In 1927 my Grandmother, aged just 23 years old, boarded a boat to China following the man she loved, an English school teacher working in Shanghai. They married and two years later my father was born. This is the first part of a fascinating, if sometimes harrowing story that, as promised in a earlier post, I would like to share with you now in more detail.

The Perfect Grandmother

A couple of times a year, as I was growing up, my sister and I would go with our parents to visit my paternal Grandmother in the market town of Chippenham in Wiltshire. On the drive up, sooner or later would come the inevitable shouts of “Are we nearly there yet?” The nearer we got the more excited we’d be. We loved our holidays at Jessfield, my Grandmother’s house.

Shanghai in the 1920s

One of the many ornaments that filled my Grandmother’s house that she had brought back from her travels.

Every time we pulled into the driveway there would be a present sitting on the wall. At Easter it would be a giant chocolate egg, always in wonderful, imaginative packaging. I remember one year it was a beautiful white swan and another year the box transformed into a theatre complete with miniature figures to act out a play. Whatever the time of year, there was always something and it was always something I loved but it was the time I spent with my Grandmother that I really enjoyed whether we were staying at Jessfield or she was visiting us in Bognor Regis, West Sussex where we lived. She had a way of making everything seem magical and exciting. I don’t ever remember her telling me off – the perfect Grandmother!

I loved sitting with her listening to her stories from her childhood. As a young girl she was always getting up to mischief and as a young woman she was stubborn and independent. In the twenties when it was the fashion for ladies to bob their hair her parents strictly forbid her from cutting hers. Did she listen? Of course not! Off came the long flowing tresses and in came the bob! (They were cross but they could hardly make her stick it back on again!).

All Aboard for Shanghai

My Grandmother, Kathleen, in 1935

I wonder what her parents said when in 1925 their 21 year old daughter got engaged to a young man about to take up a teaching post over 5,700 miles away in Shanghai. It was not until 2 years later though that my Grandmother boarded the boat that would take her to him. She was travelling alone so a fellow passenger was asked to act as a chaperon. The boat journey would have taken many weeks, stopping off at many ports along the way, rather than the hours it would now take by plane.

Grannie’s prior knowledge of Shanghai would have been formed from two years’ worth of letters and postcards from my Grandfather and a few newspaper reports. No documentaries or holiday programmes on the TV then to show you what a country was like. Now most of us have a wealth of information at our finger tips through the internet that we can access instantly anytime of day.

Letters would have taken weeks, if not months to arrive from home, the only other form of long distance communication being an expensive (and very brief) telegraph. The world is now a much smaller place with mobile phones, internet cafés and Skype available almost anywhere.

The journey would have been an amazing adventure for a young woman who had never left England before, taking her along the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal, across the Mediterranean passing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, through the Suez Canal in Egypt, down the Red Sea into the Arabian Sea, stopping off in India and then on to Hong Kong via the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. What a journey!

There were three brides-to-be on board. When they reached the port where the first was to meet her fiancé they were all horrified when he turned up drunk and the second fiancé didn’t turn up at all! It had been a long time since my grandparents had seen each other. Did she feel nervous as well as excited? I expect so.

Shanghai Part 2: An Exciting New Life

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