• Chrissy Hamlin

Lilian Tisdall: Draper's Apprentice and World War One Widow.

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Lilian Tisdall was my Great Grandmother. She was born in the Victorian era, she lived into her late nineties, she survived two world wars, and she experienced many of the significant & historic changes in the way that women lived their lives, during the 20th Century. She lived an ordinary life in what were extra-ordinary times in history, and her experiences are a valuable part of everyday social history, as well as my own family history.

Lilian Maud Bunclark was born on 28th September 1883 at 145 Elderfield Road in Clapton, Hackney. Her father, Joseph Henry Bunclark, was the Manager of a Draper’s shop. Her 23 year old mother, Eliza Bunclark (nee Watts), had been working as a domestic servant in Norwich, back in her home county of Norfolk, before moving to East London and then marrying Joseph Bunclark on Christmas Eve, 1882. Lilian must have been conceived in the first few days of their newly married life, as she arrived exactly 9 months later!

Lillian’s mother, Eliza, had two more children whilst she was in her twenties; Charles Joseph Bunclark was born in 1886 and Reginald William was born two years later in 1888. The expanding family then moved from Clapton in East London, to Finchley, in North London, where in October 1890, Eliza gave birth to her fourth child, Grace Charlotte Bunclark.

Whilst Joseph worked in the Draper’s Shop as a Manager in order to provide financially for his growing family, Eliza would be at home, looking after the children and undertaking a whole range of domestic duties, including, cooking, cleaning, mending, sewing, and laundry.

Lilian’s parents were living above the Draper’s Shop where Joseph was the Manager, in Commercial House, Bulls Lane, Finchley in 1891, as the census for that year records. At that time, Joseph’s widowed mother, Charlotte Bunclark who was 70 years old, was also living with them in the last few months of her life. She had been a lace maker, and was originally from Woodbastwick, in Norfolk, the same County where her daughter-in-law, Eliza’s family came from. Both women had the same maiden name of Watts, so Lillian’s parents may well have been related, as distant cousins possibly, and they may have met and married through their shared family connections.

In 1891, 35 year old Joseph Bunclark was earning enough money to employ a “live out” domestic servant named Sarah Tuthill, to help his wife around the home. There was also a 14 year old apprentice, called Edith H. Woung from Colchester in Essex, who lived with the Bunclark family and worked in the Draper's shop.

Lillian’s mother Eliza, went on to have two more children whilst she was in her thirties; Cyril George Watts Bunclark was born in 1894 and Gladys Marguerite Bunclark was born in 1897. Eliza gave birth to a total of 6 children within the first 13 years of her marriage. Due to the lack of effective birth control methods that were available for women at that time, many Victorian wives found themselves pregnant for almost every other year of their marriage. Eliza may have also had miscarriages that we don't anything know about, because they were never recorded.

My Great Grandmother Lillian, like many working class girls at the turn of the century, left school at 14 equipped for life with just a very basic education. She would be expected by her family to work and support herself financially, until such times as she found herself a suitable husband and had her own family.

In 1901, 18 year old Lilian was working as a live-in Draper’s apprentice at 79 Blackfriar’s Road, Southwark. The shop was owned by George Mason and his wife Isabel, who cared for their nine year old granddaughter, Marguerite Young. Working alongside Lilian, in the shop, was 21 year old Nelly M. King. The Mason’s also employed 23 year old, Elizabeth Nicolls as a general domestic servant.

Lilian "lived in" and shared a small bedroom with the other girls she worked with. She'd have give some of her wages straight back to Mrs. Mason, to cover the cost of her accommodation and meals every week.

Shop work was seen as respectable employment for unmarried young women from the working classes and lower middle classes, at the turn of the century. Many young women preferred it to the alternative option of going into domestic service, which many saw as a "life of drudgery".

Lillian’s family had moved south of the river to Tooting Graveny, Wandsworth by 1901. Her father was no longer a manager of a Drapers Shop – he’d gone back, at the age of 43, to being a Drapers assistant again, so maybe finances were tight and it’s possible Lillian may have had to send money home from her own wage packet in order to help support her family. Lilian’s 14 year old brother Charles was working as an office boy and porter, but the Bunclark family also had Lillian’s 77 year old widowed maternal grandmother, Matilda Watts, living with them at this time - although she died later that year.

Lillian’s parent’s cared for both their widowed mothers at the end of their lives, and this is something that was a far more common 100 years ago, than it is today. Working Class families often took in and nursed their sick and aged relatives until they died, as the only alternative would have been for them to go into the workhouse, which was regarded as a terrible place, and one to be avoided at all costs.

I have no idea how, where or when my grandmother met him, but Lilian married Frederick Tisdall, in 1908 in Edmonton, North London when he was 24 years old

Fred's family were an interesting bunch of people. A distant American second cousin of mine wrote a book about them in the 1970's which I have a copy of. Many of the photographs of Frederick's family, from that treasured publication, are included here in this blog post.

Frederick Tisdall was a master clock maker and watch maker who had studied as an apprentice under a German man named Mr Hepting. Mr Hepting was descended from a long line of German Master Clock Makers, who had come to make England their new home in the 19th Century. For quite a few years, Mr Hepting’s father and his family, had lived and worked next door to Frederick’s parents, Sidney McBriar Tisdall and his wife, Emily, who ran a very successful Dyer’s and Furriers Business at 32 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush. The German Hepting's and the English Tisdall's remained good friends and neighbours for many years, right up until WW1.

Sidney and Emily Tisdall often put business adverts in the local newspapers, and from these we can clearly see that Sidney prided himself on the whiteness of his net curtains, and Emily took an active role in running her side of the business, which was to personally fit customers with their new or altered furs. She also had a good head for figures and handled the accounts and book keeping.

Sidney Tisdall died of Pneumonia in 1900, at the age of 60 after catching a chill. Fred was only 15 years old at the time, and had just begun his clockmaking apprenticeship. His mother and his unmarried sister Kate, took over the general running of the family dyers and furriers business in the beginning of the 20th century, and continued to do so, through WW1, right up until the late 1920's, when finally Emily sold up due to ill health, and went to live with her daughter Madge and her son-in-law Billy Canning.

The Tisdall family was a typically large Victorian / Edwardian family, and Fred was the youngest son. His older sister Madge had been a music hall dancer and actress before getting married to her husband Billy Canning. His adventurous older brother Bill had been a merchant sailor who had travelled all over the world before jumping ship in San Francisco at the turn of the century, and making a brand new life for himself out in America.

Frederick also had a handsome older brother, who was a bartender called Percy, He died of TB at the age of 24, in a sanatorium in Christchurch, Hampshire.

TB or "Consumption" was one of the most common and deadly killers in the Victorian & Edwardian period. Before vaccines and antibiotics were available, TB was difficult to control and treat. As it affected so many famous writers, poets, composers and artists of the period, it became a popular misconception that having TB somehow heightened your sensitivity and artistic talent. As a result, some people started referring to consumption as a “romantic” disease & absurdly it became a "fashionable" way to die.

Fred's older brother Harry, who was also a bartender, ended up in the Southwark workhouse, with his wife and three children in 1907, possibly due to chronic alcoholism, or some other drink related illness that made him unable to work. Harry died in the workhouse, aged 32 in 1908.

Frederick’s elder sister Ella had become a widow at the tender age of 23 in 1889 - the very same year that she gave birth to her eldest Clarissa. Ella remarried in 1901 and had another daughter called Barbara, but then she became ill, possibly with breast cancer. Ella died aged 35, surrounded by flowers and the people she loved, in her home in Croydon in 1910.

Another older brother, of Fred's called Francis, died aged 17, when Fred was only 4 years old.

Only seven out of the twelve children that Sidney and Emily had, would go on to live beyond middle age. Many of them suffered from what we consider today as common health problems associated with lifestyle, such as asthma and diabetes. Today they can be treated and managed with modern medicine. However, at the turn of the century these illnesses could be potentially life threatening, and with antibiotics not being discovered until 1928, even a simple cold could turn into pneumonia and be a potential killer - as it was in Sidney's case.


(Click in individual images to enlarge)

Lilian and Fred Tisdall's eldest child, Constance Emily Tisdall ( my paternal grandmother) was born in April 1909. In 1911, Lilian gave birth to a second daughter, who was named Winifred, but who was always known throughout her entire life as “Betty”, which was her middle name.

The Tisdall Family were living in a red brick terraced house at 9 Woodside Avenue in the leafy suburbs of Kingston-Upon-Thames not far from the river. in 1911 Their Edwardian semi detached family home had a living room, dining room and kitchen downstairs and 3 bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Lilian had given up working in Drapery shops when she got married and Fred could easily support his family on the money he earned working as a clock and watch mender for a local Jewelers’ firm. It was rumored that he once serviced all the time pieces at nearby Hampton Court Palace.

Lilian’s parents had moved to Seymour Avenue in Tottenham, North London, by 1911. Her father, Joseph, who was in his mid-fifties, was still working as a Drapers Assistant in a shop. Out of his and Eliza’s remaining five children who were living at home, four were employed and bringing in a regular wage. Lilian’s 25 year old brother, Charles, was working as a clerk in a furniture shop, her 22 year old brother Reginald, was working as a messenger boy for a bank, 20 year old Grace was working as a draper’s shop assistant, and 19 year old Cyril was a clerk in a stockbrokers. Lilian’s youngest sister, Gladys, was aged 14 and she was just about to leave school. Nobody could have predicted in 1911, what huge impact the Great War would have upon Lilian and all her family when it began 3 years later in 1914.

On 2nd September 1914, Lilian’s 20 year old brother, Cyril, Enlisted in the Army for 3 years as a Private in Norfolk Regiment 8th Battalion. In his army records it describes him as 5ft 7 with a sallow complexion and brown eyes & hair. His religion was described as Baptist.

The 8th Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment was raised at Norwich in September 1914 as part of Kitchener's Second New Army. The Division initially concentrated in the Colchester area but moved to Salisbury Plain in May 1915. They proceeded to France, landing at Boulogne on the 25th of July 1915, the division concentrated near Flesselles.

The 8th Battalion was present on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. They got beyond their initial target and had by 5.00pm reached the German trenches known as "Montauban Alley". Over one hundred men and three officers had been killed. Cyril Bunclark was killed in action a few weeks later, aged 22, on 19 July 1916 and is remembered at The Thiepval Memorial in France.

Lilian’s 26 year old brother, Reginald Bunclark, joined the Royal Engineers as a Private in the first week of 1915, just before getting married to his sweetheart, Irene. He’d been working as a Carpenter before the war. Reg was part of the Pioneer Brigade of The Royal Engineers and Army records describe him as having scar on his left eyebrow and forehead. Regi saw action in France but luckily, he survived the war and came home to his wife and family. He received the Victory Medal and the British War Medal in 1919.

Lillian's husband Fred, pictured in his uniform, joined the army in 1914 aged 29. He was a Sapper with the Royal Engineers, 33rd Derby Regiment. During the next 4 years he was away fighting in Europe, but he did get some home leave granted to him so he could spend some time with Lilian & their two daughters. Their third child, Edgar was conceived during this time and was born in 1916.

When Frederick first enlisted, he caught mumps and had to stay behind in a Military Hospital whilst the rest of his regiment was posted out to France. Was he disappointed or relieved by this unexpected turn of events? We shall never know the answer to that question, but I am sure that his wife Lilian was secretly thankful that an illness had delayed her husband’s arrival in France, for just a few more weeks.


Later in the war, Frederick was sent out to fight in Salonika in Greece. The Soldiers who fought and died in the now largely forgotten Macedonian campaign are not so well remembered or commemorated as their fellow compatriots who lay down their lives for King and Country in the brutal, muddy trench warfare of France and Flanders.

The Germans mocked the Allied stronghold at Salonika and called it their "largest prisoner-of-war camp”. The French Premier, Georges Clemenceau asked “What are they doing? Digging! Then let them be known as ‘the gardeners of Salonika.’” Many people thought the soldiers who were stationed out in Greece had a much easier war than those who sent to fight in Europe - but nothing could be further from the truth.

Over one million men —British, French, Arab, African, Indochinese, Foreign Legionnaires, Serbs, Russians, Italians, and Greeks— languished for three years around the dreary Greek port of Salonika, in what military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall later termed “without a doubt the most ponderous and illogical campaign of World War I.” During that time, they experienced 225 days of hard fighting while enduring some of the worst political infighting and the highest disease rate of the war.

Malaria for troops fighting out in Greece was very common. There were 162,512 British admissions to hospital for malaria during the years 1916 to 1918, in contrast to 23,762 killed, wounded, prisoner, and missing in action. In the spring of 1918, about 25,000 British soldiers were sent home from Macedonia with chronic malaria, and, apart from these evacuees, over 2,000,000 man-days were lost to the British Army in this area in 1918 because of malaria.

The conditions were awful as this account shows:

We lived in redoubts in comfortable little iron tunnels, and had Greek infantrymen to share our guard with us. Once we were marched to the village of Yenekoi, where we dug ourselves in. We were acting as a sort of infantry screen to a flying battery. There was no attack through the hot and thirsty night. We drank all our water and then lay and endured till dawn.

We had kit inspections, we scrubbed our shorts and helmets with the wonderful sandy Struma mud, and went out on patrol. On these patrols we actually carried stretchers. We hacked down the lush green grass, which might harbour malarial mosquitoes, and poured cresol in pools to kill the larvae.

The night patrols had a ritual of their own. Each man anointed his face and neck with almond-smelling mixture of the appearance of floor polish. This was to make us unpleasant to the mosquitoes. Then we put on a muslin veil and tucked the loose ends into our tunics. The tout ensemble was surmounted by the good old tin hat!

In 1916 - 17 over 500,000 British, French and Serbian troops were based in Salonika when an epidemic broke out in the town, which became to be known as the 'Bird Cage'. Of the 300,000 British and French troops, around 40% became unfit for active service due to malaria.

In the 1918 battles, through Bulgaria to the Danube, there were only 200,00 battle cases compared with the 450,000 men who had been invalided out of the area suffering from malaria, or its aftermath.

Out of the total Allied force of one million who were in the theatre from the end of 1915 to 1918, there were 1.3 million hospital cases, mainly malaria. In the Autumn of 1916, the French Commander of the Expeditionary Force, General Maurice Paul Emmanuel Sarrail, sent a telegram to Army HQ in Paris saying 'Mon armée est immobilisée dans les hôpitaux = My army is hospitalised'.

The hugely disruptive effect of war led to the increase in mosquito numbers. The normal man-made, or natural, means of mosquito control were interrupted, and huge numbers of water-holding excavations and containers were created that were good for mosquito breeding. Domestic animals, which normally provided the preferred feeding sites for mosquitoes, were distributed elsewhere or destroyed, and a huge numbers of potential human feeding sources took their place.

The only effective treatment for malaria from 1914 - 1918 was the drug quinine. The source of the drug was limited so obtaining adequate quantities of the drug was often difficult. In addition, quinine had side effects. One of which was tinnitus (a persistent ringing in the ears) which many patients found difficult to tolerate over the full seven days or so of the treatment. Whilst other often distressing side effects were giddiness, blurred vision, nausea, tremors and depression. Whenever possible patients were kept in hospital to ensure compliance with the full regimen of treatment, even if the patient felt fit enough to leave. The cumulative effect of these long hospital stays could be crippling on military strength at crucial times in the fighting.

Another, much more life threatening side effect was a disorder called Black Water Fever; so named because of the black urine produced by the patient. It was a result of a complex reaction of the haemoglobin of the patient's RBCs with the malaria parasite Plasmodium faciparum and the drug quinine. Up to 40% of Black Water Fever cases died, and under conditions of war the death rate was often significantly higher.

Apart from the use of quinine as a malaria preventative and a curative, other means to control the transmission of malaria were used by the armies of all sides. Since Ross's discovery in 1897 of the chain of malaria infection through the mosquito, attempts had been made around the British cantonments and encampments of the world aimed to reduce both the numbers of the mosquitoes breeding in water and the airborne adults. One anecdotal Great War control measure was reported from Salonika, where it is said the bushes, and the air itself, were beaten with leafy branches in an attempt to reduce the swarms of mosquitoes.

With the clear understanding that epidemics of malaria were often associated with concentrations of troops, various more effective malaria control measures were employed by the belligerent armies.

Prime amongst these were drainage schemes to eliminate the mosquito larvae breeding places, and the use of mosquito bed nets and netting to prevent mosquito biting - malaria vector mosquitoes mainly feed at dusk, during the night and at dawn.

Also less common at the time, was the application of insecticides, such as mineral oil for the water-borne mosquito larvae, and a knockdown pyrethrum spray - an extract of the Chrysanthemum plant mixed with kerosene oil - for the adult mosquito. The pyrethrum spray was known to the British and Americans as 'Lefroy's Liquid'. Other more readily available toxic products were used ranging from carbolic acid to chlorine gas. All these measures were expensive, by the values of the time. This, plus the difficulty of widespread application and the contingencies of war, limited their use on the battlefield.

Personal protection measures, other than the use of the bed nets, and the enforced wearing of veiled hats, long sleeved shirt/jackets, long trousers and mosquito boots, were rather limited. They mainly required the use of mosquito repellent oils, such as Citronella (a lemon-scented oil extracted from South Asian grass Cymbopogon nardus) which was generally considered as being the most efficacious.

Somehow, Frederick managed to survive till the end of the war, but unfortunately he, like so many other men, contracted a bad case of Malaria.

I often imagine the kind of letters Lilian must have written to Fred whilst he was away fighting in Greece. I am pretty certain that she would have regularly updated him on how all their various friends, neighbours, and relations were faring during wartime, and she'd probably mention mundane things like how much the price of bread or milk had gone up in the shops since the war began and how some items were in short supply. Even though she missed Fred dreadfully and worried about him all the time, I am also certain Lilian would keep her letters cheery and upbeat, and write about the things the children were doing at home. I wonder if he in turn replied to her with letters asking after family members, or recounting amusing day-to-day anecdotes about his army pals or the food they got served in the mess tent, rather than telling her the truth about the awful conditions he had to endure or the comrades he’d lost in battle.

Whilst Fred was away fighting, Lilian and her children left the family home in Kingston, and went to live near her mother in Tottenham. Lilian had no choice but to move house, find a job and go out to work, and she needed her extended family to help out with childcare.

Lilian must have been worried in the Autumn of 1918 when she first heard the news that Fred had caught malaria and was lying ill in an army hospital bed, but she would have been relieved he was no longer involved in any fighting. When the war was officially declared over and the Armistice papers had been signed, Lilian must have been looking forward to her sick husband being bought home to recuperate and recover with his family.

Sadly there was not to be a happy ending for Fred, Lillian or their children. Frederick Tisdall died in an Army Hospital in Salonika on 23rd November, 1918, just weeks after the Armistice had been signed. There is a memorial with his name on it at Mikra British Cemetery in Salonika, Greece. Fred never did get to see his wife & daughters or his baby son Edgar again and his death had long term effects on the lives of all of them.

When Lilian's eldest daughter Constance left school at 14, she was sent out to work as a domestic servant in a girl’s boarding school in Kent during the early 1920's. Had her father survived the war, she may well have been one of the pupils. Connie loved reading books and writing stories and poetry. Had her circumstances been different she may well have become a writer. As it was, she introduced me to poetry & classic 19th century novels when I was a child, by giving me her old books & buying me ones from Readers digest for my birthday and Christmas presents.

Despite their reduced financial circumstances. Lillian wanted Connie to continue with some aspects of her education. She negotiated a deal with one of the Spinster sisters who ran the Boarding School, that for a reduction in her wages, Connie would receive 30 minutes of French Tuition and 30 minutes of piano tuition, every week. My grandmother never left England in order to practice her conversational French, but she did acquire a piano in later years, and every so often, she would play it at family parties, so perhaps the piano lessons were worth what she had to pay for them, out of her less than generous wages.

My grandmother wrote about her first job and the following inforamtion is taken from that document. Connie was very sad that she could not continue her education after the age of 14, and she really didn’t want to leave home and live and work in a strange place with strange people. Connie said that Lilian was very strict as a mother, and she did not dare disobey her, so even though she was unhappy about the situation, she had no choice in the matter. and had to do as her mother wished.