I have known Les since we started our first job together at the Greater London Council’s Electronic Maintenance Section, he was sixteen and I was eighteen. Electronics sounded like New Technology in the early 1970s, but this place was housed and managed in a very old tech way, being based in a small industrial estate in the back streets of Camberwell, South London.
Jobs like these were what cockney boys like us did if you didn’t work hard enough at school to get your A levels and go to University, but showed more intellect than was needed to work on a building site or digging up roads. And we had a great time.
So much so that now, more than forty years later, having both had varied careers we meet up a few times a year to laugh about exactly the same stories from when we worked together, that we dredge up to tell each other every time we meet. It’s got to the point now where I’ve started taking my grown up sons along, just so we’ve got a new audience to tell the same stories to for the next few decades. If they were children it would probably be considered a form of psychological abuse, and we’d have social services down on us like a ton of bricks.
However, sometimes, we tell each other a new story, and the last time we met, Les told me a corker. Apparently his dear old long departed Dad Cyril, was a bit of a mystery in terms of his Family background. Les had never really known his grandparents on his father’s side, Les’s sister had found their father’s birth certificate, which contained a strange middle surname that had never been discussed in the family, and there were tales from older family members that Cyril had been raised by “an Aunt”. Having a friend that you’ve known since your teenage years is a great joy, being able to help that friend solve a family mystery is a gift of an opportunity that can’t be passed up.
“What’s all the Waller about then?”
Les’s Family the Temple’s were Londoners as far as he knew, when we were kids both of our families had lived within half a mile of each other in Peckham, in Les’s case just off of Peckham Rye, although he did once claim that this was practically East Dulwich, but no way was he going to get away with that one. After Les’s Dad and Mum passed away, Les’s sister found their Dad’s birth certificate amongst their family papers, this was where the mystery began. Les’s Dad was he was christened Cyril “Waller”, as Les put it “What’s all the Waller about then?” intriguingly, Cyril’s Mum Emma Erskine, had left the space for Cyril’s father’s name a blank, invariably this indicates an illegitimate birth, and usually means that a mother wasn’t prepared to name the father rather than not knowing who he was. In the days before Jeremy Kyle style DNA tests, naming a Father without his permission could be both hard to prove, and could lead to legal repercussions.
So the first step was to trace Cyril’s mother to see what she had been up to before, during, and after the birth of Cyril, and her family background generally.
Emma Erskine was born in 1885 the eldest daughter of William Dodd Erskine and Emma Suttle. The Erskines were originally from Wigton in Scotland were Gunsmiths by trade, Thomas Erskine (Emma’s Great Grandfather) had started the Company in 1795 at Newton Stewart he was succeeded at Newton Stewart by James Erskine, who invented and patented the Erskine Cartridge Loading Machine. The Erskine Company was one of the oldest firms in the trade., specialising in Gunsmithing and Fishing Tackle Trade, and Manufacturing of Cartridge Loading Machines.
John Erskine, one of the founder’s sons, and the father of William Dodd Erskine had come to England, in fact to Liverpool and was apprenticed with his brother James to the Williams Company in the 1840s when there was a demand for British shotguns for export to the USA and Germany. Together they built a business, and won a Bronze medal in 1851 at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace for their shotguns.
John stayed in Liverpool for nearly thirty years, married a local girl, and had three sons and a daughter, but their two elder of sons had died relatively young, leaving William Dodd Erskine to carry on the line in England after his parents retired up to Scotland. Most histories of the Erskine Family claim that the male line died out after this generation, but Time detectives research has shown that the male line carried on in London with William Dodd Erskine.
William Dodd Erskine was a Watch Dial Painter, a skilled job, providing a liveable income, he would never get rich, but would always be able to provide for his family. After his parents moved north of the border, William Dodd move south to London, where he found work and lived in the Finsbury area of London.
William Dodd Erskine was a creature of habit, and liked stability, he lived at his first address of 37 Northampton Street Finsbury for seven years, his second address at 14 John Street for four years, and his last address of 32 Clerkenwell Green from 1897 to 1929, over three decades. These were humble lodgings in amongst more affluent areas. He kept the same trade during his entire life, sitting at a workbench carrying out the careful and detailed work of painting watch faces. It seems the only adventurous thing he did in life was to marry Emma Suttle in Emmanuel Church Camberwell in 1880. It seems that William married Emma for love.
Emma had travelled down from Clare in Suffolk to find employment as a Domestic Servant in London, and wound up in 1871 working for the MacLean family in Windsor Road Camberwell. Alan MacLean was a fairly well to do Post Office Clerk who could afford Emma as a general servant and another woman as a nurse to help his wife with their baby son. This genteel lower middle class household must have seemed a far cry Emma’s dirt floored background in the family of agricultural labourers, and it seems that the vision of conspicuous consumption that she witnessed proived too much for her.
Her short lived career with the MacLean household came to an end a year later in 1872 when Emma was tried and found guilty of stealing a Gown from the family and was sentenced to 6 months in Wandsworth Gaol. Wandsworth was firm and run with military precision, women who couldn’t read when they went in would sometimes come out in a more literate state, and they would also be taught to sew and make clothes. On the other hand there were not great opportunities for fraternisation, and women would be made to wear a veil (see picture) when taking exercise in the prison yard. Spending time in Prison would have made it very hard for her to find work going forward and she faced a life of poverty as a result, until of course she met and married the stolid and unadventurous William Dodd Erskine, who saved her from that life. What we know from the prison record is that Emma was petite, 5 feet tall weighing 7stone 5 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes, she could read and write a little imperfectly.
Whatever trials she lived through during and after her incarceration, William was her saviour, she was still living in Camberwell when they were married, perhaps he never knew of her past imprisonment, perhaps the blue eyes and slim figure were too much for the quiet bachelor. Whatever the varying degrees of mutual attraction, the couple had four children in the eight years between 1882 and 1890. The only girl would be Emma Erskine born in 1885 and named after her mother.
Where the “Waller” came from
The one thing we can say about Emma Erskine, Cyril’s Mother, and Les’s Grandmother, is that she took after her mother in character more than her father. She also went to work as a Domestic Servant, and in 1901 we find Emma as a live-in General Servant at the age of sixteen with the widow Emma Chappell and her family at 13 Wellington Road, Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar in the East End of London.
Also living with the widow Chappell were her grown up son William Chappell a Church of England Clergyman, and her married daughter Jessie. Jessie was married to an accounts clerk named Harold Waller, with them was their nine year old son Stanley Waller. So this is the first time that the name “Waller” appears in our story.
Young Emma Erskine would have spent some time looking after young Stanley as part of her duties. Stanley would have idolised Emma as a young woman who took an interest in him, walking him to school, and feeding him his meals when he was at home. A good arrangement for everyone.
By 1903 the Chappells and Wallers had moved to a large eight roomed house in Hornsey, a more salubrious area outside of the East End of London. 1903 was the year that Harold died, leaving Jessie Waller as head of the family with her son Stanley and Mother-in-Law Emma Chappell still living with her. They now had a new servant fifteen year old Beatrice Cooper. Stanley the son was in education as a Pharmacy Student.
Emma Erskine was back home with her parents in Clerkenwell Green, still noted as a domestic servant, but not living in. In October the following year, 1912 Cyril “Waller” was born. Intriguingly, the address where Cyril was born, and the address of the witness (Emma’s Mother) was given as Camplin Street in Deptford, South London.
There are no other records of the Erskines living in Camplin Street Deptford, and the address itself was one of many privately rented small houses in a well to do comfortable working class area south of the river Thames, not that far from Clerkenwell, but far enough that you could be a stranger in the area but still in reach. It looks highly likely that someone had paid for the renting of the place in Camplin Street so that Emma could have her baby quietly and out of sight with her worldly-wise mother in attendance to make sure she was alright during the birth. Camplin Street, was inhabited by very respectable working class people, railway workers and junior clerks, so would not have been cheap to rent, Young Emma would not have been able to afford the rent on her own, and her father had always been very frugal in the accommodation for his own family, with four adults living in two rooms on the first floor of the Clerkenwell Green apartment, so it is highly unlikely that Emma’s father William Dodd Erskine could have paid Emma’s lodgings in Deptford. So why was Emma living in Deptford with her mother at the time of Cyril’s birth?
The reason for this was that Cyril was illegitimate, the same reason the father is not mentioned in the relevant place on the birth certificate. So why the “Waller”? A mother putting a surname as a middle name on an illegitimate baby’s birth certificate is invariably a way of the mother naming the father without risking legal action against her. If the parentage can’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and if the father refused to acknowledge the baby, then claiming the father’s name could lead to serious consequences for a working class girl if the father’s family were prepared to pursue a case against her. The surname as a middle name was their legal way out whilst still pointing the finger at the culprit. As for the rental of the Camplin Road lodgings, it seems a reasonable conclusion that that was paid for as “hush” money by Cyril’s unnamed father’s family to avoid a scandal.
Come on you Lions
The funniest part of all this is that being born at 75 Camplin Street, Cyril was born within sight of Millwall Football Ground, as Camplin Street (as it’s now called) leads off of
Cold Blow Lane where the club was from 1910. Les is loyal West Ham fans, this makes for a wonderful irony, but lost on anyone who doesn’t understand the bitter rivalry between the two London Football clubs. …and just for Les, here’s Millwall’s club logo, enjoy Les.
Post Script: War hero in the Erskine Family
At least two of Emma’s brothers (my mate Les’s Great Uncles) served in the Great War. Unfortunately not all their war records have survived the German bombing of the Records Offices in the Second World War, but we do know that Emma’s eldest brother John William George Erskine was a Corporal in the London Regiment. Emma’s younger brother Henry Erskine, joined up well before the Great War, and in 1911 was serving as a Private in the Bedfordshire Regiment in Bermuda and Jamaica.
The really interesting time for Henry came in the Great War, when long term professional soldiers like him were the core of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that blunted and stopped the Blitzkrieg tide of the massive German advance across Northern France and Belgium.
Henry’s greatest hour came in the Battle of Thiepval and The Schwaben Redoubt in September 1916. The commanding officer described the action that Henry took part in, and I’ve abbreviated it below:
” The Lewis Guns did great execution at this point.Two more strong points were taken at point of bayonet after a bomb preparation. The situation hereafter became very difficult as it was impossible to recognise any trenches owing to the intensity of the Artillery preparation which had obliterated everything. The final objective was almost impossible to locate accurately. This may account for parties of men over reaching by far the final objective. The final objective was held early on in the day and the whole of the Boche front line by parties of Lancashire Fusiliers, Bedfords & West Yorks. until the two latter were withdrawn at dawn, 29th.
The whole of this operation was carried out with great dash, personal cases of daring bravery were very numerous. The taking of strong points with a determined rush came off every time both on 27th & 28th. The fact that the right of the right attack was blotted out by machine gun fire may have led to the Queens filling in the gap and causing them to lose their real line.
I was fully prepared to hold line won by us till day light or even later. Considering the great difficulties and the continuous barrage communication though slow was good. The work done by all the runners of the Battalion was beyond all praise. They were run off their legs from Zero until day light next morning and yet were ready to go on. As inevitable the question of later was one of extreme difficulty, by far the larger majority of the men fought on without fluid (water etc) of any sort from Zero. The courage, resolution & endurance displayed by all ranks was quite wonderful. They were out to kill and the Battlefield is a witness that they carried out to the full their intentions.
Even when the Battalion had been relieved by the R.W.K. and volunteers were called for in the event of a counter attack being successful on the ground they had so dearly won the preceding day, every man declared his willingness to return at once if needed. I might mention the extreme need for more stretchers. The Regimental stretcher bearers were absolutely inadequate to cope with the numberless cases of all Regiments, some means might be devised to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded and perhaps save many valuable lives. As it was the stretcher bearers of every Battalion worked right through the night and into the morning still leaving many men untended, who might have been brought in were more bearers available.
During this attack Capt. Bridcutt [John Henry BRIDCUTT, DSO] who was observing the operations through a very excellent Boche periscope noticed that the Boches had run down the front and intermediate trench had lined their parados and shot into the left flank of the advancing troops. All available men consisting of servants, runners, signallers etc. were lined up in front of the Battalion Head Qtrs and commenced rapid fire into the flank of the Boche doing great execution and causing them to retire hastily.”
For his part in this action Henry Erskine received the Military Medal, this medal was awarded to ordinary soldiers, not officers, for bravery in the face of the enemy. The report is interesting not least as it refers to the Germans as “the Boche”, and reflects the desperate and savage nature of the fighting, with great emphasis on the soldiers “intention to kill” no fannying about with limited engagements in those days, this was hand to hand combat red in tooth and claw, even the generally non-combatant officers servants, runners, and signallers taking up arms and driving off a German flanking attempt at one stage.
Next puzzle to unravel
So we’ve tracked down Les’s Grandmother, Cyril’s Mother’s Erskine lineage, but which Waller was the father? Well, we’ll find out in the next instalment.