Sydney Knowles was one of a handful of men to occupy a unique place in naval history for his daring deeds, during and after World War II. Although nationally recognised, he does not appear to be so well known in his hometown of Preston.Advertisement
Born in the Lancashire Cotton Town of Preston in 1921 Sydney lived a life that was very hard. His father, James, was a railwayman all his working life and used to supplement the families diet with rabbits which he caught while working on the tracks. Like many men of that time he liked to have a drink but the effects of this action was not a good one; resulting in him becoming quite brutish, this possibly being the result of his terrible World War I experiences.
Sydney’s mother Doris, a weaver, was quite the opposite of James. She was a very gentle person and had a passion for music; playing the piano and singing being the two things she did very well. She also had the honour of singing solo one Sunday for a radio broadcast for York Minster.
Life as a weaver was, without a doubt, a very hard one and more so for Doris as she suffered greatly with her health.
Sydney attended school at St. Matthew’s on New Hall Lane and from the age of seven was allowed to accompany his mother when she went to the weaving sheds on Saturday mornings to clean the looms. Because Sydney was so small he was able to crawl under the looms and brush off the cotton dust which clogged the machinery. He was usually given a penny for this task and sometimes could earn a little extra by ‘kissing the shuttle’, that is, by placing his lips to a hole at the end of the shuttle and sucking to bring the end of the cotton thread through and attach it to the main beam.
After one such a day at the mill while walking home with his mother, he was knocked down by a steam wagon which mounted the pavement, showering him with red hot cinders from the fire box; luckily he was dragged free and only suffered slight burns to his face and hair. What upset Sydney the most was the fact that he had lost his hard earned penny.
Life carried on like this until tragedy struck and Sydney’s mother died when he was just twelve years old. Sydney was now faced with going to school, looking after his brother, the home and also in the meantime, trying to earn a few pennies.
Sydney ran away from home twice in the period that followed, trying to escape his brutal and drunken father, and on both occasions was brought back home by the police. In his first attempt to escape Sydney got as far as Longridge to where one of his teachers lived. The second time, he managed to travel to Wigan, as he was following a circus with which he had planned to join.
One thing that Sydney’s father always insisted upon was that until both brothers were in work, they had to stand at the table to eat their meals and were not allowed to speak until spoken to. However, at the age of fourteen years, Sydney left school and got a job working for a fruit and vegetable merchant, this involved rising at four-thirty in the morning, walking a couple of miles to where the merchant’s horse was stabled and proceed into Preston to load up and deliver to the shop of the owner, Mr. Wignall.
Sydney eventually moved on to work as a tarpaulin mender spending hours on his knees, sawing up rents (tears) in tarpaulin sheets; he earned ten shillings for five and a half days work.
Later, Sydney worked in a brick yard which was extremely dirty work. Unfortunately he had to leave that job because his father complained that it was costing too much to heat water for Sydney to have daily baths. Eventually Sydney found a place at a paper mill, earning sixteen shillings for twelve hours daily work and eighteen shillings for a night shift.
During the time working in his other jobs prior to gaining employment at the paper mill, Sydney used to rush home from work and complete all his chores before his father returned home, as his biggest dread was not finishing them on time, especially if his father had been drinking, because he knew that it would lead to a beating.
On the 3rd September 1939, the day of Sydney’s eighteenth birthday, the World War II broke out and Sydney, seeing this as his only way to escape the life he was leading, joined the Royal Navy without being called up.
The decision Sydney made on that day of his eighteenth birthday would change his life completely, and he could not have known what an incredible turnaround of life that the future held in store for him…
In the next part of the Sydney Knowles story: a new life for Sydney and a chance for him to shine in his chosen career in the Royal Navy.