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.


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