William Phillip Reid, also known as POP by family, friends and neighbours, is one of my heroes. He is also the one grandfather I had the privilege to know. Ernest Alfred Howard Kighley Sprange, my paternal grandfather, was killed in battle in 1917
If you had met Pop you would have thought the honorific ‘Hero’ unlikely. Pop was a mild-mannered, gentle man. He was born in London’s East End in 1887, had limited schooling and was early out in the world helping to make a living. I’m not sure of all the things he did, but assistant barrow-boy and then milkman were part of it.
Pop married Georgina Salisbury, but they were worried that her name sounded ‘common’ when they introduced her to Pop’s family, so he said her name was Maud. Throughout their life together he would either call her Maud or George. They were a devoted couple.
Like many young men in 1914, Pop enlisted in the army and was shipped overseas as part of the King’s Royal Rifles. He was trained as a bomber. The bombs were hand-held explosive devices – this was before the modern hand-grenade. The front row bombers would stand up from the trench and throw their bombs towards the enemy lines and trenches. Pop rarely mentioned this terrible time and the horrible things he saw and had to do. In fact, he only told me about being a bomber and what that meant once, after I had specifically asked about what he did as a soldier.
Pop was gassed with mustard gas and wounded in action. He was hospitalised in France. Apparently the army arranged for trains to take the wives of men injured in action to visit their husbands. Nan Reid (George/Maud) wouldn’t go. She had never been on a train and was terrified.
Pop was shipped back to England and had a limp and severe respiratory problems for the rest of his life.
Pop became a candy maker – specialising in the making of marzipan. He worked for a sweet manufacturer known as Clarnico. He worked there for decades. After he retired as a candy maker he worked as a night-watchman for the company. I don’t know the story details but during the London Blitz there was a fire in the factory and Pop was the one who raised the alarm and helped to save the factory. I think he was acting as an Air Raid Warden at the time.
During Second World War, war Nan and Pop were ‘bombed out’ of their house during the blitz. Their home totally destroyed. They moved to Chingford and lived most of their married life in an upstairs apartment of a two-story house. Their apartment had cold running water, but hot water was only possible by lighting a huge water heater which had to be filled from the tap and carried to where hot water was needed – bathroom for baths and washing, kitchen for dishes. I can’t remember how they managed to do the washing. Nan was a ‘presser’ in a local laundry – no wrinkled clothing was permitted – I still enjoy ironing my shirts and pants.
After the war, Pop was working as a night-watchmen at Clarnicos and was attacked by burglars – he was hit on the head with a cosh, knocked unconscious and tied up.
When he finally fully retired the company presented him with an extremely small token of appreciation for his dedicated service, saving the factory, and being assaulted on the company’s behalf. It was quite shameful. But I never once heard Pop complain, I can only imagine how he felt.
Pop always dressed smartly. His clothes were not new – but they were always immaculate. Trousers had knife-edge creases, shoes gleamed, blazer was brushed spotless. On summer expeditions to the coast, the shirt and blazer usually worn tie-less and the black or brown shiny shoes replaced with blindingly white deck shoes appropriate for a day’s excursion to the seaside.
Pop smoked a pipe (despite his lung problems) and would like to have a little smoke in his chair before taking a short afternoon nap. I found his pipe fascinating. When I was about four and had been staying with Nan and pop for the day, Nan came into the living room where Pop was napping, and found me happily perched in another chair with my legs crossed, sucking on Pop’s pipe (apparently I had carefully taken it out of his mouth while he was sleeping). Nan had some words of advice for me about never touching that filthy thing again. I never did.
With Remembrance Day upon us I recall the times when our local area of London had Remembrance Day parades and services. As an Air Cadet and solo trumpeter I played Last Post and Reveille for the services for a number of years. I always found it very moving. I remember one year, I had finished playing, and was walking in another part of the town where there was another parade of veterans coming along. I spotted Pop, he had his medals pinned to his blazer (complete with the King’s Royal Rifles badge), he was just standing quietly watching the veterans march by.
I stood with him, wondering about his thoughts at that moment. Was he remembering the horrors of war, reliving the terror, or just remembering comrades and friends who had died. Was he thinking about the German men he had likely killed when he threw his bombs. I shall never know. I only know that marching in the parade wasn’t something he ever did. But he always watched, silent and thoughtful.
His marriage to Georgina thrived through many hardships, they were devoted to one another. They had one daughter Catherine Georgina Rose (known always as Rose) who was the apple of Pop’s eye and his pride and joy.
Pop was a very generous man. Although he and Nan had very little, they never failed to share what they had. I remember them lining up each week to pay money into the “Christmas Club”, a locally organised group who would collect contributions from members, record the contributions, keep the money safe in a bank or Building Society and distribute the savings back to the members just in time to buy Christmas presents and purchase special Christmas food. I don’t think Nan and Pop ever had a bank account of their own. But this was a community that realised people needed extra money at Christmas and offered a way to make saving possible.
I don’t have many stories to tell as Pop was a man of few words – but his gestures, his kindness and steadfastness told you everything you needed to know. He was a man of principle, full of love, and at the heart of his gentleness was a brave hero.
Lest we forget