Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

My Story

With my mother. Sadly we only had a short time together.

With my mother. Sadly we only had a short time together.

I was born in a home for unmarried mothers in Leeds. My parents had actually been married for nearly thirteen years by the time I arrived – the Falloden Nursing Home also had wards for women who were not single mothers. Presumably they were kept separate – a terrible insight into the intolerance of the fifties. Researching the Falloden is heartbreaking; many people who were born there are desperately trying to trace their birth families.

The home burned down many years ago and all the records were destroyed, including mine. It doesn’t matter to me because I know all about my family, but for hundreds of adopted babies for whom those notes were the only link with their lost mothers, it is a tragedy.

The young lady is my grandmother Flora Louise

My maternal grandmother Flora Louise

I was an only child and my mother died when I was twelve. My father quickly remarried. His new wife lacked any understanding about teenagers and had a violent temper, and I escaped as often as I could to my grandmother’s flat. I loved listening to the old family stories and questioned her endlessly about her Victorian childhood and her eleven brothers and sisters. I couldn’t hear enough about her brother Spencer who was gassed in the First World War and came home an invalid. My great-grandmother told Spencer’s very pretty fiancée that she should not marry him, but she did anyway. I met them both in the 1970s and she was still Very Pretty despite being an old lady.

Granny had two cousins who owned, or worked in, a dress shop in Harrogate, and the Empress of Russia bought dresses there for her four daughters. This must have been by mail order, but I’m sure Granny had a vision of the entire Imperial Family sweeping into the shop, the Tsar and Tsarina then waiting regally while their daughters were measured by our relatives. Every year the dresses were returned to Harrogate, with the Grand Duchesses’ latest measurements, and Granny’s cousins altered them by inserting lace into the seams.

With my beloved Granny, who became my sanctuary and staunch ally when I was a teenager suffering with a wicked stepmother.

With my beloved Granny – Ella, who became my sanctuary and staunch ally when I was a teenager suffering with a wicked stepmother.

Granny had been a teacher in South Shields before she married, and told me how poor most of the children were, and how she would cook porridge for them before their lessons because they were all so hungry. There was only one school rule – no-one was allowed to come to school unless they were wearing shoes. Some of the families simply could not afford to buy these, and would cut the soles off the parents’ worn-out boots and tie the uppers to the children’s ankles. This was to make it look as if they were wearing shoes, but they were actually barefoot. There were seventy children in her class.

“How on earth did you get round them all to mark their slates?” I asked.

“Oh, you just had to manage…” she replied airily.

Those evenings by Granny’s hissing gas fire had a profound effect on me. From then on I was always fascinated by family history and the way people had lived in the past.

I became a teacher as well, training at S. Martin’s College in Lancaster. When the time came to apply for jobs, I knew I had to move as far away from my stepmother as possible. A small advertisement on the noticeboard caught my attention – “Come and teach in Devon” – and that is what I decided to do. I have been in Devon ever since, but I miss Leeds. I would never have left if I hadn’t needed to escape (again).

The family group was taken in 1919 and shows my father, grandfather, great grandfather and great-great grandfather

This family group was taken in South Shields in 1919 and shows my father, grandfather, great grandfather and great-great grandfather

I was a teacher for thirty years, and hugely enjoyed the company of the children and adults I worked with. A few months before I retired I was sitting at the computer casting around for something to talk about in Assembly the next day. Could I find out who had lived in our school when it had been a Georgian mansion? Perhaps the children would like to know…

And that was the moment that started five years of research and led to my novel “A Long Time Dying”. I was amazed by the tumultuous, tragic and spellbinding story that emerged.

To read more about my research, and the background to the book, click HERE.

I lost my mother when I was very young and acquired a very unkind stepmother, but I now have a wonderful family and I have always had fabulous friends. I enjoy spending time with them all, and also love to read, sew and walk the lanes and beaches of Devon, and the forests of Brittany.