Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Bishop Family


Today they say that education is freely available to all, though I could certainly take issue with that opinion. We know that the English have paid lip service to the idea of education for the masses over quite a lengthy period, but it must be said that some progress has been made, especially since the 19th Century. I am sure that most would agree that not even today is education really free, and looking at the question as a whole it is obvious that there are many levels and grades of tuition. Of course the lower the standard of education the cheaper it becomes, and this means inevitably that the majority are provided with low grade tuition. This proves to be a trap in which those who are unfortunate enough to be caught find that qualifications and opportunities are restricted, and very difficult to achieve. In more recent times the education system has tried to make amends for this state of affairs, but the real needs have mainly gone unheeded. For the majority of children there are still not enough teachers, and many of those we have are of poor quality. Modern methods do not provide enough discipline, which makes the job of teaching almost an impossible task. No wonder so many teachers give up trying, and become apathetic, and apparently just go through the motions.

My observations on the education system are directed at the methods used in England because it was there that both my father and I suffered from the effects of such a system. It is still a fact of life in England, that the higher the level of wealth, the greater the availability of good education, and the opportunities it provides. Then there is the question of power, privilege, and friends in high places, additional advantages that usually accompany the possession of wealth. But all this is known to the reader, and so I will move on with my narrative.

When my father was a school boy the standard of tuition available was strictly limited, but council schools were by now in existence, and it was to one of these that my father went. A further advance in the much vaunted educational system about that time was the decision to increase the school leaving age to fourteen years. My father was fortunate to be able to take advantage of this improvement, but such small gains were more than cancelled out by the fact that, when he left his dubious seat of learning, (the year was 1917 or there about,) almost four years of war had decimated the already limited standards of the teaching fraternity.

Another result of the Great War was to be felt in the work place, it was not only women who were now expected to take up much of the burden or the work force, but even children were expected to do a man’s work. The effects of the Great War had brought society forward in some respects, but had pushed it back in others. Often working conditions were little better than in the days of Charles Dickens, and this was even more evident in the Potteries. In North Staffordshire most of the employment was related to the pottery industry and the coal mines. Both of these industries had shocking reputations, they had improved little since the beginning of the industrial revolution. .

It was into this sort of environment that the diminutive Billy Bishop ventured when he left school. He had wavy brown hair and what could only be described as a baby face, though people were soon to find that his cherubic appearance was a deception. Those that did not know him were usually taken in by his 'butter wouldn't melt in my mouth ' demeanour. There was a greater respect for authority in those days, but even in this area the innocent looking Billy was not averse to cocking a snook at those in high places. This included just about everyone from his perspective. Where his equals were concerned his actions and attitudes were even more extreme. Many were to discover that it did not pay to trifle with him, though it is certain that many were tempted to try. Deceived by his small stature and apparently inoffensive appearance, he must have been considered an easy target. Defending himself became an integral part of his life, and with much practice he became experienced and a dangerous opponent.

Living with combat as a constant part of life was a source of great difficulty for someone small in stature. It was all very well to have a fierce spirit, and to realise that attack is the best form of defence, but in the beginning my father found victory was often hard won. How could a little fellow turn the tables? The answer in my father’s case was to learn to fight with skill, to be better at it than the other fellow. He joined a boxing club and soon discovered that he had some natural ability. He was fast on his feet, had a hard punch, and could think faster than most of his opponents.

By the time he was sixteen he had become a semi-professional boxer and was earning small purses in professional tournaments. One of the highlights of his career about this time was a bout with the famous Tut Wally, a well known and popular local boxer. My father did not tell me of this fight, but when I heard about it, and asked him for the details, he admitted that regrettably he had lost on points. There was no shame in losing to an older and more experienced opponent of course. His lasting memory was, he told me, his disappointment in not winning the handsome purse that went to the winner. - For the unenlightened I should explain that Tut Wally was a leading fly-weight boxer in the North Midlands at that time. He had won many fights and was a well known figure in sporting circles. It might also be appropriate to mention that my father never told me about this highlight in his sporting achievements; I happened to meet the famous Mr Wally in later years and he told me that young Bill Bishop had given him a hard fight and had proved to be a worthy adversary. - One usually enjoys the things that one is good at, and so my father was to continue to use his fists to improve his prospects for some years to come. In addition he was now finding that physical confrontation held no fears for him. In fact he tended to take the fight to the opposition, and sometimes when it was not really necessary. In fact I think it would be fair to say that my father was beginning to enjoy his ability to dish it out.

It can be seen that my father began life with few privileges, and though most would accept that such a beginning, (for which he could not be held responsible,) would explain the way in which he developed. It is also clear that society would have shown very little sympathy for him had he broken our rules or laws. There was little mercy for those who got into trouble, and even less effort made to try and understand the reasons for such transgressions. From the little I know it is clear that Dad got into many scrapes, and even allowing for exaggeration it is certain that many of the tales I have heard are true. However, he did not lack in intelligence and it was his innate common sense that always came to his rescue before he had gone too far. Most of his sins were small ones, and once we recognize that he was guilty of very little that might be described as serious offences, then it is possible to derive some amusement from his escapades.

Billy was hard working and determined to earn enough to make life a little easier for his grandmother. After trying one or two jobs which he decided were unsuitable; usually because they did not pay well enough. He eventually found that the choice available to those that lived in the Potteries was employment in the pot banks, or a job in the coal mines. Probably it was the rate of pay that decided him, but when he discovered the best pay available was to be found working in the pits, he decided to become a miner.

If ever there was a hard and dangerous way to earn a living coal mining was it. Billy was already a pretty tough nut but if anything was guaranteed to harden him even more it was the life of a coal miner. They were hard men and they needed to be. He soon became a good miner though he never really liked the life. In addition to the worst aspects of it there was also the fact that it was shift work. Many men hated returning home in the morning and trying to sleep during the day. But needs must when the devil drives, they just had to make the best of it. At least the money was better than most other means of employment. How long this mining job might have lasted is hard to say, but it is certain that one way or another young Bill was not destined to hew coal for very long.

The first step in his withdrawal from the life of a collier was probably when he was banished from below ground. Being small and very young, (He was about fifteen years old when he started the job and almost sixteen and a half when he finally left.) it was certain that he was going to have problems with some of the other men. His tender years and cherubic face almost guaranteed that before long he would have to defend himself. Maybe his new found and rapidly growing confidence in his ability to defend himself had developed to the point of arrogance. Maybe he was gaining the reputation of being a trouble maker? Whatever the reason it eventually came to the point where one of the older hands decided that he was going to put this young upstart in his place.

The team of miners had stopped work and were sitting near the coal face having their snapping (their lunch). How the incident started we will never know, but it was at this moment that an argument broke out. Maybe a superior place in the pecking order needed to be established? Whatever the reason, the older man attempted to chastise the cheeky youth, who at the time was sitting on top of a loaded coal wagon. Moving forward the senior hand attempted to drag the young miscreant from the truck, but before he was able to accomplish this, the fiery young Billy acted. There was no time to think about what he was about to do, it was pure reflex. Picking up a large piece of coal he smashed it down on the head of his would be attacker. Maybe the old hand had friends in high places, a friend of the foreman, or a pal in the manager’s office at the pit head. Or possibly this act of violence was thought totally unacceptable in the work place. Whatever the reason, it was decided that Billy should be banned from work below ground. Now he would be demoted to a job on the surface, and this was a more serious matter than it first appears. Surface workers were paid only a fraction of the money paid to those who worked at the coal face.

Life must have appeared to be against him, which it often does for many teenagers. They very rarely consider that it might be their own behaviour which is at fault. Whatever the circumstances the only thing my father could see was that matters were going from bad to worse. It must have been depressing for him, no matter how he tried; life seemed to be getting more difficult as each day passed. He was battling against the odds and losing; in fact it was probably his very determination to fight at the drop of a hat that was causing him so much trouble. Viewed from a distance, as we are now doing, it is difficult for us to fully comprehend the reality of his situation. Life was hard, and the people were hardened by it. I doubt that any generation had a harder row to hoe than my father’s, though every generation might say that.

I have often wondered why my father became a coal miner, and my impression is that it all came down to money. The work was hard and well paid jobs were scarce, and this appears to be the dominant reason. There was another reason I discovered, he was distantly related to the Jones family, and when you consider that he worked at the Glebe at Fenton, then it becomes apparent that Tom Jones might have been instrumental in finding him employment.

A job at the pit head was better than no job at all, though it was something of a come down to find that he now had to serve the elite, the superior beings that worked at the coal face. His job was to collect and organize the small wagons which were required in a steady stream by the contract teams underground. This was not a popular job as the slightest delay would usually result in repercussions from the competing teams. Billy could look after himself, but no one individual was powerful enough to defy the demands of a whole team of tough miners. Sooner or later this new job would bring conflict with others more powerful, and so it proved.

Most of the contractors were men to be feared, and the one feared most of all was Tom Jones. It was not long before the situation dreaded by anyone doing this sort of job came to pass. A supply of wagons destined for the Jones team were taken by another team, and trouble was bound to eventuate. - My father once admitted to me that as a youth he had been very much in awe of Tom Jones, and on this occasion Tom was to live up to his intimidating reputation. - The absence of the required coal wagons soon resulted in the appearance of my Grandfather Jones with a face life thunder. On finding out why his wagons had not arrived on time, he said: “Here young Billy, I have an axe for you, if any bugger touches the wagons that are marked for me, you cut their bloody fingers off. And don't worry about the team that took them last time, I shall see to them myself right this minute." And with that he stamped off back to the pit head. I suppose it was some comfort to have relatives like Tom Jones around who would listen to your explanations, and what is more accept them as the truth. It is certain that had the offended party been anyone other than Tom Jones, the repercussions would have been much more extreme, of that one can be sure. Anything that affected the livelihood of men who have such an arduous occupation would receive the same response. It was not going to be long before my father decided that the life of a miner was not for him.

It was about this time that Billy began to visit the Jones household, walking over from Hanley to Fenton when he had the time. The daughters of the house were of great interest to a young fellow, especially the youngest one who was blond and very pretty. Mary was to attract my father for some years until he became brave enough to pay court to her and finally ask for her hand in marriage.

At sixteen years of age Billy had other things on his mind; girls were mostly out of reach, and earning a living much more prominent in his thinking. Making a living was vital, and it was not getting any easier. The 1914/18 war had ended and there were thousands of men looking for work; they had fought for a life fit for heroes but they were not going to find it. Slowly the smashed up economy and the worn out industry ground to a halt, unemployment mounted and the standard of living slid downwards, eventually ending in the massive strikes and hunger marches of the 1920's and 1930's. Half the world was in ruins, and as always it was the ordinary man in the street that suffered.

Youth is forever optimistic and it is a good thing for the human race that it is. Billy kept after every penny he could earn, taking additional jobs when he could find them. He was willing to do anything, and so counted himself very lucky when he managed to get a part time job as a stage hand at the local Theatre Royal in Hanley. He worked hard and made a good impression, so after a time the manager promoted him to a spot light operator. He really enjoyed this work, sitting high up in the 'Gods' as they used to call it. It was not a difficult job but it did require an alert mind, it was necessary to play the spot on the main characters on stage as and when required, one also had to take great care of the carbons and adjust them so that a bright light was always forthcoming.

Always conscientious, and enjoying the comfortable position he had, it was certain he would not have done anything to jeopardise this desirable situation. Being on the edge of the show business world was also another novelty; he was being paid and at the same time seeing all the best entertainment without charge. They say that one should always be wary when things go too well, and this good fortune appeared to be against the usual run of events. What could possibly go wrong? The trouble was that the job was too easy, too comfortable, and it only took the combination of a boring show and a period of long shifts at the colliery, to cause our hard working lad to fall asleep at his post. The bright white light slowly dimmed and faded away as the tenor stood centre stage singing! The next singing that Billy heard was still in his ears, but it was caused by a swift hard cuff round the head from the irate manager.

It is not surprising that my father lost his position of responsibility on the lights, though he was not thrown into the street, possibly because he was usually hard working and reliable. Maybe it was his boyish face and innocent expression that earned him another chance? Perhaps the manager was more understanding than most and listened to some glib explanation, though the actual truth may have not be sufficient I would have thought. The truth of the matter will never be known, but the outcome was that he kept his job, becoming a general stage hand.

Once again there was a loss of income, but at least he still had his extra job and he so he was able to continue to enjoy being around the theatre and the fascinating people he found there. His job now was to move scenery with the assistance of one or two other young chaps, and this sometimes meant that they had to be close at hand in the wings ready to make rapid adjustments at a moment’s notice. This was great fun, watching the action from so intimate a location; Dad would have been happy to have it continue indefinitely, but once again the exuberance of youth was to be his down fall.

For several weeks there had been a popular play running at the theatre, and in one scene a character lit a cigarette then threw it down on the stage, usually towards the wings so that it could be picked up ensuring that it would not cause a fire. Naturally the young stage hands, who were all smokers in those days, were eager to claim the cigarette and smoke it. On one particular night the decision had been hotly disputed and had not been resolved when the moment came to recover the desired Wills Woodbine. Such a scene is best left to the imagination, but it is not difficult to see in the mind’s eye, the two antagonists falling in a struggling heap at the feet of the actor, who was in the middle of one of his most dramatic speeches. This must have been highly amusing to the audience, but far from it for the unfortunate actor, and subsequently the two young stage hands were dismissed on the spot.

The final curtain had come down on my father’s life in the theatre, and as it turned out, it was the final act that ended in his decision to follow his father into the army. Looking at the facts I can see a pattern emerge, one that was to repeat itself some thirty years later, when I found myself in a similar predicament. At the age of 17½ I was at a dead end, with no idea where I was going. I was not sure that a military life was right for me, but with no other prospect in view, I took the course that seemed to be traditional in my family. I joined the army.

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