The faces of history – Annie Elizabeth Smith

Annie Elizabeth Smith, my mother’s mother, was born in Alexandra Street, Stone, Staffordshire on 30 September 1883 and died in Tenby, Pembrokeshire on 6 July 1958.

For the last few years of her life, Annie suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and the memory of that time is in many ways painful for me and inevitably obscures a broader view of her life.

Annie with her parents, Lizzie and Arthur Smith. About 1935
Annie with her parents, Lizzie and Arthur Smith. About 1935

Annie was her parents’ eldest child and the only girl.

Four younger brothers followed

George (1885), Thomas (1889), William (1894) and Frederick (1899)

George died a month before the Great War armistice in October 1918 in Syria.

The remaining three were all involved in the war, but survived and lived within half a mile of their parents. I remember all three of them.

Annie was the only child to move away from Stone. She married her first cousin once removed Arthur Lionel Downing on 21 September 1914, a week before her thirty first birthday. The couple had met at a family wedding in Kidderminster in 1906, when Arthur’s brother, Albert Downing married Nellie Slater. I have no idea why the ‘courtship’ lasted for eight years, but Arthur was a signalman with Great Western Railways so would have been able to travel freely to Stone.

The couple made their home at 49, Topsham Road in Smethwick, but my mother, Margaret Downing, was born at 7, Victor Street in Stone, the home of her grandparents.

Annie and Arthur’s marriage was not a happy one, by the accounts that Margaret gave. Arthur drank heavily and was apparently abusive and violent. Paradoxically, he produced beautiful oak carved furniture by hand at woodwork classes organised by the GWR. Maybe there he found relief from the pent up frustrations of a life of poverty. Like the homes of previous generations of workers, number 49 had no bathroom and an outside toilet.

Margaret with her father Arthur at Llandudno - about 1930
Margaret with her father Arthur at Llandudno - about 1930

Arthur died at fifty seven on the floor of his home. He died in agony, during a severe angina attack at which twenty one year old Margaret was present. He refused to allow her to call the company doctor, since a confirmed diagnosis of heart disease would have cost him his job. Signalmen could not put the travelling public at risk by dying in their boxes !

When Margaret finally reached the doctor’s house it was the middle of the night and the annoyed GP callously threw a death certificate from his bedroom window to the distraught girl in the cold gaslit street below.

Her father’s death in such tragic circumstances affected Margaret greatly, but to my personal frustration as an adolescent attracted by the fairness of socialism, she never voted for the Labour Party with its revolutionary National Health Scheme, but turned instead to a personal attempt to ensure that she always had sufficient funds to avoid poverty. It was a difference of opinion between us that lasted until her death.

Annie was left a widow in Smethwick in 1938 and at the outbreak of war in 1939 became an air raid warden. I think that in a strange way this was probably the most self fulfilled period of her life.

So it was that I arrived in the world, after most of the bombing had finished, with a ‘gas proof’ cot with a hand air pump fitted and later a Mickey Mouse gas mask. These were ready to accompany me and my mother and a good part of the population of Topsham Road, from what I gathered, in the descent to the galvanised steel ‘Anderson Shelter’ which lay half buried at the end of the small garden. I don’t think any of the equipment was used seriously after I was born, but it made a scary, damp, dark playground for me, David and friends as we grew up and was dug out by my father and turned into an impromptu garden shed in 1950, when we and it moved to the rural heaven of Hagley.

Despite being thirty miles away, it was always Annie who was summoned when her ageing parents were unwell. This gave rise to much resentment by my mother, Margaret and in fairness, Annies health was not good as she progressed through her sixties. I can remenber a telegram from Stone arriving from some member of her family which read, quite simply, ‘Annie come at once’

Following my birth in 1942, I had a bout of gastroenteritis and Margaret attributed my very survival to the loving attention that Annie gave me during that time of great deprivation in Britain. The second world war was only just beginning to turn towards eventual victory by the Allies and food and material shortages were acute.

Annie was a very selfless and uncomplaining person. She moved in with us when we went first to Hagley and then to the Wild West of Pembrokeshire in 1954 and sadly declined in health until her death four years later.


The faces of history – Marion Brown

Marion Brown at 21 in 1903
Marion Brown at 21 in 1903

My grandmother Marion Brown was born on 9 August 1882 at Cannock in Staffordshire. She was the third child of Henry Ambrose Brown and Alice Plucknett Brown (neé Sternberg). She married Percy Winchurch in 1911.

Marion (or Marie, with the stress on the first syllable rather than the French pronunciation) had an elder sister Norah (b1879), brother Harry (b1881)


and a younger sister Millicent (Millie) (b1891).


Marie was perhaps the most introverted of the four. There was an underlying sense of humour within the family, which delighted me as a small boy. Life with the Browns was fun !

I am lucky to have known and loved all of them in their different ways as my childhood years overlapped with the later years of their respective lives.

Norah and Marie
Norah and Marie

It was a conversation between Norah and Marie 1n 1963 that was an early inspiration to look into family history more.

Norah talks about ‘mother’s father’s father’ being a ‘wonderful musician’ and ‘coming over with a German band’

Listen here to forty seconds of history

She was almost right, Francis George Sternberg was actually a generation further back and was a trumpeter with the Royals and Blues Regiment. He settled in Northampton, married Frances Furnivall and established himself and his family in a music retail and education business.

At the time of this recording in 1963, it was two hundred years since Francis’s birth. It is an interesting example of how family information can be passed down the generations.

If I count my granddaughter, we have nine generations here.

When Marion died in 1982, she was just four months short of her hundredth birthday.

As far as I know, she is the longest living ancestor that I have. That is quite a thought if you project back into prehistory.

The faces of history – Richard and Mary Ellen Brown

Update January 2018

After taking an Ancestry DNA test over a year ago, I have found significantly more information on the family of Richard and Mary Ellen and made several Brown contacts in the USA, Canada and South Africa. When things are clearer, I will update and expand this post, which I originally wrote over nine years ago.

John Winchurch

Two days ago, I stood in the former Bavarian Embassy Chapel in Soho, close to the spot where my great great grandparents Richard Brown and Mary Ellen Gornall were married almost 160 years ago on 16 April 1849.

Mary Ellen Gornall – about 1900

It is to this day an active Catholic place of worship and the heady scent of incense greets you as you open the inner swing doors, to enter a place of peace and tranquility, which is, amazingly, so close to Piccadilly Circus.

John outside the ‘Bavarian Chapel’ in Soho, London


The Return

There is something very humbling about standing on the spot where an event that took place there, resulted eventually in your own existence as the person you are and with the history that you have.

I wondered about the life of the person in the photograph – a smart and dignified old lady. married at twenty, with her life in front of her as she stood before the alter in the small chapel. Were there family members and friends sitting in pews on the railed gallery ? Or was it a quiet family affair, as she married Richard Brown, himself only twenty two. A young tailor, born in 1826 into a family of tailors , the profession he was to pass on to their son, my great grandfather, Henry Ambrose Brown.

Henry Ambrose Brown C1880

The faces of history – Elizabeth Gadsby

Elizabeth Smith (neé Gadsby) 1910
Elizabeth Smith (neé Gadsby) 1910

My great grandmother, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Smith (neé Gadsby – or sometimes, Gadsbey) was born in Stone 1n 1861. She was the second daughter of James and Martha Gadsby.

Martha Gadsby (neé Downing)
Martha Gadsby (neé Downing)

Martha was also a first cousin of my maternal grandfather, Arthur Downing.

To put this another way, my mother’s parents were first cousins once removed.

Although Lizzie was alive until I was about six years old, I have few strong memories of her. She had a reputation within the family for being rather outspoken and forbidding, but this might have only been in her later years She lived to be 87.

I do remember a regular custom when we visited Victor Street though. This was usually on a Sunday afternoon, having driven north from Birmingham via Stafford – with the fascination of its milk bottling plant – with large plate glass windows making the machinery visible from the road as my brother and I sat perched on cushions in the back of Winchurch Brothers’ green livery painted Austin A40 van.

After we had parked outside in the narrow road which was arrow straight between the leaded steps of the terraced houses, we passed down the arched ‘entry’ to the yard and turned left for the back door to number 7.

One of Lizzie’s first questions was invariably to ask if we boys would like a biscuit and this affirmed she would pull open a drawer in a huge red wooden chest of drawers, which dominated one side of the small living room and take out a packet of Lincoln Cream biscuits.

They were always Lincoln Creams and I loved them !

At this time food, and especially ‘luxury food’ was severely rationed in post war Britain, so this gesture was particularly generous

I think Lizzie and Arthur lived in their small, rented, terraced house for all of their married life. My mother, Margaret Downing was born there in 1916 and I think her mother, Annie Elizabeth Smith was born there in 1883. ( I have sent for a copy of Annie’s birth certificte to confirm this). The family, with the exception of Annie, was certainly there at the time of the 1901 census.

A large portrait of ‘Mr Gladstone’ dominated the chimney breast in the living room. This was, I believe, a reflection of Lizzie’s political leanings rather than Arthur’s, who I suspect, from family comments, was a little frightened of her !

The house had no electricity even in the late 1940s. There was no bathroom and the only water tap was a cold one over the brown porcelain kitchen sink. This supply had replaced water drawn from a well sited in the pantry under the stairs, which I believe had served not only number 7 but several other houses in Victor Street until the 1920s. Lighting, as in many Victorian terraced houses was by town gas.

Add to all of the above hardships two of the bloodiest wars in history, poverty and illness.

Lizzie’s life was certainly not an easy one and it is a tribute to her determination and that of so many like her that she survived as a formidable figure, into her late eighties, surrounded by children, grandchildren and great granchildren.

The faces of history – Arthur Smith and George Arthur Gadesby Smith

Arthur - about 1943
Arthur – about 1943

My great grandfather, Arthur Smith, was the son of Thomas and Jane Smith of of Stone, Staffordshire, where he was born on 13 November 1860.

Thomas Smith about 1900
Thomas Smith about 1895
Jane Smith (neé Burton) about 1890
Jane Smith (neé Burton) about 1895

His branch of the Smith family had a long connection with the town, which lies midway between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent.

Arthur began work at the age of just ten closing the uppers on men’s shoes for a Mr G Allen. He was paid 2s 6d a week (12.5p).

Boot and shoe making was a major industry in Stone and continued to be well into the second half of the twentieth century with the Lotus Factory being an important employer in the town.

Arthur went on to work with his father, Thomas to produce hand made shoes for Edwin Bostock, examples of which were used as exhibition pieces as far away as Australia. Later he became foreman of a mechanised shoe making workshop and in 1882, married Lizzie Gadsby, who was employed there.

Arthur was an agent for the Prudential Assurance Company for over twenty years, until ill health forced his retirement in 1924.

His shoemaking tools including lasts, hammers and moulds were laid out when I visited Stone as a small child in the 1940’s and it was a special, if rather scary treat to be allowed to climb up the steep open wooden stairway to the bare unheated room above the kitchen to see his disused workshop and what I now realise was a piece of industrial history.

Visits to Stone were a regular part of the lives of my brother and myself up to 1949 when Arthur died on the day before his eighty ninth birthday and the house where he and Lizzie had lived for most of their married life was emptied.

Arthur and Lizzie were tenents of their little terraced house in Stone, not owners and it had few facilities that would now be considered the norm. There was only one tap in the house, providing cold water in the kitchen. The toilet was an outbuilding in the yard with a large wooden seat. By the nineteen forties, a flushing cistern had been added, but I remember being fascinated by reports that the abandoned dark shed at the bottom of the small garden was the original earth closet. A giant cast iron clothes mangle stood opposite the door from the back yard under the wooden stairway that I referred to above.

Arthur and Elizabeth Smith. Golden Wedding 1932
Arthur and Elizabeth Smith. Golden Wedding 1932

7, Victor Street shared its back yard with number 9 next door which was occupied by Lizzie’s brother Fred and his wife Polly. She was wizened and withdrawn by the time I knew her and known to the family as ‘little Aunt Polly’ as opposed to ‘big Aunt Polly’, who was the wife of Albert, another brother. Fred would smile at my tenuous ventures to the bottom of the garden, where he would help me to climb onto the brick wall which had been built by the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company to separate the terrace from the grass lined cutting, which lay some 20 ft below.

Express trains bound to and from Manchester would thunder through at regular intervals, belching smoke with a very characteristic sulphurous smell, steam and sparks, which in the summer caused grass fires and the smoke from the tinder dry banks added a sweet scent that spilled in clouds across the rhubarb and  vegetables growing in Fred’s lovingly kept garden.

My great grandparents’ side of the path was, by this time, sadly overgrown and unproductive.

‘Well done John’ Fred would say with a smile as I returned rather shyly to the house. I was never sure what I had done well, but the praise from this thin kindly old man was sweet.

Arthur’s life was, in different aspects, typical of a poor working man but at the same time remarkable.

In January 1877 he volunteered to serve with the Stone Company of Volunteers and only missed one parade in thirty nine years – to attend his own wedding in 1882.

The Uniform Jacket of Colour Sergeant Arthur Smith
The Uniform Jacket of Colour Sergeant Arthur Smith

In 1902 he succeeded his brother Henry as Colour Sergeant and at the outbreak of the First World War he mobilised with the 5th North Staffordshire Regiment. Because of his age (Arthur was then 54) he was not sent to France.

However the slaughter of that conflict did not escape him personally. Three sons, Thomas, William and his eldest son George served in the army and sadly, George died in Syria in 1918.

It is perhaps a measure of how remote active service was from the normality of home life that George was believed by his family to have  died in Egypt. It was only within the past few years that I found out online that in fact it was Syria.

George Arthur Gadsby Smith lies buried an a small British Commonwealth war cemetery in Damascus.

In Memory of

610134, 20th Bde. Ammunition Col., Royal Horse Artillery
who died age 33
on 14 October 1918
Husband of A.M.Matthew (formerly Smith), of 189, Spadina Avenue, Toronto, Canada.
Remembered with honour

(from The Commonwealth War Graves Commision website)

George Arthur Gadsby Smith
George Arthur Gadsby Smith
The reverse side of George's photograph
The reverse side of George’s photograph
George's grave stone at Damascus
George’s grave stone at Damascus

The following is an account of the final months of the British advance on Damascus. George must have been in the thick of this. The article points out that many soldiers died of disease rather than injuries. I know that this was George’s fate and that as a result his name did not appear on the original War Memorial in Stone. It was corrected later and was there a few years ago when I stopped in Stone to look for it.

From Wikipedia:

Battle of Megiddo

General Allenby finally launched his long-delayed attack on September 19, 1918. The campaign has been called the Battle of Megiddo (which is a transliteration of the Hebrew name of an ancient town known in the west as Armageddon). Again, the British spent a great deal of effort to deceive the Turks as to their actual intended target of operations. This effort was, again, successful and the Turks were taken by surprise when the British attacked Meggido in a sudden storm. The Turkish troops started a full scale retreat, the British bombed the fleeing columns of men from the air and within a week, the Turkish army in Palestine had ceased to exist as a military force.

From there it was decided to march off to Damascus. Two separate Allied columns marched towards Damascus. The first approached from Galilee composed of mainly cavalry, both Indian and Australian while the other column travelled along the Hejaz Railway northwards composed of Indian Cavalry and the ad hoc militia following T.E. Lawrence. Australian Light Horse troops marched unopposed into Damascus on October 1, 1918, despite there being some 12,000 Turkish soldiers at Baramke Barracks. Major Olden of the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment received the Official Surrender of the City at 7 am at the Serai. Later that day, T.E. Lawrence and his ad hoc Arab militia entered Damascus to claim full credit for its capture. The war in Palestine was over but in Syria lasted for a further month. The Turkish government was quite prepared to sacrifice these non-Turkish provinces without surrendering. Indeed, while this battle was raging, the Turks sent an expeditionary force into Russia to enlarge the ethnic Turkish elements of the empire. It was only after the surrender of Bulgaria which put Turkey into a vulnerable position for invasion that the Turkish government compelled to sign an armistice on October 28, 1918 and outright surrendered two days later. 600 years of Ottoman rule over the Middle East had come to an end.

The British lost a total of 550,000 casualties: more than 90% of these were not due to battle but instead due to disease, heat and other secondary causes. Total Turkish losses are unknown but almost certainly larger. They lost an entire army in the fighting and the Turks poured a vast number of troops into the front over the three years of combat.

Even so, the historical consequences of this campaign are hard to overestimate. The British conquest of Palestine led directly to the British mandate over Palestine and Trans-Jordan which, in turn, paved the way for the creation of the states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria

The years following the end of the Great War cannot have been pleasant for Arthur and Lizzie.

As well the grief from the loss of George, Arthur’s health declined. He was eventually diagnosed as having cancer of the colon. A few years earlier this would have been untreatable and Arthur would almost certainly not have lived to sixty. Pioneering surgery had taken place in the field of colostomy however and Arthur was operated on (I think in London) some time around 1930. This must have been a risky and painful procedure at the time, but happily Arthur survived to reach not only his sixtieth birthday, but very nearly, his ninetieth !

The mechanics of redirecting to bowel outlet to the side of his body were briefly outlined to me as a child. For one thing , Arthur needed privacy to clear out the leather pouch on the side of his body. He did this at regular intervals in the ‘front room’ with it’s leather sofa, net curtains and red leaded front step (the front door opened directly onto the pavement of Victor Street). This room was kept very firmly ‘for best’ by Lizzie, as was the case in many Victorian households and although Victoria had been dead for over forty years by the time I was born, this was very definitely a hang-over from that period.

As might be expected in a small house which had been home to seven people with only two rooms upstairs and no bathroom, there was a very distinctive smell about it. The dominant aroma was (perhaps mercifully) that of ‘Old Shag’ pipe tobacco which Arthur smoked right to the end of his life and which permeated the house in curling blue swirls.

A very happy memory I have of Arthur Smith is walking with him to the public park only a few yards from the house in Victor Street. He walked with a walking stick and at the age of five, I insisted on having a stick too.

As we passed the neatly tended beds of summer flowers, a group of Arthur’s friends – old men with hats, sitting on a park bench nearby, greeted him.

“Good Morning Arthur, is that your young grandson?”

“No” he replied, with evident pride, “John is my GREAT grandson”

Arthur was bedridden for the last year of his life.

Lizzie died in 1948, but his daughter, my grandmother, Annie, looked after him lovingly until his death on 12 November 1949.