An Interwar Love Story
One family member I was close to, particularly as a troubled teenager (is there any other kind?) was my paternal grandmother, Elsie May Williams, née Bent, known to me as Nan.
Elsie was an interesting, intelligent woman. She had led a somewhat colourful life in interwar London. She often used to tell me of her exploits with my grandfather Percy, whom I never got to meet, as he died of cancer in the late 1950s.
Percy was a solicitor’s clerk, a short, dapper, dark-haired, barrel-chested man and well … a very naughty boy, to put the most favourable slant on it.
Elsie was the daughter of William and Julia Bent, the offspring of two agricultural labouring families from the Hertfordshire-Essex border, the Bents and the Batts. She was a good scholar and won a place at grammar school, but wasn’t allowed to take up the scholarship; this she ascribed to her mother’s spite.
She always described her mother as a negative force in her childhood: a petite, pretty, dark-eyed woman who took delight in thwarting her ambitions and mocking her big frame. Her father William was a large, affable, ineffectual man. Elsie left home as soon as she was able, and had little or no contact with her mother thereafter.
Fourteen years younger than Percy, Elsie met him in 1920s Hampstead. The shy, bookish ingénue from Hertfordshire, in her late twenties and already ‘on the shelf’ in that hateful expression, was rather taken with this self-confident, married man, father of two, an ex-RAF pilot. Percy took her under his wing (excuse the pun!) and introduced her to the racy, literary, Bohemian circles of Hampstead and the City.
She told me of her chats on Hampstead Heath with a nice young bookshop assistant, Eric Blair, who came to be better known as George Orwell. Nan wasn’t one to embroider a story, so it was certainly true. She preferred Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Road to Wigan Pier to Animal Farm and 1984, by the way. Social realism was her preferred literature; watching the ballet from the cheap seats up in ‘the gods’ her favourite escape from reality.
She also told me of her and Percy’s alcohol dependency and how her doctor prescribed smashing bottles in the backyard as a stress reliever. Percy liked to burn the candle at both ends, and Elsie often got burned too, as collateral damage.
Still, life with Percy was fun. They made a little love nest for themselves in Hampstead and were on the electoral register as Percy and Elsie Williams. To all appearances a married couple.
They later moved to Chancery Lane in the City of London, where Percy had his office. There they settled into a cosy domestic existence, collecting antiques with the dream of one day opening a little shop, while Percy went about his legal work and Elsie wrote newspaper columns under a nom de plume (which I have sadly never discovered).
All this came to an abrupt end in the London Blitz, when their flat, their possessions and their dreams went up in flames one dark night in spring 1941, ignited by a German incendiary bomb. They moved to south Hertfordshire and rented a secluded cottage.
My father, their only child, was born the year after, so the quiet country air clearly suited them. The latter years of the War were otherwise uneventful for Elsie, Percy and baby Christopher, apart from the time a V1 ‘Doodle Bug’ came down in nearby Aldenham Reservoir.
Percy became a claims investigator for Prudential Insurance. In his leisure time he indulged his passions for angling, art and practical tinkering, and he and my Dad used to spend days in the garden shed building model aircraft to fly. He probably encouraged Dad to build that rocket motor that blew up the shed, and nearly blew up Dad too. 1950s boys’ toys were build-it-yourself and occasionally lethal.
By the time my Dad was 14, Percy, a prolific pipe smoker, was slowly but inexorably dying of lung cancer … and stillmarried to his first wife, Charlie, from whom he had been estranged for 30 years. He and Elsie slipped away to London and got hitched at the Westminster register office, giving their address as a hotel in Belgravia. Covering their tracks as best they could.
Percy’s entry on the marriage certificate reads ‘Percy Edward Williams, bachelor’. Percy Williams, you sly old dog.
Percy died at home three days after Christmas, 1957.
Percy Edward Williams and Elsie May Bent were a great 20th-century love story, I think. Nan had a difficult time with Percy, but she adored him, and never really got over his death.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy being the offspring of a great love story, and my Dad suffered a lot. Yet he remained a decent, kind man all his life. I miss him very much.