Voices of Tower Bridge Podcast: Charlotte Olive Dora Burch

The Voices of Tower Bridge - Charlotte Olive Dora Burch

In this episode exploring the oral history of Tower Bridge, David Laird speaks to Liz Hunter, the granddaughter of Charlotte Olive Dora Burch, who worked at Tower Bridge from 1895.

Transcript

David: Thank you for joining me for another episode in this series on Tower Bridge. My name is David Laird and I work as an Education and Marketing Officer at Tower Bridge. 

Over each episode: we will dive deep into our oral history archive to bring you interviews from our former employees and their families, as we explore their connections with London's Defining Landmark.

Today we will be speaking to Liz Hunter, the granddaughter of Olive Birch. Olive was only 18 when she became a maid and resident at Tower Bridge in 1895, potentially in service for our first Bridgemaster lieutenant Bertie Angelo Cator. Join us as Liz describes the memories, treasures and significance of Olives time working across the Thames. 

If you wish to catch up or explore more of Tower Bridge’s history, our podcast series can be found at www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts.

So we join Liz as she introduces us to Olive’s background and training ‘in service’

Liz: I’m Liz Hunter and Charlotte Olive Dora Birch, referred to as Olive, was my grandmother.  I think [she was] a very interesting character. She got married and lived in Brixton, where my dad came from, and I lived in South London up until a year ago, when we moved to the south coast.

[At first] she wasn’t really on my radar at all. My dad would bring me up to London - because he worked up here, he knew it like the back of his hands. We would come up in the Summer and in one particular year, which was the year that the old London Bridge was being dismantled we came up to photograph it being dismantled. We were on a river boat, going under Tower Bridge, when he suddenly said “my mother used to work in Tower Bridge”. Obviously [to me], that was weird as it doesn’t look like a place that anybody would work in, let alone a woman.

And that is how it (Liz’s interest in Olive’s life) started, it’s been drip-fed [to me] over many years to get the point we’re at now with more information about her.

David: Liz went on to describe more, about olives background and education.

Liz: I know that she was educated. Upon her marriage, she married into a family that would eventually go on to own various wheelwright businesses in Brixton and  Camberwell - at some point they were doing very well because they owned houses out in Mitcham - and she (Olive) did the accounts. I’ve got a couple of books at home, which my Dad had and I remember him saying “that’s my mother’s writing, she did all of the accounts for the business”. 

So, she was obviously literate. We’ve got a couple of little books at home, which are [her] Sunday school books, which are there for her knowledge - she was presented with prizes for knowledge.  Her handwriting - we only have some postcards held by one of the cousins - obviously a postcard is only a bitesize snippet [into who she was].

David: During Olives employment, around 80 staff worked inside Tower Bridge, Liz tells us a bit more about her role. 

Liz: Looking at the letters, the fact that she appeared to be a maid somewhere else. She obviously had some experience. My gut feeling is that she wasn’t the lowest of the low, the maid of all work, but maybe the next stage up.

David: Today, much of the Tower Bridge’s story resides in the memories of former employees and their descents. We asked Liz if she had any record of Olive’s employment.

Liz: Because there’d been a step family, after she had died, and the step family, I suspect, didn’t see the point of keeping contact with the original family, most of her things - her communications that had been sent from her brothers to her were in a suitcase, which my dad had. When my dad died, my mum gave it to another member of the family thinking that they ‘ought’ to have it and they put it on the bonfire.

The things that I have got, that I have photocopies of at home, is a postcard book - most of those postcards are between Olive and members of her Devon family, and also later between her and her older daughter, who also spent a lot of time down in Devon. And, of course, we have got this one surviving envelope, which was sent from Jamaica by one of her brothers who was on HMS Talbot at the time - this is dated April 15, 1897, and is sent to her here in the southern archway [at Tower Bridge] - unfortunately it’s only the envelope and the letter that was inside no longer exists, which is a huge, huge shame. In terms of further correspondence linking her to the Bridge, that has [all] disappeared into a bonfire.

David: With olives links to tower bridge, now sadly lost, we asked Liz if there were any objects, she still had from olives life. 

Liz: I know she was somebody who liked writing letters and - obviously, in Victorian times they did - she kept contact with her family through letters. And I’ve got her writing box, which has, very faint on the top now, you can see her initials ‘C.O.D. Birch’. It was given to her on her 21st birthday and was well used. It was only used by her, nobody else in the family used it after her death, but it certainly had some use - it’s still got the remnants of the ink in the ink pots.

She had the most amazing gold fob watch, which I’ve got - it’s really heavily engraved [and]  a beautiful piece of jewellery. There are no pictures of her wearing jewellery. We have her engagement ring, which, after her death, was split into two rings for her two daughters. One of them made it’s way to me and [the other to my cousin]. Then my cousin, who has two sons, said to me “You have two daughters, would you like the other ring so now both of my daughters have half of her engagement ring each.

I think it’s so fantastic that a woman who had been resigned to a locked box aged 44 having died, to now kinda have her life, in some senses, back where she started in London, I think is quite fitting.

David: Our final question for Liz, we asked, what did it mean for her and her family to have their ancestor work at Tower Bridge.

Liz: Well, for me, it’s an immense pride, because I think Tower Bridge is such a part of London -  It’s one thing I always think of when I think of London. It’s such an incredible building and as you mentioned earlier, it’s such a masculine building, that for me the fact that she worked here, even if just for a tiny time, but right at the very beginning of its life, I find gives me an immense feeling of pride. 

And I think my daughters feel it to some extent because one of them had had a waitressing job here and had that moment thinking “my great grandmother did this, probably in the same spot” so I think part of the family are incredibly proud because we have this want to find out about history. When I teach history, I always liken it to a jigsaw, where you’ve lost some bits and it is he fact that we’re beginning to piece together a few more bits of the jigsaw that she’s becoming more of a person rather than this very sad story from my dad - that she did when he was two and that he didn’t know her so. 

It’s rather nice trying to pull that together as much as possible to discover what might have happened. 

David: …Well folks, that is the end of our interview with Liz Hunter, thank you to Liz for sharing her memories of Olive Birch.

The original recording was by Dirk Bennett and Diane Timmins, edited by Diane Timmins with music from Sam Kilwin. voice over by me, David Laird

I will be back again soon for more tales from our archive.

Don’t forget, you can find more podcasts like this one at, www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts

Goodbye for now.