Autobiography Early Years

My Father

Stretcher Bearers by Catherine PainFather’s birth was shrouded in mystery. His father was drowned at sea before he was born. He was adopted by friends of his father, who promised that if he died before his child was born they would adopt the baby. Until Father was in his ‘teens, he believed he was William Neville. Then he was told he was William Barker. Several questions arise: why did his father think he might be drowned at sea, when that was his job? why was he concerned with the welfare of a child who might or might not be born? Was he or wasn’t he married? He had a legitimate birth certificate which gave his mother’s name as Selina. At that time it was easy enough to discover marriage certificates in London at the end of the 19th Century, but I couldn’t find it.

From the little he told us we gathered that he was not wanted. His adoptive parents already had grown- up daughters. He was given multiple heavy and dirty jobs to do around the house from when he was very young. He was not given love but he was not treated cruelly. When World War 1 broke out Father was the right age to join up and he did so from his own free will. When he went home on leave, his parents would say “Oh it’s you again!” He joined the Army Medical Corps from choice. It was a particularly dangerous job since he spent most of his time working as a stretcher-bearer carrying wounded soldiers off no-man’s-land and helping the doctors. Miraculously he was never wounded.

Father had earned school prizes and developed a love of English Literature, especially Dickens. After the war men like him who were clearly intelligent but had left school at 14, were offered the chance to take a test to become a Civil Servant. Father did so and was very pleased to have a job of some status.

From his personal experiences he had developed a strong sense of social injustice. He was all in favour of education for women. This stood me in good stead in his eyes since he quickly realised that I was exceptionally bright. I didn’t need encouragement or praise, it was enough that Father was dumbfounded by how quickly I learned from a very early age, first at home and in most school subjects.

After the war Father lived in what he called ‘digs’. He lived a bachelor’s life for more than ten years. He had enough money to go to the music halls and to the operas. He developed a strong love of the lighter kind of classical music and the comedy of such stars as Charlie Chaplin. He played the piano when he had the chance, very badly and sang after a fashion all the sentimental songs people loved so much. After all the horrors of the war and poor social conditions it was hardly surprising that many young people longed for a romantic life.

Like many men who fought in the war, Father must have found life very dull once they returned to civilian life. He got tired of living in digs. He wanted to fall in love and have a family. He kept in touch with a few friends from his army days. One of them, Jack, invited him to spend Christmas with his family: mother, father, three sons and four daughters. They created a home-made pantomime. Father loved it. He was the Fairy Queen. For years after he kept in his wardrobe his pink crepe-paper dress and his wand.

He met my mother, who also wanted to settle down, Father was struck by her lively, vivacious and cheerful manner. They soon married and nine months after I was born.