Quite a strange way to begin an obituary, don't you think? I always have. Especially considering the person in question was neither Russian, nor was he involved in the ice trade or a superhero called Iceman. He was, in fact, my great-grandfather, and although I would have loved to have inherited super powers, he didn't have any. Still, for this month's Create theme of 'ancestors', I am going to see what I know about my great grandfather without asking any of my relatives.
My great-grandfather died three years before I was born, so I never met him. I do have a few old photographs, though, and from these I know what chair he sat in on Christmas Day 19751, and that he had a Christmas cake in front of him, which presumably he ate. I'm not sure why it is that photo in particular that sticks in my mind more than others, unless it is because it was taken in my parents' first house and I recognise the carpet, on which I learnt how to crawl2. I also know everyone else in it, who look more or less how they did when I was young. Still, that's how I think of him. Sat down, with a piece of Christmas cake. Not being an ice man (although perhaps he was an 'icing man'?)3
So, to my grandfather. I know he was born on 27 July 1888 in Shorwell on the Isle of Wight, and baptised as Charles William Sprack on 29 November, even though he was always called William Charles, or Bill for short. He was the sixth child and second son of ten children, having six sisters and three brothers, all of whom were born on the Isle of Wight, as were his parents, James William Sprack4 and Emma Jane Brown. In the 1890s the family had moved to Lower Winstone Farm, although in 1891 his younger brother was baptised in Shanklin's Baptist Church. This farm was located about ¾mile east of Appuldurcombe's Worsley monument. There, he and his brothers used to catch rabbits and crawl into the remains of the small coal mine there that had long since closed.
At the age of 13 in 1901 he joined his older brother James working in the Apse Heath brickyards. In 1908 he joined Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles, a Territorial Army unit5. He was a bugler, and as I played a bugler in the BB, I wonder whether I inherited some of his talent. I also know he was a Lance Corporal, although whether he enlisted as a Rifleman and was quickly promoted to being a Lance Corporal or was appointed a Lance Corporal on the Isle of Wight Rifles' formation following the creation of the Territorial Army, I'm not sure. Their records state that he lived in Bembridge and left to join the Royal Marine Light Infantry, although whether that is true I don't know. I'm not convinced he would have had time, as later in 1908, he joined the Merchant Navy, working with the P&O line to the West Indies.
The Great War
In 1911 he transferred to the Royal Navy, serving aboard cruiser HMS Cochrane as a stoker in the starboard engine room. He worked his way up to become Chief Stoker. I have several photos of HMS Cochrane's crew, and he's usually the tall one at the back6. I also have a photo in which he is one of the ship's musicians. HMS Cochrane was one of the ships that was made all-but obsolete following the launch of HMS Dreadnought. Assigned to the North Sea as well as the North Atlantic, the Cochrane with my great-grandfather onboard was at the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916), the largest naval battle in history. The ship, one of the Royal Navy's 151 warships present, was part of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron and on scouting duties. Consequently, it did not engage the enemy.
In 1918 HMS Cochrane was sent to Archangel to rescue British citizens trapped by the Russian Revolution, which is where the 'Russian ice man' bit comes in. The ship was trapped in pack ice during the rescue mission just outside Murmansk, which was supposed to be an 'ice free port'. The ship, with the crew onboard, were apparently forced to wait in the frozen wasteland until the spring thawed the water around the ship enough to allow them to escape, allegedly within sight of the Revolution's terrible atrocities, but unable to intervene. (Although other sources state the ship was there from March to November.)
After the War
He left the Navy in 1920, when Sandown Gasworks employed him as a steam wagon driver. He also often hauled the Army's guns around the Island. In the mid 1930s he became a steam roller driver for Sandown & Shanklin Council. My brother-in-law, who works on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway and himself owns a steam roller, has informed me that this steam roller has survived to the present day.
Around this time, he moved to Spring Gardens in Shanklin. He married Emily Cook, however she died either during or soon after the birth of my half great aunt, and before 1925 had married Mabel Rose Spencer and had his first of two sons, my grandfather, with a second daughter in 1928 and his second son in 1935. During the Second World War, he and my grandfather served in the local ARP, Air Raid Precaution, Rescue & Decontamination unit. Funnily enough, although I have no pictures at all of his house, I have a series of five photos of one of his neighbour's houses during the Second World War, or half of the house at any rate. The surviving half. The back half of the house is completely gone.
After that, it's more or less a blank. I know that at some point in the 1970s he moved in with my grandparents, so I assume that Mabel died at some point between 1935 and the mid 1970s. Then, in 1977 he died. I don't even know whether he had the chance to watch Star Wars or listen to Bat Out of Hell.
Conclusion – The Ice Man Cometh?
There we have all I know about my great-grandfather. So, do I feel I can relate closely to him now? Honestly, no. I have a few points in the dot-to-dot of his life, enough to make a vague outline, but nowhere near enough to get a clear picture. But it has at least inspired me to want to know more. Perhaps it is time I get in contact with my great aunt again and have a nice, long chat…