The centre stone of the arch
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Walter and Joan Gray home in Scalloway. To mark the event, Janis Smith tells the story of the man whose name it bears: Walter Gray, a man worthy of our remembrance.
Walter James Gray was born in the Auld Haa or Muckle Haa, Scalloway, on the evening of 14th October 1885 to Robert and Cecilia (Irvine) Gray. His father was the eldest son of Robert Gray, Scalloway, and his mother, the third daughter of John and Barbara Irvine, South Garth, Tingwall.
Walter was in a hurry to get on with his life, arriving some three weeks earlier than expected. His mother told later how on the day of his birth she “had done a bigger than normal wash and succeeded in getting all the wet clothing on the washing line. Unfortunately a sudden snowstorm struck before drying was completed, resulting in much of the clothing becoming frozen to the line. Due to the strenuous efforts in freeing the frozen clothes, this wee imp decided he had had more than enough knocking about and he emerged into the big wide world well ahead of time!”
He was delivered by the village midwife, “Ma”, who happened to be passing the Auld Haa and was called in by an aunt who was attending to Mrs Gray. Walter was a weak baby who suffered much from convulsive fits. Some 24 years later, when Walter returned to Scalloway from Canada, “Ma” heard of his visit and requested he visit her. During conversation, she told him “du kens du should never hae grown up”. Old Ma, like so many midwives, had no training, only experience, and it is on record that she never lost a child during her lifelong practice as midwife in the village and surrounding areas.
Walter had a happy childhood, with a brother Robert, three sisters older and one sister younger. At five and a half years of age, he started school “groomed in a suit and my one and only pair of boots well and truly brushed”. After the first day at school, the boots were set aside for church attendance and he wore rivlins and bare feet to school. He attended school from 1891 to 1897 and although never a “brilliant pupil, I was a serious and earnest one” and was justly proud of being first in his class for six years. His goal early in life was never to settle for second or lower place to anyone.
Life grew hard at home, and misfortune often dogged his father’s footsteps. When Walter was eight, his father had an accident on board a ship, resulting in a broken leg. This meant the only money coming into the house was Robert’s apprentice wage: 5/- per week (25p). One of Walter’s elder sisters was disabled and could not work. She had been a victim of Polio at the tender age of seven. “The family went into a huddle and it was decided that the mother and four daughters would devote every spare moment to carding, spinning and knitting” wrote Walter. “I would attend to such chores as carrying in the water, trimming the oil lamps and carrying out the soils, bringing in the peats and going to Upper Asta four times a week for skimmed milk. I was also detailed to scrape and clean the porridge pot, a twice-daily chore as porridge featured both at breakfast and supper, and finally I would sell the hosiery on Saturdays and come back with a basket of groceries!” And so they managed until the breadwinner recovered and was once again able to find work.
The following two years saw Scalloway thrive from the herring boom, with processing of pickled herring and kippers. This resulted in a keen demand for kipper boxes and again Walter was at the ready, and many happy hours were spent hammering these together. The wage for this was 2d (hardly 1p) per hour. Occasionally more money could be earned and Walter once worked from 8pm to 8am and proudly handed his mother “two whole shillings (10p) before washing, gulping my porridge and rushing off to school supremely happy, but requiring no rocking to sleep that night!”
Further efforts to help make ends meet saw Walter in the whelk ebb, which sold for 9d to a shilling (4 or 5p) per water bucket. He willingly gathered kelp and spread it on the tattie rig. After working their own peats, he hired himself to others during the long summer holidays and earned one shilling per day (5p).
At the age of 12 and still at school, a totally new way of life began to form towards the end of 1897. Walter was asked by the postmaster if he would like to help out as a telegraph messenger for a few weeks until someone could be found to do the job permanently. And so at 8am on Monday 9th October, Walter’s working life began. His duties included “carrying a scuttle of coal, preparing kindling and getting a good fire going, disposing of the previous days ashes, sweeping the floor, dusting all the furniture and shelves and finally proceeding to the village pump at the junction of New Street and Main Street and bringing back the earthenware jar of drinking water. Then, my job of telegraph messenger would commence.”
A telegraph messenger’s life was a busy one as there was no other means of long range communication other than the post. Telegraph was operated by Morse code. On his first day at work, Walter was handed a card of Morse code, and such was his interest that by the time he returned for his second days duty, he had memorised all the dots and dashes for each letter of the alphabet and the required numerals.
During his first week at work, he heard that the schoolmaster intended to hold evening classes, and immediately Walter’s smartness was obvious. He saw this as a golden opportunity not to be missed. He would be available for work during the day and could further his education in the evening. There was only one major hurdle, to persuade his mother to allow him to leave school. Mrs Gray had many doubts, and Mr Gray, away on a long voyage at sea, was no help. Eventually Walter won the day, received parental permission, and became the permanent employee at the Post Office Telegraph Service while attending evening classes in order to improve his basic education. Two years later, at the age of 14, he was post-man, counter assistant, telegraph messenger and handyman, his wages increasing from 4/- (20p) to 7/6 (37 1/2 p) per week.
On 9th November 1899 came news of his father’s death. Mr Gray had been talked into mastering the Bohemian Girl on a trip from Bixter to Wick with peat, then to Newcastle on Tyne to load up with coal to be landed at Wick. The trip south went as planned, but on leaving Newcastle, a westerly gale prevailed. The Bohemian Girl broke under the strain. A lighthouse keeper, Mr Shearer, was walking along the banks in Whalsay and at the bottom of a gully he saw a body lying above the high water mark, clad in oilskins, sea boots and life jacket. Unable to identify the body, a telegram was sent to Lerwick giving details of the discovery, including a number on the dead man’s watch. By coincidence, Mr Gray’s brother chanced to read the telegram in the window of the Harbour master’s office and the number on the watch struck fear within him and he decided to go north without further delay. The body was identified and brought home to Scalloway to be buried the following Monday at Tingwall. Mr Gray was only 50.
Walter continued his postal/telegram work and was at his desk when word that Ladysmith was relieved after the long siege during the Boer War. Such was his excitement that he ran out into the street shouting, “Ladysmith is relieved”, over and over again. Everyone stopped whatever job they were doing and followed him. The local doctor at the time went at once to the Scalloway Hotel (Lennie’s) and ordered barrels of best beer.
In 1901, there was a demand for postal and telegraph services at Hamnavoe, Burra Isle. Walter was offered and he accepted this charge. It is worth highlighting that he was only 15 at the time. However, after only nine months the job ended when Walter was struck with a severe attack of appendicitis, and with the lack of medical knowledge in the early 1900s, this was called inflammation of the bowels. Walter was to suffer greatly and the treatment was equally horrendous. He was fortunate to survive. The doctor’s comment regarding his recovery was very discouraging. Poor Walter was told he could “expect the scourged digestive system to remain weak for the next 20 years”. The doctor though had not reckoned on Walter Gray’s determination, and within 15 months, following a time of vigorous exercise, he was competing in the volunteers sports, carrying off first and second prizes.
Walter’s next place of employment was in Hamar, Northmavine, where he was to establish a telegraph service. Hamar was the site of a busy herring station. Here a Miss Barbara Anderson was employed as a trainee, and after a few months she was able to carry on the service single handed. Walter was then called to Skeld and succeeded in training Christopher Robertson to do the same postal and telegraph work.
Returning to Scalloway with an increasing interest in wireless, he applied for a job in London with Marconi, but was turned down because he was too young. However, two years later he received word from Marconi that they would be willing to review his application, and in May 1904, it was a happy fellow that signed on the R.M.S Parisian as Marconi operator.
Within two years, Walter had moved to Canada, where he worked on a number of ships and telegraph stations, and in 1911, he was transferred to Cape Race, Newfoundland, as officer in charge. It was here, in April 1912, that he communicated with the Titanic, just after she struck an iceberg, 750 miles east of the station. This experience was made more poignant for Walter as those last signals were transmitted by the chief wireless officer on the ship, Jack Phillips, who was a close friend of his. Phillips described in detail the events as they took place, and Walter listened to the final messages come through from the sinking vessel, relaying information to other ships in the area. He learned later that his friend had gone down with the ship.
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On January 28th, 1914, Walter married Joey Taylor, his childhood sweetheart. Up until his departure from Shetland in 1904, they often enjoyed each other’s company, and at social functions in the village were always seen as a couple. Letter writing came and went between them for some considerable time until, whether through a misunderstanding or an unintentional offence was taken, in time all letters ceased. In 1911, Walter received word from his sister Ceelie that Joey’s father had died suddenly. Walter “was hit by a wave of sympathy”, and when he next wrote to Ceelie he enquired about Joey’s address. Sure enough, the next letter from home included her address as Pittsburg, U.S.A.
It took until autumn 1912 for Walter to finally put pen to paper and write to Joey. The note of sympathy was formal and addressed to Miss Taylor, with apologies to her husband should she be married. A thank you letter was penned from Joey, in which she said she often wondered about him and asked “whether his wife was Canadian or an old country girl”. She addressed him equally formally: Dear Mr Gray.
Walter’s heart missed a beat when he read her letter with no mention of a husband, and his entire outlook on life catapulted upside down. His Joey was still free. Their letter writing started up again and they exchanged photographs and gifts. Slowly but surely they grew closer together again. Walter decided to visit Joey in Pittsburg, and if that spark of love was still aglow they surely would bring their relationship forward to marriage this time. If no spark was there he would just return to Canada and continue life as a bachelor. He didn’t have much money, for although he had worked well and had a good job, being single gave him little incentive to save. As he made more money, so he increased his allowance sent home to Scalloway – he never forgot his struggling mother.
But in Walter’s words, “all my planning went up in the air with a bang the moment I saw my darling again. There was no proposal of marriage, formal or otherwise, we belonged to each other, it was as simple as that!”
Walter continued to do well in his profession, constantly working his way up, and in 1939 he was given the title of manager of marine and inland services. It was in that same year that he was struck again with appendicitis and this time was taken into hospital. It was now that the after effects of the bowel inflammation that he had suffered in Hamnavoe 30 years earlier turned what was normally a simple operation into a major one. It was discovered that his appendix had become stuck to a gland in his back and had been there so long that it had formed a stony surface. The surgeon had great difficulty removing it. But success prevailed and Walter was discharged from hospital within two weeks. However, within an hour of returning home, phlebitis set in and he was confined to bed for weeks. By the time he was well again, the dark clouds of war were beginning to cast darkness over the world once more.
From the moment war was declared in 1939, Canadian Marconi went all out and laid Walter’s company the task to supply the entire Canadian navy with all its wireless equipment. When war was over, Walter was promoted to assistant general manager in communications. He concentrated on persuading the major fishing schooner fleet in Nova Scotia to equip all vessels with radio, and within a year the president was to tell Walter that he did not know how they would have survived without radiophone.
Another compliment paid to Walter by the chairman of Marconi stated, “As you know, for many years our assistant general manager, Mr Walter J Gray has been in charge of our marine operations, and in that capacity has gained a degree of experience and knowledge in these matters which I think can hardly be equalled elsewhere in this country.”
During the summer of 1948, Walter began to contemplate retirement. Because of his early entry into working life, he had given some 52 years of remarkable pioneering service to trans-receiving morse telegraph. When Walter hinted about his thoughts of retiring to his boss, he received the reply “But man, it will be like removing the centre stone of the arch”.
Walter’s mind was made up though, and his formal resignation was submitted to take effect from 31st March, 1949. He was “presented with a handsome solid walnut secretarial type desk to which a suitably inscribed silver plaque was fitted. Happy days, weeks, months and years slipped by almost unnoticed but very enjoyable. Seldom were Joey or I idle, always there seemed to be something to engage our attention. Time was no longer important, therefore the pace was leisurely. Our grounds were quite large and all were cultivated, lawns, flowers, vegetables, fruit trees and extensive hedges. There was also quite a bit of paintwork, both exterior and interior and, all these things provided the proverbial thread in our hands.”
Walter and Joey sold their Montreal home of 26 years in April 1962 and returned to Shetland after 58 years of absence. Although delighted to return, a deep sadness nearly overwhelmed him when he remembered his dear friends that were no more.
Joey passed away on 21st November 1966 in her 83rd year, and with her passing “My little earthly world crumbled, never to be restored. With as much patience as I can summon, I now count the days until we are rejoined in spirit. That such a reunion will come about I haven’t the slightest doubt, for I hold firm convictions of survival after death; convictions which are not mere theory but are well founded. We two will then, with God’s help continue our journey through Eternity.”
Walter and Joey had spent 53 years of wedded bliss together. Walter wrote that “no man was ever so blessed, without my darling I could never have managed to be the man I was”, while Joey on the other hand remarked more than once, “I have enjoyed every minute of it”.
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Walter Gray came to stay in the retirement home that bore his and Joan’s name, and it was as a resident, sitting at the same walnut desk, that he wrote his autobiography, The Life Story of an Old Shetlander, which was published by The Shetland Times. Sadly Walter never saw his book in print as he died on the 18th December 1970, just before his memoirs returned from the binders.
And so ended the earthly life of a man who truly was “the centre stone of the arch”. As he rests from his labours, we who pass through the home as carers do so with proud respect of Walter and Joan Gray.
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This article is based on information contained in The Life Story of an Old Shetlander, by Walter J Gray, and all quotations come from that book.