As part of FFP's remembrance of the anniversary to the start of WWI, Gilli Allan shares beautiful memories of two grandfathers, who fought in and survived WW1
My dad’s father, John Jamie Allan, (stage name Jamie Dallas) was a music hall and variety performer - ‘a song and dance’ man. During the early days of the war he wanted to do his bit and repeatedly volunteered, but was repeatedly turned down, probably because he was asthmatic and was considered too old. But the very poignant aspect to his story is that minds changed. On the same day the papers arrived accepting him into the London Scottish (he was by then 36 and still had asthma, but presumably the losses were so great that they’d lowered the bar to entry and would take almost anyone), sod’s law decreed that he should also receive the offer of a contract to perform at the Drury Lane theatre. It was the biggest break of his career but he was unable to take it up.
He suffered injuries during the war which, despite his best efforts when he’d recovered and the war was over, prevented him from fully resuming his former career. He could still sing but was no longer able to dance and do the 'prat falls' required in his type of slapstick. It was a double whammy because his disability coincided with the decline of variety theatre, and though there were still opportunities, they were fewer and further between.
The only memory I have of him is visiting him after he’d been confined to bed with severe chest problems - asthma, bronchitis or emphysema (he may even have been exposed to mustard gas). I was not yet 4 but apparently I danced for him, which made him laugh. He died not long afterwards. From 1918 until his death in 1952, Granddad had lived an increasingly limited, financially straitened and disappointed life.
John Jamie Allan around 1916.
In costume is John Jamie Allan in a Doyley Carte Opera or maybe a pantomime, or something similar. Date unknown.
We, his grandchildren, called my mum’s father, Popsy. We called her mother, Nanny. Nanny and Popsy - real name James (Jim) and Louisa Jane Kelsey - were cockneys. Jim had volunteered at the start of war, when he was still a teenager aged 17 or 18. He was wounded in the knee at the battle of the Somme and invalided home to recover. When he was fit again he was posted to Ireland, where there was considerable unrest at the time. Even though he felt unwelcome and uncomfortable there - he recalled being spat at in the street - it was a mercy he wasn’t sent back to the front.
Like so many who served, he never spoke about his WW1 experiences. He went on to live a happy, modest but fulfilled life. An abiding memory from my childhood is crowding around the piano with all the family, in my grandparents front room, while Popsy played ‘pub style’ and sang all the popular songs of his youth. We all joined in.
Popsy died, aged 72, in 1969. Shortly after his death I spent a night in my grandparents’ house to keep Nanny company. I woke up with a song running through my head. It was almost like a message from Popsy, telling me not to be downhearted, that everything would be all right. It still brings a lump to my throat whenever I hear it. Keep the Home Fires Burning.
Before Jim Kelsey left for the war, posed beside his mother. 1914
Jim with Louisa Jane, and between them, my mother, Irene. 1922
Gilli Allan is the author of
Fly or Fall