There’s one subject guaranteed to cause confusion amongst horse owners…
Bill Burnell was a simple man in every sense of that word.
I first met him when I went to work at Elm Cottage veterinary practice in Plymouth in 1961. He was the yard man to the firm. Every practice had such a worthy in those days and his was an essential part of the smooth running of the whole affair. Apart from general cleaning he would maintain the cars, carry out minor repairs, feed the inmates and often step in to help out at lambings or calvings. Burnell did all these things with a quiet dignified manner, but in his own way. He did all this faithfully for many, many, years and then retired and died so quietly that I thought his life, such as I knew it, should be recorded in some way.
He was known to everyone in the practice as Burnell. A man of much personal dignity, he would have regarded the use of his first name as an intrusion into that dignity, but happily to my knowledge no-one ever did. I remember once, after his retirement, I called at his house where I found him entertaining a group of cronies to tea; he never drank. And I was shocked to hear them all calling him Bill and he had a jocular manner which I had never seen before.
As to retirement, he kept on working after that date for “the sake of the cats” and he made it quite clear that he did not consider anyone else in the practice was capable of looking after the cats properly. But he said he would come in his own time for no pay or it might, he worried, interfere with his pension. We did, however, come to a private arrangement about that. I never knew a lot about his past life but I think the fact that he recognised me as a fellow cat lover made him a little more forthcoming. I do know that he started his working life as a delivery boy for Condy Uren the chemists in Plymouth.
When war broke out he was conscripted into the Anti-Aircraft Regiment. By this time he was married and had a son. He was stationed at a battery on Mount Edgecumbe at the time of the great Luftwaffe raids on Plymouth. Thus it was that he was allowed home after a particularly vicious raid to find his house destroyed and his wife and son dead. He never spoke of it much, but I think it was a turning point in his life. He withdrew into himself and found solace in his love for cats. It is remarkable to think that one of his postings later was to an anti-aircraft battery at Barrowell Green swimming lido North London, where I would often go swimming during wartime, and I well recall seeing its long guns pointing at the sky. Burnell must have been there on some of those times.
He was always diligent in his work, but he had his own way of doing it and it was unwise to interfere. He was very good at a type of carpentry using recycled wood and his wirework was second to none. Wire fencing was of course very important where so many animals had to be securely confined. He also did all the simple electrical wiring, but in his own rather eccentric manner which would play a role in his very dramatic demise. The most distinctive trademark was his habit of tying a knot in any wiring before he connected into a socket. He said it was so that if anyone pulled on the flex it would not weaken the connection. So that all our wiring looked peculiar. But more of that later.
His other task was to maintain the cars. In this respect, every time he saw someone preparing to drive off he would rush over and rub the windscreen with an evil greasy cloth he kept for that purpose. This meant that as soon as I was safely up the road I had to stop and clean the wind-screen of his greasy smears. It became a battle of wits to jump in the car and away before he could strike. He also had various quaint expressions. In the course of measuring up a job he would not say a measurement was one foot exactly, he would say it was one foot bare and bare. Or if after a particularly gory lambing in the garage he would say rill swamp that down in a minute.
He seemed to wear the same clothes all the years I knew him, a black suit with a white collarless shirt, all this topped with black peaked cap of the type favoured by German prisoners of war. After his mother died he obviously came into a small legacy and he bought himself a very basic scooter, more of a motorised bicycle. But he could knock up a fair speed on it. I would often see him cycling to work along Alma Road and I always said I could judge his speed by the angle of upturn of the peak of his cap. He was meticulously honest about money and would never accept a tip.
There was one hilarious incident which, although none of us witnessed it, we could imagine it from his aggrieved account. A Greek nightclub owner was a regular client, both veterinary and grooming, for his white poodle. He was a flash character who paid in cash from a wad of notes he produced from his pocket. He was later murdered in a gangland shoot-out. He lived in a grand house on The Hoe. The dog was collected and returned for its monthly clip and bath. There was some competition among the male staff for this task because the dog’s mistress would wait at the top of the wide staircase which is a feature of the grand houses on Plymouth Hoe. And she was always still wearing her baby doll nightie. And she was some looker. Burnell was of course unmoved by all this, but one time he was met by the Greek himself, a wad of notes in his hand ready to pay. So he stuffed a large denomination note in his hand, took the dog and said “Keep the change”. This was too much for Burnell who said he did not need tipping to do his job and kept the Plymouth Mafia man, still in his pyjamas, waiting on the stairs while Burnell laboriously searched through his pockets for change and then gave him a signed receipt for the money. We were not there of course, but could imagine it from his affronted account when he returned.
Then came his end. He had finally given up regular visits to his cats, as he called all the boarders and in-patients so we had not seen him for some time. He was found dead in his little one up one down terrace house. For some reason the police asked me to look at the scene and answer questions for about three hours that evening. I saw nothing unusual. He lay at the foot of steps under a bare light fitting wired in his usual way. Bill had obviously fallen while changing a light bulb and hit his head on the stone floor. He had told me some time before that he was having blackouts. The rest of the scene was normal Burnell. But the police thought differently. They saw a man lying on the floor under a setup which could either have been for a hanging or to administer electric shocks. They saw the walls lined with black plastic to catch blood splashes and the windows covered with the same plastic sheeting. I knew this was opened out body bags; his idea of privacy and keeping the walls clean. What was the clincher for them was that on that afternoon he had been seen arguing with a group of young football supporters in town. It took me a long time to convince them which was quite understandable as they did not know the man. I often think that had he known about it, Bill Burnell would have been highly amused. The chief of detectives in Plymouth who was in charge of the case was married to Shirley, who was a secretary at the practice I worked at in Sidmouth. How strange is life!