Esther and Fred
My grandfather, Israel Simons, was always called Fred. He was born in New York, but grew up in Birmingham, England, and never thought of himself as American. His family were wholesalers in the cigar trade. Fred was given a job with the firm and in 1894 married Esther, nee Harris, a great beauty with glorious auburn hair. Her family were in the clothing trade. They had two sons, Eric (who became my father) and Geoffrey.
I suspect there was a family disagreement. Fred lost his job. He and Esther moved to Sheffield where he worked for the large brewing company, Tennants. He was provided with a pony and trap and visited all the Tennants ‘tied’ public houses. He was required to ensure the beer and other drinks were properly stored, and took orders for further supplies.
He was interested in boxing. His idea of a good present for his grandson was a pair of boxing gloves. I was a disappointment to him because I didn’t want to hit anyone. He was not a boxer himself but became a referee. On at least one occasion he had to run away when the crowd at a match, angered by his decisions, threatened to beat him up. He advised his sons to wear bowler hats. Such hats, he said, could give quite a lot of protection to the head in a roughhouse. He would know.
Esther increased their small income by setting up as a costumier. In this capacity she met Mrs Appleyard, the wife of an elderly, very wealthy, Sheffield businessman. Esther, well acquainted with the clothing trade and with useful family contacts, advised the older woman about her costume and ensured that Mrs Appleyard was always dressed at the height of (Edwardian) fashion. Over a period of years the two women became close friends, until Mrs Appleyard’s unexpected death.
Her distressed husband, sure that his wife survived in the world beyond, became prey to a charlatan spiritualist. Eric and his friend Leonard Everitt, tried to convince the old man that he was being deceived. The young men attended several séances with Appleyard. Leonard casually mentioned he had lost a dear brother who played the violin. Sure enough, before long violin music was heard and contact was made. Len never had a brother, let alone one who was a musician.
Appleyard, recognising at least on this occasion that he had been grievously deceived, still yearned to make contact with his wife. Now Esther suddenly discovered that she was getting messages. She exploited her special knowledge of the dead woman to convince the gullible and vulnerable old fellow that she could help him. My father, Eric, was disgusted, furious and deeply ashamed. The disgraceful deception continued until Appleyard himself died. The trick had worked. He left his entire fortune and property to Esther.
Overnight she and Fred became wealthy. They moved into the Appleyard house, Carlton Lodge. I remember visiting them there once. It was a big gloomy place with a huge garden, servants and a great, shiny black car being polished by a cheerful chauffer. I must have been about five years old at the time.
Fred never did another day’s work. He did not claim to be a retired army officer but he played the role well. People spoke of him as ‘the colonel’ and he never corrected them. He grew a splendid moustache, waxed and turned up in fine points, wore his expensive clothes as if they were a uniform and adopted an abrupt militaristic manner. He marched wherever he went. Even a small, inexperienced boy could see through him after a while. He never mentioned to anyone that he had been a humble brewer’s agent or that he had once run away from a mob of boxing fans who believed he had been bribed. Maybe they were right in their suspicions.
It was not a sham when he complained of having chest pains.
Early in the Second World War my grandparents evacuated themselves from Sheffield and lived in an expensive hotel in the country. We went once to see them. As we entered through the big glass doors into the thickly carpeted, dark and stuffy hall, Esther, heavily rouged and painted, the famous auburn hair elegantly coiffured, swept towards us. She was decked in furs and a turban hat full of pins, with ostrich feathers curled round her head. She cackled:
“Hallooo my Daaahling,” held out her arms and engulfed me in fur and perfume. I confess I rather enjoyed the experience at the time but when I remember her now I think of her as a ghastly old witch. Later we discovered that much of the auburn hair was false.
We went with them to dinner, sitting near a window with a splendid view. Grandpa drank a lager and encouraged me to have a sip, despite my mother’s gentle objections. I thought the stuff most unpleasant and did not ask for more.
A few weeks later Grandma and Fred went to live in Cheltenham, a very fashionable resort for wealthy, retired folk. Late in 1941 we learned that Esther had cancer and in February 1942, she died in hospital. When the news arrived, Dad was upset, although he had little good to say about her during her life. He and Mum left urgently to attend to the funeral arrangements. Geoff, Dad’s brother, was overseas in the army and unable to get home. There was no great fortune remaining and the estate was not difficult to settle. The only valuable item left behind was a fine mink coat, which went to Auntie May. My mother would not touch it. I believe May had expected to have to fight for it.
Fred, suddenly destitute and alone, came for a short time to live with us in our tiny village cottage. The only place we could put a bed for him was in the main living room, a very unsatisfactory and uncomfortable arrangement. During his brief stay, Dad hardly spoke to him at all. His attitude to the old man seemed to be one of utter contempt. As soon as it could be arranged Grandpa went to live at the Ashover Hydro, a country hotel serving elderly folk in Derbyshire. It was within fairly easy reach for us and we all visited him once. He lived for a few more months before his fatal heart attack.