We’re used to seeing murals round here – mainly created by Greenwich Mural Workshop and dating back at most to the 1980s. This one isn’t by GMW and it’s much older. The other awkward thing is that it isn’t actually in Greenwich. It’s not actually even in England. But it does give me one more reason why I want to visit the Orkney Islands.
It’s by a chap called Albert Ryecraft ‘Splinter’ Woods, born in Gravesend in 1877, died in Deptford in 1950 and for much of his life – and both World Wars – Piermaster at Tower Pier, for the PLA.
So what the hell was he doing painting a mural in the mess hall of a WWII gun battery in Orkney? That’s the question Andrew, who leads tours round the extraordinary-looking Ness Battery at Stromness, would like to know.
A job like Woods’s wouldn’t have seen him being called up but he was a part-time Territorial in WWI, manning machine guns on a roof in Deptford Market. In his fifties by the time WWII broke out, he became a Sergeant in the Home Guard, but always working on the Thames. Here’s a picture of him and his dog Peter:
In 1942 Woods wrote a book about his experiences in both wars – I Guarded the Waterfront – and was a minor celebrity at the time, even broadcasting on the wireless – but ask anyone round here now about him and you’ll get blank looks. In Orkney, though, he’s an intriguing man of mystery that many know about and have been searching for.
Andrew tells me the book makes no mention of his time in Orkney, and there is no record of his ever having been there other than his signature on the mural itself, which is one of the highlights of a visit to this most odd of 20th Century monuments (How odd? Well wouldn’t YOU want to visit a place that looked like this?)
Andrew wonders if Woods came to Orkney with equipment requisitioned for use by the Navy, such as floating cranes, barges and the like, which we know came from the PLA – in fact, the remnants of one of the floating cranes is still being scrapped as we speak. His experience in the Merchant Navy and as a small boat-man on the Thames may have made him a useful volunteer to escort those small craft up here. Speculative, but possible…
Research has come to a bit of a grinding halt though. The PLA lost a lot of records in the war and know little beyond the fact that Woods retired in 1947. The house where he died at Amersham Vale in New Cross has long gone for a health centre. Woods had children but Andrew can’t find any living descendents who might be able to shed light on why he went to Orkney and how long he spent there (must have been some time – that mural’s pretty big…)
So he’s trying a long shot and asking whether there are any Phantophiles out there who might have anything on this intriguing gentleman and his acrobatic dog.
I guess it’s worth an ask. Stephen? Mary? Anyone?