Jane Braznell talks about her late uncle and his adventurous life.
My grandparents had lots of photographs taken throughout their lives and these are of my dad’s younger brother, Uncle Bill (William Clive Mansell). I was born in 1966, and in 1968 he went off travelling across Europe and Asia finally ending up in Australia, where sadly he was killed in an tragic work accident. I suppose my interest comes from the fact that he knew me and was part of my life but I can’t remember him. I have collated all of his photographs, air mails and other memorabilia of him and I intend to put them in a book in the future as a record of his albeit short but adventurous life.
Bill was the second child of Robert and Violet Mansell and younger brother to Bob (Robert Edward). He was Uncle Bill to me and my sisters.
Both brothers went to Devonshire Road Junior School then onto Holly Lodge Grammar School for Boys. Bob pursued his love of cycling and opened a bike shop on the Oldbury Road in Smethwick whilst Bill took a more adventurous path and went off to travel the world. I was only a baby when he went so all I know of him is what I have picked up from Nan and grandad and other family members.
This very faded picture of Bill (above left) was always on the sideboard in nan’s living room until she died. It shows Bill in a cross country bike race. The other faded picture was also in a frame in the living room and shows Bill (and his shadow), I think he has a bowl or some bread in his hand. Nan also kept all of his airmails and photographs in a writing bureau in the front room.
Bill was very sporty and tried his hand at many leisure activities. He worked for a while at Cemetery Road Garage, Smethwick with John Edwards who tells me Bill couldn’t resist a challenge and they often tricked him into doing heavy jobs by taunting him, suggesting he wasn’t strong enough to lift certain weights. Apparently he fell for it every time.
Grandad had a Morris Traveller motor which Bill maintained for him and was able to drive. As a family they often went touring in Wales and Scotland, they had many friends in Barmouth and Llanaber where they stayed at a farmhouse B&B with a Mr & Mrs Lewis. Bill however enjoyed caravans and camping with his friends.
He sent regular airmails home and also wrote short articles for the Smethwick News Telephone, telling Nan not to worry as he exaggerated in his stories but that it made for a more interesting read! Many of his letters suggest that nan didn’t cope very well with him being away and he often talked about us girls, reminding Nan how lucky she was to have us to keep her happy and that she shouldn’t worry about him “I’m 25 now” he wrote in one such letter.
Bill was a handsome young man and I can only imagine what people thought of this tanned English man with curly blonde hair and chiseled good looks. He spoke of how kind people were to him and that he often managed with little or no money, eating meals with locals who were curious and intrigued by him. He took work where he could get it and ended up in Adelaide building wheat silos to store the grain on the huge farms. Tragically six months later Bill and the rest of work colleagues were killed in an accident. A freak gust of wind blew them off the silo and they all died instantly. Bills body or ashes were never returned to England but there was a memorial service at Smethwick Methodist Church. I never heard Dad, Nan or Granddad ever mention the names of any of the others as I guess they didn’t know who they were, just people he met on his travels.
Bill left few possessions behind and I can remember everything including his photographs, airmail letters, opals and other stones he had collected on his journey. Coincidentally my own daughters both collect stones when they go to the beach and often have pockets full when they come home.
I was nearly two years old when Bill set off on ahis epic 6500 mile adventure around the world. He saw an advert in The Telegraph to travel overland by Jeep to Nepal with nine other people. He signed up paying just £10.
Nan kept all of his belongings together with a gold St Christopher necklace in the writing bureau in the front room of their home in Holly Lane, Smethwick. Looking at all these photos now of Bill they captures how he liked to enjoy life. He was man who enjoyed the highlife who socialised with many different kinds of people. In March 1968 he set off across three continents with nine strangers soon to be fast friends in a Land Rover. We have tried to find out more about these journeys which seemed to be very popular at the time. They are sometimes referred to as the Hippy Trail or the Silk Road. Bill mentions many things in his letters home including the easily accessible drugs for sale, saying
“One can buy hashish at £6 for a 2 ½lb block; this would cost £100 England”.
“We have been through some terrific weather with temperatures 15-20 below freezing to up to 60-70 degree Fahrenheit and this is within 400-500 miles of each other but perhaps up and down 6700ft Thursday and Friday of this week”
They then travelled through Turkey to Iran heading towards the Caspian Sea. In Mashad, Iran, he mentions local people:
“Met a chap whose father owned a turquoise factory. I went with him to have a look, very primitive machines cutting and grinding the stones. I bought a $1 worth off him and he assured I could sell them at a great profit”.
They drove on through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. Here they crashed the jeep into the wall of a bridge writing it off and it had to be scrapped. It was at this point that 3 or 4 others left the group to head on towards Delhi and not Nepal. On the train from Lahore to Delhi he writes
“We came third class 306 miles in the compartment for 25 people where 42 at one time people trying to join in the window and push in from everywhere. It was fantastic. The people inside punch and kick to stop them getting in. A man at one stop showed us his pet Cobra about 5-6ft long in a sock tied to his shoulder”
They continued through India to Sri Lanka, to Kandy. He writes of his plans to travel in Western Australia, saying there is plenty of work on big construction projects out there.
In Colombo, Sri Lanka he got a job in a nightclub where he met
“lots of quite rich people including members of parliament, and English chap called Mike Wilson who found a treasure ship (The Great Basses Wreck), off the west coast here. He is a good friend of Jacque Cousteau and Alan Bombard, the man who crossed the Pacific on a rubber dinghy without food.”
From Colombo he ends his letter “Think happy thought” telling them it is a Buddhist expression.
His journey then continued with a German called Gunther through Singapore and Indonesia. They had planned to stop in Cambodia but had to turn back as the plane couldn’t land.
Nan was quite poorly and he writes back how worried he was about her health. Reading between the lines I think maybe she was very anxious for him - here was her youngest son travelling half-way round the world with barely any money or clothes. His bag with his camera inside was stolen in Pakistan. They were sleeping in temples, police stations, military barracks and even church houses. He remarks that the army and police are great people as well as the locals who are probably intrigued by this handsome, curly blonde haired young man who is by now lean and tanned.
In August they took the ferry from Bali to Lombok and arrived in Darwin, Australia. Ten hours into the journey, the boat broke down and they drifted 36 hours to a small island west of Bali. They were towed back where the locals gave them food and drink.
In Darwin he visited the Employment Exchange hopeful of finding work. We have photographs of him prospecting for opals in Coober Pedy, South West Australia and he mentions building houses and flats. During this time he was sleeping on the beach and in a Salvation Army hostel. His final letter home is dated Sunday 8th September which he ends with a tongue-in-cheek remark about where he is living:
“While I have been here, two people have shot themselves dead and a chap went mad on a beach nearby and cut his own throat with a bottle. Two people have disappeared without a trace and a hunter, 66 miles away on the coast was taken by a crocodile. It’s a lovely place!”
After this time Bill’s whereabouts in Australia remain a mystery. This last set of photographs show he was working on wheat silos, possibly near Adelaide (I am only guessing this as I believe the wheat fields are in this area near Port Pirie). It was here that a freak gust of wind blew Bill and his fellow workmates off the silo to their death. His body or ashes were never returned to England. Nan said that she always expected to walk through the door one day to find his suitcase in the hall and that he had finally come home to her.
As a mother myself, I can’t imagine the grief the whole family must have felt. As children we never saw it, they all spoke fondly of Bill but we never saw them cry. It was very sad really. Bills fiancé continued to stay in touch with nan all of her life and attended her funeral. Nan doted on her. Even after she got married, she still visited. Nan and grandad adored both her and her daughter. Perhaps the family they never had with Bill?
All of his belongings remained together and as we grew up we would often get them out and look through them. Looking back now I am curious to know how Nan came to have so many photographs even though Bill’s camera was stolen in Pakistan. There must be other people out there who also lost their loved ones in this tragic accident. Maybe they could shed more light on this epic journey. Perhaps I need my own adventure to Australia to find this out.