A Stepmother

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Janet Frances (Jessie) Macpherson married George Archibald MacFarlane on the 25th September 1935 in St Mary’s Church Fort William – the first wedding to take place in the recently opened new church. By this time George (46) had been a widower for nearly three years and Jessie, at 33, may very well have been aware that marrying George would save her from being left behind on the shelf as, one by one, she watched her own brothers and sisters make their way down the aisle.

George’s three children, John (my Dad), Mary and Donald, were not exactly overjoyed at the new development in the family saga. You only have to look at this wedding photograph to see the misery on the faces of Mary and Donald, and for all I know John might have refused to even be in the picture.

George & Jessie

There are a couple of stories I’ve heard which illustrate the somewhat inept way that George introduced the subject to the three of them. One is that when he announced to the children that this was Miss Macpherson and she would be their new mother, John dashed from the room yelling “I will never call her Mother”. Another version is that Donald’s reaction was to innocently ask “But where will Miss Macpherson sleep?” It was not an auspicious start. And although Mary and Donald, being younger, followed the instruction to call Jessie ‘Ma’, John never did.

There is no hiding the fact that Jessie never really became a mother figure in these children’s eyes. To be fair, it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone trying to step into the shoes of a mother who was so universally loved and admired. But still…

However, Jessie did, I think, become a good wife to George, in fact it could be that she saved him when he was at his lowest ebb. The death of Beatrice had been extremely traumatic; she was far from home and had passed away in a haze of morphia – George had received a letter from the hospital telling him not to visit as she was not conscious. And then the next he knew he received a rather curt phone call asking why ‘arrangements’ had not been made. The death notification had been sent to Loch Slaoidh  (“Sloy”), Fort William and had sat at the pier waiting for the boat of that name to arrive instead of being delivered to the house at 50 High Street, which was never again known as Loch Slaoidh.

George was inconsolable and by all accounts did not cope well either with his own grief or that of his children. There were times when they appeared rather unkempt and neglected and there was a succession of somewhat unsatisfactory home helps and maids whose culinary skills seemed not to extend beyond copious amounts of watery mince. George’s sisters did their best to help, but they were occupied with their own young families or busy jobs and could only do so much. I heard that George made several proposals of marriage to various Fort William ladies before Jessie accepted him.

On paper George and Jessie were a good match, coming as they did from two prominent and public spirited Fort William families. George had taken over MacFarlanes the Chemist after the death of his father in 1925 and A & J Macpherson’s was a highly successful coaching business which had pioneered bus services and tours in and around Fort William as well as running the Parade Garage and bringing in Lochaber’s first petrol pump in 1922. Jessie was the third of Alexander and Margaret Macpherson’s nine children. This is a picture of the family in 1914, the two youngest yet to be born. (Jessie aged perhaps 12 or 13, is seated front right).

macpherson family

The family eventually went to live in a fine villa known as Avondale which had previously been owned by a cousin of the explorer David Livingstone, but when the above picture was taken, they were still living in a house built above the stables which were part of the original business and remembered in later life by Jessie’s young sister Lily (seated here on her mother’s knee) ‘It was a very small house, tiny in fact and in retrospect I cannot imagine how my mother managed, but I have no memory of any discord there, it was a happy home.

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The move to Avondale finally happened once Alexander came home from war service in 1918 – it’s the big house on the hill you can see to the right of this photograph, and actually overlooks their former home where you can see the bus garage. Not too far away is the High Street, where the MacFarlanes lived. Jessie and George’s first wife Beatrice would certainly have known each other; Fort William wasn’t that big a place and anyway they moved in the same social circle. I believe Jessie and Beatrice attended sewing classes together, or it could be that Beatrice, who was very artistic, actually took the classes – the record is not clear. Ironically, sewing and embroidery became one of her therapies when she was away from her family for extended periods in the TB Sanitorium.

Pictured below are the Avondale Macphersons more or less as Beatrice would have known them in the 1920’s. Jessie is the one to the right in the back row of the girls’ photograph. Beside her is sister Sally who you may recognise as her bridesmaid in the wedding photo.

An interesting aside – Jessie’s oldest brother, Donald, seen here seated beside his father, also married a MacFarlane, the daughter of one of George’s Spean Bridge cousins, Georgina. My cousin Catriona tells me that her mother Maureen met Donald one year when she was on holiday in Spean Bridge (up from home in London). According to Catriona, they were married six months later and lived happily ever after.  I have very fond memories of Auntie Maureen and Uncle Donald who were unfailingly kind to us.

George and Jessie settled down to married life and by Christmas, George was writing to his brother in law, Donald Bentley, thanking him for the serviette rings (presumably a wedding present) and reporting that ‘things are more comfortable for us all at home now and I am relieved of a great deal of anxiety’. Here’s the letter – George’s handwriting is quite hard to decipher, so you can either get your magnifying glass out, or read the extract below.

… I would like if you could see the children before they are much older. John is about as tall as I am. Mary goes to school in Inverness and your namesake is an energetic wee fellow who keeps us all on the go. If you can arrange it with your wife we would be delighted to have you as my wife has put a spare bedroom in order. I hope you will make plans to come up as any time would suit us and I am sure you would enjoy a holiday in the Highlands …

I don’t know if Donald and Polly ever did make it to Fort William to visit George and Jessie, as Granny Bentley and her other son Laurence did – Catriona remembers those visits clearly. The thing I do notice is George’s palpable relief that his household had regained some kind of normality. Whether George’s children thought the same is another matter. I get the impression they were expected to accept the new situation and not refer to the past.

With Jessie by his side, George seems to have felt able to start taking an active part in society again. In 1936 moves were being made to revitalise the annual Ben Nevis Race; the original trophy had disappeared, so George presented a replica called the G. MacFarlane trophy. Both George and Jessie were devout Catholics and made generous donations to the church, including a statue of St Margaret to the Church of that name in Roy Bridge, and the Stations of the Cross at St Mary’s. George found a bag of sovereigns in the box room at home and quietly put them in the plate each Sunday without telling anyone. (Although someone must have known about it for us to hear the story now…!)

It wasn’t long before the marriage was blessed with children, no doubt giving everyone a fresh focus, the way young children do. Poor Jessie had rather difficult pregnancies and spent at least some of them bedridden in a nursing home, which must have brought back unhappy memories for George. George Jnr was born in 1937, his brother Sandy a year later. Here we have a picture of George’s christening. If John was as tall as his father in 1935, by 1937 it was clear he was going to tower over him! I can’t help noticing how like his mother John appears in this photograph, no doubt another reminder of the past for his father.

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Below is a picture from 1941 of George’s four sons, and one of Mary with Sandy.

By 1942 John was in South Africa, having joined the RAF (see “Travels with my Parents – John, Part 1”). It occurs to me now that by the time he returned home after the war, John would have found the family augmented by the arrival of four more young siblings for George and Sandy – Margaret, Peter, Louisa and Catherine. I suppose Mary and Donald would have helped out at home with their younger half brothers and sisters, although Donald seems to have joined the Army just as soon as he was old enough and was the first of the three to marry in 1950, or maybe ’51, leaving Mary as the sole remaining representative of the ‘first family’.

george jessie and children

The war years were also busy for George who, as well as presiding over his growing family, was also active in civic life, culminating in him becoming Lord Provost of Fort William in 1950, thus following in his father’s footsteps. In a neat turn of events, George would present the 1951 G. MacFarlane Ben Nevis Cup as Provost, the race having resumed after a five year gap due to the war. The recipient on this occasion was one Brian Kearney, later to become the husband of the aforementioned cousin Catriona! This was just the first of Brian’s three victories in the Ben race and marked the first time the race had been run in under two hours. He clipped another 4 minutes off his time in 1954 and that record (one hour, 47 minutes and 4 seconds) stood for over 60 years.

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The year George became Provost, 1950, was a Holy Year of the Catholic Church, and George and Jessie wished to make the pilgrimage to Rome. So, looking for a nanny to care for the children, Jessie put an advertisement in the Irish Independent – I think a previous nursemaid had proved unsuitable.  And the rest, as they say, is history, when a certain Nellie Hynes (my Mum) answered the ad!

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Nellie got on well with everyone and enjoyed her new life in Fort William – a place she’d originally had to look up on the map! Her six charges retained great affection for her in the years to come, some of them exchanging Christmas cards, letters and even the odd visit to Glasgow. Although contacts naturally fade away over time, I don’t think they ever forgot the Irish nanny who, for a short time, was part of their childhood, taking them to school and teaching them words in French.

But Nellie’s future lay with the ‘first family’. As we know, John came home from the war and captured her heart. By the time they married in 1953, all three of George’s eldest three children had left home to pursue their fortunes away from Fort William and the traumas of childhood which they – or at least my Dad – never quite shook off.

It feels to me that the only way that George could thrive was to essentially brush the past under the carpet and keep it there, and who am I to blame him for that? I’m glad he was able to somehow find a way of surviving the loss of his first love. And I can also understand if Jessie would always put her own family first. But the legacy of the past casts a long shadow. As the eldest daughter of the eldest son, I suppose I inherited something of my father’s sense of injustice and that feeling of perpetually trying to regain something that was lost. But, I am not frozen in the past in the same way as my dear Dad was. I have had the opportunity in my life, as he perhaps never had in his, to reflect and heal and really understand the importance of letting go of the things you don’t have the power to change.

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Me and my Daddy, 1954. Remembered on this Father’s Day of 2018.

 

 

 

 

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Uncomfortable Truths

I confess I haven’t really dwelt upon some of the unhappier episodes I’ve come across in my delving into the family archives over the past year and more. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, and I have certainly addressed sad subjects such as my grandmother Beatrice’s tragic early death, as well as topics like my ambivalence about my schooldays and my parents’ sense of shame about what they perceived as their position in society. My Mum’s insistence upon never mentioning that my Dad was a bus driver was not a comfortable thing for a teenager to take on board. However, I’ve found myself keen to see the deeper truths and to comprehend the reasons why things may have been the way they were.  Two things I have learned in my life are that 1) people don’t generally mean to cause you pain and that 2) we are ALL in need of forgiveness. So, as far as possible, I choose celebration over exposition, kindness over blame.

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In my quest to get to the truth – or maybe just a truth – I am perfectly aware that my perception of even shared experiences is exactly that; MY perception. Whilst I might sometimes speculate, I never presume to know what anyone else might have felt. I’m also aware that even touching upon events in the past might trigger painful thoughts and memories in others that I’m not even aware of. I suppose it’s inevitable I won’t always get it right – it can only ever be my best guess as a fellow human being.

Except that I don’t always need to guess. I know perfectly well why I’ve sometimes avoided looking through my own shoeboxes of photographs from certain periods in my life, never mind anyone else’s. I’m sure that most people can look back on chapters in their lives when every single memory seems to be tinged with sorrow and pain and regret.

Old family photographs can take you like that too. Sometimes the people stare out at you with a haunted look in their eyes, captured in a moment of grief or unhappiness which touches your heart and makes you ache to reach out to them even long after they are dead and gone and can’t be hurt any more. This is one such picture (fortunately annotated at the back in case you’re wondering at how remarkably well informed I am, although some of the information also comes from my trawling through Ancestry.com records).

Peter and children, 1893

This is my Great Grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, with his seven children. The year is 1893 and the empty chair at the back is to signify the absence of Peter’s wife, Louisa, who died suddenly of cerebral meningitis in April of that year, aged 45. This might even have been the day of the funeral. It doesn’t take much insight to perceive the pain etched in all their faces, or to understand that this could have been a seminal moment determining the further course of their lives and personalities. In particular I look at the little curly haired chap in the front row, my Grandfather George, aged 6, for whom history tragically repeated itself in 1932 with the loss of his own wife, Beatrice, when his own littlest boy Donald, our Uncle Donald, was also 6.

These children would eventually become known to our family as my Dad’s Aunt Ettie (Ethel Sarah), Aunt Lulie (Mary Louisa) and Aunt Winnie (Winifred Grace), sitting at the back and Uncle Jack (Peter John) and Aunt Moolie (Muriel Davenport) to the front. The little child sitting on Lulie’s knee is Anice Jane, and she never grew up to be anyone’s aunt for she died only a couple of years later when she was just 3 years old. Uncle Jack, or Father Jack as he became a priest, died at the relatively young age of 47 in 1931, but the Aunties all lived into their 60’s and beyond.

My father was very attached to these Aunts of his, who would obviously have known him as he was growing up, and I think watched out for him and his brother and sister in the years after their mother died. Dad spoke of them with great fondness and we called in on them once or twice during the years when we would visit Fort William on our family holidays.

But although he would talk endlessly about his family, Dad didn’t, as far as I can remember, show us his family photographs or ever really explain who all the people were that populated his anecdotes. My sister Mary observed that in those days parents never really did explain things to their children the way modern parents do. questions-1922477_1920-300x300We were just expected to be good and do as we were told. Asking questions was considered to be “cheeky”. We were good, but perhaps rather ill informed, as Mary says: As a child I remember being constantly surprised and bewildered because things were always sprung on me. 

I probably tuned out of the reminiscences, the way children do, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered the pictures. It’s pointless to regret it now, but I do wish I had paid better attention when I was young, and asked more questions – in fact the questions I am currently asking all these decades later! Perhaps then Dad might have felt able to share the images with us, if he hadn’t just buried them so deep that he actually forgot the existence of the dusty old cardboard suitcase full of sepia memories.

Neither was my Mum, with her great inner drive to always be forging ahead in life, someone who you would turn to to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of family history. If she became more expansive in her latter days, it wasn’t about Dad’s past which was all tied up with the loss of his mother and subsequent poor relationship with his father George.

Let me describe how it seemed to me as a child of about 12 visiting Fort William (this would be several years after George passed away in 1962). 50 High Street, the address of both the family business MacFarlane and Son, Chemist and the family house above, had almost mythical proportions in my mind – this was the place where John had been brought up; where Nellie had been nanny to something called the “second family” (I didn’t really understand what that meant); where my mother and father had met and fallen in love. (I must have paid some attention!) I had vague memories of visiting there as a much younger child and had an impression of an attic room with wooden floors. Though I have to confess that I may very well have confused it in my mind with the Alm Uncle’s house in my beloved Heidi books, who knows?

What I remember of the visit in question was of us knocking on the street door beside the shop, waiting a long time for someone to answer and eventually trooping up a dark narrow flight of stairs at the top of which we were shown into the ‘parlour’ where a somewhat stout older woman with an unsmiling face presided over afternoon tea, with various other younger people popping in and out for the purpose, it seemed, of inspecting us.  If my Dad ever had a notion of showing us around his childhood home it was quickly dispelled in that frosty atmosphere. I don’t remember whether anyone talked to me, I was too busy feeling uncomfortable and just living for the moment when we could get out of there and breath again. I later understood that the stout woman was Jessie and that she wasn’t Dad’s mother. Of course I eventually worked out that she was George’s second wife and the mother of the mysterious “second family” though it seemed to be something we shouldn’t ask questions about, so I didn’t, though I did manage to become less ignorant as the years went by, mostly by keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut!

It is only now, all those decades later, that I have started to try to properly untangle these and the various other characters who tumble about my brain all interacting with each other like extras in some crazy film. Aunt Clemmie, Morag Arisaig, Archie Speanbridge, Uncle Laurence, Granny Bentley, Ishbel, Sarah, George’s Elizabeth, Sandy’s Pat, Auntie Maureen, Uncle Donald… you get the picture! Of course the keys to bringing some sort of order to the chaos have been there all along had I but known it. Whether it be in memories residing in my own brain or those of my sisters and cousins; old cases of fading photographs; letters kept in black bags for 20 years; a family tree born of 32 years of meticulous research. These are just some of the sources I’ve already mentioned in the pages of this blog.

Another realisation is that, while it’s true about the material being there all along, just waiting to be discovered, it’s probably also true that it’s only the fact that both John and Nellie are no longer with us that has given me the freedom to dig deeper and explore the facts that lay behind what I always knew was a great tragedy in my father’s life, and the feelings of loss he always felt regarding Fort William and his childhood. Sometimes what you’re looking for is confirmation of a childhood impression – it’s so easy for children to get the wrong end of the stick. I have hesitated before now to tell the tale of our visit to ‘Fifty’. It is an uncomfortable tale to tell and one doesn’t want to cause hurt to people who’s idea of what was going on may be entirely different from yours. But I believe it is a true impression – anyone I have ever talked to about it confirms that. I even have some words written by Aunt Winnie, George’s sister, in a letter to her daughter Theresa following his death in 1962:

…there is no place now for the first family…

And so it proved. I do think there are things that happen in our lives that you can never really get over. Such as the death of a parent, or a child, or a grandchild, or a marriage, or our idea of ourselves as someone who will unfailingly keep our promises and be able to always protect our loved ones from harm. Or the notion that we can take anything life throws at us and then come back for more….

I’m lucky, I have always eventually been able to come back for more, albeit sadder and wiser, as the saying goes. I can look back at my old photographs and know that the person staring out at me with that haunted look in her eyes isn’t really me any more. That somehow I did learn to live with what seemed to be unbearable pain or a truth so uncomfortable as to make you want to take to your bed and stay there forever.

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It must be a rare person who sails through life without ever feeling that they want to give up. The rest of us just muddle through the best we can, our ancestors being no exception. Some admirable souls share their struggles for all to see in the hope that others can take strength from knowing they are not alone. I think most of us choose to fight our life battles in private.

But whether we shout it from the rooftops, or share our struggles in a more intimate way, we are all more or less battle scarred. I believe that our job is not to avoid the challenges of life, but to embrace them, learn from them, give our children the gift of resilience, teach them kindness to others and never to be afraid to ask for help. If you want my own homespun philosophy, it’s this – whenever I reach the end of my tether I tie a knot in it and hang on, remembering the words of the great Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of the best film ever, Gone With The Wind:

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Tribe of Cousins

I’ve read that cousins are often your first friends outside the immediate family. That was certainly true for my own children in the 1980’s and the friendships have lasted to this day, despite their parents insisting on lining them up for a photo every time the two families got together! Nowadays we’d have to include various assorted partners and 10 offspring as well, if I’ve got my sums right.

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Of course part of the reason why cousin gatherings are so much fun is that it’s usually some sort of family celebration that brings us together. Even just a visit becomes a special event because it’s a chance to whoop it up with additional members of the tribe.

 

My own experience as a child was somewhat unlike my children’s – I suppose for us it was a different, less mobile era, so we didn’t really have much to do with our cousins as we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. These pictures are from the one trip we made to Ireland as a family in 1969 (see my post from last August, The End of an Era). And then it wasn’t until years later, after my Dad died, that I would occasionally encounter these cousins if I happened to be in Glasgow when, all grown up, they came over to visit my Mum.

 

Contact with cousins on my Dad’s side of the family was equally rare. The following photo is the only one I have of us mingling with those cousins on a visit to my Uncle Donald’s house in, I believe, 1962 (going by the absence of the youngest members of our respective families). And I rather think the occasion was probably to do with the funeral of my grandfather George, that being the year he died. Auntie Mary would have been calling in at Glasgow on her way up to Fort William from her home in London. Or possibly she and her brothers, John and Donald, were making a visit to him on his deathbed. This may have been something of a reconciliation with his three oldest children, but I’ll write about that another time.

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At the back is my Auntie Mary with her baby daughter Mary and our cousin Muriel. In front of them is myself and cousin Donald. Then at the front, left to right, my sister Mary Veronica, cousin Frank, cousin Mary Theresa, sisters Grace and Ann, and little cousin Michael.

The only thing I can remember about visiting Uncle Donald’s house – and it may or may not have been this occasion – is of not being 100% sure that he was only joking when he produced a large pair of scissors and threatened to perform surgery on my cousin Frankie’s bleeding finger. Of course the scissors were just to cut a plaster, but just for a split second, I actually entertained the thought that he really would cut the finger off!

Over the years, weddings, christenings, and especially funerals have provided random opportunities to come across these rather elusive relatives. And the encounters would always leave me wishing that they were in my life to a greater extent rather than just someone you knew had a place in your family tree. Because, no matter how little contact you have, your cousins are never strangers. As cousin Catriona once said “we know where the bodies are buried”. There’s an instant understanding, a sharing of common history, a fellow feeling that needs no further explanation.

All of this has been very much brought home to me since my Mum passed away a couple of years ago and I started rambling on about my family in this blog as well as renewing old acquaintances, or uncovering new ones. I’ve already mentioned Steve Bentley in this context, and I’ve also had contact with John Hynes (the sole boy in the haystack picture above), who now lives in England and was absent when I caught up with my Irish cousins (all the others on the haystack!) and some of their children and grandchildren when I visited County Mayo last spring.

More recently there has been communication with two MacFarlane relatives who both live in South Africa, but have maintained contact with their Highland roots over the decades and who illustrate perfectly what I’ve come to think of as the cousin effect.

Liz van der May

Cousin Liz (or second cousin Elizabeth van der Mey if you want her Sunday title) is South African born and bred and and she first contacted me though the blog, writing:

Where do I fit in? My mother Theresa wrote the wee note to your Grandmother Beatrice that appears in May or June last year.

(From “Clutter or Treasure”, April 2017).

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I am ‘Aunt Winnie’ Chisholm (MacFarlane)’ s granddaughter (ran into trouble with punctuation there!) I feel like I’ve known you all my life which may seem weird to you but my mother pined so for ‘home’ after coming to South Africa in 1948 and constantly regaled us with family lore…

While you were writing your blog, here on the other side of the globe I was scanning my mother’s letters. She died in 1996, the kist full of letters was only discovered some years later when my father moved out of the house. For almost 20 years I kept them in black rubbish bags but about a year ago the time was right and I started to sort and scan them. Not finished yet but a few more months should do it. What a journey it has been!

… I’d love to share what I can remember of my mother’s reminiscences with you – just a memory here a memory there that helps to flesh out those long ago days. I am a 1952 vintage and a Granny of 6, married to a Dutchman and have spent most of my life in SA but my Scottish roots are dear to me. My mother and Mary Hanley were dearest friends.

I’m sure you can imagine how excited I felt at receiving this warm, generous message totally out of the blue. It hasn’t taken long for the two of us to become Facebook friends, and I am very much looking forward to delving into Liz’s material and, as she says, using it to flesh out those long ago days.

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Next, I’d like to introduce you to Robert MacFarlane, or rather to his shattered shoulder blade, the result of a skydiving accident. I have skydived for the last 21 years and this was a bad landing. I know how and why, will not bore you with the details. This doughty gentleman is of a similar vintage to Liz and myself so I have to admit that this news was the last thing I was expecting! Recovery is now well under way thank goodness, but even when he was temporarily reduced to typing with one finger, Robert has already sent me a wealth of pictures and information from his extensive archive. I have been a very active family historian for the last 42 years as well as Lochaber historian, a passion rather than a passing interest.

It is ever so slightly daunting as a mere beginner, to meet someone with this kind of research pedigree! Over the past 42 years, Robert has traced the MacFarlane family history, and can show our family tree going back through the MacDonald line all the way to Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) the second King of Scotland.

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Fortunately for me, Robert seems just as interested in the minutiae of domestic relationships – or as we call it, gossip – as in the broad sweep of history. I look forward to sharing some of these tasty titbits in this blog.

A final cousinly thought. I know that my dad, John, had been close to his Spean Bridge cousins. I heard that he would take the bus from Fort William to Spean Bridge, let himself in to the house and the first anyone knew he was there would be when they heard music coming from the piano in the front room. And now I discover that there’s still a link with those far-off days. Robert has told me that his Aunt Margaret – now 88 and also living in South Africa – well remembers when she was a little girl hearing John playing the piano in their house. This would be in the 1930’s, in the years after his mother Beatrice had died (1932) and his father George had married his second wife Jessie (1935). I rather think that my dad found solace in going to play the piano in Spean Bridge, I certainly hope so.

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The caption is “Banavie 1931”. On the right is my Auntie Mary with my dad John to her left. The little chap at the front is my Uncle Donald. And I THINK that at least one or two of the other children are cousins from… Spean Bridge? Inverness? Perhaps YOU know!

 

 

Things Fall Into Place

One of the first things you learn when delving into family history is not to believe everything you are told! Memories can be notoriously inaccurate, and with the best will in the world it’s very easy to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, especially when you WANT something to be true. That’s why I’ve tried to be careful in this blog only to include “facts” and stories that can be otherwise verified in some way. Things like birth, death and marriage certificates, photographs with inscriptions, letters, address books etc. etc. And of course there’s the plethora of public sources that are available to us nowadays – census returns, civil registration indexes, military records, passenger lists…

Of course that doesn’t mean you always get everything right, or that the information is in any way definitive or comprehensive. I’ve tried searching for myself on Ancestry.com and there was no sign of me in the birth register, electoral roll, or anywhere else. Good job I have my birth certificate to reassure me that I really do exist!

Granny in Cork
We believe in you granny!

So, despite one’s best efforts, sometimes you just have to take a leap in the dark and plump for a particular solution to a problem while keeping your fingers crossed that you’re not going to have to revise it later.

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So, with all that in mind, let’s get back to the question of the Mystery Granny that was exercising us in my last post. You may remember that I was hesitating to identify the old lady in the “Four Generations” 1922 photograph as Sarah Thompson because of the conflicting idea that she might be “Granny Bentley”, as pictured in the Fort William christening photograph of 1936.

The lady from the christening doesn’t look unlike either of the other two, but could she really be an older version of the lady on the left (Sarah?) nor, I think, is she tall enough to be Alberta. In any case she’s wearing the wrong style of clothes to be either of them. So, I’m going to come off the fence and say that I believe it IS Sarah Thompson, Alberta’s mother, in the Four Generations photograph.

And then Cousin Steve Bentley throws me a curve ball in the shape of some more photographs featuring the brick wall!

Same wall/fence, same chairs, same occasion – Sunday morning on the Lawn. But what lawn? Where are we? Could it be Blackpool – some of the photos of the 1927 holiday were taken in front of a very similar looking brick wall…

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Mary, Donald and John getting down and dirty in the garden.

But none of them show the wall/fence, and surely if this is the “sweet spot” for taking photographs, at least some of them would. Also, remember that the Blackpool pictures were from 1927 and the Lawn photos from 1922. So no, I don’t think it’s Blackpool. We need more clues.

At this point I’m going to tell you some more about Alberta Bentley, nee Thompson, my father’s grandmother. Throughout my childhood, my Dad talked a great deal about Fort William and his MacFarlane relatives, but very little, if anything, about the Bentley side. Perhaps he didn’t know very much, or had forgotten. Both Laurence and Donald, his uncles, appear in his address book, though not Alberta. As children we knew about Beatrice, the English mother who had so tragically died when John was young and who he had loved so much he’d called his first-born child after her.

So, part of my purpose here was to find out more about this namesake of mine, where she came from, what she was like. I quickly discovered that any information about her that my Dad’s father George might have had was most likely destroyed in that bonfire he instigated shortly before he died. I do regret that loss, take it almost personally. I can understand that George might not have wanted to pass on these items to his second family, but surely he could have handed them down to his three older children, Beatrice’s children, John, Mary and Donald, who would certainly have cherished them.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I started looking up the public records, and while I had no success in finding me, I did manage to find one Frank Bentley from Cleckheaton in Yorkshire, who had married Alberta Thompson from Sowerby Bridge in August 1896. He was 25, she 23. The 1901 census shows them living at 11 Victoria Terrace, Cleckheaton with daughter Beatrice, 3 years and son Laurence age 1. Frank is listed as being a “Professor of Music and Assistant Schoolmaster” – rather intriguing! Maybe that means that he took pupils for singing and piano.

vintage-piano

By the time of the next census, 1911, we find Alberta listed as Head of Household, Widow, with daughter Beatrice 13, son Laurence 11 and son Donald 8, living at 56 Logan Street, Market Harborough, Leicestershire. So we look at the death register and find that Frank had died in Yorkshire in 1904, aged only 33, the same age as his own daughter would be when she died 28 years later. I don’t know the cause of Frank’s death, still trying to track down the death certificate.

I have many times speculated about why Alberta, as a young widow, had moved to Market Harborough with her three little children after Frank died. Perhaps there was family there? But at least it explained why Beatrice and George were married there, though my own researches did rather grind to a halt at this point.

And then last month came a positive flood – well a healthy trickle – of new photographs and snippets of information courtesy of Steve. I started to learn facts – Donald and his wife Doris had been known as Don and Polly; Donald had been a Chief Inspector of Taxes until he retired and had worked for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, for a period; Laurence and Hilda had lived in a house named Rylands when they first married. And new names started to appear – Queenie and Reg Eaton, Ernest Blockwell, Florence Bush, the Naylors. Not to mention Vera, a WW2 refugee quartered with Don and Polly who had eventually married Queenie and Reg’s son Bernard. I know! It’s all starting to get a bit complicated! So before I get too diverted let’s turn our focus back to the brick wall question.

Steve came up with this picture:

Winnie 1933 - Copy

And here’s a segment of a letter to Polly written in 1977 after Don’s funeral and signed “Winnie”.Winnie segment 1977

So who was this Winnie that had been so close to Don and Polly; who had always had Don in her life? Neither Steve nor I had the slightest clue. Then it occurred to me that I might have in my possession the key that could unlock the whole puzzle.

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This birthday book belonged to Beatrice. It was given to her in 1911 when she had been part of the Wesleyan Prize Choir who had performed at the May Festival that year (see inscription below). And in turn my Dad gave it to me years and years ago when I was still a teenager. When I think of how little he really had of hers, it means a lot that he entrusted this precious little artifact to me.

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I think this was probably how I first learned that my grandmother’s maiden name had been Bentley. And besides being a treasured possession, this little book has proven to be an invaluable source of information in the past year, for Beatrice faithfully added all her MacFarlane relatives to the family and friends who were already recorded in here. Not to mention, one by one, the inclusion of her own children as they made their appearance into the world.

So I hunted through the birthday book looking for all the Winnie’s. I found four and was drawn to Winnie Naylor, birthday 22 November, as the name Naylor had already come up on the back of a postcard. A quick search in the 1911 census and what do we find but Winnie aged 4 months in the household of James Alfred Naylor 33, his wife Harriet Annie Naylor 32 and son Alfred Naylor 3. Address? 28 Logan Street, Market Harborough! So I’m thinking the Naylors are close neighbours of the Bentleys at number 56 and there you have the connection.

But wait! There’s more! Look further and you’ll see that also recorded as a visitor on census night is one Sarah Thompson, widow, age 70. Alberta’s mother! AND actually (from the records), Harriet Annie’s too, the final confirmation being the entries in the birthday book: Alfred Naylor, Winnie Naylor, HA Naylor, Beatrice’s cousins and her Aunt! And, it turns out, her own little boy Donald was born on the same day as his great Aunt:

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alfred and winnie

Steve and I had been a bit puzzled as to the identity of the boy who is posing for the “Sunday Morning on the Lawn” photo sitting on Laurence’s knee in that rather familiar fashion. But it all makes perfect sense if this is his young cousin Alfred. And this here has got to be Alfred with his little sister Winnie, don’t you think? Also, remember what I was saying about having to revise previous statements? Well, I think I was so excited by the idea that I had a picture of Beatrice with her brothers that I didn’t look too closely

Donald, Alberta, James

at the chap in the deck-chair. Looking again, it’s clearly NOT Donald. This is Donald at Laurence’s wedding, to the left of Alberta, and the fellow on the other side of her looks like the deckchair chap – perhaps this is Uncle James.

Something else that now makes sense to me is what took Alberta to Market Harborough in the first place. If her sister, and possibly also her mother, were already there, what would be more natural than to move near to them – in fact only a few doors down – in order to get their support now she was a lone parent. Or she might have brought Sarah, also a widow, with her from Yorkshire.

28 logan street

Are we ready to say where the brick wall was? Googling the addresses reveals that 56 Logan Street no longer exists, but number 28 does and in fact was up for sale quite recently, so here’s the picture from the schedule. It’s a 4-bedroom semi-detached RED BRICK villa. In 90-odd years the garden has been so completely remodelled that it’s impossible to say whether it was definitely the backdrop for our photoshoot, but it could have been. The way I see it, the photos, so palpably domestic, must have been taken in either Alberta’s or the Naylors’ garden. I’m sure that Alberta’s house would have been similar to her sister’s, or possibly a little more modest – you can “walk” down Logan Street via Google today and still see lots of these Victorian brick villas and terraces.

Go back to the photographs and look at them all lolling around in the garden, reading the paper, fooling around, obviously totally relaxed in each other’s company. Can’t you just imagine one or other household members strolling down the street to spend that sunny Sunday morning with the rest of the family and keep company with the sister who had come all the way from Fort William to show off her first born son. Later, Beatrice, Alberta, Sarah – and John! – got dressed up in their best clothes and posed for the Four Generations shot. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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One final little gem from the pages of the birthday book – a photograph of the 1911 choir pasted behind the front cover. Can you spot the 14 year old Beatrice? That’s her second from the right in the back row.

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of Granny Bentley, and a Seaside Holiday

four generations

The mystery began with this photograph, found among the collection of loose photographs we fell heir to when my mother Nellie died in 2015. There are no names, just the caption “Four Generations.”

To start with, I do know that the two seated on the right are my Grandma Beatrice with my dad John on her lap – you’ll maybe recognise them from previous posts. I reckon this is probably the spring of 1922 when John would be 7 or 8 months old (born 30 August 1921).  The older lady standing beside Beatrice is her mother Alberta Bentley – you can see the strong family resemblance between them. I thought that the granny in the bonnet was likely to be Sarah Thompson, Alberta’s mother, but I didn’t actually know it, and I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive in 1922 – she was born in 1841, and would thus have been 81 in this picture – not impossible.

Further intriguing clues are contained in some pictures of a family holiday, marked Blackpool July 1927, which I found pasted into a ragged little scrap book. They show Beatrice and the three children, John, Mary and Donald, enjoying a family holiday by the sea. Their father George doesn’t appear in any of these photographs, so either he’s shy and always behind the camera, or he might have had to stay at home in Fort William and keep the business going. Here are the children having fun on the beach.

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John, age 6
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Mary, age 4
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Wee Donald, 2 and a bit, looking cool in his shades

So far so good. But we also have some pictures featuring our elderly lady, who, if it IS Sarah, would by this time be a rather magnificent 86 years old.

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Here she is with Beatrice and the three children
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And now Alberta has joined the group as well

Here’s a better view of the house, with… who?

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Again, I have been unclear as to the identity of this gentleman. I thought it was probably one of Beatrice’s brothers, but had no other evidence to give me a positive identification.

Enter Steve Bentley, stage left! As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently made contact with this third cousin on the Bentley side, and he too had photographs which included the lady we rapidly started calling the mystery granny, as he was no nearer to a definite identification than I was. However, he was able to confidently identify Laurence Bentley for me, which meant that for the first time I was able to put a name to the chap having fun with the children – it’s their Uncle Laurence.

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John looks as if he’s wondering when it’s going to be his turn to be tickled.
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I think I’ve got the strings tangled
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Here, let me help you old chap

You might be wondering why I am so hesitant to identify this “mystery granny” as Sarah Thompson, it does seem kind of obvious. Well, part of the reason is that I’ve heard from a couple of sources that after Beatrice died in 1932, George and the children used to get visits in Fort William from “Granny Bentley”. She even carried on visiting long after George had married his second wife, Jessie MacPherson. The story goes that she was so moved by the warmth of her reception that she converted to Catholicism! This is supposed to be a photograph of her attending the baptism of George and Jessie’s oldest child, George. You’ll recognise a somewhat older Mary and Donald on either side of her.

mary and donald and ...

BUT George was’t born until 1936. If it’s the same person, that would take this “Granny Bentley” to the grand old age of 95, which is really pushing it a bit. Besides, wouldn’t she be Granny Thompson? It’s Alberta that would be Granny Bentley. The final thing that makes me think that this line of enquiry might be a red herring is the following picture that I know is of George’s christening (it says so on the back). Notice that Mary and Donald are wearing entirely different clothes.

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But on the theory that the best mysteries should be scattered with red herrings and cliffhangers, I’m going to leave this question up in the air for the moment, and turn the focus back to Blackpool and the family holiday.

I wondered what might bring Beatrice and the children to Blackpool at this time. Why Blackpool, and why were so many members of her family there too? It could be that they’d taken a house for a big family get-together, perhaps in advance of Laurence’s wedding which was due to take place in the September (I don’t think Beatrice was able to attend her brother’s wedding). Or this could be someone’s home. The Bentley family had settled in Market Harborough after Alberta’s husband Frank had died in 1904, but I know that she eventually ended her days in Blackpool.

And Beatrice… I suspect that whether she knew it or not, by this time she was already in the grip of the dreadful disease (TB) which would eventually end her life. Cousin Steve showed me a letter written by George after Beatrice had passed away in which he mentions that the first time Beatrice left home to be admitted to hospital was five years to the day prior to her funeral. Five years! If that’s true, then by the end of this year, the year of their Blackpool holiday, Beatrice would have started the long slow decline towards her demise.

Which makes these photographs all the more poignant and precious to me. I’d like to end this post by sharing some more of them with you.

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The Ties that Bind – a love story for Valentine’s Day

These characters are fictional, any similarity to any persons, living or dead, is probably intentional…

The scene is an old fashioned hospital ward with high ceilings, big windows and curtain rails above each bed. It is mid-February, but a weak winter sun lights up the room. It is quiet, a lull in the middle of the afternoon. The only sounds are the quiet beeping of a monitor and the low murmuring of some staff at the nurses’ station. There is a rumble of distant traffic.

There are about 10 beds, only a few with any occupants. All are asleep or unconscious.

Three women sit by one of the occupied beds, Molly’s bed. One holds the old lady’s hand, the other two are talking quietly, heads close together.

There are some more figures around the bed, but none of the living can see them.

BRIDGET: Come on here Maeve, what the hell are you doing over there? Let that poor boy die in peace.

MAEVE: But he’s got no-one Bree, he’s confused, like our wee cousin Paddy, remember him? His name is Simon, surely it wouldn’t do any harm to just hold his hand until his Ma and Da come? I heard that nurse say they’re on the way. That one, with the red hair.

BRIDGET: Oh, bring him over here then, but stay behind me, I don’t want him confusing poor Molly. It’ll not be long now, maybe once Christine and Frances get here.

MAEVE: Oh, are they coming then?

BRIDGET: Audrey got a text message, they’re on the way from the station now. Which you’d know if you weren’t so busy poking your nose in other peoples’ business.

LIAM: Girls! We’re supposed to be here for Molly, not bickering like children.

MAEVE: Ah Liam, you always were the peacemaker. Sorry Bree. What about the grandkids, will they be here, and the little ones?

BRIDGET: Honestly Maeve you’ve a head like a sieve! The boys were here yesterday, don’t you remember? And the girls brought the wee ones in last week.

MAEVE: Ah, was that yesterday? I DO remember, it’s just this time thing, it’s a bit hard to get used to when you’ve come back from eternity. Those boys are fine young men, sure, one of them even has a tattoo.

LIAM: Ah, that’ll be young Joe, Vera’s boy, did you see the muscles on him? He’ll soon be rowing for the University I wouldn’t wonder. Or boxing.

MAEVE: Oh no, Vera wouldn’t like that, I think.

BRIDGET: Well Vera will just have to lump it. And who cares what YOU think anyway? You always did want to be the centre of attention, right from when you were a child. Ma and Da were far too soft on you.

MA and DA: No we weren’t!

MA: She was poorly as a baby. She was the wee lamb you needed to wrap in a blanket and feed with milk drop by drop.

BRIDGET: Ahh, maybe so, but she could always wrap you round her little finger so she could! She was the favourite.

LIAM: No, Da’s favourite was always Molly, remember how he’d always take her with him to mend the walls?

SIMON (whispering to Maeve): Is that your Mum and Dad? How come? You seem so… sorry… old. And they seem younger. I don’t understand.

MAEVE: Yes, that’s me Ma, and me Da. They died when they were a lot younger than me. I was older when I passed. You see?

SIMON: No, not really. They died? You died? And me? Did I die?

MAEVE: Yes son, you were in a crash, don’t you remember? Your motorbike? I heard the doc telling the nurses, massive brain trauma they said, no chance of survival, and sure enough you just slipped away before they could even stick a needle in you. Look that’s you over there, they drew the curtains around you when you stopped breathing.

SIMON: That’s…me? I don’t remember anything. I want to see.

MAEVE: They’re just waiting for your Ma and Da to get here and then a porter will take you to the Mortuary. You can go in and look – just pass through them curtains, that’s it.

GRANNY: Hello Simon

SIMON: Granny? But, but…

GRANNY: Come here my lovely boy, let me give you a hug. We’re just waiting for Betty and Alan so you can say good bye, I heard that red-haired nurse say they were stuck in traffic.

SIMON: Mum and Dad? But, Granny! You’re… I mean, I was at your funeral… is that really you? You’re just the same as I remember you, you even smell the same. You feel like granny. Mum and Dad, will… Will they see you?

GRANNY: It’s only spirits that can see spirits Simon. But we will all meet up again, eventually.

MAEVE: I’m away back to Molly now Simon, you’ll be fine now your gran’s come.

SIMON: Thanks Maeve, for helping me understand.  And Molly, is she…?

MAEVE: My sister, she called to us. It’s the ties that bind, you see, the blood ties. And the one true love, of course – that’s yer man there at her head. Jack. She’s missed him every day for 30 years. And he’s missed her too, and all the family. He’d have loved to have been a great grandad, there’s nine little ones now you know.

SIMON: Why are there so many of you here? I’ve just got Granny.

MAEVE: Ah sure, her passing’s not been as sudden as yours, she had a big stroke and she’s been unconscious for a month and more. And she’s a very old lady, the oldest of us. 95.  Her mind has been wandering all over the place for years. She’s even forgotten the house she lived in for 50 years. Her thoughts just go back to Ireland, and to Jack.

Ah, here’s Frances and Christine arriving at last. I need to be there, Molly will maybe be able to let go now. You can come back over and watch if you like…

SIMON: Granny? Do you mind…?

GRANNY: Away you go, I’ll just stay here and watch over you until your parents get here.

SIMON: I’m sorry, Granny, I guess you’re not supposed to die when you’re only 19.

GRANNY: Things are as they are Simon. And I have you now, it’s Betty and Alan who have lost you, who have to say goodbye to their child.

There is a murmur of voices as Vera, Audrey and Lizzie greet Christine and Frances.

LIAM: Look, she’s stirring a little, I think she can feel those kisses on her cheeks.

MAEVE: And the tears.

BRIDGET: Come to us Molly, we’re waiting for you, dear sister.

MOLLY: Bridget? But…

LIAM and MAEVE: Hello Molly.

MOLLY: Liam! Maeve! And Mam and Da! I’ve been dreaming about you all.

And Jack! My poor dear Jack!

JACK: You’ve been asleep a long time darling Molly, but now the girls have set you free, free to fly to me again. Look at them, they’re holding hands just like they did when they were children.

MOLLY: Oh Jack, have you been there this whole time? Look at poor Lizzie, she looks worn out.

JACK: She’s come here faithfully first thing every morning and sat with you all day. And Vera and Audrey have come after work and made her rest and eat. And Frances and Christine would come up from London when they could.

MOLLY: Our girls, so full of love. They’ve always made us proud. And Jack, we have grandchildren, and they have children.

JACK: I know Molly, I’ve only ever been a whisper away from you, and now you’ve come back to me.

MOLLY: Oh, but I’ve got so old, so very old!

JACK: Nothing like that matters any more my darling. And anyway, you are the same to me as that day we first met. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, in life and in death. I loved you then and I love you now and I will love you forever.

MOLLY: Oh Jack….

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Travels with my Parents – Dad, part 2

I’m not sure exactly when John returned home after his War service. He was discharged from the RAF in June of ’46 and I don’t think he went straight back to Fort William, but worked in Glasgow for a while. If you’ve been following this narrative, you’ll remember that the story goes that John and Nellie met at 50 High Street when he came home from the war, and fell in love more or less at first sight. I think this must have been 1948 or 49. But it does seem rather odd to me that I’ve not been able to find any pictures of them together, in what must have been their courting days. The only clue I have is this snap of John, inscribed on the back “To dearest Nellie. With all my love. – John. 7th Dec ’50”

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You can be sure I’ll keep digging! But, I’ve diverted myself, this is supposed to be the story of John’s further travels around the world and how he came to join the Merchant Navy.  It seems kind of obvious that John didn’t really have much of a clue as to what he was going to do with life as a civilian. He hadn’t been to college or university, in fact by all accounts his secondary education hadn’t been a great success, as he kept running away from school (he was sent away to be educated by the monks at Fort Augustus). He doesn’t seem to have ever shown any interest in becoming a chemist like his father or joining the family business, or maybe it was that George didn’t encourage him, who can tell? I do know that Dad used to complain that here he was, home from war and being treated like an errand boy. Not a happy situation.

Anyway, the one thing John WAS trained for was radio telegraphy, so, probably prompted by Nellie, he eventually went on a course to convert that RAF training into a “proper” qualification that he could use in civilian life. My understanding is that paying for a land-based certificate was just out of reach of their modest resources, so he went for the “pre-sea” one provided by the Ministry of Transport, which of course meant that he was all set for a life on the ocean wave. (You can click on these pictures if you want to read them better.)

John joined the Merchant Navy on the 28th of November 1952, and spent the next five years serving on ships throughout the world: the SS Lismora, Salveda, Pendeen, British Lancer, Olympic Mariner, Kaladan, Bhamo – names which conjure up a certain romantic image of the seafaring life. But in truth this is a life of charts and routines and regulations, of long periods at sea and short shore leaves… fortunately all brought to life for us in John’s photographs. Here’s the first page of his Merchant Navy album. As you can see, it hasn’t taken him long to acquire a distinctly nautical look!

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The Salveda was John’s second vessel and was a salvage steamer. Others were tankers or cargo ships, engaged in the post war boom in international trade. In some ways it was the final hurrah for these craft before they were superseded in the mid fifties by much larger container ships which would see the process of globalization begin in earnest.

These voyages took John all over the world, from Russia and the fjords of Norway in the north, west to Canada, south to Africa and Venezuela, and east to Burma, with many, many ports along the way. Here’s just a sample:

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Of course trips ashore punctuated much longer periods at sea, so naturally there are also pages and pages of photographs of shipboard life. I think I can remember my Dad teaching us this clapping song A sailor went to sea, sea, sea / To see what he could see, see, see / But all that he could see, see, see / Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea. – which of course he know from experience!

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Again, there is that sense of the crew being in a kind of reality bubble, forming their own makeshift family unit during those months-long voyages. But, unlike the RAF years, this time, John DID have someone waiting for him at home – the faithful Nellie. I can’t look at these pictures and read John’s discharge book (listing all the voyages) without also thinking about what would have been happening back home while he was thousands of miles away, and it makes you realise what a very divided kind of existence this was.

Nellie Pendeen

When John and Nellie married in Glasgow on 18 March 1953, John had been home from sea for 5 or 6 days, and departed to take up a new post a mere 4 days later. He spent the rest of the year on board the SS Pendeen with only a day or two between voyages, so Nellie travelled south and visited the ship at Surrey docks – this photo is dated 25 September ’53. I wonder if she had come to tell him that she was 5 months pregnant! They would have spent that Christmas together as there’s no voyage noted between 24 December and 7 January. At that time their home was a flat in Pollokshaws Road, near Queen’s Park in Glasgow and I think that at least until they were married Nellie was working as a housekeeper.

queens park

John was probably in the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea when I was born on 24 January 1954, so this picture dated 25 March probably marks the first time he would have met me, aged 2 months. It must have been a flying visit as his ship, the British Lancer, was due to set sail the next day. There was another short visit in June (more pictures of Queen’s Park!), but most of 1954 and half of ’55 was spent traversing the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. And then, when he had a 10-day break in March ’55, John bought the flat at 31 Rathlin Street, Govan which would become our family home for the next 7 or 8 years. John headed off on a long voyage to Venezuela at the end of March, so I’m thinking that it wasn’t until he came home in September that we would have moved to Govan. That September also saw us travelling to Ireland, no doubt so that Nellie could show off her handsome husband and baby daughter to her family.

ann and deckchair

Then followed a rather longer period of domesticity, as John didn’t return to sea until the following July, which means that he would have been around for Nellie’s second pregnancy and the birth of my sister Ann on 23 June. After that he went back to sea and spent the rest of 1956 on several voyages to Africa: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana. Whenever he came home John would bring exotic souvenirs – elaborately carved tables and boxes, an inlaid tray, an ebony carved head of an African man, toy camels made of leather. This picture shows Ann, nearly two, sitting on one of a pair of deckchairs he brought back from somewhere. Our flat in Rathlin Street was tiny, but there was always room for another artifact, becoming an integral part of our childhoods and which we shared between us when it came time to divide the contents of the family home almost 60 years later. These are my ornamental carved spears.

spears

Going back to our timeline, there was a family holiday in Fort William in June ’57, when Nellie must have been expecting again, though this time, John went back to sea until about 10 days before the birth of Mary on 28 November. With three children and a wife who was spending long periods essentially as a single parent, something had to give, and the next year, 1958, saw John’s final voyages, on the MV Bhamo. Looking more carefully at this page from our family album, I now realise that these pictures show John’s two eldest daughters making a farewell visit to his ship.

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John’s last voyage was to Burma, where he took these pictures of some pagodas in Rangoon. They didn’t made it into the album – I found them in an envelope marked “to be entered”. Maybe he just never had the heart…

I am unashamed to say that I’ve always regarded my Dad as something of a hero – I guess I’m not alone in that! Whenever I watch old war movies such as The Dambusters or The Guns of Navarone, there he is being played by Gregory Peck or David Niven or Richard Todd. I only have to hear the first few bars of 633 Squadron to conjure him up, clear as day. Yet I don’t even remember that period when he was away so much. I’ve been told that I used to refer to this tall, handsome person who drifted in and out of family life as “the man”.  What I do remember is a steadfast, dependable presence who would hold your little hand in his big one and make you feel safe.

John plainly loved his life at sea, as he did his days in the RAF. But in the end he loved his family more and as far as I am concerned the most heroic thing he ever did was to put it all behind him, come home and don the uniform of a bus driver. It wasn’t an easy choice, in fact in weak moments he would refer to the “sacrifice” he’d made.  Surely that’s what courage is. To be faced with perilous uncertainty and do it anyway.