Doing the right thing by Dad

Ted Macey, a one-time PT instructor at HMS Ganges in Suffolk, dreamed of seeing his anecdotes and cartoons in print but died before his wish could be fulfilled.

Steven Russell

Ted Macey, a one-time PT instructor at HMS Ganges in Suffolk, dreamed of seeing his anecdotes and cartoons in print but died before his wish could be fulfilled. Now daughter Meredeth has picked up the baton and made it happen. She tells Steven Russell about her dad

MEREDETH came home from work one day and found her father, Ted, typing away at the dining table - a routine the former Royal Navy man then observed each weekend for two or three years. Now and then he'd show his daughter a naval magazine or school gazette that had published one of his poems, a ditty or an example of his cartoons. He also told her he'd love to have them published together one day, and he started putting down on paper some of the stories from his 24-year career in uniform. It was, Meredeth later reflected, “something that was precious to him as he worked his way towards retirement from teaching” - the profession he'd entered after leaving the Navy. Sadly, he died in 1982 - before retirement and before his collection appeared in print. Devastated by her loss, his daughter asked for none of his personal effects, save his unfinished writings - and promised her three brothers she would publish it on behalf of Dad. This labour of love now complete, the book Jack the Lad RN self-published, she can look back and consider the time and money invested well worthwhile.

She must be thrilled at fulfilling her dad's ambition on his behalf . . .

“I actually feel a bit bad that I've taken so long getting round to doing it. Twenty-seven years later? That's terrible!” she laughs.

The book, she says, showcases a matelot's wit in verse, odes and prose - plus more than 140 of Ted's cartoons. Merry (as she's known) has added 13 short stories - “a funny thing happened to me on the way to . . .”-type tales - based on her father's experiences. Things like adventures at the 1934 Royal Tournament at Olympia, where he was selected for a rope-climbing and window-ladder display team; and, much later, proving to an assembled audience that he hadn't lost his prowess on the trapeze, five years after he last attempted a back-catch.

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“As a child I loved listening to stories,” explains Merry. “As a young adult I still loved listening to stories; only then it was my father telling stories to me about himself. He had shared naval wartime stories with his mates, with drinking colleagues willing to listen, with friends at reunions. Now here I was, the next generation, wanting to know more and more, and undaunted by repeats!”

Not that doing the book was a piece of cake. Her father's foolscap papers contained numerous naval terms and expressions she didn't understand, and the short stories he had written needed to be put in modern English.

“There were more cartoons than I realised, which all needed scanning, cropping and cataloguing. Should it all be arranged in a loose chronological order? How would I know which ditty came before which story? There was obviously more than just collating his work - I needed to know where he was at what date and what he was doing. I had heard the tales, but Dad never made big bones about the wider detail. This called for evidence-based research.”

Luckily, as a good starting point, there was his Royal Navy service record - 24 years man and boy, from before the war to qualifying as a physical training instructor and reaching officer status. The list of ships and land-based postings brought structure and put drawings and poems in context.

“Reading about background locations and situations from non-fictional sources began to lift a haze from my eyes. The hard truths of life in austere times, the bare facts about life at sea and the stolen moments of joy found in a smile or a kind word - these were all part of my father's life,” explains Merry, who was born in Kesgrave, just outside Ipswich, and has spent most of her life in Suffolk.

“Peeping out of the shadows from the realities of service life, I spotted a young, scruffy sailor, full of escapades and adventures, not always of his own doing . . .”

Ted was born in Portsmouth in 1919. His father, who was in the Royal Navy, died in 1924, leaving his wife with five children and scant means of support. “The decision she had to make, which must have been awful, was to send two of her children to an orphanage. My father was one of them, and one of his sisters,” says Merry.

Her father didn't harp on about it in later life. “He did tell me a story, once. One of the matrons had locked him in a stationery cupboard, for some stupid reason. Someone else had done something and he got the blame for it.

“He tried to climb up the bookshelf. There was a tin on the top shelf and he grabbed it, to see if it might have biscuits in it. But it contained something like paraffin, or methylated spirits, and it spilt all over him.

“He ended up in the sickbay for 10 days, eating really good food and being waited on hand and foot. He said it was divine justice for being locked in the cupboard when it wasn't his fault!”

As a teenager Ted went to the maritime school at Greenwich and then moved to Suffolk after education was switched to The Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, near Ipswich, leaving Greenwich to become a museum.

“When he used to 'escape' out of Holbrook, he walked to Stutton and at the fag machine on the cornershop it used to be tuppence or something for a packet of five Woodbines,” smiles his daughter.

He loved sport - “that was his release from the bloody awful lessons!” - and so relished the new campus's gymnasium and swimming pool. “The only thing he hated was that it was out in the middle of nowhere, as far as he was concerned, having been used to cities.”

Ted left Holbrook in 1934, still only 15, and that November started as a boy trainee at HMS St Vincent, the training establishment at Gosport, Portsmouth. In the summer of 1936 he was drafted to HMS Amphion, flying the flag as part of a boys PT display team that toured parts of the globe - partly trying to maintain the pretence of an empire, laughs Merry, and partly to build good relationships with other nations.

He was back in Britain in the spring of 1939 to start studying as a physical training instructor. After qualifying as a “clubswinger” (naval slang), he was posted to HMS Cossack early in 1940, joining the ship in Scotland not long after it earned a place in history by rescuing British seamen from the German vessel the Altmark.

In the spring of 1941 came shore-based postings, including Rosyth in Scotland, and in 1942 Ted found himself on HMS Sirius and involved in the Malta convoys to keep the island supplied. The early part of 1944 saw him in Egypt.

At times there must have been skirmishes - coming under attack from guns, bombs and torpedoes - but, explains Merry, “This is more from reading between the lines and checking his service dates against research findings, as my Dad didn't really talk about the 'bad things' in his Naval life.”

The war over, he married in 1947 and later won promotion, spending two or three years in Malta in the 1950s. Sons Nicholas, Ian and Simon were born between 1949 and 1955, and Ted's last posting was at HMS Ganges, the shore-based training establishment near Ipswich, between 1956 and 1958. As a physical training officer, his job was essentially to get the young lads fighting fit with a mixture of swimming, football, rugby, sailing in the estuary, and other activities. The family had married quarters in Great Harlings, Shotley Gate.

Ted left the Royal Navy as a lieutenant in the summer of 1958 - and wasn't happy about going, says his daughter. Apparently, her father blamed his departure on Government policy to create room for some of the national servicemen moving up through the ranks. “I believe he worked hard to get his commission, then to the surprise (and disappointment) of a very good friend of his, he snapped his sword in half, in anger at being taken off the active list.”

The family bought a bungalow in Mendip Drive, Kesgrave, which was where Merry was born that autumn, and then had a village shop and post office in Boxford, near Sudbury, for about three years (where Ted set up a youth club and a boxing club).

It was a bit of a struggle, though, and he thought he could earn more in a better job - if he retrained. Teaching art was the goal. The family moved to a semi in Corder Road, Ipswich, and Ted went to college . . . in Exeter! He stayed in lodgings during term-time, picked up odd jobs such as bar work at weekends, and sent back to his wife what money he could. She also found whatever work she could.

“They basically struggled on, and by the time he'd finished the training, that was about the end of the marriage, too, I think,” says Merry, who popped back to Suffolk in the autumn to pave the way for the launch of the book and to scatter her mother's ashes off Shotley Gate.

After college, her father secured a job at a school in South Ockendon, Essex, close to where the Lakeside shopping centre is today, and also got a council flat. He'd come back to Suffolk - the family home now in Claydon - at weekends and during holidays.

It became a family tradition for all four children and their parents to meet up each Saturday in Ipswich, even though the marriage had ended - early on at a fish and chip restaurant opposite the Blue Coat Boy pub, and, years later, in the sherry bar of the Crown and Anchor hotel.

Ted rose to become head of the art department, though his dream was to become headmaster of a nice little village school in Suffolk. He applied for lots of jobs - he took the Times Educational Supplement religiously - but never landed his plum posting, reckoning age always counted against him. He was still a few years off retirement when he died in 1982.

Merry says her father was “honest, very straightforward, quite black and white. He would argue a point on principle. Very loyal and very fair”.

At the age of 11, she'd gone to board at Mills Grammar School in Framlingham, leaving at 16 in 1975 and not really knowing what she wanted to do. She took a catering course at Ipswich Civic College without genuine enthusiasm and later spent six months working at the nearby Spread Eagle pub. Then came a job in Felixstowe as an import entry clerk. “I have done so many different jobs it's unbelievable!” she chuckles.

Twelve years ago she got made redundant from a company near Ipswich docks that dealt with merchandise tagging - bar-coding, basically. She'd remarried by then and, with the rent on their Kesgrave house quite high, at one time held down five different jobs to keep the money coming in, including one with the EADT, selling advertising.

Something had to give and after about six months the couple decided to move to Scotland, where Merry's father-in-law had been widowed and wasn't in great health. In the summer of 1997, her daughters, Laura and Lucy, were at a reasonably convenient stage to move, school-wise.

Today, home is a village near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders.

Merry ran a village shop and caravan site for three years after moving north. Later, grumbling about the chances of landing better-paying employment, she was peeved when her daughters told her she'd have to retrain . . . and tutted even more when she realised they were right!

She went to Edinburgh Napier University from 2001 to 2004 and qualified as a nurse. Her first job, bizarrely enough, was in the intensive care unit at Addenbrooke's, in Cambridge. But with debts to clear after university, moving permanently to the area was too expensive and she joined a local hospital, eventually becoming part of the team in the orthopaedic high-dependency unit.

It was a couple of years ago or so that she threw herself at the book project in earnest and got her dad's musings in print as a fitting tribute.

Merry says that on her graduation day, while still on stage receiving her certificate, “I quietly dedicated it to my father. He was the one who taught me that through hard work and dedication anything is possible. He was the one who showed me that changing career midlife was possible.”

Jack the Lad RN, ISBN 9781848761896, costs �10.99 and is available online from Amazon, through WH Smith, Waterstone's or via

Suffolk days . . .

An extract from Ted Macey's poem Galloping round Ganges

From Ipswich Town to Shotley Gate - as you travel down the road -

with kit bag, case and hammock - quite a heavy load.

Up against the skyline - standing clear - the mast -

of wooden ships and iron men - part of Navy's past.

Greeted by the Gate Staff - and 'Crushers' One and Two -

'Lift and Shift', don't dawdle - or they will scream at you.

Then right there before you - as 'Crushers' draft-chit take -

one hundred and fifty foot of mast - stands beside that gate.

This you'll get to know quite well - in later days whilst there -

Up ratlines and futtock rigging - you will not turn a hair.

Perhaps as part of competition - as any 'sprog' will know -

or, quiet bet on a messmate's tot - your prowess hope to show.