Grandparents - and my Hero - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Grandparents - and my Hero

While I knew from my earliest years that I had a Grandfather and Grandmother Winter in south Leeds and a Grandmother Wilman but no Grandfather Wilman in east Leeds, it never occurred to me to wonder why there wasn't a Grandfather Cunnane. At that early age there was no reason to connect my surname with either of my grandparents. As I grew older I should, perhaps, have asked someone why my paternal grandmother was known as Grandma Wilman and not Grandma Cunnane, and why there was neither a Grandfather Cunnane nor Wilman - but I didn't.

Above: A scan of a badly-worn contact print showing my paternal Grandma Cunnane/Wilman c1945 with, left to right, my aunties Joan and Joyce, and Uncle Harry - all Wilman's not Cunnanes.
In the year 2017 it's quite strange to reflect that working class children like me appeared to have had little interest in learning about those of their relatives who either didn't visit us or were not visited. Following the huge success of a well-known ancestry website and associated TV programmes, it's all different nowadays.

Had I known when I enlisted in the RAF that my paternal grandfather was an Irish citizen, I would not have deceived the recruiters. The direct question, "Do you have any relatives, living or dead, in the Irish Republic", was asked several times during my RAF career, usually when my security clearances were due for renewal, and each time I answered that I did not. In fact, I didn't find out the truth and extent of my Irish ancestry until 2010 when I had been retired for almost 10 years.

Left: That's my Uncle Ernest Wilman who lied about his age and joined the Coldstream Guards and went off to the war. He was 16 or 17 years old when this recruiting picture was taken. He first saw action in the Desert campaign and later in Italy. By the time he was demobbed and returned home in 1946, he was a sergeant and he was my hero!

Grandma Wilman, my paternal grandmother, lived in a terraced house on Victoria Avenue close to East End Park and the Torre Road tram depot. She bore 13 children over a span of 20 years, 11 of whom survived to old age; the other two died in childbirth. My father was the second born son of her first marriage although I now believe it possible that Dad never knew that he'd had an elder brother who had died at birth. (I was also a second born son; more about my elder brother, who died at the age about three months, later.)

My maternal grandfather, James Edward Winter, was born in 1876 in Fairford, a tiny village in Gloucestershire. All his working life he worked for the Midland Railway which merged in 1922 with several other railways to form the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). In the final years of his railway career he worked as a guard on the long-distance trains running between Bristol and Leeds. One particular express service each day during the summer holiday season was known as The Devonian; it linked Leeds with seaside resorts in south Devon. When James had to stay overnight at the Leeds end of the Devonian route, he lodged with the Wells family at No 38 Westbury Terrace in Stourton, south Leeds. Mr Wells was also a railwayman, with the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway I believe, so his home was a very convenient place for James Winter to stay because the Hunslet railway sheds, where the Devonian rested up overnight, were barely 200 yards away over a wall at the end of Westbury Terrace and thence along the railway tracks.

Edith, John Wells' 20-year old daughter, and James Winter soon started courting and in 1902 they were married at Hunslet Parish Church (although the ceremony probably took place in Stourton Methodist Chapel) and set up home just a few doors along from their in-laws. Nice! Newly-married James and Edith worshipped regularly in Stourton Methodist Chapel adjacent to the Queens' Hotel, opposite Waddington's factory at Thwaite Gate where the board game Monopoly used to be made. (That site is now the HQ of FirstDirect bank.) They had two children: Nellie May Winter born in 1903 and Annie Winter, who was to become my mother, born in 1910.

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