Great Aunt Bessie (she was born Sarah Elizabeth Mason) was my grandfather William’s youngest full sister; he was five years older than her. Their father was Charles Mason, and he was working for Colman’s, the mustard makers, at the time of her birth. She was born in 1889 in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. She went to the local school where she received a basic education. By the time Sarah was 21 she was working as parlour maid for a retired Army Officer in Folkestone. There she met a young clerk who worked for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, Douglas Hughes. He was employed on the Elham Valley Line, a short branch of 14 miles that ran from Canterbury to Folkestone. The cuttings and embankments of this pretty country railway were thick with primroses in the spring. The whole area was a provider of horticultural produce across the South East, and apple blossom gave it the authentic appearance of ‘the Garden of England’; it adjoined the East Kent coal field, but test bores near the line in the last years of the 19th century failed to find significant deposits of coal. It thus remained an agricultural district, free of the mine shafts and winding gear of a coal field. The service on the line was regular but not heavy, with seven passenger trains in each direction every weekday. In 1914 a railmotor – a tank engine with an attached carriage for passengers – was introduced for local services, while a non-stop train ran through from Canterbury to Folkestone.
When Sarah was 25 the First World War broke out, and things would never be the same again. Douglas and Bessie were married in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Elham in 1915. (The village was pronounced Eelum.)
Being so near the South Coast there was a strong military presence; with the Great War this only increased. There were for example Canadian soldiers billeted at nearby Shorncliffe. The Royal Train was brought to a siding on the Elham Valley line in 1915, while King George and Lord Kitchener rode off to inspect the troops.
In December 1915 a landslip closed the mainline between Dover and Folkestone; it remained closed for the rest of the war and all the traffic between these two ports was diverted along the Elham Valley line, which therefore became even busier. Red Cross trains carried wounded soldiers from France to hospitals in Canterbury and beyond, while fresh troops were transported to embarkation at Folkestone. Goods trains of materiel destined for the frontline kept the railway busy late into the night. One of the signalmen on the line was recruited into the Army, and his replacement was the first female to be so employed on the SE&CR. Following Grouping in 1923 the SE&CR was taken over by the Southern Railway; meanwhile the motor bus company began to attract passengers from the railway. Slowly the line declined and in 1931 it was reduced to single track. In 1940 the passenger service ended and the line was given over to military use. In 1947 it closed completely and the track was lifted the following year. It was thus never an operational part of British Railways, which was formed in 1948.
Back in 1916 Bessie Hughes was pregnant with her first child, and Charles was born in Elham on the 21st of November of that year. He was named after his grandfather Charles Mason (my great-grandfather). Charles Hughes was his second grandson, the eldest being my father, born in 1911. Douglas and Sarah’s second child was born in 1922; although he was christened Alfred after his paternal grandfather (a tea dealer from Rye in Sussex) he was always called John, his second name. The family was still living in Elham when John was born, and continued to do so for many years thereafter. With two boys the Hughes family was now complete.
Bessie’s youngest half-sister was Florence, eighteen years her junior, being born in 1907; their father’s first child had been born in 1880, nearly 30 years earlier. Florrie was married to Billy Witham in Kent at St Mary’s church in Elham, although they both came from Norfolk. Florence had lived with her father Charles until his death in April of 1938; she was unable to work, being rather immobile on account of a stiffness in her legs. Without her father’s pension for support she needed some alternative, and quickly too; she was married within a couple of months of her father’s death. She continued to live in the house in Russell Terrace, Trowse, as Billy’s wife. The properties had been built to house Colman’s workers, but Billy was not employed by them, soan arrangement must have been made.
Travel had been easy for railway worker Douglas Hughes, and his family had made frequent visits to Trowse to see his aged father-in-law Charles Mason – there was even a station a few hundred yards from his house there. A friendship with Florrie must have developed, and perhaps this explains why Kent was chosen for their wedding; this did not please other Norfolk members of the family however, who were not invited! As appears in the photograph, the only sibling to attend the wedding in the 13th century church was Bessie.
Before the ultimate closure of the Elham Valley line the Hughes family had moved to Cheriton, a suburb of Folkestone. Cheriton was a halt on the mainline from Tonbridge to Dover, but it was only used by Elham Valley line trains, so that it too closed in 1940. (Today the site of the Elham Valley line at Cheriton Junction has been obliterated by the huge marshalling yard where lorries and cars are loaded onto Le Shuttle for transport to Calais via Euro Tunnel.) Charlie Hughes had married Eileen Fenwick in Folkestone during the war, and while her husband was away fighting in the Navy Eileen had a daughter Christine. She was born in July 1945. The war ended on September the 2nd; Aunt Bessie was hanging out the washing when her neighbour rushed into the garden shouting ‘The Japanese have surrendered’!
After Aunt Bessie died in 1964 her widower Douglas Hughes moved from Cheriton to Croydon to live with his eldest son Charles and his family. Charlie had begun by following his father into working on the railways, until call-up came early in the war. After his war service in the Royal Navy he stayed on for peacetime deployment; after finally retiring from the Armed Forces he worked for the Inland Revenue at Somerset House in London. This fine Neoclassical building will be familiar toanyone who has walked along the Strand. Charles died in Croydon in 2001.
Charles and Eileen’s daughter Christine married a clergyman Frederick Woods in 1968. He had a parish in Colchester where she died in 2003, and her husband remarried. The Rev Woods and Christine had four children. Charlie and Eileen also had a son Neil in 1946; he is my second cousin, although I have never met him, nor indeed any of the people mentioned in this essay. It is only in the past few years that I have even learned of their existence. I have known of Sarah Elizabeth Mason for slightly longer, but initially believed she had died unmarried! It is only through meeting another cousin that I can piece together their story.