Memoirs of O. G. Steel (Nee Meredith).

Below are some memoirs of my paternal grandmother, Olive Steel, which she had written out many years ago on 12 pages of A4. While making preparations to clear and sell my late father’s house the envelops containing these writings had come to light; my father had written on the outside of the envelope; “NANS NOVEL FOR FAMILY CONSUMPTION.”

I started to transcribe the writings more or less as she had written them but many years of writing (technical stuff) for a living soon took over and I began to put things into what I considered to be sensible sentences and paragraphs as Olive hadn’t seen fit to do so, she had just written as things came to her I suppose. All the capitalisations and words in quotation marks are hers.

Memoirs of O. G. Steel (Nee Meredith).

Born in 1902, I was youngest-but-one of ten children, 4 boys & 6 girls. We lived in the pretty village of Colesbourne midway between Cheltenham and Cirencester. My Father was groom to Squire Elwes who lived in ‘the Mansion’ employing some 12 peasants, he owned the whole village including the Church, School, Pub and included tenant farmers. I had the most wonderful parents although I didn’t realise it at the time, my Mother always seemed to be working, she was very house-proud everything was scrupulously clean, and we each had our jobs to do before we went to school such as cleaning the knives or fetching buckets of water from the brook, enough to last through the day, as of course there was no tap water in those days.

My 3 eldest sisters had gone north and were apprenticed to dress making and millinery and were married eventually and only came home about once a year to see my parents. I had little affection for them as they seemed more like aunties than sisters to me. My Father was a good living man and was a Church Warden and was much respected in the village. His name was Thomas Meredith a good Welsh name, but to everyone except my Mother he was Mr. Meredith never Thomas, He was a very reserved man, carried himself very erect almost a military bearing about him. I was very close to him, and looked forward to Sunday when I would go hand in hand with him to Church on Sunday morning. He looked very elegant in his black suit and ‘Homburg’ hat a heavy silver chair hung across his waistcoat, he was in great demand for funerals as he was one of the few men in the village who had a black suit, and funerals were very frequent, not only the old but children died in infancy.

My Mother acted as ‘Midwife’ and always seemed to be delivering babies or laying out someone that had passed away. I was very used to seeing ‘death’ as I nearly always accompanied my Mother on such visits. She was a wonderful nurse although of course she had had no formal training, the people in the village trusted her, when anyone was ill or a birth was imminent, they would send for her, whatever time of day or night she would go to them, and seldom did she go empty handed, some ‘Mutton’ broth or an egg or two, perhaps, my youngest brother and I shared an egg on occasions so that Mother could give one to someone more in need of it.

We kept a lot of chickens and always had a couple of pigs in the sty, I couldn’t bear the thought of one being killed to eat and I was always missing when this was about to happen. Huge sides of bacon were hung on the beam in the kitchen to smoke and a ham would be kept for Christmas, the offal would be given to some of the more needy people and Mother made lots of brawn which I detested, and lard with lots of rosemary, I was rather fond of that and as Mother said, it was very good for my chest. There was terrible poverty all around, compared to most of the villagers we were very well off. As I said before we had chickens and pigs, and my Father also had an enormous ‘allotment’ of which he was very proud as he frequently won prizes at the local shows with his vegetables.

I was always passionately fond of flowers, wild or garden varieties as they were all beautiful to me. I well remember ‘show’ time was coming round and my Father had a lovely row of runner beans in flower. I thought they were gorgeous, and I got the scissors, cut them all off, put them in a jug on the dresser, when my Mother saw them she was furious, ‘I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes when your Father comes home.’ she said, ‘those would have been his prize beans and you have ruined them.’ I was beginning to feel very fearful now, realising the dreadful deed I had done, my Mother thought I should prepare myself for a good hiding. I went into the garden to await Father’s return home, and a few minutes later my Father was calling me in. He was normally a very quiet and placid man, I had never seen him so angry as this, but he didn’t smack me, but sent me to bed without any tea, in fact he hadn’t ever smacked any of us, we knew he meant what he said. Morning came and all was forgiven, but I must never touch anything in his garden or allotment ever again, and I didn’t.

It was customary for Mrs Elwes to ‘call’ on people in the village such as the sick or someone who had suffered a bereavement, my Father used to drive her in the carriage and pair or a brougham. He wore knee breeches, high boots and top hat with a ‘cockade’.
We were told that we must always curtsy to Mrs. Elwes, coming home from school this particular day I met her returning from one of her visits and I did not curtsy and the next day at school, Miss Crompton, our ‘governess’ called me out in front of the class and gave me two good strokes with her pointer on the hand for not doing so. Miss Crompton came from the north, Southport I believe but she had no northern accent I am glad to say, I disliked anything that reminded me of the north and my sisters for whom I had little affection, there being such an age gap between us. They seemed more like aunties than sisters.

I suppose I would be about 12 years old and there were rumours of war going around, I must say we were rather excited about it, not then old enough to realise the ghastly consequences that was to follow. I couldn’t understand why my parents were so concerned about the outbreak of war which now looked imminent, until my Father said Harry (my brother) would be the first to be called up as he was a regular soldier serving in India. He had joined the 6th Enniskillen Dragoons a ‘crack’ regiment and had the honour of being one of King George’s bodyguards when he was crowned Emperor of India in 1911.
My parent’s fears were justified for a letter had come from Harry to say he was coming home on furlough prior to being sent to France. Up to this time I hadn’t seen my brother so imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing him for the first time and sadly it was to be the last time too.

A knock on the door one night, Mother said ‘See who it is’, and I came face to face with a handsome 6ft 2 and very tanned soldier in full dress uniform, navy trousers with red stripe down the side, scarlet tunic, gleaming buttons, and spurs that jangled. I was speechless and rather frightened too at first, so this was my brother. I just wanted to be with him all the time, the days flew by and his furlough was at an end, it was time to say goodbye, my Mother tried to put a brave face on it, my Father too was very quiet and looked very sad.

The war was terrible in France, British and French soldiers being killed in their thousands. We had not heard from Harry at all, and we didn’t even know if in fact he was sent to France but one morning as I was going to school the postmistress was hurrying down the garden path. Here is a telegram she said, I took it and ran in to give it to Mother who told me to open and read it, she had slumped into her chair preparing herself for the worst, telegrams always meant bad news. I read ‘The war office regrets to Inform you that you son, Harry Meredith of the 6th Enniskillen Dragoons has been killed in action.’ We learned later that he was instantly killed in the bloody battle of Ypres and his comrades had buried him under a lilac tree, I shall never forget that day, I wanted to stay at home but Mother insisted that I go to school as I was to take an exam that day but I did nothing but cry and cry and the governess seeing that I was in no condition to take an exam sent me home.

My other three brothers had now enlisted, they were given only a few weeks training before being sent to the front. Our village now had only older men or those not eligible to join up. My Father was very distressed when told he was too old to join up as it was his wish to fight with his sons. Everywhere there was great patriotism and also great sadness, practically every family had suffered some loss. News from the front was scarce, we had to be content with ‘field post cards’ which simply said, ‘I am well’ or ‘I am wounded’, no address of course ‘somewhere in France’ was all they were allowed to write. If we were lucky enough to have a letter it had to be passed by ‘Censor’ which meant that there wasn’t much that was readable, however we didn’t mind the impersonal ‘Field Post Card’, it was the sight of a ‘Telegram’ everyone dreaded.

We had heard that my eldest brother was missing believed killed, but as long as there was no confirmation, we all hoped that he was alive or perhaps a prisoner, the agony of not knowing was telling on my Mother, meanwhile my second brother Alf had been wounded but not too serious, we all looked forward to him coming home on sick leave. When he did, the fourteen days with him passed very quickly, he had some very gruesome tales to tell of the suffering of soldiers especially in the dread trenches.
The sad day came later, we had to say goodbye to him not knowing if we should see him again. Now my youngest brother was wounded and in a ‘field hospital’ not very bad so he would not be coming home on sick leave. My parents were desperately worried about ‘Arthur’ my eldest brother, still no news of him, was he killed or prisoner in some German camp, we didn’t know, we could only wait and hope.

I was 14 now and the war went raging on and things were getting very bad now, my parents decided that I should leave school and go out to earn my living. A suitable place was found for me as ‘Tweeny’ in a large country house 3 miles away so I wouldn’t be too far from home, but first my Mother had to take me to see the ‘Lady’ of the house and hoped that she would approve of my appearance, then she wanted to know about my school record, could I read and write properly? That being so she would also like a letter from the Vicar as to my general character, this being satisfactory I was engaged for £12 a year, one day off a month, every other Sunday providing I went to church either in the morning or evening. As to my uniform I must have 2 blue print morning dresses, 1 black alpaca afternoon dress, 2 morning aprons, 2 fancy afternoon aprons and caps to match, 2 pairs of black stockings and 1 pair of ‘Ward’ shoes, these had rubber soles so as not to make a noise.

It was a large rambling old house, I was shown to my room which was at the top of the house, the attic in fact, it was so cold, bare boards, just a small rug by my bed, I cried myself to sleep that night. Beatrice the cook would call me at 6 a.m. and told me my duties. I must clean and blacklead the range, light the fire in readiness for Beatrice to cook breakfast which usually consisted of oatmeal porridge, eggs, bacon, mushrooms etc. and a large ham on a side table, home made bread or scones. I had never seen so much good food; it was served in silver entrée dishes and silver tea & coffee pots on huge silver trays. Rosie the Parlour Maid having taken breakfast in, it was my job to ring the gong and in due course the Master & Mistress would come down and ring the bell for prayers. Cook entered first then Rosie and I brought up the rear. This happened again at night after dinner whether it was anyone’s day off or not made no difference, we must be in for prayers at 9 o’clock.

The mornings were spent in the kitchen with Cook and very hard work it was, I hated preparing all the vegetables and endless scrubbing and cleaning. Most of the utensils were copper, again this was very hard work, they were so heavy I could barely lift them. My duties for the rest of the day were with Rosie whom I liked very much. I was now in my afternoon black dress and frilly apron ready to answer the door to callers of which there were many in those days. If for any reason the Mistress didn’t want to see anyone I had to say, ‘Mrs Sanger is not at home today.’ I must confess this puzzled me and they would leave their calling cards which I placed in a silver tray in the hall, then at some future day she would possibly invite them to afternoon tea which was taken in the drawing room by the Ladies only. Tea was quite a meal, usually dainty sandwiches scones, shortbread, petit-fours, Indian & China tea.

It was coming up to Rosie’s ½ day off and I would have to do the dinner by myself, I was terrified, I laid the table before Rosie went out so that she could check that I had done it correctly. Rosie was very kind to me and did her utmost to put me at ease. ‘Now don’t forget,’ she said, ‘to put down on the right and pick up from the left-hand side.’ And when there was guests, I must serve first the Lady sitting on the Master’s right-hand.
At 7 o’clock I would ring the dressing gong, hat gave them ½ an hour to dress, dinner being at 7-30 when I would ring the gong once more. The soup would be ladled from a huge ‘Tureen’ then would follow the main course usually game or horse perhaps followed by a ‘sweet’ which was put in front of the Mistress after a savoury.

I would clear the entire table for dessert, I hated doing this I felt the Mistress’s eyes were following me around the table. A decanter of Port would be put in front of the Master, and I would place a fruit board on which there was a finger bowl half filled with water and a rose petal floating on the top in front of each person and place a huge bowl of fruit on the table. The meal over the Ladies would retire to the drawing room while the Gentlemen were left to have their Cigars & Brandy etc. My day was nearly over, I did hope I had done everything Rosie had told me, washing up all done, silver locked away in the ‘Safe’. The master rings for prayers after which they say goodnight to each of us in turn.

Now I could go to bed up to my cold bedroom, how tired I was, never mind, I was going to have a half day soon and would be going to see my Mum & Dad and hear news of my brothers. I had a very old bicycle which my sister Elsei had no further use for so I cycled home and how lovely it was to get out of those swirling skirts if only for a short time. There is still no news of Arthur, my parents are now convinced that he is dead, although the War Office decline to confirm it. The war in France is quite dreadful now, our young soldiers were being sent out to the front with a few weeks training and thousands were being slaughtered. Battles like ‘Ypres’, the ‘Somme’, ‘Passchendaele’ were some of the bloodiest of the war, few survived.

I enjoyed my quiet half day at home. I had to be ‘in’ by 9 p.m., at that time there were many Australian and New Zealand soldiers camping in the village, my Father was reluctant to let me return alone, he walked the 3 miles pushing my ‘bike’ and saw me safely in then he had to turn and walk the 3 miles back home. Xmas was not far off, I wondered if I would be allowed home, my Mother thought that I was ready for a parlour maid’s job now and after Xmas she would start looking for a suitable post for me.

Xmas morning arrived, Cook had asked me to give a ‘dust around’ the hall before going into prayers, there was a pile of Xmas presents piled up on the hall table, my eyes alighted on the top one, my name was written on it, ‘To Olive, best wishes from Mr & Mrs Sanger.’ I couldn’t believe it, what could it be? I had never had a Xmas present before. Prayers over we were asked to come into the great hall to receive an Xmas present. I was so excited I nearly forgot to say ‘Thank you ma’am’ and ‘Thank you Sir’ and hurried into the servant’s hall and unwrapped my gift, which turned out to be a black alpaca dress length which I was to take home for Mother to have made up for me, I was so disappointed.

I stayed with Mrs. Sanger for 3 years and Mother obtained a post as a Parlour Maid for me for which I was to receive £18 a year. This was in Cheltenham which I was very pleased about as my sister Elsei was a cook there in Montpellier Avenue, I would be just up the road in Montpellier Parade so I would be able to go out with her on my half-day. I was now in the employ of Col. & Mrs Mainwaring in a lovely Regency Terrace house, where most of the ‘posh’ people lived, (alas they are all offices today). Mrs Mainwaring was a very nice lady, very tall and always elegantly dressed. The Col. who was a retired army officer was very grumpy and drank a lot, I had the feeling that they weren’t very happy as they occupied separate bedrooms, they had 2 daughters who attended Cheltenham Ladies College.

I was getting more money now so that I was able to send some home to Mother, I liked the parlour work and was glad to have finished with all the scrubbing & cleaning. I was provided with a pair of cotton gloves for silver cleaning as it was important to keep my hands in good order when I was waiting at table. I didn’t have to get up until 7 a.m. now which was an improvement, my first duty was to open up the house then take Mrs Mainwaring early morning tea. Then take the Colonel’s showering water in a coffee can, ask him what suit he would be wearing that day and lay it out for him in his dressing room with a clean shirt. I was responsible for sponging and pressing all his suits. Likewise the House-maid used to attend to the Lady’s clothes.

The food was not as good or plentiful as Mrs Sanger’s but there was a ‘War’ on, things were getting very bad & no one complained. My sister Elsei and I used to go to ‘St. James’ station on our half-day to see the ‘Hospital Trains’ come in. The station would be packed with people hoping to see a friend or relative perhaps. What a pitiful sight it was, some had lost limbs some were stretcher cases, some blind. They were the lucky ones; they had come home.

On my first Sunday off, Elsei thought we should go home as we had not heard any news. We had saved up some of our rations to take with us. We found Mother very upset as my brother ‘Harry’s’ belongings had just been returned, there was his wallet and my Mother’s last letter from home, a photo of a pretty girl. His medals didn’t arrive for a long time after, 3 in all. My Father had written to the ‘War office’ again but still no news of Arthur, he had been married only a few months previous to his enlistment, we all felt terribly sorry for his young wife.

Col. & Mrs Manwaring had been used to entertaining on a lavish scale, it was noticeable that invitations were scarce and Domestic Servants were hard to come by as they were all rushing to work in ‘Munitions’ where good money was to be had or go into Nursing. My Father would not allow us to go into Munitions or do Factory work.

A letter from home to say Alf had been wounded once again but more severely as he was being kept in hospital at ‘Rouen’ until he was well enough to travel home. He eventually came home and was sent to Military Hospital in Cheltenham where he died from head wounds. I was so fond of him. My parents had now lost 2 sons killed and 1 missing and Frank, the youngest still fighting ‘Somewhere in France’. Alf was given a military funeral and buried in Colesbourne Church yard, and so one more name to be added to the ‘Roll of Honour’.

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