A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Hooptedoodle #179 - Unky's Accident

Liverpool Tramways' Lambeth Road Depot - Unky worked here and at
Edge Lane Works in the 1920s and 1930s
In a previous post I told of what we managed to piece together of the war experiences of my Great-Uncle Alf (always known to my immediate family as Unky). I was reminded of a further story of Unky while talking to my mother recently, and I thought it was amusing enough to add to the library of tales of my long-dead kin which feature here from time to time.

Unky came from Preston, in Lancashire. He and his father (and thus the whole family, including my maternal grandmother) moved to Liverpool in the 1920s. His father (my mum's Grandpa Hindle) had worked with the railways for most of his life, and the family had moved between "railway" towns with his job over the years. My grandmother, for example, was born in Nuneaton. Anyway, Unky and his dad came to Liverpool in order to get jobs with the Liverpool City Tramways, and in fact Unky worked for them (and their successors) until he retired. Because of the move to Liverpool, some years later my grandmother (Unky's kid sister) met my grandfather, without which fortunate circumstance this blog wouldn't exist, for one thing.

Velocette like Unky's
He was always a natural mechanic, Unky - always a petrol head. He was already getting on a bit when I knew him, but he still had a Norton motor-bike, and at some time I remember him having a water-cooled Velocette. He rode motorcycles until he reached an age where he could no longer stand them up again if they fell over, and then he bought himself a car.

Well, actually, he bought a van. After working out what was the cheapest vehicle available, taking into account second-hand price, fuel economy, insurance and taxation, he bought himself a Reliant 3-wheeler van - a grey one. I remember that it always stank of petrol, so presumably something leaked, and my mother wouldn't let me travel in it in case it exploded. The back of the van was always full of bits of motorcycles and old rags.

Reliant van - obviously this is not Unky's actual van, but it's
about the right year, and I think his looked like this
[Before we get into the Tale of the Accident, I can tell you that it was all right in the end - he wasn't injured - so now you may relax and enjoy the scenery without getting anxious.]

Unky used to go everywhere in an enormous, smelly old raincoat - apart from the smell of petrol and engine-oil, I think it must have been rather like the coats worn by cavalry in the ECW - capable of standing up on its own - maybe even of walking away on its own. He had worn this coat throughout his biking days, and now he drove his van in it.

One day, in about 1958, he was driving his van along the East Lancashire Road, which is a sort of expressway which connects Liverpool and Manchester, and he was lighting a cigarette (Capstan Full-Strength - always) when he dropped his lighter, and it rolled under the passenger seat. Unky reached down with his left hand, behind the seat, to retrieve it, and his arm, in the thick coat, became stuck behind the passenger seat - he couldn't get it back, so he was now driving one-handed along the East Lancs, with his left arm jammed down behind the passenger seat.

We know exactly what happened next, since he dined out on the story for some years afterwards. He took his feet off the pedals, placed them flat on the floor and lifted himself so that his backside came clear of the driver's seat, and he levered himself up on the back of that seat (no seat belts in those days).

He never found out whether this would free his left arm, because at this point the back of the driver's seat (which was a very crude fibreglass moulding, underneath the upholstery) snapped off with a noise like a rifle going off, and Unky shot backwards into the rear of the van. The vehicle, out of control, tipped over onto one of its front corners and one rear wheel, and described a graceful circular path until it came to rest in the middle of a flower bed on the grass verge, just outside the town of St Helens, fortunately without hitting anything.

A passing motor-cycle cop saw the whole incident, and rushed over, but was temporarily nonplussed to find that there was no-one driving the van, since Unky was lying in the back in some disorder, under a pile of junk. The van was recovered, but was written off. He was subsequently charged with driving without due care and attention (or whatever the offence was called in those days), though he was never fined or convicted, and he was charged four pounds seven shillings for repairs to the municipal flower bed.

Capstan - Unky chain-smoked Full Strength; he survived the motorbikes
and the Wehrmacht, and even getting bombed at Dunkirk, but the Capstan
got him in the end


  1. Great story! You have colorful family tree.

    1. Hi Jonathan - I sort of hope that everyone's family contains entertaining oddballs - I'd rather not think we had more than our fair share! What we may have done in my family is told and retold (and enjoyed) the stories many times - maybe we didn't get out much? Whatever, there is a great oral tradition of storytelling - some of our less well-known relatives exist now only in a role in one particularly story - such as The Tale of Cousin Billy's Boots, for example...

    2. Well, you cannot leave us dangling. Please recount the Tale of Cousin Billy Boots!

    3. Well, in fact it isn't a particularly good story - the thing about it which strikes me as significant is simply that the story is the only thing I ever knew about Cousin Billy - I don't even know whose cousin he was, though he was almost certainly one the countless relations of my dad's mother's family. There is an old photo somewhere in my mum's brown envelopes, showing a moustachioed man of uncertain age, wearing a battered suit, flat cap and white shirt with collar detached - he is, I think, sitting on a front doorstep - I would guess it is taken around 1900. On the back, someone has written "Cousin Billy, at Moses Street" - I don't know who wrote this, but it is consistent with the fact that "Auntie Florence and Uncle Bill" (different Bill, though whose Aunt and Uncle they were is not clear to me) are known to have lived in one of the dreadful "courts" off Moses Street in Toxteth around this time. All I know about Cousin Billy is that he was unable to go to his sister's wedding because the bridegroom had borrowed his boots for the occasion. Not a great yarn, admittedly.

      Cousin Billy's life is otherwise unknown to me - a lot of that branch of the family emigrated to Canada, and one of them was killed in an explosion at Liverpool docks. All the clues I have are an uncertain photo and a family legend about a pair of boots.

      It has become very fashionable to research one's family tree - it is a natural and a fulfilling thing to do, since it gives an insight into who we are. I've done a little of this - it is very difficult in the context of families of poor Irish immigrants who settled in a Northern industrial city - many of them were unknown to the registrar, most would have been illiterate, and the city slums were just warrens - people had huge numbers of kids,most of whom died in infancy.

      The perils are obvious. A friend told me about an enthusiastic group of women from his wife's church, who all got excited about using this Internet thing to research the family histories. The woman who started it off was deeply traumatised when she discovered that one of her own ancestors, somewhere out in the wilds of North Wales, had a very large family, and it was very clear that after his wife had died he had two further kids by his eldest daughter. This had been back in the 1840s or something, but the lady was sufficiently upset to resign from the group.

      If you search the cupboards, you are going to find stuff - people have to be prepared for some shocks. Maybe the oral history has a lot of advantages - King Alfred may or may not have burnt the cakes - what more do we need to know? Cousin Billy's boots went missing. At least it's harmless!

      Regards - Tony

  2. I love this kind of stuff, it's a cotinuing conversational theme amonst my lot too. The only sobering thought is that I might one day feature in some of the stories ;O)

    1. Indeed, yes. I tend to think that things are better documented now, that we have selfies of everything we ever do (I was looking for an emotican for "being ironical through gritted teeth", there, but gave up). I'm not so sure - the speed of obsolescence of all this digital garbage, and the difficulty I have finding last year's tax return, suggest that the handed-down stories are the important bit. Maybe we should start work on this before it's too late, to make sure there are some good, positive, biographical tales established before we become just another archive.

  3. What a great story! Poor Unky!

    1. He was quite a character - thick as two short planks, but full of life.

  4. Lots of laughing here, thank you.

  5. A terrific story about Unky. I loved it, even as I was horrified by the ugliness of those two vehicles. One somehow doesn't associate sleek design and British automobiles from that period, somehow.
    I do have fond memories of a 3 wheeler bubble car that my older brother had when he was a young officer in Germany in the late 1960s. I was much younger, and he and his glamorous German fiancee would take me for rides and ice cream. I am pretty sure it was a Heinkel Kabine or BW Isetta. I guess there were lots of German companies that had expertise in perspex canopies, engines, and landing gear, so why not make cars out of them?

    1. Hi Michael - the Velocette was a strange thing - they made sensible-looking bikes as well, but the watercooled one ran very quietly and had this strange design. They must have thought it was going to replace the motorbike-as-everyone-knew-it, but it was dearer than most of the opposition, and it was hideous - it wasn't a commercial success, though I believe good specimens fetch high prices now. Unky wouldn't have bought one if the engineering spec hadn't been very good, anyway.

      The Reliant is a weirdo - like it's contemporary, the Bond Minicar, it was a tricycle, and I believe that as a result it was technically classed as a motorcycle for road tax purposes, and you could drive one even if you only had a motorcycle driving licence. The German bubble cars, I think were actually 4-wheelers, and they had good engines. I do recall that one of them (Isetta?) had a door facing forwards, which meant you couldn't get in or out if someone parked hard up against you.

      The 1950s was not a good period for British cars. After returning from wartime production, the big factories basically tooled up to recommence making the very ordinary pre-war designs of small family cars (Morris 8, Ford Popular) which the market needed (not much money, fuel rationing), and gradually introduced more rounded things like the Morris Minor and the Oxford, which were just pressed-steel rehashes of the pre-war ones, underpowered and not very reliable. As a kid, I was brought up on a tradition that foreigners (who, mostly, had lost the war of course) couldn't build cars anyway, so complacency ruled the day. There were some interesting things like a new Jaguar sports car and the remarkable Jowett Javelin, but most people could only afford mainstream products, which were (we now know) vastly inferior to the contemporary output from Renault and Lancia and so on. Not a great period.

  6. Excellent!! PS Have you heard the adverts for the new Vauxhall Viva?? :-)