We are grateful to Jack Pridham who spent his childhood years in Thornbury and wrote a book called ‘The Handiest Man in Gloucestershire’ dedicated to the memory of his father, Bert Pridham.
In this extract he describes his father and their joint exploits. You can read other extracts of Jack’s memoirs by clicking on the links in the left hand column. We also have some factual information about Bert which supplements what Jack has written – click here to read more
Father’s complicated life history coupled, no doubt, with his affable personality and technical ability allowed him to feel comfortable with and be accepted by all levels of the local society. He was the son of a tailor, a respected occupation, and was brought up by his grandfather who had unofficially been awarded the honorary title of ‘Dr’ by the townsfolk because of his excellent, but improper and probably illegal services to medicine! (for an explanation of this statement please read our page on John Evomy Phelps – click here). On the other side of the coin, he was a Council School boy who had left school at the statutory age of 14 and went into an apprenticeship, first at Lister’s foundry in Dursley casting engine parts, and then at the Parnall Aircraft Company at Yate as an electrician. One can speculate that in her early relationship with father, my mother to be, would have been classified by father’s mates as someone from the ‘other side of the track’ and this may well have placed him in a social no man’s land. There were clear indications that as a young man, father did not play a full part in the ‘laddish’ activities that would have certainly presented themselves. Furthermore, he was a dilettante with an intensely inquiring mind, who without doubt, would have engaged in all kinds of constructive (and sometimes destructive) activities that would have kept him off the streets and, perhaps, made him appear to be aloof.
Pure speculation allows me to link the Grace clan and father’s job with Francis Grace. Might father have been eased into ‘F H Grace enterprises’ because of the original Phelps / E. M. Grace relationship and the fact that F. H. Grace was the son of E. M. ? The material for a new ‘soap’ is all there! It is clear, however, that father did not rely entirely on a ‘nod and a wink’ to ensure being taken on in the early 1920s as the hired hand. His experience in engineering and electrical work would have been attractive to an employer like F.H. Grace with fingers in several technical pies. No doubt father learned a great deal from ‘The Boss’ who had professional qualifications in the electrical trade. Father probably scored when it came to all round practical ability and Francis was the man with vision and theoretical knowledge. There was mutual respect between the two men, they were a good team in all respects and I often watched them interact.
In a nutshell, father was employed in the ‘firm’ as a general factotem and was expected to fix anything – just anything at anytime – that needed fixing in the wide range of industrial and commercial activities that “The Boss” controlled. In no way could this have been described as a boring job and most of the time the challenges were welcomed; father thrived on variety and a job well done!
The Brick Works
The sections of the Grace/Cullimore empire that he had least to do with was the Thornbury Brick & Tile Works, abbreviated to “the brick works” by the locals, and the ‘Gas Works’. The former was at the eastern boundary of Blakes and separated from it by a stream that wound its way across the north of the town towards the Severn. It was an intriguing place partly because I rarely visited it and because the red mounds of clay could be seen from Blakes together with an occasional sighting of the mini railroad which was used to collect the clay from the clay pits. In my imagination the whole scene was a miniature mountain range. If one slipped through the fence at a weekend, as we sometimes did, a ‘mountain lake’ was also visible – a deep blue pond when the clay suspension had settled, with steep sides inhabited by large newts and bright blue dragon flies hovering over the surface of the water. There were parental warnings that you could drown in this pond and on a hot day it was frustrating not to be able to take a quick dip!
Father and I only visited the brick works together on two or three occasions to carry out repairs: it must have been to look at the electrical equipment – I don’t remember – I was too busy gazing at men making tiles by hand and the moving brick production line which was somewhat more automated. Then there were the kilns – the igloo-like ovens: some of them were open with their contents cooling down and others were sealed and operating at something like 1000°C for several days to bake the clay. (click here to read our page about the brickworks)
The Gas Company
Other oven-like structures were once in a while, available for inspection in what was locally known as Gas House Lane (now Park Road). This was an extension of Church Road where the straight highway passing The Parks suddenly developed a kink as if it objected to the rather sordid premises belonging to the Thornbury Gas Light & Coke Co that were located there. This town gas facility was tucked away in a hollow and unlike most of its exposed, big city brothers, could not be used by motorists as a ‘signpost’ that the town was nigh. It did possess a ‘tallish’ chimney and two small, red leaded gasometers, one raised and charged with gas and the other down and empty, but these structures did not dominate the surrounds. The ovens in this case were stoked with coal brought in from South Wales by the Midland Railway, by shift workers with bandannas to keep the sweat out of their eyes. This gasification process converted coal to coke which was sold to foundries to make steel and may have been the most valuable product from the operation. What happened to the coal tar and the volatile liquid products I am not sure: I suspect that the latter joined the gas in the atmosphere and the former may have found its way on to the roads. Most of the coal gas was pumped along lead pipes into the town but significant amounts of it escaped into the locality – much of it into Gas House Lane! The most memorable occasion at the gas works for me was the weekend when father and the Gas Works staff, all two of them, shut down the facility so that the ‘gas pumps’ could be overhauled.
I was on a kind of balcony looking down on the men in the oven area: the smell was overpowering where I was standing as the gas leaked back from the mains. How those below with ‘scarves’ over their faces survived the toxic fumes is hard to understand. No Health & Safety Inspectors were on hand to oversee the work or Unions to protest but all survived to boast later of their achievements. Incidentally, there was a common belief that children with whooping cough profited if they were subjected to the fumes from the Gas Works! (click here to read our page about the gas works)
The Electric Company
Gas House Lane, probably with a sigh of relief, straightened up after the Gas Works and went north passing Mr Bryant’s attractive carboniferous limestone house which contained his two attractive daughters! The latter were never really integrated into the social structure of the town, much to the disgust of many local youths, but they could be seen and even talked to through the large iron gates behind which they were incarcerated. Mr Bryant, a gentleman in the true sense of the word, owned the grain mill at the end of the road which was originally powered by water from the Mill Pond. The mill was later upgraded by the Thornbury & District Electricity Co. Ltd (T & D E C Ltd) and the water power made redundant. Gas House Lane exited at the Anchor pub on to the Gloucester Road.
The T D E C Ltd was really the concern that ruled our lives. Father spent 90% of his time with amps, volts and watts – spreading them around or containing them. At the beginning of his career with Francis Grace he did absolutely everything from collecting the shillings from the coin-operated meters which at the time, was the method used to measure electricity consumption in most homes, through wiring up houses to repairing breaks in the high tension lines that fed electrons into the town.
Our electricity came to us from the National Grid, a high voltage supply brought in on pylons to Grovesend, the hill to the east overlooking the town. Here father, with some help, had constructed an electrical sub-station, out of Thornbury bricks, and installed a humming transformer which reduced what I believe was, a 32,000 volt incoming supply to 600 volts which could be fed more safely down the hill to the town: eventually this was reduced again to 240 volts for use by the householders. This, of course, was the new fangled alternating current (AC) electricity. Prior to that, the Saw Mills gas engine, with which father had some involvement, had generated direct current (DC) which provided light for just a few of the locals. Transmission of DC with its unreliable Saw Mills supply, over long distances was more expensive and more dangerous than AC, hence the need for change to the more modern alternating variety.
Up until the late 30s / early 40s Thornbury’s street lighting was ‘gas-driven; the lamp-lighter with a ladder and a flame on the end of a long stick lived in an almshouse at the bottom of ‘Back Street’. The light was romantic but inadequate; there was no way that you could read the Thornbury Gazette or Health & Efficiency, unless you stood right under the glowing mantle. The gas lights on their cast-iron standards were eventually all replaced by electric lights on wooden telegraph poles – by father and his electrician’s mate. These lights were automatically controlled in groups by Smith’s clocks: the chore of the lamp lighter was therefore replaced by that of the clock winder – again, father! I think it was a weekly job and the complaints came flooding in if street lights did not come on at the requisite time. All the clocks had to be adjusted to fit in with changes in daylight saving time, of course, and, all in all, significant numbers of man hours were spent illuminating the highways and byways for Thornburians – but it all came out of the Rates!
If my memory serves me correctly, father spent most of his time either in holes or up poles. In the countryside much of the low power transmission was achieved by wires on poles which had to be serviced and connections made to new customers. Sometimes this required an additional pole or even a line of poles in which case father’s mate (at one time Frank Holpin) would wield the pick and crowbar and father, as the senior person, would shovel to make the deep but narrow post holes. These excavations were very difficult in town where there was solid rock everywhere and the company had no power tools.
Father’s other helpers at various times included Jim Knapp and Henry Court who together with Frank Holpin were all as different as chalk from cheese. Frank was dark and wiry – a very basic, likeable person, always joking and, in his spare time, drinking. Henry, on the other hand, was cultured and well-spoken; I think he was a boarding-school boy who as far as careers were concerned, probably disappointed his father, the Vicar of Littleton-on-Severn. Henry was drafted into the RAF during the war but returned to the ‘firm’ after his demob and later started his own retail business. This leaves Jim Knapp who was probably father’s earliest co-worker and had joined the T.& D. E. Co. Ltd with considerable electrical experience. Jim in his later life, had a potentially lethal accident whilst working for the ‘firm’. Father was steadying a ladder when Jim who was working at the top of a pole, received an electric shock and could not remove his hand from the wire. Father acted quickly and released him from almost certain electrocution by striking his arm with a heavy implement of some description! The poor man who developed a facial twitch, was off work for several months and eventually had to resign as a result of loss of confidence and mental depression.
The ‘aerial work’, I remember, included ‘walking the line’ when the main power supply or some major part of the network had failed. There would be a loud knock at the door and a distraught ‘Boss’ would stride into the passage before anyone had time to respond to the incursion. “Incursion” is perhaps the wrong word as utility workers in a small company, particularly in wartime, were aware that they were never off-duty and no one was really offended by his time-honoured mode of entry. The nature of the emergency would be relayed succinctly to father who was as well acquainted with the intricacies of the Thornbury electrical distribution system as a Cockney taxi driver would be with a map of London. In the de pths of winter the line inspection sometimes resulted in father trudging through deep snow for the best part of a day on Vilner Hill or some other such area of desolation. Nowadays, a helicopter would be on call. Mr Grace, who by now had become elderly, rarely volunteered for fieldwork of this sort but manned the enquiry desk probably from the comforts of his home at “The Shen” off the Gloucester Road. At the end of the war, the Thornbury electrical utility was sold out to a much larger, Gloucestershire company, the name of which escapes me, and this was later nationalised by the, then, new Labour government and became part of the Midlands Electricity Board (MEB). At about the same time, the Thornbury Gas Light & Coke Company was also taken over by a Bristol supplier and the Gas Works was abandoned apart from the gasometers which were still used as storage facilities. As far as father was concerned these transactions changed little although I believe that his pay packet became a cheque and his stipend grew. As far as the town was concerned the supplies of both commodities were stabilised. The domestic gas supply had been particularly poor during the war and when wives were cooking Sunday lunch and the demand was high it would all but fail and the meal of the week would often encroach on tea-time. “Water in the pipes”, was alleged to be the problem!
As father entered the ‘golden age ‘of his career he was officially elevated to a MEB Charge Hand Electrician which he did not enjoy and would have strongly resisted the next step up to Foreman! His work now became more specialised: more expensive electrical connections were being made underground, for aesthetic reasons, and father became a cable jointer. Later he was sent on an extended course to Birmingham, where mother joined him for a while, to master high tension jointing, a highly skilled occupation where failure could black-out large areas of the country with serious health and economic consequences. The Midlands Electricity Board brought the unions to our doorstep and for a time, father became an ‘enemy of the bosses’ but this state of mind did not last for long. He noticed that with the Electrical Trades Union came laziness and acrimony and that his golden rule of “a good days work for a good days pay” (and the pay by then was good!) was being broken too often.
During the last few years of employment father was pulled back into the MEB headquarters at Yate. Here he reverted to multiple skills, particularly carpentry, which had led the company in its 1950s magazine to ask the question, “Want anything done?” to which the answer was, “Albert’s the man – the handiest man in Gloucestershire”. Nowhere else, apart from birth and marriage certificates, was “Albert” ever called Albert, by the way! (click here to read our page on the electric company).
The Picture House
This leaves me to return to The Picture House and some of the most memorable things about life with father – in the cinema’s projection box!
(In the book Jack wrote a lot about Bert’s involvement in the cinema and the details were very similar to what he included in another document specifically about the cinema. Click here to read this document. Please contact us by email if anyone wants to read the full details as written by Jack in ‘The Handiest Man in Gloucestershire’.)
Helen Grace, Francis Grace’s formidable wife, took over The Picture House in the post Christmas periods insisting that she should produce pantomimes. Furthermore, she mustered many of the Grace workforce to help her. Father, with his electrical, woodworking and painting expertise and vestigial skills with explosives was needless to say, her leading aide. Everything else stopped during the frenzied panto’ season – which Helen Grace, because of her social position, felt duty bound to provide for the enjoyment and edification of the townsfolk. It was alleged that Mrs Grace as ‘panto’ director, was a bit of a dragon. She was the only member of her family that did not address father as “Bert” and as director it was always, “Pridham will do this” and, “Pridham will be able to cope with that”, but we only laughed about this. It was a hectic time and father found himself working at weekends and in the evenings in order to complete the production on time but he enjoyed it; he could use his initiative and let his imagination run wild when it came to designing sets and special effects.
I particularly remember the “Jack and the Beanstalk” production. At that time I think I may have believed that giants were possible and I was happy to go along with the idea that a plant might be able to climb up into an alternative world. By the time the preparations were complete, however, I think I had lost my faith in fairy stories as the adults around me demonstrated that there was nothing in life that was really magical.
A lot of the work for the panto’ was carried out in grandfather’s lean-to shed in the garden. The Giant’s furniture was made there – a large table and a large chair the seat of which was high above my head. No Giant was ever seen on stage using this furniture – there was no one in the town large enough to occupy it – but when ordinary sized people like Jack, stood against the chair the younger audience believed that the real owner was a Giant who must have been somewhere in the vicinity! In fact, he could be heard in the background saying, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman”! Did Jack ever appear with the Giant? I do not remember – it would have given the Director a problem!
Back at The Picture House, father had to raise the stage for the ‘panto’; for the ‘flicks’ it was OK, the screen was raised, but for stage shows, which were normally held in the Cossham Hall, the slope on the cinema floor was just not right. The lighting for the panto’ was very primitive and in the early days dimming and raising, in father’s hands, was achieved by the use of pots of saline into which two wires in the electrical circuit were dipped and moved close together for maximum light and far apart for minimum. The pots often boiled! How he achieved his ‘flashes and bangs’ when the Genie appeared in “Aladdin”, without catching fire to the curtains (and there was no fire curtain), I have no idea, but I am sure today’s Health & Safety inspectors would have closed the show down. In the 21st century, Mrs Grace would have had to employ a qualified pyrotechnician, otherwise known as a pyromaniac under control!
So much for Mrs Grace, but there was also the highly energised son, Edmond, with whom father collaborated from time to time. Their biggest project was to build a motor boat – from scratch! This was also carried out in grandfather’s lean-to which was filled to capacity for about 12 months. The timber for the main structure was elm from the Saw Mills and this frame was covered with plywood and the caulking between the plywood sheets was somehow achieved with medical bandages soaked in red lead paint! Again, as with the pyrotechnics, I am not sure how this worked. The boat was about 15 feet long with a flat bottom (which I did not approve of) and its power unit was a ‘high-tech’, Austin 7 engine complete with gearbox and clutch with the steering wheel linked to the rudder. All in all, it was a splendid effort by the two men although it was not apparent why they had built it. It was probably on the whim of the younger Grace. Eventually, for its maiden voyage, it was towed to the Mill Pond at the bottom of Gloucester Road which was then somewhat larger than it is now, and despite its flat bottom, it completed several circuits successfully and did not capsize! It also coped with the ‘ocean’ in the pill at Oldbury-on-Severn (or was it Littleton?) but after that it disappeared and one wonders if it still exists in someone’s old shed or garage!
Father’s other marine interests extended to trips on Campbell’s Steamers, a company that originally operated on the Clyde but made Bristol its headquarters in 1889 and became the P. & A. Campbell White Funnel Line. These paddle steamers which were commandeered for service in both World Wars, took day trippers from the Hotwells pier in Bristol to various destinations in Somerset, Devon (6 million passengers sailed to Ilfracombe between 1896 and 1959) and South Wales and in the summer even ventured around to the South Coast on longer voyages. Going across the Bristol Channel to South Wales and being almost out of sight of land or sailing further to North Devon was a great adventure for a child at that time. Today’s equivalent might be crossing the Atlantic which although taking much longer would be far more comfortable in a modern stabilised cruise ship.
Father went on several of these trips with his friends in the fire brigade. Their usual destination was Lundy Island which could just be achieved in a day and if the sea was not too choppy it was sometimes possible to disembark. These ships with their flat bottoms that were required to negotiate the shallows, were very sea worthy but even at the lowest forces on the Beaufort Wind Scale they rolled terribly to the detriment of many who thought they were sailors. Father came home with tales of ‘mighty storms’ where comrades had lost their stomach contents, particularly those who had filled up with duty free Watneys’ Pale Ale or Georges Best Bitter! I think he exaggerated somewhat but the rest of the family was suitably intimidated and it was a long time before it was possible to entice mother on to the S.S. Waverley or any other ships of the line. Eventually, she was persuaded to go on an evening cruise along the Somerset coast to Weston-super-Mare with views of Steepholm and Flatholm which she enjoyed. The nautical miles were extended slowly over the summer and she was finally press-ganged into going on a day trip to Lundy which to say the least, was not a success; we could not land on the island and with a wind of about force 4, mother with a face which was greeny-grey in colour was confined to the fresh air of the upper deck. Well, for most of the time: in fact she did abandon her position amidships rather quickly when someone up-wind had an unfortunate accident and covered my newish, blue gaberdine raincoat with undigested tomatoes! A member of the crew kindly put a bucket over the side in order that I might wash myself down with sea water. The incident left no obvious residues on the coat but, as is apparent, it did stain the brain!
Father’s personal involvement with the Severn, apart from ‘Campbell’s trips’, was knowing the only person in memory who had swum right across the river; his name was Mr Perry, a hunk of a man who I think, worked at Littleton Brick Works. In addition, after constructing the motor boat, father went on to make a large canvas canoe with which he acquired some experience of ‘pill paddling’ but more often, he was to be found at weekends on his feet, scrabbling across the Black Rocks at Aust over which the first Severn Bridge now passes. He was a keen conger eel fisherman, a sport where knowledge of the river was essential. The slippery island of rocks overlooking the deep water was only exposed at low tides for a short periods and it was crucial to leave at exactly the right time as the flooding tide came around the back and could easily cut off those who lingered. Congers were caught on thick one eighth inch rope lines with heavy lead weights using 3 or 4 inch barbed hooks baited with lug worms that had been dug up from the beach. The conger catch varied from zero to three; more would have been difficult to carry 7 miles home on a‘bike’. Some of the eels were very large, up to, say, 5ft in length and 6 inches in girth. They barked and with rows of backward-sloping, needle-sharp teeth they were quite dangerous and needed to be stunned quickly by a blow to the head when they were lifted out of the water. A wooden cudgel was carried for this purpose as was a sheaf knife for the final dispatch of the animal and removing hooks. I attended on one or two occasions but more often stayed at home wondering with my mother if his late appearance for Sunday dinner was because he had been caught by the tide or eaten by a conger!
Other fish in the river were of little interest to father; it was so difficult to catch them. (Amongst those that were certainly not catchable, were occasional schools of porpoises and in 1885, when grandfather Symes was a child, a 65ft whale was stranded at Littleton). However, Albert James did pay attention to the fresh water fish in local canals, lakes and small rivers and he spent much of his leisure time trying to catch roach and bream but more often caught unspectacular gudgeon. Not terribly exciting fishing and the catch was neither large in number nor in size, in fact most were usually returned from whence they came. Father particularly enjoyed fishing competitions at Purton on the Sharpness-Gloucester Ship Canal, usually on a Sunday, where he would sit all day reeling in ‘tiddlers’ which were barely large enough to be retained by his keep-net, but always anticipating the big one which was there, of course, -– somewhere! At the end of the day there was the weigh-in and success brought him a great deal of pleasure. Coarse fishing is the poor relation of trout and salmon fishing, the more spectacular branches of the sport requiring special skills practised by those with money to spare. However, the version favoured by the impoverished demands immense amounts of patience and concentration to detect that small movement of the float and to decide whether the causal agent is a minnow or a ripple on the water. Other favourite venues for father’s pursuit were the Little Avon, a pretty stream lined with willow trees near to Berkeley Castle and Tortworth Lake on what was Earl Ducie’s estate which was well stocked with pike, a game fish which fought like a mini-marlin. Trout streams did not exist in our area.
Father made a lot of his own fishing equipment including an elegant, brazed, live bait can of galvanised iron, a river bank stool doubling as an equipment storage locker, large weights from scrap lead stripped from old electrical cable , multi-coloured flies and most of his floats from corks or feather quills found on his travels. He also made several multi-sectioned fishing rods with cork-lined hand grips, brass male/female joints; all of the ‘eyes’ which carried the fishing line were carefully lashed into position and glued and varnished. The top section of the rods had to be made of ‘greenheart’, a wood with strong, springy properties from South America although where it came from in Thornbury I have no idea. Lastly, live maggots are, of course, one of the best baits for coarse fishing so, needless to say, father was engaged in unsavoury maggot breeding in tins containing bran and decaying scrap meat. Incidentally, maggots were commonly held in the mouth prior to putting them on the hooks! This disgusting display was enjoyed by the macho members of the angling fraternity and tolerated by their wives and others – until some entrepreneur decided to offer dyed maggots to attract more fish. Soon after their introduction, there began to be reports of lip cancer amongst fishermen: a carcinogenic azo dye had been used to produce the pink larvae!
Reference has already been made to father providing flashes and bangs for the local pantomime and before that it was alleged that he had developed a chemical means of lighting the fire downstairs in the morning without getting out of bed! The technique involved dropping concentrated acid on to a mixture of sugar and potassium chlorate in the bottom of the fireplace; this produced flames which ignited the pre-laid fire of paper, wood and coal above. The acid was tipped from a container on to the chemicals by a thread which passed upstairs and was fixed to a spindle attached to the alarm-winding mechanism on the bedside clock. When the alarm rang the spindle turned and the thread was pulled – and as father might have said, “Bob’s your uncle”! Although all of this is theoretically possible, there is a probability that this story deviated slightly from the truth as it passed from the time of conception to the time that it came to me. There are questions that the inventor of this process should have been asked, not least, what happened to all that acid splashing around the grate. It is not a procedure that could be recommended and, thankfully, it was superseded first by Uncle George’s paper fire lighters, and then some years later, the splendid gas poker – but in both cases it was necessary to get out of bed!
The origins of father’s interest in chemistry are not known. Mrs Grace may have driven him to it or perhaps it was curiosity regarding explosives: a WWI H.E.aerial bomb at one time hung in the hall and later, an incendiary!! It became clear to me at a very early age that he was knowledgeable about gunpowder, which he obtained by dissecting Ely-Kynoch cartridges, and cordite which came out in thin threads from small-bore Army rounds. It was also known that in his early years, probably as an apprentice with access to sophisticated tools, he converted a blank-firing starting pistol to one that fired 0.22 ammunition! He subsequently shot himself in the wrist and the bullet penetrated to the elbow! (At this point it might be remembered that he also used a spent round as the handle for a stiletto that he had fashioned: this he managed to push into his thumb and set up an inflammatory condition which eventually led to surgery and loss of the top joint).
Father’s workshop products came in all shapes and sizes and included a brass steam engine with a ‘pipe boiler’ – which was a difficult brazing task. Not to be outdone, I also made a steam engine which actually worked using compressed air; no doubt with steam one would have been better able to see the ill-fitting components! Houses of the day contained lots of shining brass particularly around fire places where containers for the various fire-irons were often made from large calibre, shell cases. Father made these and decorated them with pictures of leaves made by coating the shell case in candle wax, drawing the leaves in with a metal stylus and then pouring on concentrated nitric acid to permanently etch the brass. One of the fire-irons in our shining 3.7 inch anti-aircraft shell was a poker which father had made from a Napoleonic bayonet: this weapon which triggered the imagination and was much loved, spent more of its time with me than in its container or in the fire. Another brass item stood on the mantelpiece the forerunner of which was one of father’s party-pieces, the ‘match canon’. This was made by wrapping tin foil around the ‘business end’ of a match and heating it with a second lighted match. With a pop and a puff of smoke the small wooden missile would traverse the room! The canon on the mantelpiece which father had turned and bored on the lathe rested on an oak gun-carriage except on the occasion it was tested and was charged with gunpowder and fired! (Other unwise demonstrations by father included smoking a cigarette backwards (you were asked to spot the smoke coming from the ears!), putting a lighted match into his mouth and lighting a pool of ‘meths’ in his hand! All had good scientific explanations but he may not have known them.
Opposite to the artillery shell on the hearth was a beautiful, polished oak coal scuttle with a carved lid and an interior galvanised zinc container all of which father had made. It sat there as an adornment and a symbol of technological accomplishment; it was never given the opportunity to embrace the ‘black diamond’ which spent its time in the company of the poor relation, the old galvanised coal bucket in the scullery!
Father attempted every technology that it was possible to attempt in a domestic environment. His first major construction which I can remember was an electric clock, 3 or 4 ft high, with a pendulum propelled by the coils from an old electric bell fitted with an on/off switching device. He wove multicoloured carpets, painted water colours, covered the walls with marquetry, ‘turned’ elaborate fruit bowels and made ornate walking sticks. Boats were put into bottles, model aeroplanes constructed and he built a sturdy wheelbarrow of elm. He invented a flame thrower to remove the weeds from the garden paths surrounding his fish pond that he had fitted with a fountain and made wine literally by the barrel-load (which he rarely drank) from dandelions, cowslips and elderberries. He tried to distil these but the yields were poor and in the same vein he distilled a perfume from lilac flower using a lead pipe as a condenser. Father was a photographer, a gardener, a plumber, a joiner and a cabinet-maker and when necessary and in his 70s, would fix the slates on our high roof. He would mend or renovate anything that came to hand – the more delicate the work the greater the challenge and the more he enjoyed it. The sad thing is that I now have little evidence of his endeavours: he had a tendency to give things away or to sell them in order to finance his next project.
I was privileged to have had such a father : he was my real inspiration, someone who endowed me with a curiosity which has led to a very full and interesting life. When father stood in front of the Pearly Gates he was undoubtedly told by St Peter to turn right towards Paradise – but he probably offered to fix the Gate before he went!