Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Martha Louisa Nixon (1869-1924)

Jean Skinner sent this account of her entrepreneurial maternal grandmother.

Martha Louisa Kirby was born in Shadwell, East London, and married Albert Thomas Nixon at Stepney in 1898. Her daughter, Winifred Rhoda (Jean's mother) was born in March 1900 in Hackney. Later, the family moved to 14 Hand Court, Holborn. Albert was a master carpenter, working at theatres, stages and exhibitions. By the eve of World War I, his wages were £136 a year whilst Martha was making a profit of £200 a year, running her newsagents at Hand Court.

Jean writes: 'Martha had a sort of benefactor or business partner who was a bookmaker, and she kept a betting book under the counter of her shop. She took bets against the law. When Albert wanted to go to the gold-rush (I think my mother mentioned Australia), Martha said there was no way she would take a baby and live in a tent. Albert went but returned threadbare and too fond of alcohol. This probably influenced at least two generations of temperance in our family, broken by my own children in the 1990s on going to university.
Martha was very petit (under 5ft) and had copper-coloured hair - the colour of a new penny - which was long enough for her to sit on. She was strict, authoritarian, and wanted her daughter (my mother) to be ladylike. She sent her to a convent school where Mum learned nothing useful except beautiful copperplate handwriting. Due to this, Mum worked, in the 1920s, as a ledger-keeper, standing up at a sloping desk with huge ledgers but not quite a quill pen! There weren't many women and the men had to move for her. It's interesting to note that I became a book-keeper and my daughter a chartered accountant.

Mum's lifelong friend was called Bobs (nicknamed after General Roberts, famous during the Boer War in South Africa). She was my godmother and also godmother to my son, Andrew. Bobs lived with an old lady called Mrs Turnbull who wore a long black skirt and little black mob-cap and could have been her grandmother. If Mum had a new dress made they did one for Bobs too because she was so poor.

At Hand Court, Martha had the shop and a back room but I don't know how many other rooms they had. In the 1901 census, there were three familiies living there - 23 people, 17 of them children. According to my Aunt Freda, it was dark and dim. It was opposite the Lincoln's Inn Courts, and if the newspaper boys didn't turn up, Mum used to have to do their paper rounds around the Inns of Court. She sometimes went on roller skates during the war years (1914-18). From 1916-18, Mum's father was in the Army.

Martha died, aged 55, at the National Hospital, Queen Square, Holborn, in 1924 (pictured above). She left an estate of £2550 and Mum was her sole benefactor and Executrix. Martha's husband, Albert, was cut out of the will completely and when Mum offered him a share, he refused.'