Setting Out

Today is 30th January 2016 and I’m reminded that it is exactly 92 years since eleven people and my grandmother, Emilie May Sutton, caught the 10.00 am train to Paddington, London, in freezing fog.’We took a bus from Rikards [near Paddington Station], as there was no boat train owing to the railway strike – only charabancs from St. Pancras – a long drive all thro’ the city & down Commercial Road to East India Dock.’ There she boarded the “Guildford Castle” bound for Mombasa, expecting to sail late that afternoon to marry a man she hardly knew and start a new life in Kenya. She was 24 years old.

She put the wedding cake into cold storage on the boat, had lunch with her family and waved goodbye to them in mid-afternoon except her chaperone Aunt Hilda Parkinson. She started the first page of her diary to record events from the sea journey to marriage, married life and the birth of the first child:’At 6:15 we shipped anchor & went out into the middle of the Dock but there was still a very thick fog & when we came back from dinner we found ourselves back by the side again. Very depressing. The cabin is very nice & I got fairly comfortable on the top berth.’ Unfortunately not quite the exciting start she was hoping to record.

I have that diary and many of her letters to her father (and some of his to her) until June 1932. They were stored unopened in an attic for over 30 years in a dispatch box sized tin chest, exactly square and squat in unadorned dull grey metal, until I found out about them in a chance conversation. There was no huge old padlock or lock requiring a fantastical ornate key, only a small metal catch to help lift the lid. There was no writing on the box. No name. No instructions. No ‘Not To Be Opened Until After My Death’. Nothing. It was not spectacular at all and I could see why it had been ignored for all these years. Its ordinary smallness was its most distinguishing feature.

The chest’s contents spanned more than a century. Each envelope had a written note in spidery blue ink of its contents on the outside. I recognised my Grandmother’s distinctive style. Inside, the contents were collated around an individual subject, event or person. Every letter and every photograph had explanations or names, usually identified by initials, written at the top of the letter, in the margin or on the back. Into this chest went her mother, her father, her brothers, her husband, her children, herself: my Granny’s world collapsed and ordered into a tin chest.

It did seem a bit surprising Granny chose such a very small container to record so many lives and so many events. Each deposit appears chosen for a reason and consciously saved. But during her life, my Grandmother had never talked about Kenya, her husband or her father — nor were there any artefacts, paintings or photographs referring to Kenya.

I took the contents of the chest and another back home. It seemed such an amazing story about an austere dour woman I knew well because I spent much of my childhood in her house — quite different from this young woman eager on the advent of an adventure. I resolved to go to Kenya and find Emilie May.

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