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Elaine Everest

A Mother Forever























A Letter from Elaine

Dedicated to the memory of the twelve women and their foreman who died in the explosion at the W. V. Gilbert munition works, on the banks of the Thames between Erith and Slades Green, on 18th February 1924.

Edna Allen, aged seventeen, of Alexandra Road.

Alice Craddock, aged eighteen, of Arthur Street.

Elizabeth Dalton, aged twenty-four, of Lewis Road, Welling.

Alice Harvey, aged forty, of Arthur Street.

Gladys Herbert, aged twenty-three, of Bexley Road.

Stella Huntley, aged twenty, of Corinthian Road.

Edith Lamb, aged twenty-three, of Upper Road, Belvedere.

Ethel Pullen, aged eighteen, of Bexley Road.

Polly Smith, aged eighteen, of Powell Street.

Doris Sturtevant, aged eighteen, of Manor Road.

Alice Sweeney, aged seventeen, of St Francis Road.

Irene Turtle, aged twenty-two, of Maxim Road.

Mr T. Jones, from East Dulwich


Erith, Kent

August 1905

‘You’ve got ideas above your station, my girl. If your father was alive now, he’d want nothing to do with you. The Tomkins family have always known their place in life; he wouldn’t want us rubbing shoulders with those who think they’re better than us,’ Milly Tomkins said to her daughter.

Ruby Caselton gave a big sigh and continued to pull a heavy rug from the back of the drayman’s cart, while he held the horse’s head steady. ‘It’s just a street of houses with hard-working people living in them. Could you take the other end of this please, Mum?’

‘What, with my bad ticker? You’ll see me into my grave, young lady. But then, perhaps that’s what you want – then there’ll be no one left to remind you of where you come from,’ Milly sniffed, folding her arms over her ample chest and turning away to look at the house the family were about to move into. ‘Those windows need a clean and the doorstep a good scrub.’

‘I can help you, Mum,’ George said, reaching up to help Ruby pull at the rug. It came tumbling off the cart, almost flattening him as he staggered back under its weight.

Ruby couldn’t help but laugh as she watched her five-year-old son disappearing under the rug. ‘Lord love you, George. Thank you for helping all the same. Why don’t you carry that basket of groceries into the kitchen? Then I can get some food on the table as soon as we have this load inside. Your dad may be home by then, and he’ll be shouting for his dinner.’ She didn’t add that he never turned up until her work was done and he had no need to roll up his sleeves and help her.

‘He’s running true to form, I see,’ Milly snorted as she pulled her knitted shawl tighter around her shoulders. ‘That Eddie Caselton has a gift for sniffing out hard work and disappearing in the opposite direction. Now, your dad . . .’

Ruby knew her mum was about to lead off about her dad being an angel amongst all men, and she just didn’t have the time or the inclination to listen. The drizzling rain had started again, and there was a definite nip in the air coming off the nearby River Thames. Added to that, the child she was carrying in her swollen belly would be entering the world within weeks. ‘Mum, leave it to another time, will you? I never knew Dad, and I have other things on my mind at the moment. I could kill a cuppa, so why don’t you go in and see to the kitchen, eh? You’ll find a meat and potato pie in that basket our George carried in. We can eat once this load is off the cart.’ She knew her mum was partial to a pie and noticed her eyes light up at once.

‘I’ll get cracking,’ Milly replied, licking her lips as she headed up the short path to the front door, her hands empty. ‘It’s no place for me out in this rain – not at my time of life, anyroad.’

‘You’ve got yer hands full there, love,’ a friendly voice called out from over the road.

Ruby looked up from where she was examining the rug lying in a heap in the dust. She wasn’t sure if the woman watching from her gate was referring to her mum, or the furniture waiting to be unloaded and taken into the house. She stood up straight, wincing as a pain shot across the lower part of her back. As much as she’d been warned to take things easy, she’d gone against advice and insisted she could move the family into their new home without paying for hired help. It was their first proper home, as up to now they’d lived in rooms in a house shared with three other families near the river in Woolwich. There wasn’t a lot of money spare to pay for such things as moving men.

Smiling at the ruddy-faced neighbour, she replied, ‘You could say that,’ and then grimaced as another pain consumed her. She reached out to hang on to the side of the cart to help her stay upright.

‘My Lord, you shouldn’t be up on your feet in your condition. When are you due?’ the woman asked as she hurried to Ruby’s side and supported her. ‘You’re coming with me,’ she added, not waiting for an answer as she guided Ruby towards her own open front door.

‘Not for another month – but my furniture . . .’ Ruby gasped, unable to say much more.

‘Don’t worry your head about that. It looks to me as though there’s a baby wanting to be born. Sometimes they just can’t wait,’ her new neighbour advised. She paused to take in Ruby, who was so thin that she looked no more than a child herself. Her face was far too pale, and her blue eyes were circled in black shadows. She didn’t look well enough to deliver a healthy baby. ‘My oldest two are home from work for their dinner soon

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