Leonard and Ada Brent: The Grandparents I Never Knew

Leonard Norman Brent, 1892-1966, Jam Factory Manager and my grandfather.

Ada Jane Beale, 1895-1973, his wife and my grandmother.

I never knew my paternal grandparents. Leonard died eleven years before I was born and Ada four. In fact, I didn’t even know their names, and the realisation of this fact was what prompted me to start researching my family history.

My mother got down a dusty album full of photographs. The album, half full, comprised all the photos my father had managed to salvage when he left his first wife for my mother. There was just one of each of them, and an out of focus photo of Ada with her children, presumably taken by Leonard. I squinted at them, trying to see my face in theirs, trying to picture them as “Grandma” and “Granddad”.

Leonard Brent was born on the 25th April, 1892, in Camberwell, south east London. His father, Samuel Doidge Brent, had come from Cornwall to run a post office on Rotherhithe New Road with his wife, Emily (nee Whibley). Leonard was his only child.

Ada Jane Beale was born on 14th August, 1895, in Udimore, near Rye in Sussex. She was the third child of Percy and Phoebe Beale, and the great-granddaughter of Rich Richard. The Beales had long since lost their money. Percy was a farm labourer, and at just fifteen years old, Ada was working as a servant at the vicarage in Cuckfield, Sussex.

Leonard was a member of 1/20 Battalion of the London Regiment. This was initially a territorial division, already in existence at the start of WW1. Leonard’s service record states that he enlisted with them on 31st August 1914, and was transferred to Royal West Kent in November. Royal West Kent Regiment would have been stationed near Ada’s home in Sussex, so this is where they must have made. However, it seems Leonard did not care for this regiment much, as there is a note to say he absented himself, and the next entry states he was back with the London Regiment when he embarked for France on 9th March, 1915. Sadly, Leonard’s records say no more about his time in France, but war diaries reveal that he would have fought at several battles already very familiar to me from my trip to Passchendaele and research on Frederick Allen Downing: Ypres, Messines, Bourlon Wood.

While Leonard was away, Ada received the terrible news that her only brother, Frank, had been killed in France. She must have feared that she would never see Leonard again. But Leonard survived. In May 1917, he was home and married Ada in Rudgwick, Sussex. Nine months later, my father was born. Leonard and Ada named their son Frank, after Ada’s brother.

After the war was over, Leonard and Ada returned to Camberwell to be near Leonard’s parents. They lived at 174 Camberwell Grove. A second son, Alan, was born in 1919. In 1925, Leonard got a job as the manager of Robertson’s Jam Factory in Catford. Yes, that’s right, my grandfather was involved with all those terribly inappropriate “gollywog” jars! I think we’ll just gloss over that one and put it down to cultural naivety! The family moved to 11 Broadmead in Catford and their daughter (my aunt, who is still alive) was born soon after. The family moved to a bigger house in Catford, 85 Ardgowan Road.

The strangest thing is that I never knew my father’s family lived in Ardgowan Road, or that they had any connection with Catford at all. But I knew Ardgowan Road very well, because I had lived at number 19 for a year, as a lodger in a house while I was at university. The night before I went to see the room (which was one of six that I saw that day), I had a very vivid dream where I travelled through the streets and saw my future home. And as I caught to the bus through Ardgowan Road I saw the houses from my dream and I knew before I was even through the door that I would live here. I thought at the time it was some kind of sixth sense telling me which was the nicest house, but now I like to think that I have a little piece of my father, or my grandparents, within me which remembered the road and guided me back there. (But anyway. This is a blog about history, not about the paranormal.)

By the time of the second world war, Leonard, Ada and the children had moved to Balmoral Avenue in Beckenham. Frank and Alan were both old enough to serve now, and I believe that Leonard may have served with the territorial force (since he is absent from the 1939 register like all servicemen, and my mother has a territorial force medal in her possession that does not seem to belong to anyone else). Frank and Alan both went abroad (and I intend to make them, and their war stories, the subject of some more thorough posts in the future). Alan was at Dunkirk and returned safely. Frank, however, was not so lucky. Casualty List number 555, issued on 2nd June 1941, listed Frank as “missing” in Crete. For three months, Ada and Leonard had no news of their son. Ada must have thought history had repeated itself – I wonder if she blamed herself for naming her son after her ill fated brother? It was not until the release of Casualty List 601 that they discovered Frank was alive. He had been captured and was being held in the prisoner of war camp, Stalag 383. This is where he remained for nearly four years.

Frank in the POW camp in 1941, soon after capture. (Second from right, bottom row).

You will have guessed that Frank eventually returned home alive and well, since I would not be here to write his story had he not. His time in the camp and his poor treatment by his captors took its toll though, and I remember him as an ill, elderly man, even though really he never had the chance to get old. He died when he was sixty-seven, but outlived both his parents.

The cruel twist to this story is that having thought they had lost one son, Leonard and Ada suddenly found they were burying the other. It was not war that killed Alan, though. It was cancer. Alan was twenty-eight years old with a three year old daughter, Linda, when he succumbed to lymphadenoma. Even more cruelly, Linda (my only cousin) suddenly dropped dead herself at the age of 20, from an undiagnosed heart complaint. I find it very sad that my family had to deal with all this loss. Linda would have been the only granddaughter Leonard and Ada ever knew – maybe they are looking down on me now and are glad they have another. I think I have got to know them quite well considering I have never met them.

As retirement grew closer, Leonard and Ada decided to move back to Ada’s native Sussex and bought a house in Keymer, near Brighton. Unfortunately, on 2nd September 1966, 74-year-old Leonard collapsed in Keymer library from a heart attack, and was dead on arrival at hospital. Ada was looked after by my aunt for the next seven years until she too passed away. Both were cremated and their ashes scattered at Bear Road Crematorium in Brighton.

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