On Friday 17 January 2014, my sister and I said farewell to Grandad with the support of good people and the assistance of the wonderful Reverend Peter Evans. What follows is the text of the tribute I read at the service.
Last year, my grandfather and I were fortunate enough to be able to visit the former Colchester Garrison church to commemorate the marriage of our ancestors there in 1856. Afterwards, I asked him for his life story – to add to the family history. Here it is, edited with just a few tweaks…
He was born on 19 April 1907 in Wandsworth Road, London as the first child of Lily Alice and George William Manley. The couple went on to have three more, surviving, children. George’s earliest memory was from when he was a toddler. His uncle was a Thames bargeman who, together with his wife, would look after him from time to time on their sailing barge. They couldn’t have children of their own and were happy to take care of George – especially as his home life was often very difficult. 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.
George attended school in Mortlake and left before he was 14 – although he’d worked odd jobs all the time he’d been in education, 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. Any spare time he had, he spent making crystal sets (early radios).
A change for the worse in family circumstances led to the family having to leave London, quickly, with no possessions. They moved to Colchester, where there were other relatives. By this time, George was 14 and already had plenty of work experience so was able to find another job, but had to take a pay cut to 10 shillings. 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 he could afford a bicycle.
Through family connections, he was introduced to Doris Annie Elizabeth Lambert – then living in the east end of London with her parents. In 1932, they married. My grandmother, as Doris became, was a secretary in the City of London with an oil dealer and the first girl in her family who had not had to work in service. In Doris, George found someone who was pretty, clever, and hard-working. Importantly, she had grown up knowing the value of a loving, caring family and the necessity of three good meals a day. As everyone said, and as I know, she was a class act. As George said, she was his best friend.
They had two children; my mother, born in 1935, and my uncle, born in 1941. In the meantime, George 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, among 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.
Just some of the other work he undertook included pottery which he taught to children in West Bergholt, selling 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 ‘job’ on his 100th birthday. After they had left the village store in West Bergholt, George and Doris ran their own printing press from home – this work only ending years later when my grandmother, Doris, became seriously ill.
More important to George was his and Doris’ active involvement in community work and local societies. George joined ‘The Junior Imperial League’ (later, the Young Conservatives) early on in his married life and, very flexibly indeed, remained a one-nation Tory. He later became a Conservative councillor, editing the local organization’s magazine and arranging social events. He had a gift for making a great success of any gathering he organized. Over the years he raised a large amount of money for charity in this way. He even turned his 100th birthday party into a fundraiser for MENCAP.
He suffered from duodenal ulcers and was considered unfit for active service in World War II. So, he became an air-raid warden and firewatcher. At this time, he increased 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 Doris were most committed.
By the late 1940s, they had realized that my uncle (who is here with us today) 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. Doris became the founder member of the, now, Colchester and District branch of MENCAP. George later became their chairman. They worked tirelessly towards the opening of both a purpose-built occupation centre and a day nursery. They went on to help set up other, newer, local branches of the same charity, before assisting in establishing Acorn Village, which still provides a secure future for those with learning disabilities.
Although, happily, he didn’t realize at the time, this work was to help him later when Doris fell ill. She suffered a series of strokes and George became her principal carer and a very outspoken (as only he could be) 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 Doris nearly took him away, too – but he would not give up on her, nor relinquish his role as her carer, advocate and partner.
Eventually, in his nineties and living alone, George decided he needed more daily care and support and moved into the newly-opened Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution home, Stisted Hall. In his time there, he became a very active member of the Prince Edward Duke of Kent Court community, well looked-after by an excellent staff (some of whom are here today). His fifty-year commitment to, and progression within, Freemasonry – of which he was justifiably proud – was honoured on 14 May 2013 at this RMBI facility. As a Freemason, he had been Worshipful Master of three different lodges and also served in other positions of high office.
This can only be a snapshot of such a long and productive life. There were so many other stories he had to tell yet, like all good storytellers, he left us wanting more.