Jessie, Jessie and Ce By John Simmons
Harry looked up
as a cloud crossed the sun,
over the letter he was writing to me,
Jessie, and the girls, Jessie and Ce.
Creating the Centena.
I never knew my grandfather Harry. He was killed on 15 August 1917 at Passchendaele, fatally wounded by bullets fired from a German airplane flying overhead. A pioneer victim of aerial warfare. More than usually random, even in this war.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had confirmed his identity and burial place: Private Henry Branch, Lijssenthoek Cemetery, Poperinge near Ypres. I visited his grave last year on the centenary of his death: rows of white gravestones, followed by Flanders Fields museum and the Last Post/Menin Gate ceremony at the setting of the sun. It made for a draining day of remembrance.
But it’s my Nan I remember, Harry’s wife, Jessie Branch. She was an important figure in my childhood and youth, outliving my own mum. The name Jessie runs through my family from grandmother to mother to my daughter. Jessie Branch was left widowed to bring up two young girls of four and two, named Jessie and Ce (full name Cecelia). She left no mark on any history books but she lived her life and did her best by her family. Like thousands, like millions, her life was blighted by loss. It was a struggle to survive and bring up those two young girls, getting up early to do her cleaning job at Odhams Press, earning just enough to make sure the girls were fed, well-dressed and filled with the aspiration to achieve something. There is a link between my Nan joining the General Strike in 1926 and the political activism of her daughters. In Jessie and Ce she raised two fiery socialists and believers in the equal rights of women.
But I must not romanticise my Nan. She was a stern woman and I didn’t dare misbehave when she was looking after me. For years I would see her daily as she lived near the primary school I attended in Drury Lane. As I hated school dinners she would provide for me so that I could avoid the mash, grey mutton, beetroot and semolina that I insisted (and sometimes proved) made me sick. Nan’s watered-down tomato soup was a better alternative. After school she would set me on the bus home to King’s Cross.
History stops you taking assumptions from today into the past. Nan was born into times when faith mattered. It’s why I went to a Church of England School, why her daughters had to marry in church; yet we were all left untouched by religion even as, in her later years, blind with glaucoma and memory thinned by dementia, she still insisted on going to St Mary-le-Strand church every Sunday. For the envelope with parish money but also for the Christian service. She believed.
She brought up a family of believers in political change not religious obedience. I love her for that and I love the memory of her, the repeated ritual of the visit to see her in her flat, always ending with her calling over the balcony “Got everything? Got your money?”
Lives of the First World War.
You can find out more about Harry Branch here at Lives of the First World War.
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