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.
(Left: that's Mum and Dad in their courting days.)
Annie Winter was courted by Herbert Cunnane, a local man who had been brought up ín the Roman Catholic faith. At that time Herbert was employed as a bus conductor for Leeds City Transport and Annie worked for EJ Arnold, a well-known printing firm in Hunslet specialising in producing educational books and railway timetables. As far as I am aware, Dad never again practised as a Catholic.

It was mid-afternoon on a stormy day in September 1935 when I was born in a semi-detached house on a new council estate in south Leeds. Middleton was occupied before the Norman Conquest and, like Wakefield, was mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book. Modern Middleton was created in 1920 as an overflow council estate for burgeoning Leeds. Acre Mount is still there in 2015 but many of its houses were demolished some years ago. Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, the forerunners of the famous RAF Red Arrows, were performing barely three miles away as the crow flies, in front of a vast and enthusiastic crowd. Their show was curtailed by a sudden violent electrical storm.

I dropped in at Acre Mount, reportedly accompanied by several fortissimo claps of thunder and a sudden downpour of monsoon-intensity rain, without causing any problems other than the fact that I weighed in at 10½ pounds (4.77kg). That must have been a great relief to Mum for another reason – apart from the obvious one. The months leading up to my birth must have been an anxious time for my parents because I was the second-born. My brother Michael was born in 1934 with meningitis and he died in hospital four months later having spent virtually all his short life there. I don’t think I ever really understood what a traumatic experience that must have been for my parents.

Home on leave from the RAF in 1957, I spent some time in the reference section of Wakefield's splendid public library on Drury Lane, close to the Opera House. The library closed permanently in 2011 and re-opened half a mile away in a new building called Wakefield One. During that 1957 visit I discovered that the library had extensive archives of the Wakefield Express and other local newspapers going back many decades. I took that opportunity to get one of the helpful librarians to pull out the issues that had been published nearest to the day of my birth.

Above: The former public library on Drury Lane before the extensive road changes in the area in 21st C. The children's entrance was the small door at the extreme left-hand edge of this pic.

Because I had no access to photo-copying, here are some extracts of what I found and laboriously copied in longhand into my diary:

"Sir Alan Cobham's Flying Circus performed at Haig House Farm on Wood Lane, Rothwell. A strong gusty wind permitted only one airliner and the autogyro to take to the air it being announced that there was a danger to the lighter craft in landing. The Flying Flea, the most talked-of aeroplane in the world today, was the centre of much interest. Frenchman M. Henri Mignet, the inventor of this astounding 8 horse power Meccano plane, says that his Flying Flea is the baby car of the air and as cheap to run as a motor cycle. It is claimed that this tiny machine can be built by any amateur for £70. Mr Lewis Rowley provided a thrill in one of flying's most difficult feats by picking up with his wingtip a flag that had been fixed in the centre of the landing ground. He also in his new Tiger Moth aeroplane performed every feat known to aerobatics. He flew inverted only 30 feet from the ground. At both sessions, quite a brisk trade in trips was done in both the liners and the planes and even a trip for stunting did not deter a few of the keenest air minded who were out for a real thriller. Inspector Green, Police Sergeant Hodgson, and a section of the police of the West Riding Constabulary, efficiently controlled the traffic arrangements."

Soon after my birth, and seeking to improve himself and his prospects, Dad joined the Prudential Insurance Company. Being the 'Man from the Pru' involved tramping around the neighbourhood, often in the evenings or at weekends when there was likely to be someone at home. Dad's job was to sell new life insurance policies but, more importantly, he had to collect from existing clients the weekly payments which were often as little as one penny per week.

The so-called 'penny policies' were designed to provide the insured person with a decent burial and apparently most folk had one - a penny policy that is. I don't think Dad can have had much satisfaction from the job; many of his clients found it difficult to afford even the minimum weekly premiums and often begged Dad to hold them over for a week. The biggest fear was that if you died when your account was in arrears you were likely to be interred, along with up to five or more bodies, in one of the paupers' graves in nearby Hunslet Cemetery - the final indignity. Sometimes Dad would pay the penny for a temporarily impoverished client and try to get it back later. I reckon he didn't get many pennies back.

Left: There's Mum and her Mum taking a stroll in a park somewhere in Leeds - probably Middleton. I assume that's me in the pram!

Dad often told me the tale of how, in the middle of one night, he and my Mother were rudely awakened by a persistent knocking on the front door. Somewhat aggrieved he went to the bedroom window and looked down. It was the wife of one of his clients hammering on the door with her fists. "What on earth's the matter?" called down Dad, as loudly as he dared. "It's the middle of the night - you'll wake the entire street."

"It's 'ar Billy, Mester Cunnane, 'e's just go-an," shouted back the lady.
"What d'you mean, he's just gone? Gone where?"
"'E's dead. When do I get me money?"

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