This is the life story of my father, George Henry Dracup.
It was quite an ordinary life, given the tumultuous times through which he lived, and he was a very ordinary man.
But this is an obituary of sorts, celebrating the small contribution he made to humanity.
George was a great-grandson of Eli Dracup (1837-1928) one of three Dracup brothers who ventured south from Great Horton in Yorkshire during the 1850s.
His grandfather was Arthur Eli Dracup (1876-1922), born to Eli and Sarah Rose (nee Todd) in Wickham Market, Suffolk.
By 1880 the family had relocated to Bedford, following in the footsteps of Eli’s elder brother Jonathan, who had moved there from Wickham Market some fifteen years earlier.
Arthur Eli married Eliza (nee Roberts) (1874-1928), the daughter of a Felmersham agricultural labourer, in 1895. George’s father Wilfred Clarence (1902-1958) was the fourth of their eight children, born in Bedford in December 1902.
His family moved on to Watford in 1910 or thereabouts, where Arthur was employed by the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), as timekeeper in the Gas Department, as a general ‘railway servant’ and eventually as a clerk.
Arthur died early in 1922 and Wilfred married Edith Mary Fowles (1902-87) on 15 September 1923 in nearby St Albans.
She had been born in Marcham, near Abingdon, Berkshire, the third child of Thomas Fowles (1871-1943) a domestic gardener, and Edith (nee Glasscock) (1877-1968), daughter of a coachman, groom and sometime hackney cab driver.
While in Marcham Thomas was most probably employed at nearby Marcham Park, now Denman College. But we know from electoral registers that, by 1920, the Fowles family home was at Clifford Cottage (Now Number 44), Chiswell Green Lane, St Albans.
In the spring edition of the 1920 register Thomas is shown as an absent naval or military voter, suggesting that, despite his age (43 in 1914) he served during the Great War. The autumn register shows he is resident in St Albans. I have been unable to find his service record.
Thomas most probably cared for the garden of the Broadwood family, piano makers, who lived nearby at Bone Hill (sometimes gentrified to Bourne Hill). Their house and garden was later taken over by the Royal National Rose Society.
The marriage certificate gives Clifford Cottage as Edith’s address, while Wilfred is at 4 Hatfield Road, Watford, his family home.
The 1925 registers continue to show Wilfred living with his widowed mother and his brother Arthur Stanley (1900-1949), but they have moved to 95 Sandringham Road, a little closer to Watford North Railway Station.
Some twenty years later, early in the morning of 30 July 1944, a V1 ‘doodlebug’ struck Sandringham Road at the junction with Parkgate Road. Thirty-seven people were killed, 64 injured and dozens of houses were either flattened or seriously damaged.
Three residents of Number 95, unrelated to the Dracups, were killed – Lieutenant Sidney Milton, his wife Catherine and their 19 year-old daughter Daphne. There is no longer a house numbered 95 on Sandringham Road.
George’s birth and the new family home
Wilfred and Edith’s first child, Leslie Lionel, was born in October 1924 and George arrived on Sunday, 10 October 1926, almost two years later to the day.
It was an otherwise unremarkable day. The General Strike had ended some five months earlier, though the miners were still on strike and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had not yet lifted martial law.
Princess Elizabeth had been born that April, while other near-contemporaries included Kenneth Williams, Ian Paisley, David Attenborough, Eric Morecambe, Jimmy Savile, Geoffrey Howe and Frank Carson (see below). Ruth Ellis was born the day before dad.
He often told us he was born in the attic room of Gladstone Cottage, now Number 46 Chiswell Green Lane, next door to Clifford Cottage. We believe Leslie was also born there and that the young family lodged in that house while Wilfred built their new home.
According to the electoral registers Gladstone Cottage was the family home of John and Eliza Muskett. John had been a farm labourer in nearby Potters Crouch but in March 1926 became a ticket collector at Watford Junction Station.
The Musketts were still living at Gladstone Cottage by the time of the 1939 Register, though their one-time neighbour Thomas Fowles had now retired and removed to High Oak, a house at the top of Tippendell Lane, just across the Watford Road.
Thomas’s wife and youngest daughter Gwendoline were still working, as cook and waitress respectively, in the Three Hammers public house. Thomas was to die four years later in 1943.
Meantime, Wilfred and his brother Arthur Stanley had together purchased a double plot of land in Bricket Wood, two miles to the south, midway between St Albans and Watford.
The map below shows the exact location. The basic geography is unchanged today, despite the addition of the M1 and M25 motorways.
The St Albans Road snaked in a north-easterly direction between Garston to the south and Chiswell Green to the north.
Just to the south of the Black Boy public house lay a dog-legged crossroads: Chequers Lane ran westwards past Waterdale Farm towards Leavesden Mental Hospital; the road that later became Mount Pleasant Lane ran eastwards, taking its name from a small area called Mount Pleasant, just to the north, which had been carved out of woodland.
At The White House (later 80 Mount Pleasant Lane, but now demolished), it bent further to the south, now more like a broad woodland track, until it reached Tally Ho Corner near the railway line.
The plot bought by Wilfred and Arthur was on the edge of this woodland, just beyond The White House. Here they built two wooden bungalows: Arthur’s called ‘Chez Nous’ (later 94 Mount Pleasant Lane) and Wilfred’s called ‘Cloverdale’ (later 92 Mount Pleasant Lane), after the field of clover he found there.
Wilfred’s home was finished first. It was compact, perhaps five metres wide, comprising a front sitting room, a side kitchen, two bedrooms and a small bathroom to the rear. There was a loft space above.
There would have been no shortage of timber growing nearby, though my father once claimed that Cloverdale was made from ‘old army beds’. This suggests the brothers may have recycled redundant material from the Great War army billets at the nearby Woodland Retreat (see below).
Water and sewer pipes were not laid until some years later, so Wilfred must have sunk his own well for spring water, potentially up to 110 feet deep hereabouts. One of dad’s early duties was to empty the family toilet and bury the waste in the garden cess pit.
The garden was long and several trees were grown there or retained, including a plum tree, an apple tree and a tulip tree (which later attracted a preservation order). Over time the garden became populated by several wooden sheds, each son having his own.
The 1927 Electoral Register shows Wilfred now occupying ‘Cloverdale’, so he, Edith and the two young children must have moved there shortly after George’s birth. A third son, Kenneth Harold, was born there later in 1927.
The 1927 Register also shows Wilfred’s mother Eliza residing next door at ‘Chez Nous’. But she died in January 1928 and Arthur was shown as householder in that year’s Register.
By 1929 the extension of women’s suffrage led to the inclusion of Arthur’s wife Ada at ‘Chez Nous’, as well as Edith at ‘Cloverdale’. Wilfred’s younger unmarried brother Reginald was also living at ‘Chez Nous’ by this time.
This area has a colourful history.
The LNWR branch line between Watford and St Albans opened in 1858, cutting through the middle of Bricket Wood Common, and a station was built on the east side of the Village.
Passenger traffic increased significantly when the brothers Henry and Fred Gray opened their Woodside Retreat fairground in 1889, having first discovered the location during a cycling tour.
Woodside was a seasonal business, open at Easter and then from Whitsun to September. It offered two roundabouts (one with horses, the other bicycles), a helter-skelter, swingboats, a joywheel, two miniature railways, horse and cart rides and, of course, refreshments.
It soon became an extremely popular attraction, for adults and children alike, many travelling up by excursion train from Willesden Junction.
So Bricket Wood Station was rebuilt in 1904 with an extended platform to accommodate more visitors. Within a few years it was handling as many as eight excursion trains a day on top of its normal traffic. By 1912 the fairground tearooms were serving 5,000 teas daily and there were seven further marquees providing food and drink.
During the Great War soldiers were billeted here, hence the wood supply thought to have been recycled in ‘Cloverdale’. This must have been set aside when Woodside reopened after the War.
The Gray brothers soon faced competition from nearby Joyland, owned by Mr R B Christmas. This second fairground was located adjacent to the railway, on Smug Oak Green, and had an electric rifle range, a switchback, roundabouts, a mountainslide and a boating lake.
By the mid-20s though, both fairs were in decline as people could no longer afford the rail fares and ticket prices. Both closed down in 1929.
Meanwhile Bricket Wood had also become prominent in the early history of British naturism.
In 1922, Harold Clare Booth, an early pioneer of nudist culture in Britain, jointly founded the English Gymnosophist Society, later the New Gymnosophist Society. Members established the first nudist camp in Essex in 1924 and, when this closed in 1926, Booth located a new site in Bricket Wood.
The Society’s new camp opened here in 1927, just as ‘Cloverdale’ was built. Initially called the Fouracres Club, it later grew to become Fiveacres and is Britain’s oldest naturist club (though temporarily closed at present).
A year later, in 1928, Charles and Dorothy Mackaskie bought another 12-acre site in Bricket Wood, which they called Spielplatz. This is now perhaps the best known naturist club in England, though it too has closed temporarily.
Some sources claim there were as many as eight different nudist colonies founded in Bricket Wood during the 1920s and 30s. And, immediately after the Second World War, the Fiveacres Club was purchased by the Wiccan Gerald Gardner who used it to host a coven of witches.
George’s formative years
We know little about George’s early childhood.
Edith must have been kept extremely busy with her three small children and a fourth soon on the way. Antony Dennis, arguably the most talented of the five brothers, was born in 1930, but youngest son Donald did not arrive until 1937.
At the time of his marriage Wilfred was employed as an engineer’s pipe fitter. Mostly a plumber by trade, he also worked for a time at a local waterworks and later installed heating on a Wembley housing estate.
As the boys grew older the bungalow became increasingly cramped and, with seven mouths to feed, there was no money to spare. For part of his childhood George was farmed out to relatives living nearby.
He must have started school in the original village of Old Bricket, located on Bricket Wood Common to the south, where the principal thoroughfare is still called School Lane. But he would have joined the newly-built Mount Pleasant Lane School, just down the road from his home, soon after it opened in 1935.
Amongst his belongings we found two certificates from Mount Pleasant Lane, one for perfect attendance in the year from August 1938 to July 1939, the other a ‘war substitute’ for the Senior Art Prize, awarded in his final year.
By the time of the 1939 Register all five boys were living at ‘Cloverdale’ once more. Wilfred was working as a ‘Stationary Engine Driver and Fitter’. Edith was called ‘Ethel’ but still occupied by ‘unpaid domestic duties’. Leslie had already left school.
Next door, at ‘Chez Nous’, Wilfred’s younger sister Muriel was living with her husband Wallace Randall. Wilfred’s youngest brother Ronald was also living there and working as a cemetery labourer.
Wartime and call-up
George left Mount Pleasant Lane School in the summer of 1940, just as the Battle of Britain was getting under way. He worked briefly with a local lorry or haulage company – possibly Scammells – but soon moved to the Watford Electric and Manufacturing Company Limited, otherwise known as WEMCo.
WEMCo had been founded in 1900, moved in 1911 to a site on Whippendell Road in Watford and acquired its name in 1916. By 1936 it was listed on the Stock Exchange and, with the outbreak of war, began to specialize in manufacturing military equipment, including electrical components for the Mosquito bomber, built by de Havilland, and control gear for the Royal Navy.
George was employed as a coil winder, creating the electromagnetic coils used in electrical circuits, motors, transformers and generators. He will have operated a machine fairly similar to these, though this picture is of an American company, taken in 1933.
He once told us that, during wartime, massive coils of electrical wire were delivered to WEMCo from a supplier in the North. One day he found a letter inside one of the coils from a girl seeking a pen-friend. He replied to the letter and the girl later travelled down to meet him and his family in Bricket Wood. He kept this photograph of the girl with his mother.
Although Watford escaped relatively lightly, several bombs fell on it during the Second World War.
The London Bomb Census, conducted between 7 October 1940 and 6 June 1941 records some 30 bombs in that period alone. Altogether, Watford Borough endured 151 high explosive bombs, as well as 486 incendiary bombs, two V1 rockets and one V2 rocket.
Fifty-three adults and seven children were killed, the majority of them in the V1 explosion on Sandringham Road.
George was eligible for conscription from his eighteenth birthday, in October 1944, but wasn’t called up until Spring 1945, when the Russian army was already closing in on Berlin. He joined the General Service Corps but, presumably because of the progress of the war, seems to have spent six months with them, rather than the standard six weeks of basic training.
14964169 Private George Dracup finally moved on to the First Battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment in October 1945, shortly after his 19th birthday, but had to wait a further four months before he was posted abroad. Meanwhile, of course, the War had ended.
He embarked from Newhaven in February 1946 aboard the Ville D’Oran, a French liner that had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser and then a troop carrier. Towards the end of the War it also transported Axis prisoners of war from Northern Italy to POW camps in Egypt, and Jewish emigrants from France to Palestine.
Army Service in Palestine: the King David Hotel Bombing
The First Battalion had transferred from Italy to Haifa, in what was then Palestine, in January 1945, before shifting 20 miles south, to Pardes Hanna, a major military camp near Hadera, to rest and refit. (Three years later the Camp was attacked by Zionist paramilitaries who killed several British soldiers there.)
The Jewish insurgency was escalating, with casualties on both sides. In April 1946, shortly after dad arrived, seven British soldiers belonging to the Sixth Airborne Division were murdered in their tents on the site of a Tel Aviv car park.
Dad seems to have been posted initially to the large military camp at Sarafand, south-east of Tel Aviv. He also spent some time at Lydda nearby.
In July 1946 the Jewish insurgents committed their worst atrocity, bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The southern wing of the Hotel housed the British military headquarters, intelligence staff and the government secretariat.
Even 75 years after the event, the details are hotly disputed. Menachem Begin – leader of the Zionist group that carried out the attack and later Israeli Prime Minister – claimed that warnings had been given at least 25 minutes beforehand, which the British had deliberately chosen not to heed.
Others have established that a call was made to the Hotel switchboard roughly 15 minutes prior to the explosion, but the operator ignored it, believing it a hoax. Some 10 minutes later, perhaps six minutes before the explosion, another warning was received at the Palestine Post newspaper. The operator there called the Palestine Police first and then the Hotel operator, who finally informed one of the Hotel managers.
The explosives were belatedly discovered in the basement, packed into milk churns, but too late to prevent the ensuing carnage. Part of the southern wing, several storeys high, collapsed.
Dad was involved in the rescue effort, so must have travelled the 50km or so across to Jerusalem that day. Many locally-based soldiers arrived more quickly on the scene and began to dig away the rubble. A team from the Ninth Airborne Engineer Squadron brought heavy lifting equipment, but great care had to be taken while there was still some prospect of finding survivors buried beneath the unstable ruins.
By nightfall, three groups of sappers were working 16 hour shifts round the clock. The rescue operation continued for three days and 2,000 lorry loads of rubble were removed from the scene.
There were over 90 casualties, thirteen of whom had no identifiable remains. Amongst the dead were 40 Arabs, 28 British and 17 Jews. Six survivors were pulled out alive, one of whom later died.
It was the worst terrorist atrocity of its time. Eyewitness accounts have been preserved alongside film of the aftermath which illustrates vividly the scene witnessed by my 20 year-old father. In later life it is perhaps hardly surprising that he was noticeably more sympathetic to the Arab than the Jewish cause.
Incidentally, one other man present at the scene was comedian Frank Carson (1926-2012) also undertaking his national service in Palestine.
Army Service in Egypt, Greece, Suez and Camp 300
The photographic record that dad kept shows he was posted to Egypt by November 1946, initially to a transit camp at Almaza on the outskirts of Cairo. But then the army changed its mind again and sent him to Greece, via another transit camp at Port Said, as part of the final phase of British intervention in the Greek Civil War.
By this stage the Communist side was about 16,000 strong. The British were engaged in arming and training the Government army – around 90,000 troops – to resist them. Dad was based in and around Veria in Greek Macedonia, a Communist stronghold, not far from the Yugoslavian and Albanian borders from where they received supplies.
He re-embarked from nearby Thessalonika towards the end of February 1947, most probably part of the mass exodus of British troops. The British Government had decided it could no longer afford to prop up the Greek Government, handing the task over to the United States.
By March 1947 he was based at Fayid, on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal Zone, at the vast new headquarters of the British army in the Middle East, following its departure from Cairo.
Amongst his keepsakes was a kitbag marked ‘Maleria [sic] Control Unit’, used when he was deployed to spray DDT in the Sweetwater Canal.
A serviceman posted there in the early ‘50s recalls:
‘It really was an open sewer – it was pretty filthy. If anybody fell in the Sweetwater Canal… they had to have the full treatment for rabies, injections in the tummy and everything. It was the early days of anti-mosquito spraying of their breeding grounds in canals, swamps etc. and all the waters around were being constantly sprayed by the public health people. So nobody got the traditional malaria. But there was a lot of ‘gippy tummy’ [diarrhoea] – that was a fairly constant thing.’
In August dad spent time in the British Military Hospital. He used to say he caught some mysterious ‘desert disease’, had to have all his ginger hair shaved off and, when it grew again, it came back brown!
He had other tales too: Military personnel deployed in the middle east were warned to check their boots for scorpions before putting them on, a routine one might become complacent about after not finding any for a while. One day dad remembered just in time to shake his boots out – there was a scorpion in one of them.
Once while on guard duty dad met another guard, an Arab, who opened a sack to reveal a freshly severed human head.
In September 1947 he returned home to Britain via Tobruk and Malta. There are photographs of him enjoying an extended Christmas leave at home.
He had played a tiny part in a series of post-war foreign policy disasters that heralded the toppling of the British Empire. He was a private throughout, though he once told me he’d made acting lance-corporal for a single day!
His final posting was to POW Camp 300 at Wilton Park near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where he stayed until the end of his army service.
Camp 300 served as a re-education centre for Nazi prisoners. It had opened in January 1946, taking in tranches of 300 POWs from other camps for six-week courses. By this stage, since most POWs had already returned home, it was beginning to host civilian students alongside.
The POWs lived in Nissen huts in groups of 8 to 10 and had to do their own cleaning. Officers and men were treated equally and all were allowed outside the camp. The Warden was Oxford don Heinz Koeppler and several of his staff had been German refugees.
POWs organised their own lectures and there were also visiting speakers such as Bertrand Russell, Richard Crossman, Harold Nicolson and Lord Beveridge. As part of their course, students were often shown film of German concentration camps, much of it shot at the liberation of Belsen, witnessed by dad’s brother Leslie.
Aside from the King David Hotel, dad’s only other abiding wartime story was that he once guarded Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy, who flew to Scotland in May 1941 in an independent attempt to sue for peace.
Hesse was briefly at Wilton Park, earlier in the War, when it served as an interrogation centre for high-ranking officers, but dad was at WEMCo then. It seems unlikely that, at some point between April and October 1945, he was posted to Maindiff Court Hospital near Abergavenny where Hess was kept until the end of the War.
Hess was transported from Wales to Germany to stand trial at Nuremberg on 8 October 1945, taking off from Madeley Airfield direct for Frankfurt with only a single guard. That couldn’t have been dad either.
So was this a case of mistaken identity? Or was dad duped into believing that he was guarding the real Hess when he was actually dealing with a double? There are plenty of conspiracy theories alleging that Hess had such a doppelganger…some of them convinced that the man imprisoned in Spandau was a ringer.
Demobilisation was slow. A small proportion of servicemen deemed to have a skill or trade particularly useful in civilian life – electricians, carpenters, doctors and the like – could expedite their release. The vast majority, dad included, were given a release group number, determined by their age and the month in which they began their service. The groups were then released in numerical order.
Dad finally escaped on 29 April 1948 and returned to work with WEMCo.
Dad meets mum
Some months later, early in 1949, he met Maureen Ball, an eighteen year-old office girl who lived in Woodhurst Avenue Garston, between Bricket Wood and Watford. Born in Norwich, she was the only child of Reginald Ball (1896-1973) and Ethel Maud Ball, nee Easton (1900-1969).
Reg was a stereotype printer employed at Odhams in Watford, a small man, prematurely bald, who had served as a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War. Ethel was a sensitive soul who believed she was psychic.
Printers regarded themselves as something of an elite amongst the working class and the family lived in a comfortable semi-detached house with a piano in the parlour and their own air raid shelter in the garden. Dad clearly had ideas above his station! But, though Ethel might have given herself one or two ‘airs and graces’, Reg was very down to earth.
Mum had attended Leggatt’s Way Senior Girls School and then completed a secretarial and typing course at Watford College. She’d started work as an audio typist in the WEMCo drawing office in 1946, thoroughly enjoying the attention of all the draughtsmen.
Dad probably saw her first in the canteen and then a friend set them up to meet in a nearby park during the lunch hour. They went to the pictures together in Watford. Soon they were ‘going steady’ and met each other’s parents. There are photos of mum at Cloverdale in June 1949, and of dad at Woodhurst Avenue that August.
Although they holidayed separately in 1949 – dad at Margate; mum at Dovercourt Holiday Camp with her best friend Gwen – also working at WEMCo – they enjoyed their first vacation together the following year, at Falmouth in Cornwall.
By this time he had bought his first motor bike, a BSA Bantam. The Bantam had been launched in Britain only the year before. It had a 125cc engine, three gears, a maximum speed of 50mph and fuel consumption of over 100 miles per gallon. Mum must have been in love because she rode pillion all the way to Cornwall!
Dad soon proposed, in a small park, just off Whippendell Road, where they continued to spend their lunch breaks together.
Their courtship progressed throughout the early 1950s, both mum and dad continuing to work at WEMCo. There were further holidays at Bridlington (1951), the Isle of Wight (1952), Eastbourne, Swanage and Sidmouth (all in 1953).
They decided upon a lengthy engagement because they were determined to buy their own house, moving in together on their marriage, rather than living in ‘digs’. Meantime they saw each other every lunchtime and also on Saturday nights.
On Saturdays dad would normally ride over on his bike to mum’s and they would travel on together by bus or train. They would usually head to the Palace Theatre in Watford, or to the Odeon or Gaumont Cinema. Sometimes they would venture up to London.
There were several programmes amongst dad’s keepsakes, so we know that during this period they saw:
- Annie Get Your Gun at the Coliseum (1949 or 1950)
- A Streetcar Named Desire at the Aldwych Theatre, starring Vivien Leigh (1949 or 1950)
- Carousel (1950) at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane
- Touch and Go, with Sid James at the Prince of Wales Theatre (1950)
- The Crazy Gang, twice (in 1950 and 1952), at the Victoria Palace
- South Pacific (1951) also at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane
- Latin Quarter at the London Casino (1951)
- The Royal Tournament at Earls Court (1952)
- Love from Judy at the Saville Theatre (1952 or 1953)
- Dick Whittington at the Palladium with Frankie Howerd and Warren Mitchell (1952 or 1953)
- Chu Chin Chow on Ice at the Empire Pool Wembley (1953)
- Frankie Howerd in Pardon My French at the Prince of Wales Theatre (1953 or 1954)
They also saw the Wembley Lions play a few ice hockey matches at the Empire Pool.
Married and Family Life
Mum and dad were finally married in September 1954 at All Saints Church, Garston. Dad’s best man was younger brother Ken (and he reciprocated when Ken married the following year). Mum’s bridesmaids were best friend Gwen and Sheila, Ken’s fiancée. The reception was at the Three Horseshoes nearby.
They spent their honeymoon at Minehead.
Shortly afterwards they moved into their house, also in Chiswell Green, a newly-built three-bedroom semi-detached on a corner plot which cost them £2,000. It was no more than a couple of stone’s throws from where dad had been born.
Mum left WEMCo shortly afterwards and went to work elsewhere, but dad stayed on until 1959. The year before, they had bought their first car, a Standard 8. Sadly George’s father Wilfred had died in March 1958, at the tender age of 55.
Yours truly arrived in 1959 and my brother followed in 1962. Meanwhile dad took a job repairing Bendix washing machines. Bendix supplied a van which soon replaced the Standard. This became impractical as we grew bigger so, in March 1965, dad bought secondhand a light blue Ford Popular.
Shortly afterwards he left Bendix and began a new job repairing industrial sewing machines for Trubenised, based at Hemel Hempstead. He became a travelling service engineer.
At first the travel was mostly domestic, but increasingly further afield. He regularly racked up 40,000-50,000 miles per year and sometimes had to stay away. There was a trip to France in September 1965, to Germany in October 1966 and to Milan in November 1966.
For some reason, the company decided he should represent them at international textiles fairs, but all he wanted to do was repair machines! The overseas travel really kicked off in 1967, when he was abroad for over 20 weeks of the year, including a month in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and three weeks apiece in Moscow and Philadelphia. In January/February 1968 he was away for an eight week stretch in the USA and Canada.
I still remember the presents that returned with him from Ceylon: two ebony elephant bookends for mum, a wooden model boat with sail and outrigger for Mike and a bongo drum for me!
Mum found it hard to handle everything by herself while he was away.
That year we collected a rescue dog from Battersea. Rex was a mongrel and good company while dad wasn’t there. He particularly enjoyed chasing balls in the garden and his daily walk with me ‘round the block’ before school every morning.
Unfortunately though, he shared mum’s separation anxiety and, unlike her, took it out on the fixtures and furnishings – something dad couldn’t forgive, so eventually Rex had to be returned to Battersea.
Meanwhile mum’s declining mental health made it increasingly difficult for dad to be away for any length of time. There was eventually a parting of the ways with Trubenised in Summer 1968 and dad spent an anxious few months unemployed before joining Leonard Farnell and Co. that November.
His new job was to repair the machines that test the breaking strength of concrete – kerb stones and the like. Most of the work was UK-based, but the mileage was still high and he had to spend nights away on a regular basis.
The next few years were troubled and volatile. Mother-in-law Ethel contracted breast cancer and died in August 1969. Mum’s mental health again took a turn for the worse. I started secondary school, becoming the first in my family to pass the 11 plus.
I vividly remember how the class difference between home and school was exemplified on my very first day. It was warm so mum made me leave without my blazer. It was in vain that I insisted grammar school boys always wore their blazers!
Father-in-law Reg came to live with us for a while, but couldn’t fit easily into our family life and became increasingly unstable. Eventually he left, contracted diabetes, had to have a leg amputated and died in 1973.
A new dog, a corgi called Dusty (her pedigree name was Sanjohn Stardust) arrived in 1971, staying with us until her death 12 years later.
Life at Farnell wasn’t a bed of roses. Dad would often rehearse his latest beef with management over our evening meal. I still remember to this day that a manager called ‘Setchell’ was a particular hate figure.
But, for the first time, the family had a little disposable cash and, around this time, a caravan appeared in the front garden. I was just old enough to escape the ensuing family holidays, but my brother wasn’t so fortunate!
Dad’s mum Edith wanted to leave Cloverdale but efforts were made to keep the bungalow in the family. Her fourth son, Antony, was planning to buy it in 1976, even offering to look after Edith for the remainder of her life, but that fell through. Third son Ken was also interested in buying, but decided there was insufficient space for his family.
Edith eventually moved out in 1981, selling the bungalow and its garden for £26,000. Edith was to die six years later. Cloverdale was demolished and the plot is now occupied by a substantial detached house.
I left home for University in 1978, Mike departing shortly afterwards following a contretemps with dad over some damage during an illicit party held while my parents were away. One of dad’s faults was that he was incredibly house proud – a perfectionist – and couldn’t tolerate even the slightest blemish.
Retirement and final years
Mum and dad lived on in Chiswell Green until dad’s retirement, a new dog called Dinah replacing Dusty in 1984. In 1987 they finally sold up and moved to a newly-built bungalow in Horsford, on the outskirts of Norwich. Dad had wanted to head down to the West Country but had been overruled.
Here they made their home for the next thirty years, joined by Mike in 1998 following his own financial and (arguably) mental health difficulties.
From 1989 to 1993 dad took a part-time job as a sales adviser at Texas Homecare in Norwich to supplement their income – he had no company pension and his state pension didn’t kick in until 1991.
They led a quiet and retired life, joining the local bowls club for a while, but otherwise socialising only with a few local relatives. Dad occupied himself as he always had done, with DIY jobs around the house.
Dad was rarely ill, possessing an iron constitution, but he did begin to suffer from eruptions of skin cancer which he had to have removed. This led to a successful application for a payout from the Ministry of Defence, which accepted that the skin damage had been caused during his military service.
When they celebrated their Diamond Wedding Anniversary in 2014 he was still in rude health but beginning to grow frail. However, his final decline was not until 2018, his ninety-second year. He had no specific illness, but became tired and fretful and eventually took to his bed, eating little and taking no further interest in life around him.
He died on 20 September 2018, a few weeks short of his 92nd birthday. His funeral took place at the Horsham St Faith Crematorium and attracted few mourners. Dad was pre-deceased by two of his brothers and the two still alive were both too frail themselves to make the journey.
Dad lived his life quietly, never drawing attention to himself, always staying firmly in the background. He never made his mark, never achieved anything particularly remarkable.
He was a loyal and caring husband, though not given to displays of affection, in public or in private. As a father, his record was perhaps rather mixed. While we were treated with scrupulous fairness as younger children, he was always rather distant. I never once had a cuddle from dad.
In adulthood I often felt that I was given more credence and status than my brother, which was hardly fair.
My brother is even more highly skilled in some of the fields that dad also excelled in – especially woodworking – while I have always been a complete duffer at all things practical.
I personally think the difference between them was that dad was ever the artisan, always focused on the practical purpose of his handiwork, whereas my brother has strong aesthetic sensibilities.
I don’t think dad could ever indulge his own aesthetic capabilities, suppressing them in favour of tidiness and good workmanship; he also resented the fact that, while he’d spent half a century working for others to earn a living, my brother had not. That led to much tension, disagreement and misunderstanding.
From the moment I went to grammar school, I began to move in a different world that dad couldn’t begin to understand. He never read books and found writing difficult. He had never worked in an office; always with his hands. He was proud of my achievements but he couldn’t comprehend them.
Since my capacity for DIY was virtually nil, he knew I could never compete on his territory, so we respected each other’s different strengths.
Although I wasn’t particularly close to dad, his death had a profound effect on me, especially on top of my wife’s death the year before. His decline and demise hastened my own mental health issues.
He was seemingly never troubled in the same fashion. Mum used to say he had no imagination: both a weakness and a strength.
It felt to me as though he was the glue holding the family together, that his departure caused things to fall apart, some of which can never be put back together again.