She was born in Birmingham on January 23, 1912, into an England that was rending itself apart. Suffragettes demanding a woman’s right to vote were chaining themselves to Parliament’s railings, smashing storefront windows in Oxford Street, and living-room windows in Downing Street. Newly-empowered Socialist labor unions were flexing their muscle, threatening strikes in coal mining, transportation, and garment worker industries. A small but vocal minority in government was beginning to sense uncertainty about Germany’s expansionist plans in Europe, and was meeting secretly with the Prime Minister to reorganize the army and move the country to a war footing. Britain had lost the race to the South Pole, as Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition got there on January 17 only to find that it had been scooped five weeks earlier by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.
Before she was a month old, the last Emperor of China had abdicated.
Before she was three months old, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and more than fifteen hundred souls perished in the icy North Atlantic.
Things weren’t completely hopeless. The year she was born, Hullo, Rag-Time opened at the London Hippodrome and ran for a staggering 451 performances. Harry Champion was still knocking ‘em dead in the music halls with his one-hit-wonder, I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am. (Yes. That one. Seriously). And Britain managed a stunning performance at the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, coming third overall in medal totals.
Alan Turing was born in the same year as she was. So was Kim Philby. And Enoch Powell.
Bram Stoker died that year, as did William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.
She was given three names: Jenny for her mother, and Alice and May for two of her aunts.
Perhaps because all her names were already used up, or perhaps just to prevent the inevitable confusion, she was known in the family, all her life, simply as ‘Betty.’
Betty’s father, Thomas Herbert Mapson, managed a pawnbroker’s shop in Birmingham. Her mother kept house, and looked after their lodger, Mr Wigley, a jewelry manufacturer.
Betty had a lifelong mischievous streak. Sometimes she and her small friends would find a slimy garden-slug, seal it in an envelope, and push it through an unsuspecting neighbor’s letterbox. Then the children would knock on the door and run and hide, giddy with anticipation, waiting to see what happened when their unwitting victim opened the ‘letter.’
Or sometimes the children might stretch a piece of string across a doorway, or across a path, at just the right height to knock off a passing gentleman’s top hat. Hilarity ensued. Until they were caught.
The six-year-old Betty’s carefree life with her parents came to an abrupt end when her forty-year old father, Private Thomas Herbert Mapson, 3rd Battalion, Worcester Regiment, was killed in action on 10 April 1918. It’s most likely that he died in the Battle of the Lys, just east of Ypres.
Betty and her mother began a new life, one in which they lodged, for several months at a time, with one or another of her aunts, or sometimes with her grandparents. While doing so they were expected to help out around the house or the shop, as several members on both sides of the rather large family were ‘in trade’ of one sort or another.
Six years later, when Betty was twelve, her mother died too, and Betty continued to be passed around like a parcel, from one relation to the next. Fortunately, her family had a well-developed sense of duty, and because of this she was always assured of a home, although not perhaps a particularly comfortable or loving one. But she managed to thrive.
Betty formed her first grown-up friendship with her cousin, Molly, who was about a dozen years older. She began to spend most holidays, and increasing amounts of time, with Molly and her new husband, Tom. Their small children, Katy and John, were the first, but certainly not the last, in the family to know her as ‘Auntie Betty.’ And maybe for the first time in years, Betty was secure and happy.
Until she decided to get her hair cut without asking her grandfather’s permission.
It was 1930. Betty was eighteen, and ready for a stylish bob, perhaps with a bit of Marcel Wave thrown in for good effect. Molly took her to the hairstylist, and the deed was done!
After the family ruckus had settled down, it was decided that Betty would be allowed to remain with Molly, but that she would be relegated to sit, incommunicado, at the foot of the dining-room table for all big family gatherings. This ostracism lasted for years. It was that sort of family.
At the outbreak of World War II, Betty joined the Royal Signals Corps and learned Morse Code. She worked all over England as a decoder, of German messages and in 1941 was posted to London, working underground (in all senses of the word) at Whitehall, where she remained for the rest of the war. She loved her job, and the sense of camaraderie she felt with all the other members of the Corps.
One Sunday morning in 1944, Betty missed Chapel devotions in Wellington Barracks because she had worked the night through and had been sent home to rest. The Chapel took a direct hit from a V1 German bomb during the service, and 121 people were killed.
Betty never forgot. (Although the first time I found out about this devastating episode was in 2008–over sixty years later–when I asked Betty what family stories she’d like to pass along to my newborn granddaughter. As far as I know, it was the first time she’d spoken about it in decades.)
Early in the war, Betty met Stefan, a Polish flyer who had escaped Poland through France, and who, like hundreds of his compatriots and fellow flyers, had come to England to join the RAF. Before he left Poland, Stefan’s wife had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. He heard that she had died there.
Stefan and Betty fell in love. Betty’s family, and their friends, expected them to marry when the war was over.
Finally, the war was over.
And Stefan learned that his wife had survived the concentration camp. Although terribly damaged in both body and spirit, she was now free.
Soon thereafter, Stefan and his wife left England to begin a new life in Canada, and Betty never saw him again.
Betty never married.
After the war, Lance Corporal Betty stayed in London, training as a hairdresser (funny, that) and working in the salon of an exclusive department store. She took up her childhood love of painting again, and became accomplished in both watercolors and oils. Smart and sociable, she enjoyed her London life very much.
In 1948, Betty visited her father’s relatives in the United States, arriving in New York on the Britannic, and travelling to Baltimore to visit her American cousins.
At the age of sixty, Betty retired from her job, and moved closer to her family, including her cousin and old friend Molly, who was in failing health, and near to Molly’s daughter and granddaughter. She bought a tiny house, almost a doll-house, and lived there quite independently, with her beloved pets, until the age of 98, weaving herself once again into the daily fabric of the family which belonged to her for more than a century.
She and Molly’s daughter Katy became firm friends, and spent many happy years holidaying in the Scottish Isles and arguing about who snored the loudest, and who was keeping who awake.
She became everybody’s ‘Auntie Betty.’ Still smart and in touch with current events. Still sociable. Still a bit mischievous.
And along the way, she even achieved her fifteen minutes of Internet fame by showing up the daft Droitwich town council, and winning the epic Battle of the Wheelie-Bins. The fruit has never fallen far from the tree, on either side of the family. Illegitimi non carborundum.
Before she died on December 28, 2014, a few weeks shy of her 103rd birthday, the woman I’ve known all my life as ‘Auntie Betty,’ was the last surviving member of her cousin Molly’s generation.
Her cousin Molly was my grandmother.
Betty isn’t the first member of my family to make it to the grand old age of 102. My father’s brother, Arthur, was 102 when he died in 2009. He was born in 1907, remembered the outbreak of World War I vividly, and also remembered going to the train station with his mother to serve tea and cakes to the arriving and departing troops.
My great grandmother was 99 when she died. She was born a little more than four years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and she died a little more than four years after JFK was shot, and only a few short months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
About twenty-five years ago, my father, his eldest brother, Arthur, and his youngest sister, Pat (who died in December 2022, at the age of 99+), decided to bestow a marvelous gift upon their families while having a whale of a time themselves.
Sans the benefit of the Internet, and absent ancestry.com, they decided to tell their family story.
They looked up old friends, old family members, and old family retainers. They traveled throughout the English Midlands, visiting town halls, parish churches, and registry offices (many of which, on their first sight of Arthur (90), Dad (78) and Pat (74), must have thought they were being visited by three elderly escapees from a very funny Monty Python skit). They wrote to newspapers and museums. They got in touch with the Census Office. They talked to their local politicians. They scoured the Shires.
And with the results of their year-long investigations, they assembled a well-researched and heavily footnoted 100-page book, ‘publishing’ enough copies so that each family member in my generation would have one.
It’s a treasure.
I marvel at the fact that, through my Uncle Arthur and Aunt Mary, I have detailed firsthand accounts of my great-great grandmother, Mary Hudson Wells, who was born in 1818, three years after the Battle of Waterloo, over two hundred years ago. She died at the age of 97, about the time that World War I started, having enjoyed a long career as a straw-bonnet maker “with a very high class clientele in the County, including Lady Leigh from Stoneleigh.” This was work that she took up after being widowed in 1866 at the age of 48.
I believe that it’s a special privilege to have resources in your family of the sort that I have been lucky enough to have in mine (Mr Right always believed that there must have been Hobbit blood in the family somewhere. Could be. We’re from right in the middle of Tolkien Country).
Please don’t waste those family resources. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learn their stories. Write those stories down. And if you’re from a small family, or don’t have a lot of elders available, extend your reach a bit by borrowing some from elsewhere. The stories will be just as good.
Above all, do your best to justify your own place in your family’s next hundred years, or two hundred years, of history.
You, and your family will be glad you did.** (I’m working hard on this myself, although I know I’ve got my work cut out for me, and at least 35 years still to go, if I’m not to let the side down).
The conclusion of the small study I’ve linked to above?
The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.
I’ll drink to that.
And to you, Auntie Betty.
And Happy (anticipated) 111th Birthday.
PS: A couple of short years before she died, and when she’d almost achieved her centenary, Auntie Betty went to live at a delightful nursing home in the English Midlands. They were also happy to welcome into their ranks Betty’s (imaginary) boyfriend, “John, the King of China.”
One of the reasons I love this nursing home so much is that when “John, the King of China” failed to show up for Betty’s 100th birthday party in 2012, instead of arguing with her about whether or not such a person actually existed, the staff simply told her that if “John, the King of China” was so inconsiderate that he couldn’t be bothered to attend such an important event, he wasn’t worth worrying about, and she should just give him the old heave-ho.
That worked for quite a while. However, Betty eventually forgave him, and he re-entered her life with all the ensuing complications . . .
**Sadly, the original article is now behind the New York Times paywall. Here’s a link to a summary which covers some of its key points: The Stories that Bind Us