Esther Alice Knowles was born March 22, 1912 in the coal mining village of Hednesford, Staffordshire. Her parents were John Henry and Esther Knowles. John Henry Knowles was a collier, which is to say a coal miner.
Mum was the eleventh of thirteen children, with five older sisters (Eliza, Laura, Sally, Nell, Win) and five older brothers (Bill, Joe, Jack, Harold and Ernest). She was named "Esther" after her mother and "Alice" after a neighbor and friend of her mother's. Her older brothers and sisters played a big part in her upbringing — especially her sister Nell, with whom she was very close.
Mother was bookish and did well at school, but there was no money for her to stay beyond the minimum leaving age, which I think was 14. She therefore went into domestic service. She was assistant children's nurse to a wealthy family who lived at Atherstone Hall, a large country house in Warwickshire, twenty miles ESE of Hednesford. She did some other uncredentialed nursing work, too, I believe.
Esther Alice seems to have been an outgoing and popular young woman. Several photographs survive which Muriel, asked recently to look over them, could only identify as "Tess with some feller" — a different feller in every case. One of these fellers was named Jack Morgan, and my mother seems to have been seriously attached to him. However, he died suddenly from rheumatic fever and she was broken-hearted over it. Half a century later, when I drove her to visit Muriel, Win and Harold, she pointed out a street where the mourning store had been, "where we went to buy black for Jack Morgan's funeral." (In those days — it would have been around 1930 — there were stores that just sold mourning attire; an interesting comment on comparative mortality rates then and now.)
In 1932, at the age of 20, Mother became a student nurse in Wolverhampton at £18 a year, plus room and board. Her recollections of her nursing training made it sound like a U.S. Marines boot camp. Discipline was tremendous. In part, no doubt, this was because most of the senior nurses had done their own training on the battlefields of the Great War. (See Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth for insight into what this involved.) All bed linen was bleached, starched and changed daily. Daily inspections of the wards were carried out like a military parade: for example, all the open ends of the pillow-cases had to be facing the same way. "Sister Tutors" (the senior nurses in charge of training) were objects of terror, house surgeons were figures of reverential awe. Trainee nurses lived in a residential block known (very inaccurately, on Mum's testimony) as "Virgin Villas," guarded by unblinking concierges … And so on. Nursing at that time was not a job, and certainly not a profession: it was a vocation. "A nurse's work is to keep the patient clean and comfortable," said my mother.
Hospital work in the early 1930s, when Mother did her training, had not altogether shaken off the mentality of the pre-modern era, when hospital was a place where poor people went to die. Surgical procedures — the introduction of anesthetic was well within living memory — consisted mostly of cutting things out, and there were few other treatments for serious diseases. Antibiotics were very new. Hence, of course, the obsessive attention to cleanliness. Mum remembered the early years of penicillin: "It was a thick milky liquid. You had to use an extra wide needle to inject it, and the injection hurt the patient horribly." TB was widespread but incurable until the arrival of streptomycin in the late 1940s, and TB treatments amounted to little more than quackery. Most popular was the fresh air treatment, under which patients were put in wards open to the elements. Mum remembered brushing snow from the patients' blankets. Sepsis was routine; sputum, pus and feces the raw materials of a nurse's working day. If you asked Mother "What's the matter?" in any context, she was liable to reply: "It hasn't come to matter yet. When it does, I'll put a poultice on it."
This was a hard school for a dreamy, sentimental young woman. Before the age of twenty-five Mum had seen many people die — more than I shall ever see, I hope; more, probably, that most soldiers see in wartime. I recall her saying that she got inured to everything except the death of children. That she could never bear easily, and I think it was for this reason that she did every kind of nursing except pediatric. (I am not counting the uncredentialed spell at Atherstone Hall.)
During WW2 Mum worked for a while at an eye hospital in (I think) Wolverhampton. It was the time of the "black-out": houses, streets and cars were forbidden to show any light at night-time, to avoid helping German bombers get their bearings. One result of the black-out was that in the pitch dark streets people were constantly walking into lamp-posts and other obstacles. This made for a lot of eye injuries. So, of course, did war-time factory work, with splinters of wood and metal leaving various manufacturing processes at high speed.
Mum told me once that at one point in her training she had been walking up the driveway of the hospital when she was overcome by a feeling of connection and belonging: This is what I was meant to do; this is where I belong. I don't think that feeling ever left her. By the evidence of my own eyes, and by all the third-party accounts I have heard, she was an exceptionally dedicated and conscientious nurse.
Mum moved to Northampton when Dad's work took him there. She did several kinds of nursing work in the town. When I was very small, she worked at the General Hospital on Billing Road, and at the maternity hospital attached, whose name escapes me. Later she worked at Manfield orthopedic hospital, out at the north-eastern edge of the town. She also did a stint as a "district nurse," traveling around the town visiting invalids in their homes. This latter work supplied her with some hair-raising stories about the living conditions of the poorer townspeople.
Eventually, around 1955, she got a job in the geriatric wing of St Edmund's on the Wellingborough Road in Northampton. She worked there until she retired in 1972. At that point she was Assistant Matron, which is to say the second in command of the hospital's nursing staff, reporting to the Matron, one Mrs Aldritch (whose husband was at some point Mayor of Northampton). For a collier's daughter, starting out with little to expect from life but marriage and childbearing, this was no mean achievement.
[Until the very end of Mum's career the old nursing titles were used in English hospitals. The person in charge of a ward was "Sister"; the supervisor of a hospital's entire nursing staff was "Matron." Nowadays, in the interest of removing all human associations from hospital work (perhaps to ease the conscience of the ill-trained nurses as they leave us accumulating dirt in unmade beds), these titles have been translated into bureaucratic Esperanto: "Clinical Associate Grade 3A" and so on. Male nurses, by the way, were rare in Mum's day and were assumed to be homosexual unless they presented compelling evidence to the contrary.]
Mum planned an active retirement, traveling to Europe and, in 1976, to the United States, where I was living. She stayed with me a month, took tours of U.S. hospitals, and watched the Tall Ships sail up the Hudson River on the Bicentennial — July 4, 1976. She improved her house and garden, enjoyed all kinds of needlework, and helped raise her granddaughter Tessa when Judith came back to England in 1974.
In 1987 she was partly disabled by a stroke. She struggled on in the house at Friars Avenue for three years until July 20, 1990. Then she admitted herself to a residential-care home in Kingsthorpe, Northampton, where she died on December 4th 1998, aged 86.
The following character sketch is made up of random reminiscences. It complements the corresponding account of my Dad on his web page.
Habits: Mum was 33 when I was born, and close to forty in my earliest memories. Though not as set in her ways as Dad, she had regular habits that didn't change much across my childhood.
Like Dad she was an early riser; except that she would lie in bed reading for a while on Sunday mornings. When I was small I used to get into bed with her and try to read what she was reading: an Agatha Christie thriller, a woman's magazine, or one of the short-story magazines she liked (Argosy was a favorite).
Mum's health was good but she worried constantly about her weight. Though very slim as a young woman, she became plump in middle age. I never knew her to engage in any athletic activity (other than swimming, which she took up briefly in her later years), but she was fit and energetic. She smoked very occasionally, for social reasons. I think I saw Mum smoke a cigarette about five times in my life. The only alcoholic drink she ever took was sherry on social occasions, and perhaps port at Christmastime. She got self-consciously tipsy very quickly — I think a second glass of sherry did the trick. I never saw her any worse than slightly tipsy, though.
Mum was fortunate not only in having work that she liked and that suited her, but also in having a hobby she never tired of. This was needlework. Knitting; sewing; dress-making; embroidery; crochet-work; Mum was adept at all of them, and constantly at work. She said she knew lace-making, too, though it was "too much trouble." My sister and I have many items Mum made. In her last years her hands were crippled by arthritis, and after her stroke in 1987 she could no longer do any needlework at all, a thing that much grieved her. She kept her needlework things in a neat little box-table; but in her last years at Friars Avenue, she said, could not bear to look at it.
Attitude: Mum was by nature an optimist and a sentimentalist, in strong contrast to Dad on both counts. Her innate sentimentalism was much muted, though, by her long nursing experience. She had seen all the horrors and injustices of life at first hand. In fact, when I once mildly chided her for something she had said that I thought over-idealistic, she defended herself thus: "When I was working in Casualty [i.e. the Emergency Room] at the General, I saw a little girl who'd been run over by a lorry down in Kingsthorpe Hollow. The poor little thing's head had been crushed and her brains were hanging out. The mother was inconsolable. I've seen a lot of things like that — too many to have illusions about life."
Again in contrast to Dad, Mum was gregarious. She was a cheerful person, and quite charming. She would strike up conversations with strangers at bus stops and the like, a thing I never saw my father do. Mum enjoyed being among people, and easily got to like them. She had many friends, and in her retirement would go off on vacations with them. Most were ex-nurses like herself.
Her nursing career marked her very strongly. There is a Chinese idiom to the effect: "When he's spoken three sentences, you know what line of work he's in" (三句話不離本行). That was Mum. I think that when a youngster she had been dreamy and bookish. She once told me that as a child, she was never happier than when sitting under a tree reading a book. Nursing, however, gave her a brisker, more practical and earthy approach to life. There is in fact, I believe, a distinctly medical outlook on life: not unkind or callous, but … unillusioned. Something like that. You see it in writers who have themselves had medical training — Somerset Maugham, for example, and Chekhov.
When Mum got her nursing training, around 1930, there was not actually much that the medical profession could do for most patients. Anesthics were quite new, and antibiotics very new. (See above.) Most of a nurse's work just involved keeping the patients and their environment clean. This left Mum a bit obsessive about hygiene and cleanliness. The worst thing she would ever say about another woman was: "She keeps a dirty house."
Humor: Mum had a good sense of humor and enjoyed jokes, slightly "blue" for preference. She liked TV comedy shows: her great favorite was Eric Morecombe.
Here is Mum's favorite joke:
Q: What's the difference between a lonely Eskimo and a eunuch?
A: One is a frigid midget with a rigid digit. The other is a massive vassal with a passive tassel.
Nation and race: I never heard Mum express much interest in national affairs. Open-hearted and good-natured, and much influenced by the all-in-it-together mood of WW2, her normal mode of speaking about political and social topics was that we should all get along.
Although lacking any strong racial or national prejudices (unlike Dad), and friendly and courteous with everyone she met — including even Germans on our 1954 visit — Mum was a proud Englishwoman who deplored the demographic transformation of her country brought about by the foolish policies of postwar governments. In one of my last conversations with her, a few months before she died, she said: "I don't mind dying. At least I knew England when she was England."
Religion: Mum frequently spoke in a religious way: "I pray that …," "I'm blessed with …," "I hope God will …," and so on. She had been confirmed in the Church of England as a child, and kept her prayer book (a traditional confirmation gift) wrapped in tissue paper in the bottom drawer in the back bedroom. I believe my niece Tessa inherited it. Mum came to Sunday service with me once or twice when I was conducting my own religious explorations in my teen years — once at Hardingstone church, at least once at St. Mary's in Far Cotton — and my impression was that she quite enjoyed these services.
However, I never knew Mum go to church without being asked, or for some special occasion. Though no atheist, I don't think she believed in any Christian doctrine. She was vaguely Deist, but no more than that. In a conversation with her once about the afterlife, she expressed clear disbelief, saying: "No people were ever closer than I was to my Mum and Dad. Now they are both gone; and if they still existed somewhere, in some way, I'm sure they would have given me some indication of it."
Music: Mum's musical taste agreed pretty well with Dad's, though she was somewhat more receptive to post-WW2 developments, especially the classic movie musicals of the 1950s. I believe she could sing the entire score of Oklahoma!
Among singers her great favorite was the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (who was born precisely one month later than herself). Mum would sing "Che farò senza Euridice?" à la Ferrier with great feeling; I used to wonder if she was thinking of Jack Morgan.
At Mum's funeral service we had Ferrier's "Blow the Wind Southerly" played. (This was my sister's idea; a lovely touch, that caught me quite by surprise.)
Mum often sang around the house. She would also sing to us children, one on one, when we were infants. When I was very small (three or four years old — this was at 62 Friars Avenue) Mum would give me a bath on Sunday evening, then sit on the toilet pedestal with me on her knee, wrapped in a bath towel, and sing to me. I remember that towel quite vividly: It was striped in bright colors — red, yellow, green, blue. When later, in Scripture class, I read about Joseph's coat of many colors (Genesis 37.iii) I knew exactly what was meant. The songs were children's ditties, of which the only one I retain much memory of is Bill Bones' Hornpipe:
On a harbour wall, in a sailor hat,
Is an old, old man with an old grey cat;
And he dreams all day of the time he twirled
In a sailor's hornpipe round the world.
It was many a weary year ago
When he started off on nimble toe
For to win the prize of a silver pound,
He must dance the world around …
The recollection of this is so remote, so close to the event horizon, and so deep imbedded in a small child's recollection of his mother's warmth and love, that even to write about it 60-odd years later summons up the strongest emotions.
[Atherstone Hall was the seat of the Compton-Bracebridges, the union of two old — though not, so far as I can discover, armigerous — gentry and clerical families. The actual hall was obliterated by post-WW2 developments. It stood on the east side of the Sheepy Road just north of Atherstone, about where the road now crosses the A5 trunk road.
Local records show the Rev. Berdmore Compton (1820-1908) inheriting the hall in 1872 under the will of Charles Holt Bracebridge. The Rev. Compton's wife was formerly Agnes Priscilla Drummond. They had three children: Emily Agnes Compton, d. 1935, Frances Compton, d. 1918, and John Edward Compton-Bracebridge, 1859-1937.
I'd assume John Edward inherited the hall at the Rev. Compton's death in 1908, and was the patriarch of the place when Mum arrived around 1926 (in which year he would have turned 67).
John Edward Compton-Bracebridge had married Annie Louisa Easton (d. 1953) in 1882. There were four children from the marriage: Charles (1883-1924), Margaret (1885-1960), Mary (1887-1981), and James (1888-1980). Charles had died, aged 41, shortly before Mum showed up, and presumably the daughters, by then in their early forties, had been married off.
That leaves James — another Reverend — likely in residence with his father and mother. He had married Gwendoline Kinneir in 1915 and the couple had two children: Diana, b. 1916, and John, b. 1917. These kids would be aged nine, ten, or eleven when Mum took up her duties, so I'd guess these were her charges. If that's correct, she was hardly much older than they were.
Diana, the older child, seems to have left no issue. John married Greta Mary Bawden in 1945. They had a daughter, Susan Mary Compton-Bracebridge, b. 1947 (and so younger than me!) who married a Derek Strachan in 1968.]