Declaration: This is a very long post.
John’s arrival into this world on a bitter February Day was not without difficulty. He weighed less than 1 Kilo, and his mother Clara was very ill at the time of his birth. Since this was 1920 there were no intensive care units, incubators or drips, etc. It was survival of the fittest.
The Midwife told Clara to “Have the child christened quick, as he was not long for this world”. Clara being so ill, she was unable to look after her first born and only child. She left his care to her sister Ellen, who took him home and as he was so frail and small, she removed a drawer from a chest of drawers and made a bed in it for John. He stayed with his Aunt for three or four months while his mother made a slow recovery.
His return home was not for long as Clara became ill again when John was 9 months old. It was back once more to Aunt Ellen’s for another long spell. Ellen with her husband Jim had a daughter Alice who was three years of age at that time. John forged a bond with this new family that lasted all his days. Ellen’s death occurred in her 103rd year, just 12 months before John died.
John finally returned to Blake’s Buildings the home of his Father and Mother. John’s father, Tom, was a coal miner as were most of the men in the family back through the generations.
No.1 Blake’s Buildings was an end of terrace house in a Mining Village in the North East of England. The house consisted of 2 bedrooms and a living room cum Kitchen. Water was carried from a tap in the yard. Coal was free for miner’s families, and the range supplied heat for the household, an oven for cooking, and where water was heated for washing dishes and for the Pitman’s bath.
There were no Pithead baths, so the miners returned home each day covered in a layer of coal dust. A tin bath was placed in front of the fire and the water boiled to fill it. In summer it would be in the yard.Clara had to scrub Tom’s back with Lifebuoy Soap to get rid of the Coal Dust.
Sample picture and not my in-laws
Oil and candles were used for light until electricity came to the village in the 1930’s. With only the Range for heat in the house, the bedrooms were not the most comfortable. Carpets on the floor were unheard of and the cold of the Linoleum underfoot would send shivers right through you. The frost on the window panes in winter was on the inside. The toilet was outside in the yard and there was no light in it.
The marriage certificate dated 18th August 1918 states that Clara was a Spinster and a shop assistant, Tom was a Batchelor, L/Corporal 3rd division of the Durham Light Infantry brackets (coal miner). They were both aged 21. Tom had survived his time in Arras, France during the World War One. So it was back from the darkness of war to the darkness of the mines.
Life for a mining family was tough in those days. Conditions were poor, no insurance against accident or industrial clothing. One day after school, John was at his homework while his mother went over to see his Grandmother who lived close by, there was a knock on the door and a couple of men from the mine asked if this was where Tom Parker lived.
“Yes!” said young John, adding “He is due home in a couple of minutes if you want to come in and wait for him” “We have him here” said the miner, pointing to a stretcher. Tom had been injured in a rock fall in the mine. They took Tom indoors and John ran to his Gran’s house to fetch his mother.
Each miner had a ‘Button’ or identity disc which he handed in at the beginning of a shift and collected when he returned to ground level. These buttons were collected and checked when disaster hit a mine and sometimes this was the only way they knew who was lost in an accident.
The miners worked in teams over a three week cycle. The coal seams were of three types. The best were dry and where the men could move and work freely in a standing position. This enabled them to cut plenty of coal so the wage was good for three weeks. The next type was worked in a sitting position and the third was hated as the men crawled along the seam and worked lying down. It was harder to produce coal in this position so the wage was much lower. If the seams were wet, the men were wet, the cold making the work more difficult and production lower.
John grew up a happy and healthy young lad, when not at home he was to be found at his Aunt Ellen’s. In fact it was his Aunt Ellen who chastised or corrected him when needed and not his own mother. Saturday nights were spent playing cards with his aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Clara was determined that ‘No son of hers would go down the mine’, so at 14 years of age John was job hunting.
He applied for a job in a local grocery shop and there were 3 applicants! Can you believe it Only Three Applicants! John was accurate and quick with mental arithmetic so the job became his. He was always tidy, punctual, cheerful and helpful and was well liked by all the customers. He often said “What I learned in that shop served me well all my days!”
After a year with an eye to new experience and more wages, he moved to work at a bakery 10 miles away. There was no public transport between the villages at that time, so he cycled to and from work each day. He was ready to begin at 7am. During the dark harsh winter months he lodged with the Bakery Manager’s family.
He saved his money and bought a motor cycle. He and two friends travelled about on their motorbikes and one year managed to go as far as Blackpool on the West Coast of England, for one week’s holiday. He was allowed to attend the local dances so long as his cousin Alice was with him. Aunt Ellen always quizzed Alice about ‘Our John’s’ behaviour.
When John was 17 the family moved from Blake’s Buildings to a new house at the other end of the village. This move made life easier for Clara. The house was semi-detached with 2 bedrooms, a living room, separate Kitchen, bathroom and indoor toilet. It had a garage and garden on three sides.
John saved his money and replaced the motorbike with a car, which was his pride and joy. It was a Morris 8 in maroon and black. He was always proud of the fact that there were only two other cars in the village at that time. The Doctor had one and the Solicitor had the other. He took his mother about to the surrounding towns in the car to shop and this pleased her very much.
Life for John was on an even keel until the outbreak of war. In 1940 he joined the Forces. In later life he teased that he joined up, so that he might have a choice of the softer boots in the Air Force. Had he waited he would have been conscripted and have no choice about which branch of the forces he was sent to.
The treasured Morris 8 was put up on blocks and John’s father was shown how to start the engine on a regular basis to keep everything in order.
John’s war took him on a World tour. After his initial training in various bases in England he spent a couple of months in Limavady, Northern Ireland. While there he met and fell in love with the girl who was later to become his first wife. All too soon he was sent abroad. He spoke with affection of a Christmas day spent on the beach in Durban, South Africa. Then came the real work, he was sent to India & Ceylon – now known as Sri Lanka.
His letters home were censored and his parents did not know for months on end where he was.
The final part of John’s war was in Burma – now known as Myanmar – where he was badly injured. His left leg was completely shattered and he lost 60% of his bone marrow. His homeward journey by ship took six weeks and was an experience not to be relived. Those ships were often referred to as coffin or suicide ships. Many a young man jumped overboard to avoid having to face a wife or family with only half a face or a shattered body.
The remainder of John’s war was spent in hospital. Amputation of his leg at hip level was suggested but John fought hard against it.
Bone was taken from his hip, very experimental surgery in those days, to build a bridge over the shattered bone in his leg. He was then put in plaster from his armpits to his left foot. He had two positions: either lying on his back or on his front; he was left in plaster like this for 14 months.
When the plaster was finally removed his left leg was almost 2 inches shorter than the right one and the knee would not move. Traction was tried for three weeks to force the knee to bend but it was not a success. (You have to remember that this was all experimental work back then, long before the micro surgery of today. Nowadays they replace hips and have you home in two or three days.)
Then followed a long spell of convalescence re-learning to walk.
John’s hospitalisation was in Sleaford, Lincolnshire; one hundred and fifty odd miles away from his home in County Durham. Today it would take over 3½ hours, the roads are much better, but back then John’s parents did not drive, his father was working and they were unable to make regular visits.
He was finally discharged from the Forces in 1947, seven years after he joined up. Home he came wearing the thick chalked striped demob suit. He carried the effects of war for the remainder of his life without complaint or a grumble.
All during the war the young soldiers, sailors and airmen were given pocket money when away on duty while their wages were paid to their wives if they were married. John had his wage paid to his mother and she chose to bank it for him. The sale of his treasured car and the money in the bank served as a good deposit for a house when he was discharged. He did need to borrow £200 pounds and his mother thought he was putting a noose around his neck borrowing such a large sum of money.
At this stage John married the young lady from Northern Ireland. He returned to life at the bakery for another 10 years working all the extra hours he could manage in order to pay off the loan. He described going to the bank with his £200 tucked under his arm, wrapped in brown paper. John learned to drive again, garden, paint, and climb ladders balancing on his right leg, you name it he tried it. Defeat was not a word in John’s Lexicon. No matter what trouble came his way, he could be heard to say: “Sure it could be worse, I might have had only one leg”!
In 1957 he changed jobs to work for an American Food Company as a sales Rep covering a territory on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne. It was what they called a ‘Foot Patch’ walking from corner shop to corner shop. In those days all the reps had to wear a suit, full length overcoat, trilby hat and gloves! After a couple of years he had the opportunity to move to the Belfast Branch at an increase of £1.00 per week, making his weekly pay £11.00. His wife was really pleased as she would once again be near her siblings.
A car came with the job in Belfast as the patch covered Co. Antrim and Co Down. The car was basic with no window washers or heater. John told the story of keeping a liquid soap container filled with water to clean the windscreen. This involved opening the window and squirting the liquid onto the windscreen while he was driving along.
I mentioned the lack of heating in the car. John told the story of a reps meeting one winter Friday afternoon. He was sitting in the office waiting for things to start when one of the other reps came into the room and sat opposite him. John was always very observant and noticed that this other man’s striped pyjamas were showing below the hem of his trouser legs when he sat down. He was wearing them to try and keep heat in his legs.
The move to Belfast was not all sunshine and roses for John, his parents came for a holiday, a first visit to Ireland, his mother had a stroke and died one week later. His father died within a year and his wife developed cancer. He nursed & cared for her while trying to keep his job going but eventually she died. After a year or so he remarried but fate intervened and cancer raised its ugly head again. John again nursed and cared for his second wife until her end came.
Four deaths in ten years was more than enough to break the spirit of many a strong man, but John did not wallow in pity. He lifted his head and faced the world and once again found love and married.
A year after this third marriage he received his reward, at an age in life when most men were becoming grandfathers; John became a father for the very first time. He and his wife had a beautiful daughter a miniature version of his mother. This wondrous treasure brought a new sparkle to his eye and a spring to his step. She looks like her father and has his quick mind and caring nature. She was ‘The Good Wine’ at the feast that was his life. May she always know inner peace and contentment!
At this stage you will all know John as Jack the wonderful man I was fortunate to know and love and Elly is the ‘The Good Wine’ in my life too.
This post was originally in the form of two free online Podcasts, posted in March 2007. They have since expired and been deleted. Fortunately I still had the story in text form, and chose to share it in one episode today.
Fifteen years ago yesterday, Jack lost his last battle. The horrible curse that cancer is, took him from us.
I have moved on, picked up the pieces, rediscovered the taste of food, to smell the roses, hear the music and even become engrossed in sewing or reading. It is a very different life. I do laugh plenty and have met and come to know some wonderful people.
It will never be a case of Out of sight, out of mind, the topic chosen this week by Will Knott for the weekly LBC outing.
Now I have kept you long enough, time to whiz on round to see how our other active members tackle the subject. Delirious, Maxi, Maria/Gaelikaa, Maria SilverFox, Padmum, Ramana, Shackman speaks, The Old Fossil, Will Knott.