Charles James Pickersgill: On his centenary

There’s something strange about dads. Maybe not all of them. Probably most. Certainly mine. Possibly me. Too often we don’t get to really know them until it’s too late to matter any more. Sometimes we learn that the person we think we know is not the person we thought we knew.

I think I got to know mine in the last couple of decades of his life. He was living in Stratford and looking after my mother as she struggled against the irreversible fog of dementia. She could remember every grievance she suffered as a child but not how to do the laundry.

My dad learned to live with this, only occasionally succumbing to the stress and frustration. Like the time she woke up in the middle of the night and walked down to a neighbour’s home. When they asked what the matter was, she told them there was a strange man in her house. The neighbours got on the phone and two Stratford police cruisers soon rushed into Banbury Square Housing Co-op. Two constables went around and stood at the back door. Two others stayed at the front and rang the doorbell.

My dad woke up, answered the door, explained who he was, and helped my mum back into her bed. He didn’t think it was anything special. They had been married almost 60 years, she was in the last year of her life, he was in the last decade of his, and there wasn’t anything else he could, should or would have done. It’s where life brings most of us.

Charles James Pickersgill, Seajay for short, was born in London on May 4, 1919. One hundred years ago, Britain was still recovering from the horrors of the war that would, according to the politicians of the day, end all wars. It didn’t. It just made the next ones worse.

His father, my grandfather, was conscripted into the army. He had two horses which he was told to bring with him. His, and their, job was to drive an ammunition wagon supplying troops in northern France. He didn’t receive any lasting physical injuries but there were others from which he did not recover. These days we’d say he suffered a post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was a child, they called it shell-shock.

He lived another 20 years or so as a regular London working man, employed as a general labourer for the London Waterworks. The shell shock eventually did him in. I’m not sure exactly when, it could have been at the start of the next world war, that he was placed in one of the Epsom cluster of psychiatric hospitals just outside London. He stayed there until he died in 1957. He was 63.

I only saw him once. As I remember, it was not long before we emigrated to Canada. Children under 12 were not allowed to visit patients. My older brother got in, but the rest of us had to stand at the door to the ward. “See that one there,” a nurse might have said, “six beds in on the left? That’s your grandfather.” I never saw him again.

Seajay’s mother, Annie Chizlett, died from breast cancer in 1941. She was 46. Annie had a lasting influence on him, encouraging him at an early age to read as many books as he could get from the Hackney library. He was particularly fond of mysteries and adventure stories by authors like Edgar Wallace and Rafael Sabatini. In those days, the formal education available to working class children was not long.

My dad grew up in the London borough of Shoreditch. It was not, to put it kindly, a prosperous part of the city. In 1903 Jack London wrote The People of the Abyss about his experience living in that part of London. It was grim. Growing up in Shoreditch was a challenge. He had one older sister, Daisy, and one younger, Joan.

In March 1933, at the ripe old age of 13, Seajay began a two-year apprenticeship through the Westminster Technical Institute’s School of Cookery and Waiting. This led him into a job at the rather trendy Trocadero Restaurant in London’s west end and then into a few years on ocean liners sailing from England to New York and to South Africa. Then the next war came along, and he joined the Royal Navy.

He chose the navy for three reasons. He had a couple of years in the merchant marine on the ocean liners. He resented what the army had done to his father. The navy was the only British military service that did not require swearing an oath to the monarchy.

The British working class in the first half of the 20th century was quite heavily politicized. Most supported one or another of the socialist parties. Some gravitated towards the fascist parties that were heavily financed by the aristocracy, including members of the Royal Family. Seajay’s family sided with the Labour Party.

My Aunt Joan told me about going to anti-fascist rallies where they would oppose and disrupt events organized by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. My dad told me about an uncle of his who fought in the Spanish Civil War then went to Ireland to help the republican cause. My Scottish uncle, my mother’s brother, once said to me that any workers who do not believe in socialism do not believe in themselves. It’s true.

After completing his basic training, Seajay was posted to HMS Hood, the largest and oldest battleship in the British fleet. He served as one of its telegraphists from May until December 1940 when he was sent to Portsmouth for additional training. In January 1941 he was promoted to Senior Telegraphist. The Hood already had enough of them, so he was transferred to La Capricieuse. This was a French mine-sweeping sloop seized by the Royal Navy after France capitulated to the Germans.

On 24 May 1941, the Hood was in a fierce battle with the German Navy in the North Atlantic, between Iceland and Greenland. The Hood was struck by shells from the battleship Bismarck and sank within three minutes. Of a crew of 1418 men, only three survived.

One of those who died was Jack Till, a close friend of Seajay’s. Till was also a Telegraphist and the two of them worked together for the eight months Seajay served on the Hood. When the ship went down, my dad was 22. Till was 21. This had a profound and lasting impact.

I didn’t know, until I sorted out his papers after he died almost 10 years ago, that my dad kept a letter Jack Till sent him on December 29, 1940. It is a very touching and tender letter. Sad, in a way. Till wrote of his hope that the two of them would get together again one day. John Lennon said life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. So is death, Jack could have responded.

Seajay never talked about this friend, other than in passing reference a few times after he joined the Hood Association. I think now that he kept the memory alive as a lasting and unbreakable link to the fate he avoided by five brief months.

Seajay’s service on La Capricieuse led him to meet my mother, Marjorie Brennan. She worked for the British Admiralty in Helensburgh. Her job was to protect the British ships from magnetic mines by scrambling their magnetic fields. The two of them met at a dance while Seajay’s ship was worked on, and the rest, in hindsight, was predictable. They married in June 1943.

There was a touch of serendipity in their coming together. Marjorie was a Glasgow girl, born in the Gorbals in 1917. The Gorbals was to Glasgow as Shoreditch was to London. Tough. Poor. Proud. Working class. Like the neighbourhoods they came from, the couple stormed through a life together that lasted all of 60 years and produced four sons.

Seajay continued his education at night schools and college courses, upgrading his skill as a radio mechanic. He worked on radar bases in the Outer Hebrides. After coming to Canada he worked on the installation of the distant early warning (DEW Line) series of radar stations in the Canadian Arctic, and on the Pinetree Line closer to civilization. He worked in the NORAD bunker in North Bay, on Canadian and American air force bases in Europe.

He wasn’t home very much. A lot of this work was while he was employed by ITT Canada. That’s what brought him to Guelph. The company left Montreal in the late 1960s when the politics of Quebec nationalism convinced the head honchos to move out.

In 1973, ITT’s American parent helped organize the military coup that defeated the elected socialist government of Chile. All four of  his sons were involved in political campaigns to achieve social and economic justice, campaigns that he and Marjorie could readily endorse and support. Although not all of us saw eye to eye all the time, we were all moving in the same direction.

Seajay took an early retirement from ITT and relocated to Stratford. The last couple of decades of his life were spent working for the housing co-operative where he and Marjorie lived, and campaigning for the New Democratic Party. He died a couple of months after his 90th birthday.

I think that if he could, Seajay would look on these one hundred years and marvel at two things. How much the world has changed, and how much it has stayed the same. He was never scared of change, or nervous about new things. At least he didn’t seem to be.

He’s the man who built us a rocking horse for Christmas one year in England. It was a thing of beauty and we named it Trigger. He’s the man who built us a Heathkit stereo when we were teenagers in Lachine, Quebec. He embraced the Internet when we bought him a computer and an e-mail connection for his 80th birthday. He usually used it as the world’s most expensive Scrabble board, but he also searched for information and stayed in contact with friends and family. He loved his garden in Stratford.

He would have liked to see a government that supported the construction of more affordable housing and did more to narrow the wealth gap and reduce poverty levels, but wouldn’t we all? In 1919 the industrialized world was marked by poverty, poor housing and the rise of fascism. In 2019 it still is.

For 90 years Seajay did what he could to make this a better world. That is the measure of a successful life.

3 Comments

  1. <3 thanks for this Alan and thanks out to you and to Ron for getting to know Seajay so well in his last couple of decades. When he and I got to go into that institution to visit his Dad early 1957 we found him sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees. He was slumped forward and did not say a word. I was told he served in the water works during the Blitz responsible for getting water to the firemen. When that was done apparently he shut down, sat down and never spoke again. PTSD from WWI and PTSD from WWII. You remind me a lot of Seajay.

  2. Such an amazing story and wonderful legacy you have. Thanks For sharing

  3. Very nice tribute to your father Alan. Interesting fact that he served in the Royal Navy on HMS Hood in 1940. At the same time, my uncle (my family’s from Leeds, Yorkshire) also served on HMS Hood as a master baker. My uncle was transferred from the Hood just prior to it going after the Bismarck. He spent the rest of the war on convoy duty from Halifax to Liverpool. He died in 1979 at just age 61 from heart failure. Like your dad, he did not talk about the friends he had lost when the Hood was sunk and in fact, he rarely talked about his time in the RN during the war. The trauma of the war remained with him until he died.

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