The Dagenham Boys : Albert Baker & Petre Withall

 

 

by Mary Withall

They were different as chalk and cheese.

Bertie the entrepreneur, the ideas man who was always willing to try something new; a Metropolitan Policeman; a Canadian Mountie; chauffeur to politicians; builder; proprietor of Bertie’s burger bar; manager of the Puffer bar on Easdale island. An active force within the Slate Islands community, he was for eight years commodore of the Easdale ferry – none dared question the instruction to ‘Sit there!’? He was an amateur actor, community councillor and champion darts player. Who could have imagined that a chance suggestion made on one wet Monday evening over a couple of cans of McEwans, to run a stone skimming competition for a fun day on the island would place Easdale more firmly on the map than all the articles and books ever written about the slate industry?

Petre on the other hand was a meticulous academic, a quantity surveyor, construction manager and teacher, a poet and in retirement an honorary secretary. But for a brief spell in the army in the late nineteen-forties where he rose to the rank of sergeant instructor signals in the 4th tanks, together with the inevitable introduction to the brewer’s art, he would almost certainly have become a Methodist minister.

These two otherwise dissimilar characters, found themselves united by extraordinary co-incidence.

Bertie was born on the 9th of July 1928. Petre’s birthday was August 9th 1928. Both were raised one on either side of the Heathway, the main artery through the town of Dagenham in Essex. They attended different primary schools and at the age of eleven Petre won a place in Dagenham High School while Bertie went to the Secondary Modern school and thence into an apprenticeship. As boys growing up on the outskirts of London during the war, they never met but both experienced evacuation and bombing during the blitz and by doodle-bug.

It was not until 1986 when Petre and Mary Withall hired Jean Adam’s cottage on Easdale Island for a week that the two men, now in their fifty-eighth year, met for the first time and in casual conversation discovered their shared background. Bertie had met and married artist Jean Adams and come to live on Easdale when Jean inherited her uncle’s cottage on the island. Petre and Mary negotiated the purchase of No.36 Easdale Island during that week. They had found the place to which they were going to retire.

The boys had more in common than age and place of birth. Both were adventurous, curious about the world in general and shared a love of the very English game of cricket. They also shared a wicked sense of humour. There was always laughter when the two got together.

Inspired by Jean and Bert’s many extraordinary adventures abroad, Petre and Mary took to travelling around the world by sea on cargo ships. When Bert and Jean built a holiday home in Sri Lanka, Petre and Mary visited them and then as a foursome they travelled to Hong Kong and toured China in company with Petre and Mary’s son and future daughter in law, Andy and Bianca.

Jean had set up the Easdale Island Museum in 1980 and by the time Petre and Mary had settled into their new home in 1988, she had already received commendations for her work as a curator. In due course Jean was awarded an MBE for her services to small museums in Scotland. Mary took on the role of archivist while Petre became the Hon. Secretary of the museum. Bertie’s role had always been to take care of the fabric of the building.

At a garden party in Ellenabeich in 1999 the four fell into discussion with Mike Shaw about the possibility of setting up a second museum in Ellenabeich village. This would provide information for the public who came to Seil in their thousands by coach and car but never crossed to Easdale Island and learned nothing of the great industry which had given birth to the villages. The discussion ranged further into the need to conserve what remained of the slate industry and the people who worked in it. This would mean gathering together other like-minded lovers of the Slate Islands and so the concept of the Heritage Trust was formed.

At first the physical work of setting up the heritage centre fell entirely upon the four initiators of the scheme but slowly others gathered around. Volunteers began to take over the desk and help with practical matters like the electrics. Photographs and artefacts began to appear like magic after spending years in dusty draws and attics. The Centre became a full-time occupation which remarkably cemented even more closely the relationship between the Dagenham Boys. There was never a disagreement.

When Bert and Jean decided to pull up their roots and move permanently to their house in Sri Lanka it was left to Petre and Mary to carry on with the help of Pat Jones who for the next year shouldered the bulk of the work in the Easdale Island museum. Eventually that enterprise was taken over by the Eilean Eisdeal Trust leaving the Heritage Centre in the hands of a growing army of volunteers with Petre as Secretary and Mary as Curator.

The friendship continued with visits to Sri Lanka by Petre and Mary and to the caravan near Dunoon which Bert and Jean had wisely bought as a bolt-hole for their occasional visits to Scotland. When Bertie fell ill and had to return to cooler climes he and Jean moved permanently into their caravan and subsequently into one of the log cabins on the same site. Visiting became more regular but with the advancing years expeditions abroad were out of the question. In the latter days it became a matter of meeting halfway between Dunoon and Easdale at Inveraray where the staff of the Inveraray Inn became familiar with the noisy conversation of four old-age pensioners three of whom were wearing hearing aids.

Bertie died in Dunoon hospice on the 26th of November 2016. Petre died at home on Easdale Island on 30th of November. As Mike Shaw suggested in his funeral oration, Bertie was probably sitting up there on his cloud when Petre arrived. He would have been smiling broadly and claiming to have thought of it first!

Copyright Mary Withall 2017. Reproduced by permission of the author from the Summer 2017 issue of The Scottish Slate Islands Heritage Trust’s The Journal. Paper copies of The Journal can be obtained from the Trust’s Heritage Centre in Ellenabeich; an electronic version can be obtained by e-mailing The Journal’s editor Tim Sinclair: tjb.sinclair [at] gmail.com.

For more information about the work of the Trust, visit the website HERE

It’s been a bad week …

During the last week two of the island’s stalwart “elders” both passed away.

On Saturday night (26th November) Bert Baker died peacefully in his sleep in the hospice in Dunoon and on Wednesday night (30th November) Petre Withall slipped away at home on Easdale.

Both had almost reached their “four score years and ten” and both will be sorely missed. We hope to publish remembrances of them shortly.

This will be a very difficult time for Jean and for Mary and our thoughts go out to them.

 

Easdale Medical Practice

Please note that the Surgery will be

CLOSED

from 12.00 noon on Tuesday 15th November

to

4.00pm on Wednesday 16th November

Only emergencies can be seen during this time.

In the event of an emergency, ‘phone the usual surgery number (300223) for advice.

If you will need repeat prescriptions around then, please order them in good time.

The Surgery will be closed while a new computer system is being installed

and therefore no patient records can be accessed or prescriptions issued.

Fingers and toes crossed that the new system operates smoothly and without any glitches!

And now for some good news!

Ruth & Dughall at No. 55 started doing bed and breakfast about six weeks ago and immediately got off to a flying start.

easdale-bb

They raise a flag on the flagpole to celebrate a visitor’s country of origin, and over the weeks the flags of all nations have been fluttering in the breeze – and occasionally flapping furiously in a Force 8!

Dughall’s full Scottish breakfasts, accompanied by Ruth’s homemade bread, have already become legendary across the globe. On Stone Skimming weekend 12 guests were regaled with heaped plates of bacon, eggs, tomato, mushrooms and tattie scones, to fortify themselves for the rigours of the day ahead.

Rooms are sometimes available at short notice, but advance booking is definitely a good plan. Check out their website HERE for booking info, and for a link to their Facebook page with up-to-date snippets of news.

More sad news.

We heard today that our former ferryman Tom Plunkett has recently died.

He ferried us back and forth from 1991 to 2002, and after his retirement he and Dot moved to Dingwall where they settled in very happily, returning here every couple of years or so to renew old acquaintances.

Our thoughts are with Dot.

Ooops!!

Some pretty stormy weather during last week, but fortunately there was only one casualty.

ooops

Mr. McSkelly has now been restored to an upright position and is seated by the living room fire warming his chilled bones.

 

Easdale weather!

easdale-rainbowPlease check the local weather forecasts if you’re planning to travel to Easdale from far afield – or even from quite close at hand – because the weather here can be very different from that in Oban … or even in Balvicar!

Have a look at “Weather Watch” on our Handy Info page.

This evening was gorgeous, with the horizontal rain and Force eights died down, and a beautiful rainbow filling the sky!

 

 

Sad news.

A wee notice has appeared in the ferryshed advising us of the death on 1st September of long-time Easdale resident David Brearley (no. 25a).

He was a quiet man who kept himself to himself from choice but, once you got talking to him, he was an unstoppable mine of interesting information and a man with amazing depths.

He suffered health problems all his life and latterly, due to his increasing health needs, had to move to a care home in Oban. Needless to say, his loss of independence didn’t please him!

He will be remembered for his independent personality; his trademark wellies; his archiving of every copy of the Oban Times; his personal recycling and re-use of everything that came into his house; his avid following of The Archers Omnibus on Sunday Radio4 and (until health prevented it) his annual visits to his own island of Insh, where he was free to do as he wished without let or hindrance.

The island is a poorer place without him.

AuroraWatch glitch

We’re signed up for AuroraWatch so that we don’t miss any dancing, shimmering skies and received a mail telling us to expect a display last night. A few hours later we received another mail:

Dear AuroraWatch UK subscriber,

We apologise for the earlier false alert (issued 13:25 UTC today) which was caused by a lawnmower creating a local disturbance at our Lancaster site.

Go figure … !

And we may have another rarity …

The beautiful Great Yellow Bumblebee was once numerous in flowery meadows throughout the UK but, as with many other species (including the Corncrake), changes in farming practices over the last 100 years have led to a drastic decline and populations are now confined to the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the far north of Scotland, and parts of Orkney. It is one of the rarest bumblebees, and is a Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species.

Great_Yellow_Bumblebee_-_Bombus_distinguendus

Here on Easdale we have an abundance of all the things the Great Yellows like best, especially up on the plots: red clover (see illustration above), knapweed (like a puny thistle without the prickles) and vetch (a low growing leguminous plant). The queens choose holes under tussocky grass to make their nests, and we’ve plenty of that as well. They prefer to make their nests a polite distance apart, so it’s unlikely that we’ll have more than one or two colonies; but, as each colony has up to 50 workers, there could be 100 of them zooming about! So take a bit of time to rest in the sunshine amongst some red clover and vetch and listen for the BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

The RSPB is apparently undertaking a survey of Great Yellow Bumblebee numbers, but we couldn’t find a link to it. If you do spot any individuals, contact the Bumblebee Conservation Trust – HERE – who have a very helpful factsheet on their website.