Part 3. The Life Of Peter Stanley Brown
Following Part 1. A Discovery At Christmas and Part 2. Christmas On The Moor, this is the concluding piece in a series of three short memoirs, revealing the contents of a locked box that my father carried his whole life and telling the story it contained, which I discovered after his death.
Peter & Gwladys
This is the only photograph of my grandmother, Gwladys Brown, and my father, Peter, yet even in this image – taken in Exeter in 1924 – she appears to be fading like a ghost, just as she vanished from his life and from the world after he had been adopted. I only learnt of her existence in 2001 when I opened a locked box after my father died and discovered a dozen of her letters which revealed she was a single mother who had been forced to give him up as a baby.
These letters comprise Gwladys’ account of the unravelling of her life – my father’s adoption and her confinement in a tuberculosis sanatorium on Dartmoor for ten months. Only one subsequent letter exists, written on the day she was discharged to a nursing home, suggesting that the treatment at the sanatorium was ineffective and, in the absence of any further correspondence or information, I can only conclude that she died there.
Looking back over the correspondence, I am puzzled at how Gwladys found herself alone and without any family or relatives in the small cathedral city of Exeter. Just as the father of her child was unidentified, she seemed to have sprung from nowhere. How fortunate she was to have the support of my adoptive grandmother, Edith, an entrepreneurial middle-aged woman who ran a fish and chip shop and rented out her yard for bicycle storage to the crowds visiting the local football ground. With her husband, a newspaper seller and rent collector, they adopted my father and – perhaps as an attempt to put the tragedy behind them – moved from a terrace in the city centre to a new house in a small estate along the river, where my father grew up.
Accompanying the letters in the box was Peter’s birth certificate with the official truth spelled out, confirming Gwladys Brown as his mother and without any name listed for his father. Peter was too young to understand what happened to him when he was given up and it seems unlikely he had any memory of his mother. He used to tell me about the poor children with no shoes that he saw in the street when he was a child. It was a memory that haunted him and I think he was relieved that he had been spared.
The couple who adopted my father had a daughter of their own and my father used to take me to visit her on Sunday mornings when I was small child but, once I started preparatory school, these visits ceased and I never saw her again. I wonder if this was a deliberate separation between his old life and his new on his part. From the moment I was born, my name was put down for a private school and throughout my childhood my parents struggled to find the fees even at the reduced rate we paid, thanks to a means test that my father tolerated in silent humiliation. I realise now that my father worked his whole life to become middle-class and, though as an adolescent I found it embarrassing, I have come to appreciate the virtue in possessing the facility to take control of your life rather than existing at the mercy of circumstances, as my grandmother had done.
It was a matter of great shame to my father that, at eleven years old, he went to work in a foundry, yet he redressed this degradation through his prowess on the football pitch and whenever I walked through the city with him he was always greeted by fellow players who had become his lifelong friends. It was at the peak of his sporting success that he met my mother, an educated woman from a classy background. Her liberal mind and his social aspiration bound them together, yet also rendered them baffling to each other.
The achievement of my university education fulfilled both their ambitions, even if my father was disturbed to witness the mental exertion of academic study close up. “You can only do your best,” he reassured me once, on discovering me in a delirious state of exhaustion, “I only want you to be able to do what you please in life.” I realise that much of who I am today came from the direction I was given by my father in reaction to that crisis of 1923. But, in his final years, he told me several times he was satisfied with his own life and its outcome, and I believe Gwladys would have been gratified to learn what became of her child.
I often wonder when my father first read his mother’s letters and I think he made the box to contain them himself when he was a young man, as part of the process of fashioning his own world. I believe he chose to preserve the letters and keep them safe his whole life as a tender remembrance of her. I have also kept all the letters and cards that my parents ever wrote to me and, now that both are dead, I cannot part with any of their missives.
I understand why my father needed to keep his story secret and I deliberated whether to tell my mother, until I realised that if my father had wished to tell her then he had already done so. In the years prior to his death, she had suffered bouts of mental illness and his loss accelerated her confusion, so the question of whether to reveal the contents of the locked box quickly grew irrelevant.
It was a lonely responsibility Peter carried but I believe the all-consuming drama of life took him away from sadness and grief. In a sense, he could ‘forget’ about the contents of his box, even if he could never destroy it. I like to think he kept it for me to find after he had gone.
My dearest Mrs -, You will be surprise to hear that I am at Ivy Banks. I came down today. I am here for a couple of months. The Dr at Hawkmoor thinks I have been there too long, ten months this week, & another change will do me good. How are you getting on? Sorry to have kept you so long for a letter but have been so poorly again, have been in bed three weeks & still in bed. I came all the way by car with a nurse. How dear I would love to see you come and see me. Come down, I expect you know the visiting hours, 2 till 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I would love to see you. Being so far away at Hawkmoor I had no chance of seeing anybody. Of course dear, you know I have never forgotten you & I never should. In fact I thought of you such a lot while I was at Hawkmoor. Excuse short letter but in haste for post. Would love to see any of you. Pop in, it do cheer one up. Hope all are well. All my dearest love to you all, Gwladys xxxx Peter love xxx
The couple who adopted Peter
Peter’s first bicycle
Peter as a boy
Peter in 1990