Selina Houghton 1925 – 2024

11 March 2024
Selina Houghton (nee Smith) 1925 – 2024

“I remember my gran telling me how she would sell pegs and lavender, calling at houses with her basket securely over her tiny arm, hoping that the lady of the house would buy her wares that day and her and her siblings would be able to afford coal for the fire and food for their hungry bellies."

Get a cup of tea, find a comfy chair and read about this wonderful lady; written by her granddaughter Jodie Houghton: 

Precious baby Selina, one of eight Smith children, was born in a traditional barrel top wagon on a frosty Saturday, on the 19th of December 1925, in Guildford, Surrey, to her parents Nelson and Louisa Smith. Shortly after Lena was born her father bought a piece of ground in Lingfield, Surrey, and this is where Lena spent most of her younger years.

Lena’s early life was hard, losing her beloved mother at the young age of just 10 years old, so her and her siblings had no choice but to support and care for each other as best they could. This involved them all contributing to the family by ‘earning a shilling or two’ (in my grans words).

I remember my gran telling me how she would sell pegs and lavender, calling at houses with her basket securely over her tiny arm, hoping that the lady of the house would buy her wares that day and her and her siblings would be able to afford coal for the fire and food for their hungry bellies.

Life was indeed an uphill struggle; however, Lena made the best of the hand she was dealt with. She attended school briefly over the next few years, not staying long enough to finish the standard school terms but was able to earn awards for her reading and writing which she was most proud of. I know the hardships of her early life shaped the strong, resilient and determined lady that we love and admire. 

As Lena grew older, she shared a close and loving bond with her sisters and brother. As a young woman Lena and her family would often go hop picking in the fields of the Kent countryside, all day would be spent working, laughing and sharing a small picnic or whatever that they had with the many other traveller families who had come to Kent to work the fields for the summer.

Selina Houghton

Gran would often tell us of these happy carefree summer days. She had so many stories of her younger life in Lingfield that she could have easily written a bestselling book, but who’s got time for that when you are a 98 year old amazing lady cooking bacon puddings, seedy cakes, making holly wreaths, and still using a spin dryer for your tea towels that you’ve hand washed and boiled, yes Gran didn’t have the time to write a book she was too busy keeping house and doing the things that she enjoyed, and told us these stories instead that we can share- but how I wish we had her here now to share some of those with you.

The next chapter of her life brings her to Banbury, it was here where her brother Nelson had been stationed during his time in the army, and Lena being the devoted sister travelled to Oxfordshire to spend some time with her brother, his wife Alice, and their new baby Nelson.

Banbury was very different to Lingfield but Lena adjusted well to her new surroundings. She now lived on what we refer to as the old yard, in a trailer next to her brother and extended family, and it was here where she met my gramp, Joe. Joe was from an equally large Traveller family and it didn’t take long for the pair of them to fall in love and become married.  

 It was her striking good looks, kind nature, and her beautiful singing voice that captured his heart, and it’s here on the subject of singing that I want to recount a short story that my gran liked to share with us: One early evening her brother Nelson had visited the Golden Lion pub, and Lena decided to meet up with him. A singer was performing that evening in the pub and Gran admired her voice, sang and clapped along with the rest of her family and friends until the lady had finished her set for the night, she told me how good the woman sang and how everyone had enjoyed the evening’s entertainment, but then, out of nowhere, her brother stood up in front of the whole pub and announced that his sister Lena had such a wonderful voice, and now she was going to stand up and sing for everyone in the pub.

Gran told me how horrified she was at the thought of singing in public, she had only sang songs around the camp fire on the yard for her family. She tried to talk her brother down but he was having none of it! Come on my Lea, he said, give us a song. Not one to back down from a challenge, Gran reluctantly took the microphone in her hand, the music started and she began to sing, the pub fell silent, all eyes on her, she carried on just hoping to get to the end without missing a beat or losing the tune. She did it, she managed to get through the whole song. The pub erupted with cheers, clapping and shouting, with everyone calling to her to “sing us another one Lena” …. And so, she did, all evening. Her fear conquered, she had now firmly set herself up to be the lead singer at all family gatherings and parties (long before the word karaoke was even heard of), and many a time she would sing to us and we absolutely loved it; one of our favourites that she often used to sing to us was Crazy, by Patsy Cline- I’m sure she sang it about us rather than to us. 

By this time Joe, Lena, and both of their wider families were all living together on the old yard in Station Road, setting up camp with their husbands, wives and children, even one of Gran Lena’s sisters’ aunt Janie had made the move from Lingfield to join her siblings, and life on the old yard had become crowded with the many relations that had travelled to live here.

A few years down the line, and surrounded by their families, Joe and Lena would begin their own family when Gran was just 23 years old. Baby Lena was first to arrive, born in 1948, a beautiful perfect tiny baby girl loved and cherished from the moment she opened her eyes in the arms of Lena and Joe. Devastatingly her life on this earth was to be short, and she passed away at only six weeks old. Gran once again had to find deep within her, the strength to continue and live a life whilst forever mourning the loss of her first little baby.   

Selina Houghton

As time passed Joe and Lena were to be blessed in abundance with the arrival of six more darling bundles of joy over the next number of years: Mary, Joey, Linda, Tommy, Shirley and Tina. I worked out that Gran had been having and looking after children for nearly 30 years, and as adults guiding them for 40 more, and not once did she complain (well maybe on occasion but that would be justified if you heard some of the things her little darlings got up to as children - how she kept that lovely head of thick black curls I’ll never know, she really should have been grey many years ago). Life was busy, to say the least, and full of the everyday joys and tribulations of children and life as a mother of six and wife of a hardworking scrap metal dealer. Food was always home cooked; washing was done by hand, and love was at the heart of their busy home.

Eventually Joe and Lena moved from the old yard into a house in Boxhedge. Things were very different, stairs and indoor toilets were the new norm, and the large family settled in just perfectly, making friends with neighbours, and in true Traveller style, of course, they had family in the same street (two doors down to be precise), and we didn’t often go somewhere without a cousin or two in tow.  Gran and Gramp really loved the area, and many happy memories were made, so much so that today on my gran’s journey to the church she has asked to pass by Boxhedge one last time, and what Gran asks for - of course we do.

There are many stories that Gran shared with us that I could recount from days at Boxhedge.  Our family who are all here would be pleased to share these many anecdotes with you later today over a cup of tea or a tipple, these stories are sure to bring a smile to you all.

After a good few years in the house at Boxhedge, Gran, Gramp, and their children, moved to the new yard on Station Approach, and back to the life each of them had been bought up in, the fresh open air, outside fires, space to move around, surrounded closely by family, and the comforting sound of the raindrops on the trailer roof lured them back to the old life they knew best and loved most.

The move was relatively simple; it was quite easy to hook a trailer up and ride down the road- no need for removal men or packing boxes - that’s what big families are for, always ready to help at the drop of a hat.

On this new yard, which was shared with extended family, Gramp’s business was flourishing, and Gran had her many relations around her to help tend to their ever-growing family. 

Happy times were had, and a lifetime of memories were made, and we were lucky enough to be able share that with Gran and Gramp, a wonderful life that they had made for us and worked so hard to provide. It was here that Gran and Gramp were graced with their first grandchildren.

We were all loved so dearly, and hold so many fond memories of growing up surrounded by their love. Stevie was the first grandson and myself the first granddaughter. Soon after there were many more additions: Terry, Lee, Dean, Timmy, Jamie, Billy, Emma and Lena, who have all since had children of their own, which was wonderfully happy for my gran who was indeed a very proud great gran. I would like to point out that whilst all of the great grandchildren know how wonderful their great gramp was - none of them were lucky to have ever met him, as he passed many years before they were born, but in our family, we speak their name often and we keep them close to our hearts forever, just as we will our wonderful gran.  

Some many years later, once all of the children had now grown up with families of their own, Lena and Joe decided it was time for another move.  Their next home together was to be just a short distance away to Dover Avenue - still no removal men or packing boxes, but as always, lots of family on hand to help!

Once again and in true Traveller style they didn’t go alone, and me and my mum lived one end (of the avenue), Mary, Brian and the boys lived the other end, and Gran and Gramp right in the middle. We all congregated most weekends at Gran’s house, and we all have fond memories of Saturday nights, adults in the living room; children in the kitchen, food always on the table, and a lot of laughs. Gran was a particularly good cook, her speciality good old traditional food. However, the one thing she cooked that really was an acquired taste was her famous chitlens, pig trotters, and fried sprats- certainly not for the faint-hearted, but one thing that we all loved was her famous bacon pudding and suet pudding.

For all the happy memories we have there were terribly sad times also. In 1992, her hardworking husband, and our wonderful dad and gramp passed away, and left an immeasurable void in both Gran’s and all of our lives, and once again she fought through the unbearable pain and put us all before her own grief, keeping us altogether and making sure we were ok.

Sadly, this wasn’t to be the last time she was to experience profound grief, because in 2014 her youngest son Tommy suddenly passed away, and the ache in her heart and ours grew, and as much as we tried to heal even a little of her pain we just couldn’t - and life was never to be the same. At Gran’s funeral she was driven past Tommys resting place before being reunited with Gramp; it’s what she asked for - and what Gran asks for as you now know we always do.

Gran moved twice more over the next few years, living at Levenot Close, and more recently at Stirling Court, again with family nearby and always on hand. Often, she would be in the living room with her Singer sewing machine, making curtains and bedding, or knitting and crocheting scarves and waistcoats, her sewing skills she learnt at a young age, when mend and make do was what was expected. Gran was thrifty and could turn her hand to most things, including painting any furniture that crossed her path! If it arrived as dark wood, within a week it was bright white - she was a dab hand with a paintbrush (she even had her own drill- but less said about that the better!). 

Her little bungalow at Stirling Court was like a mini show home, and often visitors would remark, does a 98-year-old really live here? It wouldn’t have looked out of place in a copy of a modern interiors magazine. She was the most stylish pensioner I’ve ever known. A sentence that was often repeated by visitors to her house.

Throughout her life, Gran was an elegant and fashionable lady, always immaculately turned out, she wore her wedge-heel shoes always (even her slippers had a kitten heel), not once would she be caught in a pair of flat shoes, never in trousers, and always with a pair of American tan tights, a modest pencil skirt, and a navy and white colour combination of clothing.  This is how we will always remember her - Polka dots and heels.

I can’t simply sum up the life of our amazing gran and wonderful mother in just these few words; it would take another 98 years and more to fully explain exactly what she meant to us all; her passion for family and loyalty; her ability to keep us all in order and together no matter what. Her wisdom, strength, and love that she shared lives on in each and every one of us. We meant the world to her as she did to us. These few memories and so many more will be carried with us all and passed down for many generations to follow. What a breath-taking legacy she has left us with, and how lucky we truly were that she was ours.

Our gran and mother, Mrs Selina Houghton, wore the smallest of heels and she was the tiniest of ladies, and yet she towered above us all. Her wedge heel shoes will never be filled again.

By Jodie Houghton

(All photographs courtesy of Jodie Houghton)