My maternal grandfather is 106 years old and lives at Stisted Hall, near Braintree in Essex (UK). He’s still sharp and bright and is in about as good a physical state as it’s possible to be at his age. As you might imagine, and as I know, he has led a long and productive life through interesting times. This year, he and I discussed how he’d like to be remembered. The text that follows is based on his draft notes for our discussion, with my additions here and there…
He was born on 19 April 1907 in Wandsworth Road, London as the first child of Lily Alice (nee Martin) and George William Manley. The average life expectancy in London at the time, was 47. Manley senior had been born in Colchester workhouse, but was working as a baker in London by the time his oldest son arrived. The couple eventually had three more, surviving, children.
Grandpa’s earliest memory is from when he was a toddler. His uncle was a Thames bargeman who, together with his wife, would look after George from time to time on their sailing barge. He recalls being put to bed in a bunk on the vessel after being taken on deck to see three warships sail past. This same couple planned to take him with them to live in San Francisco with relatives – their new life was due to start on board the Titanic. Luckily, as it turned out, they left it too late to buy tickets.
They couldn’t have children of their own and were happy to take care of Grandpa – especially as his home life was very difficult. His father drank, womanized and gambled. Money was so hard to come by, and keep away from his father, that frequently, the children would go to bed hungry, having had no food to eat all day. In fact, his mother eventually walked out on his father and left him (aged 12), his brother Sid and baby sister Ruby with their father – taking only the clothes she stood up in and George’s youngest brother, Harry. As far as I know, she had no further contact with the three children she left behind before she died, many years later.
Grandpa went to school in Mortlake and left before he was 14 – although he’d worked odd jobs all the time he’d been in education (including for a while at a fish and chip shop where he was, at least, fed) he needed to earn full-time. He was bright and had finished all his classes early and so was eligible to take the ‘Labour Exam’. Passing this meant that he could start work, so he did, at a builders’ merchant for 15 shillings a week (75 pence, today). Any spare time he had, he spent making crystal sets (early radios).
His mother’s departure meant that life at home, if anything, worsened. His sister Ruby was a baby and put into an orphanage and he and Sid had to take care of themselves. His father’s behavior led to the family having to leave London, quickly, with no possessions. They moved to Colchester, where there were other relatives. Grandpa was, by this time, 14 and already had plenty of work experience so he was able to find another job, but had to take a pay cut to 10 shillings (wages outside London were then, as now, lower). The cheapest house the three could find to rent was a country cottage three miles from town, so Grandpa walked there and back every day for two years until they could afford somewhere in Colchester.
Through family connections, in London and in Colchester, he was introduced to Doris Annie Elizabeth Lambert – then living in the east end of London with her parents. They married in 1932 after a long courtship, during which they both worked to save money to start their new life together. My grandmother, as Doris became, was a secretary in the City of London with an oil dealer. She was the first girl in her family who had not had to work in service, but she still had to leave her job when she married (as women of that time were expected to do). I believe it’s safe to say two things here – firstly, that, despite some very hard times ahead, they were completely loyal to each other and secondly, most definitively, that she was the making of him.
In Doris, Grandpa found someone who had had a very loving and stable home life. She was a much-loved youngest ‘surprise’ child, born to her own mother in her late forties, and ten years younger than her closest sibling – her sister Elsie. Grandma was pretty, clever, and hard-working. Importantly, for Grandpa, she had grown up knowing the value of a loving, caring family and the necessity of three good meals a day. He was fed and nurtured properly for the first time in his life. As everyone says, and as I know, she was a class act. As Grandpa says, she was his best friend.
They had two children; my mother, born in 1935, and my uncle, born in 1942. In the meantime, Grandpa had continued his business education through evening classes – this helped him to become a buyer and manager for a builders’ merchant in Colchester. He also supplemented the family income at this time by, amongst other things, building caravans and beach huts. Much later, when he felt he could go no further as an employee, he bought an empty cafe in West Bergholt, Essex and turned it into the village store. A very successful move. As a result, my parents were married in the parish church at West Bergholt and my sister and I were baptized there. I have very fond memories of that village store, including my fascination with the meat slicer (but that’s another story).
Other work he’s been involved in has included pottery – he taught this to children in West Bergholt, and tried with me and my sister. He also sold ceramic work of his own from time to time. He was a carpenter making furniture, dolls’ houses and bird boxes until he ‘retired’ from that on his 100th birthday. Together, after leaving the village store in West Bergholt, my grandparents ran their own printing press from home – this work only ending years later when my grandmother became seriously ill.
Both my grandparents were heavily involved in community work and local societies. Grandpa joined ‘The Junior Imperial League’ (later, the Young Conservatives) early on in his married life and has, flexibly, remained a one-nation Tory ever since. He later became a Conservative councilor, editing the local organization’s magazine and arranging social events. He has a gift for this – it’s a particular skill of his to be able to make a great success of any gathering he organizes – and over the years he’s raised a large amount of money for charity in this way. More recently, he turned his 100th birthday party into a fundraiser for Mencap (a charity supporting those with learning disabilities).
Grandpa suffered from duodenal ulcers, so was considered unfit for active service in World War II. As a result, he became an air-raid warden and firewatcher. He also upped his charity work and was frequently at The George Hotel in Colchester (where my parents held their wedding reception in 1956), organizing dances for ‘Wings for Victory’ and other benevolent groups. However, it was the Mencap work to which he and my grandmother were truly, and consistently, committed.
By the late 1940s, my grandparents had realized that my uncle was autistic and they became driven not only to find him the best possible care by the standards of the time, but also to help other parents with (what were then known as) mentally handicapped children. Grandma became the founder member of the, now, Colchester and District branch of Mencap. Grandpa later became their chairman. They worked tirelessly towards the opening of both a purpose-built occupation centre and a day nursery (of which I have happy and vivid memories – often being sent down there to see Grandma and play with the children). My grandparents went on to help set up other, newer, local branches of the same charity, before assisting in establishing Acorn Village, which provides a secure future for those with learning disabilities.
Although, happily, he didn’t realize at the time, this work was to help him much later on when my grandmother fell ill. She suffered a series of strokes and Grandpa became her principal carer and a tireless advocate of respect for the elderly in health care. He became chairman of the local carers’ association in order to help himself, and others, in this work. The effort of taking care of Grandma nearly took him away, too – but he would never give up and would never let anyone take away the responsibility and sense of duty he felt he owed her.
Eventually, in his nineties and living alone, Grandpa decided he needed more daily care and support and moved into Stisted Hall (an RMBI home). When he moved in, it was a brand new set up in a Grade II listed property – on the edge of Braintree Golf Course. He’s been there ever since; an active member of the institution, taken very good care of by an excellent staff. His fifty-year commitment to, and progression within, Freemasonry is honored this year at this RMBI facility, where he’s treated with the respect he deserves.
There’s so much else to say and there are so many other stories to tell. This is as far as he and I made it with the notes I have from him to date (plus my own adds, here and there). What else can I say? He’s a difficult man who has lived through difficult times. He’s my grandfather. He’s a person I respect and love. He’s still here to tell his story. I’m still here to listen.