A blameless but stoic victim of bereavement and pain – a personal story
Frank Tolworthy’s death in service in 1917 is commemorated on a small metal plaque, which I inherited from my mother. She inherited it on the death of her long-term childhood friend Mary, the daughter of Frank and his wife. I treasure it because it reminds me of the needless sacrifices so many people made in the first world war. And it reminds me of Frank’s wife, known as Tolly, whom I knew for 25 years.
An avoidable, unwanted war
The ‘Great War’ was supposedly the war to end all wars. Unwanted by the vast majority, it was mostly aggrandisement, jingoism and bullying on the part of great power rivals whose leaders were unwilling to compromise with each other. Averting conflict was not their main preoccupation. There was nothing inevitable about that war; given a strong will, it could have been avoided.
But the will wasn’t there. There is a lemming-like, self-destructive dimension to the collective human psyche, which rears up at times, and which it is the highest responsibility of leaders to try to dissolve. Sometimes they try and succeed, sometimes they try and fail, and sometimes they don’t even try, or try hard enough.
The ‘Great War’ fell into the last category, which is hard to accept given that three of the main leaders in the conflict were cousins: George V, Tzar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The situation was complex, with an existing web of great power alliances across Europe, but that was no excuse. These three characters were no statesmen.
The outcome was death, suffering and destruction on a monumental scale across Europe and beyond, far exceeding anything seen previously in world history. And the seeds were sown for a new conflict 20 years later.
Tolly and Mary
The plaque also reminds me of the many times in our childhood that I and my brother spent in the company of Mary and her mother. Following her bereavement in 1917, not only did Tolly live a long lifetime of widowhood, bringing up her daughter on her own between the wars, but she increasingly suffered from severe rheumatism and arthritis. For the last third of her life, after WWII, which is when I knew her, she was so incapacitated that she could barely move around her tiny alms house cottage.
Tolly’s only carer was her daughter, Mary, who herself suffered quite badly from arthritis, though managed to work as a seamstress at the local hospital. Their life was very frugal. Their cottage had three rooms: a bedroom just large enough for a small double bed and a toilet in one corner; a living room with an open fireplace and a table in the middle, which took up most of the space in the room; and a tiny kitchen containing a stove, a paraffin heater, one chair and one small table used for preparing vegetables and dishing out plates of food.
My brother and I spent many Saturdays with Tolly and Mary while our parents were at work. Mary often took us out for a bus ride to a local park or place of interest. On one occasion she took us on a 20-mile bus ride to the seaside, a major outing for us and her. We sat on the beach and ate the sandwiches she had prepared, including a boiled egg each which we had to peel. There was salt too, in a little twist of paper. Of course, there was the usual fuss and amusement about getting sand in the sandwiches, what to do with the eggshell, and how to undress under a towel without being seen.
We would come back for tea with Tolly in the evening and wait for our parents to pick us up. The best part was making toast on the end of a long fork in front of the open fire.
Our parents would come in the evening and we would all sit around the table and play cards. The single electric light bulb would not be switched on until it was too dark to see the cards in our hands. Heating consisted of the coal fire and the paraffin heater, leaving the bedroom very cold in the wintertime. As children, we didn’t feel the cold so much but Tolly and Mary did.
Tolly could only move around the house, very slowly and painfully, by holding on to tables, chairs, and door jambs. I used to help her with preparing vegetables for Saturday lunch. She never went out anywhere, just stayed in the house all day. No neighbours called, at least not while I was there. The ‘rent man’ called once a month, and Mary would leave the door on the latch for him to come in and Tolly would give him an envelope.
Occasionally in the summer, Mary would put a chair in the front doorway for her mother to take in some fresh air. She always wore a housecoat. She must have been in incredible pain most of the time, but I never knew her to complain, groan, make a face or expect any sympathy.
Once, my parents borrowed a wheelchair and helped Tolly into the front seat of their van and took her to our home a couple of miles away for a visit. The struggle and pain were considerable, and that one outing was never repeated.
No help for Tolly
As far as I know, neither Tolly nor Mary received any medical treatment. Tolly took just painkillers in the morning and evening. I never heard about any doctor or nurse visits. Post-war, you had to pay to see a doctor. Maybe that was why none came. Nor did she receive – to my knowledge – any help from social services.
People post-war, by and large, accepted their situation and didn’t complain. Maybe they should have spoken out more. Maybe our parents should have spoken out more on their behalf. I probably was unaware of all the details, but I feel in hindsight that there should have been more help.
Tolly was a blameless victim of a cruel disease and the ‘Great War’, which saw her lose her husband and Mary’s father, and which condemned them both to a life of near poverty. She, together with many millions of others, were part of the collateral damage from that conflict.
Her life was mostly a rather sad and painful one, though her daughter looked after her very well and was a great comfort to her, and she enjoyed our visits too. But the state with its resources and various services could have helped her more.
Tolly and Mary were inspirational for me and my brother in many ways: cheerful, interested, stoical, and entirely free of bitterness, despite the hardship and unfairness they faced. I’ll always be immensely grateful to them both.
Please send any comments to [email protected]