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AND SO ...

1. EARLY DAYS ..... Devon-born, London during the Great War, back to Plymouth

on to Chapter 2. "Guz Stoker - Second Class!"


I was born in Alexandra Nursing Home, up across Devonport Park, in Plymouth, at about 6:10 p.m. on 11th November 1916.


The earliest tale I can remember is of my first journey to London, where father was a Metropolitan policeman in the Chelsea Division. After the customary ten days lying-in period from a confinement, mother decided we should return to London to be with Dad. My Grandmother, Mum’s mother, decided to travel with us. We arrived at Paddington Station in a complete black-out because there was a German Zeppelin air-raid on at the time. How the Germans have had an influence on my mind!

To obtain a taxi at that time was a work of art, but the cohesion between members of the police forces paid off, and a policeman found a taxi when Mum mentioned who my father was. Grandma, at this stage of proceedings, felt somewhat left out and decided to do her bit.

At least she could hold me in her arms whilst Mum saw to the transport of the luggage in the black-out. As soon as Mum handed me over to Grandma I began to cry, and cried during the whole journey between Paddington Station and Radnor Place in Chelsea. The consternation was great.

Whatever was the matter with this baby? And Grandma rocked me all the more! After many stops and several detours, the taxi arrived at our home, humans and baggage safely ensconced indoors. Mum lit the gas mantle in the hall, baby still crying. Good old Grandma! All this time, it was discovered, Grandma had been holding the baby upside down! My dad frequently said that I had water on the brain. Could anyone wonder why?

Of the history of my father’s family I know little. Grandad Siddall was a miner, as indeed were all the male members of the family. They were Derbyshire folk and dwelt in the area of Chesterfield, near the old church with the crooked spire, although I remember when my dad told stories about his youth that places like Old Whittington and Stavely were mentioned. My son, Peter, is the last of our family to carry the name of Siddall.

My father was the youngest of his family; Uncle Joe the eldest, Uncle Fred next, aunt Frances and then dad. Uncle Joe was married to Helen; they had a son called Joseph, who was killed in a mine cave-in. One Friday, young Joe did not feel well and considered staying home from work, but Aunt Helen remonstrated since Friday was pay-day. He went to work and was killed.

Uncle Fred was something of a philanderer: he loved the ladies and left them, although there seem to be no known offsprings to lay at his door. Like all male members of the family he was a miner, although it was something of a part-time occupation with him. He often went on what Aussies call "walk-about", tramping around the countryside. Grandma Siddall was never sure when he would come home with his pay-packet. Uncle Fred had a great fear of the sea, ships and boats. He once tramped from Derbyshire to our house in Devonport.

I remember seeing his unkempt figure come indoors. What sticks in my memory is the sight of his boots cobbled with pieces of motor-car tyres - not inner tubes, but pieces of the good old Dunlops! He seemed to rock as he walked. The stranger walked in; Dad took two looks to make sure and then said something like: "Christ! It’s Fred! What do you want?" The reply was: "I’ve come to see thee." The retort was: "And you can bugger off again." By this time Mum appeared on the scene and the female sympathy started to work. Uncle Fred was taken in, taken to the outdoor wash-house and given several kettles of water with which to clean himself. His beard was shaved off with dad’s soap and razor, although he would retain his "Old Bill" moustache. He was kitted out with some of Dad’s old clothes but he was adamant about retaining his own boots; apparently he was keeping them against the time of future tramping.

At this stage in his life he was simply a "Gentleman of the Road". To me his stories were about another life. These gentlemen knew the whereabouts of every workhouse in the land, the distances between them, the good, the bad and the indifferent, the comfort of the beds, the types of food and the size of the helpings, the latest times of admittance and, apparently, the amount of work to be done by each inmate before being sent on his or her way at ten o’ clock in the morning. Uncle Fred said that, besides scrubbing the dormitory floors, the other tasks were sawing, chopping and bagging wood. In those by-gone days, open coal fires were the means of heating rooms, newspaper and firewood being the fuels to ignite the coal, so the councils sold the chopped wood for firelighting to help defray the workhouse expenses.

These "Gentlemen of the Road" were in a sort of Catch 22 situation. According to the law, any of these tramps could be arrested by the local constabulary as destitute if, upon apprehension, they could not show two shillings and sixpence - a half crown - which is the equivalent of twelve and a half new pennies today. They could not be admitted to a workhouse if they had money, because they were not destitute. I found out why Uncle Fred would not give up his boots. Inside one boot, in the heel, was a recess to hold a half crown piece! To some he was not destitute; to others he was.

Devonport man born and bred! The first photograph of dad - Harold Siddall - in Navy uniform. Taken in August 1937 at the bottom of Cornwall Street, Devonport by the ferry jetty

At this time, we lived in Gran’s house, No. 20 Cornwall Street, the first street to be built in Devonport. The street leads down to the River Tamar at a point called North Corner. From North Corner journeyed the steam ferries to Torpoint and Millbrook, on the opposite bank of the river. Uncle Fred was having a fine time. Gran Paul was keeping him in pipe tobacco, Mum was washing his clothes and among the women the sentiment was: "Poor man!"

I was enthralled by his stories of life on the open road, sleeping, when forced, under hedges, snaring, skinning and cooking rabbits, doing the odd job for a farmer for a meal, although it seemed that farmers were inclined to be suspicious of tramps, never letting them sleep in barns or under hayricks, for fear of their setting them alight. My mother’s brother slept in a room in the attic and a bed was put in there for Uncle Fred. He was in clover; he began to put on weight with this new mode of life and it struck me one day, when his face began to fill out, how like my dad he looked - a real Siddall.

Dad owned a sixteen-foot rowing boat, a good boat for river work. There was no way that Uncle Fred could be induced to go out in that boat. One day on coming home from school I discovered Uncle Fred was missing. Dad had found him some work on a farm on the other side of the river, which meant crossing on the ferry. That did it; ‘twas time to become a "Gentleman of the Road" again and, after receiving ounces of pipe tobacco from Gran, toiletries and clothes from Mum, checking his half crown was safe, he set off on his travels. "Watter!", he said in disgust and we never saw or heard from him again! I used to earn good marks in school writing stories about tramps.

When I was born, Grandad and Grandma Paul, my mother’s parents, either owned or managed a public house in Pembroke Street, Devonport. Grandad had served in the Royal Navy, initially as an armourer’s cooper, then when steam propulsion took over he became a shipwright. There were three children: Uncle John, the eldest, who became a Royal Naval shipwright and was killed in H.M.S. Warrior at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. (Strangely enough, I was captured and became a Prisoner of War twenty five years to the day after that battle.) My mother came next - Florence Elizabeth Paul - and Reginald Bertram was the youngest. All of the children attended the Royal Naval and Military School, which was built for the children of service men. The three towns (Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse) were predominantly garrison towns in those days and almost all the livings emanated from those services and their ancillaries. John was a shipwright, Mum had passed the essential examinations to become a music teacher, but Grandfather Paul reckoned that she would be of more use working in the public house and looking after her younger brother.

When my dad became a Metropolitan policeman it was discovered that he was a good sportsman, excelling in football, cricket and swimming. Because of his swimming ability, he was transferred to the Waterguard branch of the force. This meant being in the security branch of the Royal Dockyard in Devonport and patrolling the River Tamar in a launch, against any waterborne attempts at crime. My dad became what was known derisively by the river fraternity as a ‘Water Rat’. Other than sport as a pastime, having one or several pints of beer seemed another type of recreation when off duty. Beer and a public house went together; Grandparents’ public house was near one of the Dockyard gates. So it came about that P.C. Siddall met Flossie Paul. Grandad did not take to the policeman who began to occupy too much of Flossie Paul’s attention and apparently gain several snippets of information about the water fraternity at the same time! But true love will out! Against all opposition from her father, who was losing an unpaid barmaid and nanny, Florence Elizabeth Paul, spinster of this parish, married Harold Siddall, Police Constable, and I believe this was in 1913. Promotion came and he was transferred to the Chelsea division in London. They settled in Radnor Place, where my Mum was able to commence giving piano lessons.

Early in the Great War, whilst on duty one night, my father dived into the River Thames to save a man in difficulties in the water. The man was an Army Captain in charge of the Army Post Offices in that area. He had become convinced that spies were sending their mail through his branches and decided to commit suicide by drowning. In the struggle during the rescue he bit the top off one of dad’s fingers and severely kicked his thigh so that the thigh muscle was split. Dad spent some time in hospital and never really recovered from this injury - his sporting days were over. He was ultimately awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal and decorated by King George V. So, my children, you had a Grandfather who was decorated by his King and have a Mother who was decorated by her King.

After the Great War ended, my father was no longer fit enough for police duties and he left the police force. We came to No.20 Cornwall Street, Devonport, where my parents rented rooms from Gran Paul and began a career as shop keepers under the Grand title of General Dealers, which meant they sold anything and everything in commodities for households. Seemingly Grandad Paul had died in harness, of delerium tremens, in the public house in Pembroke Street. Grandma bought two houses, one of them being No. 20, and lived off the rents. We had the ground floor and tenement, Gran had the first floor; another family had the second floor and the front and rear attics were bedrooms under the roof. And now, perhaps, here commences the autobiography.


on to Chapter 2. "Guz Stoker - Second Class!"
or back to Contents Pag

revised 27/9/11