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  • Writer's pictureBen Sharpe

A Hundred Years In The Making...

A high back chair, he sits and stares, a thousand miles and whistles marching band.

Kneeling by and speaking up, he reaches out I take a massive hand.

Disjointed tales that flit between short trousers and a full dress uniform.

And he talks of people 10 years gone like I’ve known them all my life.

Like scattered black and whites.

I come back here from time to time. I shelter here some days.

- Scattered Black and Whites. Elbow.

The chosen date of today’s Lighthouse Genealogy launch, 5th November 2021, isn’t entirely accidental or just simply out of operational readiness. No, the date was also chosen by design to coincide with the centenary birthday of a hugely influential person in my life and one of the main inspirations behind my passion for family history. My grandfather, Ernest Sharpe.

So, what better way to celebrate the opening of my research practice by also honouring this great man on what would have been his 100th birthday in this, my first blog post. I hope you enjoy reading about him and his ranging influence on me and my work and a sincere ‘thank-you’ for joining me here for this exciting journey.

My paternal grandfather, Ernest Sharpe was born 100 years ago this very day on 5th November 1921 in Wandsworth, South London. He was born at 21 Point Pleasant, the home of his parents, William Edward Sharpe, a fish fryer by trade, and Florence Sharpe (formerly Smith) while London was shrouded under a thick fog.

Ernest was the 5th child, and 4th boy, born to Florence and William of what would eventually be a family of 12 siblings. With only three of the 12 being girls, Ernest’s childhood was modest and competitive with his 9 brothers. Growing up in a very poor part of South London, I vividly recall him telling us that as a young child, it was a race between him and his brothers to get up early as there were only 3 pairs of shoes to share between the 9 of them. The story of the shoes has entered itself into our family folklore and instead of saying “Early bird gets the worm” we use ”First up gets the shoes”. Getting up early out of necessity in a poor childhood became a lifelong habit for Ernest.

Very little is known of Ernest’s childhood. No paperwork has knowingly survived in family records but details of Ernest’s life start to come into focus in 1939 when he appears as a 17 year old in the 1939 Register. The register shows him living with his parents and a few of his siblings in Oakhill Place, Wandsworth. Ernest was in employment at this time as a garage labourer.

It was around this time when he met the love of his life, my nan, Doris May Gordon. In fact, it is on their wedding day at East Hill Methodist Chapel on 29th May 1941 that the earliest known photograph of Ernest emerges with him looking happy next to his bride. Ernest’s address at the time of the marriage is shown as 136 Merton Road, away from the family home he was in 2 years earlier in 1939. It is not known who he lived with but it is not believed to be his family as they remained in Oakhill Place for many years to come according to numerous Electoral Registers so it seems it was between 1939 and 1941 when Ernest went his separate ways to his parents and siblings. The address Doris lived in at the time of the wedding, 66 Newlyn House in Wandsworth, would be flattened just one month later during a German bombing raid. Nan’s family would all move into Ernest’s Merton Road address as per details gleaned from a receipt found in family records for ‘War Damage To Property’ which was sent to Ernest’s new father-in-law John Gordon.

In March 1942, Ernest joined the Army to join the war effort while his wife Doris was expecting their first born. Ernest served as a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps posted to the 27th Armoured Brigade. He went on to serve in South Africa, Egypt and Italy before returning home after the war finished. His army service in the Second World War is something I will elaborate on at a later date as it deserves a post all by itself. However, I know that when I was a young boy speaking with my grandad and being in awe of him, he was a serious man but also a very fun and affectionate grandfather. I would ask him what he did in the war and he would jokingly reply that he “Swept up the desert with a brush”. It was only in much later life, long after his passing I realised he was referencing both his profession at that time in the 1980’s of a dustman and the fact he served in the North Africa campaign and earned the Africa Star as shown on a photograph of him in his Army Uniform.

After returning from war, Ernest and Doris added to their family and their 2nd and final child, my dad was born in 1948. By this time, Ernest was a lorry driver hauling oil tanks all over the country for the Mobil Oil Company. He was also a very skilled motor mechanic.

In the early 1960’s Ernest moved the family away from the claustrophobic tenements of Wandsworth to Boreham Wood in suburban Hertfordshire. The move was to ensure his sons got access to a better education and safer environs. Then, when their sons married and started their own families, Doris and Ernest moved to Norfolk in an idyllic bungalow in the countryside.

I have very fond memories of that bungalow as me and my sister would spend summer holidays there with Ernest and Doris. There was an old caravan in the front garden bursting full of kids bikes, go-carts, cricket bats and footballs for when the grandkids came to stay. It was at the kitchen table in that bungalow that I would sit for hours and watch Ernest sit there with his flat cap on and hand-roll cigarettes on after the other. I always remember wondering how such massive, disfigured hands could perform such a delicate task. By this time, his hands were even more disfigured due to losing half a finger trying to clear the lawnmower blades of debris in his garden. The finger was found by nan but couldn’t be reattached.

At this time in Norfolk, Ernest took on a job with the local refuse collection team. Partly because the extra cash was welcome but mostly because he missed working.

In 1987, Ernest and Doris moved to the Northamptonshire town of Towcester to be nearer to their children and grandchildren but less than a year later on October 24th 1987 Ernest suffered a stroke and later died. He was 66.

Grandad Ernest was a wonderful man. His work ethic is instilled in all his children and grandchildren and that will be instilled in further generations. He was kind, gentle and loving but strong and capable. He was a dedicated husband to Doris and theirs was a true love story. Along with my own father, he is the man I modelled myself upon in life. A family man with family values and strong moral fibre at the heart of everything he did. Even now, 34 years after his death, if I find myself in a situation that is proving somewhat difficult, I often wonder ‘What would Grandad Ernest do?’ and the answer is almost always the right one.

The memory of Ernest Sharpe lives on through his sons, his six grandchildren and now the great grandchildren he never got to meet. Every one of his grandchildren still speak so fondly of him and instils his admirable values into their daily lives. What better legacy to leave than that?

As the quote from the beautiful song at the top of this post suggests, I think theres a great comfort and benefit in looking back while moving forwards. The past can help guide us and theres a shelter to be taken from knowing of what has gone before, good or bad, whilst we all strive to make tomorrow a good one. We don't need to be from royal blood or celebrity stock, all family history is fascinating. Wether we are from landed gentry, the working classes or the extreme poverty of the workhouse, we are all extraordinary.

So, happy Birthday Grandad. Your legacy and memory live on and now exactly 100 years after your birth, Lighthouse Genealogy is also officially born in your honour. You are in every tap of this keyboard, every pixel of this website and in every fibre of Lighthhouse. I have no option now but to do you proud.

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