A short exile to Lancashire - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

A short exile to Lancashire

Before I reached my 3rd birthday, Dad gave up his job with the Prudential and joined His Majesty’s Prison Service. It was a move that was to have an unfortunate influence on my schooling and eventually on my career. After completing his initial training at the Prison Officers’ Training School in Love Lane, Wakefield, Dad had hoped to be posted to Armley Jail in Leeds so that the family could remain in the pleasant Middleton semi-detached house. Instead, he was posted to Strangeways Prison, on the boundary between Manchester and Salford, to serve his probationary period. In the 1930s a move from Yorkshire to Lancashire, or vice versa, was more like a migration and was not to be undertaken lightly.
Left: Dad, photographed just after completing his Prison Officer training.
As a temporary measure we moved into a dingy, rented house in the Lower Broughton district of Salford. In 1938 my sister was born in that house and, although I was not yet three years old, I can clearly remember running up and down our street shouting triumphantly at the top of my voice to anyone who happened to be listening, “Our Kathleen’s come.” Curiously, well I think it’s curious, I have always remembered that scene not as seen through my own eyes, but as though I am watching a film taken by a third party of me coming out of the back door of our house and running down the street towards the non-existent camera to announce the arrival of my sister.
After some months we were allocated a prison-owned house in Waterloo Road, across the city border in Manchester and much closer to Strangeways Prison. One day, when I must have still been three year old (because we left the Manchester home before my 4th birthday), I can remember standing in the large tin bath in the kitchen in the Waterloo Road house being bathed when the subject of my elder brother Michael cropped up for the very first time. Mum presumably thought that I was old enough by then to be told about him.

“You once had a little brother,” said Mum. “He was called Michael, but he died when he was very young – before you were born.”

I asked Mum what she meant by that. She explained that Michael had gone to Heaven to join Jesus, but that didn’t help my under­standing at all.

“One day I’ll have to leave you,” Mum added, “and then I’ll go to Heaven. We all go to Heaven when we die – as long as we’ve been good.”

I burst into tears at the idea that Mum might leave me and she must have regretted bringing the subject up. I never did fully appreciate what a devastating blow my brother Michael’s death must have been to my parents. In 2009 I discovered, amongst my late-father’s papers, Michael’s Death Certificate and Interment Certificate. The latter showed that Michael had been buried in Hunslet Cemetery in a private plot which was, according to the certificate, my property ‘in perpetuity’ and also recorded that Dad had paid an extra £2 for a private plot complete with engraved headstone, and 7s 6d (roughly 35p in today's currency) for the services of a Minister. The reverse side of the Interment Certificate notes that Michael was buried at a depth of nine feet and records that: ‘This certificate is a grant of right of burial and must be produced to the Cemetery Superintendent at any time the grave is required to be opened’.
Shortly after finding those documents, I visited Michael's grave. The dedicated Leeds Council cemetery workers were able to take me, with the aid of their digitised records, to the exact location of Michael's grave and to take a few photographs on my camera for me. Sadly the headstone, which Dad had also paid for, is no longer there.

Left: That is a small section of the Paupers' Graves area in the background, each with between four and six names on them).
After that first mention of my brother, Michael was hardly ever again mentioned by my parents and I suspect that I was his first and only visitor since the day he was buried. As I stood at the grave I found that thought almost unbearably sad - and I'm not normally an emotional person.

Mum had a beautiful singing voice. She listened to the latest songs over and over again on the wireless and often sang them to me and, later, my sister. My own favourite, which I regularly asked her to sing to me at bedtime, went something like this:

You've been playing soldiers; the battle has been won; the enemy is out of sight.
Come along now, soldier, put away your guns, the war is over for tonight.
Time to stop your scheming,
Time your day was through,
Can't you hear the bugles softly play?
Time you should be dreaming,
Little man, you've had a busy day.

It must have been about the time Mum first told me about my brother Michael that I woke one sunny morning to see two strange black shadows silhouetted against the thin curtains of my ground floor bedroom. They appeared to have prominent hunched backs and I could just about hear their muffled voices; they were very sinister and frightening. I can remember screaming and, as Mum came rushing in to see what was wrong, the shadows moved quickly away. I pointed wildly to the window. Mum pulled back the curtains and flung the window wide open. "They're only nuns," said Mum laughing, and then she explained what nuns were. I had nightmares about those shadowy characters with wimples covering their heads for many years afterwards and, strangely, they still occasionally crop up in my dreams as my guardian angels - necessary, apparently, because Dad didn't have me brought up as a Catholic.

Another Manchester memory is of one of my playmates there, Tony Cullen, the son of another Prison Officer at Strangeways. Because he was smaller than I, he was known as Little Tony and I was known, would you believe, as Big Tony. I can remember very few of our exploits together but I am told that we were inseparable. I know that one day we caused our respective fathers a great deal of embarrassment because we went to an empty prison house and smashed quite a few ground floor windows. Questioned later by my disbelieving Dad, I had allegedly said, "I only tapped them with my little hammer." I can remember that hammer: it was a small, light-weight one, intended for breaking large slabs of home-made toffee into mouth-sized pieces. Actually, when we met again some years later, Little Tony insisted that I alone did the smashing while he watched. That meeting was in Sri Lanka and is recorded, with a pic of the two of us, towards the bottom of this page. Whoever did the deed, we had been seen! Each of my parents reminded me of the incident frequently during my early years.

The only other memory I have of my first Lancashire exile is an incident that must have occurred in autumn 1939, soon after my 4th birthday and the outbreak of World War 2. I remember it was a balmy, sunny afternoon. Dad was playing with me in our backyard when a Spitfire roared low over our house and then zoomed skywards towards the west performing a Victory Roll. I can still see it in my mind's eye. I was mightily impressed. Of course, I didn't know it was a Spitfire or a Victory Roll but that is what Dad told me. I have no means of knowing where the aircraft came from - possibly Speke or Ringway airfields, RAF stations in 1939 but now the international airports for Liverpool and Manchester. I remember shading my eyes from the sun as I watched the aircraft disappear into the wide, blue yonder and saying to Dad, "I want to do that when I grow up." And I did - but not over Greater Manchester.

/continued here or click here to go back to the top of this page             Home

Back to content