George William Manley: Grandpa.

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.


The Number 10 (Number 47.1)

My name is Jane. I was born in Lexden Road Maternity Home on the tenth day of the tenth month at five in the morning. I cherish the hope that the bottle of Guinness my mother received that day on the NHS went some way to giving her feelings of joy at my arrival. In any case, my parents had been told to expect a boy. Blue it was. A name was chosen. Then a girl arrived. Me. Blue suited me. The name didn’t. A cool, calm chat was had. My father knew a good Jane. I was named for her.

They wanted a name beginning with J, the tenth letter of the alphabet. They wanted ten letters to my name. Choice was, as you can imagine, quite limited. (Remember, these were the happy days before makey-uppy names and the celebrity cult). Middle names were out of the question (deemed unnecessary in, what would become, an increasingly rare consensus of parental opinion). My father went down to the Registrar’s Office on 11 October and I officially came into existence and came home.

Subsequently, my baptism was a straightforward affair – decisions were taken with ease. My mother had fallen out with the vicar of St Peter’s Church at the top of North Hill. He’d refused to marry my parents there four years earlier as my mother was not of that parish. For her, that church and that vicar simply ceased to exist. We went back to my mother’s parish, where Gran and Grandad still lived and ran the grocery store. We went to West Bergholt on the fifteenth day of the first month of the following year where I was baptised by the Rev Colin Douglas, assisted by my three godparents (two women and one man, as tradition then dictated).

My father, 42 at the time of my birth, declared that one child was enough. I spent the first three years of my life thinking so, too. I was the first girl born into the family and the first blonde and was the centre of attention. Where my older, male, cousins would be told off; I could do no wrong. We had all, foolishly, reckoned without my mother; 25 at the time of my birth. She decided that a second child was a good thing and, after a decent interval, promptly fell pregnant.

On the tenth day of the eleventh month, three years and one month after my arrival, the midwife came to Number 47 and set out her stall in the front bedroom overlooking North Hill. My mother had taken herself in there when the labour pains started, while my father called the doctor. Once the midwife was there, my father and I were sent off to do our thing, while my mother did hers. We returned in time for my sister’s delivery. When Alys came into the world my father and I were perched side-by-side, holding hands, on the edge of the bed in the adjoining room.

From that day to this, I have believed that midwives are special. This is where it started. The midwife checked all was well with mother and baby, wiped my sister off, wrapped her up, came into the bedroom next door and put my baby sister into my arms. My father reported that, for one of the only times in my life, I was speechless – until I came out with the word ‘wonderful’. The midwife then involved me, as far as was safe, in preparing my sister for this world. She thought she could encourage me to become a nurse. I thought for a while that I might do this if I had to grow up (Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were my earliest role models), but I was already sold on being a cowboy.

This time, my parents knew they were having a girl and my mother had chosen her name based on a medieval French history book she was reading whilst pregnant. By then, my father knew better than to have his own opinions on the matter. In any case, the name suited us all very well and my sister most of all. It begins with the first letter of the alphabet and gives ten letters to the full name. What’s not to like?

Many years have passed since then, and we’ve come through a great deal, but much remains the same. My sister is still wonderful and now has two wonderful daughters of her own. I still have a cowboy thing, I still have a Peter Pan thing and I still believe there’s something special about The Number 10.