We're here together today to celebrate the extraordinary life of Ronald Rigby, which lasted for 100 years and seven months. A life lived through the massive economic and social upheavals of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Ron was born at the family home in Newchapel on Wednesday 18th April 1917, the third son of Frank and Alice Rigby. His 5 year old eldest brother, Frank, had died of diptheria in January of that year, so the birth of a healthy baby just over 3 months later was very welcome.
Ron came into the world with no advantages whatsoever other than the personal qualities of both his parents and many others living in a small caring community, where people who had very little still looked out for each other.
The everyday difficulties of ordinary life in the early 1900s are almost impossible for us to imagine nowadays. Ron lived in the end house of a 3 dwelling terrace in Newchapel, overlooked by St James' church opposite. He could see the tomb of James Brindley, Canal Engineer, from the bedroom window and claimed to have been able to hit it with a stone thrown from that vantage point. Quite why he wanted to throw stones from the bedroom window is a mystery and I wonder if his mother knew!
The house was very small with just 2 rooms, up and down. Frank built enclosed porches on both the front and back doors to keep the worst of the weather off them. There was no gas or electricity. A coal fired kitchen range provided warmth, a small side oven for cooking and a small amount of hot water from a side boiler. Light was provided by oil lamps and candles. Walls were not plastered but were whitewashed with lime water. Ron would have been about 13 when coal gas reached Newchapel and opened up a new world of relative comfort. A gas cooker made life much easier for his Mother and a gas water heater installed over the back kitchen sink meant an end to cold water washes. It must have seemed like positive luxury on a frosty morning!
Frank plastered the internal walls at this point to hide the gas pipe work and the village painter & decorator came at the weekends to wallpaper them. He did this without charge in return for Frank building him a bathroom at his own property. Ron watched Alfred Morris carefully and so learned how to wallpaper - a very useful skill which many family and friends were to benefit from in the future. He'd also had a lesson in the value of a mutual "good turn" and it was a lesson he learned well.
Ron's formative childhood years coincided with the desperately harsh economic times of the 1920s. The depression and General Strike of 1926 brought increasing hardship to very many ordinary families. Ron's father, like many others, was thrown out of work and into increasing debt as a result of the strike. Fortunately Ron was able to work as a farm boy before and after school. He delivered milk once a day in winter and twice a day in summer when the lack of refrigeration meant that customers only wanted a small amount at a time for immediate use. He was paid a much needed 2 shillings a week to add to the family income. Farmer Brown also reinforced the message about helping people out by telling Ron to always make sure that he visited a particular family who were almost destitute at the end of his round and to give them all of the milk which was left.
During the strike, even the farmer was sometimes short of money and was unable to pay Ron in cash. When this happened, he would offer Ron a cock chicken which usually sold for 2 shillings and sixpence. Ron always accepted and was given a long handled net to catch the bird. He would then have to wring its neck, draw it and pluck it before being allowed to take it home. So at an early age Ron was no stranger to having to take on responsibility.
Ron went to the local village school at Packmoor, about 3 quarters of a mile from home. He was a bright child who worked hard and passed the grammar school entrance exam. He couldn't take up this opportunity as the family was still reeling from the fallout of the strike and had no money to pay for the uniform or the books he would need. While there were funds available to help children in such circumstances, his parents would not accept charity from any source. Ron attended Packmoor Elementary School where he continued to work hard and as a result was told that he could attend a Handicraft and Domestic Science Centre in Tunstall for a half a day per week, as long as he could get himself there and back. So off he went, by "shanks's pony" as he called it on a 4 mile round trip once a week. Again, his diligence and good results were recognised and led to him being offered 1day per week at the newly opened Stanfields Technical High School. Here the world really opened up to him as he was introduced to Engineering Metalwork, Architectural and Engineering Drawing and Woodcrafts, all subjects which were to play such a major part in his later working life. Ron remained forever grateful for this opportunity.
Ron left school when he was 14 and went to work as a warehouse boy at Newfield Pottery, Sandiford, about 3 miles from home. He walked there daily as no public transport was available. One day a call came over the factory intercom asking if anyone knew how to splice a rope. The rope which drove the potters' wheels in the making shop had broken and the Factory Engineer was off sick. Ron had learned how to do this as part of his work towards his Knotting Badge in the Scouts so he was tasked with splicing the rope and getting the wheels turning again. As a result it was decided that he was wasted in the warehouse and should now work as Factory Engineer's Assistant. Of course this was much more enjoyable work for him and he was paid sixpence a week more than when in the warehouse.
Some time later, a local Ceramic Engineering Company was developing and trialling semi- automated machinery for the Pottery Industry. When they came to Newfields, the boss who was a leading Scouter, recognised Ron and offered him an apprenticeship with his company to train as a Design Engineer, as long as Ron was prepared to go to night school to study the essential disciplines. So 5 years later after 5 nights a week night school, Ron had all his City & Guilds certificates, was qualified and earning a reasonable wage. Amazingly he had found time during these years to meet and fall in love with Florence and all looked set for a happy future.
As it was for so many, that happy future was put on hold or denied them completely by the start of the 2nd World War in 1939. Ron was called up and Flo was drafted to work in a munitions factory at Radway Green. Ron narrowly avoided being sent to France, because the alphabetical list being read out for soldiers to get on board the train stopped 2 names before his name. He was marched back to camp along with the other alphabetical tail enders. There he was put to work as a clerk and within a year was Sergeant I/C Documentation of Intakes. He remained in admin for the rest of the war and eventually Intakes became Demobs. He also "got bitten by the teaching bug", (his words), at this time as he'd been asked to teach handicrafts to returning soldiers still on station awaiting demobilisation. His references on leaving the army make interesting reading.
On 22nd February 1946 Colonel H Greenwood, VC, DSO, OBE, MC, Officer Commanding No. 12 Pioneer Corps Holding & Training Unit wrote:
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
This is to certify that 13022467 Sgt R. Rigby, who is shortly leaving this Unit on being released from the Service, has served in the Pioneer Corps for the past 5 and a half years and under my direct command since 1942. During that time he has performed very fine service, and I have nothing but praise for his work whilst under my command.
He is honest, sober, conscientious and industrious, spares himself nothing to ensure that his work is carried out successfully, and with his complete devotion to duty, leaving his own comfort entirely out of the question, has been an example and inspiration to all those men serving with and under him.
He has been additionally useful in my handicrafts section here, performing invaluable service in teaching a good many men under my Command leatherwork, toy making and other crafts.
I would without hesitation recommend this NCO for any position of trust demanding complete personal integrity and a high degree of intelligence.
Little wonder then that Ron was accepted on a Teacher Training course at Alsager and a completely new chapter of his life began. Most of us here will have our own memories of Ron during his time at Bradwell School, with the Schools Council Project and the Manchester Education Committee. He was an inspirational teacher and colleague.
Ron thoroughly enjoyed his working life. He was able to make a success of every new challenge which came his way. He ended up a long way from where he started but he never forgot the lessons of his early life and was always ready to go that extra mile to help people out. You could always depend on him doing his very best for you. At his 100th Birthday party it was heartening to hear from some of his former pupils that his nickname was "Uncle Ron".
The thought of retirement was anathema to Ron but retire he had to and after a brief period of stomping about a bit, he put his considerable energies into orchid growing, showing and judging. This new hobby took him to several exotic venues abroad. He could always be relied upon to provide orchids for the table at special family celebrations. One such was the marriage of his grandson Gareth to Heather in Swanage, Dorset. After the celebrations were over and the orchids were being packed away in Duncan's car for transportation back to Bramhall, Ron instructed Duncan, with an Alec Guinness like lazy gesture, to make sure the orchids were on the "dark side" of the car. We hadn't known until that point that he was a closet Star Wars fan. That was the day he got a new nickname - Obi Ron Car-Obi.
Right up until the end of his life, Ron took a keen interest in the world around him. He was an avid news watcher and also loved Question Time and the Andrew Marr show. He was a man of strong opinions which he liked to share with you whether you wanted to hear them or not. He described himself as a "true blue Tory" and he hated Trade Unions with a passion. He would rail against whichever union leader the Daily Express was castigating at the time, Jack Jones, Mick McGahey, Red Robbo and most recently Len McCluskey. Yet early in his teaching career Ron was a strong trade unionist in the NAS, actively working as a branch official until it declared itself in favour of strikes as a last resort. That was something he couldn't accept so his trade union days came to an abrupt end and he rarely referred to them again. He was probably also mindful in recent years that if the topic came up for discussion, some of the more mischievous members of the family might give him another new nickname - "Red Ronno".
While he liked to argue, particularly about politics, if you stood your ground, he would sometimes say with a knowing smile, "You might have a point there" or "I don't agree with you but I'm not going to fall out with you about it". And he didn't fall out with you about whatever it was, and he would be straight in there helping you out as soon as you needed it.
So, dear Ron, dad, Grandad, Great Grandad, Uncle, Great Uncle, Great Great Uncle, teacher, colleague, neighbour and utterly dependable friend to us all, your amazing 100 year journey is over. You have enriched all of our lives and we thank you for it. We will miss your physical presence in so very many ways but will carry your inspiration in our hearts and minds always and forever, going forward!