Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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They stand in bright winter light by a tree in a country lane. He, with his greatcoat and peaked cap, a sack draped over his shoulder, looks for all the world like a Russian emigré. She, with her fancy hat, flouncy dress and elegantly-cut topcoat resembles a music-hall performer, the type who might bounce out onstage to bawl out a bawdy song like. “Keep yer 'ands on yer ha'penny.” In the photograph, taken in about 1910, the two of them stare at the camera like two aristocrats on their uppers. She holds his arm fiercely, proudly, while his eyes seem to say: “Look at this magnificent woman I've won.”
They are Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes, Colchester's most celebrated mendicants and it's taken me a long time to track them down. During the Edwardian period, Emma and Grimes tramped the country roads in the Colchester area. They lived by begging and blagging whatever they could: money, clothes, food and drink. Emma was no ordinary bag-lady and liked to dress rather grandly. She also had a foul mouth on her, which she used to great effect whenever she was taunted by local youths. She'd been in service at some point in her young life and her fondness for helping herself to her employers' marmalade is the probable origin of her name. Perhaps, too, she'd picked up some of her sartorial style by observing those “above stairs” who'd employed her.
Grimes, though, was actually from a respectable family. He was the son of a local dignitary, Alderman Grimes and somehow, either through rebelliousness or indolence, had tumbled down through the social ranks. He and Emma slept where they fell – in hedges and ditches – often preferring it to the shelter of a barn. One report has them sitting in the middle of a snowstorm somewhere up the Mersea Road, she hunched over a sputtering fire smoking a pipe, he, unperturbed and reading a newspaper. They'd organised their own local rounds, which they carried out in order to procure food and drink. The Cock and Pye on North Hill was one port of call. They'd turn up in the mornings asking for the beer slops, which they then drank. They argued and shouted at each other all day, although it seems partly to have been a stage-act, since each was devoted to the other.
Everybody in small-town Colchester knew them and to an extent, local society tolerated them. Even so, on one occasion at least, Marmalade Emma served a short jail sentence for swearing at a copper. Asked by local urchins where she'd been, she snapped at them: “To college.” She must have been a tough old cookie, because in the 1891 Colchester Census, she put down her occupation down as “prostitute” – the only one listed on the register. Such defiance was a thing which might raise a few eyebrows even nowadays, let alone in her own tightly-buttoned era. Emma also carried a cat inside her jacket, which she doted on, feeding it the tastiest morsels which she could scrounge. When bronchitis got to her, she was taken into the Essex County Hospital, where she screamed and shouted when the ward sister discovered her cat, removed it and incarcerated it in a shed.
Despite Emma's recurrent illness, it was Grimes who died first, having been taken ill in a shop doorway in Queen Street. Emma went not long afterwards. She died on an old Colne barge somewhere down by the Hythe bridge which the two of them had once slept under.The two are buried side by side in a Colchester cemetery. In an odd coda to this story, I found a song about the pair on a re-issued album by a 1970s acid-rock band called Hard Meat. When I looked up this now obscure Birmingham three-piece, at first I could find no Colchester connection. Then, I discovered that they'd done the classic thing which rock-bands used to do back in those furry days. They'd “Got it all together in a country cottage,” and had spent the summer of 1970 blasting out their psychedelic rock over the flat fields of Great Bentley. In a local pub they'd heard about Emma and Grimes and had duly written their album-finisher, The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes. I found the song on an internet video site. It's doubly nostalgic– a forgotten band from forty years ago with a Traffic-like song about two long-dead Colchester tramps.
Still, though, Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes stare out from that wintry picture in a world far removed from the one in which we now live. They'd probably be given short shrift if they existed today. Their begging would be strongly discouraged. On one hand, they'd be descended upon by those agencies whose job it is to sort such problems out. On the other, they'd be at serious risk of attack from any team of drunken yobs who came across them. Hounded from the rural haunts now gentrified and peppered with Neighbourhood Watch stickers, simply bedding-down in the country would be difficult. People would be frightened of them. That haunting old photograph of the pair, however, radiates a robust dignity which you'd be hard-pushed to find in their modern counterparts. It tells you that for all of our improvements, state benefits and social safety-nets, certain elements of individual freedom and basic charity which they knew, have almost completely vanished during the past century.