the rug did it
The Demon Drink Didn’t Kill Grandma
Her oldest son survived World War I, but was ill for the rest of his life from the debilitating effects of mustard and chlorine gas. Children of her brothers and sisters were killed in World War I and II, others arrived home suffering from permanent injuries and depression. Her second son, my uncle, suffered from epilepsy throughout his short life and was accidentally drowned on the farm when he was thirty-four years old. Two months later his four year old son accidentally drowned nearby.
Grandma was shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of her son and grandson. In the following year Grandpa and Grandma lost their large farm when they couldn’t meet the mortgage payments, they had increased the mortgage to help their son buy his own farm. They retired to a small lot with an old house in a nearby country town. Grandma wasn’t a story teller and never told me about those days or the convicts in the closet. The closest she came to telling me about her ancestors was when she said they were “different to us.”
There were many things Grandma didn’t tell me, things that apparently were no business of a young boy. She had her “house rules” and made sure everyone, including Grandpa, understood them. She didn’t say why, they were just the rules. There was no smoking, drinking or swearing in her house and everyone went to church on Sunday. We were told to scrape the soles of our shoes outside before we went into the house, say please if we wanted anything, thank you if we got it and say nothing if we didn’t get it. Children talked only when spoken to first and the animals were fed before we fed ourselves. If we didn’t grow it in the garden, or raise it then we didn’t eat it.
Life was simple as long as we obeyed Grandma’s rules. I got along just fine with her because she also had a soft and caring side. She never whacked me even though many times I deserved it. I loved our conversations when she sat in her old wooden rocking chair at the back of the house, where she could watch Grandpa working in the garden, and I sat on the cold stone steps. When I asked about her family she said I was too young to understand. She didn’t try to force religion on me, just made sure I went to church on Sunday. She warned me about the “demon drink” and said she didn’t approve of my father’s drinking habits. Grandpa didn’t drink because Grandma would make his life too miserable. At Christmas when my mother made a traditional “pudding.” Grandpa always lined up for second and third servings. We didn’t tell Grandma there was brandy in it.
When Grandma talked about Grandpa it sounded like my school report. Attendance: good. Conduct: fair. Remarks: could do better but must work harder. Grandpa was best at things he liked doing. He liked messing around with his old draught horse and every morning he hitched up the horse to the wagon and set off down the road without telling Grandma where he was going. That was a conversation he didn’t need to have early in the morning and it was better to tell her when he came home because then he would have known, too.
It was after she died that I discovered why some of our family were “different.” Grandma was the oldest of twelve children and had eight brothers. Her father was born in Leicestershire. In 1845 when he was nine years old he traveled by sailing ship with his parents, four siblings and 300 other bounty immigrants to the colony. The journey on the 950-ton Elizabeth took 14 weeks. It was an incredible journey to the other side of the world for a family with five young children. Another daughter was born shortly after the ship arrived and was named Elizabeth, after the ship that brought them safely to the new land. According to the records, seven other children were born in the colony in a place named Cow Pastures.
Grandma’s father had no formal education. He farmed with his father at Cow Pastures from the age of nine and when he was fifteen worked with his father in the gold fields. When he was twenty-four he married the daughter of a convict named Harry Angel who had arrived in 1818 to serve a life sentence for highway robbery.
When I discovered that my great-great grandfather had been convicted of highway robbery it brought back memories of the old black and white English movies I saw as a young boy. The stories of “Robin Hood” who stole from the rich to give to the poor were the first to enter my mind. I could still remember the tall handsome bandit mounted on a magnificent black horse waving his longbow and shouting to the stagecoach driver: “Stand and deliver.” The driver handed over the gold he was carrying and jewelry from his beautiful passengers to the “poor” Robin Hood who galloped away into the forest pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham and his men. Robin escaped with the help of his own “Merry Men” who obviously enjoyed the “demon drink.” These thoughts flooded back as I pursued the records of the trial of my tall, handsome and eloquent great-great grandfather, anxious to share the magnificent story with my children and grandchildren.
After exhaustive research in England I uncovered the story of the convict Harry Angel and gained an understanding of what my grandmother meant when she said “they were different.” Harry had no education and worked in market gardens and dairy farms in Hampshire. In 1816 he and a friend were digging up and bagging potatoes for a local farmer to sell at the Salisbury market. Apparently the three were later enjoying a “drink” at the George Inn when the farmer informed his two workers that he could not pay them their wages. The farmer left the inn, followed by the workers who reportedly robbed him of the money owing. There was no “stand and deliver,” no gold or jewelry and no “tally ho” and off into the forest. They went back to the inn to spend their wages.
On March 21, 1917 Harry and his friend in crime were charged with highway robbery, which apparently covered almost everything involving petty theft. There was no mention of the “owed wages.” Later Harry and his co-conspirator were convicted at the Wiltshire Assizes court. Harry, obviously the instigator of the crime, was sentenced to life in prison and his friend was sent to a correction house for one year. Harry’s sentence was converted to transportation to the penal colony or “nearby islands.” He was described as 5ft and 2½ inches tall with a “ruddy” complexion, therefore not the image in my mind of a Robin Hood.
Harry was a hard worker, first in road gangs and later as a convict servant on a large farm. In the 1820s he was assigned to an expedition that explored the inland areas of the country and as a reward for his service was conditionally freed of servitude. He was granted land for a farm and at the age of forty-two Harry married the twenty-one year old daughter of two early convicts. One had arrived in 1791 after being convicted of stealing two hundred pounds of glue valued at about $10 (he was a chair maker) and the other, Mary Wade, arrived in 1790 after being sentenced to death (converted to transportation to the penal colony) for highway robbery. Mary was ten years old when she and another girl stole clothes from an eight year old girl and pawned them for about 25 cents. Given the (then) value of the clothes, the death sentence and imprisonment in the notorious Newgate Prison was harsh treatment for a desperate young London street urchin. The transcript of her trial on January 14, 1789 at the Old Bailey (The proceedings of the Old Bailey Ref: t17890114-58) was fascinating reading. In summation, the Judge addressed the male jury with the words:
Gentlemen, I am distressed how to state to you, that this is a less crime than robbery; because, though there is no such violence as would affect the constancy of a grown person, or alarm them; yet the very circumstance of such a child falling into the hands of two strangers, young as they are, standing over her and stripping her, does seem to me to be equivalent to holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person; therefore, I cannot state it to be any thing less than robbery; the consequence of that is, that they must answer it with their lives.
After little deliberation the jury replied: Guilty, Death.
The two girls were taken to Newgate Prison to be hanged but three months later the sentence was rescinded and the girls were transported to the penal colony for the term of their natural life. The Lady Juliana was the first convict ship to leave England after the First Fleet. Its departure was delayed for six months before sailing on July 29, 1789 with 226 female convicts on board and arrived 309 days later after lengthy stops at Rio de Janeiro and Capetown where the female convicts provided entertainment for sailors on other ships in those ports. Transportation to the penal colony on the Lady Juliana with older, hardened female convicts and prostitutes would have been at least a character building experience for the then 12 year old Mary Wade.
So Grandma was descended from some tough cookies and even though she was only about 5ft and 2½ inches tall she could hold her own with the boys. Grandpa understood that so didn’t mess with her, choosing the option of going off with the horse and wagon in the morning. My love and admiration for Grandma increased after my research into her family, but as she had died many years before I wasn’t able to tell her or that my vision of highway robbery, shaped by the movies of my youth, was shattered.
As she approached the age of 90 Grandma began to suffer from heart problems. Even though she didn’t like to see a doctor she finally had to go when breathing became difficult. The doctor said with her age there was little he could do, surgery was out of the question and there was no medication that would be of use. He suggested she take one or two “nips” of Hospital Brandy before she went to bed at night to stimulate her heart. Grandma called in at the local pharmacy and was told they did not sell it, but she could get a bottle at the local saloon. She thought it strange that the saloon would sell medicine, too, but knew she couldn’t go in to ask for it. Only men were allowed.
The saloon was a sinister place, only inhabited by deviates Grandma said and I agreed even though I didn’t know anything about deviates. I did know what was inside the saloon because I once stepped around the large wooden screen inside the door to see a dark, smoke-filled room with stools along the wall and poorly dressed men quietly drinking hard liquor or sweet wine and staring blankly at the floor. My heart was beating so loudly I thought they would hear me before I quickly ran away. I had the same feeling when we climbed through the window of the local haunted house.
My father said he knew where to buy his mother the medicine, so Grandma was relieved. She did not want to have anything to do with the “demon drink” or the people who sold it to the deviates. Grandma was sleeping longer after one nip of Hospital Brandy so she thought she would increase the dose. Over time the nightly dose increased to three or four nips and Grandma became more talkative but harder to understand. She still did not talk about her ancestors, but I learned a lot about the people who lived next door and across the street. Her advice to Grandpa became more pointed and louder. She slept longer at night and was happier during the day except when she had the lingering headaches that came with her age.
Grandma was almost 93 years old when one night she woke up with the urge to go to the bathroom. In the dark room she felt her way towards the door not wanting to wake Grandpa. She forgot there was a large rug in the middle of the room, tripped over it and fell heavily onto the floor. Her screams woke Grandpa who struggled to get Grandma back into bed. Every movement was painful because she had broken her hip.
The next morning the ambulance took Grandma to the hospital. When I went to see her I was shocked to see how small and frail she looked in the bed covered with a white sheet and blanket. She was as bright and feisty as ever, full of suggestions for Grandpa and anyone else who stopped by.
She didn’t like the hospital because she wasn’t sick and wanted to go home, but they wouldn’t let her. The food wasn’t fresh and the medicine wasn’t up to the standard she had at home. Grandma wasn’t able to get out of bed so complications began to overcome her strength and resistance. She became weaker and her breathing became more difficult as fluid began to invade her lungs. Grandma’s long life quickly came to an end.
Grandpa quietly walked away and caught the bus home. He didn’t talk much, but his eyes told the story. It was a large funeral with family, extended family and friends from all over. The “different” folk were there and I met many of them for the first and last time. At the time I didn’t know why they were “different to us,” they just seemed the same to me.
Grandpa resumed his early morning ritual of harnessing the old horse to the wagon and heading off at walking pace to go somewhere. His ritual wouldn’t change, except he didn’t have to remember where he had been all day.
- Image: Ad for McWilliam's Hospital Brandy from McWilliam’s Family Winemakers (promotional/fair use).