My great-aunt Lizzie was a mill-girl with aspirations to better herself. Whereas in 2015, ‘aspiration’ is really a euphemism for material greed, back in 1908 it wasn’t. A hundred and seven years ago it meant becoming respectable through marriage. Neither is that attractive as a trait, but in terms of anthropology, the latter is both more natural and not entirely dysfunctional. At the turn of the century before last, it was entirely understandable: if you worked a ten hour day six days a week and would receive no compensation for falling into the machinery as a result of fatigue, then eschewing the need to do that was a highly desirable step in the right direction.
Like most members of my family, Elizabeth didn’t like her given name. When still very young, she opted for Lilly (or Lil) as a suitable nickname, and to her dying day intensely disliked being called Lizzie. One rather suspects that – given the racy success of the Jersey Lilly as Edward VII’s mistress – she saw this as part of her single-handed attempt to climb the socio-demographic mountain put in the Lower Order’s way in those days. The mountain still exists, the main difference now being that, by being a ruthless, chiselling crook, you can jump on the cable car with relative ease.
Oddly enough, her sister-in-law Melinda’s name was Mountain. Melinda – something of a libertine and Free Love exponent – married Lizzie’s brother James (only ever referred to as Jack) in 1909. They married in haste, my Auntie Edna being already on the way. Lizzie detested Melinda, but was very probably jealous of her social position. Like I say, this was the age of three important things in life: position, position, and position. Either way, being pregnant outside the sanctification of The Church was the worst of all positions to adopt.
Melinda was my grandmother. A pro-am pianist, she had umpteen affairs – which may well explain why all three of my aunties looked like people not so much separated at birth as genetically disconnected. But while Lizzie remained protective of a brother who doted on his feckless wife, her main goal remained the same: betterment.
In 1910 she met Francis Mellor, a member by his father’s marriage of the De Trafford family. Although expected to lead the life of a gentleman, Frank was artistic by nature and particularly good with wood. He opened a cabinet-making company and, to the horror of his relatives, became hugely successful. De Traffords, after all, looked down on those ‘in trade’, and were positively nauseous at the thought of a relation being successful in trade. But that reaction was as nought compared to the fainting fit they all had on discovering Frank’s intention to marry Lilly Wall the mill-girl.
Opposition to marriages is a long-standing tradition in my family, and the bottom line on this liaison was that, predictably, my Great-Uncle Francis was cut out of every will, removed from the Christmas card list, and generally disinherited. But this mattered little to the happy couple: Frank thought his family insufferably stuffy, while Lizzie had no interest in money. Money was vulgar, but position was priceless. They were married in St Margaret’s Church, Prestwich – a Manchester suburb – in 1912.
I did not discover this last fact until eight years ago, but the coincidence is odd because I was confirmed in that Church in 1960. I wasn’t interested in being confirmed; but to be so gave one access to the adjoining youth club. There one could meet girls, and I was very interested in meeting girls.
Frank volunteered for duty in the Great War at its outbreak, and somehow managed to survive four years in the trenches. Back home, Lizzie watched as her brother James/Jack’s marriage disintegrated, but sent her husband only trench foot remedies and chocolate rather than news of imminent social disgrace. Melinda gave birth to my mother on 20th October 1919, and soon thereafter ran off with an Irish tenor with whom she had been performing. As it were. In 1925, she died giving birth to his child, and soon thereafter Jack died of tuberculoisis. At the age of six, my mother became an orphan.
In fact, four sisters aged from six to seventeen were suddenly left with no means of support. So Lizzie and Francis Mellor adopted them. The brood were housed in a large and comfortable house at 50 Smedley Lane, in what was then desirable Cheetham Hill – close to the centre of the cotton capital of Manchester.
As the post Great War depression began to bite at respectability, Frank’s business did alright; but it fell short of the cost of feeding, clothing and educating four adopted children. And so Lizzie applied for and got a waitress job at Manchester’s Midland Hotel.
From this distance in time, it is difficult to explain the prestige that the Midland Hotel radiated. On the very rare occasions when they ventured north, London’s finest – Royalty included – refused to stay anywhere else en route to where they were going…probably a vast estate in either the Lake District or Scotland. For over thirty years – from 1927-1960 – Lizzie waited on the tables of the rich and famous, rising eventually to become Head Waitress.
The perks of this job were a Godsend in depression Britain….and long thereafter. Her tax-free tips alone were enough to feed even the larger families, but in turn Lizzie was invited by the Hotel management to help herself to food and bread rolls (cobs) left over at the end of an evening. It says something about the folding liquidity involved in her career venture that – during the worst of the Blitz in winter 1940 – she was able to pay cash for a pair of Ming vases. These she carried home – on foot – rebuffing the cries of ARP wardens to “get in a shelter you daft old sod” in the week preceding Christmas, as Luftwaffe incendiaries rained down from the grey, droning skies.
But the German Führer was no match for Lily Mellor. She owned a parrot, whose only learning was the phrase “That ‘itler, ‘e’s a bugger”….something her mother Mary Anne (by this time also dependent on the Smedley Lane welfare system) opined at least five times a day. For this reason alone, it became necessary to put a black cage-veil over the bird whenever the vicar of St Luke’s church came for Sunday Tea.
Widowed in 1953 – but left with a good pension by Frank – Lizzie nevertheless continued in her role at the Midland. I remember her restaurant jargon very well: each table was ‘a sprig’, and it would have a number of places (‘couverts’). This became, in Lizzie-speak, “She had ten covers to her sprig”. The more places per table, the more senior and skilled the waitress was.
In 1957, The Real Madrid football team enjoyed a celebratory dinner at the Midland after playing a 2-2 draw second leg cup tie against my team Manchester United at Old Trafford. United having lost 3-1 in Madrid, the result meant that Real went through to the Final. [The final was played at Hampden Park Glasgow, and Madrid beat German team Eintracht 9-3]
Understanding my undying devotion to United, Lizzie went right round the twenty covers to her sprig, and obtained the autograph of every single player. These included the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento, Raymond Kopa, José Santamaria, Héctor Rial, and goalkeeper Rogelio Domínguez.
The autographs were signed on a menu, and my brother and I treasured it for years. Lord knows what its value was in those days – far in excess of a conker that had triumphed over 50 contestants I’d imagine. I’ve no idea what happened to the fragile signatures, but that reality merely reflects our inability to attribute long term ‘worth’ to something.
Lizzie’s last years were not happy, primarily because she refused to go into ‘a home’, but was unable to accept that, in another family’s home, she could not rule the roost. She stayed with us for some years (they were a nightmare) and then with Mum’s sister Myra (an even worse nightmare) before spending her final months in a Yorkshire nursing home.
Extreme old age never had any dignity to recommend it. In 2015 however, the missing elements are a sense of family responsibility – and any degree whatsoever of State responsibility. I don’t even want to think what that means in terms of my eventual demise; perhaps this is why I prefer to go out in a blaze of indulgence rather than foist the consequences of my incompetence upon others.