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Friday, 31 October 2014

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Life and times of Bernard Hanratty

AFTER 65 years in the job, Bernard Hanratty’s time as a dealer in scrap metals has come to an end – and it finished where for him life itself had started, in Albion Street, Whitehaven.

He was born at 4 Albion Street, in a small house at the bottom corner of his father’s rag warehouse and was delivered into the world by the formidable Nurse Knox who lived just across the road, next door to the Dusty Miller.

Now 85, Bernard is enjoying retirement and a different way of life since the demands of business have evaporated. The piles of scrap metal have disappeared, too, all cleared away from the Hanratty yard to leave a blank site, almost as if it had never been. This is making way for a new office development which will see hundreds of workers decanted from the Sellafield site.

They say there’s no room for sentiment in business and Bernard is quite philosophical about the whole thing: “We drive past the yard and I don’t even think about it, it’s not mine any more, you move on.’’

Moving forward without regret appears to have been a life ethos for Bernard; he doesn’t do regret. He was just a young man of 20, about to study to be a surgeon with the Irish Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin when his career path was to take quite a different turn. He headed back home to Whitehaven to run the family business.

His father, Peter Hanratty, was 65, and son Bernard would take over the family firm; that’s the way it was then. There was only Bernard and his elder brother Peter, and Peter had come out of the Royal Navy and married a girl from Surrey and started a grocery business in that part of the country, so there was no-one else.

(Peter died about six years ago; he had latterly lived at Chobham in Surrey).

Despite the five-year age difference, the two brothers had been close, especially after their mother Hannah Catherine (née O’Hare) died from cancer in 1938 when Bernard was just 10 years old.

“My elder brother had already been sent off to St Joseph’s College in Dumfries – my mother wanted him to have a good education. So then I followed after my mother died, but Peter was a senior at the school and I was a junior and because of the school’s strict rules we were not allowed to speak to each other. But of course we did – at weekends!’’

Bernard’s early schooldays were spent at St Begh’s before leaving for the Dumfries boarding school, where he stayed for four years. Then he moved across the Solway to Dundalk in Ireland to attended the Marist College of St Mary’s. He spent two years there before deciding he wanted to train as a surgeon and was successful in passing the entrance exam for the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, no mean achievement as there were 200 students were competing for 40 places.

When he returned home it was 1947 and Bernard was just 20.

Did he have any regrets about not pursuing a surgeon’s career? “I never regret, there’s no point to it. I take each day as it comes, we none of us know what’s going to happen tomorrow, do we?’’ His father hadn’t asked Bernard to return to Whitehaven, or required it of him, and Bernard knew his dad would have supported him had he stuck with his surgeon’s training. But he came home nevertheless. “It was just something you did.’’

Bernard’s grandfather, also Bernard Hanratty, owned a small hillside farm in Armagh. He was an excellent horseman and good judge of horse stock and it was here that Bernard’s father, Peter Hanratty, grew up, one of seven brothers who all made their way to the mainland. It was tradition for the eldest son in large families to be sent to live with relatives and Peter found himself in Millom living with two uncles, the McNally brothers, who were general dealers and kept a marine store, a rag shop, had horses for their haulage and carriage business and generally bought and sold. It was here that Peter learned his trade – and his horsemanship; he could handle a four-in-hand when he was just 17. He was 89 when he died in 1971.

Eventually Peter wanted to strike out on his own and moved to Egremont where he acquired a small yard near Old Bridge where he stabled horses and was soon operating a haulage and cab business. Later he moved his cab business to Duke Street (Taylor’s Garage) and worked in a loose partnership arrangement with his younger brother Jimmy, who ran the rag shop at 5 Albion Street, having bought the premises from Dobsons in around 1911.

Before the war Peter had 200 horses but was called up to serve with the Welsh regiment and when he came home he had to start all over again.

“Uncle Jimmy decided to move out of Albion Street and went to Dublin before moving to South Shields, and set up and ran a very successful business over there. So dad took over at Albion Street.

“Another of dad’s brothers, Michael, set up a scrap business in Workington while a fourth, Uncle Owen, sought his fortune in America and travelled around that vast country before settling in Baltimore where he started up a pub in premises that had formerly been a ‘speakeasy’.’’

Bernard met his wife Winnie (née Coan) in the 1950s spotting her while she was in rehearsal for an amateur musical production at the Wulstan Hall (Queen Street). He was across the room at the bar, having a pint.

“He said I was the only one dancing in tune!’’ jokes Winnie who was at the time was the manageress of Chirnsides clothing store in Duke Street.

The couple courted and married in 1956 and have spent all of their married years so far (56) and raised their family of two sons at their bungalow home overlooking Whitehaven harbour.

Winnie, who has also devoted her working life to Hanratty’s, engaged chiefly with paperwork and the office side of things, is now enjoying a more leisurely pace of life, tending her small vegetable garden that must have the best views in town. The Hanratty home is just a couple of hundred yards from where Bernard was born.

Failing eyesight affects his view of the world nowadays, and his hobby of playing golf, but over five decades he has watched and witnessed from his sitting room window the changing scene around Whitehaven harbour – the demise of the phosphate boats for Marchon, the disappearance of coal wagons, the reduction in the fishing fleet from a one-time 80 boats and the modernisation of the harbour frontage. (He recalls a young Ricky Donnan arriving in town from Portavogie, to set up and grow his successful fish business).

While recycling is the modern buzzword of the day Bernard pooh-poohs the idea of Hanratty’s being recyclers. “We were reclaimers, not recyclers. Recycling is like their logo, just going round and round in circles,’’ he jokes.

“The business nowadays is not what it was. And I think people’s perception of it has also changed – in previous generations there were hawkers, viewed as a low occupation. We were part of the local business community here in Whitehaven and never felt there was a stigma.’’

Some of Bernard’s memorable tasks were scrapping the Edward VII loco (often pictured with Barney the Goose on Whitehaven harbour front), an 1884 steam crane from the harbour and the town’s steamroller.

And he can smile at the recollection of buying a quantity of lead, totally unaware that it was lead that thieves had previously stripped from a back shed that had been part of the old Ramsays engineering shop at the back of his premises.

Bernard and Winnie have two sons, Peter and John, who both went off to university to further their education. Peter returned to Whitehaven and continues to live locally. He previously worked with the family firm for about 15 years but now has a decommissioning job with Sellafield. John lives in Wakefield and is a financial advisor with a legal firm. Peter has five sons (Ian, Mark, Neil and twins Paul and Craig) and John has a daughter, Sacha.

And if you want to know where the old bell from the Kirk Mission tower went, Bernard has the answer – it’s in a chapel in the Camaroons. Father Begley and Father Doran (from Bransty), who were on foreign missions there called at the yard and found just what they were looking for.

Have your say

As a young boy I remember Bernard Hanratty. He was such a calm and collected man. I remember looking in awe at his premises, there was everything imagineable.
A truly lovely man.

Posted by Bern Birbeck on 4 March 2013 at 22:11

My grandfather was a really successful scrap dealer in Darlington, coming from Kendal. He passed away before i got the chance to meet him, anyone has any information about my family they wish to share please email me.

Posted by Niall Hanratty on 1 November 2012 at 17:02

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