by Gar Cole
I'd like to tell you about a man who - like you - I've never met, my Grandfather Charles (or Charlie as he was known) Young.
We have all heard stories about people who led quiet but often remarkable lives, touching the lives of many in their community with their actions. Yet with the passing of the decades their stories are somehow lost to all but a few surviving members of their family or friends. In case you were worried I'd started writing a blog for Readers Digest I can promise a pre 85 Brit vehicle features in this tale ... still with me?
Born the 4th of 11 children on Christmas day 1915 in the mining village of Penpedairheol, known locally as 'Cascade', like most mining communities they were extremely poor but close knit.
Everyone was willing to help out anyone else if they could, and as with most kids of the time Charlie left school at 14 going straight to work at the local mine at Penallta. He was rail thin and an extremely tall 6ft 5in by the time he was 16, definitely not an ideal height when you're digging out coal seams lying on your side at the coalface for hours on end.
Cars were an extremely rare sight in 1930s South Wales. What few taxis there were simply didn't go to these villages outside of Cardiff. Coal and milk were still delivered by horse and cart, and the only car one might see in a mining village belonged either to the Doctor or the Vicar. The steam train was the prefered mode of transport for those who could afford it, the once-yearly trip to the coast during the 'Miners Fortnight' holiday period.
Charlie had a very strong work ethic. He worked the standard 12 hour shift 6 days a week, often agreeing to work overtime to complete a 16 hour day, all powered by 8 jam sandwiches and a flask of tea. Being such a hard worker enabled him to financially care for his parents who could no longer work due to the effects of dust inhalation from years of working underground.
He also bought - after 7 years of saving - a Morris Minor fabric bodied saloon in 1936. Talking to my family all I know is it was built in the 20s and was a deep wine colour. As you can imagine this caused quite a stir in the village and tongues started wagging. "Who does that Charlie Young think he is? Driving himself to work every day like some of his betters. He's getting above his station if you ask me" and so on.
He was by all accounts quite the eccentric, often wearing a full length Swedish army trench coat and carrying a full size alarm clock in his pocket. The local kids naturally found this hilarious and would stop him often to ask the time just so he would take it out and set the alarm bell off. Charlie wasn't handsome, or a smooth talker, but he was kind, considerate and at 6ft 5 and with his own car he was someone you couldnt fail to notice.
Now the little Morris became a fixture of village life. Charlie would take people to hospital for operations, families to visit sick relatives and so on. In 20 years a total of 7 babies were born either in the car on the journey to the hospital or at the side of the road if there wasn't time to reach it. A knock at the door could come day or night.
The car also acted as the bridal car for nearly every marriage in the village, including his own when he married my grandmother Edith in 1939. Edith was the local 'Glamourpuss'. 5ft tall with a huge personality, head of the local choir and quite a successful singer in the local areas singing in town halls, dance halls and a few nightclubs in the city. They certainly made an odd couple but they were devoted and proved the old adage that sometimes opposites do attract.
With coal production being classed as an essential service, he wasn't called up for military service during WW2. Life continued as normal in the village with the arrival of my mother Julie in 1942. Like many others in the rural communities they also took in 3 evacuees from London and 2 from Bristol, from 1 to 6 children in as many months.
Mechanically gifted Charlie could fix most things and was in demand, especially with the growing popularity of cheap British motorcycles and sidecars that were starting to appear in the valleys. This included fixing a non-starting Royal Enfield 350 Bullitt owned by a 17 yo lad from the village called Gerry Cole.
I remember asking my Dad Gerry once what he thought of Charlie. Dad told me, "He came across as shy and simple, but was in fact probably the most gifted all round engineer / electrician in the village, yet he could barely write a sentence". With my mother being only 8 years old at the time I doubt she even registered with my Dad, however 11 years later when he left the RAF he certainly noticed her and they were engaged just 3 months later.
Unusually for the times my Mom was an only child by choice, in order to give her a better life; she had piano lessons and went to a private school. This raised more than a few eyebrows in the small community and her nickname of 'Princess Julie' was probably justified, so in 1958 devoted dad Charlie promised to buy Mom a new car the following year if she passed all the exams she was taking at the time.
Dutifully she did, and as 1959 rolled around she fell head over heels for the all new Austin/Morris/Seven/Mini that was being advertised in the press and all the fashion magazines that young girls devoured in the 50s. Mom passed her test in July 1959 aged 17 and fully expected to see a new Mini at Christmas, however.....
My grandparents announced the Mini would have to be delayed because a full 17 years after my mom was born, Nan was pregnant at 44 (this kept the village gossips going for months!). "WHAT?" shrieked my horrified mother, "you mean you and Dad still do that and your both in your 40s? errggghhhhhh"
Following my uncle Clive's arrival on New Years Day 1960, Charlie kept his word and in the summer of 1960 Mom got a nearly new Mini. She was also given strict orders not to drive it over 40mph, because as a grey haired Charlie said (and is now family legend) "Stay below 40 as those little 10" tyres will wear out too fast going around so quick, and I'm not made of money my girl, I have a baby to raise"..
Mining for 30 years between 1929 and 1959 it had taken its toll on his back and Charlie was now Head of Maintenance in the mine workshop. This job was physically less demanding but still kept him at the mine often for 14 hours a day, it also gave him the freedom to visit the pit ponies living at the mine.
It seems for most of his working life he had been sharing his 8 jam sandwiches with the horses/ponies, plus he used to buy them mints and other treats. In the days before animal welfare existed these ponies led a hard life underground, never seeing daylight. The men who cared for them looked after them fondly but all too often if one became sick or elderly it was often put down and a replacement brought in - something Charlie disapproved of.
He managed to rehome several of these ponies with local farmers' children and eventually adopting 3 himself, which grazed on the patch of ground behind my grandparents house. They could also wander off up the mountain with the wild mountain horses, which must have been heaven for them after years of living underground.
As the winter of 1966 approached, Charlie still owned the 1920s Minor Saloon. It had done him proud for 30 years, although in a similar way to 'Triggers Broom' it was on its 3rd gearbox, 2nd axle with many other parts 'knocked up by Charlie in the workshop. My parents were due to marry that November and encouraged him to get another car, but he wouldn't hear of it stating 'plenty of life in the old boy yet ' which proved to be an 'ironic' prediction.
Sometime in the late morning of 21st October, messages started flying around the mine that a landslide had buried a school in the village of Aberfan some 4 miles away. Immediately mining stopped and the workforce ascended to the surface to help with the rescue. A local transport firm brought in buses to help get the men to the disaster site, and Charlie managed to get 6 in the Minor plus a boot full of equipment.
He and hundreds of other miners and villagers spent the next 48 hours digging through the slurry and debris, with family bringing them food and drink to keep them going. Unfortunately no survivors were found after midday the first morning, and what followed was the slow recovery of the bodies of 116 children and 28 adults.
He returned home on the 3rd morning ashen faced, told his family he never wanted to talk about it again and it wasn't to be mentioned in the house. He retired to the spare room saying he needed some peace and quiet and to leave him be. My Grandmother took him some tea the following morning and found him barely conscious.
Charlie had suffered a heart attack in the night aged just 51. He was taken to East Glamorgan hospital where he spent 6 weeks recuperating, the longest time he'd done no work in 36 years and he drove the nurses mad. In the end they transferred him to the Miners Rest Convalescent Home (so they could have some peace no doubt).
Following my parents delayed wedding in December waiting for Charlie to be well enough to attend, he returned to work every day in his old war horse Morris Minor, but on restricted 6 hour days on light duties. He pottered away happily for several more years and looked after his now 5 adopted retired pit ponies.
He retired in 1970 aged 55; my parents were making plans to move to Birmingham over Christmas 1971 with my older brother and sister, and in one last selfless act, Charlie gave up driving and sold his Minor then gave the proceeds plus some extra he'd saved to my parents to put a deposit on their first non rented house in Birmingham.
The family moved to the Sparkhill area of Birmingham in January 72, Charlie passed away just a month later in February and a full 5 years before I was born. My grandmother kept 2 of the ponies after Charlie died and had the last one called ' Ginger right up to 1984. I used to have a sit on him when I was a little kid when we visited, different world back then.
I wish I could have met him. I find him interesting, and if you have read this far I hope you did too. Through hard work and being a generous person he improved the lives of his family and had a positive influence on nearly his whole community and circle of friends.
I find myself writing this some 46 years after he died, proud of him and also the proud owner of a Morris Minor 😀
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