When Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery won Britain’s Got Talent in a cloud of confetti this summer at the age of 89, he could barely believe a new chapter in his long life had opened.
Just three years before, he had been ready to give up, devastated by the loss of his beloved wife of 66 years, Joan.
But while Colin has spoken at length about his soulmate, dedicating all his BGT performances to her, he has said little about his childhood, growing up in poverty in Camden, North-West London, in the 1930s and 1940s, within a sadly dysfunctional home.
Here, in an exclusive extract from his autobiography, My Story: How Love Changed Everything, Colin describes his difficult start in life…
When I was a kid, I never realised my family was as dysfunctional as it was. Don’t get me wrong, Mother and Father weren’t exactly bad parents.
We had a roof over our heads and food on the table. But that was it. No money, no toys and, sometimes, no interest in what I did.
In retrospect, I think they were so caught up in their own unhappiness that they really didn’t know how to look after children and so didn’t notice if I was actually there or not.
All I knew was that parents argued a lot and sometimes mothers would disappear for days on end. That was just the way it was.
In subsequent years, I have grown to understand why things might have been so very difficult for them.
When my father, Albert Thackery, first saw my mother, a pretty waitress darting across the room delivering tea, it was love at first sight.
Waving over the pretty brunette to take his order, the Royal Scots drummer, then working as a porter at a chocolate factory, while also a Territorial Army soldier, flashed her a killer smile that made her blush.
A few weeks later, Lilian Jacobs discovered she was pregnant and her life would change beyond all recognition. She was just 15.
We believe she was banished from her family, and when she married Albert on July 21, 1929, she never spoke to any of them again.
Meanwhile, Albert’s doting parents, Elizabeth and Thomas Thackery, made it clear that they were not happy about him marrying a Jewish girl and they also decided to have absolutely no relationship or communication with his young bride.
So began a relationship that would be full of unhappiness and, ultimately, doomed. They bickered incessantly, screaming at each other about the little things, and never really showed each other much affection.
For a while, it was just the three of us – Mother, Father and me, all living in a tenement house in Camden Town. It was a very shabby, rundown house with just two bedrooms, small enough to hear every spoken word or raised voice.
After their stormy rows, Mother and Father would separate for a while and then get back together again and, before you knew it, there would be another baby on the way. This means they must have broken up and reunited at least five times, as they went on to have five other children – Shirley, Michael, Maisie, John (who died in childhood of an unknown illness) and Brian, who was only a baby at the time of the final split.
It did get a little bit overcrowded – sometimes we’d all be squeezed into the same bed – so I tried to stay out of the house as much as I could.
We didn’t go on holiday but I remember once mother decided to take us hop picking in Kent. This was something a lot of poor families did every year. We stayed in unheated sheds and slept on straw-stuffed mattresses piled on twigs. It was awful. Us kids were banned from village shops because we were apparently riddled with fleas!
Sometimes the Salvation Army would come along and hand out milk and cakes for us kids, while the British Red Cross offered us cups of Oxo and a board game for a penny.
I couldn’t wait to get back to dirty, grubby Camden, thank you very much. At least it was home!
I lived on the streets, finding amusement wherever I could and nicking stuff from the shops with the other kids who lived around the area.
I was at my happiest there, bunking off school, nicking a bread roll off a passing bakery cart or out-running the coppers who’d caught me and my mates getting up to no good. I rarely attended school. When I went to Boys’ Service at 15, I discovered that I had a school age of just nine.
Sometimes the police would catch me cutting school and march me back there – but then I would just march straight back out again.
This was what life was like for most of us kids in post-depression London. Poverty was rife, prospects were non-existent.
It was hard to dream about a future, growing up in such a poor area. Yes, some of us spoke about wanting to be doctors or lawyers but we knew that it was very unlikely that we’d ever get the chance to fulfil our dreams. Run-ins with the police had become the norm for me but there was one time I was stopped by a policeman, an inspector, and he was different. He did me the favour of giving me an option that no one had before.
He said: “You can carry on getting into scrapes and end up in Borstal or you can join the Army and do something with your life.”
I dread to think of the life waiting for me if I had not joined the Army.
I was never very close to my siblings at that time. It’s funny, I am very close to them now, and to all my children and grandchildren. But when I was growing up there was no familial bond to speak of. My brother John was only five when he died. I can’t remember the circumstances but I do remember it was during the war.
There were so many illnesses back then that kids were dying all the time. Apparently, I had diphtheria at some point in my life. I don’t think anyone knows what that is these days but it almost killed me, I believe.
The breakdown of Mother and Father’s relationship after the end of the war is still a bit of a mystery to me. I was staying with relations, or away with the Boys’ Service and rarely at home.
My brothers and sisters were taken away from Mother by the local authority and Father wasn’t really given the choice of looking after them because men weren’t given custody in those days. Brian, the youngest, was only a baby when all this happened, so he never even knew our mother, which is strange when you think about it.
The kids were packed off to a woman named Mrs Pilbeam, who lived in Hastings. It would be years later when I was reunited with them.
I make it sound as if Father didn’t have much to do with me or my siblings but that’s not entirely true.
Albert was a great dad but he had other things on his plate.
For one, he was busy in the Army, so was posted here, there and everywhere.
He would write to me all the time. We had a good relationship and he did try to make an effort with me. When he remarried, 10 years after he and Mother split, he asked me to be his best man. But I never asked him what happened with he and my mother.
When she left, I didn’t hear another word about her. It was as if she had disappeared from the face of the Earth.
I think for a while I was angry that she had just left. Then I got so caught up with the Army and my own family that I simply forgot about her.
In spite of her behaviour, I have to admit I do feel sorry for her too.
When I explained her story to Joan, she always reminded me that she had become a mum at 15 years old. Fifteen!
She was just a young slip of a lass, who’d been disowned by her entire family and married at 16 without any kind of life. For heaven’s sake, she wasn’t young enough to have experienced one. I am not making excuses for her but I can see that she did have a lot to contend with and so many issues that a child her age shouldn’t have had to deal with.
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t try to search for my mother.
It makes me feel sad to look back at my early days in Camden. I had fun, for sure, but in retrospect, I can see what I was missing. A happy family life.
It was only when I met Joan, and was embraced warmly by her nearest and dearest, that I realised what being part of a family was supposed to be like.
*Colin Thackery’s My Story: How Love Changed Everything, published by Cassell, available from November 14.