Derek, or "Dickie” as he was often known, was born on 12th June 1913 at a poultry farm at Horton Hall in Upper Beeding, Steyning in West Sussex. He was the oldest of three brothers - the other two being Tony who was 4 years his junior and Hugh who was a massive 13 years younger. His parents were Percy (week 44) and Marjorie (week 45). When he was in his infancy Derek lived in Southborough, Kent before moving to nearby Tunbridge Wells in the spring of 1922.
I knew that Dad was in a number of amateur dramatics when he was older but I was not expecting to find him acting aged 9 in a 1922 performance of Alice in Wonderland. It was certainly a family affair and the local newspaper reported - "Master Derek Bird made an excellent White Rabbit and Caterpillar; Mrs P.H.Bird (Queen of Hearts) gave a capital impersonation of her role." Sadly, how 5 year old Tony got on as a Gnome and a Card were not recorded for posterity !
In March 1925 they moved to 6 Willifield Way in Hampstead Garden Suburb, North London where Derek would spend the rest of his childhood.
His parents employed a young governess to educate Derek at home before he became a weekly boarder after their move to Tunbridge Wells and then when they moved to The Suburb, joining Highgate School, presumably aged around 13. After receiving a share of his mother's inheritance in 1929, Percy moved Derek to St Paul's School, where Marjorie's sons Hugh (1882) and Alick (1879) (week 2) had been students. Derek was reportedly “top of the school in French”.
Derek had been planning on going to university but due to the fact his father had walked out and his mother had been left to bring up their young family alone, he had to go to work after leaving school in 1931 at the age of 18 in order to help support his mother. He went to work in an estate agent’s office for a while. His next job was working at Selfridges in Oxford Street for Gordon Selfridge. He was a stock controller in the buying department. His hobbies in those days included swimming and playing water polo.
In his brother Tony's autobiography, Derek comes in for some brotherly criticism : "My elder brother and I had never had anything in common. My move to Selfridges came through the efforts of my elder brother who had been there for some three or four years after leaving his first post-school job with the estate agent. He and I had rarely agreed on any subject in our lives and I knew that everything he admired about Selfridge’s business I would find detestable. The fact that my brother was everything that Selfridge wanted to fill a junior clerical post, whilst I was everything they did not (and had no magic ‘school cert’ to lift me out of the ruck) did not affect my parents' hopes that I would ‘settle’, like so many tea leaves." Sounds like they were chalk and cheese.
Anyway, as I said in last weeks blog, my parents met in 1935 through them both belonging to the Selfridges Swimming Club and despite proposing to her on a number of occasions she kept refusing him saying she was too young. Jennie liked to tell the story of when everything changed in March 1938 and she finally decided to accept Derek’s proposal of marriage :
"Derek lived with his mother and brother in a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, North London. One evening, the house next door to his caught fire and the Bird family house was also extensively damaged. I came round to see Derek the next morning and he was standing on the pavement outside his house in a dressing gown looking rather pathetic. At this point I knew he was the man for me !"
Although neither of them ever mentioned this part of the story, a newspaper clipping subsequently revealed that a young girl died in the fire and Derek had tried to rescue her but had been beaten back by the flames and smoke. Amazingly brave and heroic. I wish I had known this while either of them had still been alive.
They married on 15th July 1939, five months after his father's death, at St Judes in The Suburb. He described his occupation as a "Retail Executive".
Jennie and Derek had only been back from their honeymoon for 10 days when Derek, who was already in the Territorial Army, was called up on 3rd September 1939. He was a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery and was initially stationed on the Isle of Dogs in charge of the anti-aircraft guns. Below are some of the photographs he took.
Almost 3 years into the war on 11th September 1942, he was severely injured. He was riding a motor cycle while in charge of a convoy which was escorting large guns from Liverpool to Tidworth in Wiltshire. The convoy was nearing its destination, going round a corner in a lane on the Sherbourne road (Wiltshire). The driver taking the gun swerved to avoid a mother pushing a pram in the road and Dad’s motor cycle was crushed between the gun and a wall. He broke his pelvis, a few ribs and fractured his jaw as well as a number of other bones. In fact, Mum used to say that he broke nearly every bone in his body. They thought he was dead and his condition on arriving at the Savanake Hospital in Marlborough was described as “critical”. He wasn’t expected to live. He spent the next 74 days there. Jennie travelled to be near him and visited him every day. Their lives were changed forever. He survived but always had a limp due to the pelvis injury and could no longer run more than a few yards or walk more than a mile or so.
From being a very active and fun-loving young man all his enjoyment of sports and outdoor activities effectively came to an end.
After being discharged from hospital he gradually improved and was moved from a not fit for service "category D" to being fit for sedentary duties "category C" at the end of February 1943. By November he had "been able to play a game of badminton" and was moved to "permanent category B" which meant he was now "unfit for general service abroad but fit for base or garrison service at home and abroad". I have a copy of a letter sent by my mother to her sister in January 1944 saying "Dickie & I may not be able to be together indefinitely. He thinks when the invasion starts he will be back in something more active than the job here." He remained in England for the duration of the War and was discharged from the Army in December 1945 and given the honorary rank of “Captain”.
Derek was a member of The Selfridge Players before the War and other amateur dramatic groups after. He took part in a 1953 production of 'Hay Fever'. He played David Bliss and the John Lewis Partnership Gazette reported:
"One would not have expected to see Derek Bird as David Bliss. The part is not, on the face of it, a gift for this actor. It is therefore meant as a compliment to say that he adapted himself to the part and the part to himself with unexpected skill and success. He ought perhaps to have looked a little less respectable and a little more frowsy. All the same, a notable performance against type."
I had no idea of his involvement in stage shows until after his death.
Probably due to his injury, Derek always remained in an office job. After leaving Selfridges he went to work for the John Lewis Partnership, which was part of the same group, also as a stock controller. Later he moved to Evan’s Outsizes and described himself as an ‘Economist’. Evan’s later became part of the Burton Group, then the Arcadia Group. He had a small office in Kensington before being re-sited to Hounslow.
As he got older his health deteriorated. His physical mobility continued to degenerate as a consequence of his wartime accident and he suffered terribly from arthritis. However, he was always very stoical in the face of his poor health and always refused to let it get him down.
He retired in the mid 1970's.
Dad and I came from a different generation. As I grew up, our personalities clashed and I wouldn't say I was close to my father. That's not to say that he wouldn't have done anything to ensure my future success and happiness. He sent me to Mill Hill, a public school, which must have been expensive and a drain on his finances. Although I wouldn't say school was a great time for me as I never really engaged with the topics being taught, it did give me an excellent grounding for my future. I treasure a letter he sent me in 1980 after I had qualified as a Chartered Accountant when he said some kind words including "we feel proud of you". I kept that letter in the back of my briefcase throughout the 34 years of my working life and now have it framed in my study. It meant and still means a lot to me.
One of the few things we did have in common was watching Grandstand and World of Sport together on a Saturday afternoon. We both loved most sports but particularly cricket and rugby.
For the first couple of years after his retirement, Mum and Dad enjoyed a new life with holidays to Spain, and Dad took up new interests such as jewellery making and learning Spanish. He also started working for a local charity.
Only a few short years after retiring on 11th May 1978, just before his 65th birthday, Dad was “stricken overnight with paralysis” and he was taken to the Royal Free Hospital, London, where for several weeks he was on a ventilator fighting for his life. A diagnosis of spinal damage caused by "medical negligence" and the maladministration of drugs eventually led to his move to the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital for an intensive course of physiotherapy. This was a desperately difficult time for both of them. Mum had never learned to drive and although she could take buses to The Royal Free Hospital, she had to rely on lifts from family and friends for lifts to Stoke Mandeville. Their plans to travel and to do all the things they had talked about for so long were in tatters.
Despite the fact he had limited use of only one hand Dad started making model ships which now take pride of place in our house. They are so delicate and intricate that I wonder how on earth he could have had the patience, let alone the dexterity to make them.
Eventually his deteriorating condition led to his admission to The Royal Star and Garter Home for ex-service men and women in Richmond upon Thames. During his stay at the Home, Mum visited him every day, a difficult journey right across London involving a number of different trains and buses. He died at the home in January 1989.