My Enigmatic Grandad
A presentation delivered at Preston Black History Groups ‘Black to the Future’ Event
Last year after creating a painting of Turner Prize winner 2017 Lubaina Himid and attending the opening night of her exhibition at the Preston Harris Museum, I had the opportunity to meet some great figures in the Preston Black / West Indian community. One of which was the lovely Clinton who oozed warmth and pride. He had known and admired my Grandad Henderson Dyer and knew my Father Philip Dyer well, making the connection from seeing the painting of my Grandad on display at my own exhibition, taking place at the Ham and Jam coffee shop in the town centre through out the Christmas period.
In July this year Clinton asked me to speak at his Black To The Future event, in celebration of Black History Month. Clinton is a passionate man and I was immediately sucked in to his enthusiasm and excitement for the possibilities of this event. I said yes, without giving much thought to what would be involved.
My Grandad and I had been in touch regularly for around 5 years before his sudden death. My Grandad was a complicated man, he could be harsh and insensitive which had made his relationship with my father strained, but I believe he had softened with age and oh, how I loved him. When he died I remember crying for what felt like days and walking around on the brink of tears for what certainly was months! I refused to talk about him.
It was now 5 years since he passed and I was ready to share my story of him with others.
I agonised for weeks about what to say and how to say it, I rehearsed my speech over and over and carefully curated the slides to go along side what I had to say. My Dad supported me filling in the many gaps with his own memories and stories and attending the event with my fiancé for moral support. There were so many people there! I sat in the front pews of the church turning around to see the rows and rows of faces, some of which I knew, trying to keep my heart rate down, listen to the first speaker and not over heat.
I heard my name being introduced and up I went with my papers and wobbly legs, I don’t remember much during the presentation aside from some surprisingly well timed laughs and claps from the crowd which made me feel at ease…they were following what I was saying ! Who would have thought it ?
Below is what I read out, I hope you like it too.
My Enigmatic Grandad
‘Hello and thank you to Clinton/Preston Black History Group for inviting me to speak. I am here today to talk to you about the life of Henderson Dyer. You may have know him as Big Harry or even under his Wrestling stage name Paul Duval, but to me he was Grandad, the father of my father Philip Dyer and the link to my West Indian Heritage.
Now, if you were ever lucky enough to have known or met him during his lifetime you will understand what a mystifying and fascinating character he was. I am going to do my very best to convey his character, larger than life presence and many achievements to you all.
My Relationship with my Grandad began quite late, my Dad had a strained relationship with his father, not uncommon and as a result growing up I rarely saw him. Age 19 I headed off to University in Huddersfield to begin my degree in Contemporary Art. And I loved it! There was so much time to experiment and reflect and I feel this naturally sparked the exploration of my identity through my work, somewhat predictably this lead to me wanting to understand my heritage and family history further. I desired to have a relationship with and get to know my Grandad and my Dad was very obliging in the facilitation of these initial nervous meetings.
My Dad would take me to his home in Moor Nook, where my Dad had grown up, and I would timidly ask him questions, not always did I get the answers I was looking for, but I just loved to hear him talk. Even now, 5 years after his death I continue to learn new things about him and I am excited to share with you what I know. Admittedly, I do not have the full picture or know the full story of his life and I believe that was the way he wanted it. Thank you though to my Dad for helping to fill in a few gaps.
My Grandad’s West Indian Life
My Grandad was born in 1936, his mother Philomen lived in Dominica and his Dad Robertson resided on Monsterrat Island with his wife and many other children. Apparently this wasn’t uncommon either! Now the story my Grandad told me was that he kept running away from home until he eventually left all together and jumped on a Bannana boat, which came into the docks in Preston. But I think the story Dad told me was a little more interesting and a more accurate snap shot of the sort of life and family environment my Grandad experienced in his early years.
He was told that my Grandad had head butted his Dad during a fight and fled, hiding on the island he saw that his Dad was waiting for him with a shot gun on the porch and that he was sure to be shot if he returned home. He had hidden some money in the house so he had to run through the house, grab his money and run out the other side without being seen, which he successfully did, using the money to buy a passport.
Many members of the Montserrat community were beginning to leave the Island during wind rush, Grandad took his chance and stowed away on a boat that was not only transporting Bananas and fruit but also fellow west Indians.
Starting a family and making a home.
We are not sure whether he came into Preston Docks or Liverpool, but we know the start of his journey in the UK lead him to Euxton in 1953.
My Grandad met my Grandma at a hostel that they were both staying in in Euxton near Chorley; Grandma was working at the ROF, the Royal Ordinance Factory and we assume that Grandad was too. Grandma had moved down to the area with her parents looking for work – they came from Dundee and work was scarce their post war. In 1956 they married.
My Grandad and Grandma came to Preston, Grandad was one of the first few west Indians to settle in Preston, they lived in a council house in Moor Nook and had two children Philip Dyer and Robert Dyer.
In the 60’s my Grandad began a career in wrestling.
Having discipline is something that my Grandad believed deeply in and instilled within his children. My Dad often comments on Grandad saying “A healthy mind in a healthy body” He displayed this attitude in the way he carried and presented himself, how he trained, competed and pushed himself to be better.
I found a website that discussed my Grandad’s wrestling career and I felt its description of him was even better than the many pictures I found stored up in the attic at describing the affect his presence had on people.
It started with this “Harry Duval was an impressive man. Impressive in so many ways.” I thought, now this guy gets it.
“Admittedly not the first time we came across him. That was in 1965 when the Master of Ceremonies at the Preston Public Hall introduced Harry, who was wearing a heavy overcoat, and announced that he would be wrestling on the following month’s show. We cheered him, as we would any local lad, but he looked nothing special.
The following month later Harry was back in the ring minus the overcoat. That coat had hidden muscles. Lots of them. Very big muscles. He was an impressive sight to say the least, and no less so once he began to wrestle.”
The piece also mentioned his “demonstrations of power”. Even before the wrestling began my Granddad would perform a strong man act, blowing up hot water bottles until they popped and smashing coconuts with his hand.
At his core my granddad was a performer! Wrestler, singer and strong man rolled into one.
A fitting role for my Grandad during the mid 60’s was his time spent as a Bouncer/Door Man.
My Dad has been very helpful in sharing his own stories and memories of his father with me. I asked him to write this particular story of my Granddad’s doorman days down for me so I could share it with you.
He begins: “To capture a person’s essence, we need insight into how they behave, not necessarily why they behave that way – something I feel we can never really know.
This short story has several layers; seen first through the eyes of an 8-year-old child.
How shocking to see your mother and father arguing over a fight; not just any fight, but a fight with 20 grown men over an extended period in one night. I sat bewildered and scared as I looked at my father’s face – the left side of which was so swollen, his eye was a slit and his lips were bloody.
Years later I discovered that he had been hit so many times that he was fearful for his life. Not like in the movies when there is barely a mark. I found that the argument with my mother was due to what many would call my father’s insane desire to go back to where he had the fight – but then, that was my father all over.
He had been working as a bouncer (doorman) in a tough nightclub in Liverpool in the mid 60’s; being a big powerful man he was very effective. However, on this night there was a gang out for trouble and my father ended up in the biggest brawl of his life. A running battle with 20 people!!!
Weapons such as hammers and mental bars were part of this madness. There was no glory; just survival. But why did he want to go back?
Over the years I have heard this story told to me many many times; never with any additional embellishment – my father told more details as I got older. The anguish that my mother felt at the time must have been hell; but true to form my father had one thing on his mind. Nobody steps on my father; literally or figuratively. This was a theme in his life – he would never give in, he would rather die.
He went back to the club the following night. He was told that “they” were going to come back and finish him off – “they” never appeared. A victory of sorts for my father and he moved onto to his next challenge in life; for life for him was a daily test of strength – physical and mental.
That 8-year-old boy is now a 60-year-old adult – I can still shudder at the image of him standing there with his disfigured face; I can often be in awe of his sheer determination to not give in. I also know that there were inner demons driving a very restless man.
Known to all as big Harry “ – Philip Dyer
Grandads Working life and Career
My Granddad had an interesting work life, turning his hand to many things.
– Factory worker – Courtaulds Preston 60’s
– Wrestler – 60’s to early 70’s
– Doorman/bouncer – 60’s to late 70’s
– Sold clothing (part time) 60’s to 70’s
– Croupier in Blackpool Casino’s – 70’s
– Singer and strongman act – 70’s
I think what he was best known for in the community was being the most well presented Black Cab driver in Preston, he did this on and off from the 70’s until he retired in the early 2000’s. The Preston Hackney Carriage association said in the LEP: “He used to wear a chauffeur’s outfit with a cap to drive his cab. It was always immaculately kept – as was he.”
In the late 70’s early 80’s we believe my Grandad became the first black Publican in Preston, he began running The Prince Consort, on Aqueduct Street.
He also owned a Jewellers near the old hospital the PRI (Preston Royal Infirmary) – Granddad always wore lots of jewellery, he had a ring on every finger and a pile of chains around his neck. I was always fascinated by his adornments – the red carnation in his pocket.
At the time entrepreneur was not a commonly used fraise, but he was definitely an entrepreneur. He didn’t just think about things, he took action and did it.
In later life
I visited by Grandad not more than a week before his sudden death at home. I was taking pictures of him for a series of family portraits I was working on for my Masters in Fine Art. He had problems with his back, had had both knees replaced and walking was a struggle, yet he would sit in his armchair pumping weights on his legs, he really never ceased to amaze me.
I think my Dad put it really well when he described by Grandads life as a “daily test of strength – physical and mental.”
I feel like I could go on forever listing extraordinary stories and accomplishments – there are people and pieces of his life that I can never pin down to form a whole picture and I feel it would be doing him a disservice to try.
– He was and continues to be an enigma –
My Grandad would often say to me “Learn to diversify but never lose sight of what you want” His life was a great example of this, despite the missing pieces when looking back over his life this is the lesson I take forward with me throughout mine.
Thank you for listening.”
I have certainly learnt over the last 5 years to diversify, but creating and delivering this presentation has reminded me of my focus. For that and many other reasons, I am very grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this celebration of Preston’s Black History.