It’s true, I am a sentimental soul. Easily moved and with a mind that constantly wonders, it doesn’t take much to captivate me but I didn’t expect my latest furniture renovation project to spark such an emotive journey for me..
If you have followed me on Instagram for a while then you may have noticed that I am always looking out for bits of furniture to upclycle. I have restored lots of pieces over the years; some have been quite unusual but this find has to be the most interesting yet.
Back in early November, a dark and dusty sideboard caught my eye at our local charity house clearance sale. I thought it would paint well because it had interesting detail and character. It was locked and the keys that were with it didn’t work so I knew it would be a bit of a tricky one to sort but there was just something about it I liked so I decided I would go for it. I certainly wasn’t expecting what I found inside or the mystery that then ensued.
Tucked at the back of a drawer was a bundle of old paperwork and photos. Among them were armed service books belonging to a man named ‘Ernest,’ remembrance cards for a ‘William and Ada’ who died within a year of each other, photographs spanning back to the turn of the century and postcards addressed, weirdly, to a ‘Katie’ several of them clearly from admirers! When I realized that the address on the postcards had synchronicities with my life (we lived at the same number house, I know the area in London where the letters were addressed in fact, the road was just around the corner from my Grandparents house where my Dad once lived) I was hooked.
As I stood there looking through all of these forgotten belongings, waiting for a trolley to get the sideboard back to my car, my friend read my mind as she said, ‘you should research them.’ On the journey home, I pondered who Ernest, Ada, William and Katie were, I wanted to know more, know their story and as romantic as it sounds, I felt like that sideboard was meant to make its way in to my hands to restore.
I started my research pretty much straight away – accompanied by a bottle of wine (2 actually) I sat with a friend and we googled every detail we could find in among that paperwork. We didn’t get very far, Google gave us some bits but not much, Streetview showed us that one address we found was there but that the house isn’t anymore. I needed a plan B and that plan was my Mum and Dad – I’ve always said my pops knows everything (he really does) and seeing as he and my mum fancy themselves as amateur genealogists having looked up their own family history, I knew they would be able to help – the fact that my Dad grew up in the area of London we were looking at added to the excitement!
Sure enough my folks knew what to do and pointed me in the direction of all the online resources you can use to find historical information. It’s not always straightforward and you can end up more confused than when you started but it’s fascinating! So, like a jedi heir hunter, I set to work.
While I researched, the actual task of renovating also became a little tricky mostly due to the fact that the sideboard was locked and though there were three keys none of them worked. Friends and family tried but with no luck. Weeks past while budding ‘code breakers’ had their turn (it was funny how every person I told about it seemed to think they would be the one to get it open) but everyone was stumped. Two locksmiths later and one door was finally opened. Unfortunately, the keys that came with it were likely to be for a matching piece of furniture and so were useless. The left-hand door lock was so badly worn that it just wouldn’t open so the only way to avoid drilling it (and basically ruining it) was to accept that ‘Ernest,’ as I had now fondly started to call it, would just have to be accessed by the one door (thankfully you can access the whole cabinet from one side).
As soon as I saw Ernest I thought I would paint him (‘it’ has now become ‘him’). I also just knew he had to be pink. I don’t know why. I decided to use Autentico paint and after much deliberation settled on the colour ‘Antique rose.’
As I sanded back the layers of old varnish, little by little the story of Ernest unfolded but as it did, a mystery deepened. The online resources I used had told me that Ernest, the man who’s army records were in the sideboard was the only son of a Henry Stratten, at first his mother was a mystery.
The Stratton family lived in and around Barnes and Fulham in South West London. Henry was one of 5 children born to a William and Ada Stratten. William, Henry’s dad, was born in 1821 and was a house painter. He married a lady called Ada Moore (Henry’s mother) in 1897 and she was a house wife. Together they lived and brought up their family at number 25 Stillingfleet road in Barnes, London. Barnes is a place I know well. My Grandparents on my Dads side lived there and I have many happy memories of the place as a kid.
Henry had two sisters; one older (Bessie) and one younger (Kathleen). He also had three brothers; an older brother (Ernest, who would of been my Ernest’s uncle) and two younger (Edward and William). Tragically, it seems as though William died as a baby.
By 1911, the census shows that Henry’s big brother (we’ll call him Uncle Ernest), at the age of 16, was working as a greengrocers porter while Henry and the rest of his siblings all attended school.
For William and Ada, tragedy would not only strike once. As well as losing their baby son previously, in 1918 their daughter Bessie passed away at the age of 26 she had married just 3 years earlier. Seven years later, in 1925 they lost their other daughter Kathleen at only 24. Many of the postcards among the paperwork addressed to ‘Katie’ are likely to be Kathleen’s. The information is patchy but the contents of those letters indicate that Kathleen had several admirers and she seems to have kept them on their toes, she certainly won the heart of a first world war soldier, though it would appear that she never married. For William and Ada losing three children, including both their daughters at such a young age must have been devastating. While sadly it was still often the case that children died very young, I wondered what had happened to Kathleen and Bessie? Why had they died as young adults? It was a mystery.
Henry, it would appear, at the age of 22 married a lady, Bessie Pascoe, 21 years his senior in 1921. But could Bessie have been our Ernest’s mum? Our Ernest was born in 1928, Bessie would have been close to 50 by that point and though not impossible it seems unlikely she would have had a baby at that age. Could Ernest have been adopted? The mystery deepened when I finally got into the sideboard and tucked away right at the back was another tin with more postcards and one extremely moving letter. The letter was from Henry to his ‘Darling wife’ Muriel? It would appear the letter was written when Muriel was unwell and away recovering, although no specific details are given the letter suggests that Muriel was suffering from a mental health condition, likely depression. It indicates that he hadn’t been able to visit her, that it would be deemed ‘too much.’ The letter also refers to their ‘son Ernest’ and how much of a help he had been and that home just wasn’t the same without her and that they were eager for her to recover and get back home as soon as possible. It was incredibly moving to read such heartfelt words from a loving husband to his wife.
I haven’t been able to find much information on a ‘Muriel’ even with possible mis-spellings there is little to go on. Are Bessie and Muriel the same person? Was Muriel a middle name? Perhaps having lost a sister called Bessie it was too much of a reminder for Henry? Or were Bessie and Muriel two different people? Did Henry marry twice? Bessie it seems lived on until 1939 when she passed away in 1939. The possibilities are endless and it remains a mystery.
What I do know is that Henry and Ernest lived (with Muriel) at 25 Stillingfleet Road. There was also a Florence Stratton living there in 1939 but her relation to Henry and Ernest is unclear. There was still so much of the mystery to unravel. Learning more about Ernest’s family, especially the sadness that appears to have befallen the Stratten family really moved me. The once old and unloved sideboard that I was beginning to transform was now more than just a piece of furniture, it had a story, real people behind it. Its likely that it actually belonged first to William and Ada, as it dates to the late 1800s – early 1900s but Ernest seems to be it’s last owner.
While restoring this piece I have always had the story of Ernest, Henry, Bessie, Muriel, William and Ada, Kathleen or ‘Katie’ spinning around in my mind. Its been hard to detach, wondering whether or not they would love or hate what I was doing to it, silly I know (I told you I was sentimental).
Its taken weeks, partly because I couldn’t get in it for so long. But once I was in I was determined to get it finished.
I decided that despite the fact I was using Autentico chalk paint I needed to sand it back first, the varnish was flaking and it needed to come off.
After I had sanded and wiped clean I painted two coats of ‘Antique rose’ straight on. Once dry, using grade 120 sandpaper, I very lightly distressed only the areas where it would have naturally worn and aged. Then I wiped once more and used Authentico wax to seal it.
The hardest part by far was polishing the beautiful brass handles. I spent literally hours caked in Brasso and green grunge. I didn’t think it was going to work but slowly 100 years of grime and tarnish began to lift unveiling a beautiful shiny finish. I made sure that I didn’t polish them too much, a tiny bit of tarnishing is in keeping with the distressed look but they look amazing – the end result was definitely worth the hard graft.
It was fairly tricky painting the left hand side because I couldn’t open it. I wasn’t sure about the pink when I first started painting and there was definitely a ‘what have I done moment’ but as soon as I distressed it and varnished it I could see how beautiful it was. The colour was absolutely true to the card – Autentico stockists have wooden spoons painted in each colour so you ca go and get a really good idea of the colour before you buy.
I haven’t done as much work with chalk paint, I’m normally a Farrow and Ball or Little Greene girl but I decided that this piece needed something different and I absolutely LOVE the finish of Autentico when its waxed. I have seen some stunning pieces in my local stockist and having done this piece, I have another waiting in the wings that I will also do with Autentico. The colour range is great and I find that waxing gives a beautiful low sheen with a durable finish.
Autentico (well any chalk paint) is both easy and difficult to apply. It’s easy in the sense that its thick and coverage is great but with all chalk paint, the dreaded brush marks or ‘dragging’ can be a bugger. Long bristled, very fine, high quality brushes help reduce it. Thinning the paint a little can help (chalk paint dries so quickly the brush lines don’t have time to soften like with regular paint) but if you thin then you need more coats.
I’m so pleased with the finished piece. Im glad I stuck to my guns and went pink. It was a bold move but I think it worked. I have no idea whether Ernest would have liked the finished piece – I mean it IS pink!
Originally I got the sideboard to restore and sell on but I am way too attached. I’m still researching the Stratten family, I need to know more about them and what happened. I have some more information on Ernest and the next stage is ordering birth, marriage and death certificates so will take a little time. So, while ‘Ernest the sideboard’ may be finished, the story isn’t and I will do a part 2 to this post, once I know more but, for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it! I’d love to know what you all think? And I guess watch this space!