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Elsie Lawson 6 June 1920 – 22 August 2010

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My paternal grandmother died two weeks ago, after 90 healthy years. She fell and broke her hip; a week after a hip replacement operation, she was short of breath, had a heart attack and never awoke.

This is the tribute I read at the funeral service.

Black and white photo of Elsie Lawson in 1944 on Flickr

My Nan was born in a pub in Sunderland in 1920 (see photo of her aged 4, in 1924). Her parents, Jim and Polly Walker then moved to nearby Ryhope to help run her grandfather’s pub, The Prince of Wales, on her mother’s side of the family. These were the days where an extended family was the norm…for instance Elsie’s father had 9 siblings who all lived locally and were in tune with all the various family triumphs and tragedies.

My Dad remembers Elsie telling how much she enjoyed her early childhood along with her 3 sisters and one brother – Jim (you’ll find that the name Jim, Jimmy or James crops up a lot in our family) – and even more so when her father took over his own pub the Canterbury Arms in Seaham Harbour, then a thriving mining village on the N.E. coast just south of Sunderland.

In 1934 her older sister, Peggy who was in service in a large house in Gloucester Road, London became ill and Elsie was sent to deputise for her until she recovered. Imagine it! A young girl of 14 in London by herself with a class of people she barely knew. She didn’t last; it was the first time she showed her mettle, rebelled against authority (she hated snobs) and had to be sent home.

When she was 17 she started nurses training at a local sanatorium devoted victims of TB which was then prevalent. Again her stroppy side took over and a kindly Matron advised her to quit nursing as she couldn’t respond to discipline or authority. Must run in the family!But as luck would have it, she met the Grant family who ran a local chemist shop. They became very fond of her and she enjoyed working with them. Her father was not so happy – she and her younger sister Tess were typical young women who loved dressing up, going dancing and, of course, meeting the boys. Many a time he was left pacing behind the front door because his ‘girls’ were still saying goodnight to their latest squeeze on the doorstep after 10pm. How brazen.

But then she met my granddad – another Jim – and started going steady. But war broke out in 1939 and she was sent to work in a munitions factory as part of the war effort. Strangely enough she was posted to a factory in Solihull in the W. Midlands which is only some 3 miles from where my own family and I now live.

Both Elsie and Jim were unhappy about their enforced separation and decided to marry. Jim was a miner at that time and in a reserved occupation. This meant Elsie could give up her war work and return home to take care of him and the household – doesn’t that sound strange these days?

Anyway they married in August 1941, scraped a home together only for it to be destroyed by a nearby bomb in 1942. In 1944 in another home, Elsie’s first son, Jeffrey, my father, was born on her own birthday, 6th June which was also the day of the Normandy D-Day landings. Two years later Colin followed on 21st April.

In the mid ’50’s my Grandpa was diagnosed with the miner’s curse – lung disease although it was only in the early 10% stage then. So bravely, they decided to up sticks and move down to Hampshire where Elsie’s younger sister Betty had gone in 1954 on her traitorous marriage to a Southerner!

A bold and yes, a brave one considering the times – but a good one as it turned out for them and for my dad and his brother, Colin. They grew to love the New Forest and other members of Elsie’s family made similar moves including her older sister Peggy and niece, Moira.

In the late 70’s Elsie and Jim were offered the chance to return ‘home’ to the N.E. and decided to take it. Not a good move – too much had changed, so after some 5 years and Jim’s early retirement at 62, they went back to Hampshire. They were happy there for the next couple of years until Jim had a sudden and fatal heart attack on my 17th birthday, a date I can’t ever forget.

It would be fair to say that a large part of Elsie died then as well. Although she maintained a cheerfulness and generosity in so many ways she was, I think, inwardly lonely but nonetheless grateful to have the supportive love of her sons and, further down the line her daughters in law, grandsons and their wives and, in the last eleven years, four beautiful great grandchildren, two of whom are called James and William – her own husband’s names.

Well Nan, We’ll all miss you but maybe you’ll be sitting somewhere snug right now with a glass of wine in one hand and a fag in the other. You often used to say “I think I’ll just have a little relax”. Well, now you can.

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