For me, growing up in Spain and being occasionally visited by my English grandmother was a real joy. My grandmother, whom I affectionately referred to as Nana, was everything you could expect from an English granny: loving and cuddly, she always carried around her handbag full of crossword puzzles, chocolates and toffee, and was content to just sit out in my parents’ garden under a big mimosa tree listening to me while I rattled on about something or other (once I even remember reading to her about the Lizzie Borden murders!).
My father’s memories of his grandmother (Nana’s mother) are equally tender – although both women led very different lives and had diametrically opposite characters. It has recently occurred to me that my great-grandmother’s mother, whom Nana referred to as Granny Morris, must have been equally loving and affectionate. So I’ve decided to share with you her story.
Granny Morris started off life as Elizabeth Vickress. She was her parents’ eldest child, and was named Elizabeth in honour of her father’s mother – a woman born as far back as 1788 and whom she very probably knew as Granny Vickress. Elizabeth grew close to her next two sisters, Milbrough and Diana, who were close to her in age. She also probably had a close relationship with her brother William, who would later marry Elizabeth’s husband’s sister, and her brother Thomas, who would later emigrate to Australia. Although born in her mother’s hometown of Staunton-on-Arrow, Elizabeth actually grew up in Lyonshall, Herefordshire, where her father worked as a humble carpenter. It was there too that her mother gave birth to some of Elizabeth’s brothers and sisters, some of whom died young – probably the first time Elizabeth witnessed losing a loved one.
By her early twenties, Elizabeth had began working. She went into service, like so many other thousands of working-class people did, but unlike most of her relatives, she did not constrain herself to the places she knew well – by 1871 we can find her working as a domestic servant in the house of a Mr and Mrs Hughes in Huyton with Roby, then in Lancashire and now a suburb of Liverpool. How long Elizabeth remained in Lancashire is difficult to tell, as by 1876 she had made her way back to Herefordshire, and there married Samuel Morris, a carpenter who happened to be six years her junior. By all appearances, it was a happy and fruitful marriage. The couple lived briefly in Almeley, where their first-born daughter, Nell, was born, followed by the arrival of my future great-grandmother, Bessie, who was born in Pembridge in 1879. The family likely remained close sentimentally and geographically to both Samuel and Elizabeth’s parents: the Vickresses lived in Pembridge, while the Morrises fluctuated between Kinnersley and Ivington, near Leominster. It was evidently a tight-knit, extended family.
In 1881 and 1882 Elizabeth’s sons Samuel (Sam) and William were born, respectively. Then, in early January 1885, Elizabeth was pregnant for the fifth time, but went into labour prematurely and gave birth to a nameless son who lived for only two hours. The sad experience must have been a terrible blow for the bereaved parents. A ray of hope came three years later when Elizabeth (who was by now 42 years old) found herself expecting her sixth child, and in late 1888 welcomed a daughter whom she affectionately named Anne after her own mother.
At that point the family moved back to Pembridge. It was there that Samuel and Elizabeth decided to send their eldest children to school – which they did, in February 1889. There is no doubt in my mind that in time they would have also sent their youngest daughter to be schooled, but sadly little Anne’s health deteriorated in the upcoming months, and by April she had been diagnosed with marasmus (a severe state of malnutrition due to lack of proteins). Elizabeth probably watched helplessly as her youngest girl succumbed to her illness, at just five months.
By the early 1890s, Samuel and Elizabeth offered to take in a young charge into their home. The child was a little girl called Ivy Thornton – she was a distant relation, her mother being a cousin of Samuel’s. Ivy’s father had died in Sussex in 1891 due to blood poisoning caused by meningitis, and with five small children to feed, Ivy’s mother had taken the hard decision of sending her youngest child to be brought up by relatives in Herefordshire. Having lost two children of their own, Samuel and Elizabeth warmly welcomed little Ivy into their home and into their family. She became an integral part of the Morris family, and remained with them until her marriage in 1917.
With the passing of time, it was also evident that the family needed to rely financially on their children to make ends meet – Samuel’s wages as a carpenter were not enough to feed seven mouths. In 1894 their thirteen year-old son Sam was compelled to leave school, and went into the building business, later becoming a master builder and bricklayer. The girls, Nell and Bessie, also went into service much like their mother had done before them (Bessie as a general servant, Nell as a domestic nurse).
In time, as Elizabeth grew older, it was her children’s turn to seek lives of their own. William, the youngest surviving son and a farm labourer by profession, married Emily Price in late 1909. Their engagement had taken place only a few months before, and was probably the last happy occasion for Elizabeth’s husband Samuel, whose diabetes had been aggravated in recent times and had forced doctors to amputate his hand – what I can only imagine was a terrible blow for a carpenter accustomed to working with his hands. Gangrene eventually set in, and Elizabeth became a widow at the relatively young age of 63.
After a respectable period of mourning, it was Bessie’s time to get married, and so she and my great-grandfather were wed at the end of 1910. Elizabeth watched (hopefully with pride) as her children founded families of their own, and her gloomy widowhood was blissfully replaced by the arrival of grandchildren. In 1911, at 65, she became “Granny Morris” for the first time, followed in 1913 by the arrival of two grandsons (one of whom sadly died after living for only a few days). In 1917 a granddaughter, my future Nana – who was in fact named after her mother and grandmother – was born.
Elizabeth’s grandmotherhood was not exempt of family tragedies. In 1915 her youngest brother was accidentally killed in a mining accident in Wales; three years later her daughter-in-law Emily succumbed to influenza during the epidemic known as the Spanish flu. Similarly, her son Sam’s wife, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis in 1924 leaving a young widower and an eight year-old son.
One positive note to Elizabeth’s story is that in the winter of her life, her children ensured that she did not end up in a poorhouse, or indeed even in an almshouse like her mother had done before her. Her daughter Bessie decided there was enough space for her to come and live with her and her family in Ash Villa, in Upper Colwall, where my Nana also grew up. It was there that Elizabeth spent her last years, in a house overlooking the valleys of Herefordshire and Worcestershire from the beauty of the Malvern Hills. Suffering from kidney problems, Elizabeth’s health deteriorated sharply by the early 1930’s, and she slipped away quietly at the age of 86.