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.