Two years into Uncle Ken’s apprenticeship, his life takes another turn…
A few days before Christmas, a neighbour visited Granny and saw her putting Holly branches around the fireplace and remarked “You should not put up Holly, it means a death in the family’ Gran chose to ignore this ‘old wives tale’
The United Kingdom declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland. France also declared war on Germany later the same day. The state of war was announced to the British public in an 11 am radio broadcast by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. (1)
Most of the country was in shock. Kenny as my grandparents always called him, was 17 years old that July 31st, and I have no doubt that he would have signed up as soon as he was 18 years old.
On about the 20th of December, Kenny complained of a tummy ache, so he stayed home from work. The pain got progressively worse, so the family doctor was called in. This was before the National Health Service was formed in 1948, so all house calls were to be paid in cash.
Because Kenny was feeling so poorly, Granny put a stool next to his bed, piled it up with books and put his food and drink on it, so it was eye level and easy to reach.
When the doctor arrived he examined Kenny and said it was nothing just an upset tummy. My Mum also had the same stomach pains so the doctor thought it was this. Days later, he worsened and the doctor was called in again.
By this time, my gramps was very worried and asked for him to be taken to the hospital as the pain was getting worse, but the doctor refused to admit him saying” With all those books piled up next to him, he can’t be that ill’
The next day, 23rd December and again, Gramps called the doctor in. This time he examined my Mum and left some mixture for her to take. Mum told me, that she refused to take it, because he had a strong foreign accent, and she was certain he was a ‘spy’ and the mixture was poison! Kenny worsened on the 23rd of December.
My mum remembers her parents and neighbours at his bedside, whispering ‘Is he still breathing?” Get a mirror and hold it up to his mouth’ Mum was in the bedroom next door worrying and in pain herself. Kenny died that evening. He was 17 years old.
Once again, the doctor was called and Gran and Gramps made him examine Mum at the same time. She was admitted to the hospital immediately with the same symptoms as Kenny had.
She had appendicitis and was operated on that day, and she recovered. Kenny meanwhile was autopsied. They discovered he had peritonitis. A ruptured appendix spreads infection throughout the abdomen. it requires immediate surgery to remove the appendix and clean the abdominal cavity or death occurs.
Mum was lucky her appendix had not yet burst. Kenny was not. My Granny and Gramps were so upset they tried to sue the doctor. I read Gramps’ diary of these events leading up to Uncle Ken’s death and wept.
My Gramps was not successful in suing the doctor although he tried very hard. Granny told me of her visiting the cemetery after Kenny’s burial and sitting on his gravesite and weeping, every day.
Plymouth was one of the most heavily bombed British cities during World War Two. The first bombs fell on the city on 6 July 1940, with the heaviest period of bombing occurring in March and April 1941. (2)
Many years later when she related this sad family history to me, we were at the cemetery visiting Uncle Ken’s grave. I noticed a large chip in the granite headstone and pointed it out to Granny. ‘Oh, yes” she replied, “I remember that!” She continued, “One day when I was visiting the cemetery, sitting on the edge of the grave, when the air raid sirens went off. I just carried on weeping and shouting to the sky ‘Take me now! I don’t care!” when a large piece of shrapnel hit the side of the headstone!
I asked her if she was afraid but she said ‘Not in the least!” and told me, that she continued to sit there and cry and shout, all whilst the air raid roared and blazed around her. I think this was her expressing her grief in a most dramatic but cathartic way, and was probably a good thing to do.
Grief can drastically alter a person’s attitude to life and I know families who lose a child never really recover from the shock. My grandparents, whilst not always talking about Kenny, did answer my questions and let me look through all his sketches and drawings they had.
My Mum was affected by her brothers’ death. Her parents were strict she said, timing her outings and expecting her home at a certain time, if she was spotted talking to boys she was called into the house.
She was constantly “kept an eye on” not allowed much freedom, or chance to meet people, and consequently, married far too young and too fast. However, I believe that they were afraid that they would lose her too, especially during the war years with constant bombs and air raids.
When her brother died and Mum’s infant son, my baby brother Christopher, died at three days old and she thought they were ‘cursed’ I must admit when my own son was born, the thought did cross my mind that the boys of the family did not live for long….. but I quickly quelled that thought! (3)
Today, my two ‘boys’ are healthy happy men and I am grateful.
The above photo was the one that I always remember, it is hung on the wall when I lived with my grandparents and is still there today. Below is Kenny’s Death certificate. The cause of death reads: “Perforated appendix generalised peritonitis Certified by W. E. J. Major Coroner for Plymouth after post mortem without inquest”. Because there was no inquest, I believe this is why my grandparents decided to try and sue the doctor. There should have been an inquest, so they could express their outrage, grief and sorrow at the behaviour of the doctor.
A few days ago I received an email from HM Coroner’s Office in Plymouth Devon. I had inquired about obtaining the Post Mortem report.
Thank you for your email and for updating the information provided.
I have made enquiries with our archivists and unfortunately, they do not hold any Post Mortems reports for 1939. Unfortunately, we are unable to assist with your enquiry any further.
Debbie, HM Coroners Office 1 Derriford Park, Derriford Business Park Plymouth PL6 5QZ
I had hoped to obtain them to add to this story. It was not to be. Perhaps, in the future, I may be luckier. I am sure they are held, just not digitized yet.
A Brief Note on Holly Beliefs in the West Country of Devon, England.
“It was always considered terribly unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve and even more so to leave it in the home after Candlemas Eve (1st February)“.
Read Part One of ‘Granny’s Ornament” here: