Monday, 13 November 2017

Who Do I Think I Am? Part 2...

A few weeks ago I dangled a tantalising carrot. If you've forgotten, clearly my attempts at building suspense were rubbish. Or perhaps you've just blocked it out. If you want to reacquaint yourself, then read Who Do I Think I Am? Part 1. If you want a shorthand version, here goes... In three weeks time I am going to Canada to retrace the steps of my paternal Grandad who died twenty five years before I was born. I left you all hanging as to why.

Ok, so now we're all up to speed, let's press on with the story. Like I said a few weeks ago, it's a cracker. 

In 1990, my Dad was clearing out his Mum's house. She had recently moved into a nursing home and there were boxes to sort. Amidst the paperwork in her desk, there was a notebook belonging to his Dad. Apparently it'd always been there, but this was the first time he'd shown the rest of us. 

Alf in 1951.
For those that skipped re-reading the previous instalment, let's remind ourselves of the facts. My Dad's Dad died in 1953 at 58 years old. He was called Alf. In my Gran's house when I was a kid, there were perhaps two visible pictures of him, plus a certificate on the wall with his name on. I can't remember what for. He was a stranger to me, and I got the impression, almost a stranger to my Dad. 

Back to 1990 and the notebook. It was very old, full of handwritten pencil and had been used as a diary. It's first entry was 6th December 1917. I don't think I got how huge this was in 1990 when I was twelve. It was just an old notebook with my dead Grandad's writing in. It's only now that it makes more sense. This was an honest-to-God historical source. The little my Dad did know about his father came from his Mum and sister, Marie. But they didn't know him in 1917. He married my Gran in 1932, and Marie was born three years later. The diary from 1917 was a whole life time before that. He was twenty-three and in the midst of the First World War. Reading it all those years later was pretty cool, even if I only realise it properly now. (I'm sure 'pretty cool' is official historian terminology) 

Hand model and photo
credits to my sister, Lucy.
Alf's diary!
My Dad started to type out the contents. The pencil was faint in places, plus the writing was old fashioned and loopy - hard to decipher at times. It took ages but eventually he had a typed, legible copy of the diary. Now, most of this was fairly dull. To me anyway. (Soz la). Alf was at sea throughout the war. Many of the days' entries are solely to do with arriving and leaving far flung ports. It's interesting to know where he was in the world and on what date but there are few details beyond that. Fascinating to marine historians perhaps, but not so much for me. But...but...but! All that is irrelevant when you read the first few pages. The opening entry of the diary is where all the detail is at. That is where it all happens. 

On 6th December 1917 Alf Bond was on a boat in the port of Halifax, Canada. That morning two other boats in the port crashed in to each other. The collision that resulted, caused the 'largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons'. Yeah, let that sink in for a second. The largest explosion before the atomic bomb! Page one of Alf's diary provides his eye witness account. 

A legit primary
source from 1917.
Also, my
Grandad's diary.
Of course in 1990 when I heard about this for the first time, I didn't really get it. Because this was BtI. (Before the Internet). Those hazy days when we didn't have Wikipedia. The first time I heard of this explosion was through the faded writing in the diary. I didn't know it was an actual thing. I didn't know, in the North-West of England in 1990, anything about the events that had happened on the East coast of Canada decades before. 

Now it is AtI. (After the Internet). I can find it all out. And honestly, the Halifax explosion is a big deal. There are loads and loads of resources online to read if you're interested, and in recent months I have. It wasn't just a collision you see. One of the boats was filled with munitions for France. When the boats crashed, it caused a fire. The fire grew until it got out of control and reached the stored munitions. Then it exploded. The upshot is, on 6th December 1917, the town of Halifax was decimated. Two thousand people were killed, nine thousand were injured, burning debris was thrown through the air, and wooden buildings were burnt to the ground. It sounds utterly horrific. And Alf was there. This is what he wrote about that day...

My Dad's 1990 typed up copy is now a digital version. This extract 
covers the first three pages of the handwritten account.
[Square brackets show my Dad's added notes]

The more I read and discover about the events of that day, the more incredible it is that Alf survived. But survive he did. He came home, met my Gran, had my Dad who then had me. Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the explosion. There are all sorts of events taking place to commemorate the tragedy. I'll be there for some of them, along with a few other family members including my Dad. 

It's a very odd feeling, having a connection to a place nearly three thousand miles away, because of the experience of a person you've never met. But there we have it. That's the story. That's why I'm going to Canada in a few weeks. 

Obviously, I'll report back when I've been. But for now, I am still concerned with finishing my Christmas shopping and finding non-unattractive thermal underwear for the trip. I am sure Alf had similar problems back in the day.

Have a lovely week, folks. 

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