Easdale Memories

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.


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.

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.

Ellenabeich at the movies in the 50s and 60s

Trawling the net for images to illustrate what Ellenabeich used to be like, we came across a website that matches location shots from old films with what those places look like now. In 1959 Ellenabeich, Seil and Oban were used as locations for a film called “The Bridal Path” starring Bill Travers, George Cole and Gordon Jackson, among other names familiar to those of a Certain Age.

The plot looks pretty dire, and features every stock Scottish comedy character in the book. A young man from a remote Hebridean island (er … Ellenabeich) is forbidden to marry his childhood sweetheart because the local Elders believe her to be his cousin and are concerned about “in-breeding”. Accordingly, he sets off to The Mainland in search of a suitable bride. Long story short … the Elders finally establish that the childhood sweetheart is not, in fact, his cousin and he returns home to claim her hand amid general rejoicing.

Here’s one of the shots from the film:

Spot the location! The “now” shot shown alongside it is quite startling. You can see the rest of the images on the Reelstreets website HERE.

The whole film is on YouTube, split into seven sections, and the second section featuring the image above (and shots of Oban with some wonderfully tank-like cars on the pier) is HERE.

Scenes for “Ring of Bright Water” were also shot in Ellenabeich in 1969 – again starring Bill Travers. This is him coming down the hill to the village, with Easdale in the background, and it looks as though The Bull has completely closed the harbour:

Getting closer to the village, there’s the square in its original condition, and a surprisingly intact pier surmounted by the crane:

And M.A. Cameron’s General Store was to become the Oyster Bar:

Search for “Ring of Bright Water” on the Reelstreets website for more images from the film.

Wonderful thing, the internet.

Connel Bridge

You’ll no doubt have seen the “Flashback” photo in last week’s Oban Times (11th July) showing traffic passing over the Connel Bridge after the railway line was closed in 1966, as well as the letters in this week’s Oban Times (18th July) relating some history of the joint use of the bridge by vehicles as well as trains since 1914.

The Scottish Screen Archive has some (slightly scary!) footage from the early 1960s which shows the “gatekeeper” collecting tolls from vehicles, and changing points to allow trains on the line. You can view the short clip by clicking HERE. Click on the diagonal arrows at the bottom right of the small screen to enlarge it to full screen.

BIG lorry! BIG train!

Britain on Ice – 1954

Pathe News footage of the 1954 “big freeze”, with many of the same images that we’ve been seeing on our tv screens over last week or so. Given the harsh conditions people were experiencing, Pathe have managed to capture some very happy faces.

Click HERE to watch the clip, and look out for the brief glimpse of the Taynauilt-Oban signpost!

Out of the Blue

“The sometimes scary and often funny world of flying in the Royal Air Force – as told by some of those who were there.”

These tales of derring-do from RAF pilots are posted here under “Easdale Memories” because they were collected by Chris Long and two fellow former pilots, and include a reminiscence from the island’s much-missed raconteur and former fighter pilot, Chris’s father Peter.

The names of all the stories’ authors are listed at the front of the book but, for reasons that will become obvious as you read, the authors’ names are not attributed to individual pieces. As it says on the cover: “It is true to say that, from an aviation perspective, [the stories] are frequently more remarkable for the fact that the protagonist got away with it rather than demonstrated great flying skill”. While we can reveal that Peter’s tale involves beer, that really doesn’t narrow it down a great deal!

All proceeds from the sale of the book are shared between The RAF Benevolent Fund and Help for Heroes, and you can purchase it online HERE.

Ian McNaughton

We are sad to record the death of Ian McNaughton, former resident and island ferryman. His funeral is to take place tomorrow (Wednesday 4th July) at 1.15pm at Cardross Crematorium, Cardross, near Helensburgh.

Coal lorry

Before the advent of the coal lorry, the puffer bringing the coal also brought on board a horse and cart to undertake the deliveries!

This lorry looks about the right vintage to be the one originally delivered to the island by barge in 1946, though it has the name of the Oban Transport & Trading Company Ltd. on its door, rather than Iain Smith, Coal Merchant, Balvicar.


Islanders’ loose coal was shovelled by hand from the boat into a container and tipped onto the back of the lorry, which then distributed it to the various households. Originally, the lorry was removed from the island after each delivery, but eventually one was left here permanently and only fired up again the following year for the next coal round.


The lorry finally met the same fate as other unwanted items used to do – but of course no-one would admit to knowing where it went!

(The photos were taken by George Anderson in 1960, and originally published in Easdale People issue no. 22, Spring/Summer 2005 with an article by Graham Anderson, from which the above information was extracted.)