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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Uncle Jimmy

My mother used to say it would have been better if Uncle Jimmy had been brought up a girl and his sister a boy. When I was older she added “You see, he didn’t develop properly when he was growing up.”

Uncle Jimmy wasn’t really an uncle or indeed a relative at all. He attached himself to the family just before the First World War when he crossed the Pennines to take a job in the local branch of Millwoods, a clothing and furniture retailer where my grandfather worked. As he had nowhere to stay, my grandfather took Jimmy home and asked whether they could put him up for a time. Jimmy soon found his own accommodation and later, perhaps surprisingly, a wife, but he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. He appears in no end of our family photographs, a surrogate uncle.

“A jolly little fat man with a high voice,” is how my brother remembered him, “Uncle Jimmy Dustbin,” not his real name but a pretty good homonym, the kind of name a small child would come up with. He was five feet two inches tall (157 centimetres) and had been slightly built in his youth – his army attestation papers show he had just a 31 inch chest (79 centimetres). He must have suffered terribly at the hands of childhood bullies, and possibly left his native Cheshire to begin life afresh in a town where nobody knew him.

His army papers also record that when he attempted to volunteer for war service, he was rejected six times on the grounds of poor physique before being accepted into the York and Lancaster Regiment at the seventh attempt. Even then, on mobilization, he was immediately transferred back into the army reserve, perhaps in the hope he would grow and gain strength, but it seems unlikely he did. He was mobilized again after eight months but then, just six months later, he was transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. He managed three months there before being compulsorily transferred to the 5th (Cyclist) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was part of the Army Cycle Corps used for coastal defence work inside the United Kingdom. His situation seems to have improved for a while because he qualified as a signaller, but within a year his difficulties had returned and he was transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment. A month later he was judged physically unfit for war service, discharged permanently, issued with an overcoat and sent home. Jimmy’s war was thus based in such far flung locations as Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hartlepool and Aldershot. At no time did he see service in France.

Jimmy married in 1917 while still in the army. He was almost twenty-five and his wife, let’s call her Beatrice, almost twenty-seven. They remained together until she died forty-seven years later. For some years, they looked after one of Beatrice’s nephews, but were unable to have children of their own.

What Beatrice expected is not entirely clear, although she did once say to my grandmother she had little idea of what was supposed to happen on wedding nights, and remained just as mystified afterwards because nothing did. She seemed content to have settled for a marriage of crafts, hobbies and companionship.

Jimmy and Beatrice became grocers. Beatrice’s widowed mother had a corner shop in one of the town’s dense grid of terraced streets, so Jimmy moved in to help with the shop and eventually became the nominal owner. But Beatrice did most of the work. Jimmy always found plenty of other things to occupy himself. He became a churchwarden along with my grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher, and he collected glassware and was a natty dresser, but his greatest joy was motoring. He advertised his services as an express courier and hence became one of the first people in the town with a private telephone and private motor car.

His first car was a 1922 ‘Bullnose’ Morris. My father said that whenever his own family took their annual week’s holiday – in those days always to one of the Yorkshire coastal resorts – Jimmy would arrive in his car to join them for a day. On other occasions he would take my father and his sister on trips to the coast. They had a clear memory of one happy outing when they drove under the arched bridge between Bridlington and Filey where the railway embankment crosses the road, when Jimmy jokingly forbade them to shout as they passed through, which of course they did, their high spirited voices echoing back to them in the open-topped car. On a later trip he took my aunt for a ride in an aeroplane at Speeton airfield.

1922 Bullnose Morris
Uncle Jimmy with his 1922 Bullnose’ Morris on an outing to Bridlington in 1928.
In the car (right to left) are my father (in cap), his sister (in bonnet) and Jimmys wife’s nephew.

In later years, after my grandparents had died, Jimmy and Beatrice became surrogate grandparents, especially to my cousins. In fact they remember Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Beatrice by far the more clearly. They spent hours reading, singing, playing games and looking after them. Beatrice shared her jigsaw puzzles and taught them to crochet. Jimmy was the only one with the patience to feed to my elder cousin her breakfast in the way she wanted, one cornflake at a time, even though he was supposed to be at work in his shop. My uncle described him, in bemused admiration, as the only man he knew who had managed to get through life without working.

Eventually Jimmy and Beatrice retired from the grocers shop and moved for around fifteen years to a large house in a green and leafy part of town overlooking the river, but after Beatrice died Jimmy moved back to the same terraced street they had lived in previously, and was very lonely and unhappy. It was by then the nineteen-sixties. Society was changing and the street had lost its sense of community. Jimmy was a frequent visitor both to our house and my cousins’, arriving in his car, always a Morris. He showed a lifelong loyalty to the Morris marque.

Jimmy lived to eighty-one. During his last illness, unable to eat, he turned to my aunt for help, and she told him she thought he should be in hospital. “All right,” he said, “but let’s have a cig first. We’ll have one of yours.” It was his last one. My aunt, a nurse, looked after him during his final days, and in dealing with his most intimate needs was dismayed to observe just how incompletely developed he was, “more female than male” she later confided.

Again, we were spared the details but some years ago, thirty five years after his death, I looked at Jimmy’s army service record in an online genealogy resource. It included Army Form B, 178A, Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W, W(T), P or P(T), of the Reserve. Across the various sections of the form I was disturbed to read:

Feminism. Undesirability of retaining with hommes militesque. Congenital. Poor physique from infancy and puberty. Pain with equipment. Tastes and habits male. Married 12 months, no children. Enlarged breasts, female type. Poor general physique. R. testicle incompletely descended. Penis abnormally short. Embryonic pocket in scrotal line. Voice female. Was rejected 6 times on grounds of physique and accepted the 7th time. Discharge as permanently unfit.

And what of his sister, a back-slapping sporty woman who my mother said should have been brought up a boy. She also married but after several years her husband was granted an annulment. She then became a champion ladies golfer who represented her county and country. It was said she astonished other golfers by driving consistently long distances from the men’s tees. She spent her life organising competitions and golfing associations, and was still playing in veterans’ tournaments at the age of seventy. Did she have a similar congenital condition? And we can now easily see that there were four other siblings who survived into adulthood. What about them? They seem to have produced very few children and grandchildren.

Today, abnormal sexual development is much better understood than when Jimmy and his sister were born in the eighteen-nineties. For example, research into sex hormones did not make any real progress until the nineteen-thirties. The various conditions are now handled sympathetically and have a range of treatments. How very different from when Jimmy and his sister were young. What desperately miserable and lonely episodes they must both have endured. Yet to us, Uncle Jimmy always seemed happy and jovial. He was kind and thoughtful, very much loved. I think we must have given him something of the family life he would never otherwise have had.

There was one last thing we could do for him. It was saddening to see his medical condition displayed so openly. Although British Army First World War service and pension records, if they survive, are now accessible through online genealogical resources, medical records are usually confidential. Publicly online they afford too much scope for abuse. We wrote to the National Archives at Kew to ask whether it was possible, on the grounds of respect and decency, to remove the medical report from the online resource, to which they agreed. Genuine researchers can still go to Kew, look up the microfiche copy of his army service record, and find Army Form B178A included, but in the online version it is no longer there. In wanting to tell Jimmy’s sad and touching story, albeit with names changed, and in quoting from the form, I hope I am not indulging in the kind of prurience we want to avert.


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  2. Hi, that comment looks a bit dodgy to me, btw.

    That was a quite brilliant post, fascinating. Your empathy is evident, and I can completely understand why you would want those records private, but your post was nothing to do with prurience. You remind me a lot of Alan Bennett and his brilliant Untold Stories.

    1. If only, but thank you. I did spend a lot of time on this post.'Jimmy' was a very good family friend, lots of fun, and we liked him very much. The previous comment btw is a game with spammers who are placing html code in their comments to try to disguise dodgy links eastern European web sites. I've had lots more, but thought if I accepted one or two and removed the code they might get as irritated with me as I am with them.


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