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A Charterhouse Sq Childhood

August 5, 2023
by the gentle author

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It is my pleasure to present these extracts from the childhood memoirs of Grace Jackson, sent to me by her great niece Anna O’Donoghue who typed and published them. Grace lived at 5 Charterhouse Sq between 1880 and 1892, when it was the vicarage for St Sepulchre’s Church, with her parents, eight brothers and sisters, and her grandfather, who was the vicar for forty years.

I was born at 5 Charterhouse Sq on January 26th 1880, one of a family of six boys and three girls. I was the seventh child of a seventh child but was never aware of any psychic powers. The only time when I was doubtful was when the craze for table-turning was popular and my name was spelt out as being the medium. I went straight off to bed and left the party to find another person to receive the spirit messages!

5 Charterhouse Sq was a house of four storeys with a basement kitchen and a flat roof, a favourite playing place with two attics opening on to it. The inner attic was used for keeping silkworms which made lovely golden cocoons. My chief concern about them was getting mulberry leaves from the two trees which grew in the central court of the Charterhouse. These had to be picked with caution as it meant going onto the grass, a practice not encouraged by the gardeners. I do not think we were ever looked upon very favourably by the latter as we were also fond of popping the fuchsia buds that grew along the cloisters which ran down two sides of the court.

We always enjoyed playing in the Charterhouse, although we were never sure of a welcome from the warden who kept guard at the gate, and we usually tried to step through when he was having time off in his little room. We liked it as it was a place of cloisters and little courtyards which made good places for playing in.

It was there that my brother Francis and I saw our first and only ghost. We had been told by a friend that if we stood at the far end of one of the little alleys at dusk and whistled three times, a ghost would appear at the opposite opening. And it did! We fled for our lives, screaming and rushing through the walled gardens, pursued by the ghost who, by now, was as frightened as we were disturbing the old pensioners. When we were eventually caught by the friend who had put us up to this escapade, we were all in a state of collapse.

Although we lived practically in the City, being only just without the sound of Bow Bells, we were lucky in having ample space to play in, having the square and the Charterhouse. After school hours we were also allowed to go into the playground where we all enjoyed roller skating. My brothers used to ride on penny farthing bicycles until the fast low one which I remember was called the ‘bantam cycle’ was introduced.

We were always interested in kneeling on the window seats and watching everything that was going on through the open window. There were large gates below us, which could be shut at night to keep the square private, and just inside these was a favourite place for men to settle their differences in a fight. We did not like watching these, but there were more interesting events like a dancing bear, a German band or a barrel organ and May Day processions. One year, I remember a Jack-in-the-Green on November 5th, and funerals with the hearse and the horses’ heads carrying large black plumes.

Balloons would pass over, and one morning the square was covered with small leaflets advertising some sort of drink. On some of these there was a coupon entitling the finder to a free bottle. Although we diligently searched for this coupon we had no success and were quite convinced that the gardener had come out very early. He was a very imposing figure with a very fine brown beard. He treated us very well and even allowed a few of us to have a small piece of earth as a border for our own plants.

The Lord Mayor’s Show was always a great occasion and we were usually given seats in the Civil Service Stores. Street vendors sold panoramic pictures of the show before it took place, which always amused us as they were naturally quite fictitious. I think they were sold as ‘1d plain’ or ‘2d coloured’. One year the Show came along our square, an unusual event, but it was a wet cold day and we were saddened afterwards on hearing that one of the children taking part had died from the effects.

When I was seven, the City was preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and we were taken to see the illuminations. These largely took the form of metal shapes with fairy lamps hanging on them. I remember the row which was fastened along the entrance to the Charterhouse. On this and on other royal occasions, we would go along Ludgate Hill or St Pauls to watch the procession and see the Queen. My recollections of her were of a small black figure, rather unsmiling and not looking very regal.

Our nurse used to take some sort of paper with alarming pictures of the events that were likely to happen if Prince Edward ever became King. His accession, according to these papers, would usher in a time of violence. This made me feel very alarmed as I was a very nervous child and was not helped by these pictures, and by being taken by my nurse – who must have belonged to some Second Advent Society – to meetings about the end of the world. I remember my fear at seeing any red in the sky – not an uncommon sight as there were frequent fires in the City – believing this meant the end of the world and we should all be burnt up. My brothers had no fears of this sort and would often go on to the flat roof of our house at night from which there was a good view over the City, to see if there was a fire raging.

Our roof was a favourite playground, it had a tallish parapet and my brothers would occasionally walk along this to the horror of people below who would rush to ring our bell and warn mother what was happening. Personally, I found it made me feel quite dizzy enough even to look over, so there was never any fear of my taking part in this dangerous game.

My mother always seemed busy with her sewing machine so seldom came out with us, and my father, who was head of a room at the War Office was only seen at weekends. He was not really a family man and after office hours would go to his club – The Thatched House – until we younger children were well out of the way. We were all very fond of our parents.

Mother had a gift for telling stories in a very graphic way, although some of those told at bedtime were hardly suitable for a nervous child. Her re-telling of the Old Testament stories was always my favourite, and I am reported to have said after many hearings of the fiery furnace and the three children, ‘Make them really burnt this time’. So I suppose I liked horrors in spite of being easily frightened!

On Sunday afternoons, my father would often take us out. We were always asked if it was a ‘walking’ or a ‘riding‘ Sunday and always decided on the latter which meant a penny ride along the Thames Embankment. My older brothers were encouraged to walk, being given a penny if they went as far as Cleopatra’s Needle. We also enjoyed an occasional outing on a steamboat and one afternoon we went with our nurse for a picnic in Battersea Park. We evidently had return tickets for the steamboat which my nurse lost, and as we did not have enough money to pay for the return journey, we had to walk until we were near enough to home to pay the bus fare.

The Muffin Man with his bell and white cloth-covered tray on his head was always a welcome sound. The Cats’ Meat Man was also frequently heard and his wares were sold skewered to a stick. The Lavender Sellers were more popular with us with their song. Fire engines, with their steam funnels and the men in helmets sitting back to back were always an exciting sight, with the large brass bell clanging to clear the road. And the Lamplighter with his long rod, although so often seen, was usually watched with interest.

We lived near Smithfield Market and would often see sheep being driven along. The fish market was also close and as a luxury we used to buy a pint of winkles. I remember on one occasion, while gloating over my little bag, I walked into a lamp post which I suppose would make an impression on me, although it is a queer thing that some memories remain so vivid.

In the summer when the gardener in the square cut the grass, he would let us gather it and make a sort of nest. Then we would have a feast, keeping some buns and pink and white long-shaped sugar cakes we called meringues. Of course, an occasion like this meant saving up before we could buy them.

To augment our pocket money, we used to make paper spills and on May Day and November 3rd , my grandfather gave us each a tip, probably sixpence. He was instructed to do this by the manservant who looked after him and who, on these special days, insisted that my grandfather should have his purse handy in spite of his protests that he would not need it, not realising that we were going to invade his study during the morning with either a May Day greeting or a request to ‘Remember the Guy’.

My education cannot be called anything outstanding. We had one governess, Miss Burks, who taught us everything: Latin for my brothers, French, the piano and all other subjects for girls. She must have been fairly efficient as I could read the newspaper when I was six, a feat I was called upon to demonstrate to visitors. The facts of life were an entire mystery however, so when I read that the Queen was expecting to be put to bed I was thoroughly mystified and my embarrassed governess hastily made me continue reading.

My mother had never expected to have a large family having been told after the birth of her first child that she could not have any more. However, the babies arrived in quick succession and when the twins increased the number to four, my father was so overwhelmed that he omitted to register their births. So, in later years when certificates were needed, all that could be produced were those for my sister Dolly and brother Wilfred.

Every Christmas, my Godmother, Amy Tyrrell, took me to the pantomime at Drury Lane – the only time I ever went to a theatre. This was a great occasion and the stars were Dan Leno, Little Dick and, I think, Herbert Campbell. The performance always ended with what was called ‘a transformation scene’ which was followed by the Harlequinade with Columbine, the clown with the ‘red hot poker’ and, of course, Harlequin.

Grace Jackson as a young woman

St Sepulchre, Old Bailey

Gardens of the Charterhouse with one of the Mulberry trees

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