Aunt Nellie serves tea

Aunt Nellie was definitely a character. My earliest memories of her date from around 60 years ago. Nellie (she was really my great aunt) was already over 70 by then.

To me she was a very old lady who sat by the range finely cutting runner beans which grew in the garden. She always had a smile on her face and from time to time an almost witch like cackle of a laugh would break out. She was kind and caring and seemed to have infinite wisdom. People who go travelling and who see this as the route to enlightenment will find this hard to believe. Nellie did not travel much at all – except for one visit to Switzerland when her employers took her as a maid, fifty years before anything in my memory.

She was born in 1880 and in 1905 she married Frank Toms. Both were working for ‘Lordy’ – Lord Gage of Firle Place. It seems the couple set out to do well for themselves. Frank had a steady job on the Firle Estate as engineer, driver, labourer or whatever was needed. As well as that he managed a big garden, kept bees, poultry and a pig so that food was cheap and plentiful. Nellie, as a married woman and a mother by 1906 had to work from home with jobs that could fit around family needs. Their house was alongside the main road from Brighton to Eastbourne so it had passing traffic. It was just the place for a small sweet and lemonade shop and a tea shop.

Nellie never knew when there would be customers so there was always a homemade cake available. For the summer season some tables and chairs were placed in the garden – handy for the earth closet which was in an out building.

Here we see a young Nellie serving tea to some unseen outside customers.


The shadow head in the foreground is probably Frank, taking the photo. I didn’t know him but all photos show him with a flat cap.

Nellie looks every inch the waitress, neatly turned out and with a welcoming smile. It would have been a lovely place for passers-by to stop and enjoy some refreshment although I gathered that the earth closet was not at all liked by some folk.

In the background we can see Frank’s wheelbarrow standing in front of the fenced off chicken enclosure. What with the paid jobs and managing the house, garden, family and livestock it would seem the couple had little time for leisure. But despite that and the limited personal experience of elsewhere, Nellie seemed to know everything.

When I knew her she still had a little side-line job based on passing trade. She was a parcels agent for Southdown Buses. People could leave parcels with her and she’d get them on the right bus for delivery and arriving parcels were dropped off for her.

What a fascinating life she led, from 1880 to 1970 with her adult life all spent in Firle in Sussex.


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