My father, Harry William Roberts, was the son of Henry William Roberts and Charlotte Frost. He was born in Beccles, Suffolk, England, in 1919, midway through an influenza pandemic that swept through great portions of Europe and the world. 250, 000 people in Britain succumbed to the disease leaving families to weather further devastation just when the world was starting to pick itself up from the effects of World War I.
The strain of flu was dubbed the Spanish Flu because, while most European countries exercised strict censorship, Spain, a neutral country, exercised no such censorship, and freely reported where and when the disease struck. Because Spain was the only country reporting instances of the disease, people believed that country alone was affected.
My father arrived in early 1919 when the disease would have been in its final stages. Since its cause was unclear people did what they could to keep themselves buffered from the flu. They flushed the inside of their noses with soap and water each night, took brisk walks and were encouraged to walk to and from work. The nourishing beef beverage, Oxo, was consumed in homes up and down the country, and was ‘known’ to bring comfort and relief from the symptoms of flu. (Source: Family Tree, January 2010).
When we, as children, came down with a cold, my father would tell us his memories of childhood were of mothballs and camphor. When I went to boarding school, a tin of camphor was packed in with other cold remedies like the Vicks bullet shaped twist and sniff nasal inhaler and Vicks Vapour Rub.
The family left Southampton and sailed for South Africa as part Britain’s plan to populate her colonies. Family records are scanty – and my patience with genealogy sites is short – but the first documentation I have is my father’s half year school report (August – December 1925) from St Margaret’s School, Johannesburg, which comments that he was a ‘student of good conduct spoilt by inattention’. He was a year younger than his peers yet the report reflects that at games he was ‘fair (meaning average) but often rough and inattentive’, which makes me think he was able to hold his own in spite of being a year younger than other students.
In 1937 he matriculated from Marist Brothers’ College Observatory, Johannesburg with reports showing an increased interest in school work and that he had improved his class placement. He completed his military training in the South African Defence Force – Army – and spent time during World War II in North Africa (El Alamein) and Italy.
I knew my father as a conscientious man of few words with traits of an introvert. He was a complex man whose deep thoughts were his reality. It left me feeling at arms’ length from him most of the time with glimpses of the man beneath the austere mask.
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