Roy Birnie - a true Brightlingsea character
Born and bred in Brightlingsea, Roy succumbed to polio at the age of nine but he never let it stop him doing good for the town - or cramming in jobs from milkman to fireworks expert into the bargain.
The list of his accomplishments is a long one. As secretary of Brightlingsea Carnival Association, he helped to secure appearances from famous faces including Jon Pertwee (as Worzel Gummidge), the cast of Hi de Hi and motorcycle daredevil Eddie Kidd. In 1981, thousands flocked to the carnival to see triple Grand National Winner Red Rum – a visit Roy secured after a phone call to the horse's trainer, Ginger McCain.
In 1995 he was part of the team that organised an ambitious celebration to mark 50 years of peace since the end of WWII. Golden Victory Day featured participation from the army, navy and air force, and Roy co-ordinated an air show over the town which included the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Despite poor weather, the event raised £6,000 for local organisations.
The Carnival Association's bank holiday boot sales were another of Roy's ideas. His involvement in organising the association's hugely-popular annual fireworks displays on the recreation ground led to him working for Colchester-based Dynamic Fireworks, where he developed special effects and fired displays across the country – including one for 'Baby Spice' Emma Bunton's birthday. For a time, Roy was a town councillor. At one point he ran the boating lake and started the Warren's Pond fishing club. With his friend Willie Gant he rebuilt the fountain in Victoria Place, which had been filled in and used as a flower bed.
Roy's working career began as a trainee motor mechanic at Farrow's garage at Thorrington Cross in 1965. There then followed sheet metal work in Wivenhoe for Woods (which led to a repetitive strain injury and a High Court case against his employer – which he lost) but in 1978 he took on the job that many in the town remember him for – a milkman with House's Dairy in Sydney Street. It was a job he really enjoyed, not least because of the people he met – including the woman who, in his words "had always just got out of the shower" when he called for the milk money, even though he called at a different time every week!
As the milk round left his afternoons free, his visits to the local bookmaker led to a part-time job writing the odds and, while doing another part-time job as a barman at the Red Lion in Thorrington, he met a journalist from the Colchester Evening Gazette who persuaded him to use his racing knowledge to write a weekly racing column under the pen name 'The Roundsman' for £20 a month.
In 2006, with retirement from Dynamic Fireworks beckoning, Roy took over writing the Brightlingsea Trifles column for the parish magazine, The Native. He often brought a humorous slant to current events in the town, but I was particularly taken by his anecdotes about the Brightlingsea of his childhood and suggested that we collaborate on a book. So it was that in 2010 I published a collection of his essays, Making Fireworks Again Boys?
In his writings about the town, Roy had a gift for remembering small details, such as the noise of crockery rattling on the shelves thanks to a loose floorboard in Gladys Gower's House of a Thousand Teapots on the High Street, what his mum packed in the picnic basket for a day out on Point Clear, or the enticing smells emanating from Bagley's bakery – and the more pungent odour from the dead whale that washed up by Bateman's Tower. His anecdotes brought the Brightlingsea of yesteryear to life, bringing back warm memories to those who'd been there, and filling in a lot of gaps for those who weren't.
His childhood escapades would have rivalled those in Just William. It was his tale about one of these – which I've published below – that led to the title of the book. Roy took some persuading that the title was a good one – but he saw the funny side when some people thought it was a diy handbook with the formulas to make your own rockets!
In 1957, a year before mass inoculations began, Roy contracted polio during an epidemic that saw Brightlingsea make national headlines as over 70 townsfolk were struck down. He later wrote: "Families were torn apart and relatives of victims were avoided. People stopped socialising, and pubs fell quiet. Children were kept away from school and not allowed out to play. Visitors to the town were scarce and delivery boys left groceries at front gates. Brightlingsea was in plague mode – all that was missing were crosses on the front door."
Roy had come home from school, gone to bed with a fever and woke up paralysed from the neck down. Taken by ambulance to Myland Isolation Hospital, and later to Black Notley, months of painful treatment followed before he was allowed home, having managed to avoid the dreaded 'iron lung' ventilators whose continual "pish-push, pish- push"sound he never forgot. He eventually returned home with spinal, joint and a host of other issues that dogged him for the rest of his life, required major operations, and brought his working years to an early end.
In 2012 he had his left leg amputated below the knee and took to a mobility scooter, using it to get around town and see old friends at the coffee mornings in St James' church on Saturday mornings. The next year, I published Oh No Polio, the book he wrote about his life with polio. A portion of the proceeds went to the British Polio Fellowship. Though such a book could have been – given a lifetime of pain and medical procedures – something of a 'misery memoir', Roy's sense of humour and determination shone through. Despite everything, he was always able to see the funny side.
Roy's family meant everything. He married 17-year-old Cath when he was 21 and though her parents said they were, in Roy's words, "too young and it would not last", they went on to have three children, Simon, Kelly and Heidi, eight grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.
His funeral takes place in St James's church on May 26 at 1pm, followed by a private family burial in the churchyard at All Saints'. Daughter Heidi has thanked all those who've sent cards. "It is truly overwhelming to know how loved our Dad was," she said. "The family would love to see the town wave him goodbye. He absolutely loved this place which he was proud to call his home, and we know he would have been so honoured to have a good send off."
Excerpt from Making Fireworks Again Boys
Our gang was busy in the three weeks before Guy Fawkes night, when two major bonfires were created in town. one was in the centre of Hurst Green built by “east enders” Graham Mann and his pals. we built the other in Oyster Tank road, on the semi-dry saltings adjacent to the oyster cleansing works and just behind the boating lake beach huts. There was great rivalry between the two factions as to who could build the biggest bonfire – and boy, were they big!
On Saturdays we hired Tom Marsh’s hand cart at a shilling an hour, using up most of our pocket money, so that we could collect old trees and shrubs from around the town. As the word of what we were up to spread, combustible junk came from the most unlikely sources – builders' yards, shops, back gardens, sheds, garages – and as the years went on people used to save it for us for months before. We disposed of countless pianos, utility war time furniture, tables, chairs, sideboards, horse hair sofas and arm chairs, wardrobes, dressing tables, beds, including mattresses – if it burnt we took it. On reflection we might have been responsible for the price rise in pianos as they became so scarce in later years. The town must have lost many budding pianists because of our bonfires – did we strike a wrong note?
We always made the core of the bonfire in a wigwam fashion with branches and discarded timber,leaving a tunnel to stuff oily rags in to light it. For the three weekends prior to November 5th, we carted tons of rubbish to the site constructing a bonfire so tall that we had to borrow a long wooden ladder to complete it. When you think of all the recycling and limitations on what you can burn nowadays our bonfires were an ecological disaster – to help start the blaze we were given tins of paint, car and bike tyres and old rolls of lino and carpets.
Several strange things turned up in all the junk we collected. Perhaps the most memorable was a rusty two-pint paint tin, half full of a crystal substance. We put it to one side and when it rained later that morning the can started to spit and splutter, emitting acrid smoke and lots of heat. The more it rained the more active the contents became. We later found out we had been given a tin of phosphorous left over from WW2!
It always seemed to pour with rain just before or on Guy Fawkes day and we were saved many times by ten gallons of engine sump oil from Verdun and Colin French, owners of Marine Motors, and a donation of a gallon of paraffin from Tom Marsh and Sons’ hardware shop. We always made a guy for the top of the fire and, before lighting, we were usually visited by PC Cross or PC Rusby, who warned us to be careful. On some of the very wet days the fire took ages to gain a hold, but eventually they always burned well. They must have been seen for miles and were generally burning the next morning, sometimes for several days after. The strange thing was that no one ever queried what we were up to, and permission was never sought to build our bonfire – or its rival on Hurst Green.
And then there were the fireworks. when I was a lad there were no restrictions on the sale of fireworks, so we bought a few fireworks from Jack Maskell at the newsagents, who also gave me his leftovers after November 5th when he saw how interested I was in them. We also made a few pyrotechnics of our own from the ingredients culled from our chemistry sets or purchased from Greg Staffiere at the Victoria Pharmacy. We used to go in with a carefully compiled shopping list and hand it to Mr Staffiere. he would look closely at the list, raise his eyebrows and say, “Making fireworks again boys?” Imagine trying to do that today?