Archive for August 2017

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