Caroline Margaret Smith After William Henri
Honor Oak and Dulwich
The twentieth century was tumultuous and so very different from the nineteenth, which was tumultuous too but in a very different way. To have lived across these two eras is unimaginable to me. How can you go from living in a world illuminated by candles and gas, the streets crowded by horse-drawn vehicles, and encased in neck to floor dresses of voluminous size, to an electric world full of cars, radio, jazz and young women enjoying the fruits of freedom from centuries of repression? How would you feel?
Here was Caroline, just after the turn of the century. Queen Victoria, who had reigned all of Caroline’s life, was recently dead, as well as her own husband, and she was now confronted by the Future with a capital F. She was still living at 12 Therapia Road, to where they had moved some time between 1901 and 1903. Google Earth shows me the house at right as being that house, but I do not know for certain whether it is or not. It’s certainly fairly substantial looking, as are many in the street. Her two oldest sons had married and left home, and her oldest daughter too. The grandchildren had started arriving, so no doubt she had plenty to occupy her. The lovely painting far right was painted in 1920, so is, for once, of the right period, although it actually has an older feel to it. It shows three generations of women, and aptly sums up Caroline’s situation I believe.
And then came World War One. Superficially the Mollett family was unaffected. None of the sons seems to have gone to war - the older ones were perhaps too old, and Gerald, the youngest, was probably unfit physically and/or his status as a married man exonerated him. Nevertheless they must have known people affected by the war. Unlike WW2 there was no large-scale bombing of London, though there was some - this was the war that began the tradition of bombing civilian populations. But WW1 did more than kill people, a generation of young men was virtually wiped out - it signalled the end of centuries of rigid class division and the emancipation of women, both of which did much to change the social structure of the country.
A few months after her her husband’s death her youngest son runs off and marries an ‘unsuitable’ young girl - well this is how we have read the situation. Although the couple initially lived nearby, and also started producing grandchildren, one wonders whether relations were strained. But not all of her children were so thoughtless, and she still had three daughters at home with her. In fact two, maybe three of them stayed with her all her life.
With World War One too, came the tragedy of her youngest son Gerald, whose marriage seems to have unravelled. In 1915, we find him making a will which excludes his wife (who is still living), and also giving as his address 7 Belvoir Road, which is now his mother’s home. We think he left Maud, and took, at least his two sons with him. And then, in 1917 he died of TB, in a sanatorium in Somerset (why Somerset?). How did Caroline react to all of this? Did she say “I told you so”. or did she just take him in and give him tea and sympathy. We think the two boys were brought up in Belvoir Road, by the aunts, chiefly, but no doubt Caroline had a hand. So the house would have been enlivened by small boys doing the things that small boys irresistibly do. I think the aunts loved them dearly - we often paid them visits and they were always very happy to see all of us. But how tragic to see your son all the way through to adulthood, only to have him die in his prime. Utrillo’s self-portrait with his mother has something of the right feel about this episode I think, though Caroline would not have been quite so old. And I do sometimes wonder whether the photograph above is of a young Gerald with his mother - although again, she is maybe too old.
And then after the war, came the 20s, which must have been unimaginable to somebody born in the middle of the nineteenth century. I know there is always a generation gap between the young and the old, but this gap must have been absolutely drastic. From prim and proper Victoriana to the flappers and the jazz age. How Caroline coped I do not know. Maybe she retreated into her home - now at 7 Belvoir Road in Dulwich. I took this picture back in 2012. It looks rather squashed and small. I visited it often as a child, but do not remember it - or is this a truncated version of what was once there? I think she must have moved there at about the time of the war. Maybe the house in Therapia Road became too big after most of the children had left. It may have been that their financial situation had deteriorated, necessitating a move to a smaller home. Two of her daughters went out to work - choice or necessity? And they seem to have taken in lodgers - the 1911 census shows them with one young man lodging there. Her spinster daughters Jessie and Dorothy lived with her - well Dorothy moved out in 1926 when she finally married.
And there Caroline died at the ripe old age of eighty four of heart failure and lobar pneumonia. The death was registered by her daughter Elsie, who did not live with her at the time. (Why not Jessie I wonder?) In the years after William Henri died, she had managed to somehow grow the money she was able to leave. She left £1155 3s 5d (in today’s money, £38,605.81 or $AU61,782). I wonder had she managed the money or her two oldest sons? It wasn’t a lot though, and I have no doubt that her years after William Henri’s death must have been difficult financially, though doubtless the children helped when they could. My father did speak of his family as the genteel poor, and I guess this is what they became. I did not know how she had distributed this money, but now, thanks to Philip Mollett I have her will - which deserves a whole page to itself.
So - the end of Caroline. The grandmother my father must have known well - or at the very least known of, and yet of whom we knew nothing. For he never, ever mentioned her. I do not remember the great aunts speaking of her either, but then I guess I didn’t ask. I was only a child. If anyone out there has more stories to tell, we would love to hear them. Contact us.
We do not know who the lady is in this photograph. It could be her. I think it has 'for Jessie' on the back. The cross on the wall is telling.
She was buried with William Henri.
After William Henri
William Henri Colchester Mollett