Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Old Nan Constant - Perhaps a Paragon of Virtue After All!

For more than a decade my brother had been feverishly engaged in Family History Research in an attempt to find out more about his father who had died when he was only four and of whom he had only tantalisingly obscure memories. Lack of knowledge caused him a great deal of distress but I often thought that when he turned up horrifying details about the family in his investigations it only made things worse although we laughed together about each unpleasant incident emanating from the past and tried to make as light of them as possible. We both agreed that Old Nan Constant was a feisty lady and to be a better grandmother would have required only a minimum of effort. But what Bernard eventually found out about Nan Hendy, our father’s mother was in a quite different category of awfulness and up against her poor Old Nan Constant began to look more and more like a paragon of virtue. In November 1913 the Stipendiary Magistrate, Alick Tassell who sent our grandmother to prison noted that she `didn’t care tuppence about her children’. Kate Hendy appeared before him at Chatham Police Court on a charge relating to her youngest children, our father being three years old at the time and his baby sister, Mary who was just six months. Mr L.A Goldie prosecuted on behalf of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and said that the case was a very bad one, entirely due to Nan Hendy’s intemperate habits. He added that she was living apart from her husband, a man of excellent character and a pensioner from the Royal Marines who had lost both his job and his home on account of her drinking and aggressive behaviour. He said that the youngest two children (Bernard Joseph and Mary Elizabeth) were in fact illegitimate. Nan Hendy now worked from time to time as a rag picker and although she earned very little it was enough to keep her drunk. She was continually seen in public houses, made no attempt to mend her ways but instead would abuse those who were desirous of helping her and her children. A neighbour called Annie Burton said that Nan Hendy occupied the top bedroom of the same house as herself and `only came home when she thought she would.’ She left the two youngest children in the room quite uncared for. Occasionally she took the baby with her and had been seen carrying the child whilst blind drunk and falling over. She was drunk almost every day of the week, Mrs. Burton maintained. Several times she had been given notice to quit which generally resulted in others vacating the house fearing threats that the prisoner made. Inspector Collard of NSPCC said that when he visited the room on a Saturday morning he found the baby lying in an old tin bath upon two rotten and dirty pillows and the three year old was sleeping on bare boards. The room was in a filthy condition and the children were verminous. The prisoner, Kate Hendy was nowhere to be seen. She was arrested later that day. The children had already been removed to the Workhouse. The prisoner, on oath, denied neglecting her children and appeared to be not at all abashed. She thought that the witness Mrs. Burton might be at fault. However, the Magistrate found that there was overwhelming evidence that the children had been seriously neglected and that she cared not at all about them. She was sentenced to prison with hard labour! On discovering this bit of family history that nobody could be proud of, my poor brother wept for his father, just three years old and going through so much emotional trauma. Then he wept for himself and pointed out that after ten years of digging it seemed unfair to discover that neither of us were Hendys after all! I told him that it didn’t matter but in fact it did because it is a very strange feeling to find you are not who you have always thought you were. I wondered and wonder still who we might actually be.

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