Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Memoir of my Father

My father was born in a poor part of central Bristol, the second of three children, and spoke little of his early years. *

My father’s parents: Fred and Clara Seel during WWII

He left school at 14, with an interest in mathematics (at such level as would have been taught) and was apprenticed as a welder with S. M. Wilmot in the Albert Road, Bristol. The German blitz on Bristol was starting at this time, and he joined the Civil Defence (ARP – air raid precautions) in January 1941 as a messenger. It was while taking a message to the Warden’s Post at St. Barnabas Church, City Road that he passed through the Youth Club and, in his own words, “I saw there the girl that I knew instantly was for me.” This was Beryl Porter, and they subsequently went out together, but she was reluctant to get married and he resolved therefore to join up.

My father joined the army (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) as a craftsman welder on January 8th 1943 (Territorial Army) and was called up and enlisted at Markeaton Park Training Camp, Derby. After six weeks basic training, he served in various R.E.M.E. workshops and in 1944 was engaged on the final stages of building the Mulberry Harbour for the "D" Day landings on June 6th 1944. He landed at Arromanches (Gold Beach) on D+ 10 (June 16th) as part of the reinforcements, joining 30 Corps Advanced Base Workshop for a few months before being posted to the 8th Armoured Brigade Workshop.

He participated in the attack to reinforce the Arnhem Bridge assault but due to enemy action and adverse weather conditions ended up at Nijmegen. Just before Christmas 1944, his unit was moved rapidly to the Ardennes to assist the American army in repulsing a German breakout. He celebrated his 20th birthday there with a bottle of stout saved from his Christmas rations.

His unit then moved back towards northern Germany and they were in Bremerhaven when war ended. The unit then moved south to Hannover and within a few months he was posted to the L.A.D. (Light Aid Detachment) of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment (Desert Rats), ending his active service with them at Hamm.

He returned to York in June 1947 for demobilisation and regained his civilian status on June 23rd, 1947. In 1949, after 8 years of waiting, he was finally able to marry Beryl Porter, a marriage which lasted for 59 years until his death, producing three children: myself (Nigel), my younger brother Adrian and sister Elaine (and seven grandchildren).

Fred Seel and Beryl Porter, engaged
Like many young men of the time, I think his wartime experience was centrally formative. Certainly in his self-identification he always thought of himself as army, joining the Normandy Veterans Association when the Bristol Branch was formed, and being a founder member of the Bristol Branch, R.E.M.E. Association, at its inaugural meeting in March 1948. He subsequently became Branch Secretary in 1988 and Vice-President in 2005.

After demobilisation, in September 1947 my father became a maintenance welder for the South Western Gas Board in Canons Marsh, Bristol. During the ten years he worked there, he attended Bristol Technical College three nights per week for 4 years, leading to the City & Guilds Certificate in the Theory and Practice of Welding.

He then took a more senior job as Charge-hand Welder at Strachan and Henshaw in Ashton, Bristol (September 1957 - May 1964) at which point his years of study paid off, and he was able to leave manual work behind to become a welding instructor at the Government Training Centre in Fishponds, Bristol (May 1964 - August 1968).

His career developed further when he was appointed Lecturer 1 at Brunel Technical College. Further promotions followed to Lecturer 2, then Senior Lecturer. He finally retired in September 1989 at the age of 64 years.

He joined my mother in the Henbury Detachment of the British Red Cross in May 1972 and became Commandant 1975. They were both awarded the Badge of Honour in June 1993 and he retired in July 1993.

In later years they delighted in dancing and travelling. Based on his wartime experiences, my father was endlessly fascinated by Germany and learned German well enough to get by when they visited. Rothenburg ob der Tauber was an especial favourite.

A family picture in 2007
In character my father was ambitious but not aggressive. He had a strong sense of duty combined with a continuing desire to help others. I would like to think he always got the appreciation he deserved, but that is rarely the way life works.

When I was ten, I had a great interest in science, and my junior school teacher recommended I should attend meetings of the Bristol Astronomical Society. These took place monthly at 8 p.m. in University buildings at in the centre of Bristol (we lived on the outskirts). My father dutifully took me, and never a thought did I give for the sacrifice of an evening this meant, for someone who had left for work that morning at 6.30 a.m. and would do so again the next morning. I can only hope he might have had some interest in what was being presented.

When I got interested in Myers-Briggs personality classification, he agreed to take David Keirsey’s psychological inventory. He came out ISTJ, although with a specific interest in new ideas: ISTJs are said to be “quiet and reserved individuals who are interested in security and peaceful living. They have a strongly-felt internal sense of duty, which lends them a serious air and the motivation to follow through on tasks. Organized and methodical in their approach, they can generally succeed at any task which they undertake”.

Mt father spent his life improving himself from the low baseline of his pre-war working class education. I once asked him what, if he had received a proper education, he would have liked to have been. His answer was an architect or design engineer – he was interested in buildings. He was also very interested in history. I never saw my father as an intellectual, but he was more transactional in his dealings with people, and more flexible in his thinking, than the down-the-line ISTJ category normally suggests.

He lived a long life, achieved a majority of his objectives, and was delighted most by his family.

I wrote this account of his final days (PDF).

Frederick Stanley Seel: 1st January 1925 – 18th January 2009.


by Fred Seel


I was born on January 1st 1925 at 24 Dale Street, St. Pauls, Bristol, England, my parents being Frederick George Seel and Clara Alice Maud Seel (nee Feven). They had married at St. Clements Church, Newfoundland Road, Bristol on December 18th 1918.

Apparently I was a rather sickly child and there were doubts that I would be able to cope with the hardships of life in such a poverty-stricken area, where unemployment was rife, money very much sought after but very difficult to obtain, and a standard of living so poor that it would be true to say that only the toughest survived.

In those days, to be treated by a doctor had to be paid for, so you would have to be very ill before using the little money available. Fortunately, there was a “Medical Mission” in Redcross Street which was only ten minutes walk away and was run by a Dr. Collingwood, with the help of Senior Nurse Harris and her assistant, Nurse Dunn. Nurse Harris was (in my eyes) very old, so mostly worked in the Mission Surgery, while Nurse Dunn visited the patients at their homes.

Providing you could put up with hymn singing, prayers and the reading of religious tracts, the consultation and treatment was free so you can imagine it was very well supported by us and the staff were loved and respected by everyone.

Because I was considered to be very frail, both Nurse Harris and Nurse Dunn visited regularly and over a period of about two years I was cared for by my Mum’s Mum, Granny Feven,  whose house we lived in with my Grandfather.

My Gran told me for many years,  that she had to feed me two breakfasts, two dinners and two teas for the whole of those two years, so you see, if anyone is not happy with the rest of this history, you know who to blame.

Life as a child was hard, I had an elder brother Len,  born on April 15th 1921 and a younger sister Maisie, born on December 16th 1930. I  was given to understand that I also had a sister called Lilian May who was born on December 2nd 1919. It was quite usual at that time for babies to be vaccinated against smallpox and Lily had her vaccination, at a cost of two shillings and six pence a few months later. Unfortunately, she had a serious reaction which developed into pneumonia and she died on June 2nd 1920.

To just subsist my mum had to work at Brooks and Prudential (a mineral water company) as a bottler on a production line for a pittance, my dad turned his hand to almost anything that would earn him some money and we boys were expected to work hard evenings and weekends to help out.

A few memories that stand out includes Saturday mornings in the winter fetching coke from Avon Street Bristol Gas Co. for ourselves and the neighbours(about two miles total). We would hire a handcart and Len and I would set off, often bitter cold and in poor clothing and boots. We would trudge mostly downhill to the Gas Works, put about three sacks of coke in the cart and set off home.

Len was about three years older than me and pulled rank as you would say today. He would sit on top of the sacks and I would do the pushing, except at the steepest of the hills when he would get off and walk by the side while I still pushed. Bearing in mind I was only tiny and thin as a rake and about nine to twelve years old, that was one job I hated.

From about my seventh birthday until I was about ten or eleven, Dad decided to work during the summer months as a Costermonger (a trader who sells from a barrow) and for this he needed a cart and a means of pulling it, so somehow he obtained a pony. During this period we had the pony, a donkey, a mule and even a large (to me) carthorse, one at a time of course and stabled behind a house in Norfolk Street (off Milk Street, about ten minutes walk away).

This was the era of the tramcar, and the rails for the tram to run upon were laid in the road with the space between the rails filled in with wooden blocks about nine inches long by four by four inches and were set in tar. Because of heavy usage these blocks were replaced on a regular basis and stored at the local tramway depot for disposal. These were to be Dad’s winter job with the horse and cart.

During the summer he would sell fruit and vegetables from the barrow, going from street to street. I, of course, was the barrow boy at weekends and went on the rounds. It was quite pleasant when the weather was fine and I very soon was taught how to put on display all the apples - highly polished and neatly arranged - the rest of the goods for sale also nicely cleaned up and displayed. All for show of course: the boxes out of sight behind the displays held the inferior goods that were sold to the customer. Things never change.

On Sundays, if the weather was fine, we would load up with cheap toys and drive to the Clock Tower at Kingswood to join several other sellers. Dad’s speciality was a bird on a stick, I had to stand by the cart and twirl the coloured, canary-like toy bird, tied to the stick with very thin string,  around my head so that its tail would spin and emit a birdlike trilling sound. They sold very well.

Back to the winter months and the tarred tramway blocks. This was a killer of a job and one I really disliked. We would drive to the Tramway Depot early on the Saturday, (Dad did this each weekday but I had to help on Saturdays) and stack the cart high with the wooden blocks and then drive home again. We then unloaded, and with an axe removed the large lumps of tar still sticking to the blocks. Quite a lot was left on, because it was too thin to remove or too tough. We were not too particular, as time was money.

After reloading we went out on our rounds, usually some distance away from where we lived, as these blocks, with liberal amounts of tar on them, would burn very fiercely and in those days the chimneys were rarely swept. Chimney fires were common but did a lot of damage to the room, hence our rounds were well away from home and spread over a large area. The awful part of this job for me was the intense cold. We were not dressed well for the cold, and these wooden blocks were like blocks of ice to handle. I believe Dad sold them at a penny each or seven for sixpence and despite the risk they sold well, but handling them, putting them in the sacks the customers brought out was very painful and resulted in cuts and bruised chaps on both hands that never seemed to heal before the next Saturday arrived.

On the social side of life, it varied, Dad being quite a presentable type of man, full of the joys of life when he was sober and working for a living. When he was in a good mood he was a friend to everyone, very likeable and all you could wish for in a Dad. He would regularly take the family, by tramcar up to the Downs to hear the Spouters, a Speakers corner where men (mostly) would stand on their soap boxes and hold forth on various topics, politics usually. It was good fun, the crowd would join in and the arguments and generally good-natured insults flew fast and furious.

Later we would walk down to a pub Dad knew (he knew every pub in Bristol, I think) and Mum and Dad would have a drink and the three of us children would sit on the wall with our crisps and lemonade. The ride home on the tramcar ended a nice trip out.

Like a lot of the men where we lived, Dad belonged to the R.A.O.B. (Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes) and his branch meetings were held at The White Horse public house in Barr Street, about ten minutes walk away at the end of Milk Street and known as The Horsefair.

He was an officer of the Branch and carried the title of Primo. I have his medal which he left to me when he died. One of the chores that Len and I had to do each weekend was to clean and polish his official regalia that he would wear at branch meetings.

One of the problems of being a member of the Buffaloes was the meeting place. They always met in a pub and, as I mentioned earlier in this write-up, Dad was at his best when he was sober. When he was with his friends at the White Horse it was very much a case of, if he had money in his pocket then he would stand his round and it usually meant that he came home the worse for wear. This often led to problems, but I do not intend to pursue this as some things are better left unsaid and it was quite a common occurrence in the neighbourhood.

Previously, I mentioned that we lived near to the Horsefair. It was a tarmac-covered area of land
approximately thirty five yards square with a slope of about one in ten from the top (near St. James Church) to the bottom bordering Milk Street, where the back of Marks and Spencer’s in Broadmead is now. It was surrounded by hedges and there were benches around for people to rest. Centrally, at the bottom of the slope, was a stone fountain complete with a copper cup, securely-chained, for the use of thirsty people.

One day, having nothing special to do, Len and I decided to take Maisie to the Horsefair for a trip out, but as she was about three years old and could not keep up with us, we put her in the pram and set off. We enjoyed ourselves running up and down and around and around but decided after a while to have a rest on the bench at the top of the slope. While Len chatted to Maisie I went down to the fountain for a drink, however, no sooner had I filled the cup than I heard Len shout out ”Look out Fred, catch her”, I turned around quickly to see that Len had turned the pram around and pushed it straight at me. The pram was gathering speed and handle-first, was heading for the fountain with Maisie sat inside. Without thinking I ran towards the pram to try and stop it hitting the fountain, but I was only about seven or eight and the pram handle hit me fair and square on the nose. It stopped the pram alright, but my boyish good looks were shattered, my nose was broken and blood running down my face. I was taken to the B.R.I. to be cleaned up and they sent for Mum and Dad. I was the hero, Len was punished, but I still had, and still do have, my broken nose to remind me of my moment of glory.

There is still one memory that haunts me to this day. Dad’s mother, my Granny Seel, was a local character. She was a small-built woman, but what she lacked in size she made up for in aggression, especially when she was in her cups, Granny Seel and Granny Feven were always at daggers drawn, as Granny Seel was adamant that Granny Feven’s daughter was not good enough for her son and she wasn’t worthy of him. She would often turn up outside Granny Feven’s house after the pubs closed and stand there with her fists in the air, challenging her to come out and fight.

Granny Feven was a lovely lady and was very embarrassed by this, trying to ignore it, which seemed to annoy Granny Seel even more. Eventually things became so bad that Granny Seel was taken away to Fishponds Mental Hospital as an in-patient.

Strangely enough it fell to my Mum to visit her, usually on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning and as you may have guessed, she would always take me with her. I was terrified of Granny Seel, her constant shouting and aggressive behaviour really scared me. Mum would take me on the tramcar to Fishponds Road and get off at Snowdon Road. As soon as we started to go down Snowdon Road towards the hospital I would start to cry and scream that I didn’t want to go, but Mum kept a firm grip of my hand and made me go with her.

I still can’t bear to think of those days and the fear of mental hospitals has always remained with me to this day, I was much too young to have to cope with this and in the modern idiom I suppose I was traumatised.

To close this part of my life I must mention that academically I was mostly above average for the environment I was living in. I went to St. Mathias infants school which I did not like very much and then moved on to the junior school at St. Jude's in Wade Street. I cannot remember a great deal about my time at St. Jude's except that there seemed to be mostly women teachers and if you were well behaved and did reasonably well at your studies you were rewarded with sweets and chocolate.

I really only progressed when I went on to senior school at St. Paul's in Wilson Street. I became very much of a swot and spent most of my time in the playground reading instead of playing the usual children’s games. This caused a few problems at first with the usual school bullies but as I was brought up in a very tough neighbourhood, I could more than take care of myself, I think the broken nose helped too. Anyway, I always seemed to end up as second  top boy, I could never beat a lad called Bracher, he was very clever, though unfortunately he was killed in the 1939/45 war while he was in the army.

Episode Two.

From leaving school, to being demobbed from the Army.

I left St. Paul's School in December of 1939,  as I would be 14 years old on January 1940 and that was the normal age for leaving school and seeking work to help support the family.

On September

The document ends here.