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The Story of Fred Craggs (Kell)

The following has been compiled by family member John Robinson, who now lives in Canada:

Fred Kell (Craggs) was born 22 July 1919, an illegitimate son of Ellen Kell of Commercial Street, Trimdon Colliery, Co Durham. He was baptised 31 July 1919 in the Primitive Methodist Church, Wingate Circuit. His father is unknown.

Ellen did not have an easy life, her first husband died leaving her with three young children; she remarried and had another two children. Her second husband died in WW1 and when applying for widow’s benefits she was denied as her husband was a bigamist and her marriage ruled illegal. The family lived in a two-roomed terrace house with the bedroom upstairs divided by a curtain. To support herself and her five children, Ellen had started a front room confectionary from which she sold home baked goods. She also took in washing and scrubbed floors to make ends meet. This lifestyle continued through the depression years until 1935 when she moved with her remaining family to West Hartlepool.

When Fred was born in 1919, Ellen gave him to her sister Minnie Craggs to bring up as one of her own children. Minnie and her husband George had left Trimdon and moved to Old Hartlepool where they had a house on the sea wall near the Lifeboat station. Fred was never told about his birth mother, when his adoptive mother Minnie died in 1955, he discovered a copy of his birth certificate in a St Bruno tobacco tin. He was so surprised that he rushed over to Harry Robinson’s house to show him what he had found. He was absolutely stunned to realise that his birth mother was his aunt Ellen Kell.

What is surprising is that there were older siblings in both families that knew the true story of his birth but no one had told him. The families lived in the same community and were reasonably close but the subject was never brought up in conversation. We are sure there was never any formal adoption, just one sister helping the other out in tough times. 

From what Harry told me, after Minnie died, Fred decided to go to London to find employment and a new life. We suspect that after his funds ran out he just drifted into vagrancy. It would only be about four or five years after Minnie’s death that he met Anton Wallich-Clifford. 

In the late 1950's he was a vagrant with no fixed abode, a "down and out" in London. He was featured in the Book "No Fixed Abode" by Anton Wallich - Clifford, founder of the Simon Community (planning of Simon started in September of 1963). 

From current published information, Simon define themselves as a community of homeless people and volunteers living and working together in a spirit of acceptance, tolerance and understanding.

They exist as a community to reach out to, support and campaign for people who are homeless or rootless, and particularly those for whom no other provision exists.

For over 40 years the Simon Community has worked to alleviate the isolation of rough sleepers, provide a place where they can gain a sense of belonging and foster the skills they need to move towards independent living.

The book “NO FIXED ABODE” was first published in 1974. The book has the following dedication:

To my mother, Bunch, Luke and Sally

for sharing some of the pilgrimage with me,

and to Fred Kell, wherever he may be,

on behalf of the homeless and rootless everywhere.

An extract from this book highlights Fred’s life as a vagrant and his part in the formation of the Simon Community.

Even after his probation order had expired Robin continued to visit me until I left the Service, but by the time I came to start Simon I had lost track of him, so he will not know that he was one of those who can be held responsible for ultimately forcing me to act on my own. Another man, however, at least knows that he was influential in what happened afterwards, even if we have never been able to give him the permanence and stability he so badly needs. More important to him is his pride in the fact that he introduced me to the Golborne Centre - and therefore to the Rev. Bram Peake, Tommy Gifford and Colin Calder.

Seen shambling along the Strand or sitting on a park bench, Fred Kell (as I first knew him) is unmistakably a 'tramp'. He fits the popular - and largely false - image from the broken peak of his greasy cap to his flip-flapping, cracked and untied boots. The top coat that he wears permanently, once brown but now compost-coloured, is sometimes belted with string; its frayed edges trail almost to his ankles. Beneath the cap his face juts out like a badly carved meerschaum pipe, and from behind his steel framed spectacles (which he is always losing) his eyes sadly survey the scene in a constant search for fag-ends.

When he first climbed the narrow, twisting stone staircase to the probation office in Broadcourt Chambers he had arrived back in London from one of his many trips. Although a seasoned wayfarer, he had not previously sought assistance from us; but knowing what he wanted, he had shrewdly guessed that, in his penniless condition, and at an hour when he could expect only a Sally Ann (Salvation Army) bed chit from the NAB - a probation officer's help might be more effective.

Poor Jo Knox must have groaned to herself as she opened the door to him and put him in the 'tank', for when she called me on the intercom she said 'It's one of your’s Anton - on tappers', and added as a cautionary note 'probably lousy, so watch your chairs!'

Some moments later Fred shuffled into my room. At my invitation he flopped on to the fireside chair like some gaunt, moulting bird of prey descending on a bough, and in one movement taloned the proffered cigarette and produced a mouth-organ from his bulging pocket.

'This is my mouth-organ' he introduced himself, or rather the instrument which he waved in front of me. 'I don't beg. I'm Fred, Fred Kell and I play this in pubs. I works my way around, I'm known all over the place. I've just got back from my home in Northampton, you know - and I wonder if you can help me?'

He drawled out the short sentences in a heavily accented voice that sounded as though he thought he was puffing and blowing on the mouth organ; and in fact as he gasped to a stop he quickly blew a little tune. 'Like it?' he asked, and before I had made any reply he launched into an account of his travelling years playing his way from town to town.

Eventually I gathered that the purpose of his visit was to see if I would 'give him a bed chit for the Golborne Centre. 'I know Dr Peake' he said. 'I've been to his Centre before. He's a very nice man. The Doc'll help me. I'm not going to a bloody doss-house. It's just that I haven't any cash right now. But I'll get some. I'll play in a few pubs. It's just that a note would help. He's always very full, you know, but if I have a chitty from you I'll be all right.'

He puffed to a stop, and then played another little tune, watching to see my reaction. 'If you know Mr Peake and you've been there before, why didn't you go straight there?' I countered. "Well, it's a place for ex-cons, you know. I've done some bird. That's how I went there first, but he won't take casuals. You have to be referred. That's why I thought you might refer me'.

The wily old bird has it all sewn up, I thought, but secretly I was delighted, because although I had collected several cuttings about the Golborne Centre I still had not traced its exact whereabouts. I knew vaguely that it was in the Notting Hill area, and that it was a church which the pastor had converted into a sort of half-way house for discharged prisoners. In official circles it was looked upon with some suspicion because of its sensational publicity, and I was still too new and inexperienced in the daily search for beds to have made any serious attempt to locate or use it. I had an opportunity thrown right into my lap. I could give Fred a note and a bed voucher, and if his confidence was as justified as he made out, I would have an excellent case for 'home visiting' a 'voluntary supervision' case.

This in fact is exactly what happened, for Fred left happily, puffing and blowing 'I'll take you home again, Kathleen', armed with his official note and bed ticket, and the following evening, on his very precise and careful directions, I found myself entering the church doorway of the Golborne Centre for the first time. There I met Tom Gifford, at that time Warden, with his assistant, Colin Calder, and of course a jubilant and contented Fred Kell. It was only some days later that I actually met the rumbustious and exuberant Rev. Dr B.E. Peake DD* ('I got my DD by correspondence with an American evangelical college'), and began a relationship with the Centre, Bram, his wife, children and staff which was to lead to my eventually cramming his unique and never-to-be-forgotten 'hostel-in-a-church' with homeless Bow Street clients to the almost total exclusion of other agencies. From that first moment, I knew that Golborne, and Bram Peake's system of 'con boss' leadership, house meetings and do-it-yourself home-from-home kit, provided the answer to the problem which I was fast realising would be my biggest headache at Bow Street. From our initial meeting something clicked; but neither of us realised then that in time his warm, natural and amateur attempts to make life bearable for the homeless offender within the confines of his tiny Free Congregational Church would grow to the point where he would set up a trust of which I became a member, and that I would write the booklet 'One Man's Answer'* about him and his work.

Fred himself settled down for a few weeks before again being drawn irresistibly back on the road in his fruitless search for identity. He always ended up in Northampton because that was the town in which he had been born some forty-five years before. He could remember his mother very well, and with deep affection, but almost everything else had been blotted out in the intervening experiences of children's homes, rootless wanderings in search of work, army service, short spells in prison and the endless post-war miles flapping from Sally Ann to Church Army, from town to city and from hamlet to village, puffing and blowing his mouth-organ, eking out the pennies and shillings for food and a night's kip. Nothing permanent or lasting. No relationships that were meaningful. No place to settle. And now - even with his real acceptance of Golborne and its acceptance of him - he could not overcome the need to keep returning to his place of birth. So he kept on moving; but at least whenever he got back to London, if only to get his spectacles repaired or replaced, and to enjoy the companionship of Golborne, he always called to see me.

It was on one such visit that he solemnly informed me that he had changed his name to Cragge - 'It's me mother's maiden name' he said, 'and that must be my real name.' So Fred the Organ duly became Fred Cragge; and our friendship has travelled much like Fred himself down the years. He spends a few days in a Simon house of hospitality but there is no hope of rooting him. The last time I met him was with my wife, in the waiting-room at Charing Cross station last year. 'Hello, Mr. Clifford' (he never would call me Anton) he puffed, "how are you these days? I haven't got me mouth-organ. I lost it.' But nothing else had changed.

Fred, contrary to what he related to Anton, was raised in a normal family with other siblings. He had two older brothers, two younger brothers and a younger sister. Minnie’s husband George had worked as a coal miner in Trimdon but on moving to Old Hartlepool got a job as a labourer in the local shipyard. He did not always have work and went through some hard times. Minnie had been brought up as a strict Methodist and was a hard worker. Like her sister Ellen she was an accomplished baker and started to sell homemade goods from her home to supplement the family income.

Other Old Hartlepool residents remembered Fred:

He was known locally in Hartlepool as "Teacake Freddie" hawking his mothers baking around the streets. 

The book "Look Back for a While" by Nick Cannon remembered Freddie Craggs: "Fred was a happy lad, going around the Croft with a large wicker basket full of his mother's large home baked teacakes covered with a white muslin towel. These teacakes tasted delicious and very popular around the Croft."

Up until the death of his adoptive mother Minnie, Fred had led what we would call a fairly normal life. The families in Hartlepool and Trimdon were in fairly close contact with each other, Fred was part of this larger family group.

Jim Robinson (nephew) recalled:

Grandma Kell had the tea shop in the dene at Hart (Crimdon), the family in the depression years camped there during the summers. Fred was a constant visitor, he walked along the sands from and to Hartlepool. He also often walked from Hartlepool (12 miles) to visit his cousin (half sister) Eveline Robinson in Trimdon Village, she always gave him busfare for the trip home.

He at one time worked as an Eldorado Ice Cream man. Used to come all way from Hartlepool to Trimdon on the Ice Cream Bike. Sadly it took so long the ice cream used to melt away.  He used to have his birth certificate in a little tin box and was always showing it to people and telling them that his Aunt Nellie was his mother. He used to wander about the town on a Saturday hoping to see someone in the family, and expected them to give him some money. 

The males in the Craggs family were social drinkers, son George had an excellent voice and sang many of the popular classical pieces. He mainly sang as an entertainer in pubs around Hartlepool, passing the hat to earn a few pounds. Fred obviously had a good example to follow with his mouth organ.

Of course he was never in “children’s homes” and his roots were in Hartlepool not Northampton. During the time he was meeting with Anton, his birth mother and most of his siblings, and adoptive siblings, were alive and could have helped him in his situation. Apparently he was always a “happy-go-lucky” type of person and his assumed lifestyle must have made him content. We are not aware that he made any contact with the family during his excursions; Hartlepool is a long walk from London.

We believe that Fred died in London, July Quarter, 1990 in the Lambeth District. Anton died 30 July 1978 aged 55 from cancer.



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