Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Preserving the mysteries

My dad in 1956, aged 27
There's no easy way to say it, but 7th May 2016 saw the end of an era as my dear dad passed away, aged 87. When I stood up to speak at his funeral, my question was, "How do you sum up the life of 87 years in a few minutes?" The answer, of course, is that you can't. All you can do is share some stories which give a sense of the person the mourners are there to remember.

Some of those present had known Dad for many years, others for only a short time. But I wondered how many knew the full story behind an incident in Dad's childhood which had a profound effect on his rest of his life.

Dad and his brother with 'Paddy' the dog 
Dad was born on 12th February 1929, Shrove Tuesday of that year, in Tettenhall, Wolverhampton. When he was a few months old he and his family - my grandparents and Dad's elder brother - moved to the lodge of a large house called The Foxhills, near Wombourne, where granddad worked as the gardener.

The story goes that while playing with the family dog, Paddy, Dad got entangled in Paddy's lead, and fell off a wall, hurting his leg. Whether this was the accident to blame or another, when Dad got his leg trapped in his pedal car and ended up in plaster from his neck to his leg for many months, is impossible to establish - I'm not sure even Dad knew for certain - but it seems that at some point his hip became infected with TB, impeding the growth of his right leg.

Standon Hall Hospital
At the age of 7, Dad was admitted to Standon Hall Orthopaedic and TB hospital, in Staffordshire, some 40 miles away from his home. With buses the only form of transport available to them, my grandparents were only able to visit once a week, at best. 

Dad remained in Standon Hall for three years. As a child I often remember thinking I must have that wrong – surely he could have been in hospital for three years. But he was. 

You can see a photo of him below, flat on his back, grinning out from his hospital bed. 

Dad in bed August 1938 with my grandmother
and nurses from Standon Hall Hospital

I sometimes wonder how long he’d have languished there if the Second World War had not broken out. In 1939 the hospital was evacuated in preparation for the anticipated wounded soldiers and Dad was sent home. He told me recently about the feeling of claustrophobia at moving from a large ward with high ceilings back to the small lodge cottage.

But I suspect the move proved to be his salvation. He was now in the care of my grandmother, who made it her mission to defy the medics saying that Dad would never walk again. Her legacy was to instil in him his stoic disregard for what anyone else would call a disability and get on with life. He considered himself capable of doing what anyone else could, including, as he grew up, riding a motorbike. When he came off it, his doctor censured him severely, telling him the machines were not intended to be ridden by someone with a "gammy" leg!

With little education during those early years, it's to Dad's credit that he knuckled down at school, attended college, went to night-school, completed an apprenticeship and carved out a successful career in engineering as a tools designer. And while he could be stubborn sometimes to the point of exasperation, it's probably that stubbornness and determination which enabled him to achieve what he did. 

As family historians, we delve deep into the past to discover people's stories and, quite rightly, bring mere names to life, but it's equally important to record our memories of the family we've known well and to share those memories, so they don't get lost or, worse, become "brick walls" of the future.

In recent years Dad had responded to my suggestion that he should log his memoirs and I began transcribing some of the audio tapes he made, prompted by questions I set him. We went through some old photo albums and he identified those people he could. 

I've since discovered a few scribbled notes and a simple time-line he'd drawn of his life, the countries he'd travelled to and a list of all the employers he'd worked for. He'd kept every passport he'd owned, every driving licence and every Tax Code notification document from 1954! I think I'm going to be kept pretty busy going through it all!

P. John Shelley
12.2.1929 - 7.5.2016