Nan, a Royal Parks in the First World War volunteer, went to meet 104-year-old Freda to talk about a quite exciting day, 100 years ago:
Now 104, Freda Hodgson can still vividly describe her childhood in World War I London, living on the south side of Hyde Park. The war meant occasional nights sheltering from air raids in a basement study, but overall, “it was just part of life”. During the day, Freda’s nanny gave her lessons and took her walking in Hyde Park or to ballet classes with Madame Vacani. (Like most upper-class children at that time, Freda didn’t spend much time with her parents.)
As an only child, Freda’s favorite companion was her donkey, a third-birthday present and the “joy of my heart”. Mornings meant donkey rides:
“My father had two baskets made to fit the donkey’s saddle, and my mother had two fox terriers, and they’d hear the donkey coming from the stable, and rush out from the kitchen and jump into a basket each. And I would ride up and down our long garden, and the people in Rotten Row [in Hyde Park] who were riding their horses used to sort of queue up at the fence to watch this child with her entourage. I loved [the donkey], I loved it better than my parents, better than anybody or anything.”
Freda’s most memorable Hyde Park event came on Peace Day, 19 July 1919. Only five years old, she didn’t understand that this park walk would be different - she and her mother walked to the park in “ordinary walking clothes”. But a loud bang got Freda’s attention:
“My mother and I went into Hyde Park. We were just walking around looking at people, then a gun went off, and everything stopped. I saw everything stopping, I didn’t know why, and I kept asking my mother, and she said ‘Hush - I’ll tell you later.’ ”
“I saw that the people on bicycles got off and stood still, and I remember horses galloping in Rotten Row were pulled up, and ladies all dressed in beautiful clothes with gay coloured parasols in their landau, they stopped chatting and everyone was quiet. We were just by Harrods, and we saw people coming out with their packages and putting them on the pavement. Then we saw the milk van going by, and that stopped. Just everything stopped. I was getting a bit bored walking around and standing [until] another gun went off, and everything started moving as before, so that was quite exciting.”
“At the same time, the wreaths were being put on the Cenotaph, and people had started walking over there. And we walked too, it was quite a long way for a child of five, but I managed, but we didn’t get in the front, so we didn’t see the King and Queen put theirs, but we saw other royals. There was a tall man standing who said to my mother, ‘Would you let her sit on my shoulders?’ And I went, and I saw everything perfectly. We never knew who he was. Then we thought, well, it’s lunchtime. So we walked and we got home, and had lunch.”
But how does a five-year-old child remember a day like this? It may have been historically significant but what's that to a child? The answer is in what happened next:
"We had lunch, and then my mother sat down beside me on my bed because I was going to go to sleep, and she told me that she and my father were getting a divorce. They'd only been married five or six years. I think he got bored."
How could it have failed to be an unforgettable day?