Image above (C) 2022 Mish J Holman. Do not reproduce without permission.

On an August afternoon in 1950 everything changed during a single moment in time.

On the corner of Crownfield Road, a pub called the Thatched House, loomed above the 19th century terraced back-to-backs of Morris Road. It was a broad, three storey structure, possessed of a gabled roof, and instantly recognisable for those travelling west along the Cann Hall Road. Energetic boys, like my father and his brothers, returning home from playful exploits on Wanstead Flats, would follow its roofline until they reached their front door.

The home in Morris Road, Leytonstone was a late Victorian bay windowed house, typically elongated, with a small yard out back. Nine individuals and a donkey once resided there, well until Nan ejected the donkey, but that’s another story. There would have been more children, if they had not lost two daughters Alice and Ada while they were still living in Camberwell.

The miracle happened. Sidney came back to life and recovered.

Sidney as a boy
Sidney with his aunt

The loss haunted them and they would come close to reliving it so many times until it finally did happen again, only this time something quite extraordinary happened. Their boy Sidney, fell desperately ill while still an infant and when the doctor called he told them their son would not see tomorrow. While the doctor was there, the boy passed and was pronounced dead, but grandad so incessant with fury took hold of the child and shook him on the kitchen table, exclaiming ‘I will not lose another child on this table!’ The miracle happened. Sidney came back to life and recovered. Whether the child had actually died or not who knows, but the Fates were determined to take him anyway.

He was a joy, the family said, sweet and mild in temperament with many interests and a strong love of nature. When the family moved to Ilford, he and my father being closest in age would go to Valentines Park and develop their brotherly bond while pushing their model sailboats across the lake. Childhood was fun in those pre-war days, but life would all change when the conflict came. Grandad served as an ARP Warden while dad, refusing to go to the air-raid shelter claiming it was too small, made Nan apoplectic and anxious. Unperturbed and rather selfishly immune to her worry, he would stubbornly stay in bed despite bombs raining down on the railway and workshops of Ilford.

Soon all of the four older brothers would be serving in the forces. The two senior men Frank and Teddy went into the army and the merchant navy respectively; Dad served first with the Royal Navy and then post-war, he was in Germany serving with the military government; Sidney did not join the services until he was eighteen in 1945 and saw out his National Service. The youngest brother L, born three years after Sidney, was only nine when war broke out and remained at home despite authorities urging Nan to evacuate him.

There is a photo of him posing confidently with the bike outside the family home which I showed to my father one day and he told me he hated it.

Sidney portrait
A portrait of Sidney from 1948

When Sidney had finished his service, he would roam the streets of Ilford on his beloved motorcycle. There is a photo of him posing confidently with the bike outside the family home which I showed to my father one day and he told me he hated it. I knew why. The memory of it some fifty years later was as fresh with him as the day before.

It happened when he was in Berlin in the summer of 1950. He was in the company of some friends or colleagues when he suddenly felt ill and fainted. They revived him and sent him home. Shortly after he received the call about his brother – he always swore he fainted at the exact moment of Sid’s accident.

The impact was so great the two bikes were conjoined and could not be separated.

Sidney had left the family home and was travelling on his motorcycle north towards Newcastle when he found himself in an unfamiliar road near Burton Latimer at about 2 pm on 19th August 1950. The road peaked at Higham Hill and it’s possible his view was obstructed while on the decent from the top of the hill because for some reason he cut right to the other side of the road at full speed. At that instant he hit another motor-cycle with a sidecar coming in the opposite direction. The impact was so great the two bikes were conjoined and could not be separated. The rider of the other bike suffered fractured rib, collar bone and wrist injuries while those travelling with him postillion and in the sidecar were relatively unscathed. All three survived.

Sidney was taken to Kettering General Hospital with a compound fracture to the thigh and ‘other injuries.’ He was far away from family, but his younger brother L left home as soon as he heard the news and travelled to Northamptonshire to be with him. When he arrived at the hospital, he sat outside the ward unable to move in disassociated shock. His legs would not work, his mind could not compel him to move, but finally he did. It was, however, too late for his conscience; Sidney had deteriorated to such an extent he did not know L was there. In the years that followed L let his guilt take over, it would not and still does not allow him to suffer the excuse of shock we would all experience when faced with this horror.

Sidney died the following day. He was twenty-three.

I hear another voice, it comes from one who was dealt such a brutal blow by life and I have agonised over her story.

Should we let the silent voices be heard?

I never knew him. I think of him frequently with overwhelming emotion. There were times when I was younger that I believed he was my guardian angel; watching, comforting me from afar, when I was in full-throttled undiagnosed bipolar mania. Strange then, that it should take me thirty years to write about him.

I have questioned myself frequently about the nature of such blog posts with regards to the disclosure of certain facts and feelings that are possibly unknown to current family members. It is vital we must do this when we approach our family history writing and think about how it may affect those closest to us.

I eventually reasoned with myself that even the most transient of lives, which fleetingly touch upon the souls of those closest to us deserve a voice that says, ‘I was here!’ That somehow our legacy of words can not only become a memorial of the soon to be forgotten, but can capture their joy and future possibilities and the imagined hopes and plans they had for their lives. To show their pain or the pain they inflicted on others, to show how the world viewed them, despised them, loved them.


I hear another voice, it comes from one who was dealt such a brutal blow by life and I have agonised over her story. I have been convinced to tell it, not only by her sister, but by some truly staggering words she wrote herself. I believe she would want it told and agree that those passing briefly through this space deserve for the world to see them. It is also true, that we should observe how the likes of Sidney affected the lives of our dearest who were changed at the very core, had their souls ripped out, when the transient ones left them behind.

Sidney was a ripple. He was a large ripple to those who loved him closest and a small one to myself. I am sad I didn’t know him, but it is true his death led to my father leaving the Foreign Office to be at home with his parents and siblings – something he later bitterly regretted. Yes he needed the time for his grief, but he wished he had negotiated a sabbatical or transfer rather than completely sever his employment. From that moment in time, he seemed to deteriorate mentally and there was no going back and recovering the man who flew through his Foreign Office exams, who had ambition and a thirst for adventure.

Everything changed during that single moment in time.

All images and texts (C) 2022 Mish J Holman. Do not reproduce without permission.

9 Replies to “Voices from fleeting lives”

  1. It is important to tell these stories, Mish, – both so the individual can be remembered (they were always more than just the tragedy), but also, as you note here – because of the impact on those left behind – which can so often change their lives forever. Sidney deserves to be remembered.

    1. Thanks for reading Barry. Sidney deserves his story to be told and I am fairly sure my family would agree, that despite the horror of his passing, we need to see him as a person who spent 23 years on this earth before that devastating accident.

  2. What a sad story, and so sensitively told. While there might need to be certain exceptions, I’m a firm believer in telling difficult stories. It took me several months to decide whether to blog about my great-grandmother’s mental illness, but I’m so pleased I did. And an unexpected by-product was that it prompted my Mum to take an interest in our shared history. It explained so much about what her father never told her.

    1. Jane, thank you so much for sharing this with me. Writing about our research can transform the perceptions as well the connections our family had with other relatives. It can be transformative and lead to healing, we should never underestimate its power.

  3. It can sometimes be difficult to comprehend, long after the war years, the effects of a sudden death, in someone so young, can have.

    I lot my best friend Clive to a motor-cycle accident 58 years ago. We both had BSA “Bantams”. I remember the fun and laughter we had as young teenagers.

    Memory is important.

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