Tony Oakshatt: his life and memories

This eulogy is constructed from Tony’s own memoirs, unknown to the family until very recently, and from conversations with and notes supplied by Nicola Irons and Gareth Oakshatt.

As all good eulogies begin:

Anthony John Oakshatt was born on 26 March 1931 at Queen Charlotte Hospital in Marylebone, London, first child and only son of William John Oakshatt and Annie Oakshatt (nee Trewin).

His early life was spent in fairly spartan surroundings in London but his father was in work and with both parents being good money managers Tony never went hungry and he didn’t recall feeling any sense of being deprived of anything. He did remember though the lovely starchy and fat laden food they had, like dripping on toast and fighting with his father for the gravy at the bottom of the dripping bowl. And Sunday morning breakfasts of fried eggs and tomatoes with crispy fried bread, bubble and squeak and OK sauce. Can’t you just smell it, let alone taste it. At around 2 years old he contracted Diphtheria and spent some time isolated in hospital. He recalled seeing his soft toys being thrown in the ward’s fireplace, probably for hygiene reasons and when he finally left hospital he was mistaken for a girl with long blond hair, he had been in there so long. He also fell victim to Scarlet Fever at some stage but he retained no memory of its effects. At a young age Tony had his tonsils removed at a place that was not a hospital. He recalled being covered with a smelly, red rubber sheet and having a gauze mask placed over his nose and mouth as anaesthetic was dripped on to it before the work was done. He was probably lucky to survive that in what were probably less than sanitary conditions. There were no labour saving devices or “luxuries” in their accommodation. No washing machine, no fridge, no telephone and certainly no car. The washing was done by hand in the copper and took all day on Mondays. They had an iron but that was heated on the gas stove and spat on to gauge the heat. Tony’s mother worked hard at keeping house but in 1936 they went to the Ideal Home Exhibition and purchased a Jubilee electric iron. It was plugged in to the overhead adaptor which was in turn plugged into the light socket. It had no thermostat so was prone to scorching but it changed Annie’s life. Tony recalled that there were no power plugs so everything plugged into the overhead light adapter. No Health and Safety or Certificates of Compliance in those days.

Tony recalled his mother taking him to the cinema to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”. It was a horror movie which, at the time of him writing his memoir, still gave him the creeps when he saw reruns. He never understood what his mother was thinking in taking him to that movie because he also remembered that the newsreel was of the Japanese Invasion of China which would have made him 5 or 6 years old.

The memoir is full of mostly happy childhood memories.

His Aunt Billy who came through the Flapper era and was a party girl who lived an interesting life filled with interesting, somewhat risqué people and events. Seeing King George V and Queen Mary pass by their house in an open carriage as part of their Jubilee parade.

The Thursday sweet stall outside school where he would spend his halfpenny pocke money on gobstoppers or sherbert bags or licorice straps.

The Rag and Bone man, the Lamplighter, the horse drawn milk cart.

Winters so cold he could hardly undo his fly buttons to go to the toilet.

Amazing memories for a man of 90 to have retained.

The year he experienced his first horror movie was the year he started school. His stubborn streak came through on his first day when the teacher insisted that his surname was Oakshott not Oakshatt. He was instructed to bring a note confirming the correct name, which he did and his memoir notes “round one to AJO”.

He was bored at school and much preferred to be out doing other stuff like fossicking in the smelly mud of the Thames. He looked forward to weekends when the family would visit a museum or Kensington Gardens or The Tower of London.

Tony’s sister Mary was born on 19 March 1939 as the clouds of war were gathering. Schoolchildren were told to take some belongings to school in a kitbag. It was a confusing time for the littlies. Tony’s father was in the Horse Artillery and he remembers coming home from school one day to find his father getting dressed in his uniform and telling Tony that he had been called up. Tony continued going to school with his kitbag and probably a gas mask waiting for who knows what to happen. Then on the last day of August 1939 they were herded off to Parsons Green Station and taken by train to West Weybridge and then to Old Byfleet. He could only presume that his mother had been told where he was going. The children were billeted with village families. After several changes of family Tony ended up with the Coopers. They had an Anderson shelter in the backyard where they would all spend nights during the Blitz. Unfortunately the shelter filled with water so they had to make other arrangements and they then took shelter in the maze of tunnels constructed for the Vickers-Armstrong workforce. Tony’s job each night was to collect a mattress from a house nearby, carry it on his bike to the tunnels and secure their normal place in one of the corner units. They would emerge each morning not knowing what destruction might greet them. A daylight raid early in the war took everyone by surprise with great loss of life and hundreds of injuries. Thankfully Tony and his billet family stayed safe.

These were tough times for an 8 year old but Tony says it was paradise for a London lad and his acquisition of a racing bike gave him and his friends freedom to roam the area. School became a routine interspersed with evacuations to the bomb shelters, swimming lessons in Basingstoke Canal, plays and concerts in the village hall and
playing.

Tony’s mother and 9 month old sister had been evacuated to West Byfleet which was close enough for her to walk pushing Mary in an old pram to visit Tony. He had joined the local Church of England choir but found the services boring and the sermons tedious so he swapped to the Methodist church which he found was newer, nearer his digs and more interesting.

After the Battle of Britain Annie, Tony and Mary returned to London but the bombings continued and Annie moved the family to Carmarthan in South Wales. Tony was separated from his mother and sister and was billeted at a farm six miles away. He hated the school and as a “dirty Londoner” the teachers and pupils didn’t like him. He was made to read from Welsh books which meant nothing to him and he says his time there was wasted. However, he loved the farm life. The farm was crude and ill equipped. Water came from a stream that meandered through the property. No electricity or sewage in the house and a very long drop toilet some way from the house. Tony helped on the farm milking the 24 cows, mucking out the yard, and working with the horses at harvest time. He loved this time of year, meeting the neighbours, working the harvest and then lying in the shade of a tree with the smell of hay and corn wafting by.

His time on the farm came to an end and he found himself back in Carmarthan with Annie and Mary. He joined the Welsh Regiment Army Cadets and got a taste ofnarmy life. Tony’s memory of this time became a bit vague but he recalled a stint in hospital with a skin infection that required his head to be shaved which he wasn’t worried about but he spent longer in hospital than might have been necessary because as the oldest male patient he made himself useful to the staff.

The family eventually returned to London but their house had been destroyed and they were homeless. They spent some time, as Tony puts it “as reluctant guests of Nan Oakshatt” and then moved on to stay with Annie’s eldest brother, Wal in Putney. Tony described Wal’s house as a “treasure trove of old things”.

Tony could have left school at 14 but his mother made a life changing decision for him, wanting him to further his meagre education. Through her brother Wal, Annie arranged an interview for Tony at the Brixton School of Building. He was successful and enrolled in a three year architectural course. In 1948, at the end of the course Tony was offered a job as a trainee draughtsman with Henry Hope & Sons, one of the largest and oldest steel and bronze window makers in the world. In Tony’s words “this turned out to be the most formative decision that decided the course of the rest of my life”. The work that Hopes did was in high demand in post-war heavily damaged London and Tony’s future was looking bright. Unfortunately (or not) Tony was “Called Up” that same year and he was off to begin his service life.

Tony’s memoir isn’t clear on the length of his army service but it appears that he spent at least 5 years with the forces. After the initial training period, which he found pretty tough, he enjoyed the companionship and even the discipline. What he didn’t enjoy was the class structure within the army and it reinforced a long held dislike that had started before he entered the service. After training he was posted to the King’s Dragoon Guards and spent time in Northern Ireland with the regiment.

While in the army Tony learnt to drive many types of vehicle and handle many types of weapon. But it comes through that after his childhood experiences and the life disruptions during the war he appreciated and embraced the routine, the order and the camaraderie of army life.

Tony’s return to civilian life and his job at Hopes saw him take on the changes that his industry was facing. With the advent of aluminium into the window making industry he found himself involved as a draughtsman in a project involving new and innovative design.

In 1955 the Chief Draughtsman asked him if he would like to go to NZ. Without checking out where he was headed he said yes. After six weeks training for his new role he was still no wiser as to the magnitude of his decision. He’d recently become engaged to Ann and as part of the contract he was to marry her before departing for NZ. They married on 14 January 1956 and left England on 21 January. When they arrived in Wellington, after a long air journey (it took about 5 days to get here in those days) it would have been a very different place to what they had left in England. It’s hard to imagine how they would have felt. They finally settled into a flat in Clifton Terrace and bought their first car, a red MG TC. Not the most practical car but they had a lot of fun in it and travelled around a lot.

A change of government saw changes to the industry that Tony worked in and he was recalled to London. They flew to Sydney and sailed home on the Orsova, a six week journey taking in many interesting places on the way.

Life back in the UK was OK but they couldn’t settle. They’d gotten used to life in NZ and the lack of class system. Sadly Hopes had no overseas postings except to West Africa, which didn’t appeal. A family friend noticed an ad for a role in Auckland that could suit Tony. He applied and was successful, but they wanted to come back to Wellington. So Tony turned the job down, knowing that the same company was looking for a Manager for their Wellington office. Guess what. Tony applied and got the role. So back they came.

This is where Tony’s memoir ends. His final entry says:

“Time flies and it is now June 4th 2015 and the new knee is OK but not yet as good as the first but with the walking group so can’t grumble.”

The date is only a reference to when he had got back to telling his story not that he had jumped all those years.

But from chatting to Gareth and using his notes I can continue.

Tony and Ann quickly settled back into Wellington life. They bought land in Mahina Bay and Tony built the family home there. Gareth was born in 1966 and his recollection is of a great little community at Mahina Bay with family beach days, bbqs, games and boat races.

Tony built a small dinghy (Why buy one when you can make one) and it was used not only by Gareth but many other kids to learn to row and just have fun in.

Fishing was a pastime Tony enjoyed but not line fishing. That bored him. He liked to set a net or spearfish for flounder.

Weekends were family time and Gareth recalls that 8am to 1pm was working on the house and property time with a break at 10am to go to the deli fro French bread and salami to be ready for the end of the day. Then after the work was done it was sit back, admire what you had done and enjoy some eats and a Shandy.

Tony loved cars. He wasn’t particularly mechanically minded but he knew the basics of oil change and changing spark plugs. Classics were his favourite and he had owned as few. Gareth recalled when Tony worked for Thermosash Windows. He was so excited about getting his first company car and over the years he was supplied with a succession of top of the line Toyotas. However, there must have been a bit of a lull in business because he was given an older model very heavy white Triumph. Tony vented his feelings to top management to no avail. Strangely, shortly after the altercation the Triumph had a brake failure and ended up down the bank. What was the replacement Gareth? (brand new Gold Toyota Crown)

An interest in photography saw Tony build a dark room in the basement at Mahina Bay and he also loved to tinker with stereo amplifiers. He loved technology but his computer skills were not the best. He built a southbound bus shelter so the school kids could keep dry while waiting for the bus. The LH City Council wouldn’t do it so Tony did and it’s still there. He also built and supplied the solar panels for the Eastbourne pool as well as building the foundations for the pool.

Gareth remembers Tony as a firm father who taught him respect. Always active and busy, he was a great researcher and he checked out any interest that took his fancy before taking it on. His tools in his man cave were always kept in immaculate orderbut in his kitchen apparently things were different. A quote from Elliott “For a man who had every tool in line in the shed, you had more of a chance of dicing your fingers than an onion with the state of his kitchen knives” They were always blunt but he insisted they were sharp!

So that takes us to the mid 1980s when life changed again for Tony and to cover the last part of his life I’m going to hand over to Nicola.


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