To do today
And don’t look up, don’t look up.
The baby killers are coming back.
To do today.
Creating the Centena
My centena is an imagined stream of consciousness of my Great Grandmother, Alice Limpus. She was living in South London during the First World War with two young children while her husband Cliff and brother Charles were fighting in France. I wanted to convey that although war was raging, life went on. For some people, in a very ordinary, mundane way. There would have been shortages, stresses and anxieties but for lots of people, there was simply too much to do in too little time. Much like life in peacetime. And before the age of the internet and 24 hours news, people like my great grandmother wouldn’t have had a clear picture of what was going on. Her immediate world was much smaller than our world is today.
I’ve been told Alice was a spirited woman, good humoured but with something of a temper and a penchant for a gossip. The references are all based on stories passed down to me. For example, ‘Henrietta’ was the family chicken who lived in their tiny backyard and never failed to disappoint at breakfast time. ‘The Rosemary’ was actually The Rosemary Branch pub, the family’s local in Camberwell. It was built in the 1700s and survived both World Wars, until it was demolished in 1971, the same year Alice Limpus died.
I researched what food was still readily available towards the end of the war, even when rationing came in, and this is reflected in Alice’s shopping list. Luckily my great aunt Joan who is now 93 was able to tell me her mum’s favourite brand of soap! I also learnt that Alice’s mum Ada set up one of the UK’s first ever beer tents during the war, in Aldershot. Aldershot was home to the largest army training camp in the country, supplying a constant stream of men to the Front. The beer tent was for the soldiers before they were sent overseas to join the fighting.
I’m sure Alice would have been thinking of both Cliff and Charles but her only way of staying in touch would have been through letter writing, and with two young children to look after she wouldn’t have had time to dwell on her worst fears. But like millions of others, she would have checked ‘the lists’ of casualties published in papers like the Daily Express.
Although London never came under attack in the same way as it did during the Second World War, the German Zeppelin carried out a number of air attacks in Eastern coastal towns and the capital. They could travel at about 85 mph and carried up to two tonnes of bombs. The first person to die in London during a Zeppelin attack was just three years old. And from then on, Zeppelins became known as “baby killers”. It’s likely Alice would have seen them overhead and been terrified, they were twice the size of today’s transatlantic jets – she would never have seen anything like them before.
After the war, Alice had three more children. Sadly, her husband Clifford died in 1929, apparently never fully recovered from being gassed at the Somme.