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Noel

 

Strictly speaking, Noel was my half-brother — my father's son, but not my mother's.

Noel was born on January 6, 1930 in Linwood, a district of Christchurch, New Zealand. He died on March 8, 2016, aged 86.

Noel's name appears as "Roy Neill" on the birth certificate. I assume that my father later changed the middle name to "Noel" as a mark of respect to his own brother Thomas Noel, who died six months later (though Dad said he only heard of Tommy's death seven months after the event, in January 1931). The chronology was also suitable: January 6 follows Twelfth Night, and therefore misses the technical definition of Christmas only by a whisker.

Everybody in my family — my father and mother, my sister and Auntie Cissie — used "Noel." Noel's wife, however, always called him "Roy." The man himself: "I never did take to 'Noel' so I set out to be known as 'Roy'."

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My father is listed on Noel's birth certificate as "bridge builder." I do recall Dad telling me he had worked in a construction team building a bridge across a river in New Zealand. However, I knew that his work in Christchurch was as an orderly in a mental hospital, and assumed this came after his construction work. Perhaps Dad just thought "bridge builder" looked better. Or perhaps something else: there is a tradition of civil engineering in the Derbyshires. Grandad Derbyshire had some sort of qualification as a mining engineer; and I recall Cousin Isobel telling me of a diary she had, kept by one of the Derbyshires in a previous generation who had made a living as a journeyman digger of wells and builder of bridges.

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Noel's mother is listed on his birth certificate as Evelyn Jean Pepper, née Goddard, aged 20, birthplace Dunedin. Until recently, neither Noel nor any of the rest of us (except, of course, Dad, who kept what he knew to himself) knew anything else about Noel's mother. The only factual evidence we had — apart from Noel's existence, of course, and the bare details on the birth certificate — were some photographs and some cryptic entries in Dad's 1929 pocket diary.

Of the photographs posted here on my website, one shows a smartly-dressed and good-looking young woman standing in a large public square, and has "Jessie" written on the back in Dad's handwriting. The other shows her sitting on a veranda.

The diary ("Johnnie Walker's Diary for 1929," issued by John Walker & Sons, Ltd., distillers, of Kilmarnock, Scotland — the white population of New Zealand is heavily Scottish in origin) is hardly more informative. The most suggestive entry is the word "legitimate," written in the space for Friday, May 10, 1929. Supposing conception to have taken place sometime in early April, this would be about the point where Jean would be getting worried. Dad — whose schooling had been minimal — might have just been acquainting himself with some unfamiliar spellings at this time. The only other distinctly relevant entry is "Jean 8 o'clock" on Thursday, November 7, when Jean would have been seven months gone.

Nothing else was known about Jean Pepper until January 2003, when Noel, after some online trawling through the New Zealand white pages, got in touch with Anthony William Goddard of Christchurch, New Zealand. Jean was Tony's father's sister, so that Noel and Tony are first cousins. Tony has a sister, Julie, who is a schoolteacher in Christchurch. Both exchanged correspondence with Noel, and there were phone conversations, too. They were amazed to find they had a cousin in England: they had no idea of Noel's existence.

It appears that Jean met Dad while estranged from Pepper, her first husband. She already had a son, Russell Pepper (1927-1983). In 1934, after getting a divorce from Pepper, she married a fellow named Johnston who had come to New Zealand from Scotland. They had a daughter, Margaret, born 1935, who was still alive in 2016, and is married to a man named Mervyn Winsloe. Thus Noel, at the age of 73, learned that he had a half-sister. In fact, Jean herself had only died on January 5th, 2000 — the day before Noel's 70th birthday.

We still do not know why Dad had sole custody of Noel at the time they left New Zealand. Jean was still married to Pepper, though separated from him. Presumably she felt that raising two children by herself would be too much of a burden.

Dad actually told my mother that Jean was his first wife, and that she died in childbirth. On my parents' marriage lines Dad listed his status as "widower." My mother told this tale to me, and I grew up believing it. Only in old age — around 1980 — did Mother learn (from Cissie, I think) that there had been no marriage and no death. She was furious. "Why, the woman might still be alive!" (Which, we now know, she actually was.) Mother also told me that Dad once said to her, early in their life together — and so when the marriage-and-death-in-childbirth fiction was still in play — that he had been deeply in love with Jean and doubted he could ever love so well again. Dad was not a tactful man, nor an especially truthful one.

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After Dad had learned of Uncle Tommy's death — which is to say, early in 1931 (according to Dad), Noel by then a year old — Dad came under pressure from the family to return to England. He did so, with the infant Noel, some short time later on the R.M.S. Tainui, passing through the Panama Canal. The name Tainui appears in the "Memoranda" section of that 1929 pocket diary, which presumably Dad was still using over a year later.

Noel then grew up with Dad's family in Oakengates. In 1936 or 1937 he suffered some dramatic illness that involved Dad having to give blood at Shrewsbury hospital. He was then struck by whooping cough … with the combined result that when he got back to school he was far behind and never caught up. (Matters were not helped by Noel's class being in the charge of an ex-officer from Dad's old WW1 regiment, the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. Dad did not like officers, and especially did not like this one, whose name was Clive Allison. He advised Noel to pay no attention to anything the man tried to teach him.)

At age thirteen Noel abandoned school and turned up at Perry Street in Northampton, where Mum and Dad were living. He did odd jobs around Northampton, then was called up into the Royal Navy soon after I was born. After two years in the Navy he left, I am not clear how, and returned to Northampton, getting a job in the projection room of the Savoy Cinema in Abington Square. Cinemas at that time employed legions of young women as "usherettes" (to show people to their seats). One of the usherettes at the Savoy was Dorothy Mitchell.

[Dorothy Irene Mitchell was born at Farnham, Hampshire, in 1932. "My father came from a small village called Coundon, County Durham. He joined the Army in 1927 and was posted to the Northamptonshire Regiment, which at that time was garrisoned in Colchester. There he met my mother, who was employed as a maid by a local doctor. She came from a village called Clonroche in County Wexford, southern Ireland. Her people were Catholic, of course. My father was Church of England, so they had to be married by a registrar. When I was 15 my father was posted to the Regiment's home town, Northampton. That was where I met Roy."]

In 1948 Noel went back to the military, this time the Army. In 1950 he was shipped out to Tripoli, Libya. Then in 1952, when the Egyptians threw out their king and threatened to nationalize the Suez Canal, he was sent to Egypt.

Noel married Dorothy Mitchell on leave, November 7, 1953. In February 1954 they moved to married quarters in Düsseldorf, Germany. Robert Derbyshire was born December 1, 1954, Peter Derbyshire on April 22, 1957. These are my nephews.

[My mother, Judith, and I went for a vacation with Noel's family in Düsseldorf during the summer of 1954. The married quarters consisted of a pleasant house with a huge garden and a basement full of old army gear. Noel had a dog, and we used to play in the garden with the dog. I also liked to dress up in the army gear, and there are some photographs (here, and here) of me doing this. Other recollections of the German holiday, my first trip abroad: Being seasick on the Dover-Ostend ferry. Seeing Toblerone chocolate for the first time on that ferry, and thinking how wonderful it would be to have some. ("Too expensive!" — Mother.) The cleanliness and smartness of the German trains, by comparison with our English ones. Mother laughing helplessly as she tried to master the phrase fünf bananen. Oily crisps (= potato chips). Construction sites floodlit at night so work could go on 24 hours — a thing never seen in England. Some unpleasantness involving a crippled beggar — a war casualty, I suppose — who found out we were English and began cursing us. American horror comics that Noel had access to — tremendously more horrifying than any you could get in England. There are entire stories in those comics that I can still recall.]

In September 1957 Noel and his family were posted to Hong Kong, where they stayed for three years. (Overseas postings in the British Army were generally for three years. The Hong Kong one was Noel and Dorothy's favorite. For their 40th wedding anniversary, their son Peter paid for them to go back to Hong Kong on a vacation. The place had changed beyond recognition, of course. I gave Noel an introduction to my own dear old friend Kwong-Chi Chan, and they had a drink together.)

Postings in England and Germany (again) followed. Noel left the army in May 1971, being then at a barracks in Shrivenham, Berkshire, near the town of Swindon. He became a traffic warden (i.e. issuing parking tickets) in Swindon, and also served as Warrant Officer in charge of catering for two Territorial Army [British equivalent of the U.S. National Guard, very approximately] Regiments, before retiring in December 1994.

Noel's retirement was recorded by the town newspaper:

Retirement

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In my own childhood Noel was a very occasional presence. I have a dim memory of him coming to see us in the early years at Friars Avenue. He was with the Army in Egypt or Libya, and came back with presents, all of which I associated in my mind with those countries. There was a cigarette lighter shaped like a camera on a tripod, and some throat lozenges ("Victory V") which I supposed to be Egyptian but which were, in fact, entirely English. He wrote to Dad regularly; the family joke was that only Dad could decipher Noel's handwriting.

I have two very early memories of Dorothy baby-sitting us. One is of her sitting on the piano stool with me on her knee and Judith somewhere nearby. Dorothy taught us to pat our heads and rub our bellies simultaneously, which we thought very fascinating. (Note on that piano stool. When Grandad Derbyshire died, we got the family piano. It was set up against the east wall of the living-room at 62 Friars Avenue, and Judy was sent to piano lessons. Judy hated the lessons, however, and there were terrific fights over practice, and in the end my parents gave up and sold the piano.) The other memory is of visiting with Noel and Dorothy at the barracks in Northampton (on Barrack Road — not the Simpson Barracks outside the town). This was my first encounter with canned pineapple, which Dorothy produced but which I refused to eat on principle, the principle being that Judith had told me it tasted horrible.

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Robert Derbyshire, Noel and Dorothy's elder son, was a policeman for a while. Then he left the force and took a job as Branch Manager in the short-lived retail jewelry empire of Gerald Ratner. (Ratner committed commercial suicide in April 1991 by having a drink too many at a public function and announcing that the products he sold were junk and the people who bought them idiots. This got all over the British papers and Ratner's stock was a "distressed security" in no time.)

On June 18 1978 Robert married a girl named Janet. They went to live in Horsham, West Sussex. James Robert — my father's first great-grandchild — was born 12/23/82, followed by Mark Leonard (10/11/85) and then Anna (9/21/89).

In 2005 Robert and Janet separated. They divorced in 2007. Robert moved to Swindon,

[Added April 2011] :  In an email from Robert I hear that James is due to marry his University sweetheart Sarah on October 28 this year — in Derbyshire! (Sarah comes from Chesterfield.) James works in executive recruitment. Mark is a qualified Electrician working in Horsham for a local firm. In his free time he indulges his passion for playing soccer. Anna will graduate from Nottingham Trent University this summer after a 4 year language course in Spanish and Italian.

Peter Derbyshire lived in the Freshbrook district of Swindon, not far from Noel and Dorothy, until 2004, when he sold his Swindon house and bought a property in Turkey. Peter then divided his time between Swindon and Turkey. He married Angie, and they have daughters Jenna and Kelly. Kelly was married in September 2010; she gave birth to a son in early May, 2012 — my (gulp!) great-great-nephew. Peter and Angie had by that time separated. By 2016 Peter was living in the north of England.