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Too many Cooks ... spoil the brats?

by Alan D Craxford.

My childhood musings

I am a Craxford. It is the family of my male lineage. It is the raison d'etre of this web site. It is however strange that for most of my life I was not aware of anyone else of similar descent (how often have I heard that repeated on these pages?). My sister Brenda and I lived in the knowledge of our mother's side of the family (the Cooks) - and even that contained some strange and tangled relationships. My father acknowledged his father but we knew nothing of uncles, great aunts, nephews or nieces.

I am going to share with you some distant recollections, anecdotes grey with the dust of settled decades, memories of childhood blurred by the passage of time. This will not be a dry and crisp genealogical treatise (although I will add the occasional reference where that illuminates the text). This is my acknowledgement of individuals who passed this way before me, breathed the breath of life and gave me some sense of belonging and direction into the future.

The original Winslow boy: Walter Cook (1854 - 1921)

Walter Cook

Walter Cook

Elizabeth Burditt

Elizabeth Burditt

"Grandpa Walter walked all the way to Leicester from London, you know!" Just who was it that told us this apocryphal tale the first time around? Whoever it was, the story was oft repeated as we Ovaltinees sat around the blazing fire clutching our nourishing nightcaps agog with recalled memories of the ancestors long gone. In fact Walter Cook, founder of this dynasty, was born in Grandborough in Buckinghamshire of rural stock. His father Joseph was an agricultural labourer, his mother a lace maker. He had six brothers and three sisters(1).

His next appearance in the records occurred when he was about seventeen years of age. He was working as a cowman and was lodging with the Paris family in Oxhey in Hertfordshire (2). There is no indication of how long he stayed in the vicinity, that he had ever been to London or that he was in the habit of walking long distances. We do know that he married Elizabeth Burditt from Lubbenham (a small village near Market Harborough in Leicestershire) in 1874 and that by 1881 he had moved to Leicester where he was employed first as a waggoner and then as a foreman stableman.

By the turn of the century he was settled into his home at 35 Tudor Road, Leicester and the extent of his family is shown in the 1901 Census return (3). A cursory glance at this simple list does not indicate the underlying complexities of this family history. It is his children that I shall be reminiscing about in the rest of this article. However theirs were the two faces who used to stare down from a heavy Edwardian photograph frame (now in Brenda's possession) hanging on my childhood memory wall.

"A Wand'ring Minstrel, I": George Cook (1883 - 1968)

George and Miriam

George and Miriam

Walter's son was a charming and gentle man. I do not ever recall him stirred to anger or dark moods despite the loss and disappointment that he must have endured during the early part of his adult life. The details are, to say the least, sketchy. He married Miriam Naylor (the youngest of nine children) and for a time they lived in Birstall where he was a sub postmaster. Tragically Miriam died five days after giving birth to Hilda (our mother) in 1916. For whatever reason, Hilda went to live with and was raised by Miriam's sister, Mary, and she did not see her father again until she was in her 20s. She used to recall her surprise at learning that he was to sing at a concert in Northampton where she was living at the time and of the emotional reunion when she met him afterwards for the first time.

George Cook as Nanki-Poo; the Mikado

"Nanki-Poo from 'The Mikado'"

He was a regular church goer (Trinity Methodist) and attended the local Fireside Social. He had, by all accounts, a fine tenor voice and was a long time member of the Leicester Amateur Dramatic Society. His particular favourites were Gilbert and Sullivan and he played most of the lead roles in their operettas during the 1920s. It was often said that if the first World War had not intervened that he could well have turned professional.

He married again, and it was with his second wife Ethel Goodall that I remember my grandfather. In those far off days of the 1950s, Brenda and I would be allowed to catch the Midland Red bus (route L2) on the corner of Hinckley road by ourselves and remember to get off again at the top of Bembow Rise when we went to visit them. Ethel was, if anything, the more straight laced and would keep us in check with a swift "Ooo ya, beggah!"

Merry Andrews Happy Families card game: A 1930s advertising product by Andrewes Liver Salts

"Merry Andrews Happy Families"

Put and take spinner

"Put and Take"

They had no children of their own but there was always something of simple interest going on outside when it was fine (a bonfire at the bottom of the garden, a game of quoits or clock golf on the lawn). On wet days we would play "Put and Take" - a game which involved winning or losing counters depending on the turn of a funny little spinner - or Merry Andrews (4) (no-one ever wanted to collect Mr Dudliver!!)

Ethel Cook

Ethel Cook

Those were the days of medium sweet sherry served in tiny glasses at eleven in the morning, Nuttall's Mintoes and Fry's Five Centres (in an ongoing internet poll (5) this is the second favourite discontinued chocolate bar). As a child I coveted a Dinky toy model of a red fire engine which had moveable ladders and retractable hoses which lived in an antique Waring and Gillow drop-front bookcase. As it turned out, my cousin Andrew got the toy but I still have the furniture to this day.

In the middle 1960s, Ethel died following a fall at home in which she broke her hip. Grandpa went to live with my parents after I had moved on the University. He was an avid reader (Dickens, Biblical tracts, Agatha Christie) and would sit for hours oblivious to happenings in the world outside or the passage of time. He was notoriously hard on the volumes and many a book would be cast aside with a broken spine.

Continued in column 2...

Page added: May 22nd 2005
Last updated April 3rd 2012

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"Oo's an 'appy Arthur, then?": Ada Annie Cook (1887 - 1965)

Annie Cook

Annie Cook "Auntie Annie"

Train ticket: Leicester to Manchester

Leicester to Manchester

We always went to Manchester for August Bank Holiday (it was always at the beginning of the month in those days). Brenda always had her birthday at Auntie Annie's and always had to have a party with the local kids that we only saw once a year. Mind you, travel by train then was an excitement - those massive, noisy, dirty, coal driven steam locomotives; waiting interminably on the station platform on that Saturday for the train to arrive; impatient to get hold of the comic saved from the previous week's delivery. Leicester to Manchester by rail was a delightful, picturesque route (long since closed) through the base of the Peak District. We would know the order, names and lengths of the fourteen tunnels by heart ("that was Chinley; here comes Disley and then it's Dove Holes next"!).

The Liverpool Dock Railway

The Liverpool Overhead Railway

These family holidays became a tradition very early on in my life. I am for ever reminded that at the age of three I would run up and down the station at Moorside (change here for Blackpool!) shouting "two twains! two twains!" We were taken to all the local sights - I vaguely remember riding on the Liverpool overhead dock railway(6) which was closed in 1956, and my father making a beeline for his tripe and onions dinner at the UCP (United Cattle Products) restaurant. The favour was returned at Christmas when everyone would come to us in Leicester. After midnight mass, Christmas Day was a traditional day - ladies prepared the dinner; gents went to the pub!

Coloured dominoes

"Double-9" coloured dominoes

Their home was a semi in the suburbs of Manchester. In his later years 'Appy kept chickens and grew raspberries and rhubarb. Brenda and I would take it in turns swinging on the garden gate. Auntie Annie was always "good" with children and had amusements and games galore. I do remember that she had a set of coloured dominoes that went up to double-9 (something I hadn't seen anywhere else until quite recently) I can still conjure up those days when I catch a whiff of a certain lavender scented bathroom cleaner!

Our Auntie Annie (christened Ada Anne) was the rather buxom, gregarious one. She left the family home in Leicester to marry Arthur Unwin, a merchant seaman. In his day he travelled the world. The apochryphal quote in the header of this section was applied to him one cold, wet day on the sea front of one of the towns on the North West coast - apposite no doubt to his expression of enjoyment (not!!). The name stuck; and so for ever more he was known as Uncle 'Appy. They settled in Swinton, Lancashire and had two children (Jack and Eva) just after the end of the first World War. Jack ultimately became an executive with Regent Petroleum, exiled to Aberdeen where he developed a weird Scottish accent with a Mancunian twang (or was it the other way around). Eva was a corporal in the Army during the second World War. She stayed at home, looking after her father until he died in 1985.

"I lift up my finger and I say tweet tweet": Elizabeth Cook (1889 - 1973)

Elizabeth Cook: 'Auntie Betty'

"Auntie Betty"

A typical house on Bosworth Street, Leicester

Bosworth Street

By contrast, Elizabeth Cook did not stray far away from the place of her birth. Dear, uncomplicated Auntie Betty! There wasn't a mean or bad streak in her. She married the postman (Edwin Putterill) from Lubbenham who was gassed in the trenches of the first World War and suffered chest problems for the rest of his life. They lived in a Victorian terraced house in Bosworth Street, a road which ran up the hill from Tudor Road to Fosse Road North where we used to live. The rear was reached through an entry which ran through the structure of the houses. The pervading atmosphere remained heavy and dark even into the 1960s. The front room remained an overstuffed Edwardian parlour with heavy drapes, heavy furniture and antimacassars on the chairs. The small scullery at the back was as equally old fashioned with its chipped Belfast sink (funny how they're back in style) and range. She kept a cat - an elderly Siamese called Jemima - which was fed on a diet of fish. The infusion of steamed cod with carbolic leaves a heady brew.

Uncle Ted was a character. Determinedly from the shires, aware of his roots but distinctly conservative in outlook, he had a very broad East Midlands accent which, coupled with his ill-fitting (at times) or absent (more often) dentures made understanding him something of a challenge. He, too, came from a small village (East Farndon) near Market Harborough where he had been the local postman. He had sustained a gas injury on the Somme in France during the first World War leaving him troubled with bronchitis.

Uncle Ted; Edwin Putterill

"Uncle Ted"

He would sit in front of a roaring fire, clutching a saucer full of hot tea into which had been dunked pieces of buttered bread, his flat cap covering his polished pate, fixing us with his gaze through round wire-rimmed spectacles and regaling us young 'uns with tales of the "cars" in the fields where he used to live. (It was only later that we realised he was not talking about off-road 4x4s but Friesians and Aberdeen Angus!)

That being said we were always welcome into their home and they were both delighted to see us. I was taught the rudiments of whist and dominoes (simple black and white ones this time) but learned about "threes and fives" and "donkey drop" and "kid's drop". It was there that I first encountered a gramophone - a real old wind-it-up, steel needle, 80 rpm tallboy on legs. There were a number of vintage records to go with it. There was the ever present Charles Penrose classic "The Laughing Policeman" but I particularly remember "I lift up my finger and I say tweet tweet." This was a comedy song written by Leslie Sarony in the 1920s but was also performed and recorded by Lupino Lane and Gracie Fields amongst others (If you really want to savour the experience you will find an old British Pathe film from 1929 of Sarony singing it, (7), on Youtube.)

The other Cooks

Nellie Dible

Nellie Dible

And what of the others from the 1901 census? Walter's oldest daughter Jessie married insurance agent Elijah Benson who was already living with the family. Next in line, Mary Ann (known to the family as Polly) also married and moved away. One of these two girls died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis. Move of their stories will be revealed in the pages of this section.

Also mentioned on the census return is Nellie Youle (another boarder) who was aged 6 years at the time. I have never been sure what her long term relationship to the Cook family was (although this changed recently with the advent of the 1911 England census: See Auntie Nellie's story: Nellie Youle Swann - Ed). She married Roy Dible when she was older and in the years of our childhood she was introduced as Auntie Nellie. She was a semi-invalid, suffering from asthma whilst being a heavy smoker. She had one son, Fred and one daughter, Hilda, who was a district nurse and enthusiastic cat lover.

All in all it is quite surprising that three generations ago both sides of the family were spawning large numbers of offspring (my great grandfather John had seven; Walter Cook had six). My father and mother were both only children. There are no youngsters to carry on the lines from our aunts and uncles mentioned above.


1. 1861 England Census: Winslow RG9/870 22 102
2. 1871 England Census: Watford RG10/1381 7 150 9
3. 1901 England Census: Leicester St Mary's RG13/3009 61 20 4
4. 'Merry Andrews': A Happy Families card game advertising Andrews Liver Salts from the 1930s. http://www.kiddstoys.co.uk/crdandws.htm
5. POLL: Which of the following 'discontinued' bars would you like them to bring back?
6. Liverpool Overhead Railway at timbosliverpool.co.uk/lor/ :
7. Leslie Sarony sings I lift up my finger and I say tweet tweet - Youtube.

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