Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of a lovely lady, my Grandpa Briggs’s second wife Margery. It’s a bit of a story but I’ll try my best to stick to the short version. (Famous last words, I know.)
I turned 40 in June 2009, and though I didn’t notice no immediately alarming changes to my life I did add one new hobby to my list of interests, ancestry. Or I should say, I decided to resume the tracing of my family tree after a long layoff and thanks to setting up a profile ancestry.com I was not only able to expand my research in to the history of my surname but also delve into the more complicated bit and study my mother’s side of the family for the first time.
With her maiden name of Briggs, my mother was born to an English father and Greek mother. I knew virtually nothing of the Briggs side at all until one day out of the blue, mum was sent a cache of old photos of her dad Derek by her half-brother. The camp one.
So I finally got to see what my maternal grandfather looked like, and I was approaching my forties. I know right. Although we had never met, I suppose the mystery of the man added to the allure and it piqued may interest enough to get up that Ancestry profile online.
I called my parents to tell them what I’d discovered thus far.
“Oh, that’s a very middle aged thing to do,” Mum said when I told her I’d started climbing the family tree.
Dad was out so I asked her to pass him a message.
“Tell Dad he’s a quarter Welsh.”
At which point she collapsed into hysterics. I’m not kidding you, but I don’t think I’ve heard my own mother laugh as long and hard like that for decades.
I know they’re supposed to be the wooly butt of the Brit joke, but come on, is is that terrible to be Welsh? Really?
I was merely imparting a factoid based on how I’d discovered that Dad’s aunt Kim—who also happened to be owner of the Clapham house at 62 Tremadoc Road (see, even the street name was Welsh!), the only place my parents ever rented and thus, home for my first three years—was actually Dad’s aunt Cymraes Pafford—Kim for short—whose maternal Jones family hailed from Tenby on the Pembrokeshire coast.
Are you keeping up with the Joneses? Or the Tremadocs?
Bizarrely, as I discovered that Dad was a quarter Welsh it was also reported that Tom Jones, the Voice of the Valleys himself, was in fact three-quarters English. So is old Thunderballs family? With a name as ubiquitous as Jones I found it too time-consuming to work on an exact connection, though I did discover one of the Paffords married into the family of veteran English television presenter Malcolm Muggeridge, making him a cousin somewhat removed.
See, I knew I was going to do that tangential thing.
Back to Briggs then. We have a minor celeb on that side too: my mum’s cousin is the floaty free sprit folk singer Anne Briggs, whose fan club has included everyone from Ewan MacColl (Kirsty’s dad), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, who’s just covered two of her songs.
Strangely, divorce hardly ever occurred on my father’s side of the family, yet my maternal grandparents annulled their marriage when mum was 12 and my aunt Julia was six.
Mum hardly ever spoke about him. All I knew is that as a war photographer he’d met my gran Polymnia Lagouti while being stationed in Greece and after World War Two was over brought her over from Thessaloniki to his home turf of Nottingham, where they married and had their two daughters.
Despite now going by the name Paula Briggs, by all accounts Gran experienced racism, xenophobia, homesickness and depression. She hated the weather, loathed the food and wasn’t too enamoured by many of the inhabitants either. Sound familiar?
The few friends she had made were generally fellow “foreigners”. She came to the conclusion that the Brits were narrow-minded, generally unhappy people that were “always gossiping and talking about everyone behind their backs.” Pretty accurate so far.
The only other thing Mum told me was that he did so many disappearing acts that Gran was forced to hire a private detective to issue him with divorce papers. By which time he’d set up home with another woman. Cue his exit from the girls’ lives, enforced, I have no doubt, by my fiery Greek gran who had been snatched from the Mediterranean and brought to dull, grey England, post-war or otherwise.
As a result, my mum only saw her father once or twice after the divorce.
So when I asked her for info on her dad I knew I had to tread carefully. For a start, it felt like so long since he‘d been mentioned by name that I struggled to remember it.
Well, that’s a start.
“He was a year or two older than Mum and all his family were in Nottingham and Beeston. That’s it, really.”
I told my sister he was my next project and she sounded a lot more curious.
“Really? I wonder if Derek’s still alive.”
Then it occurred to me. My parents had me when they were young, as did my mum’s parents with her. By my reckoning, if he was alive he’d be in his early eighties. It was entirely possible.
I became obsessed about finding him, hoping there might even be some kind of reunion, even if Mum sounded distinctly disinclined. ‘That can change,’ I thought to myself.
Thing was, Briggs was a very common name in the Midlands. Pretty much local, in fact, so I hit a stumbling block. Too many Derek Briggs in 1920s Nottingamshire. Argh. I felt like I had a race against time, and wanted to find him before it was too late.
I went back to Mum, and told her I’d made no further progress. Was there anything else at all about him she could remember? Something distinguishing. A middle name? Other family members?
“Oh hang on, his birthday was Christmas Day. That I do remember.”
‘Hmmm, just like Annie Lennox, I said to no one but myself. ‘I went back to Ancestry and keyed in the magic numbers, excitedly. Expectantly, even.
Derek Edmund Briggs: born on 25 December 1926 in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire. Died on 17 March 1992 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, when he was 65 years old.
Damn. Shit. Bugger. Strangely, he died the same year as my paternal grandfather, though a lot younger. It’s funny, but I was more upset than Mum was when I phoned and told her the news.
“I’d be interested to find out if my Aunty Babs is still alive,” she said, dispassionately.
Once I had tracked Derek, I found that he had remarried straight after his divorce from my gran, and at the time of his death they had been living at an address in Wilmslow, not far from Macclesfield, where Joy Division’s Ian Curtis had also died 12 years before him.
His widow’s name was Margery and I couldn’t find anything to suggest she wasn’t alive. I was intrigued but wasn’t really sure how to proceed.
So, fast forward to July 2010, and having travelled to the Lancashire ‘seaside’ resort of Blackpool to catch a Pet Shop Boys concert in Chris Lowe’s hometown, as you do, I decided I would stop off at Wilmslow on the journey back to London, changing trains at a bustling Manchester Piccadilly.
If nothing else, I curious to see where my grandfather had lived. I’d heard Wilmslow was a nice area but, apart from being where Bletchley Park legend Alan Turing had died, I knew nothing about it other than it was part of Cheshire’s sought-after Golden Triangle, a leafy residential area of affluent towns and villages that includes Knutsford and the footballer belt of Alderley Edge, one-time home to the Beckhams and various Coronation Street actors.
With the celebrated Tatton Park the floral focal point, the parliamentary constituency of the area has also seen some high profile MPs occupy the seat, including Neil Hamilton (cough, cough), former Chancellor turned editor of the Evening Standard George Osborne and, doing the reverse, former BBC journalists Martin Bell (yay) and Esther McVey (nay), the latter arch Brexiteer and general right-wing harridan.
Indeed, as soon as I walked through Wilmslow town centre and caught sight of a Bang & Olufsen store I realised this was more high end than High Street.
First impressions: Hmmm, not bad.
So who lives in a place like this? I was about to find out.
I made my way to Newlands Drive and, as luck would have it, there was a pub called The Riflemans Arms just before you enter the road. I had started to get a little nervous so talk about perfect timing.
‘Dutch courage’ I said to myself. ‘Yes, that will do nicely.’
As I sat at the bar and sank a pint, I got talking to a lady who was intrigued by my accent.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Is it that obvious? Yes, I’m from London.”
And then I suppose the combination of nerves and beer took hold and I blurted out why I was making this particular pilgrimage. I even showed her some photos of my gran and the grandfather I never knew on my iphone.
She was fascinated by the 1950s fashions and general smartness of how they were dressed back then.
“So that’s your grandma? What a lovely looking woman. What happened to her?”
“She died of a heart condition at 54.”
“Oh, so young. How sad. And so your grandpa moved here, you say?
“Yes, but a long time before that. I never knew him. He was living in Newlands Drive and had a widow called Margery. I have no other information about her other than they were living at 31. I thought I’d go and see the house quickly on my way back to London.”
“Margery? That name rings a bell. I think you better speak to my husband Ernie. He’s just popped out, but he’ll be back in a minute. I’m Pam, by the way”
Lo and behold he was.
You know the score. Wife tells hubby a potted version of conversation then I get the introduction.
“Hello, I’m Ernie Savage. I hear you’re asking about Margery.”
“That’s right, yes. It probably sounds really weird, but as I was passing… She was married to my grandfather. Do you know what happened to her?”
“I sure do. I’m her gardener.”
“She’s still alive?!”
I tried not to look too shocked. Or ecstatic.
“Yeah, I did her garden the day before yesterday. I could take you to meet her, if you like.”
Well, in my apprehensive state that wasn’t a gift horse I was going to study dentally. I was ready when he was. We walked the two-minute journey to No.31 and Ernie knocked on the door.
An elderly lady opened the door and he told her that “This is Steve. He says your husband was his grandfather.”
Crikey, there really was no way to soft soap that. That was my introduction.
I have to say, she took it in her stride. And asked if I’d like to come in for a cup of tea.
Tea. Yup, the age-old beverage Brits still bond over. Who needs coffee at a time like this?
Margery explained that she had family staying, but was happy to talk for a bit.
It’s funny, because she didn’t look alarmed or even surprised. Almost like she expected a visit like this one day. Well, this was the day.
14 July 2010, to be precise.
Over tea and biccies, Margery told me that she met Derek when she was living in Hale and he in Sale.
I tried to keep a straight face.
She was a proper Cheshire Cat then. In fact, she’d hardly moved any distance at all.
We chatted some more, very amiably. She was warm and surprisingly open. A perfectly pleasant afternoon indeed.
I was expecting to hear they had children but alas, they couldn’t.
Childless relatives run in my family so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
It emerged that my grandpa died of a heart attack aged 65, less than three months after retiring.
“We were looking forward to retirement together,” she added, sadly.
The sense of loneliness was palpable.
Margery asked about my family and then told me, “I met Susan once.” And then recounted a story about picking my mum up from school with Derek.
At this point, her house guests came back, and I was introduced to them; her brother Alan, his French wife Francoise and their daughter Nancy. They lived in France, in a south-east suburb of Paris called Combs-la-Ville and were visiting for the week.
“Steve’s tracing his family tree, and has come to ask about Derek.”
And with that, Nancy—Margery’s niece in other words—piped up with “Oh, that’s nice. So you’ve come to find out about your uncle?”
She looked puzzled. And at this point I thought it was best to make my excuses and leave.
I scribbled down my address and phone number and Margery and I endeavoured to keep in touch. Though as I bade everyone adieu I could tell she looked a trifle ruffled.
There was something on her mind, but it only took a week to find out what. I know she won’t mind my reproducing the lovely letter she sent me.
My visitors have gone back to Paris now so I have been able to hunt up a few of Derek’s photographs for you.
I have never told my family or anyone that Derek was divorced — my parents would have been very distressed and upset had I done so.
I went out with Derek for almost four years before we married in 1961. We had a very happy marriage — he was a lovely man with many friends. The bottom fell out of my world when he died in 1992 — I still think of him every day.
I am happy to have been of help in your research and if there are any more questions you would like to ask I will do my best to answer them.
My health is failing now and I feel I don’t have many more years left. I would love to have a copy of the photograph you took. I hope my photograph is better than the one on my bus pass — I look like Popeye without the pipe!
That was so sweet of her. We did indeed keep in touch. Though of course, I was mortified that I dropped her right in it. A family secret that had been held for over fifty years had just been exploded because of my visit. I wonder why she didn’t warn me before they came back? At 90, she certainly seemed pretty sprightly and certainly playing with a full deck of cards.
Margery had told me that my great-aunt Barbara was indeed still alive though like her own brother, was sadly suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
As far as I can recall, Margery didn’t have contact details to hand but she knew she hadn’t left Notts, so I did what any self-respecting millennial would do and typed in Briggs Nottingham. It really was as simple as that. Amazingly, I found a cousin I never knew existed, and he’s a Steve too. Stephen Briggs, son of Derek and Barbara’s only other sibling Maurice, who’d also died of a heart attack even younger, at just 46.
Steve’s married to Donna, a Conservative councillor for Long Eaton Central in Derbyshire, though she’s since lost her seat. They have two kids Tom and Laura, and Tom just happens to share his birthday on 8 January with Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Stephen Hawking, David Bowie and some bloke off Corrie I dated.
We chat occasionally and they did provide contact details for Barbara but she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and died aged 76 in May 2012 just as Mum I were planning a visit
Margery and I remained in sporadic contact, and met one more time in 2014, on my first visit back to the UK since emigrating to Australia. By this time my aunt Julia and I would often share and discuss our latest ancestry research, and they met in the summer of 2015 on Julia’s penultimate visit to Blighty, though Mum stayed at home.
Margery died on 4 April 2016 (and Julia less than three years later at just 64). Of course, many people died that year, though most weren’t just a few weeks short of turning 96. In fact, I think I can safely say that at 95 she was my longest lived relative.
95? Crikey. I only turn 51 this month and already it feels like a lifetime.
It’s often said that we should live for what today has to offer, not for what yesterday has taken away. But alas, it’s possible to learn and try and understand from the past, without it being a burden.
As Albert Einstein once said, “The distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Too true, blue.