By Dan Waddell
Last updated 2011-02-17
Oddie grew up in Birmingham, the only surviving child of Lilian - said to be mentally ill - and Harry, his distant father. He was brought up by his grandmother, Emily. His mother's illness cast a shadow over the family, as did the deaths of the two previous children of the family. One of them was stillborn, the other choked to death within months of being born.
Whether these tragedies were a factor in triggering his mother's illness is a subject of debate, though surviving members of Oddie's family, such as his Aunt Margery, cast doubt on Lilian's diagnosis. Marjorie remembers one doctor saying Lilian should never have been committed to a mental institution in the first place.
That memory loss, however, may not have been caused by her illness - it may have been caused by her treatment. It was commonplace in the 1940s for those with mental illness to be treated by electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and memory loss is a well-known side effect of this treatment.
Given the tragedy of the deaths of his siblings, and the problem of his mother's illness, the defining character of Bill's childhood was his grandmother. Bill has little positive to say about her, though - other than that she fostered in him a love of birds - and blames her for preventing him becoming close to his father, who was cowed and dominated by her. Research into her past, however, did illustrate for Bill the tough life that Emily Oddie had endured.
Emily met her husband at the mill where both worked and, at the age of 30, she took on his four children from his previous marriage. Wilkinson's first wife, Cecilia, had died aged 31, while giving birth to her fifth child, who also died. Wilkinson was to die on the operating table in 1927. An inquest into his death recorded that he had suffered from throat cancer, a consequence of working conditions in the textile industry. Emily received no compensation for her husband's death.
Emily would have had to struggle to raise the family after Wilkinson's death. Then soon afterwards the years of the Depression started, ushering in an era of crushing poverty and desperate unemployment. Given all these circumstances, perhaps it is no surprise that Emily emerged as the hard and domineering woman Bill remembers.
These children worked in appalling conditions. By the age of 15 many of them were bald, because of the heavy boxes they were required to carry on their heads. Cancer of the jawbone, known as 'phossy jaw', was a common illness among the workers.
Henry was to meet a grisly end. While working as a semi-retired night watchman in his late 60s - back then a comfortable retirement was a luxury not extended to the working class - he died after tripping into a vat of boiling brine.
Bill's journey into his past was an emotional, often traumatic one. Yet at the end of it he had come a long way in discovering the roots of recent bouts of depression. He also understood more about his mother, and the truth behind her absence, as well as an insight into the life and times of the grandmother who so dominated his early life.
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