Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Perks Family Photo Tin

I've spent a few hours recently going through an old toffee tin of photos from Fran's side of the family. I suspect a lot of families will have something similar. Maybe an old album, maybe a box, maybe a biscuit tin... It contains photos going back to at least the 1930s and possibly 1920s. Some of the people shown are totally unknown and with next to no chance of finding out who they are unless someone reading this recognises a great aunt or whatever. Some we do know. The main characters binding them all together are this couple...

This is Robert Walton Perks, who we shall call "Bob" from now on. In this late 1930s photo, taken by a Walkie-Snaps operator in Blackpool, he strolls along the Promenade in front of the Central pier with the old 1930s lifeboat house behind him and his sweetheart, possibly by then his wife, Margaret (Peggy) Birch. This is Fran's mum and dad.

Some of the photos - as will be the case with many such collections, thrown together loosely in a tin or box - are in a bit of a state. Many are torn, scratched, dirty. Some are fading to white. A few were not properly fixed during the processing and are fading to black! I'm not expert at this, but I've managed to repair some of the damage to bring back some of the lost detail.

We're not really sure who this lady is. We think it's 1930s. She bears a bit of a resemblance to Ellen Brophy, Fran's Great-Aunt. If it is her, she was instrumental in bringing the young Peggy up as a child.

Here's a family photo, taken after a wedding, judging by the button-holes worn by many in the photo. Perhaps the bride and groom are the couple in the centre of the photo, Clifford Barker and his wife Edith in the cloche hat. Ellen, Edith's sister, is standing next to her in the photo and I wonder whether the little girl, right at the front, is a young Peggy.

In the 1970s I used to collect football coupons, calling in every week to Ellen's house who always asked me in and made a fuss of me if it was raining. At Christmas a glass of sherry would be pressed into my hand (in several houses actually - I was in danger of being over the limit even if I only took a quick sip to be polite!) Sometimes a young girl, my future wife would sit ignoring me on the sofa...

By the time I became more well known to the family Clifford and Edith were in their 70s. He was the elder statesman of the family and was always asked to give a little speech at any occasion, no matter what it was. He would always rise to the occasion, after a modest attempt to decline, saying to me, "I don't know why they always ask me..." Then he would say something flattering and appropriate to the person or couple of the moment and raise a toast to their health, prosperity (or memory...) A lovely gentleman.

By the time Peggy was old enough to work it was only natural that, as a Rochdale girl, she would go to work in a mill. Even I can remember all the mills in Rochdale. My Nana, who had worked as a mill girl used to astound me as a child by sitting with me on the upstairs of a bus, having a conversation with someone at a bus stop, simply by mouthing and lip-reading. Mills were such noisy places that you couldn't hope to hear anyone speak inside one.

Bob, seen here standing shyly next to his brother Frank, hailed from the Wolverhampton area. Born in 1918, in the closing year of the First World War, his background, I am led to believe, was a bit more basic. There's a marked difference in the photos that we think of as Bob's family, than those of Peggy's. Famously (at any rate in the memories of Fran and her brother, also named Bob) he once refused to open the door of his Rochdale home to some of his family who had come all the way from Wolverhampton to see him.

This photo could in all honesty be of Rochdale folk, but we think it is of some of Bob's family. These are what you would call good, honest, heart-of-the-land folk. They've known rough times and have come through them. And though they may well have told Granny to stay in the house out of sight, that's not going to stop her peeking through the curtains and grinning at the camera!

What a shame none of these photos has either a date or a name scribbled on the back... Many of the photos are tiny. Passport-sized dog-eared prints. They don't stand too much enlargement even if they are in focus to begin with!

This is a young Bob standing with ... well, it could be and probably is, his mother and grandmother, but we don't know.

This is quite a poignant photograph from the collection. Bob joined the Leicestershire Regiment of the Army on his 19th birthday in May 1937. His Service Certificate, which we still have, shows that he was stationed in his home country until 14 September 1938. He spent eight months in Palestine then was transferred to India in May 1939 where he spent the first and second year of World War II. On 12 February 1941 he was moved to Malaya, arriving there the following day. One year and two days later, he was captured by the Japanese.

Bob (next to the end on the right, front row) spent three years, 239 days as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese. He spent some of that time in forced labour on the infamous Burma Railway. Whilst not actually working on the bridge over the River Kwai, he did work with gangs cutting some of the clearings. Bob would never speak about his experiences. Just once was he to say privately to me how awful was the treatment given to the native slave workers. Given little food, they had to shin on ropes down cliff faces, plant explosives and climb back up before the charge went off. Many did not have the strength to climb back up and either fell off, or were blown up by the explosion.

Whatever else Bob saw or endured went to the grave with him. Peggy would tease him into his seventies, saying, "Oh, Bob won't talk about the war, will you Bob? What did the Japs do to you?"

"Nowt!" would come a grunt. And I couldn't help but think, "Nowt that you would want to remember..." Bob was liberated on 11 October 1945, was brought home to England the following day and was discharged from the Army in Shrewsbury in May 1946. His testimonial reads: "This man is cheerful willing worker. Honest and sober. Displays intelligence when interested in a job. For more than 3 years was a P.O.W. in Japanese hands."

We'll meet Bob and Peggy again.

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