Musings on My Father


Bill at 17That rather handsome, 17-year-old young man to the left was Watts William Chadwick. My father, although he wouldn’t become that for many more years. So serious, so formal looking. A lot more so than I was at his age (I can’t say for sure that I even owned a tie or sports jacket at 17!).  I was remembering my father of late as I go through my belongings for downsizing. I’ve been putting aside to keep anything that might continue to connect me to my family. There’s not a lot of it.

And I was also thinking about the recent pandemic. As a child, my father went through another pandemic: the “Spanish” Flu that killed an estimated 70 millions starting in 1918 and continuing until the spring of 1920. Back then there were squabbles over lockdowns and wearing masks among the ignorati, as there are today, even in the Manchester region where my father grew up. What must it have been like for a young boy? What would he have to say about those arguments today?

I don’t have a copy of that photograph, though, just a digital scan. The original photograph was taken in 1931, between the world wars and in the middle of the Great Depression. In the UK it lasted from 1929 to 32. It was an era also dominated by radio and film, but TV wouldn’t take hold for another two decades. What did he watch or listen to? What music did he like, what actors did he admire? What books and newspapers did he read then?

My father was known as Bill to his friends and family, and he always used his middle name as his first when he moved to Canada. He passed away in Toronto at 92, dying slowly in hospital of esophageal cancer. I thought, too, about his struggle with the cancer that claimed him. He also had prostate cancer, as did his father, but for my father, it never became the mortal threat that it did with me. But I was never able to share my experiences with cancer with him, or ask him very much about his.

My father was born and raised in Northern England: in the city of Oldham, now part of Greater Manchester. The area was hit particularly hard by the economic downturn caused by the Great Depression because it was the heart of the British industrial region, especially for its cotton mills. Unemployment swept the north in those years and stayed longer there than in other parts of Britain. Although the depression ended (officially, if not actually) in 1932, economic recovery was slow, especially in the north, and it wasn’t until the country started re-arming in the mid-1930s that recovery finally came. But not long after that, the world stumbled into war, again. What was it like growing up in those conditions?

Thanks to the memories of my late Aunt Mary, who had moved to South Africa, I learned a little about my father and his family in those days. Here’s some of what I learned from her and from my genealogical research.

My paternal grandfather, Frank (born in 1888) married Winifred (Winnie) Barlow in 1904. He was a journalist who worked at the Oldham Chronicle (still in business today). My grandmother, Winnie (Winifred), was a dressmaker and milliner. I met them only once, when they came to Canada to visit, when I was still quite young. I remember little of them; just vague, jittery memories of their stay with us.

Frank began his career at the newspaper as an errand boy, then moved to the reading room and correcting proofs and was soon transferred into the editorial department as a junior reporter. By the 1920s he had begun work as the commercial reporter for the paper (a post he held until he retired).

Frank covered the cotton slump of the inter-war years that hit the north so hard. That slump began when Mahatma Gandhi called for an Indian boycott of English-made cotton, a few years after WWI. Most of the cotton mills were located in Lancashire, where my father’s family lived. Gandhi visited Lancashire in fall, 1931 — the year this photo was taken — stopping in Manchester, in September, to visit a cotton mill and meet the mayor. Perhaps my grandfather met and interviewed him. I have no evidence of either, but I like to believe that as the paper’s commercial reporter, he would have done so. Perhaps my father also saw him there. It would connect my family, albeit only slightly, with a man I have long admired. The Six Degrees of Mahatma Gandhi might connect him to me.

According to Mary, in World War One, Frank Chadwick fought in the King’s Royal Rifles, and was stationed in Egypt and Palestine. My own research suggests they didn’t have units in the Middle East, and he must have been with another unit. The KRR served on the Western Front until 1918. No one I spoke with ever said Frank served on the Western Front, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. But she was clear: he was in Egypt and the Middle East.

The 42nd (East Lancashire) division, however, served in Egypt, Gallipoli, the Sinai, and later Palestine (the unit was originally named simply the East Lancashire Division, and was renamed in May, 1915). It left for Egypt in September, 1914, which is around when Frank apparently signed up. Some units of that division left the Middle East for the European theatre in 1917. There was a Manchester Brigade, stationed around Cairo and then Alexandra, from that early date, too. At least one battalion (1/10) was formed in Oldham, in August 1914, and possibly a second (2/9). It’s a bit confusing because the initial British forces in Egypt in 1914-15 were reformed into the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in early 1916.

My guess is that he was in one of the locally-formed units, but I am still searching for the records to identify him. Some of the Manchester units also fought in the Gallipoli campaign, but again I don’t know if my grandfather was among them:

Early arrivals, in September 1914, were 1/4th and 1/5th East Lancashires, the Blackburn and Burnley Territorials of what became 42nd East Lancashire Division. They left Egypt in May 1915 for the Gallipoli campaign but returned the following January, together with the 11th East Lancashires (from England) and the three 6th Battalions. All six battalions were assigned to the Suez Canal Defence Zone, but in February the three 6th Battalions sailed for the Persian Gulf and the 11th for France. The East Lancashire Territorials remained and took part in the desert campaign which, in August 1916, defeated the advancing Turks at Romani. By January 1917 the two battalions had advanced across Sinai to El Arish on the Gulf of Aquaba, and it was from there that they were ordered to France.

The family name Chadwick is common in the north of England, and appears in many war records, even several Frank Chadwicks, so I am unsure which is his. There was a Lt. Frank Chadwick in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps who received the Military Cross in 1918. My niece has my grandfather’s medals, but I don’t know if this Frank was my grandfather, or even what medals he received.

Frank returned from war when Bill was already 4 or even 5 years old. Mary said Frank saw his son for the first time then. She probably meant “first time since the war began” because the war broke out in August 1914, and my father was born in January of that year. Frank surely knew his son before he left for war, but was overseas for the four years of combat, and likely unable to return to visit. If he was in the Middle East most, if not all that time, then it’s understandable. Some of the troops stationed in the Middle East didn’t get back until 1919.

Watts William ChadwickI know little to nothing of my father’s upbringing and growing up. I can’t recall he ever spoke to me about his life as a youngster. Everything I later learned came from my aunt (through a niece). He went to the University of Manchester for two years where he studied to be a pharmacist (a subject still taught there), but for reasons I never learned, he didn’t complete his degree, nor did he pursue it further when he came to Canada. Perhaps the depression and financial straits of the time had something to do with it. My niece, apparently, has his school notes from those university days. I’d like to read them.

The next time I encountered his story is during the Second World War. Dad (seen here in his uniform) served in the Home Guard on government duty and — according to my late mother — also worked in a parachute factory in either northern England or  Wales, possibly both. I have a memory of him telling me he was a bomb-spotter standing guard on rooftops during the Blitz. He had initially passed all his tests to become a pilot, only to find during the testing that he was colour blind. I wonder if he would have survived the Blitz and the air war, had he become a pilot. Obviously, I wouldn’t be here had he not.

My father’s two best friends in those halcyon pre-war days were Len Harrison and Herbert “Bert” Newby. Bert, I learned, sang with the local opera society and went on to be a singer in the renowned D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and even staged their productions later. I remember my father singing songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas when we drove to our cottage, when I was very young (late 1950s to early ’60s). I learned a handful of those songs myself,  from hearing him sing them, and it developed my own love for G&S music. I suppose my father learned them from Bert and perhaps they sang them together. I never learned if he kept in touch with any of his friends from England after he moved to Canada, but I cannot recall him mentioning them.

Apparently, music was a big part of my father’s home life.  Mary said the whole family would often have a singalong. Bill, my father, played banjo. His mother, Winnie, played the ukulele. Frank and his daughter (my aunt) Mary played piano. A musical family, playing and singing together in the evenings.

So much I didn’t know. I never knew my father was colour blind. He never mentioned it to me. Nor did I know he played banjo or that my grandmother played ukulele (my favourite instrument these days; think there’s something in the blood?). I’ve played guitar for more than 40 years, starting in the mid-1960s when I was still living at home. Never once did he tell me he, too, played an instrument or offer any advice or encouragement for me to learn. He did tap out a few ditties on the home piano now and then, but we never had a singalong.

I also never knew he wanted to be a pilot. I love small planes and flying in them. But I never knew my father dreamt of soaring into the sky in one. But I do remember he taught me to play chess when I was a pre-teen, which was a big part of my life for the following decades. I used to play with friends regularly until we moved up here. Sadly, my skills at chess have long since rusted, but I do remember him playing with me before I was 12 years old.

No one in the family ever mentioned the Palestine connection (via Frank) to me. I went to Israel in the late 1970s. Had I known that my grandfather served there, it would have made the voyage more intimate and personal. I might have been able to trace his regiment’s footsteps and visit the places they travelled through. I didn’t even learn Frank had been a reporter until after my father died; another tie to family history I was unaware of until late in my life.

My father came to Canada in 1947. I found a record that suggests he actually landed in New York and came across at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing. He eventually ended up in a boarding house in Toronto, run by my great-grandfather (a man I can only recall ever once meeting, and that shortly before his death in the early-mid 1950s). There he met the woman (Mary Pudney) who would become his bride and my mother a year later. I know nothing of their courtship.

I also never learned what my father did for work then, but the couple moved to Windsor, Ontario shortly after marrying, where he worked as a time efficiency analyst for the auto industry. I recall later looking through his books about time efficiency studies which he kept in the basement of our home in Scarborough, to which they moved several years after I was born. We lived first in a small apartment in a two-or-three-storey walkup building in Scarborough before they bought their house. My few remaining earliest memories are being in that apartment or playing outside it at age three or four there (I recall a moment of anxiety when Hurricane Hazel raored in).

There was a lot left unsaid between my father and me. So many things I learned about him later, after his death, that I wish I could have asked him about now. Scattered around the house are the very few things left to remind me of him, or of my mother. They didn’t have a lot to leave anyone; I ended up with a few Royal Doulton mugs, some bits and pieces from their knickknack shelves, a couple of old books. They say little about either of them, but they are the only touchstones I have.

I have lived my life in a country at peace, while both my parents and grandparents had theirs interrupted by wars so calamitous they shattered the world they lived in. Wars that changed everything; remade life entirely for everyone who survived. I’ve been an avid reader of the history of those wars for many decades, but reading pales against hearing their stories. I wish I could ask them now about how they managed, what they felt, their fears and their resolve. I know something of the service they did, but nothing of how they felt.

One of my fondest memories was when my father came from Toronto to see me sworn in at my first inauguration to council, back in 2003. It was shortly before his 90th birthday. I have a photograph of him standing with me on that occasion, beaming because he was proud of me for that achievement. Little did any of us know then that he only had two years left. 

I was reminded of my father’s death when I recently came across a poem by Merritt  (aka Mary) Malloy, called Epitaph. It is sometimes included in the Reform Jewish liturgy before Kaddish, the prayer traditionally recited for the dead. That short poem is here:

When I die give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me.

I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not your mind.

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

Since I have little left of my father, have no close family nearby, and no one near me even knew him, I cannot even project my memories of him onto anyone else. So I look instead to the bits and pieces I have left of his and my mother’s life, and use them to remember. And I will use this blog to write his memory on the virtual wall of the internet.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top