Chapter Two


Jack the Lad.


Jack Bishop was born on a cold November night in 1898 at 44, Lax Lane. Jack was the second son of a union between two very large working class families living in Lax Lane - the Bishops and the Garbetts. Between them they had the numbers to form a political party. The Bishops alone had 13 children, of which only 11 survived. .

John Charles and Rosa Garbett married at Kidderminster Register Office on January 5 1884. She was 23, he was just 18 – a rare age gap in those days. There was no hint of a pregnancy and the first  child, Jane – whom I knew as a child in the 1970s as Auntie Jennie – was born more than three years after the marriage in 1887.

When Jack was born, his father had just started a new job at the Severnside Tannery, on the banks of the River Severn, just a few minutes walk from Lax Lane. For years John had been a rope maker at Lowe's Rope Factory on the other side of the river. The job as a leather finisher must have been seen as a step for a man who began life, like most of his peers, as a farm labourer. Apart from anything else it meant a shorter walk to work.

But like a lot of manual jobs in those days, the leather working business lacked glory. One of John Bishop's first jobs of the day was to drive a horse-and-cart through the streets of Bewdley to collect urine from the night before. People used to sell their urine and the tannery used in the leather making process.

Out on the streets of Bewdley, John Bishop was a tough and respected man among the 4,000 population of the town. The big man was as respected as he was huge and ready with his fists. When the traveling showmen came to Bewdley with their boxing rings and prizefighters  – daring the brave among the population to go one round – John Bishop was usually the first through the ropes.

On Saturday nights, for a bit of fun, John and his younger brother and drinking partner,  Charles, used to “take on the town” after the pubs had closed. That is, they used to stand back-to-back, with fists raised, to take on all comers. Often this bit of fun used to develop into a mass brawl and the lone policeman on duty in Bewdley at nights had to cycle to Kidderminster to summon reinforcement to quell the disorder.

There are many other stories about John Bishop. Apparently the family had an old piano at Lax Lane with a seat built into it, and John Bishop could tilt it to one side, with one arm, while one of his daughters continued playing. The big man was also a rescuer and when people got into trouble in the River Severn the call went out and John Bishop would dive in – with a rope wrapped around his middle – to save the day. There were also stories saying the big man was always chosen to carry the coffins of the rich and powerful through the town because he was so tall. John Bishop – they all called him Jack – would also be famous among his workmates for having the strength to stop the fast moving band in the tannery machinery with one grip of his strong hand.

Once, a crew of men were trying to haul a heavy piano up the steps of Bewdley Town Hall. They couldn’t manage it so Jack was called and he carried the piano up the stairs on his back to where it rests to this day.   

From the start, young Jack was the apple of his father's eye. He grew up to be a strong, handsome and bright boy.

Along with the rest of his family, Jack went to the National School, a few yards down Lax Lane. He probably left when he was around 14 years old and around that time was give a small wooden writing case, which I still have to this day. It has brass hinges and is lined with purple velvet. Inside  the lid, in fading ink, is Jack's only surviving signature:”Jack Bishop 1910.”

Life after school was hard. Jack left for a job as an errand boy, delivering meat on a bicycle for a town butcher. In fact, all the Bishop boys delivered meat in their time. I remember my grandfather saying that if you fell off the bike and spilt the meat, you simply used to brush off the dirt and deliver.

This was Jack's lot as the Bishop family entered 1911- a year that was something of a watershed for   Britain and my family. The British Empire was at its peak – the British had no doubt that God had chosen them to lead the world through the richest empire the world had ever seen.

Like most British homes at the time, there were few riches in the Bishop household. In 1911, nine members of the Bishop family were squeezed into seven rooms – living two and three to a bed. Money was tight, working hours were long and conditions harsh for the country's 17 million workers. Of those, no women and only 8 million men out of 25 million – those who owned a house – had the vote. That means no one on the Bishop family at the time could have a say in who ran their country. The country was short of an estimated 100,000 houses and those who did have a roof over their head, also had long drop toilets and not running water.

That year, John Bishop was working as a leather finisher at the tannery, Thomas Bishop, aged 17, was working as a creeler at a carpet factory, lifting piles of heavy yarn onto the looms. Sarah was a domestic servant at a boarding house, while Jack and his brothers and sisters, were still at school.

The year 1911, was the year King George V was crowned and travelled to India to be hailed as Emperor; it was the year Ronald Reagan was born. For the poor, it was the year Britain created the National Insurance Act to ensure the sick elderly and unemployed were looked after. There was a lot of opposition in Parliament among members who feared they were creating a nation of slackers.

Most people in Bewdley could merely watch from the sidelines

Cars were a rare sight and there were a mere 144,000 motor vehicles on the roads of Britain.Air mail came into being and on the ground there were 1.2 million Britons working down the coal mines – one-in-five of them, in the narrow seams of South Wales. Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat Briton Robert Scott to the North Pole.

It was the year when the Titanic was launched and the British government received a secret memo bearing details of Germany's plans for war.

In 1911, the Royal Navy launched five new battleships, including their biggest ever, the King George V.

This was also the year when Thomas Bishop decided to give up working in a carpet factory for  adventure, a uniform and career. A decision that was to change the course of his life and that of his young brother, Jack.


Written by Chris Bishop