MONA TORRANCE

(1889-1987) - A Portobello life

 

MONA TORRANCE

The oldest of Portobello's three remarkable Torrance sisters, Mona spent her teenage years at Mount Lodge, her early marriage at Hamilton Terrace and the largest part of her very long life at her house in Durham Road, Portobello.  She died visiting her daughter’s family in Nottingham.

 

 

MONA

 drawn largely from notes by her niece

 

The Torrance sisters Mona, Norah and Roma were all born in the reign of Queen Victoria. All three lived most of their lives in Portobello and they all died in a twelvemonth between April 1986 and March 1987.  

 

Mona was born just before Christmas 1889.  She was the first child of Willie and Christina Torrance.  Mona always declared that she was born prematurely during a thunderstorm on the 22nd of December. In January she was christened Christina Mary Cusiter Torrance. Her chosen name Mona came from a popular song of the time: "Mona, my dear one".  She was never to use her real name.

 

Mona’s parents Willie Torrance and Tina Cusiter had married in the spring before her birth.  Willie, christened William Baillie Torrance, had been born in Corstorphine in 1860, the youngest child of Henry Torrance, a ploughman, and his wife Jane Baillie. His family moved around Midlothian with the work to a series of tied cottages. Willie’s bachelor great-uncle Charles Torrance was a grocer at Edgehead who took a supportive interest in the family and lies buried with Willie’s grandparents under a pink granite stone in Crichton churchyard.

Willie became a grocers’ boy in Croft Street Dalkeith, where Tina Cusiter was living at the gasworks with her brother George, sisters Macgregor and Margaret, and widowed mother. Willie was apprenticed early to the grain trade and at that time met Dick White, a fellow apprentice who came from Markinch in Fife, where his mother lived to be a hundred. 'Uncle' Dick, who became a grocer in Pathhead, lived almost as long. 

 

Tina’s clan were all technologists, involved in gas and water supply, electricity, shale oil and coke production. This was the Young family into which her Orkney-born father had married.  George Firth Cusiter had been the schoolmaster at the Buccleuch Schools in Croft Street Dalkeith. He had given up his job, and joined his wife’s father and brothers in their gas and oil work; but he died before they did at an early age.  The widowed Mrs Cusiter and her family had now moved to Bonnyrigg, next door to old Mrs Young (neé Christian Clapperton). Tina and her younger sisters looked set to follow their father’s original teaching vocation, while Tina’s older brother George went off to America to seek his fortune, became a storekeeper in Oregon and Mayor of Silverton there.

Silverton, Oregon in 1890: “A Home-Seeker’s Paradise

 

William Torrance was working as a commercial traveller when he married Tina Cusiter at her mother’s villa Gracemount in Bonnyrigg.  Riding about the Lothians with his pony and trap in the 1880s he met some odd characters in the locality. One was called Spring-heeled Jack and would loup out at you from the hedgerow as you trotted round a bend.  Was it in his wedding year that Willie attended the Paris Exhibition with his friend Dick White?  Whether they went to Paris before the wedding or afterwards it seems an odd thing to do in the year of your marriage.  Maybe it was an extravagant equivalent of a stag night.  Perhaps there was a business reason. But there was another Paris Exhibition in 1900, so maybe that was when the jaunt took place.  Tina’s family would have been used to hearing about Paris, since her uncle John Young had been manager of the oil refinery on the Seine there at Issy-les-Molineaux in the early 1880s.

 

 Willie and Tina were renting the romantic novelist Annie S. Swan's house in Gorebridge at the time when Mona was born.  Annie S. Swan’s parents lived at nearby Mountskip, and she may have known Christina from earlier days: they had both travelled in to Edinburgh on the NBR to attend Queen Street school.

 Annie S Swan in later years

 

After a while, Willie Torrance became part-owner of Catcune Mill.  Grandma Cusiter had an investment in it.  Much of his trading was done at the Leith Corn Exchange, where someone pointed him out with the remark: 'You don't want to pay any attention to what he says.  That's leein' Wullie.'  He was a gambler in the widest sense of the word. In spite of his faults or maybe because of them, Willie did well, with a bit of help from his wife's relations. Catcune Mill was highly efficient because of its state-of-the-art gas engine, probably installed on the advice of Tina’s uncle, Willie Young.

 

 

   

Mona takes pride of place in the Young clan outside uncle Willie Young’s house: Priorsford, Peebles.

 

What a sweet child Mona was, looking out of sepia photographs, her little face with its distinctive rosebud mouth above above the neck frill of her beautifully smocked dress.  One imagines the pretty pink cheeks which lasted a life time.  The hair is chopped, attractively to our modern eye, in short curls.  The nose shows no sign as yet of its aquiline maturity.  Her mother, Tina, a strikingly elegant woman, apparently suffered from poor health, but even when she was supposed to be ill, she looked good in photographs. She was a competent needlewoman and made a lot of her daughters' clothes.

 

Mona was a tomboy as a child, afraid of nothing.  When they moved to Catcune, at Fushiebridge, where her father managed the grain mill, she was out and in the house and the barns all the time, playing with the farm boys.  She was the only one of the three sisters never to be afraid of mice.  In the farmyard she was probably a leader and very likely wilful, or so her character in later years would suggest.  She had a very strong personality.

She went first to school at Borthwick. Her name is on the roll there for several consecutive years, along with Jessie Young, slightly younger, probably a niece of Tina’s who lived with the Torrances at the time. 

In family legend, Willie is supposed to have laid out the golf course at Fushiebridge, and Mona (or Jessie) appears in the opening photographs.

 

When she was old enough, Mona travelled by train from Fushiebridge to Waverley to go to Queen Street school -The Edinburgh Ladies Academy, now Mary Erskine School for Girls.  She grew used to the journey and remained a confirmed gazer out of vehicle windows all her life.  At home at Catcune she had a bicycle, just like her Mama's, and dared to spin down Lady Brae at Gorebridge, her feet clear of the pedals.  There could be no free-wheeling on early bikes, the wheels were fixed in those days.

 

 

Often Mona would go with her mother in the governess cart to Bonnyrigg, where her maternal grandmother Mrs Cusiter and greatgrandmother Mrs Young lived side by side in Maryfield.  It was not very far from Fushiebridge to Bonnyrigg by the little country roads.  Grandmother and greatgrandmother on the Torrance side, Mrs Jane Torrance and Mrs Baillie lived in Dewarton and Newlandrig respectively, two villages on the road between Pathhead and Gorebridge.  Grannie Torrance's known belongings were a rough stool, a mutch and a cutty pipe according to Norah. Perhaps of a summer's evening she sat outside her cottage on her stool, wearing her mutch and smoking her cutty.  Look out for her when next you pass through Dewarton.

 

 

Mona with her parents Tina and Willie Torrance, Greatgrandma Young  and Grannie Cusiter

 

Mary Cusiter and Christina Young, the maternal grand and great grandmothers, lived next door to each other in Maryfield, Bonnyrigg.  Old John Young had bought the houses side by side, probably new-built, around 1880.  The one, Ellen Villa, was for himself and his wife in retirement and the semi-detached Gracemount was for his widowed daughter.  Mona would run from one house to the other: and from one garden -scrambling over the wall- to the next. Great-Grandma had a maid called Rachel. One story went, 'Go with Rachel, dear, and she'll give you a pear.'  Another, 'What naughty girl has been taking pears from my garden?'  Probably they are both true.  When Mona was at Great-Grandma's house she once said, 'This is a weariness house, this.'

Daisy Linn, the daughter of the Linn family was a contemporary of Mona's.  The Linns had some investment in Catcune Mill, of which Pa Torrance was manager.  He must have been for some years dependant on their support as he was also of the Hamiltons, another fairly wealthy family.  Later you will hear of Ernie Hamilton.   Daisy Linn was the first person to tell Mona’s wee sister Norah the story of Cinderella.  She was so delighted with the lovely story that she never forgot the occasion.  One imagines that Norah was would be about three at the time. Eight years younger than Mona, she was born in 1897. Roma, youngest, of the three sisters, was born in 1901,  

Norah at Priorsford with Greatgrandma Young (Christian Clapperton) around the turn of the century.

Between them they spanned the years from Waterloo to Chernobyl.

 

Great-grandma Young died in 1902.  In the spring of 1905 the Torrances moved from Catcune to Portobello, where they rented the elegant Mount Lodge and its couple of acres of ground at the top of Windsor Place. It was the property of the North British Railway Company whose General Superintendent James McLaren had lived there with his family.  The NBR had just built their Lothian bypass mineral line to Leith next to the garden, with the Christian Path as a shortcut from Hope Lane along the backs of the houses to Portobello station.

Mount Lodge: The approach from Windsor Place

On the day of the move, Mona, by her way of it, was at Mount Lodge first with all the removal carts.  The others came later by train.  Portobello station was less than five minutes walk from Mount Lodge along the Christian Path.  From then on all three girls travelled to school in Edinburgh by the suburban railway from Portobello Station.  Mona's friend at Queen Street was Lizzie Cairns and they remained friends until well into their eighties.  Lizzie never married.  She joins the three sisters in a photograph taken on Mona's eightieth birthday.

 

In Mona's day and even in the early years of her younger sisters Norah and Roma at Queen Street, the classes were each in charge of a governess, who offered little more than pastoral care, but escorted the girls to their various lessons.  Possibly they sat in as chaperones, for there were lots of masters teaching in Edinburgh Ladies' College in those days.  Mona once came back to school in 1931 to pick her niece from the Infants in 1931.  Indicating two white-haired women, Miss Duncan and Miss Walker, she said, "These ladies were governesses in my day."  By 1931 they were teaching the first and second infant classes.

 

Roma and Norah with Mama, Grannie Cusiter looks on.

 

Mona was never exactly academic, as her sisters were always at pains to point out.  "But," said Norah, "she won prizes for her beautiful hand-writing and she was good at art and painted very prettily."  Her picture of roses still survives.  Probably Mona left school as soon as she was allowed, at fifteen or sixteen - to indulge in a round of social activities, roller skating, tennis, dancing, parties sprinkled with a few mandatory good works, church bazaars, fêtes and such like.  She was conscious that she was her Mama's assistant and "kept her up to scratch."  That is her story, which shows Mona as ever so capable and her poor Mama as a bit of an incompetent.  It was not necessarily so.  

 

San Toy –Daly’s Theatre London 1899

 

Mama and her two younger Cusiter sisters Geegie and Meg, were gifted in the way well brought up girls were expected to be in those days.  They drew and painted and played the piano and sang.  Meg had a pretty voice, Norah said, and her party piece was: "Oh Rhoda had a Pagoda, sold ice cream and lemon and soda" from the musical San Toy.  As a young woman she was probably the most striking-looking of the three Cusiter sisters.  She was of small stature, but with a neat and shapely figure as had all of them, but in contrast to the other two she had a very white skin and black thick wavy hair which she brushed vigorously with a hundred strokes a day.  Her colouring probably came from her father.  She had large dark brown eyes and it was suggested that it was her Orcadian inheritance -with its links to the Spanish Armada- that gave her the white skin and black hair.  Of her sisters, Geegie was mousy and Tina dark brown.  Nor was their hair very good.  They both had to take pains with it and their complexions were not so pale.

 

 

Miss Margaret Cusiter: Auntie Meg

 

When Willie and Tina took their family from Catcune to Mount Lodge in 1905, Grannie Cusiter and the two Aunts also moved to Portobello, exchanging their Gracemount villa in Bonnyrigg for another at 15 Rosefield Avenue. Both the aunts were teachers having attended the Normal School for teacher training, at that time in Castle Terrace. Aunt Geegie kept her job at Bonnyrigg school, travelling by train from Portobello.  Meg obtained the post of Senior Infant mistress at Portobello School in the original building in Duddingston Park.  There she was a much loved and admired teacher, being the first teacher many children knew.  Both David Hay and Bertie Cavaye (who were to marry the two younger Torrance sisters) spoke of her with pleasure and affection.  In her tightly belted black skirt and her beautiful white blouses with either leg of mutton or big balloon sleeves, she was a delight to a small child's eye and probably the envy of their mothers too.  She made an impact.  They never forgot her, she was so pretty.

 

Meg was a great walker.  Every morning she went for a regular walk before going to school.  It was along the Promenade then up by the Figgate Burn, then on into Fishwives Causeway and then along Baileyfield to Duddingston Park and school. 

 

Suffragette procession in London, 1910

 

Both Meg and her older sister Geegie were suffragettes.  They followed in the processions organised by the redoubtable Mrs. Grieve of Coillesdene House.  They both smoked and behaved like Bernard Shaw's New Women.  They earned their living all their lives and they had definite opinions.  Their young nieces Norah and Roma thought very highly of them.  They boosted the little girls' morale.  Roma particularly drew attention to that.  The two aunts always greeted them with compliments and admiration, when Norah and Roma ran down Mount Lodge drive to meet them.  Mona, being older, was less easily impressed.   Maybe she looked down on them as old maids: she certainly didn't admire her aunts the way Roma and Norah did.

 

 

Miss Macgregor Cusiter: Auntie Geegie

 

In 1905 Mount Lodge Portobello was about a hundred years old, having been built by a predecessor of Colonel Johnson, home from the East, in the style of an Indian bungalow. From the very earliest days, the Torrances had a telephone.  Mrs. Torrance was known in Portobello as well-dressed and good-looking, especially when she went with her daughters to the Tin Church. The Tin Church was so handy for Mount Lodge, (as, later, was the Central Picture House) and stood in the High Street by Pike-a-plea. It was later incorporated in Hendersons’ Garage, replaced as a place of worship by the stone-built St. James' Church in Rosefield Place, where Norah and later Roma were married.

 

Bertie Cavaye remembered seeing Mrs. Torrance and her daughters in their finery coming from church. Norah would describe her as a very pretty, elegant woman. One of her evening dresses had trails of green ivy down the creamy velvet.  The one she wore to the opening of the King's Theatre in December 1906 -a gala performance of Cinderella- was of white satin with tiny little canaries sitting on the shoulders.  Cecil Beaton later designed Leslie Caron almost exactly such a dress for the film Gigi.  Was it at the opening party after the performance that one of the girls remembered an actress telling another who’d collapsed on a sofa “Pull yourself together, Diamond!”  It certainly became a family saying.  No, on second thoughts, that story comes from a much later encounter at Fairlie’s Ballroom on Leith Walk.

   

Leslie Caron in Gigi       Kings Theatre opening in December 1906  

Phyllis Dare (Cinderella) & Dan Rolyat (Baron Archibald) open the Kings Theatre in December 1906

 

 

In later years Mona tended to pooh-pooh her mother's elegance. She told me in the sixties how she and Mama came down in a tram from town to go straight to a bazaar in the Parish Church in Melville Street. The train of Mama's skirt had been trodden on and muddied. It fell to Mona to sort her out before they could make an entrance to the hall. Once I said to Mona that Mama had pretty hair. I had seen it nicely arranged in so many photographs. Said Mona, 'It was poor. I know, dear, for I had to do it for her when she was ill in bed.'

A rather untidy scrapbook -recipes, household hints and the like culled from newspapers- has come down from Mama.  It gives off an aura of carelessness, not unfamiliar. Tina was neither as robust nor as self-reliant as her Cusiter sisters, perhaps because they were unmarried. They were suffragettes. She was not. They smoked. She did not. She seems a gentler character, obviously nothing like as strong in personality as her daughters, especially the unsquashable Mona.

 

Portobello pier in 1911. Mona was 21. The structure by Thomas Bouch was a good bit older

 

Norah had an image of her mother, which remained clear in her head always. " It was Spring-cleaning time and Mama, wearing a man's cap, was beating carpets on the line in the low garden to the west side of Mount Lodge." Surprisingly, Norah suggested her mother was a stickler for cleanliness. She insisted on clean combs and hairbrushes at the same time as clean hair and brought up her daughters to be at least clean if they couldn't all be beautiful. Norah said also that her mother was fanatical about the cleanliness of the W.C.

 

 

She had a pretty voice and her song was, 'What are the wild waves saying' based on Dickens’ Dombey and Son. A whole set of magazines with Dickens novels serialised lay in piles on top of a cupboard in the upstairs pantry. Norah would sit up there and read them. They must have dated from long ago. Maybe they came from Great-Grandma Young's house, Ellen Villa in Bonnyrigg, and Mama had read them too.

 

When visitors came to Mount Lodge, the two younger Torrance girls would spy them coming up the drive from the parlour window.  They would run back to the drawing room with its blazing fire and big vases of flowers.  Mama and Mona would be there in their silk Edwardian high-necked dresses.  Mama would say to Mona, "Sit down at the piano dear.  Play something to welcome the people."  And as they entered the lovely old house, sweet music would greet the visitors as the maid took their coats in the hall.

Mount Lodge drawing room piano - under the portrait of Willie Torrance

As a child and later as a grown-up, Mona attended quite a few fancy dress parties or balls.  These seem to have been very popular in Edwardian times.  Dressed as a calendar, she won first or second prize at one of these.  Later she went to another as a French doll.   Short black cotton low-waisted dress with silver moons and stars on it and a huge round pink cotton-woolly wig, worn, of course, with black stockings and high heeled shoes.  Mona said, "That wig suits our noses."

 

Talking of "our noses" is a reminder that Mona's way of looking at things was always subjective.  "We would have done something else." or "That's not our style of behaviour."  "We all have wee eyes and wee faces."  "When you're tired, dear, your face shrinks to the size of a threepenny bit!"  It was said that to avoid their having pug noses, as some acquaintance of hers did, Mama pulled and pinched all her daughters' noses.

In the style of an Indian bungalow - Garden front, Mount Lodge, Portobello

 

Mama’s sisters Geegie and Meg, living with Grandma at Rosefield Avenue just along the Christian Path, were frequent visitors to Mount Lodge.  They were regularly called in to help at parties.  Norah spoke of a great buffet of jellies and trifles laid out on the Chippendale sideboard in the big oval hall which was the centre piece of the eighteenth century house.  Norah loved these occasions, and once invited her whole class to a party without any permission from her mother. You can imagine the shock when two dozen little girls rolled up the drive.  Geegie and Meg on that occasion were urgently summoned and no reprimand was given to the naughty girl until all was over and the guests gone home.

The drawing room windows and garden balcony, Mount Lodge

 

Mona was always bossy.  Roma didn't seem to mind, but Norah always resented it. Norah was clever.  She was exceptionally good at English and very well read.  She read everything she could lay her hands on, including the old Dickens magazines on the stove room cupboard.  She wrote poetry and always had something in the school magazine.  She was good at French and History and Geography, talented at art and a brilliant dancer and gymnast.  She was in all the school plays and dancing exhibitions and in Patrick Geddes's Masques.  But remained afraid of her elder sister's disapproval to the end of her life.   Pa and Ma Torrance would go off "abroad to the Isle of Man", and such like and Mona, by now in her early twenties, would take Norah and Roma down to Lauder for a fortnight at the Lauderdale Temperance Hotel, which is still there, though licensed now and under another name.  The wider family were all to enjoy holidays there for years to come and got to know the building and the town well.  One could say that the family used this hotel from 1910 till at least 1943. The Burnett family owned it latterly.

 

 

Mona, Norah, Grannie Cusiter and Roma with parents Willie and Christina Torrance celebrating their silver wedding on the steps of Mount Lodge, Portobello in April 1914.  By mid-July Christina was dead.

 

In 1914 Tina developed a brain tumour.  Roma recalled that 'She was supposed to be delicate, but she was always doing things.  Even when she was dying, she was busy sewing away at summer dresses for Norah and me.'  At the end of the school year in June Norah came home from school full of herself and all the prizes she had won, bounding into her mother's bedroom to tell her. "I'm too tired, dear, not now please. " Mama lay back on her pillows, while poor wee Norah fell back with all the stuffing knocked out of her. 

 

When Christina Torrance lay dying, her sisters and Mona (by now twenty four) were in constant attendance.  The night she died, Geegie crept through to the main bedroom, where Norah was sleeping.  Norah remembered her saying, 'Willie, she's gone.' And then he cried.

 

It was a big funeral.  After all William Torrance was comfortably off.  The full pomp of black horses and hearse left Mount Lodge. A large pink granite stone marks its destination in Portobello cemetery. Women in these days never went to funerals.  Grandma, the two aunts and Mona, Norah and Roma stood in the parlour to watch the cortège pass down the drive.  Norah refused to look.  'Come on dear,' said Auntie Geegie, 'it's your Mother's funeral.  You must look and remember it..' Then when they all sat down, Roma went round patting each one gently on the back.

 

By this time Mona was going out with Charlie Gerrard.  Their two mothers had been friends.  On Christina Torrance's death, Ma Gerrard took over at Mount Lodge for a few days.  Within three weeks, for it was July 1914, we were at war with Germany. 

 

As soon as the funeral was past, Pa Torrance took his three girls away for a holiday at Kinghorn in Fife.  Once again they were following in the footsteps of Annie S. Swan (Mrs Burnett Smith), who was also there as war broke out.  In her autobiography 'My Life" she gives a picture of those days:  "Kinghorn, I must explain, was one of the most unpleasant of the Home Bases to live in during the war. It had become -after we built our house- one of the most important defences of the Forth. Its proximity to the Forth Bridge and the Naval Base at Rosyth made it of the first importance. Greatly to our regret, year by year the defences were strengthened, barbed wire appeared everywhere, and bigger and better guns were installed on terrifying emplacements. The biggest of all was not more than two hundred yards from our house, the chief gunner's cottage intervening in the space between. The close proximity of the Fort entirely destroyed the amenity of our property, and when the guns were fired for practice our windows were regularly shattered. For that there was no compensation.  Immediately the war broke out, Kinghom became a lively centre of military activity. Barriers were erected across the road just outside our front gate, in order to prevent any unauthorised persons from approaching the Fort. Sentries were posted there night and day, and there was no respite from the challenge: 'Halt! Who goes there ? Advance one, and be recognised ! '  The panicky atmosphere of these first weeks was indescribable. The bogey was German invasion, which was reported to be imminent, sometimes actually to have materialised, at every vulnerable spot along the coast. Trenches were dug and manned by night and day, vigilant watch kept everywhere, explicit instructions handed out to the civilians as to their procedure when the enemy actually arrived. The whole of life was transformed into something grim and sinister. Our cellars were commandeered for the Red Cross stores, so that they would be quickly available when the fighting began. It was, of course, necessary to keep vigilant watch over the narrow channel leading to the Forth Bridge, which the enemy were anxious to blow up, in order to block the outlet for the Fleet at the Rosyth Base. All the little islands we so loved and had often picnicked on became armed camps; the sea, a menacing highway on which anything might happen. The scares were continuous and exciting. One day it was reported that the Germans had actually effected a landing at Largo Bay, and I have to confess that I was so scared that I ran away, making a hasty trip by rail to the old Manse at Lumsden, where the Nicolls were enjoying a peaceful holiday. It restored my shattered nerves for a little, and I was grateful for the interlude, though I had to stand a good deal of chaff when I got home. I didn't mind. I have never pretended that physical courage was my strong suit."


Kinghorn Beach - Photo: Colin Smith CCL

 

Charlie Gerrard stayed in the same Kinghorn hotel as the Torrance girls.  From the hotel window they all watched the Fleet assembling and exercising in the Forth. Before the end of their stay Charlie was sent for to rejoin his regiment at Edinburgh Castle.  His was a cavalry regiment and he must have been in a reserve battalion. This sudden outbreak of war did mean that the Torrance girls had something else to think about after the death of their mother.  Things would never be the same again.

 

Grandma Cusiter died the next year at Rosefield Avenue.  She was seventy eight.  Then Auntie Meg died of Addison’s disease in 1917. Mona said she went round to Rosefield Avenue to be with Geegie.  She recalled:  "Everything Auntie Geegie wanted, just happened to be in Auntie Meg's room.  She didn't want to go in, while her sister lay there, so I had to go in for one thing after another."  It must have been after this that Geegie began to go to pieces and take to drink as a comfort.  As Mona would say fifty years later, 'If a family like us are used to taking a refreshment, they're better to have one instead of these drugs.'

 

Conservatory below the drawing room balcony: Mount Lodge

It's not now clear exactly when Mona and Charlie got engaged, but, as for all her female relations, it was to be a long engagement.  In the evenings, when Mona was going out to some party or dance, Roma would watch her getting dressed.  "I always thought she looked lovely," Roma said.  "You know she never had very nice hair, so she saved all her combings and stuffed them behind the pompadours fashionable at that time. Sometimes Charlie would slip a box of chocolates for her through the conservatory window.  He knew she loved them.  He used to call her Sweetie."  The War was nearly over when they got married on March 12th 1918. 

 

The Scotsman - Wednesday, 13th March 1918, page 10

GERRARD-TORRANCE.-At the Royal Hotel, Edinburgh on the 12th March, by the Rev. James Ray, St James', Portobello, Charles Reid Gerrard, Capt., Yeomanry , second son of James Gerrard, Esq.; Portobello, to Christina Mary Cusiter (Mona), eldest daugher of W. B Torrance, Esq., Mount Lodge, Portobello.

                                                   Nora and Roma standing, Mona seated, with her husband on the right

 

  Aunt Geegie took no interest in her niece's wedding in 1918.  Indeed she was rather upset by it, still suffering the recent loss of her mother and two sisters.  Mona arranged her own wedding, so she said.  Nor did Geegie take any responsibility for Norah and Roma at the wedding, when as bridesmaids they found themselves the focus of attention of a bunch of drunk young officers on leave from the front.  It was Ma Gerrard, Charlie's indomitable mother, who swept them out of danger, from the Royal Hotel down to the Waverley Station and away home to Mount Lodge. 

 

As soon as the War was over, Geegie was given the task of taking Norah and Roma to London to show them the sights.  Perhaps it was thought that these two nieces, whose morale she had so effectively boosted in the past, could now do the same for her, for her sang froid was breaking down badly. Geegie and Meg must have been to London at least once before; their books include a Guide Book of the capital dated about 1890.  It was Miss Ross from next door in Rosefield Avenue (of Danny Ross the Portobello shoe shop family) who ushered Geegie down the path to join the waiting taxi with the two girls inside.  They didn't understand at the time why she behaved so oddly on the train to London.  And when they got there and were installed in their hotel, she started imagining all sorts of things.  Norah said later, 'It was the DTs.  Father and Mr. Graham were coming in the window.'  A wonder their father had let them go at all.  Anyway, they phoned home that evening and went home the following morning.  So ended the trip to London.

William Torrance

 

Willie Torrance had always lived up to and later beyond his income and gave his daughters everything they could desire. There was even talk at one time of having them presented at court. A local lady of standing offered to chaperon them. Roma always said, 'He was a really good father to us.'  In the grounds of Mount Lodge they had a tram car which they used as a summer house.  There the girls would go and sit with boys and chat till all hours. Roma liked to sit with one of these boys eating strawberries with lots of sugar and Nestlé's Milk.  Norah preferred cream.  When the War ended and nice food began to appear in the shops again, it was Roma who ran down Windsor Place to Brock the baker at the top of Regent Street and bought a dozen fancy cakes for them all to enjoy.  It was Roma, who occasionally liked to wear fashionable hats and of whom a pair of laughing message boys said, "What's although it's a Chinaman's hat?"  It was Roma who overheard another pair of message boys' dialogue.  "Whar ee goin'?"  "Merchie Ave. Chum uz.". After the War, when young men called and Pa wasn't there, they would offer a glass of whisky and then fill the bottle up with water so that father never knew.  It was a gay irresponsible life for a few years before Norah got married; dances, lovely clothes, a great deal of laughter and games of tennis on the lawn.  Always dogs and ponies. As a young girl Norah had been great at circus tricks on these ponies.  She was agile and fearless and her father thought she was a marvel.  Roma told how Norah had earlier became one of the first girl Guides, with a long pole taller than herself.  Roma laughed.  "That craze didn't last long," she said. 

Mount Lodge Sheltie

 

Both Norah and Roma were Sunday School teachers for a while, as Mona had been before them.  Father paid the subscription for Norah to join the Theosophical Society and she was able to use their library.  She was always interested in things philosophical and spiritual.  She tried burning incense to evoke spirits in her room in the semi-basement, terrified herself and screamed, "They're coming out now!" and had Mona coming in to put a stop to it.  Egyptology was a bit of a craze.

 

During the War Charlie Gerrard had been in France for a while and afterwards he spent a year or two with the Army of Occupation in Germany. The new couple probably bought their house in Hamilton Terrace some time before they were married, but they didn't occupy it until Charlie came home from Germany.  The building of these houses had started long before the War, but they took a long time building and then an even longer time getting sold off, for they were expensive and at that time people still preferred to rent rather than buy houses.  Mona and Charlie were a couple of bright not-so-young things in the early twenties, with a lovely house, where the sun poured in the front windows, a fast little car and a lively social life.  Mona had a young friend who came round once a week to sing with her.  When he rang the bell on the 27th of April 1921, the maid opened the door to tell him Mrs Gerrard had just had a baby girl.  He had no idea she was pregnant!  By the way that was a word Mona couldn't bear to hear spoken!  Mona would tell this story as reflecting well on herself, but Roma felt it was a black mark.  Effie was the Gerrard's maid at this time.  She was a fisherman's daughter from Port Seton and a cousin of her successor, Chrissie, who became so well known to the family later.

 

Mama had been a good cook, said Norah.  After Mrs. Torrance's death, the cooking, now under Mona's direction, deteriorated badly. There were maids, of course, but they needed someone knowledgeable in charge.  Norah said the food remained pretty awful until she and a really interested maid, Barbara, took over the running of the kitchen, when Mona got married.  Once installed in her own home, Mona used to come round once a week from Hamilton Terrace to Mount Lodge, probably by the Christian Path alongside the railway, and fill capacious bags and baskets with flour and oatmeal, potatoes and eggs and anything else that took her fancy.  Norah said, "I knew it wasn't right, but I didn't like to say anything."

 

Kyles of Bute Hydro between the wars

 

Established as a comfortably off married lady, Mona, with Charlie of course, used to take her younger sisters away on holiday to exciting venues of the day like Peebles Hydro, Kyles of Bute Hydro, Dunblane Hydro and other such high spots where one could see and be seen.  With their grand ballrooms and dance bands it was all razzle-dazzle and social whirl.  Lots of opportunities for Norah and Roma to show themselves off!  They were both good-looking girls and had a very indulgent father and they loved dancing.  Papa kept them supplied with fashionable clothes.  Once a year, in the spring, he ordered a bespoke suit or costume as they called it from Mr. Ferguson the Tailor in Easter Road.  Probably Mr. Ferguson had earlier had a shop in Portobello High Street.

 

Mona did the organising and Roma was a bridesmaid when Norah married Bertie Cavaye in 1923. Norah believed, for it is written in her diaries, that Mona had a miscarriage some time when her daughter was a child.  Mona sometimes mentioned in Norah's presence "my little son".  Anyway, Mona didn't really like children and was relieved to have only one –a daughter, while Norah had first a daughter then two sons. These niece and nephews didn't much like Mona when they were younger.  She was generous but had no idea of how to treat them and when she had them for the day "to relieve poor wee Norah," she always tried to force them to have a sleep.  It was good of her though to sweep them up from their messy living room and carry them off for the day to her posh establishment.  She didn't have too much of a problem with her niece, whom she could always hand over to her daughter for entertainment, but the two younger nephews were another story.  They all came to appreciate Mona in later life.

Willie Torrance flanked by Roma and Mona.  Norah sits with Mona's daughter and her own

 

Roma travelled about the town more than the other two.  She was very much more of a modern young woman than her sisters, who always kept a trace of the pre-war sweet young thing about them. Roma went to McAdams, a secretarial college for a year or two and then applied for the Civil Service and got in.  She had a career.  She earned money.  She bought an expensive freestanding gramophone from the music shop in the High Street.  Roma learned to drive when Pa Torrance bought a motor-car.  Newly-married Norah at Inchview Terrace didn't have Roma's spacious Mount Lodge base and efficient maid nor Roma's career nor was she anything like as well off as Mona.  Roma might call in on the way home from the office (Register House) and there would be a smart new outfit to admire and very likely envy. 

 

But in 1926 Roma fell in love with an overseas Scots mining engineer, and went to Tunisia to visit his family. In a way Roma burned her boats, for she left the Civil Service, picking up the "dowry" that was awarded to any employee who got married (a woman couldn't stay on in work in those days once she married) and made her efficient and exciting preparations for the trip.  She had been sewing away, for she enjoyed sewing, at her trousseau.  When Roma went off to Tunis, Norah, by no means reluctantly, came back with her husband and child to Mount Lodge "to look after Pa."  They must have stayed there all summer until Roma decided to return.  Her future was in Portobello. The Tunisian marriage was not to be. 

 

When the crunch came to Willie Torrance and the grain trade with the depression of the late twenties, it was Roma who tried to sort out the difficulties at the mill. She loved business and was well able to drive her father around Midlothian, talking to customers and collecting debts. When things got bad, Willie retreated into his shell.  They gave up the lease of Mount Lodge and Roma took all her money out of the bank to put a deposit on a little house, Ivy Neuk, at 9 Rosefield Place.  She took out a mortgage on it, which was quite a frightening thing for anyone to do in those days, let alone a single woman.  She did all she could to save the dregs of what had been a first class business, but she had been allowed into the picture too late, when things were beyond recovery. Her father gave up and retired about 1931. Roma continued for a year or so to work for his successor.

 

Then Willie Torrance began to go senile. He was a disappointed man, who sat in his corner at Rosefield, smoking his pipe. He began behaving oddly and had to have someone with him all the time.  Roma gave up her job to bear the burden of him day and night. She felt let down by her sisters, who seemed unwilling or unable to help, but her brothers-in-law gave a hand.  Pa had to be played cards with every night. Bertie Cavaye used to come down once or twice a week and so did Charlie Gerrard, to enable Roma to have an evening out away from the strain.  As Bertie always said, 'The Torrances can't stand strain.'   Pa Torrance's last year was a succession of card games, cronies coming to the house and obligatory wee nips. Once, they said, he went out in the street in his pyjamas. He died in 1936 and his pocket watch was hanging on the end of his bed, waiting for his grandson Bill to inherit it. Mona always said Bill was very like her father.

 

Roma had given up more than five years of her life to looking after Pa Torrance, but she was good at it and knew she was.  "He was a damn good father to us," she said.  After he died she married David Scott Hay the youngest son of Baillie Hay, whom everyone in Edinburgh knew.  Photographs were in the local newspapers.  So all three of the Torrance girls had married into Portobello families.  Mona’s Gerrards, who lived in James Street, were highly thought of, comfortably off, and had travelled extensively.  Roma’s Hays too were a Portobello family of note.  Norah’s Cavayes were a large family living at Craig Royston in East Brighton Crescent.  They were rather less remarkable, or so it seemed.

 

Much as she loved her growing daughter, Mona was unnecessarily domineering.  Her husband Charlie was a more sympathetic parent.  It was wisest to keep anything with which she might disagree away from her ears. Mona and Charlie had a sort of soiree on Sunday evenings, to which the young and amusing had come in the thirties and forties and the old and accustomed continued to come until Charlie died in 1959.   And in the forties once a year at Hogmanay they'd had a festive do with dancing in the hall.  If you met Mona by chance in town she would always take you to lunch.  Often she had the intrepid Ernie Hamilton with her.  She liked a male escort, even if he was very small.  Of course she made him wear his naval uniform.  He lived with them for a bit after the war.  She tried to be useful to the family's younger generation, showing them where the "Ladies" was in Edinburgh's posh hotels. It was good if you met her at a dance in the N.B. or a ball in the Assembly Rooms, as you might do from time to time at the end of the forties.  She would go out of her way to be pleasant and show you the ropes.  Usually, at that time, she wore a black taffeta evening dress with a sort of off the shoulder fichu in rainbow coloured chiffon.  Norah always said, "Mona looks good in black."  She never had a spot of make-up on, and she never wore a bra, or so she said.

 

Mona fancied herself as an organiser of weddings.  She had had quite a lot of experience.  First her own.  She, not Aunt Geegie -who was apparently devastated- had arranged everything.  Then Norah's, then Roma's.  When it came to her daughter's in 1946 she was really able to go to town.  The War was over and money was no object, so it was a very expensive dress for the bride, four bridesmaids and a flower girl, (all done by a "Court Dressmaker") St Giles Cathedral - “not just the Moray Aisle, dear, it wouldn't hold us all! - and the Charlotte Rooms.  There were well over a hundred guests, which was a lot for those days and the presents were fabulous.  She did boss everyone about and it must have been a strain for the participants, but it was all done beautifully.

 

Roma and David Hay

 

After Charlie's death in 1959, Mona's house on the corner at 33 Durham Road was divided according to plans drawn up by Roma's husband David Hay, with Norah and Bertie Cavaye having the top flat with an outside stair approach and Mona retaining the ground floor and the back garden. Both flats turned out very nice, according to the standards of the day, but maybe it was a mistake for Norah to live so close to the dreaded Mona.  She hardly dared use her washing machine in case it disturbed or, worse still, flooded her sister.   Mona could see every visitor Norah got, so they all had to go downstairs afterwards "on the wave", turning their faces to Mona's bay window and often getting signalled to come in.

 

Everyone loved Mona in her ancient years.  They would call, many of them after visiting Norah on a Sunday morning, and she'd give them foul sherry or warm gin with flat tonic out of dirty glasses and biscuits or nuts long past their sell- by dates, but they loved it and wouldn't have missed it for the world.

 

She was never known to offer tea or coffee or anything real by way of food, but there was often a fire and always a smiley face and a cheery welcome for one and all, maybe not for the little children, but we know how Mona felt about children.  The "lounge" (Mona was the first to use that name for what would previously be the drawing room) would have been very expensively painted and decorated in 1930 when they moved in and it remained as it had always been until 1987, when Mona died; pale peachy wallpaper with a dangling fruit frieze, creamy gloss paintwork, mirror above the fireplace, long narrow velvet cushion on the floor in front, the huge tapestry on the opposite wall, Charlie's precious ivories on the corner shelves next to the glamorous film star portrait of their daughter and "Roses of Picardy" on the music stand at the piano.  Have you ever heard that haunting song?  It gives a real flavour of Mona's period.

 

 

Throughout her long life Mona enjoyed perfect health.  She walked about Portobello and went up town on buses a lot, until she was past eighty.  After that she stayed mostly at home.  She would go down to her daughter at Nottingham for a long stay at least once a year, always avoiding the worst of the winter in Edinburgh.  Yet she was glad to get back to her own house in the better weather and, strangely, Norah was always glad to see her come back.  She missed her and the morning drop-ins downstairs when Mona was away.  Once, when Mona was at Nottingham in her last years, she had trouble with her eyes and had to have a delicate operation, but all her life before that she had never been in hospital and hardly ever needed the doctor.  She used to say she hadn’t slept a wink since her daughter was born, but that must have been a lie!  She loved fudge and she liked gin and those constituted the sum total of her "messages" which she asked Norah to get from the shops.

 

During her last year, she had become quite frail and small.  It was then that she said she'd gone off fudge. Unlike her two sisters, she was always able to hear very well and she never seemed to wear glasses, but then she didn't read much, just the tabloids and Titbits, in earlier years.  Her grandaughter said that in spite of Mona not being particularly educated, she was able to talk intelligently about any subject with anybody.  On reflection that was true. How did she do it!  Like the other two sisters she didn't like any upset or anything going wrong.  We can understand the feeling.  She liked everything to be just so.  At Roma's wedding, when one of Roma's bridesmaids decided to wash her hair on the wedding morning, Mona went mad.  On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, when Mona had got the downstairs bathroom all nice and lovely, she went berserk when the groom and his best man went and used it.  Once she had got everything orderly and pretty she didn't want anyone messing it up.  Although she did a bit of basic housework, she never seemed to do any cooking.  She preferred, when possible to eat out and would take her visitors in the sixties to the Royal Hotel, Portobello for lunch.

 

Mona, the oldest, was the sister who survived the longest.  Perhaps when Mama Torrance was dying, she'd asked Mona to look after her girls, for the other two were not yet grown up.  So it was, if you like, that Mona went on living and saw to the younger ones as far as she was able.  Once they had gone, she could relax and contemplate dying herself.  She lived eleven months after Norah and Roma and died at her daughter’s house in Nottingham.

 

She was always generous, bearing flowers and gifts, always a delight as a visitor.  Norah would say, "Give her sloppy food, dear.  That's what she prefers."  Her sisters Norah and Roma worked hard.  Mona never appeared to.  Why, though, did Mona -and Roma too- persist to the end in creating the image among their friends and relatives that it was Norah who was the scatter-brain, the butterfly mind?  As her descendants know, Norah was the cleverest of the lot!  They were great characters, all three. 

 

 

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