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Childhood Memories: Mum, Nan, & the Sisters Prowse

Updated: May 1, 2021

by Simon Knock

As promised, what follows are my musings on the Prowse sisters, as I knew them, and, in particular, Mildred and her relationship with me and my mum Pat (Prowse/Knock/Stein). I would add these are my views although over recent years I have shared some with Bea Prowse and she has kindly provided a few extra details.

Mildred (Nan) with young Simon

My grandmother (Mum’s mum) was Mildred Clara Prowse. I called her Nan. When I was a child, Nan spent a lot of time with us, especially after my Dad died in 1971. Nan was probably a stronger influence in my life than my mother. She looked after me whilst Mum went out to work and, as a result, our house ran to Nan's routines and although Mum was always reticent about her feelings and childhood she did once say that when Nan was there, she felt a guest in her own kitchen and in generally overshadowed in her company.

I also feel that Mum always felt that Nan favoured her brothers over her and, that to an extent, felt rather taken for granted. I suppose in those days it was natural for parents to focus on their sons. Despite all this, my mother had a deep respect for her mum and although their relationship was not without its complexities, Mum was extremely loyal to Nan, and would do anything for her. Equally, as far as I can gather, the children were quite close and my Mum said that, as a child, Alf used to follow her about.

My relationship with Nan was particularly good. It was interesting that Nancy Boccadoro recently described Nan as fun; I would agree with this, despite her formidable appearance at 5ft tall and 15 stone. The photo I shared with you of her with what appears to be a rolling pin in hand makes me think that, in the right circumstances, she would not hesitate to have used it. She had a look of displeasure that could freeze, and to a child, had a very firm grip. I well recall her pointing out to our rather non-plussed window cleaner that “We don't have portholes here.” when he failed to clean the corners properly. Mildred frankly had to build a strong façade as, of course, she was widowed young with young children to care for, including Marg, who had Downs syndrome, but underneath she had a real sense of fun.

Bill & Simon Knock

My father Bill got on with her famously and she let him tease and take liberties with her. He always called her undergarments bell tents but used to order them for her at Stones in Romford. He pulled her leg about her flowerpot hats. When we would go on car rides, he would deliberately exaggerate every bump in the road to discomfort her.

As everyone knows, she loved her cards and for many years cards played a major role in our family life with me, Alison and Elaine all having card tins with 1p coins, etc. She played seriously, however, Dad, and possibly Edwin as well, used to interfere with her cards if she left the room. She would know but say nothing.

My mother, as I said, never said much about her childhood, however, what she did say was that she was high-spirited and possibly a bit of a handful. She was no goody two-shoes. There was one occasion when she was involved in putting Exlax chocolate through someone’s letter box and running away. She wouldn't eat her greens but was forced to do so. Latterly she came to love them, although she always felt that Nan liked her greens a little too al dente for her taste. Her early teenage years were marred by earache, which made her miserable and, in those pre anti biotic days, meant that to cure her, mastoid surgery was required. The surgery left her with no hearing in one ear and an inner ear with more holes than a Swiss cheese, which caused issues for the rest of her life. She was intensely proud that she was not born in Dagenham but Savernake Rd, Hampstead, London; her claim to poshness she said.

Bea Prowse, in a recent telephone conversation, told me that Nan never wanted to move to Dagenham but that her husband Jack instigated it. I can only assume that he thought that living in Dagenham would give him access to work in a rapidly expanding area. They lived at 53 Rogers Road. Bea also has told me that Nan said that Jack was good around the house and even made her a cup of tea in the morning before he died. She was left a 10-shilling widow. Despite me spending a lot of time with her, Nan said nothing about her childhood; all she did say was that she remembered the first zeppelin coming down near where she lived during WWI, and that she worked in Saville Row making riding breaches.

Nan was an Arsenal supporter and I believe may have been a season ticket holder at one time. My dad and Edwin were for West Ham, which led to further banter. A highlight of her week was the wrestling on ITV at Saturday teatime. Bea told me that Nan said they used to go to the Derby.

Nan was excellent at tailoring and, when I was young, she and my mum made a lot of my clothes. Nan would do the jackets and mum the trousers. The last thing Nan made for me was a heavy clothe winter dressing gown with satin facings, which I still have. Mum always felt her skills in this regard were very much inferior. I knew from childhood memories that Nan used to do sewing for her doctor (Steinberg if I recall). Bea told me that she understood that he put an awful lot of work Nan's way from his patients and contacts. Nan and mum used to get thread, satin facings, and other items from Uncle Eric, Winnie's husband.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Edwin, Alf, and possibly John, were evacuated whilst Mum had a job in the well known then, but now long-gone, Oxford Street department store, Bourne and Hollingsworth as an apprentice lady’s underwear maker. I recall visiting the store in the early 1970's with Mum and, I think, Auntie Winnie. During the blitz, Mum said she had a whale of a time coming back home on the backs of trucks etc. Nan, however, was concerned for her safety and insisted that she work with her at Hector Powe's factory on Wantz Rd, the Heathway Industrial Estate, Dagenham. Hector Powe made officers uniforms for the RAF, as well as high-end clothes for people like Malcom Sargent, the conductor. The brand has recently been revived. Mum said they made uniforms for American officers. I suspect that Mum was not that keen to be there, to an extent under the gaze of Nan.

Mum was a good sportswoman and played netball and athletics, a passion which never left her. She played her last netball game aged 50, not having played for 20+ years, whilst we were on holiday at a Warner’s holiday camp on Hayling island with Nan and, if I recall correctly, Auntie Winnie. It nearly killed her, and it was also memorable to her, as she had lost 50p at cards - unlike Nan, Mum rarely won at cards. Although Nan liked her cards and took them seriously, she was more than happy to play with the grandchildren provided we played properly. The fact we played for small sums of money provided more excitement.

I must assume that when it came to her grandchildren, Nan softened. When she stayed with us at Cecil Avenue in Hornchurch, she had our second bedroom, and I had the third. She had a double bed and, when young, I was allowed in. We had a really loving relationship, but you did not take liberties. I remember her large pink or white corsets, that she always used Vitapoint on her hair, and had two pairs of glasses. There were lots of fun and I was always well looked after.

My memories of Rogers Road are rather limited. I vaguely remember sleeping in the front bedroom and an incident involving Nan’s jigsaws, which were stored in the spare bedroom. Some how Alison and I, and possibly Elaine, got in there and the puzzles got mixed up. I was held responsible.

Eventually Nan moved to a downstairs flat/maisonette at 83 Hunters Hall Road, Dagenham. I was older by this time, so sometimes my mum would drop me off at the Old Oak in Romford and I would take the bus to Oxlow Lane and walk the rest. Mum would join us about teatime. The pretext for such visits were that I was to do a job for Nan like a bit of gardening or clean her windows.

The flat had one bedroom downstairs in the front. The room was dominated by a very large and grand mahogany wardrobe made, no doubt, by Jack. She was very dismissive of cheap modern furniture like her dressing table, which she described as being made of orange boxes. She also had a rather wonderful teasmade, which, unlike what we had at home, actually made half-decent tea. At the end of the hall was the bathroom whilst to get into the living room you turned left.

Nan's chair was next to the kitchen door and she had a put-you-up (bed) for guests. There were various pieces of mahogany furniture about the flat, which was rather nice. When I got there, I would do my job first, such as cleaning her windows, which, under her direction, had to be done properly. Then we would settle down to the serious business of the day, cribbage. We normally played on a small metal fold-up table and we used her polished wooden cribbage board, which I now have. We played numerous games before it was time for lunch, always around 12:30.

Mildred's cribbage board

Nan was an excellent cook, so when I went over it was always something nice or a treat like steak and a sweet. Then we would play more cards until her evening paper, the old London Evening News, was delivered. I suspect Nan liked it as it had three crosswords, starting with a picture one, which became progressively more difficult. She always did them. Mum would join us for tea and would take me home. Such visits were good fun and we both enjoyed them.

Generally, Nan liked old fashioned fatty cuts of meat and things like hearts. Her cakes were good, as was her pastry, although my mother’s was a little shorter. I still use her recipe for pastry, as did Mum. Her star turn was her spicey Easter bread, which she made in buns and small loaves and was delicious. Sadly, my mum never got the recipe and as a result it appears to have gone with her. If anyone in the family has it, I would love it and would happily revive this family tradition.

Nan, because of her size, made most of her own clothes. Originally, she had a Singer sewing machine with a treadle. Later she had a motor fitted. Her dresses tended to have belts into which she would put her handkerchief. As she got older, she had difficulty getting upstairs due to her weight and arthritis. She did try and diet but found it difficult to lose more than a few pounds. Shopping for Nan for things like clothes was very old-fashioned, as she liked a seat because she found it difficult to stand for long periods.

Mum, unlike Nan, was not lucky at cards. Cards played a major roll in family life and I understand that before I was born Rogers Road was very much the family base. In my experience various card games were played including Queens/Newmarket, Whist, and Nap (Napoleon), but Nan never played Bridge. Another game she played, but did not care for, was Chase the Ace. She was a very keen attender at Whist Drives. When on her own she would play Patience or do jigsaws.

Mildred, Edwin, John, and Alf

Nan was good with young children, certainly of my generation. We would go strawberry picking in Tiptree, sometimes with Edwin and Doreen and the girls. Whilst we picked the fruit for homemade jam, she would sit in the car and happily allow herself to be feed fruit by us children, despite maintaining that she was not keen on strawberries. She would be up early on Christmas morning to see the presents being opened, despite the fact the parents did not want the children up so early.

I think Nan was a highly intelligent and very capable woman who, if she had been born today, would have done very well. It saddens me to think that she felt unable to tell me more about her past, especially her childhood, which is now a bit of a mystery to us. Possibly, as Bea has recently suggested to me, that was because of the many issues/problems she had faced during her life, so she wanted only to look forward not back. Her attitude to the war appears to bear this out. My mum found the blitz a really exciting adventure but Nan, as a mother with one son in the forces, Bert, saw it as a danger/threat to her and more importantly her family. The house in Rogers Road suffered blast damage. Mum I think quite enjoyed life in the air raid shelters, but I doubt that Nan really did. Mum recalled that Bert, who had been serving in North Africa, came home on leave and found the noise of the AA guns based in the nearby park unbearable, while she just took them for granted. Indeed, mum said Bert was never the same after his experience of wartime service.

My mother was not such a strong personality as Nan, who was very much the dominant female. She always, I believe, felt that Nan preferred boys and never had the chances they had. Mum also was not free with information about her life generally, but things were not helped by the physical distance between us after I left for University at Keele, just outside Newcastle under Lyme, in October 1979. Her own life had been far from straightforward either. Mum, I suspect felt that she never quite met Nan's expectations.

As I sit at home writing this, I am surrounded by everyday things connected with my Nan and mum like some of my everyday cutlery was Nan's, the colander I use was mum’s, which she bought upon her return from honeymoon to Hastings in 1951 when she and dad moved into their flat at Link Way, in Hornchurch. As a result, even now I cannot escape their presence. In their very different ways, they both cared for me very well and have very much shaped the person I am, and as a result I owe them a whole lot.

The Prowse Sisters

As to the Prowse sisters, as far as I am aware, I never met Annie. I only met Susie once when she and Nancy stayed with us at Cecil Ave, in the 1970's according to Nancy. I was not impressed with things American.

I have memories of Bessie's home in Tottenham, rather than Bessie herself. We stayed in the early 1970's. It was very old-fashioned, with high hard beds and a washstand and a ceramic jug and bowl.

Maudie was a very delicate bird-like figure with white hair and a slightly wheezy refined voice. She was asthmatic and always carried one of those blue/grey inhalers. Her shortbread was much admired. She acted in a very lady like/refined manner and was clearly highly intelligent. Unlike Nan, she played bridge.

Winnie was completely different than the others, in appearance, and how she sounded. One might have wondered if she had different parents. She sounded and was indeed, highly intelligent and quite posh. Her voice was very distinctive, as she always seemed much younger than she was. Her appearance was slightly exotic.

As a child we visited Winnie and her husband Eric, a high-end tailor, at their then home at Fountains Crescent in Southgate. She, I, and mum queued outside the British Museum for the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition. I also recall a trip to Oxford street to Bourne and Hollingsworth, where mum had been apprenticed. There was also the holiday to Hayling island, which included regular card schools in the chalet where Nap was played; mum, as usual, lost. Winnie was a vivacious figure, good company, and a great conversationalist who attended my mum's marriage to Peter in May 1985 at Langton’s in Hornchurch.

In conclusion, I hope these rather random musings are of interest and that my speculations are not too far fetched or, indeed, unfair. I am happy to share them with the rest of the group. If nothing else, I hope this exercise may trigger more memories and comment from others.

Simon Knock

April 2021

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