Friday, 10 January 2014

talking about Nan (the Russian revolution and my family)

My Uncle Ian made me a book of family history, and I've been finding out lots of stuff from it.  Huge thanks to him for bringing history alive for me.

Today I'm going to tell you about the life of Helen Ann (Nan) Holden.

Helen Ann and her little sister Millicent May 
(known as May) picture from around 1900
Nan was the oldest child in a family with three children (her, Millicent May (May), and their brother Frank, who was deaf), living in Bolton, Lancashire.  She was born in 1880.  Her father was a Master Weaver at a Cotton Mill, and by the time she was 17 they also lived with her grandfather, who had been an engineer, before spending several years working as the Labour Master at a Bolton Workhouse.  He was by this time, an invalid.

After the death of her Grandfather, Nan's father took a job in St Petersburg, Russia, again as a Master Weaver, and the family went with him.  They socialised with the British Community in the city, Nan worked as a nanny, and claimed to have been friends with the Russian royal princesses, and even to have had a marriage proposal from a prince (although there is a slight possibility that she completely made this up), who unfortunately died of an unmentionable disease soon after.  

However, at some point, following a visit to family in Bolton, Nan, as a ship's passenger, was invited to dine at the captain's table.  There she met a young and promising Engineer called Harry.  Romance blossomed, and, in 1907, they were married. Nan's father told Harry he'd have to leave the sea, and helped him to get an engineer's job at a mill.

Initially, Nan and Harry settled in Bolton, where Harry worked at Dart Mill.  Nan had their first child, Mamie in 1908.  But in 1910, they went back to Russia and settled in Pereslavl, a beautiful little town not terribly far from Moscow.  Harry worked at the mill (and there's still a mill there), which was run by British people, but owned by the Tsarist government.  Between 1910 and 1917, Harry worked at the mill, and Nan had babies - Reg, Dave, Harry, and Dolly. 

Nan, Harry, and their children had a good life.  A nice house, plenty of staff, and a holiday home in Finland.  They had a sailing boat to take out on the nearby lake.  Nan's sister had married another engineer, and they lived nearby with their family, and all of May's animals - she collected animals, and had a deer that wandered around the house, and a pet raven.  All the family spoke Russian, and adopted Russian ways.  

However, theirs was not a normal life.  They were treated like nobility in their home town, and lived in much better conditions than the mill workers generally, who were paid a pittance and lived in terrible conditions.  It was Russia in the 1910s, and everyone knew things had to change.

Things had already been getting difficult.  During the first world war the supply of sugar had almost completely dried up, and the food that was available was a lot dearer than it had been before.  The Russian army was ill-prepared for war (as were the British - it was the poor state of the soldiers that led to the NHS being set up), and suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.  The Tsar had printed money to fund the war, but this had led to rampant inflation, and although the harvests during the war were good, the peasant farmers were unwilling to sell the food for fear they wouldn't be able to afford to buy it again.  This led to starvation in the cities, and yet more inflation.

Families like Nan's found their savings becoming worth less and less, while the value of Harry's good wage was going down.  The Tsarist government wasn't working, and the Germans helped to ensure that it would be brought down.  Late 1917/early 1918 saw the Tsar brought down and the Socialist state started coming into being.  This period of change would involve two years of civil war, and massive upheaval for all.

In 1918 Nan and her family made preparations to return to Bolton, alongside other British families they knew.  Nan was 38.  She had five children from baby Dolly to 10 year old Mamie.  Harry tried to send money over to Britain, but, it being a war and all, not all of it got through.  Their standard of living was dropping off a cliff.  Nan was selling whatever she could sell: wedding presents, her jewellery, even the family's cow.  She had also emptied all their savings accounts - even the children's.  Harry was borrowing from the mill.  In his contract it stated that an allowance should be paid to Nan, but she never received any of this.  This could not go on...

On October 1, 1918 at 11.30pm, Nan, May, and their children, left Pereslavl with as much luggage as they could take.  Harry accompanied them to Moscow, where the family dined out, had haircuts, and cups of cocoa, Nan and Harry went to the ballet, and they all stayed in a hotel and breakfasted together, before Harry gave Nan what money he could, and saw her off on her way.  From Moscow the party travelled to Stockholm, Bergen, and then Aberdeen, arriving finally in Manchester on the 13th.

Why didn't Harry go too?  Men who were of military age were not permitted to leave, so he was still working, and sending money to Nan, as well as helping to support May's family.  In October, he was thrown out of his home and went to live with May's husband, her father-in-law, and another man who worked at the mill, although he took his belongings, as he continued to sell them.  The household had three servants, although they were let go as the money ran out.

Harry and Nan reunited
Pic taken around 1928
Nan was in Blackpool, England, caring for her five children, and her father, who was sickening, and would die in April 1919.  Nan had moved to Blackpool because that was where May's mother-in-law stayed.  Although she and Harry tried to write to each other regularly, letters often failed to get through.  Nan tried to find out through any means how Harry was doing, but would only get vague replies.  Her family was destitute, and relying on the kindness of charity and handouts from family.  It would be another year after that before Harry would make it to England. in 1920.  It took him a little while to recover from his ordeal - he was malnourished and generally debilitated.  When he was recovered he set to work, trying to recover funds which were owed to him (including a large sum he had to pay to be allowed out of the country), to little effect, and trying to reclaim some of the family's things, which had been confiscated.  One of these was a portrait of Nan, in a golden frame, which it is thought is still in a store room in Pereslavl museum.

Harry found what work he could, and would be away often.  Nan stayed in Blackpool with the children, although she and Harry never owned a home.  During the second world war he worked at a factory in Preston, where he suffered from a stroke, dying a few months later at home in Blackpool.

Helen Ann Holden  1880-1957
Her children grown, and her husband gone, Nan went to stay with a cousin for a while, but by the 1950s she was travelling from one to the other of her children's houses for extended stays. She would always bring something as a gift. Her grandchildren called her Granny from London (although Harry was initially from London, he seems to have had little contact with them and I have no idea why Nan would be considered to be from London - on her gravestone it says she's of Blackburn and St Petersburg). 

My Dad described her as having a sweet tooth (she had diabetes when she was older), and not being good with money. She would wear pale pink make-up, with jet black brows, scarlet lipstick, and gold jewellery.  When she lay terminally ill in a hospital bed in 1957, her daughters helped her to 'ladle on the plaster' one last time.  She was buried with Harry, and in 1964, her sister, May, was also buried with them.

Nan's children all grew up to marry, and most had families.  Reg was my grandfather, and lived on the next road from his brother Harry.  He died before I was born, so I only ever heard stories of life in Russia second, or even third-hand.

I can't imagine what it must have been like for Nan to witness the crumbling of the Tsarist regime. The fear she must have felt, having to leave Harry behind, and the huge shock of having five children to look after on very little money, having been used to comfort, and staff!  It seems like another world that Nan lived in. A world that perhaps she didn't cope very well with losing.

What stories do your families tell?