Many years ago when I needed female company I would ask young ladies if they would care to join me for supper in one of the many restaurants in Blackheath Village.
Quite a few, amazingly, made some kind excuse not to join me.
They’d say, ‘I’d love to come but I’m washing my hair, tidying my bedroom, having a bath, going to my bible/motor maintenance class, choir practice’ or sadly, ‘my boyfriend would be cross’.
William, a tall lad who worked as a labourer in the docks, lived in one of those very long roads in Catford.
He was 23 and must have had a bit of a shock when Grace S, who worked in the Arsenal at Woolwich, bluntly told him she didn’t want to see him any more.
The two of them had been going about together for some time. It couldn’t have been much of a love affair because, suddenly, one Saturday night in December 1919, Grace told William straight out that she was sick of him coming round every night and would he please stop it?
William’s thin shoulders were already bowed down with other troubles. It was winter and he didn’t like his job in the docks.
Sometimes he was only employed for one or two days a week. He’d worn glasses since he was nine, and when he tried to join the army in 1915 he’d been rejected because of a weak heart and his poor eyesight.
Then there was the little matter of the Farthing Christmas Club. William was secretary and treasurer, and on the Friday night before Christmas, the members found that he hadn’t sufficient funds to pay out what was due.
Seven pounds was missing. Some threats were made and nasty remarks passed, although the young man had promised to somehow make up the deficit in the following weeks.
One angry man went so far as to take him by the collar and call him ‘A swindling four-eyed crook!’
We can’t imagine what went through William’s troubled mind that winter evening as he sat alone at the kitchen table in that Catford house and wrote two long letters – one to his father and one to Grace.
“Dear Father, by the time you read this I expect to be at rest in a better land. I am very sorry to have brought this trouble on you as things will have to be paid, but I have decided to pay a higher price. Grace turned me down on Saturday without giving me a reason for it. I can hardly believe it after all this time and there was not a hint of it coming.”
The second letter to Grace was even more poignant.
“Dearest Grace, I should have liked to have seen you and heard the reason for it, but you do not seem that way inclined. I have had some bad hits lately but yours was the hardest and the least expected. “I have not been able to sleep and even now I can hardly believe that you mean what you say. Fate has been hard with me, and so for the last time will close with fondest love”.
After writing these letters the despairing young man went out, climbed the embankment bordering the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, lay across the lines and was killed by a steam engine passing over him.
What a sad story.
If only William’s dad had been at home that night, he could have put his arm round his son, talked to him and told him there were plenty more fish in the sea.
This was 1919, the Great War had ended the year before, leaving so many eligible young men of all nations dead and gone in foreign fields, and so many young women left with nothing to do but mourn them.
Had he been so impetuous surely William would have eventually met a loving, sensible girl who would have made him very happy.
Perhaps then he would have realised that he was well rid of the cold hearted Grace.