My friend Bill Milner, who died at the age of 76 from mesothelioma caused by asbestos, worked in the construction industry in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Bill had a hard life. He was admitted into community foster care in 1954 when he was eight years old along with his younger brother Fred, who was six years old, but he never understood why. As far as he could remember they had been fairly happy at home near Lambeth Walk in Kennington, south London, where Bill was born. His father, Thomas Milner, was a corn and grain storeman and his mother, Alice (nee Skeggs), worked at United Dairies in Vauxhall.
The brothers were placed at Wood Vale in Norwood, a large Victorian institution housing more than 200 children. They ran away, only to be brought back into the house, where they were punished – strapped in and made to stand in a corner for hours.
After a few months they were moved to Shirley Oaks in Surrey, an even larger facility run by London County Council (LCC). They lived in 10 cottages run by a housemother. It was a better place and close to woods and open fields, which Bill loved. Eventually, Bill told his brother to pull themselves together and accept that they would never go home.
Bill attended Sedgehill Comprehensive School in Lewisham. He hated playing soccer, often left the field, preferring to explore the wildlife in the long grassy edges of the field. Later, on a survival course towards Dartmoor, around 14-year-old Bill set out alone and discovered a nearby family farm, where he offered to help out for a week. The farmer wanted to give Bill a paying job, but he had to finish his education. Bill became a prefect, but later, after a serious argument with the headmaster, he was expelled.
At 16, Bill was apprenticed as a blacksmith and welder and living in an LCC hostel, a Grade I listed pagoda, in Blackheath. He loved it there, especially the big garden where he took care of different animals. However, Bill did not go to work and instead did general work, including as a bricklayer. He was promoted to Chargehand and worked for Harry Neal Contractors in the 1970’s and into the 80’s.
Bill’s dry humor and cunning in dealing with the outside world helped him overcome depression. Above all, however, his interest in nature prevailed. Bill had a nervous breakdown in 1984, during which time he met Jane Keane, who became his partner. She helped connect Bill with therapeutic treatment and support in south London.
Bill finally found a permanent home in Telegraph Hill, south east London, with Jane, a jazz and blues singer in Mess of Blues, a band I was a member of. Bill was our unofficial roadie and we became friends. His characteristic gruffness gradually faded as broader friendships formed growth.
Bill is survived by Jane. His brother Fred predeceased him.