If you had an accident, a serious one, in the warrens and rookeries of Wolverhampton in late Victorian times, anything could result from it. Sanitation consisted of a communal earth-closet as a lavatory and a shared hand-cranked pump somewhere for water. Doctors were expensive, so most of the working-class folk relied on herbal remedies, prayer and – possibly – hope.
When Jim was run over by a pony and trap at the age of two, one of his legs was shortened for life and he survived only to use wooden crutches for as long as he lived.
The foot on his crushed leg was left at the level of the knee of the good one. There was no Welfare State. People got by either working for starvation level wages, or by using their own wits.
Due to his injury, Jim hardly went to school. He never learned to read or to write properly, and never could sign his own name, using the traditional “mark” – a simple cross.
As a kid, he joined the Band of Hope, a non-smoking, tee-totalling organisation run by the Methodists. He was taught to live by the principles of honesty and decency and sobriety and hard work and he did so till the day he died.
But to survive, he needed to earn money. Nobody would set on a cripple in any of the smoke-belching, dirty local factories. So Jim looked and learned – learned to turn his hand to a lot of things from carpentry to bricklaying to cobbling.
So he grew up and survived. He could tack soles and heels onto leather shoes and could turn a left one into a right one on his last. He could build a wall and repair a roof, shinning up ladders and across roofs as quick as and better than men with two good legs.
He met a widow lady. She had four children, all younger than ten, and he married her and provided for her and for them.
Jim was never happy with banks owing, in the main, to his illiteracy. He saved a little and a little and a little and kept it where he knew he could get his roughened hands on it when he needed to.
His wife and he had two more children of their own to add to the existing brood. Jim still provided. They were not rich times, but he provided.
Jim would push his hand-cart with all his tools aboard for miles and in all weathers just to ensure he did the jobs which came in and earn the money to support his family.
He lived through two World Wars, losing a brother in the first of them, and worrying daft about the son who went to fight in the second.
Though more or less totally illiterate from lack of schooling, Jim learned to buy and sell second-hand bits and bobs and to read just two words: “For” and “Sale”. He drove a hard but honest bargain. He even managed to buy a couple of small properties.
When he died, he left a seeming fortune, all saved up and kept in a small safe under the stairs of his tidy and tiny terraced house.
He had set the example to his children, his step-children, and to so many people who met him, of honesty, love and hard work. Was it a fault that he teased – mercilessly at times – his young grandchildren? No, because each of us loved the man we still remember as “Gran’dad Bayliss”.
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This article was published in “The Black Country Bugle”.