Recorded by Edward Toplis shortly before his death in 1968

[with additional notes by John Edward Toplis (his son) - added in 1997 - revised 2001]


Family Firm - Edward Toplis, Wholesale & Retail Tobacco Manufactures and Snuff Grinders

The name Toplis is a local name in South Yorkshire and I believe also in Leicester but my family as far as I know have at least been in London since 1739. That was the date that the family business was started - 1739, a tobacco manufactures, wholesale and retail cigar importers and snuff grinders. [Elsewhere, Edward stated that the firm was the oldest manufacturers in the trade.] The business was first started in Tooley Street which is on the south side of the river between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. [Edward told me that all the eldest sons had been called Edward - my name was the first to break that tradition, as Edward was an unfashionable name in the 1930s

At a later date they moved to Whitechapel High Street [elsewhere Edward called it Whitechapel Road] and had a premises between Goulton Street and Middlesex Street, which is now known as Petticoat Lane. The front was a retail shop and at the back through a glass partition was a factory which could be seen from the shop, with a steam engine, cutting machine and drying pans, steaming pans and the press. [Edward told me about the engine they had, and said it was of an unusual design - being shorter than a normal double-acting engine with cylinder block, slide mechanism and crank all inline. Unfortunately he didnít make any drawings. He said that he would like to make a model of it, but never did. He left a piece of metal in the shape of a yoke, which possibly meant that the slide mechanism was on the sides of the cylinder barrel and that the crank was also at the side. I have looked at model engines at the Science Museum, but never seen anything like it there.]. The family lived upstairs over the premises. [He also told me that outside the shop was a carved wooden full size statue of a Red Indian with full head-dress. I believe that these were the usual symbol of tobacconists.]

When the Underground Railway [District Railway Line] was built, Aldgate East Station was built on this site [which was later removed to the corner of Commercial Street] so my grandfather rebuilt the factory at the back of the premises where the stables used to be. It was in Boarís Head Yard just off Middlesex Street. At the same time he gave up the retail business and kept on the wholesale side. [Elsewhere he stated that when the Imperial Tobacco Co. was formed, the goods of the Toplis firm were sold by this combine as the Edward Toplis Brand. In the early 1900s there was a fire at the factory which damaged the machinery. The firm was closed up about 1910, Edward's grandfather going bankrupt as detailed later in this paper.]

My grandfather moved out to [3] Beaufort Gardens, which is off Loampit Hill between New Cross and Lewisham.

My Grandfather - (John's Great-grandfather)

My grandfather came from a big family. His father married twice. A sister and a step-sister married two brothers by the name of Hawgood, and they never spoke to each other again afterwards, so the story goes. You (John) know of Jack Hawgood, well his father Leonard Hawgood was the son of one of these sisters, my grandfatherís step sister. Leonard Hawgood, as you know, had a garage at Taplow and his only child, Jack Hawgood became a professor at Birmingham University. Leonard Hawgood was the only one of that family I ever met.



The other sister, when I knew her was a widow; she had a boarding house just by Russel Square, Guildford Street. She had a large family; I met a number of them, but what their history was beyond that I don't know. My grandfather had a step brother, Wally Toplis - I suppose his name was Wallace - went to Australia. And a son of his met some of the [my] family - I was away at the time - when he came over with the Australian Army during the First World War. Beyond that I donít know anything about them. [Edward's grandfather died in 1911.]

My Father - Early Life

My grandfather only had two children, my father [Edward Percy - We have his silver christening mug dated 16 September 1866]and his sister [Mabel]. I believe his first wife died when my fatherís sister was born, I am not sure on that point but I think that is what happened. When my grandfather married again, my father was sent to Margote (not Margate), Broadstairs to live with an aunt, I think, and was sent to the local school there, well apparently he never went to school there! He was mad on horses, in fact all his life he was always very keen on horses as animals; he was never interested in horse racing. Apparently he was going round with a dairyman farmer instead of going to school.

Anyway, he was brought away from that and sent to Iver Grammar School in Bucks, a boarding school. While he was there, his cousin, one of the Hawgoods, one Sunday afternoon let his tame rats loose, apparently they were allowed to have pets, and he had got some rats; well there was a bit of a scrap between them and the Master came along and separated them and blamed my father for it all. When he walked along the corridor behind the Master to receive further punishment, there were boots hanging on hooks along this corridor and he "ups" with one of these boots and hits the master in the back of the head with it, so that was the end of that school.

He then went to the City of London School, on the Thames Embankment, and after he had finished there, I think he started work with Gargeders in Whitechapel. They were famous outfitters, and still are I believe, especially colonial stuff and supplying seamen and ships. From there he went to Travers; they are wholesale grocers and, I think that his temper got the better of him there one day. I think that he threw a ledger at the head clerk; and then after that he came into the family business to carry on there.

My Father - Working Life - Tobacco Salesman

His principal job [as a Traveller for the firm] was going round with a pair-horse van and coachman; and supplied public houses mostly, the business he worked up, all round Essex [as far as Colchester and Burnham on Sea] and round London. One journey he used to do in Essex used to take him away three days, until they got better train services, and he could slip home at night.

In the early days of it he used to be away three days and stopping the night at a pub. The van was away three days right up to the last. He used to go out up to Welwyn on another of his trips and all round London, especially South London. [Elsewhere, Edward said that he used to ride in the van sometimes on these trips and thatís how he got a love of the country.] In the early part of the century, before I started work, there was a fire at the factory and the ground floor was pretty well gutted; the rest of the building was saved. Anyhow they got over that and then in the meantime they were still manufacturing and they were also wholesalers, middlemen for most of the propriety brands.



The Imperial Tobacco Company started, and a man named Duke came over from America and got control of Ogdens and was starting to cut up the tobacco trade. Wills, Players and one or two others of the big firms got together to form the Imperial Tobacco Company to fight him and it wasnít very long before Ogdens was in with them, and that put paid to all the small firms.

Edward Toplis (the firm) carried on till 1910 or 1909 [elsewhere it is stated that it was wound up in 1910] , and then my father went with another of these small firms but it wasnít long before they shut up as well; and then he went with a firm named Saddler and Moore just off Bishopsgate, and anyhow he became ill - it was dropsy - and he carried on until he could carry on no longer and after being in bed for about eight months he died in June or July 1911.

My Fatherís Relations

My grandfather died in the January of the same year. My grandfather had married again but had had no children by his second wife. Her maiden name was Cary Letell; I donít know if she was of French extraction or not.

My fatherís sister - Mabel - married Harry Deconning; well he was of French extraction, English born but his mother and father were French, and they (Harry and Mabel) had a business for enamelling jewellery. Their business was in Darbury Street off Dean Street in Soho. When the City of London gave a casket containing an illuminated address to a foreign dignitary, they often had the job of enamelling the badges on the casket. They only had a daughter - Gladys; and she married, but did not have any children.

My Motherís Family

Well, now my mother was born in Smith Street, which is the next street to Sydney Street, where the Sydney Street battle was, in Mile End, in the Borough of Stepney; and later on moved to 28 Treadegar Square.

I knew my motherís mother, she was an invalid towards the end of her days. I think she got gangrene in her hand; she wore a huge glove thing. They had a big family. Who my motherís father was I had no idea, as I never heard speak of him, and I suppose I never asked, and that was it, and I never thought about it.

There were quite a few children, and my mother [Jessica Tandy] was about the middle of them. Quite a few of them died young, except of course the oldest daughter - Louise; that was Percy Mayís mother, who you know about John. There was George (Edwardís uncle), Marjorie (Edwardís wife) met him, in fact you met him John; he nursed you one day when we went to see him. He lived till over eighty and so did Louise. Of the others, there was Harry, he was the father of Jessica, and Sir Arthur Tandy. Jessica (Tandy) you know (of) is the actress who first of all married Jack Hawkins. She went to the States at the beginning of the war and then she was married to (Hugh) Cronin the film actor. [I will add a section about Jessica at the end.]

My Mother and Father - (John's Grand-parents)

It was rather romantic the way my Mother and Father met. My Father went to a dance at Bromley Vestry (that is Bromley-by-Bow). The MC introduced him to a girl for a dance and of course he had no idea of who she was or where she came from, and so he told me, he searched every dance all over the East End of London to try and find her; but I think one of his friends knew who she was in the end and that is how they finally met. My Mother and Father were married in 1890. They lived at Forest Gate and (it was) eventually 53 Forest Road. The numbers are altered, so you will find that it is 59 on my Birth Certificate.



Edwardís Life

Alice - My Sister - (John's Aunt)

I was born in 1892 (?) [28 November 1894 (?) at Forrest Gate] and my sister in 1896, my Sister Alice. Of course John should remember Alice. She went to a private school and eventually went into the Civil Service in the Head Office of the Post Office and then was in the Savings Certificate Department later on. During the Second World War she was evacuated to Morecombe where she died.

Education - Schools

I went to a little private school first of all and then later on I went to Cooperís Company School in Bow, which was in fact only a few yards from where my mother used to live. When I first went there, my motherís youngest sister Dolly and Ted [her husband - Turner (?)] still lived there - they were still single (?). Later on they moved to Leytonstone.

Education - Apprenticeship

After leaving school, I went to serve an apprenticeship. I went to a small firm in Stratford , of general engineers and millwrights. They built special factory machinery and also did repairs for lots of factories around Stratford. After I had been there some time, I decided that I wanted to go to sea, and as the sea going regulations were then for tickets, I was afraid that this engineering shop wouldnít count, although it was a very good shop for training a tradesman [in engineering], so I got into the Thames Iron Works and during that time I was away on the trials of the battleship Thunderer. Well, after that the firm went broke and closed up and my apprenticeship was hardly [nearly] finished. The father of a school friend of mine who was a Chief Engineer, got me into a repair shop in the Albert Dock - Lester and Perkins - and I only had about nine months of my apprenticeship [to do], and from that , when my apprenticeship was finished, they got me a job in a coaster of the American Oil Company.

Life At Sea - First World War

I think that I was a bit of a wanderer - I went from one company to another. I got my Secondís [Engineerís] Ticket in 1916 and then shortly after - it was in 1913 I first went to sea and I started work in 1908 - I was torpedoed. I think that was in 1916 too, in a ship called the Rio Clara ; anyhow we beached her, we all got out all right; we beached her on the Italian coast. And then again in another ship we were in the Mediterranean, eighteen months later at the end of the war. [Edwardís album has a photo of capsized ship - but I donít know which one it is.]

Life At Sea - Post War

I came home and I got my Chiefís Ticket and then went away as Second in another company and carried on until I was eventually promoted to Chief in the Bira Steamship Company. I was beginning to stick then - I was with them for six years. We were trading up the Black Sea mostly - right up the Danube. Then they sold the ship I was in, and I went over to diesel then and was in a diesel tanker to get my time - got my Diesel Endorsement to my Steam Ticket, and then I met Marjorie [Bovey]. [While Edward was at sea, he sent many items home to his Mother (and Alice who lived with her) from his travels around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. All this was inherited by Alice when Edwardís Mother died (date not known) (and then passed to the Abbot family(?) when Alice died - but more of that later) - so Edward had very few items from his travels. Edward had a parrot called "Polly Top", which he probably brought from abroad and left at his motherís. There are photos in his album.]



The End of His Life at Sea

I met Marjorie in Painton in a jewellerís shop belonging to a great friend of mine, Goss Mabin. The Mabins were some distant relations of the Boveys. [Marjorie was staying with the Mabins - recuperating from some illness.] That was in 1927. I had just left the ship I was Chief of and then after that, I went away in this tanker and got my Diesel Certificate. [I think that Edward served as Chief on a cargo boat carrying refrigerated beef carcasses from Argentina. The boat also carried a few passengers and as Edward was Chief, he had to carve the joint at the table. We still have the knife he used.]

[Marjorie and Edward were married on 14th June 1930 in St Saviors Church in Westcliff-on-Sea, near Southend. I donít think Alice approved of Marjorie as a wife for Edward (Alice was a spinster living with her Mother) and I donít even know if she attended their wedding.] We lived at 22 Finchley Road in a little flat. [It was on Westcliff Front - they had the limed oak bedroom furniture especially made for the small room. Now that Edward was married, he wanted to leave the sea but it was just at the time of the Depression at the end of the 1920s. He could not get any work and even went to the London Docks every day to try for casual work.]

Living in Chelsea

Then we moved to 33 Cheney Road. [Marjorie and Edward couldnít continue to live in Westcliff, so moved into the basement flat of 33 Cheyne Road in Chelsea -(I donít know when - but before 1933). This house appears in the opening scene in the film "Around the World in Eighty Days". It was rented by Marjorieís brother - Arthur Bovey - where he lived with his mother - Jessie - while he was working in advertising. Arthur put Edward in touch with someone (?); and as partners they took over a garage at the end of Cromwell Road - where there is now a bridge over the railway, near Earls Court. The partnership failed - the partner preferred playing golf(!) or because of the financial climate at the beginning of the 1930s.

Edward had started driving before Driving Tests were introduced, so he never took a test in GB but did in Australia - more about that later. Although Edward didnít have a car, I think that he drove cars belonging to Arthur quite a lot as there are many trips mentioned in the book Marjorie kept of my early life. One of the cars was a Railton - quite a large luxury car with an American engine. On one occasion, someone ran into the back of the car Edward was driving - near Albert Bridge - and Marjorie (who was pregnant) was quite shaken and taken to her auntís nursing home in Chingford to check up that I was OK! I think all was well, as I was born a week later at the nursing home.

Edward obtained a job as Maintenance Engineer of the Generating Plant for the construction of Chelsea Bridge during the Mid-1930s. This was convenient while living in Chelsea but he had to cross the river as the Generating Plant was on the South bank in Battersea, close to Battersea Power Station. I [John] was born while Marjorie and Edward were living in Chelsea and was baptised at (?) Church, which was bombed during the Blitz. Marjorie used to walk me in the pram along Cheney Walk Gardens and took me to Harrods in Knightsbridge to have my haircut. She liked shopping in Harrods for bargains - one of them being a single bed which Jane has for Samir. Edward made the toy farm in 1936, which I still have, while we were living in Chelsea. The farm animals, which I also have kept, were made of lead in those days, so we replaced them with plastic ones for Jane, Paul and Ann.


Marjorie and Edward collected silver tea spoons, which we now have. I think that this must have started with gifts from the Mabin family - the jewellers in Painton. They were close friends, Goss used to visit London and take me to Hamleys to buy toys - one was a special Meccano kit for constructing cars which I kept until my late teens. We visited the Mabins after the Second World War, but they seemed to loose touch afterwards (I hope thatís nothing I did!).


Living in Balham

And then of course to 77[d] Nightingale Lane; you know all about that history John; you donít want me to tell you all about that! [Well I wish I did know all about it! They moved from Chelsea to Balham on 4th September 1936 as Edward had got a job as Maintenance Engineer for the Generating Plant at Kingís College Hospital in Camberwell. It had two large and one small diesel engines and was connected to the main grid so that they could "export" surplus electricity. Edward did shift working so he was "on nights" one week in three, and I had to creep around when I was home during the day. This allowed him to have long weekends (Sunday to Tuesday) which they liked as they were then able to go away. Edward cycled to work every day through Clapham and Brixton, which kept him pretty fit..

77d Nightingale Lane was the top flat in a large pre-First World War semidetached mansion which had been converted into flats. It had a living/dining room, two bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom on one floor, and another bedroom (where Edward slept during the day), a large "playroom" with a skylight and a workshop (with no windows) on the floor above. The view from the upstairs bedroom (a circular window like a porthole) was great - we could see as far as the North Downs on a clear day; when the Crystal Palace at Sydenham burnt down, that could be seen. We had the share of a fairly large garden at the back with the families in the other flats.

Edward built a model railway along one wall of the playroom - making everything from soldering the track (sleepers and rails) together, to building a GWR 0-6-0 Pannier Tank locomotive (which I still have). It was much more a hobby for Edward than a toy for me to play with, though I did make some road vehicles for it later. The locomotive was powered through a "third" rail and was 6 volts working so it was not compatible with other models after the war when "2-rail 12 volt" became the norm. When Marjorie and Edward left Nightingale Lane, everything except the locomotive was thrown away.

Although Alice didnít get on with Marjorie, I think that she visited London and stayed at the Strand Palace Hotel, where we used to visit her to have Afternoon Tea - I am not too sure about this, I was quite young at the time! Amongst the papers which Edward had were a couple of letters from The London Museum - Lancaster House. These are expressing thanks for donating items to the museum - one dated 22nd April 1931 to Miss Alice Toplis for some clothes "of about 1870 belonging to the wife of a city merchant", and the other dated 4th May 1931 to Miss Amy Tandy for a "Sampler" (map of England) worked by Elizabeth Annis Cotton, aged 12 years, 1837. Marjorie also gave to the London Museum in 1955, a black japanned spice-box, early 19th century.


Second World War 1939 - 1945

Edwardís job at the hospital was of National importance and he was too old to be called up anyway. With the start of the war Marjorie and I evacuated ourselves to Arthurís cottage in Sussex. The first year was "phoney" - no bombing of London, so Marjorie left me with an evacuated family in Beckley and returned to London to be with Edward. Shortly afterwards the Blitz started (1940) and Marjorie returned to Sussex to be with me first of all in Burgess Hill and then in Cuckfield. Marjorie did some teaching at the local school that I attended. By 1942 the bombing of London had ceased and Marjorie returned to be with Edward again while I was evacuated with a family in Whitemanís Green but still went to Cuckfield School until 1944. I then returned to go to school in Balham and Tooting Bec.]

After marrying Molly - September 1939, Arthur had left Chelsea at the beginning of the war and rented a farm (Scrag Oak) at Brightling near Robertsbridge in Sussex. Edward paid visits there and helped with construction and repair tasks.

I donít know if Edward did much in the garden at No. 77 before the War - someone else grew vegetable on part of it but an Anderson Shelter was installed in the vegetable patch during the War. Edward had an allotment on Clapham Common and became very keen on gardening. After the War he took over the vegetable patch in the garden as well as keeping on the allotment for a few years.

Edwardís sister Alice was evacuated to Morecombe in Lancashire with her job with the National Saving Branch of the GPO. She never married.

After the War

Marjorieís Mother (Jessie) had been living in Scotland with Phillip (Marjorieís other Brother) during the war and as it was not suitable for to be on Arthurís farm, she came to live at Nightingale Lane. "Grannyís room" was the second bedroom while I slept in the little bedroom upstairs. It could be very cold in Winter because it was in the roof. Jessie died in (?) and I took over her bedroom. I slept in this room, except when I was away at college, until I married Pat. In (?) Edward bought a small motorcycle - an second-hand pre-war OK Supreme with a 150cc sidevalve JAP engine (BKT 484). OK Supremes with JAP engines were used by Speedway riders right up to the 1970s I believe, but I am sure that they had much bigger engines. I canít remember if Edward ever took Marjorie on the pillion, but I often rode behind him. I think that he used it for his visits to Arthur and Mollyís farm where he continued to help with construction and repair tasks. He kept his bike and then the motorbike in the next door neighbourís garage in Endlesham Road. Having got the motorcycling bug, Edward then in (?) bought a Scott 600cc water cooled twin cylinder two stroke motorcycle with a large sidecar which Marjorie rode in, and I rode on the pillion. One of their favourite trips was to Box Hill on the North Downs in Surrey. Edward rented a lean-to garage in the lane beside the Nightingale pub to keep the Scott and other bikes. As soon as I was 16 years old Edward gave the OK Supreme to me, which I kept until (?) when I needed a larger bike for weekly travelling to Farnborough where I was doing my apprenticeship. Edward did all his own maintenance of the bikes.

Later (?) Edward sold the Scott and bought a second hand Reliant van (VM 1860 ?) (forerunner of the Reliant Robin). It had been owned by Stones, a firm of radio and television retailers who used them for deliveries - there was a dent in the aluminium side panel which we always wondered if someoneís TV had come a cropper! This three-wheeled vehicle had a pre-war designed Austin Seven side-valve (750cc) engine driving the rear wheels and motor cycle front girder forks for the front wheel. The driver and passenger sat either side of the engine. He fitted side windows but I canít remember if he fitted an extra seat in the back for me, but I had my own transport anyway. Marjorie and Edward used it for camping, Edward fitted a silver coloured sheet (old barrage balloon material I think) over the open back doors and board to extend the floor area to give them enough room for them to sleep in the back. I donít know how far they travelled from London on their trips - mainly around the South of England I think. When they wanted to go to Scotland in (?) they borrowed my Ford Thames van (with back windows installed) and fitted the same board and sheet so that they could sleep in it. I used the Reliant van instead, even taking it up to Cranfield near Bedford where I was at college. It was a tricky vehicle to drive, especially when having to brake while cornering as the centre of gravity was high and it felt that it might tip over. I donít think that Edward had any accidents while driving it - in fact I canít remember him ever having an accident except the one when someone ran into the back of Arthurís car shortly before I was born.

Edwardís sister Alice died in (?) while still living in Morecombe and Edward went to settle her affairs. During her life she had invested in some shares but in her will, she left half each to Joan Abbot, who was about my age and to me, nothing to Edward! I believe that this was because Alice did not approve of Marjorie as a wife for Edward - I have no idea why. Alice even left all her possessions to the Abbot family, so Edward didnít even get the things he had sent home to his mother while he was at sea and of course none of his parentís possessions.

Living in Birds Cottage.

Edward retired in 1958 (the year before Pat and I were married), and previously they had found a cottage (two up and two down with a kitchen at the back) to buy in Upham near Bishops Waltham in Hampshire. Birds Cottage needed a lot of work done on it which Edward enjoyed as he was very good at DIY. He got some old radiators (and a boiler I think) before he left the hospital from scrap, installed oil fired central heating, made a bathroom, inside toilet instead of an Elsan and a small third bedroom under the eaves and also installed a septic tank. The cellar, where the boiler was, made a good workshop for Edward. He was very proud of his garden and grew most of their vegetables, Marjorie helped with the flower beds. They entered village flower and produce shows and won some prizes. In (?) Edward sold the Reliant van and bought a second-hand Austin A40 Edward provided transport for Marjorie and friends as there was no bus service to the village. It had a shop/Post Office which was next door to Birds Cottage, the church the other side and a pub around the corner.

Visiting Australia

While Pat and I were living in Australia (1960 to 64 and afterwards while we were in America 1964/5) my parents and I communicated by sending tape recordings, and especially from Jane and Paul when they were young. It must have been quite tough on Marjorie and Edward, us being so far away and them not being able to see the grandchildren. I am sure that they thought that we might stay there permanently. Patís parents - Olive and Ray visited us in 1963 when Paul was born. The following year (1964) we helped Marjorie and Edward to sail to Adelaide on the Orcades (?) visiting Gibraltar, Athens, Suez canal, Aden, Bombay, Penang, Singapore and Perth on the voyage and they stayed from March till August. They loved seeing their grandchildren, Edward especially liked playing with Paul. So that he could drive our car, Edward had to take a driving test - very simple - which he passed but due to his age (I think) he could not drive in the square mile of the city centre of Adelaide. They visited many local places, we took them to the Flinders Ranges and I took them to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. They returned from Australia on the Himalaya visiting Perth, Colombo, Cairo (visiting the Pyramids), Naples (seeing Pompeii) .

Final years

When we returned from Australia (October 1964) we stayed as a family with Marjorie and Edward in Birds Cottage before departing for America. (November 1964 to November 1965). They did not visit us there or in Scotland the following year, but they did come to stay with us in Irby on the Wirral while we were there. During the summer of 1966, Dave Hollingsworth and I stayed at Birds Cottage with my parents while we were involved in trials of an Elloitt Inertial Navigation system on a Hovercraft based at Lee-on-Solent. While we were there, we sailed on the Solent at Hill Head, in the small dinghy I had brought back from America and had left at Birds Cottage while we were in the North.

When we moved to Bath in September 1967 Marjorie and Edward soon came to visit us and help us settle in. As Bath and Upham were fairly close we often visited one another. They came for Christmas 1969 after Ann was born, but Edward was not very well, but it was lovely that he was able hold Baby Ann (his third grandchild). On the way back to Upham on the 29th December, he just stopped the car in Wilton telling Marjorie that he wasnít feeling too good, got out and collapsed. He was taken to Salisbury Hospital were he died almost immediately, very peacefully. He was cremated in Winchester. That completes Edwardís history; Marjorieís life is provided elsewhere, except to say that she lived on in Upham until (1971?) when she moved into a flat in Bath to be near us, later in a nursing home and then in hospital where she died in 1983. She was cremated in Bath.


 [From a Word document supplied by John Toplis Copyright John Toplis 2001. Prepared as a web page by David Hawgood. See Amended 27 June 2004.]