Meet the Relative – Great Aunt Sue


Emily Susan Stevens was born on 24th April 1882 at Ringmer in Sussex. Ten years later, her baby sister, my Granny, was born.

I never knew Sue – she died in 1944 so I shall let my dad tell of what he knew.

In saying that I have little memory of Aunt Sue before about 1930 I am reporting my memory, not facts. I am sure she came to visit us in Bexhill and there is a photograph of her with me, aged about 3, on the lawn at 62 Wick Street drawing still lemonade from one of those big stone jars.


She was unmarried and lived in Brighton. I suspect that a boy friend had been killed in the 1st world war and that his name may have been Macnamara because that name often cropped up in conversations between my elders. She was lively and attractive but decidedly on the plump side. I do not know how she lived but the impressions remain that she had some domestic function which was not quite that of a maid and that the Macnamara family came into it. After she came to live in Ringmer to look after aged parents she earned a living by working with and for the headmaster of the local school (Mr.Self) on an unusual project for the time. Many of his pupils in that sparsely populated area walked considerable distances to school relying on what they brought for midday meals which were usually unsatisfactory in quality even if not in quantity. Self and Aunt Sue set up a ‘kitchen’ in an outbuilding and equipped it with one copper, two 3-burner Valor oil stoves and a sink. They worked out a menu and bought food. Older girls acted in turn as kitchen and scullery maids; it was regarded as instruction in domestic science. At the end of morning school other children acted as servers. Meals were eaten at desks; there was nowhere else. Sue’s modest wage was the only labour cost and meals were so cheap that even poor families took them. I cannot remember the figure but I remember that my necessarily cost-conscious parents thought they were a good buy. I do not know that this pioneer venture, 20 years before an official school meals service, has ever been written up.


In 1932 Sue, aged 50, married widower Percy Ford and moved to 1 Elm Tree Cottages, adjoining Ringmer School – a service cottage that went with Percy’s job as the local roadman and clearly convenient for Aunt Sue. It is still there with little change except that the elm has gone. No. 2 was occupied by the policeman and still is. We went to the wedding in a hired car and from this I learnt the route and was then prepared to cycle over from time to time. There is a photograph of me and a school friend (Jimmy Gordon) with our bikes in front of the elm tree. Apart from the journey I have only one memory of the wedding – there was a pretty girl of about my age from the Ford side. I remember nothing about her except that she was Jennifer – a name I had never met except in poems or historical works and it fascinated me. A bit of that fascination remained 35 years on when I met the young lady I subsequently married, (not that being called Jennifer was the only attraction).


We spent one Christmas there – 1935 or 36. I had never spent a Christmas in wholly rural surroundings; Bexhill was more like a suburb. I enjoyed the experience which was also my first experience of a full moon as a practical asset rather than a decorative feature when there are street lights. My specific memories are both about food. I was disappointed to learn that we were to have beef for Christmas dinner. We had beef at home on ordinary Sundays and I looked for poultry or at least pork for Christmas. I changed my mind when it was served. Whereas beef in Bexhill meant small rolled joints, this was an aitch bone almost too heavy to lift which Percy had chosen on the hoof. It was already cooking before breakfast and it was a gastronomic treat. It was served garnished with, among other things, a ‘game bird’. I wanted to know if this was a pheasant or a partridge but nobody could say. It was pointed out that it could hardly be either of these preserved species. I never heard what species it was and as I am now the sole survivor from that Christmas dinner I suppose I shall never know! On Boxing Day we made our way to Firle for tea with the Toms family before returning to Bexhill. (Christmas festivities could not be prolonged in my childhood because days off meant no pay; there was always this negative side to Christmas and Bank Holidays.) That Christmas also marked my peak as a practical joker. I caught my cousin Julia (Hughes, see below) with a dribble glass and my cousin May Toms, wife of Frank, with an ink blot which I placed on a white linen table cloth as tea was being laid at Firle. Beside it I arranged an overturned ink bottle,, the stopper was still in place but nobody noticed. When May saw it she screamed and dashed to the scullery for a wet cloth. When she discovered the nature of the blot she attacked me with the wet cloth which was uncomfortable but worth it. My sister stayed once or twice with Aunt Sue who had a soft spot for her. I never did, though I made several visits by bike. The last time I saw her was in 1942 (I think) when with the girl friend I later married I took a days outing by bus from Tonbridge to Heathfield and Ringmer. I am glad Dimp met Aunt Sue – a bit of continuity between old contacts and new ones.

Aunt Sue died in July 1944 having been ill for some time with cancer complicated when she fractured a femur by falling in the garden. I could not get to the funeral: my mother and sister went and my sister inherited a few of her things including her sewing machine.

Percy survived her. I never saw him again but I heard of his death in the 50s from Aunt Nellie.

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