Published on August 2nd, 2009 | by Jillian Wightman0
Writers’ Group: Finding Charlie by Pam Parrish
My father, Fred Smith, was born in 1900, the third child of a family of eight, five boys and three girls. Dad’s story, or fragments of it, came out over the years, supplemented by various members of his family, and it helped me to try to understand his treatment of my brother and me.
He was a bad tempered, tetchy and at times, violent man of whom we were both justifiably terrified. His early childhood was one of terrible poverty and neglect and those eight little children suffered badly. My grandfather was, in Edwardian terms, a real rotter. A ship’s hairdresser by trade, he was a colourful character with his flowing curly red hair and whiskers.
My grandmother, Minnie, was totally infatuated with him and despite her parents trying to keep them apart, she had his first baby when only fifteen years old. They married when she was 18 and then the poor girl had a baby almost every year. Each time he returned from the sea he left her pregnant. The whole family was born and raised in a tenement flat facing Regent’s Park, ironically the home of millionaires now.
The grinding poverty and hardship of this family can only be imagined. It all came to a tragic end for Minnie when she died in mysterious circumstances at the age of only 32 – her youngest baby being just 9 months old. She was, I suspect, totally worn out.
My dad told me how he was dumped on his father’s brother one Sunday morning by his dad who never returned. My dad never got over this, although he was lucky as he escaped the orphanage, faring better than his siblings. His uncle was a baker in Southall and my dad was worked to death as a baker’s boy delivering bread at six in the morning before school.
My father’s nearest brother, who was a year older than him, was a gifted musician and was sent away to the Kneller Hall Army School of Music to be a band boy. What happened to the rest of the family I was never to know. My father was not to see this brother, Charlie, but was always talking about him and how he would find him one day.
One Sunday in 1940, when I was 11, we were listening to the radio. The Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra was playing and an item was announced called ‘The Three Brass Bells’, arranged for trombones. One of the soloists was Charlie Smith. My dad nearly collapsed with shock and excitement. Sure enough, he had found his beloved brother at last.
The BBC arranged a reunion and this musician uncle came into our lives. What a character he was, very like my grandfather, I should imagine – funny and a real showman. He became a member of Henry Hall’s Dance Band and I was taken to the Wood Green Empire in London to see him play – a great treat during the war. Ultimately he played with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and, as before, I went to see him play. I also found a whole new set of cousins, as he was married with three children. It was amazing that such a talent could emerge from such a background and how one brother was so fulfilled and the other, my father, so bitter and angry.
Charlie once again disappeared and we never saw him again after the war, or had contact with the family. What happened to all those brothers and sisters I will never know.