A Pain That Lasts A Lifetime

All of my life it’s been there, just like it follows her. A difficult part of understanding my mother is her attitude to loss and bereavement and the shadow that follows a ten year old child affected by the death of their father.

It’s for these reasons I’ve taken so long to write about my grandfather Frank. Not that it’s a particularly difficult subject for me to write about, but because I’m so aware that his memory is, and always has been, a life defining fact that sits just below the surface of her, and our, family history.

“I did all my crying when I was ten” was her matter of fact approach to life that is somehow reflected in my personality; partly because of my exposure to death in my career as a Cop – but also because it doesn’t disguise an underlying vulnerability and silent bitterness that’s there in her, even though events are so long ago. None of us are really that hard. But life shapes us. War shapes us.

I’ve also mused about this being the last of the blogs about my family history as it was affected by war. Granddad Frank is the last of the line in respect of the Crook family; literally as the youngest child on that side of the family tree, and metaphorically too as – his older brothers, who emigrated to Canada, added an ‘S’ to the end of the surname. You can read about the Crook(s) family in the other blogs you’ll find on this site, so perhaps this is the appropriate place for me to stop. At least, he’s the last one for me to talk about until something else inspires me to write.

Frank was born in October 1910 at Overa Cottages at Eccles, and the picture above is of him c1920, aged about ten. His older brother Eddie is pictured, served in the Royal Artillery and went on to be a publican on Scotland Road in Liverpool. His other brothers Sid and Herbert had been claimed by the first world war. Harry, via the war, and Fred had gone to Canada, never to return. Walter survived service in the war but was a Guardsman in London and long gone from Norfolk. His mother Mary would soon be dead, too. Harry, his father, sounds like a difficult character, but he had his sisters – the youngest child of ten surviving children of the eleven from the marriage of Harry and Mary Crook.

Mum doesn’t know too much about her fathers teenage years or early life, but by 1939 we know he was lodging at Rectory Farm at Quidenham – apples never fall far from the tree – and had met my grandmother Lilian Saunders. Lil had been lodging with her brother at the railway gatehouse at Hargham, and was ‘in service’ to the Beevor family at Hargham Hall.

It seems by then that Frank was a lorry driver by trade, and they were married at All Saints, Hargham on March 11th 1939. All Saints had partially collapsed in the 1700s, and not long after the wedding, collapsed again falling into disrepair. It’s since been partly restored after spending half a century as a ruin, but mum still speaks of it as an omen.

The shadow of war was there in early 1939, and as with so much in the Crook story, war would play its part in deciding family fortunes.

The newlyweds took on a modest cottage at 93 Church Street in Kenninghall; a tiny house that is now 1 West Church Street – tucked away in the yard behind what was the former Prince of Wales pub, and for so long thereafter the village post office. It was known as Honeymoon Cottage to them, but soon its damp and cold led to the diagnosis of rheumatism in Lil, and they moved to a brand new council house in the village.

War arrived in the following September. I don’t know how Frank began the process of enlistment, but by October 17th 1940, he became Gunner 1091522, Royal Field Artillery, at Shoebury Garrison in Essex. It’s not clear from his papers, but at some point he transitioned to the equivalent rank of Private in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and underwent training as a Driver/Mechanic.

Shoebury Garrison was the long established Royal Artillery gunnery school and weapons testing establishment and it seems Frank spent the war moving munitions and equipment to and from the site.

Mum came along in August 1942 as the young family tried to maintain some form of normality. Frank was 31 and Lil 29.

Frank, with Mum 1942

However humdrum his activities were with the RAOC, and while war raged across Europe, the event that changed their lives would happen on October 23rd 1944, the day before his 34th birthday. Again at Shoebury Garrison, Frank was involved in transporting who knows what. I don’t know the exact circumstances, but we have a partial record of the incident in which a crane operated by women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service collapsed while loading his truck. Frank was struck by one and a half hundredweight, shattering his spine, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. A devastating blow for a young man and the father of a toddler.

ATS Girls, Shoeburyness (Public Domain)

The end of the war wasn’t a celebration. Mum remembers being terrified on VE Day by the effigy of Hitler hanging from the house opposite the pub, and missing her dad; a feeling that would never leave her.

Life for Frank as a paraplegic meant Stoke Mandeville Hospital, until late 1945 when he was discharged to the care of the Royal Star and Garter home at Richmond, home to many invalided servicemen. Kings Regulations are fairly perfunctory.

Mum recalls the many visits to Richmond as a small girl, and being made a fuss of by the residents. It was a community, and the birthplace of the ideas that became the Paralympics. Despite the circumstances, mum has fond memories of her visits, as in the picture below, and we went back a few years ago to see the home before it was converted into luxury apartments.

Nan and Mum 1949

August 19th 1948 saw a visit from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Viscount Montgomery of Alamein needs no introduction as one of the most famous of British military commanders. Despite his reputation for lack of tact, the report above leaves little doubt about his popularity among the troops. As a boy, and even now, I wonder in amazement at the picture below of ‘Monty’ sparing a few moments to chat with my grandfather. I’ve shared it before, but not with the context of the story that goes with it.

Frank and Monty August 1948

I’m sure every resident on the ward had the opportunity, and it’s clearly a set-piece photograph, but I’ve seen no other like it. Maybe it’s a unique survivor. It was colourised as a gift for mum a few years ago and is one of our prized possessions. I’d love to see any other pictures of Monty during that visit if they exist.

The other pictures we have are simply those of a little girl, just pleased to be with her daddy.

So that was mum’s childhood; trips from Norfolk to and from Richmond and the hardships of being raised without a father. During 1951 and 1952, Frank’s health began to fail and he was moved to and from Richmond to Stoke Mandeville for care.

Finally, Frank died at Stoke Mandeville on December 21st 1952. He was 42, and it was almost Christmas.

Franks war was an ordinary war; a small cog in a giant machine. He did his bit, but paid the ultimate price as a result of an unfortunate accident rather than heroics in the face of the enemy. I’ve written about his brothers who went to war, crossed the oceans or fought on battlefields in foreign lands. I’ve written about his mother, Mary, who it’s said died of a broken heart as a result of it all. Tales, never told. Forgotten.

It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this account of a different type of casualty of war, mainly because my mum will read it, and I know that the pain will still be there. The story of granddad Frank is part of her and part of me. Maybe it’s about us as much as it is him – it explains for me why she has poured so much love into her children and grandchildren, but it’s a story to be told, to keep the names alive for the next generation, who will hopefully have the same questions I did.

After all, the least we can do is remember, and to find a way to come to terms with the history: I’ve got the medals Frank received for his part in the effort. Mum never got the one she deserves.