Harry Parr was an odd job man who specialised in building repairs – simple bricklaying, replacing slates on roofs, fitting doors, that sort of thing. He had survived the First World War, innumerable spells of unemployment during the 20’s and 30’s, and had never succeeded in holding on to any job for more than a few weeks. Life had been tough.
But then came the Second World War and Harry saw his opportunity. With so many men away on military service there was a need in the local community for someone who could undertake a range of jobs normally performed by the man of the house. Harry’s career was launched.
He acquired a handcart – a flat cart with two large wheels and shafts for pushing. Boards along two of the sides prevented the spilling of materials and equipment. A motley collection of second hand tools and an extension ladder capable of reaching to second floor level completed his list. This was entrepreneurship 1940’s style.
Of course there were occasions when he needed a second pair of hands, a labourer. Then he would call on the services of Bennie Hartill, better known locally as ‘Peggy’ because of his wooden ‘peg leg’. Peggy was a less fortunate veteran of the First World War. Not only had he lost his left leg below the knee, he also suffered bouts of erratic behaviour which made him incapable of regular full-time employment. Nevertheless, he provided valuable support for Harry when needed, and I recall well one unforgettable occasion.
81 High Street, the house of my childhood, was a tall, slim mid-Victorian building. It had three storeys and, as was typical of the period, the floor to ceiling height at each level was generous. Each storey also had two large sash windows opening on to the street.
Harry’s expertise was required when a section of guttering fractured and needed urgent attention. The task was complicated by the fact that a ladder extending only to two storeys was clearly inadequate.
Harry refused to admit defeat. He paced up and down, puffed on his Woodbine, and glanced every now and again at the distance between the pavement and the offending gutter. Suddenly he froze. An idea had dawned. He snuffed out his cigarette and marched off down the street with a clear sense of purpose.
He returned a few minutes later accompanied by Peggy. The pair stood beneath the damaged gutter, Harry gesticulating excitedly as he explained his plan, with Peggy listening, unconvinced, speechless.
Harry then disappeared inside the house with a huge coil of rope draped over his shoulder. He reappeared shortly at the third storey window immediately beneath the problem. With the sash window wide open, one end of the rope was lowered to ground level. There Peggy attached a bag of tools from the handcart. It was hoisted up, followed next by a replacement section of gutter and then by a plank. At this point Peggy joined Harry indoors.
The pair emerged at the window and manoeuvred the plank into a seesaw position, the sill acting as the fulcrum. With Peggy sitting as a counterweight on one end of the plank, Harry carefully crawled out and then rose to his full height with the assurance of a practised wind surfer. Tools were secured to his belt or hung from various pockets and the length of gutter was looped across his back like William Tell’s quiver.
Quite quickly a groups of onlookers gathered and a collective gasp accompanied Harry’s every move, especially so when he allowed the damaged gutter to fall to the ground. A spontaneous cheer went up when the job was successfully completed and Harry returned to terra firma.
Of course, Harry rapidly became a character in local folk lore and the story of his derring-do was recounted – usually in embellished form – in pubs and workplaces throughout the area.
One speculative question was asked time and again; ‘What would have happened had Peggy been taken with a fit of sneezing?’
See also The Hospital Train, A school trip to Arnhem