My dad – in serious mode one day – told me: ‘I lived for one day in the reign of Queen Victoria!’ (he was born on 2lst January 1901 and she died on the 22nd.) Other than it was a fact, it played no role whatsoever in my father’s life… but, while not destined to shine on the world’s, or any other, stage, for a modest member of the hoi polloi, he was a man to stand up and be counted.
Named Charles Edward, first child of Rose and Charles Mansfield, he grew up in the company of four brothers and two sisters: a Cockney, born to hear the bells of Bow church. Aspiring for better conditions than those surrounding them in the east end of London, not to mention fresher air, the family moved to rural Dagenham Heathway in Essex, and a small villa backing onto verdant fields, leading, eventually, to the River Thames. ‘Little Charlie’ was a nipper in a sailor-suit with golden curls at the time, as recalled in a wall-framed photo, while his hair darkened with the years and even grey was a late-comer.
The whole family worshipped in the Catholic religion: Charles senior threatened to belt anyone who did otherwise, and was a force to be reckoned with. Conversely, he was a giving man with a lively personality and was a Freemason. The whole family – while outwardly a tad arrogant, despite being gregarious and fun-loving – were most charitable and kind. Grandad was one of the founders of The Working Men’s club nearby, and it later amused me to see my other, financially poor, benign Grandad Samuel having a pint under a framed photo of the stern-looking “CM”…
Although all the boys attended state schools, dad’s two sisters were sent to a convent school and both were gifted needlewomen and did “good works.” Dad was a bright scholar, particularly in English and art, received high grades and a few awards, so it was a surprise that he chose to work as a Lighterman * on the River Thames, like his father before him. (While Mansfield senior had chosen to ‘rise in the ranks’ and had a financial stake in the company they worked for.)
As the First World War was then raging and Charles was seventeen, he just caught the tail-end and served as a Royal Air Force cadet, which whetted his desire to fly.
SEPIA DAD – circa 1918
A blue-serge clad, fresh-faced youth,
swaddle-legged “At ease” proud –
gazes at me – unseeing,
from his sepia world.
His eyes are filled with
for he flies in fancy with the stars
by night – gazes with ardent longing
on the winged air-borne phantoms
silhouetted against the moon.
No clairvoyant messenger
foretold the future.
How could he have known that
in but two decades
he would. again. experience the horrors of war;
be captured for posterity in similar stance?
The burning question remains unanswered;
What to do with tyrants?
Could genetic engineering one day hold the key?!
Familiar with the lively personalities of brothers ‘Prince,’ (named after a tug!) Harry, Basil and – the younger, much quieter, Bernard, I’m sure Charlie enjoyed the years between 1919 and 1928, around the time he met his future wife. The Mansfield brothers sparred and boxed, fished, and played raucous games of cards, in between cutting up many a rug in many a dance-hall, and downed many a pint too. Charlie, being the eldest, was often taken to the Opera by his father (much to his dismay…) but he enjoyed fishing with him on many a weekend morning, and it remained one of his favourite hobbies, of which there were many. Charlie also played cricket now and then, and enjoyed a game of football.
One night, while dancing in The Cross Keys Public House in old Dagenham,. he caught sight of a beautiful young woman called Lila, and was soon enamoured. They danced well together and that was the beginning of a loving romance which lasted fifty-five years.
Much to the chagrin of his parents, Charlie married his sweetheart, Lila, in a Registry Office instead of the Catholic church, and they settled for a VERY mock Tudor house in Rush Green, Romford, Essex where I first aired my lungs – moving to a newer house in Dagenham to be nearer the railway station and shops, where they remained throughout their long, happy, marriage. Dad eschewed cars, preferring cycling and enjoyed walking, and soon proved to be a dab hand at gardening. Being a plotter and planner, and a great lover of roses, he soon had his pride and joy mapped out on paper and in fact.
There were climbing roses, gloriously abundant and draped over fences, standard roses and bush roses in various shades and aromas: a favourite the yellow ‘Peace,’ and many other flowers vying for attention. He also grew beans, carrots and potatoes for a while, plus tomatoes, and we had wild loganberries growing over the back fence, which we drooled over. He loved pottering in his shed and cosseted a modest lawn. I can imagine how he swore when that nasty, infamous man with a moustache waged war on the world and he had to dig a huge crater in the middle of his precious plot for an air-raid shelter to be erected!
I was the eldest and only daughter, to be followed by three brothers. Terence John was born two years after me and Bryan Charles four years, while Royce Kenneth arrived just before the end of the war. Dad was an ethical, fair-minded man and only ever smacked me twice. Once when I beheaded his prize tulips (aged two) and mum warned him “Don’t you EVER hit her again!” but he was obliged to when, as an ardent reader, and teenager, I ignored his plea to help my mother one Sunday morning. He pulled me out of bed with such force, I hit my head on the door and vowed to leave home. But it rained, so I didn ‘t… We always knew when we had displeased dad by the stern look on his face, and quickly behaved as we were all a bit afraid he might erupt. He had that sort of strong presence we respected, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Although fairly self-contained, he could and did wax lyrical now and then and wrote strong letters to the local paper on subjects he felt passionate about, but also loved a good, earthy joke.
During his leisure hours, my father was always busy as he enjoyed hooking rugs with my mother (they made several) and was drawn to making model aeroplanes. He had a small table in his bedroom and I can still conjure up the strong aroma of dope**… When complete, we often went to the local park to send them airborne. They didn’t always survive!!
Apart from reading a lot, being artistic, dad loved to do Calligraphy, of which he was a dab-hand. He also collected stamps and his decorated books were a joy to behold. And he loved words…Whenever the family joined in a Christmas or birthday celebration, he carefully planned party games, often including “Truth or Lie?” or some other word teaser.
In 1939, while already serving in the Air Force Reserves, dad was one of the first to be conscripted when World War II started. After seeing us safely evacuated to Wales (Merthyr Tydfil), he then left for ‘parts unknown – probably France,’ he told Mum. There were tears and anxiety before we received two letters, from France, as suspected. In one letter, he told us (having thoughtfully packed a teapot! And tea…) after a long train ride: ‘Guess who went up to the train driver for some boiled water?!’
They called the first part of the war, “the phoney war” as there wasn’t much action in the UK or France, but it soon hotted up after dad had a brief spot of leave. Decades later, I was to read his diaries kept at the time (excerpts of which I re-recorded in my memoir My Gentle War). While out walking at dusk in the countryside… “Searchlights picked up a Jerry bomber and a Bofors gun was letting rip. Suddenly, a ball of fire headed towards me as a shell left the muzzle- It seemed to approach me at zero feet at about 400 miles per hour!! Needless to say, I dived smartly into a ditch. The shell was later described as a “Flaming onion”. It reaffirmed my belief that life is very precious.” He saw plenty of action after that incident and he and half a dozen of his fellow airmen were machine-gunned by a low-flying German aircraft but luckily escaped injury. Apparently, their ‘digs’ were in a huge, abandoned, farm building near Merville, and dad came upon a small café/homestead run by an attractive woman called Clemence, whose husband was in the French army. (Reading between the lines in his diary – maybe because of his very blue eyes and charming manner – methinks she fell in love with him!) He drummed up business for her café, urging her to cook egg and chips for the Brits and hamburgers for the American soldiers camping nearby. A firm friendship was formed, until the Germans advanced and Clemence begged him to: “Stay with me, Sharlie. I am frightened of the Bosch. We can live in the South of France.” He gently explained that he loved his wife and children and there were many tears before he left. The Germans were, by then, unstoppable and he and his unit were lucky to escape by ship to the UK before Dunkirk. He wrote in his diary of how terrifying was the bombardment by the German aircraft the night before they were shipped back. Many boats and ships were blazing out of control and he likened it to “Dante’s inferno!”
Clemence wrote to my parents after the war, and on my first holiday abroad, I spent several, memorable and enjoyable, unique days with my Godmother in her home just before I left school, when I was spoiled a treat! Clemence remained in touch with my parents for many years and even sent us a food parcel when things were a bit tough before rationing ended.
In the latter part of the war, luckily, dad was stationed mainly in Essex, so was able to spend short leaves at home with mum. My youngest brother, Royce was born in this period, just before the “all clear” sounded. Naturally, at the war’s end, we were all ecstatic to, again, be settled in our old home. Our head count was complete, unlike in our paternal grandparents’ house. My sweet, shy, Uncle Bernard, aged 22, (Dad’s youngest brother) a navigator in the Royal Air Force, went down with his plane, and plane and crew were never found. Grandma never wore black and always lived in hope he would return one day…
Dad soon adapted to “civvy life” and again working on his beloved River Thames. Our house was within “hooting” distance of the river and when I was curled up in bed at night and he was working late and it was foggy, I would listen out for his tug’s mournful “fog-horn” and hope that he was safe.
When he retired from work, dad embraced it with enthusiasm. He and mum had a few, enjoyable holidays abroad, and there wasn’t an hour that he didn’t know what to do with…We bought him a sheep-herding-type-dog – not much called for in Dagenham – he called Whisky as he was black and white, and they became good pals. There was a small lake at the end of dad’s street and it was arranged, through his love of fishing, that he kept it stocked with fish and an eye on it; like a Bailiff. He had a punt, and he and Whisky, I’m sure, spent many happy hours there.
Sadly, in his early eighties – having smoked a lot in his younger and Air Force days – dad’s lungs gave up. Mum was bereft and we all missed him and his very strong presence. Dad acquitted himself well while on earth and was always happy to help his fellow-man, especially in WW II when he came upon a poverty-stricken French family and gave them a Christmas they never forgot. As I grew older and thought more on the subject, I realised that dad, while not in the least ambitious, was one of the most contented men I ever met. He knew exactly what he wanted from life and it was kind enough to give it to him on a plate: a loving wife and children, enough muscle, brain and good health to work hard, and to indulge in many hobbies to his heart’s content. RIP dear dad, I always imagine you in your gum-boots, carrying a watering can… I bet your garden is the most beautiful.
© Copyright Joy Lennick 2019
*Lightermen transferred goods between ships and quays aboard flat-bottomed barges called “Lighters” in the port of London. Because of the many fogs in the early days, the river was a treacherous place at night and I recall dad telling mum on a few occasions: “We fished another poor sod out of the river last night!” when they chanced the narrow, slippery path leading from several pubs… There is a “Waterman’s Hall” in St.Mary at Hill, Billingsgate, London dating from 1780 and it is the only surviving Georgian Guild Hall.
** Dope is a chemical lacquer used in model making, not to be confused with the ‘waccy baccy’ variety.
“MY GENTLE WAR” is available from Amazon and Kindle, Apple, Nook (Barnes & Noble). Scribd, Kobo, 24 Symbols, Tolivo and Page Foundry.