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Date: 17/10/17

Plumbing The Past

One of the major problems of being a late-born kid (that is to say, that one or both of your parents were knocking on a bit when you turned up) is that by the time you get interested in your parents' life stories, they've gone and you can't ask them about it.

So it is with me. As I described here, my father was 51 years of age when I entered this world, and he died when I was 26 and nowhere near as interested in his past as I could - should - have been.

He told me a few things about it, however: about how he drove a car along the notorious Nant Y Garth Pass using only a stilson wrench to steer it with; how he ran out a batsman by half the length of the pitch by pretending that the ball had gone past him to the square-leg boundary when he had in fact picked it up; about his disastrous encounter as a youth with farm-made scrumpy (which made him a confirmed tee-near-totaller forever afterwards); and - germane to my topic on this occasion - about how he spent time living in Letchworth in England just before World War II.

He had gone down there because our steelworks had been mothballed due to the Great Depression, and most of the surrounding coal mines had either closed or were in no position to take on new hands.

I'm not entirely clear now about quite how long he lived in Hartfordshire, but I know that he trained as a pipe-fitter down there. I'm sure of this because he left us his lecture notes and, as my elder nephew has decided to train to be a plumber at the age of 42, I have recently had cause to dig them out. Obsessive archivist as I am, I have also scanned them so that even if the fabric of the actual notebooks finally fails (and one of them started to disnitigrate while I was trying to scan it) then there may still be some record of one small part of the life of someone who was not, cosmically speaking, of great consequence, but who lived, loved, worked, rejoiced, suffered and died just like the greatest of potentates.

I e-mailed a few of the scans to my niece, who showed them to her 13-year-old scientifically-minded son, whose response to being told that he was reading the handwriting of his great-grandfather from 78 years ago was a drop-jawed, "No way!"; and to her brother (the one who isn't aiming to be a leak-lagger), who remarked how similar Dad's handwriting was to that of his own father, my elder brother. Connections...

It's a bit spooky reading the notes: not just because a lot of the material is very much of a bygone age, speaking as it does about using lead pipes (an age before plastic this, remember) and of the old 'town gas', predating the North Sea bonanza by over 30 years; but because these marks on paper were made by a man I knew well, but from a time long, long before I could know him at all. I find myself wondering about his state of mind, his relationships, his view of the world (particularly when that little Austrian git was gearing up for annihilation). Even if I had had the foresight and presence of mind to quiz him on all this while he was still capable of responding, I doubt if he would have given much away. It would, to him, have been nobody's business except his own.

Some minor mysteries still poke at me after all this. I'm sure that Dad mentioned more than once the name of the family (or one of the families) he stayed with, but I don't remember it now. Could this photograph - found amongst the notebooks - be of some of them?

Black and white photo of a family group

(The writing on the back reads, "Taken in the back window. Dad had just come home from work. This is the only one I can put my hands on with our Ethel on, that's her uncle & of course you know Dad. A.A.")

Further questions arise as to where Dad actually lived. I recall him saying quite often that he'd lived - by a remarkable coincidence - in a street called Wrexham Road. But, try as I might to check, I've been unable to find any trace of a Wrexham Road in either Letchworth or in nearby Baldock. What I have been able to establish from the inside front page of one of the books is that he lived at one point in Jackman's Place in Letchworth. But was it at number 6e? Number 60? Number 60-something? What do you think?

Inside front leaf of a notebook with a name and address

I've checked on Google Street View, and it looks like the houses on Jackman's Place now were built long enough ago for my old man to have resided in one of them.

These things can probably no longer be determined; all those who might have known are gone from us now, along with the man whose hand neatly and proudly noted his new knowledge.

Scan of the front of an old notebook

Scan of a page of hand-written notes about pipes

Scan of a hand-drawn diagram of a tap

Still, I think I can claim that one William Alfred Stapley, in that slightly tense summer of 1939, devised the first Dalek prototype (bottom right):

Scan of hand-drawn diagrams of various plumbing tools, including something which looks like an early Dalek