Tales of the Unexpected


I’ve always liked the image of a tribe gathered round a camp fire at the end of the day as the tribal elders pass on stories of the tribe’s past, leaders celebrate the successes of the today and bright young things share their dreams of tomorrow.

It doesn’t quite have the same romance but at Bromford yammer has become our camp fire, our place for sharing the stories that matter.

Some wonderful stories have been shared over the last few days about the women who have been a source of inspiration in our lives.

I feel blessed to be part of a family bursting with strong, inspiring women. But the one who has particular significance for me is my maternal grandmother – Adelaide Fair – my Nan.

My Nan was born in the East End of London in 1910 and lived there most of her life. Although she was bright and passed her scholarship to go to Grammar School her father paid the fine to take her out of school to go to work to earn money for the family. But she never let this get to her. She just got on with her life. She had various low paid jobs in kitchens but by the time she met my Grandad she was working in Simpsons – a rather posh restaurant in Central London.

Adelaide and Tom married in 1931 and a few years later they borrowed £600 from the bank to buy a house at 12 Fairlop Road, Leytonstone. They lived frugally. My Granddad worked in the docks at St Katherine’s Wharf. He cycled the 9 miles to work every day to save money. My Nan saved all her tips (she told me once that she was often bought drinks by customers but showed them a glass of vinegar she kept at the bar and saved the cash) and ate at the restaurant. She brought home leftover meat to make meals for my Grandad. Within two years they had completely paid off the bank loan.

My Nan always had a strong work ethic and was a bit of an entrepreneur on the side. One of my Granddad’s brothers earned quite a bit of money but liked to flash it about. He would bring friends to my Nan’s house to be entertained, pretending that it was his. He bought a baby grand piano which he eventually left at 12 Fairlop. My Nan charged various piano teachers to use it to give piano lessons. My mum was born in 1938 and talks fondly of the string of lodgers that stayed in the back room – mostly European students. During the war most children in the neighbourhood were evacuated to the country. My Nan didn’t want my Mum to go away. She managed to negotiate a good deal on a place at a private school which was desperate for pupils.

12 Fairlop Road was a fine house with a decent sized garden but remained basic for most of their time there. No central heating; a vast kitchen sink where clothes were washed with an old wash board; no tv for years and then only a B&W one. Adelaide and Tom lived very simply. Despite the lack of heating and a back door that was permanently open 12 Fairlop was a house where you were always assured of a warm welcome and plenty of food. Indeed food was always very important to Adelaide. Every cupboard in the house was crammed with tins of soup, jars of jam, bags of sugar or flour….a habit my Nan never got out of when the war ended. Although she had a very limited menu (my Mum talks of poached egg, spinach and mash every Wednesday) I remember some of the best meals I’ve ever had (the most delicious roast potatoes ever, loads of vegetables from their garden and always a fruit pie) being shared round her vast, ancient dark wood dining table.


I remember Nan working at The Hole in the Wall florist (long gone) next to Leytonstone tube station (holding the flowers in this photo) for many years but she spent even more of her time running, and fundraising for, the Roosters Blind Social Club in Leytonstone. 12 Fairlop always felt like a jumble sale was about to start – with black bags full of clothes and boxes of bric a brac everywhere.

There was a steady stream of visitors to 12 Fairlop (which is how everyone referred to Nan’s house) whose arrival was announced by her fabulous door bell. Many of life’s more eccentric characters were made welcome and pressed with a cup of tea and a massive piece of fruit cake; or if they arrived at a meal time a chair was pulled up and an extra place setting squeezed in. My Mum remembers kids from the street loitering at the (open) back door at meal times and invariably coming in for something to eat without having to be asked twice.

As I got older I realised my Nan espoused some views which I did not agree with. I remember staying with her for a week when I was doing an Art Therapy course in the late 1980s. Every night we’d get into long arguments about social and political issues. 12 Fairlop was in the ‘loony left’ Borough of Walthamstow and my Gran was a great admirer of Maggie. She lived in the same house for over 60 years and saw the world change around her as a white working class neighbourhood morphed into an ethnically diverse street of converted flats and bedsits. Whilst her theoretical views on immigration or the welfare state were lifted straight from the pages of the Daily Mail, in practice she had a great relationship with the Shah family who lived on one side and the Afro-Caribbean Nurse on the other. In the real world she got on with everyone and always offered kindness and a helping hand.

In 1996 12 Fairlop was sold (for £81K, number 20 just sold for £500K) and Adelaide and Tom bought a small bungalow in the Essex village where my Mum and her sister both live.

At her funeral in 2003 the same sleepy village was descended upon by an assortment of that new, ethnically diverse, East End, come to pay its respects. The Daily Mail would have been very confused.

My Nan inspired me not through what she said but by what she did. By the way she lived. She taught me some valuable life lessons:

  • A bit of hard work never killed anyone.
  • Life is not about things…..stuff; it’s about who you are and what you do.
  • What’s important in life is not what it throws at you but how you choose to react.
  • Above all, don’t take an off the shelf ‘set’ of beliefs or ideas, be your own person.

There is a poster outside the Friends Meeting House in my village. Every time I walk past it reminds me of my Nan:


I’d love to hear about which woman has inspired you…….


4 responses to “Tales of the Unexpected

  1. Remembering…
    – discussions about belief, religion, race and immigration
    – lavender in the front garden
    – false teeth & chewing gum
    – the jumble room
    – the collection box for the blind
    – Christmas time with everyone squeezed round the table
    …. And so much more.

    Reading your post might explain why, when I was very very young, I wanted to be Maggie Thatcher when I grew up!


    • Yep. Remember all those!

      It’s been so nice sharing stories with Mum and your dad. They’re surprised by what we remember……what had an impact.

      I could write another piece on Grandad too……not quite so inspirational but very eccentric.

      Looking forward to seeing you all at Joshua’s do.


      • Dear John
        Having read your article about your Nan past on to me from my daughter, just to let you know the lady in the picture with your Nan is my Mum her name is Florence Ellen Cook know as Nelly her husbands name was Pat Cook they were the owners of the Hole In The Wall florist. My name was June Cook, now June Maris, I went to the same school as your Mum Aunt and Uncle, Pat,Sandra, and Paul. The school was Oxford and Elson House. I knew your Nan as Auntie Addie a lovely caring lady I remember her cooking and raising money for the blind club. There was a program on the TV called Golden Hearts, I always thought that she should have won one of the awards, she so deserved it. she worked in the shop for as long as I can remember. I also remember Uncle Tom as a very nice gentleman, I also remember them celebrating their Diamond Wedding at Saint Johns church Leytonstone, If you would like to get in touch my details are as follows.
        Best Regards
        June Maris


      • Wow! Hi June. Thanks for getting in touch. I’ll give you a call. I know my Mum will be thrilled to know that you’ve been in touch and will want to hear your news. And I’d love to know how your daughter came across the blog June. Will be in touch soon. John


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