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"Auntie Minnie"

 

 

“The shimmering, glimmering,
 sparkling, darkling,  
 argentate seas,

of Mumbles Head."    (GM. 1990)

 

 

WHO WAS AUNTIE MINNIE?

Not so long ago, on a bitterly cold Spring morning, I was leaving All Saints Church accompanied by a shivering fellow worshipper. I do not know why, but for some reason or another, I brought up the name - “Auntie Minnie”. 

Politely feigning interest, which is the usual response that I elicit these days, she queried,

 “Auntie Minnie? Wasn’t that the old lady who kept a sweetshop in John Street?”

Sadly, I shook my head in disbelief. She had no idea, whatsoever, of whom I was talking and her indifference to enlightenment was demonstrated by the way she clacked off hastily on her stilettos to the climate controlled sanctuary of her little Honda.


Auntie Minnie died in 1988

Later, taking stock of the situation I realised that my impatience was rather ill founded. After all, the years have flown. Auntie Minnie died in 1988, twenty two years ago! How could any one who was not of an advanced age, and/or of old Mumbles stock, know anything about this most colourful character who is now a fading memory, existing only in the minds of a few surviving contemporaries.

Well! Who was Auntie Minnie? For a start, with that logic that can only be associated with Mumbles, Auntie Minnie was of the male gender! In his heyday, the mention of his name would open the floodgates to an outpouring of his awesome exploits on land or sea. He was, indeed, in his time, one of the best known and most feared individuals who ever walked the streets of this village.

 William Davies was born in Mumbles in 1898, the son of a seaman. Tragedy was to strike early, with the loss of his mother, when he was little more than a babe. This was compounded by the introduction into his life of a stepmother who, to say the least, was not of the loving, caring kind. He moved out to live with his late mother’s sister, Minnie and found there the love and protection for which he craved. He was a sickly child, of poor physique and, when of school age, became fair game to the bullies of the playground. To survive, he fled, shouting over his shoulder, in true Parthian manner,

“I’ll tell my Auntie Minnie of you!”

At first, this wise old lady did not interfere but when little Billy started coming home with  tear- stained face, bloody nose and sporting bruises, she decided that enough was enough and something had to be done! She believed in old fashioned, direct action and one day, lie in wait in the lane by Marine Villa. She caught these young barbarians, red handed, as they chased the terrified Billy off the Queens Road and up into the lane. She took appropriate action, leathered a few backsides and cracked a few of their shaven skulls, the usual response by parents in those days, in the protection of their young. 

It worked! At least, to a degree.

Bullies now kept their distance, but from afar still tormented, with verbal abuse,

     “Go on! Run home to your Auntie Minnie!.. To your Auntie Minnie!.. Auntie Minnie!... Auntie Minnie!”  

The little lad would come home, unbruised but still distressed from the constant hurt of this contempt. The memory of which stayed with him for the rest of his life. The derisory calls continued from afar but became abbreviated to just, “Auntie Minnie!.... Auntie Minnie!...” 

In true Mumbles tradition this was to become his nickname-

                               Auntie Minnie

However, there was a change coming! The little frail boy, thanks to the good plain fare put upon his table, was beginning to fill out and one day in the school yard when goaded beyond endurance, he turned. To the amazement of the playground, he lashed out at the nearest of his tormentors landing a lucky blow upon his nose. This little tyrant fell back upon his backside and when he saw the blood on his hands, burst into tears. Everyone backed off! That ‘fight or flight mechanism’, which is innate to us all, had changed course and from that moment, young Billy Davies, with ever increasing confidence, started to hold his ground. He discovered that he was now capable of cracking a few skulls for himself and in the schoolyard he became a force to be reckoned with but best of all, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was now respected. The bullying stopped.

 

For the rest of his life, he never stood down to any man. 

The nickname, “Auntie Minnie” persisted to the end of his days, this was how he was referred to- behind his back. To his face, he was addressed always as “Bill”. 

It was inevitable that coming from forebears steeped in the traditions of the sea, he should follow suit and make his living in the same way. He was surrounded by willing teachers and soon learned how to handle a skiff, to dredge oysters and trawl. He acquired these skills quickly and it was obvious to those about him that this lad had the capability of becoming an outstanding seaman. The excessive demands of a seaman’s life were soon manifest in his physical development and deeply tanned, fine skin. He was growing up to become a very formidable, young man. 

Southend and Oystermouth taken from the Knab a few years before the railway was extended to the Pier. Oyster skiffs
are on the moorings

His beloved Mumbles

Following the outbreak of World War 1, Bill along with many other young village lads enlisted, when of age, in the Royal Naval Reserve and left home to do battle for Britannia. Active service on the high seas taught him many hard lessons and when he returned home in 1918, he was older and wiser and so glad to be back to the sanity of his beloved Mumbles with its far kinder seas. 

He quickly picked up the strings again of his old life, commanding much respect from his fellow fishermen for the quality of his seamanship and knowledge of local waters. Worthy recognition was demonstrated by his prestigious appointment as Deputy Coxswain of the Mumbles Lifeboat. This was with unanimous approval and he was to occupy that position for forty five years, without break.

The Watson ClassWilliam Gammon – Manchester & District XXX  served as the Mumbles lifeboat from 1947 until 1974 

He was a prickly personality, so impatient and would not suffer fools gladly, especially at sea. He was brutally outspoken and this attribute, coupled with his hell raising activities when in drink, made him enemies but even the worst of these conceded that Auntie Minnie was a  man of outstanding ability. 

The puny little boy had come a long way 

 By the late 19th century, the Essex skiff had found great favour amongst the Mumbles fishermen and there was over a hundred of these fine craft moored in the Bay. They were handsome vessels and it was on such a boat that Bill learned his craft.

However, with the decline of the local oyster dredging industry, they were rapidly depleted in numbers until by the outbreak of World War 2, only two of these gems were left,- “Rising Sun” (SA 22) and “Secret”(SA 74)., both of which had been built in the 1920s in Appledore. Bill came to own them both and it was his proud, and true, boast that he was the only man capable of crewing a skiff, single handed, when dredging oysters or trawling fish. Son, young Billy, proudly confirmed this. 

Stories of his exploits were legion

Captain Joe Hunt (a lighthouse keeper, during those lean days between the wars) told me of an incident, during the ‘thirties. The authorities had become concerned about the stability of the explosive content of the World War 1 shells in the Mumbles Lighthouse arsenal.

These shells, in fact, predated 1914 and, for obvious reasons, had to be moved. There was a singular lack of enthusiasm, locally, for taking on this job, which, after all was not without hazard. However, when Auntie Minnie heard that the money offered was £5.0.0., he came forward.

Single handed (not of choice), he took this dangerous cargo across the bay to Briton Ferry, to earn his fiver- a princely sum in those days. He was the only man who had the courage to do the job. 

For years, people spoke of the night he careered through Mumbles on a motor bike. Fortunately, this was a time when cars were few. Barely in control, he roared his way down the Cutting, through Southend, down the Parade terminating his journey rather suddenly, by crashing through the plate glass windows of Lowther’s the Pharmacists, on the corner of Station Square. He suffered barely a bruise or cut. 

The Dunns. On the right is Lowther's Mumbles Pharmacy and opposite is the Methodist Chapel.

An original advert as it appeared in edition 1 of the
All Saints Church Magazine in 1899

His less pleasant side would manifest itself when in drink. Always of a prickly nature, alcohol fuelled his thin skinned touchiness and his sensitivity to imagined insult. A sudden change in mood would inevitably precipitate fisticuffs.

The bar went quiet 

Surprisingly, he often demonstrated a chivalrous side if he thought a lady was offended by, say, bad language. I was present one evening in the bar of the Vic’ when a red faced toper, celebrating an awesome win on The Derby (£1.15s.6d) (£1.77p), dropped a sanguinary swear word in front of Nellie Hoskins. Auntie Minnie was standing on his own at the bar, dressed as ever in long, gabardine raincoat, homburg hat and seaman’s sweater. Hearing the bad language, he spun around. He took off his hat, placed it on the bar and walked slowly up to the befuddled celebrant. The bar went quiet. It was like a scene from a Western film. With his face only about six inches from that of the bemused malefactor, he spoke.  He demanded a full apology be made to the lady concerned and that the wretched fellow then should clear off, --instantly –         or!…

”there would be an instant decapitation”….or words to that effect.

The wretched fellow looked at first as if, out of bravado, he would stand his ground, but focussing through the haze, he saw who it was. He apologised tout de suite and stumbled out.

At every opportunity, son, Billy, from an early age, would go out on the skiff with his father. He told me of a wartime experience, when trawling off South Gower. All was going well when the nets suddenly snagged. With much cursing, Auntie Minnie, manoeuvred his vessel and his crew pulled carefully, Suddenly the nets were freed and all seemed well. 

For a minute or two!

Then, to the horror of the small crew, the nets began to surface and a large rounded shape trapped in the nets, broke through to the daylight. The sun shone on a strange metallic orb-like entity! Auntie Minnie, with his World War 1 experience, recognised it, instantly, for what it was. It was no creature of the deep but a deadly sea mine. 

Slowly, he turned and made his way to Swansea Docks.

Pulling around the Pier, he gave the Naval Establishment, and half the Swansea dock force, an attack of hysterics. He was ordered from afar, by loud hailer to get himself back out to sea and not stop for two miles! Grumbling, this he did and was soon boarded by a naval party. Recriminations soon ceased when one of the experts identified this mine as being one of the new German acoustic type of which the Admiralty had little, or no, information. This was the first one to fall into their hands. The nets were cut and the mine towed away, for investigation. With the ubiquitous urgency of wartime, its innermost secrets were quickly revealed, resulting in the development of a successful, counter system. This chance snagging of Auntie Minnie’s nets was to lead, indirectly, to the saving of countless sailors’ lives. The Admiralty demonstrated its gratitude by the immediate replacement of the nets and a £5.0.0. reward. 

After cessation of hostilities, there was freedom on the seas again and Bill Davies, now the owner of skiffs “Secret” and “Rising Sun” pursued, without restriction, his trawling activities. Both his vessels were now powered by magnificent Volvo diesels. Such was his knowledge of the local seas that it was said,

 “…..where Auntie Minnie is, so are the fish…”.

To his intense annoyance, he would often be followed by other trawlers which, of course, would reduce his catch. As a result, he would direct a copious flow of invective at these other vessels (not consistent with his reputation of being a man of few words) to no avail. To some extent, he overcame this problem by leaving his moorings at dusk and trawling through the night. Unfortunately, whilst enjoying the fruits of his labour on shore, he would seek out those who had offended him at sea and- sort them out. 

Occasionally, he would take out a party of friends to fish by line and it was my privilege, just before the war ended, to join him, along with son, Billy. I saw the simple and exact way in which he could locate one of his “spots”. Sailing from the anchorage off Southend, ‘Secret’ made her way around the Lighthouse into the Channel. Auntie Minnie was on the tiller and I noticed that all the time he was looking back, just keeping the tip of the Lighthouse in view. As we rounded Langland Point into Caswell Bay, Auntie Minnie reduced speed.

The beautiful Caswell Bay on the Gower Pennisular

The helmsman started calling back,

 “Steady, Bill, as we go! Slow! Slow! OK! Stop!” 

Engine off. Anchors dropped.

With Bill keeping the Lighthouse in view, the helmsman had waited for the first window in the old concrete pump house in Caswell Bay to appear. These were the two datum points and helped establish a fairly exact position off Caswell Bay. 

Auntie Minnie shouted out,

“Right! There’s an hour to full tide. Get your lines out, now!”

This we did, with lug bait. To my delight, there was an instant bite, Similarly, for everyone else. For an hour we hauled in, flats galore, eels, crabs and even little “ink fish” It was a fine haul and, as if by magic, after an hour it stopped! Tide had turned and those peculiar submarine conditions changed with it. Whatever had attracted those hungry fish to that spot had melted away. There were no more bites!

 I have often wondered whether our local fishermen still go to that spot where I had fished as a lad nearly seventy years ago. 

Captain Joe Hunt, one of Auntie Minnie’s few close friends, told me that Bill had a hundred such secret little places in the Channel, confirming the view that

                “.. where Auntie Minnie is, so are the fish….”

To the end of his days, people handled Bill Davies with kid gloves, especially,

    “…. when he’d had a few...”.      

He lived to a ripe old age in his little house in Castle Square, next to the school, a close neighbour of my parents. The customary seaman’s jersey, Homburg hat and long raincoat were replaced, in his latter years, by comfortable woollens. In spite of his hard working life, and wild, younger days, he never lost his fine, tanned looks and thick hair. His eyes still flashed occasionally with intelligent anger and he commented freely on the state of the world. He was still prickly! 

Not long before he passed on, he shared a moment of great pride with his fine son, Billy. The Duke of Kent, in his capacity as President of the RNLI was visiting Swansea and young Billy, who was then the Deputy Coxswain of the Mumbles Lifeboat, had the privilege of introducing his father to His Royal Highness. 

It must be unique in the Annals of the RNLI that both Young Billy and his father, Auntie Minnie, had held this most prestigious position for forty five years, with great distinction! 

Well, that’s only a little bit about William Davies, aka Bill, but best known as Auntie Minnie.  He was a great Mumbles character with so many facets to his personality and, undeniably, one of the greatest seamen ever seen off these shores. 

 William Davies (Auntie Minnie) 1898 - 1988.