My Grandmother's stories
Terry, at 3 years old
My Grandmother, on my father’s side was born Alice Evans. Never fond of her own name, she preferred Nan, and that was what she was called throughout her adult life. We, her grandchildren, called her gran.
She was born in Sulford, England, in 1908. I write about her because she was the only grandparent I sat and shared stories with. My parents were immigrants here and our experience of grandparents was through letters, which we wrote and received regularly and the yearly ritual of the packages they sent us at Christmas. My mother’s mother, who we called granny, came out to New Zealand to visit us when I was seven. I don’t have a memory of it. Gran on the other hand, moved out here after grandpa died. She lived here for the last nine years of her life. We had the pleasure of getting to know a remarkable woman.
Nan meets Jim
Nan left school at thirteen years old and went to work in a factory. A few years later, while still in her early teens, she met a young man, James (Jim) Hefferan. They fell in love and were married. But Sulford, Manchester, was a dirty polluted city in those days. Nan was bronchial and suffered a chesty cough. Jim was told by a doctor, that if he didn’t get her out of Manchester, Nan would not live long.
Moving up and out
Jim had also left school at thirteen. However, he had the good fortune to find an apprenticeship as an electrician at Met Vicars. In 1932, Jim and Nan were blessed with a son, Terence (Terry), a healthy child whom they doted upon.
By studying at night (something Jim did for years, until he was thirty five), Jim passed all his exams and attained his degrees. He ended up running the power plant in Hastings. Because of this position, Nan and Jim left Manchester for good. Yet this same boon also brought the young couple heartbreak. It was because Jim had to keep the power plant running during World War Two, that they had to stay in Hastings, instead of being evacuated like everyone else. Terry, their only son, was sent away to safety. He went with the other children from Hastings, to board at a convent in the country. However, even there in the country, the bombs fell. A bomb explosion nearby burst Terry's eardrum, leaving him permanently deaf in one ear. He suffered tinnitus in the other ear the rest of his life. The separation was particularly hard on Nan. But the experience of living through the war, the air-raids, the black-outs, the hardships of food rationing, the sound of the 'screaming meemies' that drove terror into everyone's hearts, the terrifying hours spent hiding in the bomb shelters, changed Jim. His decision, 'not to bring any more children into this world' broke Nan’s heart.
Nan buried herself in voluntary work. She joined the Women’s Voluntary Service (W.V.S) in 1938 and worked for them tirelessly. The women were sent to work in every part of the community. They had to do the sort of brave, intrepid jobs that would have usually fallen to the men. Nan worked the night shift on the bomb squad. After the bombing raids, a lot of times the bombs that landed failed to explode. So the W.V.S were sent in. Nan and her team were sent with torches in the darkness, into partly demolished buildings, with barrels of water and spray guns, to douse the bombs by hand. It’s hard to imagine the sort of bravery they must have had to muster.
The W.V.S also helped out in their communities in whatever ways they could. Nan quickly rose to the top of the organization through her dedication and tireless effort. She was made County Borough Organiser.
The Trolley Service
One of Nan's initiatives in 1948, was the Trolley Service. Through visiting people in hospitals, Nan was most moved by the plight of the people who lived in the Workhouses. Her idea was to take them a mobile shop, full of the most basic and yet to these people luxury items: toiletries, perfume, hair products, stockings, tobacco and fruit. Jim built the first trolley. Nan took a few of her W.V.S members and went into St. Helen's Hospital, with the first Trolley Service. The W.V.S trundled the trolley in to the rooms. They went right up to the beds of the bedridden with the sort of little luxuries they didn’t otherwise have access to. This 'served as a model for others, in different parts of the country. Since then, these popular "shops" have been increased in number to cover all hospitals in the borough.' (taken from the newspaper clipping, 'W.V.S Organiser Resigns').
At one Workhouse, the administrator was taking Nat past a building for mentally handicapped patients. No one else from the outside had ever gone in there.
The administrator said, "Surely you're not going to take the Trolley Service in there?"
"Yes," said Nan, “we are.”
The door was unlocked. Nan followed the administrator inside. They gained the attention of every inmate. One in particular, a giant woman with shaggy hair and terrifying visage, stormed straight up to Nan. My grandmother was five-foot-nothing and she was shaking so hard, Nan said, she thought she might faint.
The giant woman studied Nan up close. Then put one hand out and softly stroked Nan’s hair. She said, "Nice."
The Trolley Service still runs in England today.
Also from the newspaper clipping above, at left:
"Under medical orders, Mrs. Nan Hefferan has resigned as County Borough Organiser, for W.V.S, a post to which she was appointed in July, 1949. Mrs. Hefferan, who joined W.V.S locally, in 1938, worked here throughout the war years. Three new Darby and Joan clubs have been opened since Mrs Hefferan became organiser, and her work for old people generally has been immeasurable.She has been the champion of their cause and no one has appealed to her in vain. It was, perhaps, her great sympathy for the lonely and aged in the town which had the effect of undermining her health. But so much of what she did was of a strictly private nature that it can not be recorded. She took on jobs no one would tackle and extended still further the many W.V.S activities. It was largely due to Mrs. Hefferan that such friendly relations exist between the W.V.S and the local authority, and all with whom she came into contact will regret her resignation.'
Becoming a magistrate
Nan was known for her organising ability, her fairness and her tireless work with the W.V.S, and this gained her a notable friend in Lady Astor. After the war, Nan was asked to become a magistrate. Being uneducated, she had to go away first and take a number of courses in order to qualify. She successfully became a magistrate, and served many years on the bench. There were a lot of things she didn’t like about the job. According to my father, 'the law said this when she often felt that'. However, Nan could always be relied upon to follow the letter of the law and be fair.
Stories of my ancestors
After Nan moved to New Zealand, I visited her once a week. She’d talk and I would listen. I loved her stories. She could tell me things about our family, little vignettes of our history I’d never have known otherwise. Dad tells me his stories and gran’s stories were of the generation before.
Arthur and Annie Evans
Nan's parents, Arthur and Annie, met through singing in the same church choir. Arthur Evans adored Annie, the scot. In his eyes, she could do no wrong. Despite the fact that she couldn’t cook to save herself, he proclaimed her cooking to be the best anywhere. Nan said, she didn’t know cauliflower was white until she was an adult, because her mother cooked it for hours until it turned brown.
Nan, and her sister Eva, strove constantly to wrest some of their father's attention from their mother. One day, Nan spent many hours in the kitchen, putting together painstaking layers to create the perfect strawberry shortcake. Her father tried it. Did he like her cake? "Never mind," Arthur assured his waiting daughter, "if you keep up the good effort, one day you might be able to cook as well as your mother."
Being of the Victorian era, Nan’s parents were never able to demonstrate to her the affection she craved. Yet there was one special moment when her father did show her love. Nan had been away on holiday as a little girl of three. Upon her return home, Nan walked up to the gate to see her father standing on the porch. When he saw her, Arthur went down on one knee with his arms open wide. Nan ran into them. She cherished that memory the rest of her life.
When Nan's father, Arthur, grew older, he went blind. He was six foot two, his wife, Annie, was five foot. Yet, he would walk everywhere stooped over with his hand on Annie’s shoulder. ‘Tell me what I’m seeing.' And she would relate the colour of the sky and sea, how many birds were flying and how many boats plied the waves. Arthur had been a hobby photographer, so the darkroom had to be dismantled. He taught himself how to fix things by ‘feel’ instead. If a household appliance broke down it would be given to Arthur. He would sit on his bed and take the appliance apart, then repair it and patiently put it back together again, piece-by-piece. Not one to be idle, Arthur took up wood carving as well. He taught himself how to make furniture, entirely by feel.
We were at her bedside when Nan died in 1997, in hospice. After Gran died, I discovered that she’d left me one of Arthur’s hand-carved pieces, an exquisite footstool with corkscrew-shaped struts. It's a tangible piece of our family history. One day, I will leave this heirloom to my children. And tell them the story.