Percy Hyde Bird was born on 6th May 1883 in Caddington Road, Surbiton. His sister, Florence, had died as a baby before he was born and it would be another eleven years before his brother Leslie would be born (See Week 38). I haven't discovered why his parents chose 'HYDE' as a middle name ..... this is an annoying little mystery I hope to resolve one day.
On the 1891 census, 7 year old Percy is living with his mother and her cousin George Wareham and his young family in Thornton Heath in the parish of Croydon, South London. The whereabouts of his father isn't known although this might be explained by a sentence in Tony's book mentioning "some domestic strife, later resolved, between his parents", which resulted in Percy being "virtually adopted" and brought up by his widowed childless aunt, Eliza Ross. He spent most of his childhood at Chestham Park, a large country house in Sussex. He was there aged 17 on the 1901 census with Eliza Ross and her four young female servants. Eliza died in March 1904, just before Percy's twenty first birthday.
Percy must have joined the Middlesex Territorials after leaving school as his subsequent service record shows that between 1903 and 1905 he was a 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the 3rd Royal Sussex Regiment. He went on courses for musketry and signalling while attached to the 2nd Queen’s Regiment at Shorncliffe (Folkestone) in 1904.
Percy was very keen on Marjorie Benson, a young lady from a middle class family in Kensington, but it appears she wasn't quite so keen on him. "His repeated proposals in 1906 and 1907 having been firmly refused he took himself to Ceylon to work on a tea-plantation" from where he continued to woo her. His WW1 Army Book describes Percy's occupation as “Planter (Ceylon)" and it says he had a slight knowledge of Tamil Singhalise.
Why did he go to Ceylon? Was there a prior family connection ? This is something which has puzzled me ever since I started looking into my BIRD branch. The coincidence which I keep coming back to is that the founder of the first coffee plantation on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was George Bird (see story Week 1).
Percy came back from Ceylon and Tony believes he "had been sacked from his post as assistant manager, but the pretence that he had given up his job to prove his love made a much better story. I doubt if it deceived Marjorie, but she felt trapped and she wanted an excuse, in any case, to escape from the stifling atmosphere of life with her mother, and so one more was added to the many thousands of hopeless marriages built each year on equally shaky foundations."
Percy was living at 56 Brunswick Place, Hove when he married Marjorie on 27th June 1911 at St Patrick’s Church in Hove. Marjorie would have been 27 and Percy 28 years old.
Two years later on 12th June 1913 my father, Derek Gordon Ross Bird, was born at Horton Hall in Upper Beeding, Steyning in West Sussex. On the 1911 census, Horton Hall seems to have been a poultry farm which is why, on my father's birth certificate, Percy's occupation was said to be a "poultry farmer" - one of the many jobs he tried his hand at.
On 12th October 1916, Captain Percy of the 10th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, was declared “permanently unfit for service” and he had to relinquish his commission on the grounds of ill health. At this point his service record says “he will be granted the honorary rank of Major but such grant does not confer the right to wear uniform except when attending ceremonials and entertainments of a military nature”. It says his address at this time was Violet Bank, Park Road, Southborough, Nr Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
His Service Record has two personal comments from his Commanding Officers, neither particularly glowing : "Captain Bird is a hard working conscientious officer who has a thorough knowledge of regulation and well acquainted with Army Council Institutions, a capable Staff Officer". Also, "Major Bird has been D.A.A.G Dover for five months under my command. He has done his work well and conscientiously". (D.A.A.G = Deputy Assistant Adjutant General).
Percy was awarded the Silver War Badge which was issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness during WW1. The badge was sometimes known as the Discharge Badge, Wound Badge or Services Rendered Badge. He had no service overseas.
It seems this honorary rank of Major given on his discharge from the Army was a title he insisted on retaining for the rest of his life, much to the embarrassment of Tony and the amusement of others.
"Southborough itself was then a pleasant village. Though I have faint recollections of a nanny the Southborough household, during the time I most clearly remember it, consisted of my parents, my maternal grandmother (who nominally looked after the housekeeping), myself, an elder brother, Miss Kramer his governess, a cook, a house parlour maid and a little skivvy-in-training named Violet who was, I suppose, no more than fourteen."
On the other hand, she was a very good driver who had learned in 1908 when the ‘lady automobilist’ was still a fairly rare animal. As a chauffeuse, complete with peaked cap, she was much in demand, though some of the elderly ladies of the district still thought it highly improper for a woman to drive one of ‘those horrid motors’.
They sold the business and the family moved to the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells around the spring of 1922. They "had some two and a half acres of land, two thirds of which were kept as rough paddock, fenced from the garden, dotted about with hen houses and enclosures and tenanted ultimately by some 4,000 hens and a couple of goats" and the garden included "flower beds and a grass tennis lawn". They run a poultry farm from here selling eggs but this venture was abandoned in the summer of 1924.
More disastrous attempts to set up and run a successful business came and went including a match making business and then a window cleaning enterprise. Percy then blossomed out to become a cinema proprietor purchasing the Electric Palace in Cricklewood which was "as nasty a flea-pit as you could find in the north London of 1928. As an ‘independent’ the Electric Palace had to take what it could get, and what it could get were worn old B pictures, cowboy stuff, Pearl White serials, 2-reeler comedies and pretty much anything they could get. Percy pronounced with absolute certainty that the new-fangled talkies would be no more than a nine days wonder; there would be no future in them, and all those cinema companies who were going to the expense of putting in talkie apparatus would find themselves in Carey Street". How wrong could he have been ! Despite eventually succumbing to showing talkies, and going to the extra cost this involved, the ailing business was sold in early 1933. It was the first property deal for a young Charles Clore (28) who some might remember as being one of the first self made millionaires (would now be billionaire).
For some time before Percy and Marjorie actually separated Percy seems to have been driven to drink by Marjorie's continual criticism and obvious lack of respect she had for him. Tony recalls that "my father had nothing to do beyond pottering in the garden, and he presumably made use of his enforced leisure and his wife’s daily absence (doing charity work) to slip away occasionally to the local pub (thus confirming my mother’s belief that he was a ‘secret drinker’) where he made the acquaintance of a part-time barmaid, a local policeman’s daughter, with whom he left home."
Tony's book does have a number of anomalies and inaccuracies so it isn't altogether surprising that he says his parents separated in 1936 despite the fact I have a deed of separation showing that this took place on 15th December 1933. Percy agreed to make a settlement to Marjorie concerning any future sale proceeds or income arising from the freehold property in Mill Hill and this was accepted by Marjorie in satisfaction of his liability to maintain her and the children.
The Mill Hill cinema "ought to have been profitable, but to judge from the continual moans about bad business and shortage of money it was another dead duck. The business was closed in 1936 and the property leased to Woolworths, who turned it into a shop".
It seems Percy and the policeman's daughter went to Portsmouth where he bought the tenancy of a small public house. They posed as a married couple, and Percy assumed the surname of Johnson, which bizarrely was his mother in laws maiden name !
I found a letter in my father's possessions on (Brewery) Charrington's letterhead from an A.G.Allen of the Fox and Hounds, 1 High Street, Sydenham S.E.26. It says : "To whom it may concern : I the above licensee have known Major P.H.Bird since November 1933. He has been associated with me for several months past in the investigation of certain properties, and to facilitate his enquiries he has done so under the name of L.Johnson, 5 Sydenham Rise S.E.23 at my request." Mysterious !
"Whether the brewery discovered they were not married and took umbrage, in the curiously maidenly fashion of their kind, or whether he fell foul of the police for allowing too much after-hours drinking I do not know, but within eighteen months Percy lost his licence."
Percy then, in what would be his final attempt at making his fortune, purchased the goodwill and leased the premises of The Washington Temperance Hotel, Commercial Road, Portsmouth described by Tony as "seedy".
My uncle sums Percy up by saying "Ineffectual is, I suppose, the word to describe my father, so far as one word will suffice. One might justly add to ineffectual the words inept and indecisive; he was the worst possible foil to my mother who was intelligent, strong willed, often impetuous but always efficient and decisive. Each brought out the worst in the other. Papa’s affairs invariably went wrong and his ineptitude was at the root of all his troubles. His businesses failed, his money dwindled, his paintwork peeled, his fences collapsed and his shelves fell down. I could feel no affection for him and, apart from childish fear of his attempts to impose discipline by shouting, it was not possible to feel respect either." Not exactly a glowing tribute from a loving son !