Robert Lindsay (real name Robert Lindsay Stevenson) hails from a working-class family, both sides based for generations in the small Derbyshire mining town of Ilkeston. Several of his relatives still live there, including his father, Norman.
Norman Stevenson was a joiner before he retired and Robert’s mother, Joyce, worked in a stocking factory. Sadly, Joyce died from a heart attack in 2000. Robert remembers his early family life being about hard work and play in a close-knit community. Generations of his family worked for the town’s principal employer, Stanton’s Ironworks, which also built and owned the the town’s houses.
Robert begins by talking to his father about the family’s history. Norman shows him photos of his maternal grandparents, Hannah and Raymond, both of whom Robert knew as a child. Raymond served in the Royal Navy on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales during the First World War and had seen action, during which he sustained injuries that had made him deaf. A family story also suggests that he was involved in a big naval battle in which his ship was sunk – a fate also met by the vessel sent to rescue them.
Robert didn’t know his paternal grandfather, Jesse, but he learns that he was a stoical, hard-working man who also saw action in the First World War. Combining research at The National Archives with information provided by the Archivist of the Sherwood Foresters, Robert learns that Jesse fought with the Sherwood Foresters Regiment as a private. He was also present at Armentières in 1916, losing a finger in action.
After being invalided out, Jesse returned to Ilkeston and the profession he’d left before war broke out. As an iron-fettler, his job had been to file the rough edges of iron parts after they’d been removed from the casting-moulds and cooled. Now put to work manufacturing bombs for the war effort, conditions were scarcely less dangerous than those at the front.
Unravelling the mystery
Robert then returns to the story of his maternal grandfather, Raymond Dunmore, and the family myth about his WWI service. While he was small – just over five feet tall – and artistic, a capable painter in oils of landscapes and birds, his wife was the polar opposite. A large, dark, beautiful woman, Hannah had a fiery temperament at odds with Raymond’s quiet nature.
To find out more about this apparently unlikely relationship, Robert visits his mother’s surviving sisters, Grace and Elsie, who also still live in Ilkeston. They reveal that Raymond and Hannah had two daughters who died at a very young age: Patricia, at the age of three, and Beryl when she was only 11 months old. Both succumbed to pneumonia, a common killer of the very old and very young among the poor in the 1930s. Due to this high level of infant mortality, Beryl and Patricia were buried in common graves.
Robert then learns one last piece of information which finally allows him to unravel the family myth. The ship he served on in the Great War, HMS Prince of Wales, wasn’t sunk at all. It was involved in the disastrous landings at Gallipoli in 1915 and it was there that grandfather Raymond, working on the boats that towed the landing craft carrying the ANZAC troops to shore, was injured. It was his towboat that had sunk, not the battleship itself, though the injuries he sustained were real enough.
Reflecting on what he has discovered about his family’s adventures, Robert is impressed by how lucky his parents and grandparents had been to survive, and how fortunate he has been not to have lived through such testing times.