently. He reached the full term of fourscore years, and was laid to rest in his parents’ grave near the Church Porch on March 30th.
Probate records show: Richard Henry Fremlin – died 25 Mar. 1916. Probate at 17 May 1916 to Alfred Charles Leney, Harry Leny – Brewer, the Rev. Frederick Fremlin – Key Clerk
£248,413 11s 10d.
In an online blue plaques unveiling walk of Wateringbury, one in particular stood out:
The next stop was at the oldest house in the village, The Wardens, just off Bow Road, where in 1833 Ralph Fremlin, founder of Fremlin’s Brewery, Maidstone was born. The mayor unveiled this plaque telling of Ralph’s life and his own boyhood memories of the area.
So many links, to be found in places I’d never explored before, and yet I lived there. The Fremlins sound like liberal, social country folk, with their livelihoods in farming (and brewing), private people but for their human kindness, quietly changing the world, like so many other unwritten histories.
Our Old Hoy cottage was typical of that described by the Wateringbury Remembered blog article: As the original building was built on a steep slope, the front parlours were much higher than the kitchens and access from one room to the other was by a wooden ladder, until at least the 1950s.
Other than than ladders with snakes, there were no more to climb in the house when we arrived, the descent to the kitchen then via concrete steps from the living room. I don’t recall any sort of regimen in any of our houses, and when I look back (especially to my teenage years), family living was more a commune.
Dad worked at Yotes Court, now a Kent Gardens Trust site, in Mereworth. The original house dates from 1658, and was redesigned in 1735, with improvements made to the gardens and a walled kitchen garden added sometime in the 18th century. The modern lawn and pool date from as recently as 1970, which must have been my dad’s main preoccupation at the time.
As an aside, in the 1970s, some old myths prevailed, not just in Wateringbury. One such was left-handedness, and a belief that it represented all which was sinister. This has its roots in some religions, but left-handers were still considered to have a handicap throughout the industrial revolution, when southpaws found machinery awkward. I was the first such oddity in my family that I know of, and when I started favouring my left arm, my mum’s health visitor suggested she might tie my left arm behind my back, so that I might be cured of some curse and return to the right side.
My mum refused, because she was radical, and she used to carry me around in a motorcycle sidecar, Gromit to dad’s Wallace. So thanks mum and dad, for letting me find the left hand which now writes this story.
After some of the history of Yotes Court, we’ll move on to Ightham, with its historic buildings, Roman and Palaeolithic archaeological sites, and a Kentish Ragstone stable cottage where we lived. Then to Tonbridge, with the castle, and many famous painters commemorated in the names of roads where my parents now live. Finally, the book will bring everything up to date, including where I live now (West Malling), which itself has many links to my parents’ and previous generations, through farms and the old air field.
It should be a book which my parents find interesting, for all the history they knew little about. It’s a book for those who like finding new history, and the stories of people they might not otherwise have read. And for me, it’s an interesting and rewarding book to write. I hope it will be as much fun for others to read.
I’m hoping to make it enchanting.
Silent Gardens will be available around March 2018.