Eulogy for Joe Wilson - delivered at Epsom United Reformed Church
by David Wilson April 2011
Dad was born in Northern Ireland on February 28, 1920, a few hours away from being a Leap Year baby and nearly missing many birthdays as a result. He liked to speculate on the effects of being born on February 29 and would no doubt have added today that to pass on after only 23 birthdays is tragically early. Instead, he completed 91 years and outlived his three younger siblings and the majority of his contemporaries. We are thankful that he lived that life without significant medical or other difficulties, and that he simply faded away at the end as his previously-inexhaustible sources of energy finally ran out.
He grew up in Ballymena and Belfast where he was a competitive swimmer and regional water-polo player. A strong Presbyterian upbringing was to have a significant influence for the rest of his life.
Young lovers at Scabo Tower, Co. Down 1946
After leaving school to train as an optician, he joined the Irish Guards and fought in Belgium, Holland and France during the War. He met Mum in London during the demobilization process and they were married in Worcester Park in 1947.
I doubt that the early years of marriage were financially comfortable and Dad held a few jobs before deciding to train as a teacher. He went to Loughborough College and majored in English, Scripture and Physical Education, in the days when PE, like stamp collecting perhaps, was not regarded as a discipline which merited a teacher's full time attention. He was Captain of Swimming at Loughborough.
After qualification as a teacher and briefly teaching in Northern Ireland, Dad and Mum and (at that stage) two children in 1954 relocated to Stoneleigh; they moved into the house in Sparrow Farm Road where Dad lived for the rest of his life.
His teaching assignments took him to South West London in the days before Clapham, Tooting and Battersea were regarded as desirable residential areas, and he started the 7-10 mile commute in each direction on his bicycle which continued late into his career.
I recall his appointments at William Blake, Hillbrook, Hillcroft, and Ernest Bevin Schools, among others. He gave up his English teaching and dedicated himself full-time to PE at Hillbrook and thereafter. References which were given in support of Dad's promotions over time talk consistently of his energy and skill, his good humor and imperturbable manner, and his generosity in dedicating much of his own time to out-of-school activities.
Dad's style as a teacher, and as a parent, was to expose his students to all the available opportunities and then leave them to decide whether they wanted to pursue them further. He was always ready to encourage any signs of interest, but I don't recall him ever pushing us towards something that did not appeal. At school, this resulted in Games Afternoons being expanded, after much internal lobbying, to many non-traditional areas: Ice Skating at Streatham, Track Cycling at Herne Hill, Judo, Volleyball and Lacrosse among others; most, probably unfamiliar to the inner-city teens in his charge. As a result, he leaves a legacy of talented sportsmen and national and international competitors in a wide variety of sports disciplines.
At home, he invested his time energy and cash in exposing us to many forms of theatre, ballet, film, music, and literature, which provided inspiration into our later years.
Towards and into retirement, Dad dedicated much time to Schools Swimming, becoming President of the London Schools Swimming Association and the English Schools Swimming Association. Later he invested his time supporting the activities of the Irish Guards, helping to develop and implement a system for linking former soldiers to their Headquarters.
President of the English Schools Swimming Association 1981
And retirement provided an opportunity to travel beyond the British Isles as a tourist for the first time. As a result of the astute deployment of their children, Dad and Mum were able to make extended visits to Nepal and Sri Lanka, where they rode elephants in the mountains, to Australia where Dad demonstrated that even some 80-year olds were capable of climbing over the top of Sydney Harbor Bridge, and to Rome where Dad compromised his principles to tour the Vatican and climbed the dome of St Peter's Basilica when he was 82.
Dad wasn't an overwhelming success in all his undertakings. His decision while in his mid-50s to take driving lessons was not one of his best. After some truly frightening outings, of which I have personal knowledge, he put in for the Test and - much to everyone's surprise – he passed first time. He then filed the license and never used it again.
His philosophy in life, as in sport, was to do the right thing first - even at the expense of ultimate success. The early teachings of his Presbyterian ministers must have contributed to this attitude. He stood for "proper" or ethical integrity and always exhibited these traits himself, without over-preaching the philosophy to others. His was an example that we did our best to follow.
And, whether in a sporting or another environment, we found the going getting tough, when things were going against us, or where we faced a daunting challenge with little chance of success, we'd seek Dad's encouragement and a favorite response was "Don't worry lad, great is your reward in Heaven."
We are glad that Dad is now enjoying those rewards.
Ode to Joe
(with apologies to Longfellow)
born Ballymena 28th February 1920 - died Epsom 6th April 2011
When we were children, my Dad's side of the family were for us the relatives from "across the water" – in distant Ulster. Our grandmothers were called Nanna-cross-the-water and Nanna-here.
In a land across the water,
Cave Hill towering o'er the city,
Lived Sam Wilson, worked with letters,
He a hero of the battles,
First War battles out in Flanders.
Sam spoke not about his horrors
Spoke he little, this war hero
Hero from across the water.
One cold day in Ballymena
In the warmth arrived his firstborn
Safe arrived a lusty newborn.
What proud name to call the firstborn?
Named he not for his grandfather,
Nor any uncle, cousin, brother.
The hero's name he chose to honour
Did celebrate the soldier's saviour
That name belongéd to the Stallion
Who took a bullet aimed at the soldier
Fighting in the fields of Flanders.
Young Joe grew tall and Joe grew muscled,
Joe played polo in the ocean
He played polo cross the water
Sea so cold his hands lost feeling
Hands so cold so close to freezing
Never felt the ball he'd captured.
Father spoke not of his fighting
So when war came again to Europe
Joe signed up to head for glory
Joined he the Irish Guards for Britain
At the tender age of 19,
Joseph left for war at 19
Off to fight across the water.
Joe knew friendship, Joe knew hardship
Fighting in the fields of Holland
Flemish fields consumed his comrades
But wrote he home midst all the chaos
Wrote he home across the water.
One home leave in shattered London
Came he back from fighting Germans
Came he back from cross the water.
Heard the Royal Empire Society
Made some fun for resting soldiers
He turned up at some big tea-dance
Meant to help and cheer the soldiers
Fighting in the fields of Holland.
There Joe met a gorgeous bombshell
Here he danced and fell for Peggy
She a lass of only 19
Fell deep in love upon that dancefloor.
When at last the Germans beaten,
Victorious guardsmen swept through Belgium
Joyous Belgians threw them boiled eggs
A greedy guardsman scoffed six and thirty
Then he paid for his behaviour:
Couldn't crap for near a fortnight.
Two years on came home triumphant
Short Auburn hair and trimmed moustaches.
English friends who cared for Peggy
Told her not to trust a soldier,
Not a foreign, Irish soldier.
Heard she not, this Peggy Thomas,
Heard she not her boss's comment
Whispered to himself, and saying:
'I thought better of you, Peggy.'
People said they should not marry
Family, friends away in Belfast
Warned against corrupting English.
'God help him' murmured his old Granny
Listen to her words of wisdom:
'Mad to marry cross the water
Mad to marry English woman.'
But they were wed soon after Christmas,
They were poor but most devoted,
They knew friendship; they were happy
Made a home, a nest in Stoneleigh.
Joe went north to train for teaching
He knew hardship, he knew swimming
He knew how to run cross-country,
He knew football, rugby, tennis,
Shinty, hockey, bikes, life saving,
But to teach the English children
He learned volleyball, lacrosse and cricket.
He'd known hardship, he knew friendship,
Went to teach in inner London
Cycled daily miles to Tooting
One fell day he got a puncture
Coins and stamps he used to mend it.
The joy of team games London showed him
Taught he the boys the pride of winning
And he helped them win new battles
Butterflying, back-crawl, breaststroke.
Battles spread throughout the nation
Mighty battles in the water
Fought with pride across the nation
Victors coming home triumphant
Bearing medals like their fathers.
Yet Joe was also father, husband
Three-score years and three was faithful
To his Peggy and his children.
In the kitchen he was useless,
No dish better than an Ulster Fry;
Decorating made him angry.
Cultured common man with passion
Presbyter and Scripture teacher
Jokes and stories for church members
Bedtime stories for his children
Made up all from recollections.
And each Sunday after worship,
We three wrote letters to our Nanna
Letters sent across the water.
Joseph ever loved his swimming,
Golf and bridge and whist and scrabble
Croquet, quizzes, wordplay, crosswords,
Blake and Tennyson and George Eliot
Loved his books and loved his letters
Letters sent across the water.
Now his children they are scattered
Scattered far across the water.
Whence came all that wanderlusting?
Wherefrom the lust to work far distant?
Wherefrom the lust to cross the waters?
Our inspiration was our father.
And Joseph rests, all things renewed
Now he lies 'neath turf where golfballs
Sailing skywards 'tward the Grandstand
Plunge they into roughs and bunkers.
Joe thought nothing of life's bunkers.
He knew hardship, Joe knew devotion,
Knew great loving inside wedlock.
Joe knew friendship, his faith his anchor
Sure, that's the root of his contentment
That's the source of all his riches.
Joe's 2nd World War stories
When Joe went to sign up for war, he intended to join the North Irish Horse - following his father, Samuel. He was told, though, he was tall enough for the Irish Guards - the elite - and was persuaded. Arnold Gregory who signed up in Belfast at the same time and fought with Joe, had a similar story. He'd gone to recruiting office intending to join the Marines, but was also pushed into the Guards.
The quantity of food in the tins of Army rations was variable so soldiers 'in the know' would shake tins of stew to find the one that moved or rattled least since this would contain the most meat. Often the paper labels would have come off the tins by the time they got to the soldiers who would be presented with a pile of tins to select from. One experienced soldier rifled through a heap of tins and finally selected one that didn't move at all when shaken. He heated up his food, opening it to discover he had a tin of melted margarine for his dinner.
Queuing up to received Army grub, Joe had lost one of the two mess tins he had been issued with – so received his hot Irish Stew and tinned pears into the same receptacle. When others expressed revulsion at the mix, he said, 'Why not – it all goes down the same way!'
Asked by grandson Alex about Army sleeping bags, Joe just laughed and said, 'Sleeping bags? What are they?' And when pressed about how they slept during the war, Joe said, 'We just lay down!'
He did say that the Army Great Coats were good and warm.
Joe avoided gunshot wounds during the war but was hospitalised with abdominal pain. He was told he needed an operation and in the mayhem of a military hospital, lay in a corridor on a trolley advancing ever closer to the operating theatre. An officer walked by, glanced at Joe and said, 'You haven't got an ulcer have you lad?' Not wishing to argue with a superior, but a little unsure of what he was responding to said, 'No sir.' Joe was then moved out of the operating queue and thus escaped surgery to have part of his stomach removed. He was later diagnosed with dysentery.
Joe's Guards platoon was sheltering in a barn. His rifle was malfunctioning and a comrade offered to fix the weapon, but in handing it to Joe dropped it. The rifle clattered to the floor and began firing randomly. At least one person was shot in the foot. Joe was charged with improper use of his weapon and took the blame although he'd been innocent.
Pinned down under fire for days in Normandy, one of Joe's comrades couldn't keep still any longer. He blurted out something about needing a brew and climbed out of the bunker he was safely concealed in. He ran – zig-zag – to an abandoned house, being fired at all the way. A little later, smoke started rising from the chimney and they guessed he was burning furniture to heat the water. The smoke attracted mortar fire from the Germans, but they failed to hit the house. The soldier appeared at the door of the house carrying a cupboard door as a tray, and on the door were cups of steaming tea. The guardsman set out to walk across open ground again to bring the tea to his comrades, and was shot dead.
Joe was amused by the fact he was described in Army documents as having auburn hair – a descriptor he associated with film stars. In later years when he had lost most of it, he seemed to find the description especially hilarious (he was never slow to laugh at himself). His hair was an unusual colour and there were only two redheads in his platoon. One fateful day someone spotted a stretcher begin taken away by paramedics. The blanket was over the face since the soldier was dead but the striking ginger hair was visible, so that word got around that Joe had been killed in action. I believe that this rumour might even have percolated back to relatives in Belfast, but it was the other redhead who had died.
Out on patrol, Joe's unit hadn't seen any sign of Germans for ages and were tired of keeping a low profile. The conditions were muddy; wet sticky clay was stuck to their boots making them heavy. The squad came to a tarmac road. They were confident there were no enemy soldiers in the area and scrambled up into the road to stomp the mud – noisily – off their boots. As if by magic, armed Germans appeared around them and Joe and his comrades dived for cover. He never told us how many paid for that mistake.
A few years ago while Joe was staying with his younger daughter, Mary, in Italy, they visited Anzio. There was a disastrous beach-head landing there during the war and Joe found the grave of a colleague from his regiment (Irish Guards) who had the ID number one less than his own. Joe said they had divided the regiment so that this colleague (and numbers below) were sent to Italy and most died. Joe (and numbers above his) ended up in Belgium and many survived.
Irish Guardsman Terry Flanagan, was in the same platoon as Joe, and this is part of an interview with him:
"……..Our trench was dug in at an angle naturally, it was near the top [of the embankment], and just down a bit was Joe Wilson's trench and his section, four or five men, never ten [survivors]. I had just got 200 Gallaher Blues [cigarettes made in Belfast] from my mother in the post the day before. I opened them up and I was going to have a smoke but I had no matches. A few shells went over, a couple landed a way down a bit.
"Hey Joe, have you got any matches?" Joe was a helluva nice bloke, didn't curse, didn't smoke and a lovely boxer.
And Joe says, "Yes I've got a box."
"Could you bring them over? I've cigarettes and no matches."
Joe says, "Well that's tough luck! If you have no matches you can come over here for them.“
"Ach Joe, we're gettin' shelled!"
"I know, that's why I'm not going over there to your trench. Bring your smokes over here."
I says, "Well you don't smoke."
He said, "I never did, but I feel like one today with these shells!”
The Germans were shelling, oh aye and the odd one was thumping into the front bank. So I needed a smoke badly. So I said “All right.” I got out, crawled over to Joe’s trench; I got into it. I’d a 20 packet with me, opened it up got a cigarette out and I gave him one and he says “How do you smoke it?”
So we got the box of matches and we lit up. We’d smoked maybe half a cigarette and then we heard this thing coming. The sound of it, the scream of it, we hit the deck, there was an awful explosion right near us. It must have been a 120mm shell. And we looked up and looked out then and there was a big pall of smoke covering my trench.
And I said, "Joe … it went into my trench ... thank goodness I came over …"
"YES, and I didn’t go over there, or the two of us would have been mincemeat!!”
The Irish Guards were often in the thick of it . Only a handful of the original Normandy teenagers and 20-something men survived the war.
"Like many men of his generation, he did not speak about his [worst] experiences and relished the ordinariness of post-war life, its tranquil routines, its tidiness and rising material wealth, and above all its lack of danger, everything that was to appear stifling to those born in the first years of the peace."
Ian McEwan in Solar
Sadly Mum passed away this year so I've written a poem in the style of Hiawatha for her too
Margaret (aka Peggy) Wilson
Born Tottenham 2nd May 1926 - died Cambridge 15th July 2015
Poem for Peggy
Thanks to those who’ve come to ponder
Nana, sister, Aunty Peggy
Thinking on her life and exploits
Remembering Mum, our Margaret Wilson
Daughter of another Margaret
Descended from the “Greenwich Beauty”.
Memory loss can be a tyrant
A cruel disease that creeps up – silent
Steels upon the unsuspecting
Takes away a person piecemeal
Takes them, sapping all the essence
Loved ones cannot stop them slipping
Bit by bit they’ve slowly faded.
No-one knows how it will progress.
One day wisdom shines out brightly
Scrabble skills still sharp and clever
Another day a child is unknown
That’s the sentence of Alzheimer’s.
Those last years and all the muddle
That is what we’re now recalling.
But let us think about the woman:
Peggy was an anxious person
Worried what her neighbours said
But she was a consummate hostess
Three course meals plus choice of puddings
Apple crumble topped with custard
Treacle tart and lemon soufflé
Sam most liked the gooseberry crumble
Sebastian too did rave about this
Emma loved Mum’s rhubarb compote
Though she feared the nut-laced fruitcake;
Victoria sponge Alex would beg for
White and sweet, light as a feather
And oh the wondrous moose of chocolate
All these puds had guests a-drooling.
Mum’s puds were just like homing beacons
At church cake-sales, coffee mornings
Bring and buy stalls, funds a-raising.
Arranging flowers another talent
Flowers for church and flowers for pleasure
From the garden, from the greenhouse
Raspberries strawbs and all those goosegogs.
Though now I would erase from memory
Watery tasteless horrid marrows
Boiled and served at Stoneleigh dinners
“One more portion – let’s use it up”.
Oh if only local wildlife
It had learned to raid the cold frame
So to ease Mum’s parsimony!
Greedy pigeons loved her lettuce
And our tortoise munched her bean sprouts
Quickly chomped fruits of her labours.
Family games another passion
Mum’s sense of fun was seldom wanting.
Queen of scrabble, words she mastered
Games of bridge with ease she played them
Slippery Sam and Chase the Ace-card
How we kids loved the stash of winnings
All those games with pennies gambled.
Joseph was her lifelong partner
Though friends they told them not to marry
Why would Peggy trust a soldier?
Wed a foreign, Irish soldier?
Peggy Thomas wouldn’t listen,
Didn’t hear her boss’s comment
Mumbled disapproving saying:
‘I thought better of you, Peggy.’
But they stayed a team together
In parenthood, in bridge and scrabble
Swimming galas, rugby matches
In church and school and barracks meetings
An awesome team: completely matchless
Three and sixty years together.
But then cruel fate split them asunder.
For four whole years, poor Mum was lonely.
So it’s fitting, right and proper
For Peg and Joe to be together
To sleep in peace on Epsom Downs.
30th July 2015