#52ancestors (Wk16): Should Be a Movie – Spencer Simpson

It’s got all the ingredients. He’s got more than a hint of actor James Cagney about him in many photos. Maybe from some angles, even Herbert Lom with my grandfather’s slicked back hair in younger days.

John Willie and Ellen's youngest son - with a cigarette, my granddad Spencer. Mean looking, posing in the garden, a baby is almost cut out of shot on the right.
My grandfather Spencer Simpson – more than a whiff of James Cagney.

His wife, despite having a difficult life has the glamorous look in a photo from her younger days of a gangster’s moll from one of the movies, like Joan Crawford in ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’. I’m going to throw in a sub-plot involving showbiz crooner Frankie Vaughan, and locations that are suggestive in my own mind at least of city centre Vienna in ‘The Third Man’ starring Orson Welles.

Black and white, sepia tinged portrait photo of my Nan, wearing a fur over her shoulder, and a large bow around her neck, together with make up such as lip stick. A professional, glamorous looking photo, with a plain curtain as a background.
Despite a life of poverty, hard work and tough challenges, a rather glamorous looking photo of my Nan, Gladys Backhouse, wife of Spencer Simpson.

Should Be a Movie’ is Week 16’s #52ancestors theme, and the ancestor is my Dad’s Dad, my grandfather Spencer Simpson. He was born in Leeds on 13th May, 1914, and died there in the Summer of 1982. He married Gladys Backhouse (1910-1997) on 5th May, 1934 at Leeds Register Office.

‘Crooner’ Frankie Vaughan – known as ‘Mr. Vaughan’.

One of my favourite, very minor sub-plots to his story involves him and his cousin Arthur Taylor delivering coal from the back of one of Arthur’s family lorries to ‘crooner’ FrankieMr. MoonlightVaughan and his family when they lived in Leeds after WWII and he was just breaking into showbusiness.

Black and white local newspaper photo showing a family of six young girls and boys sat around a breakfast table, as their father leans in to serve up some kind of food. There is a cloth on the table on which stands a decorative teapot, some bread, a bottle of milk, a box of cereal, and a variety of tin and enamel plates.
Local Leeds newspaper captures my grandfather Spencer Simpson serving up breakfast to six of his seven children, while his wife Gladys is in hospital giving birth to triplets in 1948. My Dad Tony is third from left.

The local newspaper could smell a story when, according to family testimony, they sent a photographer round to the Simpson family home as his wife went into hospital to give birth to triplets – children nos. 8, 9 and 10 for the family. It was already a struggle for a family that had seven children and faced great poverty, emerging through WWII. The photo did not tell the whole story – it was obviously a pose on Dad Spencer’s part getting all the children their breakfast. Perhaps I inherited some early ‘PR’ skills from him. The thought makes me shudder. The older of the children had to do a lot of the heavier lifting. One of the triplets (Clive) did not survive, and after them, one more would follow to complete a family of eleven (!) children.

It might not have been quite of Dickensian texture, but the photo did not tell the whole story. There were tough times. There were plenty of tragedies. There was glamour too from the women, and even from the odd one or two of the sons – a stylish family. Above all, the household required resilience, and at times, there was not enough to go around.

He would have you believe he was an accomplished amateur boxer. He may very well have been good with his fists, but that is another story.

Stylized, hazy black and white photo of entrance shaft to sewers, hidden behind advertising hoardings, shaped as a single turret.
Entrance turret/shaft down to sewers in Vienna, similar to as seen in the film, ‘The Third Man’. (with thanks to walking tour site)

His story should indeed be a movie – but not a fairy tale. The reality is a touch more grim than some of the hints of stardust suggested. Rather than being a prize fighter who mixed with the stars, much of his professional life was spent as a toilet attendant with the city corporation. The best I can conjure up are flashes of some of the locations used in the city centre of Vienna where Orson Welles was chased in the film, ‘The Third Man’ – doors that would look like they are entrances to public conveniences in the centre of Leeds, with steep steps instead going down underground beneath the city, which in the case of the film led to a network of sewage tunnels under the streets, rather than a set of urinals where you might be offered ‘something for the weekend’. Jay’s Classic Movie Blog captures some of those locations best (especially the 12th photo down!). Maybe I’m overthinking it, but the parallel worked for me.

I’ve already eluded to much of the pain and suffering within the family set-up in a previous week’s post, largely due to him, and why it had always caused me problems for my own identity. I never enjoyed visiting my Grandfather while he was alive, although my Nan was a totally different matter, and meeting my Dad’s brothers and sisters, and my many cousins. I will not dwell on that pain and heartbreak which has affected so many of the extended family, overwhelmingly still with Leeds connections, or thereabouts. They are all a part of my life and my identity, and I love them all. ‘Marching on Together’ as the slogan of my football team, Leeds United puts it so eloquently. He is a different matter – more the villain of this gritty movie for me.

Trailer for the film, ‘The Third Man’, starring Orson Welles.

Three of his daughters are still alive – Jean (the eldest, born 1934), Marlene (the second eldest, born 1938) and Valerie (one of those triplets, born 1948). The other children were Mavis (born 1939); Spencer (born 1941); Anthony, my Dad (born 1942); Carole (born 1944); Trevor (born 1946); Clive and Victor (born 1948) and Philip (born 1951).

In the 1939 Register, the family were living in Cross Stamford Street, just north of the city centre. His family had roots in the adjacent Burmantofts area moving to Leeds from Bradford. His fledging family gradually moved north east to Gipton and then Hollin Park in Leeds. My Dad was the only one of the family to permanently move away from the city, some 200 miles south in the 1960s.

Trailer for the film, ‘Spring and Port Wine’, starring James Mason.

There are more than a few hints of the film of that era, ‘Spring and Port Wine’, although it has to be said, Spencer Simpson was no James Mason.

I will return to his wife Gladys’ story in her own right in a future week. Her husband’s legacy lurks large in debris left throughout the years, and in contemporary conversations between family members. It should indeed be a movie, but it would not always be pretty. Cut!

Thank you for reading this week’s post. I apologise if anything I have written hurts or offends anyone – that is not my intention. If you can shed any light on anything, correct anything I have written, or have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me. Hope to see you again next week.


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