I wrote the following for my contribution to today’s ‘Writing about your life’ session at Histon library.
I grew up in my grandfather’s house. He was a butcher. I seem to say this quite often and it’s generally in connection with a conversation about food. It’s used to establish my right to comment on the quality of a meat dish on the one hand or to explain my diet on the other. But it also raises a question. Why?
My grandfather’s house was a proud 4 bedroomed detached house in Wepre Drive, Connahs’ Quay. It was built by his father, Samuel Vickers, and was just a couple of hundred yards away from his butchers shop on the High Street. I lived there with my mother and her parents for most of my early childhood because my parents had separated soon after I was born.
Nowadays it’s not unusual and is just one of the many circumstances in which a child might find him or herself today but in the 1950s it was. Every other child I knew, and I mean every one, was growing up in what was then a standard nuclear family. And because of this I spent most of those days pretending that that wasn’t the case and that the necessary access visits which I made to my father were just visits to my other grandparents. This continued into my early teens and I remember one of my friends remarking that I must be very fond of them.
You’ve got to go back a few years to understand why this had come to happen. It was a consequence of the times, of events and of the nature of society at the time.
My father, Cecil, was born in 1914 and grew up an only child in Shotton where his father was a steelworker. To a large extent Shotton was a steel town overshadowed by John Summers’ steelworks and my grandfather had come from South Wales to work there. My father did well in school, passed the ‘Scholarship’, that’s what we called the 11-plus in those days, and then went on to earn himself a place at Liverpool University to study medicine. At the same time we had the Great Depression (1929-1932) when my grandfather was unemployed. So my father went to university but did so like an extension of school: continuing to live at home and travelling everyday on the train.
Cecil would have qualified in about 1940 and then served as a Surgeon Lieutenant in the war. At some time he contracted TB and because, I imagine, he felt that it would be good for his recovery he went to work in South Africa, in general practice at Amanzimtoti close to Durban.
My mother, Audrey, was born in 1923 and grew up ‘over the shop’ in Connah’s Quay and in a family which was visible in the community with the Vickers name being prominent in local commerce. She also passed the Scholarship and from school went to IM Marsh teachers training college in Liverpool early in the war years. During that time she volunteered to work with Polish refugees and as a result of this activity she seems to have contracted polio which was to blight the rest of her life. She spent the rest of the war years in hospital.
My parents were related, Cecil’s uncle, Vic Jenkins, married Audrey’s aunt Hettie Edwards, so they would have met at occasional family gatherings. However I have no evidence that there was any special relationship between them but in 1946 Cecil wrote to Audrey asking her to come out to South Africa so that they might get married. She did and they did and shortly thereafter in 1947 I was born. Sadly the marriage fell apart and in October 1949 my mother and I were on board the SS City of Paris bound for UK where we moved in to live with her parents.
That’s it. But it doesn’t really answer the more complex question as to why this all came to pass in the way that it did. The depression and the war were obvious influencers as were social mores at the time. I can’t really imagine my father enjoying his college days in the way that I did and then came the war and his illness. Did he ever have a chance to enjoy life as a young man? And although my mother seems to have had a much more fulfilling life as a teenager she must have thought that as a result of the polio her chances of marriage and motherhood, still signals of success for women in those days, were slim.
These days it’s accepted that in statistical terms most of your life chances are locked in by the time that you’re five. But you’ve got to think that much of this is down to the moments of conception and birth and your choice of parents. In all other respects I had a good childhood and I didn’t have bad parents. I cannot and will not complain about the way that my life has developed but it’s a truism that those early years shaped me. I’ll just never know how.
Sadly I have no photos of South Africa from those days and none of Wepre Buildings. The photo above is the SS City of Paris.