Making (Re)Connections: The Life of Florrie Purnell

With a few months worth of reflection under our belts, it is wonderful to look back on some of the work that the Past on Glass project has achieved. It is something we do with a real sense of pride. Perhaps nothing makes the experience more worthwhile however, than when we are contacted by a family member of one of the sitters from the collection.

Today’s blog is written by Brian Evans, who first contacted us earlier this year after visiting the project exhibition ‘Women in the Frame’ at Honeywood Museum. Brian is the grandson of Florence Lena Purnell, of whom we have three photographs. The exhibition aims to highlight the lives, ordinary and extraordinary, of local women in the Edwardian and WWI period. She featured in the exhibition in her capacity as a general domestic servant in the household of a solicitor and his family in Brunswick Road, Sutton. This photograph was taken on 13 March 1913.


Florence Lena Purnell, photographed by Knights-Whittome, 13 Mar 1913

Brian writes:
“Serendipity led me to the Honeywood Museum, Carshalton to sit in wonder next to an exhibited photo of my grandmother Florrie Purnell at twenty-two years of age.


A fairly distant cousin, with whom I’m in contact, had visited the ‘Women in the Frame’ exhibition just before Christmas 2018 and on seeing this precious studio picture of 1913, exclaimed “That’s Auntie Flo”. Indeed, the twenty-two year-old Florrie in the photograph did become an aunt to my cousin’s mother. I was duly informed of this wonderful discovery in a Christmas card.

image003In 1911 Florrie was working as a domestic servant for a retired solicitor and his wife in Carshalton. Here is a photograph taken of Florrie in 1981, the year of her death when she was 90.

Through her two daughters, she had just two grandchildren: my late cousin Michael, born in 1945 and me Brian, born in 1948.

She died with heart failure on 25 December 1981 in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, at the age of 90 whilst staying at my parents’ flat for Christmas.  I was there.

Florrie Lena Purnell was born on 3 April 1891, the eighth of thirteen children. She was ‘Florrie’ on the birth certificate, not Florence. The names of the siblings were entered in the ‘Register’ kept in the family Bible:image005

There were only twelve spaces to enter names and birth details, so the youngest, ‘Cecil’ had to be added at the bottom of the sheet.  Florrie always seemed to call him ‘Cicil’ and he was patently her favourite brother. He died aged 19 from pneumonia, having succumbed to influenza in the big epidemic at the end of the Great War. He had enlisted thrice in the army whilst under age. His mother had bought him out twice, but the third joining up was unlucky: it broke her heart when he died.

Notably, with regard to Florrie’s other siblings:

  • Frederick David Purnell went down with HMS ‘Hawk’ very early in World War I.
  • George James Purnell married Lillian Maud Coney and disappeared to America.  He subsequently left his wife, who actually had previously been married to Florrie’s brother who had been killed on HMS ‘Hawk’.
  • Alice Kate, whose first names were sometimes transposed and who was called ‘Kate’.
  • Ethel was another sister who had a long life, dying at 90.
  • Percy Leonard died as a baby.
  • Herbert Horace died early, it is believed in a motor cycle accident.  It’s thought Florrie kept in touch with his widow Emma Jane Gage.
  • Charlie was born in Vernon Road, Sutton, possibly at the ‘Cross Keys’ pub itself at the junction with William Road, where mother Alice was landlady.  In the pub, young Kate served beer to the regulars standing on a box – she was not tall enough to reach the counter.  She also rescued baby Charlie from her mother’s wrath.  Apparently she propelled him towards the other end of the bar when he was but a few days old.
  • Arthur and Frank, the twins, both fought in Ireland and married Irish girls.
  • The twins (Arthur & Frank), Emily Elizabeth and Cecil were all born at no 20 William Road where their mother Alice had a shed in the back garden and used to do laundry for Sutton Hospital and a local hotel.  Kate and Ethel were roped in as ‘helpers’.
  • Emily Elizabeth was known in the next generation as Aunt Jane.  She died in Eastbourne in 1986, aged 88.

On 10 December 1914, Mrs. Alice Purnell received a letter from Buckingham Palace with the King’s congratulations that she had seven sons serving in his Majesty’s service.

My Great Grandparents, David and Alice, had married on 18 September 1878 and were from very different backgrounds. Florrie’s mother Alice (née Smith) was brought up in the Trafalgar Arms, Tooting.  Verbal family history has it that from the age of 6, she used to entertain the customers by dancing on the bar. For much of her adult life, she ran more than one public house in succession.

Florrie’s father, David Purnell, was brought up in Itchen Stoke, very rural Hampshire.  In the 1871 Census, he was lodging in the Isle of Wight at Norris Cottage, his occupation being Under Gardener on the Norris Farm Estate, next to the grounds of Osborne House.  In 1881, the Census records him in Croydon, occupation ‘gardener’.  From newspaper archives, we have found that in 1879 he worked as a gardener at Brickwood House, Addiscombe Road, Croydon (a large estate which was sold off in 1907).

In its edition of Saturday 18 October 1879, the ‘Croydon Advertiser and Surrey County Reporter’ related court proceedings involving the theft of a quantity of grapes worth 15 shillings from the greenhouse of Mrs. Brown at Brickwood House. The accused was one George Head and David Purnell stood as witness in court. Later in his working life, David was a chauffeur.

Florrie Purnell married Frederick George Locke on 22 April 1916 in Epsom, Surrey. Over much of his working life, Frederick was a hotel valet.  Latterly, he did factory work, for example at Champion spark plugs near Roehampton as I recall.  They had two children during their marriage. Elsie born in 1916 and Lena (my mother) born in 1920.

Jointly with Fred in August 1927, Florrie bought a leasehold property in Fulham Palace Road for £975.  I know ‘Abbey Road Building Society’ were involved.  This was the house in which my mother and aunt were brought up and where I spent the first three years of life. My own personal memories of my grandmother started there in the 1950’s when I was but a tot and lived in her big house.  My parents occupied two ground floor rooms and a small kitchen.  There were other tenants.  I remember meeting my landlady granny in the hallway one day: she was wearing a floral overall of the sort that so many women of the time seem to wear at home.  There was no evidence that day of her being ‘held together with safety pins’, a colourful reputation for which had developed in the family’s perception over many years.  This was of course an elaborate maintenance of clothing integrity. It was certainly more evident in her later years.  Nevertheless, her sartorial presentation was usually quite individual and never scruffy.

From Fulham, she moved as a widow to Richmond, ultimately occupying the top floor of her house in Old Deer Park Gardens, where my aunt lived downstairs with her husband for a while before they moved in due course to Wimbledon.  Florrie ended her days at this house in Richmond, but she frequently expressed her fond love of the Sutton area where she had lived as a youngster.

My grandmother was a character.  Witness to this are my own experiences, as well as family stories.  A visit from Florrie was generally looked forward to when it would brighten up the day.  She had her own ways of expressing appreciation of others’ hospitality, often with her sense of humour showing through – for example, the day she is reputed to have said “Good ‘ere init,” when enjoying a meal provided in the midst of hearty conversation.

She loved what she often called ‘good music’.  She certainly enjoyed a variety of classical styles and appreciated opera.  I think she played the piano with some skill, but I never heard this.  She appears to have sold a Seiler piano in 1945 for £135.  In my possession now is a pile of sheet music she had acquired over time. I believe she was teetotal throughout her life.

Brian Evans



With thanks to Brian for this fascinating insight into the life and character of one of our sitters. Florrie can still be seen in the Women in the Frame exhibition, now in it’s final month at Honeywood Museum.  Do catch it while you can.

3 thoughts on “Making (Re)Connections: The Life of Florrie Purnell

  1. Brian’s story really brought Florrie Purnell to life. as do the other stories, about DKW ‘s other sitters from all walks of life and even the King of England. Very interesting to me as a relative of DKW.


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