My arrival - in a thunderstorm - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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My arrival - in a thunderstorm

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 (The Wakefield City postcode is WF1). 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. 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 many 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! In those days prams were always pushed so that Mother and baby could have constant eye contact.

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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