Where were you when…?

Have you ever been asked, “where were you when Princess Diana died or on September 11th or on New Years Eve 1999?

Memorable events Princess Diana Death

Flowers for Princess Diana’s Funeral, by Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

World events, celebrations and disasters often become milestone moments within our own life experiences. An anniversary of an event, be it a terrible tragedy, or a cause of celebration, will often prompt people to talk about where they were when they ‘heard the news’. Together we’ll reminisce about how we reacted, what were our first thoughts and how do we feel about events now time has passed.

September 11 memorial

September 11 memorial tiles in NYC, August 2004. By Diliff [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0, from Wikimedia Commons


Our ancestors experiences of major events, either local or national, were no different to our own. How many of us have asked our parents or grandparents, “where were you when JFK was shot…when man landed on the moon…when London experienced the great smog of the 1950s….during the heart of the blitz?” “Did you watch the Queen’s coronation? How did you celebrate D-Day?” Or “were you a mod or a rocker? a teddy-boy?” If you haven’t asked questions like these of your living ancestors, then perhaps you should. They will have a unique perspective on each of these events and they’ll prompt other memories too.

Unfortunately we can’t ask our deceased ancestors what they thought, or how they felt, about anything – but newspapers can give us clues to the stories that impacted their lives. Looking at papers can give clues about the social history of your ancestors lives.

What events would have stayed with our ancestors? Of course there are the obvious earth-shattering world events like World War I and World War II. But what about smaller more local events?


Putting this into practice…

I decided to run an experiment. I picked a random ancestor, one that I know at least a few addresses for, and decided to see if I could discover what her ‘I remember when…” events might have been. Would finding this out reveal anything new about his / her life?


Ancestor: Maria Penfold, nee Lewington (born 15 August 1867 and died 16 March 1943). Maria lived in Greater London, mostly around the Teddington and Brentford areas of Middlesex.

In 1881 Maria was living with her mother at Bell Road, East Molesey. Maria was 13 years old, and one of 15 children born to her parents, Eliza Street and William Lewington. 10 of these 15 offspring were born before 1881, with one dying before the time of the census. Maria’s home would have been crowded and money tight. Her father, William was a labourer and Eliza sometimes worked as a charwoman.

Google Maps Street View shows the types of cottages that Maria lived in with her large family.

The first memorable event that I found in the newspapers occurred in the January of 1881, when East Molesey was hit with heavy snow. Local businesses were forced to close leaving many without work or pay. There was grave concern over the effect of the snow upon the poor and local philanthropists offered food and coal to those in need. Did Maria and her family seek assistance during this terrible cold snap? Perhaps they visited Mr Summer for a jug of free soup? Did the children build snowmen as they queued for their free coal? It seems likely to me that this unusual weather stuck in the families collective memory, “remember that year we got that terribly deep snow…”

Storm East Molesey in 1881

Surrey Comet 22 Januray 1881, column 6, page 5. Retrieved from Find My Past on 22 March 2018.

Later in the same year the papers mention a Rag Fair that visited the local town. One resident was not happy about the rowdy crowds and excessive noise!

Surrey Comet reporting Rag Fair in East Molesey Park

Rag Fair in East Molesey Park, Surrey Comet 1 October 1881, column 4, page 5. Retrieved from Find My Past on 22 March 2018.

I’ve no doubt Maria and her siblings would remember the year that the Rag Fair arrived in town. Perhaps Maria, and her elder sister, Eliza Lewington were allowed to visit the fair alone?

Fairground horse

In their early teens, was this the sisters first taste of freedom? Did they enjoy some of the rides, or supervise their younger siblings at the fair? Alternatively maybe Maria’s mother disapproved of this ‘rough’ entertainment? Would Maria have sneaked off to enjoy the lights and the rides? Surely attending such an event would have been irresistible to any teenager or child? Who doesn’t remember their first fair or roller-coaster ride?


Moving forward in time into Maria’s adult life, she married William Penfold at St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Upper Teddington on 28 April 1895. The marriage was witnessed by Maria’s sister, Emily Lewington and although I’m sure it was a happy occasion, I wonder how Maria felt years later when she looked back upon the day? The marriage would ultimately not be a successful one. Despite having 9 children, William would disappear from family life sometime between 1909 and 1911.

In the same year as Maria married William, her sister Emily joined St George’s in the East Infirmary and began training as a nurse. She would never marry, and along with another spinster sister, Jessie Lewington, she would continue working in nursing for her whole life. Maria was close to these two sisters, my Nan remembers her mother (Maria’s daughter) talking about them often. I wonder whether Maria looked back on her wedding day with regret? Did she look at her two independent sisters and wonder what might have been?

All this was in the future though, and Maria and William would have just over 10 years together before their marriage appears to break down. I’m sure there must have been some good times before the bad.

A couple of years after their marriage, in 1897, the newlyweds probably celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. There was a procession through London, and the 22nd June (Jubilee Day) was declared a Bank Holiday. It’s likely that Maria and William enjoyed some of the festivities on that lovely sunny day. With holiday time for working-class families a precious commodity, a day of celebrations like the Jubilee, was likely to stick in the memory of those that enjoyed it. By 1897 Maria had two small children, and in June she would have been pregnant with baby number 3. Maybe Maria and William enjoyed some of the many local celebrations, spending time together as a family?

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration at St Paul's

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Service in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. By London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, and the January 1900 baptism of Maria’s son Frances Edward Penfold, reveals that the Penfold family were living at 7 Stanley Gardens, Upper Teddington with 4 children. Sometime between the January christening and March of the same year, baby Frances died.

I imagine that life at Stanley Gardens was unhappy for William and Maria. The road seems to have featured a number of cases of domestic violence. For example, these two articles feature in the 18 September 1901 edition of the Surrey Comet:

Domestic Violence article in Surrey Comet 1901

Domestic Violence story in Surrey Comet 1901

Surrey Comet, 18 September 1901, column 7, page 3

Stanley Gardens seems to have been a particularly poor road, in 1902 there are several accounts of young boys ‘turning cartwheels’ and begging (one of whom lived next door to Maria, at number 6). Mixed amongst the reports of vagrancy, theft and drunken behaviour is a host of stories regarding domestic violence. This crime may have been too common place for any singular event to have really stuck in Maria’s memory. Although, I think that in itself tells me something about the community within which Maria was immersed. Added to this background of unpleasantness, Maria was experiencing a great loss, as she mourned the death of her infant son.

National events must have seemed equally as bleak as those locally, and personally. Britain was at war (2nd Boer War) and then on 22nd January of 1901 Queen Victoria died after 63 years as reigning monarch. There is no doubt that for Maria this was one of those events which she would always remember, no one would forget where they were when they heard ‘the news’. It’s possible Maria, like thousands of others, attended the Queen’s funeral procession through London.

Queen Victoria's Funeral Procession

Queen Victoria’s Funeral Procession. By Russell & Sons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of months after Queen Victoria’s death, the 1901 census was taken. Maria and family had moved to nearby Springfield Road, Teddington and resided at number 29 until at least 1903. The area was just as troubled as Stanley Gardens. There are several cases of neighbours assaulting each other. Maria herself was victim to two minor assaults on two consecutive days in September. I wonder whether she’d done something to aggravate her neighbours!?

Surrey Comet, 8 October 1902, column 7, page 3

Perhaps it was events like these that precipitated Maria’s move away from Teddington, or maybe the area was associated with bitter memories? Between 1907 and 1909, Maria gave birth to her last two children. Both girls, Doris Eleanor Penfold and Lily May Penfold would die within a few months of their birth. Lily May’s christening in 1909 would be the last indication of Maria’s husband, William’s involvement in her life or the lives of their children.

By 1911 Maria had moved to 31 Mercury Road, Brentford. Although recorded as married, Maria’s husband William was not on the census. Instead, Maria was living with two of her maternal uncles and her youngest surviving daughter, Emily Frances Penfold. Maria’s other children, including my great-grandmother Henrietta Olive Lovegrove (nee Penfold) were either dispersed amongst relatives or at the Kingston Union Scattered Children’s Homes. 1911 was clearly a tough year, but Maria would find stability at Mercury Road. She would live their for 30 years, until her death in 1943.

At some point, I know my Great-Grandmother, Henrietta returns from Kingston Scattered Homes, to live with her mother at Mercury Road. On this road she would meet the neighbouring Lovegrove family, and fall in love with my Great-Grandfather, Edward Lovegrove.

Newspaper article Henrietta and Edward Lovegrove

Newspaper article featuring my great-grandparents (pictured top) on their diamond wedding anniversary. Note their surname is spelled wrong and my Nan confirmed that her mother never worked in an office, and the couple’s interests are nonsense!


During Maria’s time at Mercury Road, there would be plenty of ‘where were you’ moments for the family. For weeks during the summer of 1914 Maria must have read the papers with trepidation as trouble bubbled on the European front. It surely must have been with a trembling hand that Maria read the papers in August, declaring that England was at war with Germany. Or perhaps, like many others, Maria thought it would all blow over by Christmas? Either way it must have been a memory she, and millions of others, looked back upon as the horrors of World War One shook the nation.


There were local incidents too. As a long standing resident of Mercury Road, Maria no doubt would have known the unfortunate Mr James William Rouse who lived at number 12. His death was reported in the papers on 30 August 1929. The poor man was hit by a lorry whilst crossing Brentford High Street. An inquest found the death to be accidental and exonerated the driver.

Brentford would also be the centre of the most terrible of crimes. Maria must have been horrified by the grizzly discovery of a headless torso floating in the Grand Junction Canal in March 1935. She probably even knew two of the young lads that discovered the body part – as they lived on Mercury Road. The story of the torso (armless, legless and headless) would get stranger as the weeks unfolded. The legs of this poor individual were discovered in a parcel on a Hounslow train at Waterloo station. According to newspapers such as the West London Observer, police were certain the killing of the torso owner had occurred in Brentford or Hanwell. Various locals had seen a man carrying a tin box, lurking suspiciously at the canal.

Police were not only looking to discover a killer, but the identity of the torso. They investigated many ‘missing men’, including ‘Mary Ann’ – a male musician who “ape’d” the appearance of “Mary Ann” and sang outside the local public houses. The identity of victim and killer was never uncovered, but no doubt everyone had their theories and suspicions. This murder would generate local ghost stories and would undoubtedly be one of those ‘memorable’ events that featured in Maria’s life.


Maria would also have listened to news of the outbreak of World War 2 on the wireless. But she would not live to see it’s conclusion. She finally made the papers herslef, in the form of a tiny death notice on 20 March 1943 in the Marylebone Mercury.

Front and back of funeral card for Maria Penfold. Photo by Natalie Pithers, please seek permission for reuse.


These are just a handful of the many events that I found in the newspapers. I think looking for my ancestors ‘memorable’ events has really given me a greater insight into their lives. What will you find?

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