Thursday, October 21, 2010

Biography: Alfred Renshaw



Alfred and son Norman on their farm, 1951

I was born on the Witwatersrand in Transavaal South Africa on September 6, 1913. The name of the mine where I was born was the "Geldenhuis" Mine. In English that means "The Goldenhouse Mine"--provided GOLD of course!! This mine was part of theWitwatersrand chain of gold mines, in Transavaal South Aftrica. The "Rand" as it is known, is a rich out-cropping of gold bearing ore, about 22 miles in length from East to West in a quarter circle shape. Benoni and Boksburg on the East, to Crown Mines, Johannesburg on the West end of the elliptic.

I have faint memories of being in a convent boarding school in Natal, on the Coast, run by a crew of Nuns from France. I guess we were there whilst Dad and Mum toured the country showing "moving pictures". Dad, at that time owned the only movie camera in the land, so I guess it was quite a novelty. From age 5 to 12 years I attended the school run by the government. It was called the "Simmer Deep" Government School. This was a very good school. They taught the usual subjects, as well as AFRIKAANS, which is a kind of bastard Dutch spoken by the Boers. There was no choice about it. This was the second working language of the country. Other languages were Zulu, Shangaan and Basuto.

At about the 4th standard we were sent to the "Trade School"in Germiston, to learn carpentry and metal work. We also got the "Hell" beat out of us by the"Boer" instructors who hated our guts because we were English, Scottish or Irish, the people who "stole" their country from them (Boer War).

It was a very good life in a very nice country and climate with all kinds of interesting things to do. The countryside away from the Mine is, or was, beautiful (this was 70 years ago). My life was taken up trapping exotic birds, gathering old bones from remains of animals that had come to grief for one reason or another. The carcasses were stripped clean as a whistle by the vultures, leaving skeletons. We kids would gather the bones and sell them every Friday afternoon to some guy that came from a place called "Cleveland". We would get several shillings (BOB) for these bones and have a real good blow-out with the usual goodies that kids like which we brought up at the mine "REC" or the "JEW STORES".

Things were going pretty good. I had joined the cubs, graduated to scouts. I had to go to the next mine for scouts. It was called the "Simmer & Jack" mine and the troop was the "Commissioners Troop", a great honour to be accepted into that outfit! Lots of sports and camping and special outings. I actually saw the Prince of Wales 3 times one day in Germinston, Simmerdeep & Johannesburg. He was very well liked in South Aftrica at that time (1923-25)

All of a sudden, out of a clear blue sky, my father gathered us together after Sunday Dinner and said, "I'm leaving my job on the mine (engineer) and we are all going to Canada!" Just like that! My oldest sister, Amy, was courting at that time so her fiance chirped up and said, "And I am going too!" It later turned out a friend of the family who had emmigrated to Canada had written a letter home claiming the streets in Canada were paved with gold and wealth was available for the taking. It was on the basis of this one letter dad made his decision. That was it, we left the mines the first week in June, 1925, and arrived at Union Station in Toronto on July 12, 1925. There were 10 of us, Mum,Dad, Amy, David, Lily, Eileen, Peggy, Alfie, Sheila & Jack (Amy's boyfriend).

We had a very difficult time settling down here in Canada. After searching around Timmins, Sudbury and the mining district in general up north, the men could not find work. The man who wrote the letter home and got us into all this nonsence, turned out to be a janitor in the mines in Timmons inflating his success for the sake of his family back home! The officials in the mining district advised them to go back to South Aftrica! But eventually, when all the girl's got jobs and my dad and brother and brother-in-law got jobs and the money began to come in. My dad got a job as engineer at Simpson's mail order on Mutual St., Jack got a job as a foreman with Anglin & Norecross Construction. Amy got a job with Laura Secord's head office on Spadina. The girls, Lily, Eileen and Peg opened their own restaurant at the corner of Yonge and Dundas (N.W. Corner) called "Home Dairy", a deli cum light lunch deal. Everyone got happy and adjusted to the New Way of life.

I went to St. Mikes Separate school on Bond St. next to the Cathedral and I finished my education at De La Salle Boy's High School. I left there in 1930 because I was supposed to go back to South Africa but this did not materialize. Instead, my dad, who returned to South Africa in June of '29 cabled us to say he (and Amy Jack and the two kids) were coming back to Canada, God knows why and he won't tell! Dad contracted the cancer that was to plague our family and died shortly after his return to Canada. So I went to Danforth Tech. to take up poster advertising. I finished the term course there but never sold a bloody poster EVER-OR made a penny DOING it. It was just at the time Machine Printing came in to being in a big way.

Times were really tough when I finished with the school caper. NOBODY, NOWHERE COULD GET A JOB, for years it went on, in retrospect, at least 9 years. This of course was the Great Depression, a time when a .25 piece looked like a hundred bucks. I worked at just about everything I could think of--delivery boy, sailor in the merchant marine working the Great Lakes, railway worker, American Newspaper Delivery (the best paying job of them all). For a couple of years it was tough going for everyone. Doctors, lawyers, teachers were out of work and on POGIE!! RELIEF that is, relying on the government to keep them, not only in food but living accomidation too.

I worked as a "soda jerk" in a drug store for $4.00 a day!!! Then on the Great Lakes Ships transporting Grain from the Lake Head to Toronto and all points south and East. Lake jobs became impossible to get after a while so I shipped out on the C.N.R. up North (and I mean North--not North Bay) on a steel gang laying new steel tracks. I was damned hard and heavy work at .55 an hour for 10 hours a day (while paying .90 per diem board).

By 1934 things began to pick up. You could afford a packet of "fine cut" a week to "roll your own". I got a job at St. Mike's Hospital in 1935 or 6. I had just got to cash my final cheque from the railway and was between Queen and Shuter Streets when I looked up at this huge hospital building and thought, "Surely there must be a job in there for me!" Next thing I was to go make some inquiries and found the personnel manager, Stanely Bourgoyne, and ex O.P.P. officer from Orillia. He and I had a great conversation but to no avail, he assures me there is not a snowballs chance in hell of getting a job there. What can I say but "Thanks!". "By the way," he says as I was leaving,"Do you have a phone number?" "Yes ," sez I. He takes it and promises if anything does come up he will give me a call. That was Friday. Monday I received a call. "Come on down tomorrow," sez he, "I think I have a job for you." Great!!! I go the next day, Tuesday, and worked there for 5 years.

And then we were beginning to hear about some guy in Germany named HITLER and all of a sudden in 1939 the crud hit the fan!

I was sitting in a bootleg joint one Sunday having a quiet beer when some guy named Bill Fraser came in. I sort of knew him, in a half-assed way, because he worked at St. Mike's too so we weren't strangers to each other. After a respectable period of time had passed, I guess we had consumed several quarts of Black Horse, Bill says to me, "What about this guy Hitler?"

I says, "What about him?"

"Well," Bill says to me, "Looks like war is coming."

Sez I, "Let it come."

Sez he, "Would you go?"

Sez I, "Sure thing!"

Sez he, "Well-why don't we go and join up now?"

So off we go, fortified by the illicit booze. We didn't get accepted that day because it was a Sunday, but they said, "Come back tomorrow--at 8:00 am"

We did! We joined up September 3, 1939 and were sworn in on my birthday September 6, 1939.
That's where the parting between Bill and I took place. Bill having had experience as an orderly was trundled off to medical duty at Christie St. Hospital. I hardly laid eyes on him after that, not even when we were together on the Empress of Britain going overseas, did I see him. You see what we had joined was a medic unit, the 15th General Hospital. I, who was anything but a medic, spent my time route marching and drilling and doing barrack duty. Then all of a sudden we were on the Empress of Britain on our way to England. I was immediately transferred to the Royal Canadian Engineers, because the Hospital needed three engineer personnel: an electrician, an engine hand, and a carpenter & joiner. We were known as 2nd detachment R.C.E. I spent the war with the 15th General and as I was POSTED there, that meant NO transfer ever, for the "duration". However, I still saw my friend Bill now and then and we were able to have a few "wet ones" together whenever we could.

The war bogged down, and how! G.H.Q. did not know what to do with the Canadians after Dunkirk. So our unit was sent to take over a 2000 bed Hospital under construction, in a place called Bramshott Chase in Surrey. We finished it then took over. That's where the 15th spent 1940,41,42 and 1/2 of 43. In 1941 I met a lady I took a shine to: Phyllis. We saw one another all through the year, so when it got to be October we decided to get married (October 6, 1941). Bill was my best man at the event. Meanwhile Bill had met a young lady whom he wanted me to meet. She lived in Greyshott. He said,"I have someone I'd like you to meet." So after duty we go up to Greyshott and the young lady was no other than Rosanna Shepherd. He said he'd propose, he did, the wedding was in 1942 (April 18th). I was the best man at this wedding. Tit for Tat!

Bill, Rosanna, Phyllis & Alfred, 1942

Then, in 1943, it was off to North Africa. We just barely made it because the U-boats were hot on the trail of the Allied convoys. Luckily the bottom fell out of it all for Rommel in the desert and we didn't fare too badly. We stayed 6 months in Africa, then it was off to Sicily and Italy. I went through Sicily and up to Naples on Advanced Guard and once Fritz was on the run we put a great big artillery barrack into shape and the 15th General came over in February 1944.

We were as close to Monte Casino as you are from the Scarbourgh Town Centre right now. The 15 General opened for causalities and got them right away! It was rough and tough for a while but once our boys chased the Hun further North things quieted down!

Once the big line battles were over and Rome fell, it was all over but the cheering. The enemy folded and every allied soldier spent at least 10 days in Rome, the Eternal City, and kissed Pope Pius XII ring. HaHa! In St. Peter's of all places!

In the spring of 1945, the war was over. Discipline ended and my friend Bill was so exuberant in his celebrating that he thought he was Hercules and tried to jump over a 12 foot wide ditch, missed (of course) and broke his ankle and was shipped back to the U.K. on the Lady Nelson.

One of the high lights of my tours in Italy (CASERTA) to my great surprise was a visit from General Alexander, who had come to the hospital to decorate some guys for bravery. Major Tuiquit, of Quebec, won the V.C. and a lot of other decorations like the military medal, the military cross etc. were handed out. Anyway, General Alexander come to my quarters and says, "I just want to shake the hand of the man who designed the operating theatres in this hospital. Do you realize how many lives your work has saved?" I stood there quaking in my shoes, then he says, "Good work my son!" and takes off.

In February 1945 I received orders to pack up the unit. I was paraded in front of the colonel wondering what was up. He says, "Stand easy, Al. Do you think you could pack up one more time?" I said I thought I could. He said, "Good, get at it, then we'll all go home!" From then on it was FUN FUN FUN PARTY PARTY PARTY every day and every night. The Unit proper left for Naples, to board the transport that was ready and waiting and I and my party left 10 days later. We had a very pleasant voyage home. No submarines, no strafing, no duties!!!

By May 1945 I am back in England. Every man is struck with one idea, to go to London and have a good time! I returned to my wife. Bill had been back to the U.K., had his ankle fixed and had been shipped off to Holland. I never laid eyes on him again until I met him in Canada on Meighen Ave. where he lived and wanted a front door fixed, 1946. I was in England, in Surrey, when Armistice was signed, in a PUB, MY Pub drinking a pint.

After discharge I went back to school for 9 straight months. I felt there was a lot of catching up to do, with one thing and another. I worked at my trade (Painting and decorating) but it all seemed very phony to me, taking orders from people who didn't know their work or their business. I had a hard time adjusting to civilian life, after all I had been 6 years in the army. I dare say it took about 4 years for me to get back into the civilian way of thinking and doing things, but I did finally!

Unidentified friend, and a very thin Bill & Alfred in North Africa, 1943

Life was drab. I hated city life. I brought a farm south of Peterborough and raised beef for 4 years; but Phyllis did not like the life and also by this time we had a fine young laddie named Norman. So I gave in and we returned to Toronto in 1952. I worked in Toronto for 2 years but went back to the wide open spaces. Between one thing and another Norman grew up, left home, and we were LEFT ALL ALONE, JUST THE WAY WE STARTED!

I lived just outside Peterborough for 32 years. Made a lot of fine friends and met a lot of fine people in my work. I was self-employed as a painter and decorator and indeed could do anything. In my time I built 3 fine homes, including my own, and people came from miles around to engage me for my services. My clients were 99% professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors and people who owned their own businesses). My first wife became very ill with cancer in 1970, so I returned to look after her. She went away in 1988. Except for my son Norman who lived in Toronto, life was not very nice. I had met Rosanna Fraser in Greyshott in 1942 during the war. She was then Rosanna Shepherd. We kept in touch through Bill and when he died, also in 1988, we decided to get married. We married in September 1989.

We are now in our 10th year of marriage and counting. Rosanna has four fine sons and four grandchildren. Things go along fine and the smoke goes up the chimney just the same. In my life I have really had a world of experiences. Like the saying goes, TINKER, SOLDIER, SAILOR, RICHMAN, POORMAN sort of fits into my life, but thank God not too seriously. All we experience in passing through this Vale of Tears (as the Bible calls our world) helps us to understand one another and most of all, the big lesson is, if you want to be truly happy, and enjoy peace of mind then--LOVE ONE ANOTHER!

A. Renshaw.

Peacefully in his sleep following surgery for stomach cancer, Alfred died at the Centennary Medical Centre in Scarborough, Ontario on Aug. 28, 1999, six days before his 11th wedding anniversary to Rosanna and nine days before his 86th birthday. His wife and son Norm were with him when he died.