Sunday, 14 February 2016

saint edna

One hundred years ago today, a girl was born in Elswick, in the west end of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to Septimus and Eliza Holmes. The ninth of eleven children, the girl was given the Christian names Edna May Valentine. When she was old enough, she attended the nearest school, the one located at the junction of Scotswood Road—mentioned in the well-known Geordie folk song Blaydon Races—and George’s Road.

Edna must have been an outstanding pupil, because at one point in her school career she was awarded a medal by the local newspaper that is inscribed ‘for achievement’. Sadly, however, the educational opportunities for working-class girls were nonexistent in the 1920s, and Edna left school in 1928, aged 12.

Nothing is known about Edna’s life between leaving school and moving to Penrith, a small market town about 60 miles west of Newcastle, circa 1936, to take up employment as a housemaid in Lockholme, a large mansion on one of the town’s so-called ‘new streets’. In doing so, she was following in the footsteps of two older sisters, Marie and Gladys, who had moved to Penrith a few years earlier.

Edna around the time she met Robert.

Within a few months, Edna had met Robert, and they went out together for two years, but eventually Edna decided to break off the relationship because Robert hadn’t got around to proposing marriage. Then, when the Second World War started the following year, Edna returned to Newcastle to work in a munitions factory with her younger sister Doreen.

However, Edna was back in Penrith towards the end of 1943, where one day she ran into Robert’s sister Mary and mother Mary Jane while out walking. Naturally, she enquired after Robert, and Mary was happy to bring her up to date (Robert had been in uniform since the outbreak of war), but Mary Jane wanted to move on as quickly as possible. She had been a member of the Dennisons, a prosperous local family until a sawmill it owned outside town burned down, uninsured, in 1893. Consequently, she would have been used to a degree of deference when growing up in the 1880s, and a common domestic servant simply wasn’t good enough for her precious son.

Robert’s sister Mary.

Nevertheless, Mary reported this encounter to Robert, who immediately wrote to Edna, and they were married in Newcastle six months later, two days before the start of the D-Day landings.

Wedding day, 1944.

Once Robert had been demobbed following the end of the war, the couple spent a lot of time planning their future. Edna and Robert had started their married life by living with Mary Jane, which was not a comfortable arrangement, especially for Edna, but they had finally decided to move to Chislehurst in Kent to live near Edna’s oldest sister, Mabel, and her husband when tragedy struck.

Mary had married around the same time as Edna and Robert, and in 1945 she became pregnant. The doctors predicted complications and strongly advised that delivery of the baby take place at the county infirmary, but this was 18 miles away, which Mary Jane, in typically selfish fashion, considered ‘inconvenient’. Consequently, Mary was booked into a private clinic in Penrith whose facilities were woefully inadequate, and Mary died two days after giving birth.

Robert, always something of a mummy’s boy, now felt that he couldn’t leave his mother (there were no other siblings), so the proposed move to Kent was abandoned and new plans discussed. Meanwhile, Edna had also become pregnant, and she gave birth to her first son in 1946. Both Marie and Gladys opened guest houses in town after the war, and that was an option also considered by Edna and Robert, but eventually they decided to use their savings to buy into an electrical partnership (Robert had acquired the skills of an electrician during the war, latterly as a member of Eisenhower’s propaganda team).

Unfortunately, this meant that they would have to continue to live with Mary Jane, who had some bizarre ideas about bringing up children that had a negative impact on Edna’s young son. Edna therefore registered her name for a council house, but accommodation was in short supply in the austere years of the late 1940s, and it was not until 1950 that somewhere became available. This somewhere turned out to be a former military camp on the outskirts of town. Mary Jane was outraged.

However, within twelve months, the couple were offered a brand new house on a newly built estate, and once out on their own they had felt able to add to their family. Another son was born in 1952, and for the next five years life was idyllic. Then, in 1957, Robert sustained a compound fracture of the ankle while out picking mushrooms, which, ironically, he hated (he was picking for the rest of the family). This would be a routine injury to treat nowadays, and it should have been in 1957, but the NHS was then less than ten years old, and patients simply accepted what they got: doctors, no matter how incompetent, were still regarded as demigods. It was Robert’s misfortune to be treated by an orthopaedic surgeon with a county-wide reputation for butchery, and he was in and out of hospital for the next four years. He never fully recovered.

Edna had no choice but to take a number of cleaning jobs to support the family, and the couple’s precarious financial position was aggravated by the unsympathetic attitude of the senior partner in the electrical business, who accused Robert of ‘swinging the lead’. When Robert was finally discharged from hospital, he had no alternative but to set up in business for himself if he wanted to continue to work as an electrician. Fortunately, his workmanship was well known and highly regarded in town, so he wasn’t short of work. However, he was no businessman, and when a major building firm collapsed a few years later, as an important subcontractor Robert was also declared bankrupt.

During the turmoil of these years, Edna was sustained by her Christian faith, although there must have been tensions, because Mary Jane was a member of the same church. Then, a year after Robert’s bankruptcy, it was becoming more and more obvious that Mary Jane was developing Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer look after herself. Edna was advised by family and friends, who knew how nasty her mother-in-law was towards her, to allow Mary Jane to be placed in a nursing home, but she insisted that Mary Jane come to live with her family, even though this involved the disruption of moving to a larger house.

The family had to endure this spiteful woman for seven years, but when the old thrag finally died in 1973, Edna and Robert entered their ‘golden years’. For Edna, the highlight of these years came in 1983, when their older son was working in Hong Kong. A house came with the job, so if Edna and Robert wanted to visit all they would have to pay for would be the airfares. Their younger son happily underwrote those, but Robert decided that the flight would be too arduous, so Edna went with Doreen. The trip must have made an impression, because whenever the two got together thereafter (Doreen still lived in Newcastle), the talk was always about “when we were in Hong Kong”.

Edna continued to be a leading member of her local congregation, although it broke her heart to leave behind the Beckside Chapel—coincidentally built by Robert’s great uncle Alf Grisenthwaite—which she had attended for half a century, when the United Reform Church decided that it didn’t need two places of worship in such a small town. Sadly, both her sight and her hearing had begun to deteriorate from the mid-1980s, and her beautiful copperplate handwriting, which everyone commented on, became spidery and almost unreadable. She would eventually become profoundly deaf, and she was also registered as ‘totally blind’, although this didn’t stop her trailing around town in all weathers. When she herself was over 80, she was once asked why she did this. This was her reply: “Someone has to help the old folks!”

Edna’s final year was marked by a series of minor strokes, the last of which left her unable to recognize anyone, even Robert and her two sons, so when she finally passed away in 2002, it was almost a relief to the family. At her funeral, people queued up to relate Edna’s individual acts of kindness. Friends of both her sons recalled how they would frequently end up at Edna’s house after the pubs had closed, and she would immediately set about preparing coffee and sandwiches for everyone. Edna always wanted everyone to be happy.

Edna at the age of 80.

This potted biography of Edna doesn’t do her justice. However, I should add that Edna is the only individual I’ve ever known personally to whom I would append the adjective ‘saintly’. Edna May Valentine Hodgson was my mother.

7 comments:

  1. Best wishes to your mother. I enjoyed reading her story.

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  2. This is excellent. Is it all your own research? It deserves a wide audience in Penrith.

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    Replies
    1. No real research Peter. This is all stuff I knew, with some guesswork around early dates. I do hope that people from Penrith who knew Edna will read this.

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  3. She has kept doing charity work, even though she was partially blind. She would take woollen yawns from the local charity shop such that she could make square patchworks so that they were joint to form a bigger piece of sewing work for sale. Her kind heartedness has been well remembered even now.

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