"Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them."
In loving memory of Samuel Roy Williamson – 29 December 1926 – 20 July 2016
Eleven days ago my grandpa died. He was 89 years old. A jovial paterfamilias with a nose for business and the gift of the gab, he was a raucous and benevolent presence in our family. Irrepressible, and irreplaceable.
A self-made man who started life as a publican’s son and apprentice bricklayer, it’s over sixty years since he established the building firm which still bears his name: SR Williamson & Sons. His working life spanned the late twentieth century: from post-war rationing to never having it so good; from the winter of discontent to the classless society.
The firm was well-known for its quality workmanship, a reputation which has been maintained for over half a century, through boom or bust. Sandbach, my home town, is dotted with houses built or renovated by our family. His hard work, and that of my dad and my uncle, is etched in the urban landscape of Cheshire: seeds sown in sweat and toil, yielding blooms of red-brick.
Success like this comes at a price: what became a medium-sized construction firm single-handedly was no small task. He was a born worrier, and had years of stress-related illness. After being pressed into joining the business by my grandma, who was fearful for her ailing husband’s health, my dad took the business on and downsized its operation in the 1980s. (This was always my father's subjective take; the reality may have been more complex.) It placed some strain on their relationship, which was never truly rectified.
By rights I should have gone into the business which I sporadically worked for from the age of 16. My dad, cognisant of the fraught father-son relationship he’d had, neither dissuaded nor encouraged me. Instead I went to university and dreamed of greater things. More fool me.
There’s no doubt it delighted my grandpa to see me learning the trade, and he would have enjoyed seeing me inherit the firm. I didn’t, and this will always be the source of some regret. When my first son was born we chose the name Sam almost by way of an apology.
Last Friday around one hundred people attended his funeral at the small Methodist chapel he worshipped at, without fail, every Sunday from his youth to his death.
Delivering the eulogy with my cousin James, it dawned on me that the last time I’d set foot in the chapel was for the funeral of my Grandma, his wife Betty, over 16 years ago. It was also clear just how many of the mourners at her funeral were no longer with us. Grandpa outlived almost all of his contemporaries. How lonely that must have made him feel. Few truly expect to live as long; few comprehend what it means to.
There is still much about him we don’t know, that we ought to know. Misheard or misunderstood remembrances that now slip into apocrypha: the name of his parents, or the fate of his seven brothers and only sister. I certainly never asked him about his childhood memories, and he rarely spoke of them.
Now of course I wish I had, but he was much more interested in the here and now, in the possibilities of his grandchildren’s present, not the dim remains of his distant past. There’s some larger sorrow at work there perhaps, a reluctance to reclaim that absent family – a family now lost to time, and gone forever.
Samuel Roy Williamson was born in December 1926, in a country still coming to terms with the effects of the Great War. The youngest of nine children, he and his seven brothers and sole sister grew up in Arclid, where his Dad ran the Rose and Crown pub, an old coaching inn.
He learned to play piano in his fathers’ pub, and quickly became very adept at tinkling the ivories, spending Friday and Saturday nights playing in The Crown or Market Tavern, two spit n’ sawdust pubs in Sandbach. Even back then he revelled in being the centre of attention. Around this time he had an interview at the BBC as a continuity player, but didn’t get the job because he couldn’t read music.
As hard as he worked as a builder, he extolled the joys of loafing. He particularly loved being by the sea, buying a chalet in Abersoch and decamping with his wife to their ‘second home’ for weeks on end. One morning in Abersoch – long before I was born - Grandpa went out to buy a pair of shorts, and came back with a speedboat, which he named ‘Crazy Moment’. He had an infectious, impetuous nature, and would take to the water for hours with his boys, fishing for mackerel or just pootling around.
I’ll always associate the place with childhood summers racing around on a BMX with my cousins, or lying in a bunk bed, listening to sheep grazing while rain rattled on the tin roof. You’d find him, whiskey in hand, reclining on his lazyboy or out in the sun, the Test or the Open flickering out of his antiquated television.
He was an avid golfer, playing regularly at Sandbach – where he was club Captain and President – or Pwthelli while in Wales. He had a passion for playing and watching the game, both of which he passed on to his sons and then his grandchildren.
On my seventh birthday, he gave me my first club – a ladies five iron cut down to size – and my first half-set a year or so later. He always had time to take us for nine holes: he was very proud of his grandchildren sharing his interests, and liked showing us off, always stressing the importance of etiquette and consideration while we played. It was a guide for life, really.
He could be serious too, prone to fits of disgruntlement, and was easily offended if he thought he was being slighted. I remember annoying him once – and only once – when expressing petulant irritation at my inconsistent game, and being told off by my Grandma for upsetting him. Another time, though, I remember chipping in from off the green to score my first par, and he was chuffed to bits to have seen it.
While he lacked the time to be a committed gardener, he tried growing all sorts of fruit and veg, with varying degrees of success. One time he cleared thirty years of pigeon droppings from the loft above another Sandbach pub, the Swan and Chequer, and used it to fertilise his potatoes at home. My dad has never recovered from the childhood trauma of tasting this toxic manure.
Grandpa wasn’t one for solitude, he always wanted to be in the presence of others. Throughout his life he was part of a huge social circle, and highly-regarded by those he met through the Rotary Club, Probus, the Golf Club, or the chapel at Wesley Avenue. Not surprising, being the youngest of a large family and spending his youth in a noisy pub.
He placed huge value on the importance of family and friends, and was particularly close to my uncle and his family, all of whom still live locally. Despite being a natural raconteur, he was a good listener too, someone you could share aspirations or concerns with. He was generous with his time, and money, raised significant sums for charity, particularly the RNLI, and always offering and insisting upon helping us financially.
One Christmas decades ago, I remember going into Barclays with my mum and there was my grandpa, perched at his portable keyboard, playing Christmas carols for the customers. It was just the sort of thing that he would do, the sort of thing he had always done. I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it.
He was a lovely man, one of a kind and one of the best. He’ll be sorely missed.
Rest in peace.