Humans of Clevedon – Derek Ben Lilly – Mr Clevedon.

When Jane Lilly and Sheila Collins, nieces of Derek Ben Lilly, told us of his death on social media on the afternoon of May 22nd, there was what I can only describe as a tsunami of condolence messages. Here are just a small selection of those messages which convey the high esteem in which Derek was held and which earned him the name of ‘Mr Clevedon’. 

‘Just heard the sad news that Derek Lilly died yesterday. Derek was a true Clevedon legend, often to be seen around town with his cameras photographing sites and people, many of which themselves are long gone. His knowledge of the town was immense and if he didn’t know an answer to a question then the chances were nobody would, or it would not be worth knowing! RIP Derek, you were a one-off and never to be forgotten. My thoughts are with Jane Lilly and the rest of your family’. Kevin Rawlings

‘Oh Jane. So sorry to hear this, my sincere condolences to you and all of Derek’s family and friends. He has been such a wonderful contributor to our community with his fantastic archive and historical knowledge, how he will be missed. Lucky for us that he leaves you behind to continue his valuable work.’ Tracey Marsland Taynton

‘Sending love and hugs to you and the family at this awful time, Clevedon has lost one of its treasures. His photos and memories has been fascinating to see over the years. A new bright star will shine tonight over the town he loved.’ Hayley Jones

‘Jane I am so dreadfully sorry to hear of your Uncle Derek ‘s passing. He was such a character, in and around Clevedon, and his knowledge about our beautiful town’s history was second to none. He should have had recognition, for his photographic history of the town, in the guise of an MBE/OBE. He won’t be forgotten. RIP Derek’ Kate Bright

How could I not include a feature about such a well-known, well-loved Clevedon gentleman as one of my ‘Humans of Clevedon’ stories on my website Faces of Clevedon?

Derek was 96, when he passed away in Weston Hospital. Prior to this, he had successfully lived at home for the last three and a half years with the help of his family and support from carers at Arrigadeen Nursing Home in Clevedon. Having said that, it was clear that he was becoming far less mobile and it would have been very difficult for him to stay in his flat for much longer.

Derek had to go into hospital following a fall. When he returned home, sadly another infection emerged and he had to go back to Weston where he survived Covid but succumbed to the original infection, which had returned with force.

That was the end of a very rich and very full life led by someone deeply enmeshed in so many Clevedon community groups and organisations; a man who along with his niece Jane was an authority on all matters historical in the town; a man who gave his all to everything he undertook.

Let’s now go back to the beginning of his life. Derek was the youngest of six children, having three older brothers and two older sisters. His mother sadly died a few months before he reached the age of four. Derek lived in Clevedon all his life – he was born in Kenn Road in 1924 and apart from spending a few years in a flat in Marson Road, he lived the rest of his life in a flat just twenty five yards from where he was born.

Although there are no photos of Derek with his brothers and sisters when they were children, Jane did have this one of them as adults. On the back row left to right are Harry, Tom, Bert and Derek and on the front row in the same order are Betty and Marianne.

In the absence of a mother, Derek’s father who ran a very busy grocery business, needed support with bringing up the children and this came in the shape of Olive Tossell and then from his own aunt, Lizzie Mountsteven, both much loved by the family.

The business was very much a family affair and there was certainly plenty to do because as well as the shop itself, there was also a grocery and a paraffin round to be organised. The photo below shows Derek’s brother Tom and his sister Marianne outside the newly bought shop, still with Westcott’s above the window.

At the time that war broke out, Derek was working as an apprentice in a gent’s outfitters shop in Old Street. With his older brothers joining up, he was then required to learn to drive and take on the role of roundsman, an ambition he had cherished for many years and which he enjoyed until his father’s shop closed in 1967. 

Derek’s nephews and nieces who grew up in Clevedon have very clear memories of the excitement they felt on delivery days, when uncle Derek turned up with the van, delivering groceries ordered the week before, as well as dispensing paraffin and selling hardware and groceries from the back of the van.

When Jane and Sheila were sorting out Derek’s flat, they came across a form prohibiting the use of the old Commer delivery van driven by Derek in 1963, until repairs had been made.

‘Typically, he was great believer in the engine working and disregarding the rest. The silencer was loose, there was too much play at the front of the drag link, the steering column was loose, the front wing was torn and a threat to the public, one of the front wings was loose as was the windscreen. There was a red reflector missing and the tailguard was hanging off, as well as a light not working.  Other than that it was a very good vehicle, and the steering wheel is still in Derek’s shed!’

It was whilst working for the shop on very low wages that Derek learned about photography and began to take photographs of interesting events when he spotted them, to sell to the Clevedon Mercury. Here are few examples:

He started carrying a camera in 1959 when he was out on his motorbike, he almost gave up the photography when he retired because of the cost of film and prints. This is Derek on his Sunbeam S8 near Sherborne with his camera there on the back of the bike.

After he retired his bike he bought his Robin Reliant which became notorious as the ‘Squash Limo’. Rumour has it that at some point it was one shade of green, but he patched the paintwork with what came to hand. One of the rear windows had to be replaced with metal mesh and there were no fewer than 7 rear view mirrors.

On the closure of the shop, in 1967, Derek started a milk round which he loved and which he did for another twenty-one years. He started on a Horlick’s round in Cleeve and Claverham, later moving to Clevedon where he was absolutely in his element.

His trusty camera was always by his side and he built up an excellent portfolio of slide lectures covering Clevedon’s history. He was able to take photographs of many interesting sites in the town, often later persuading people to allow him to climb scaffolding to take panoramic shots. His sequence covering the restoration of the Old Market Hall in Alexandra Road is of particular note.

During the War Derek served with the Home Guard before being stationed on the continent with the 11th Airborne Signals for almost five years. He took part in pistol shooting at the Rifle Range from 1950 onward as well as contests held by the National Small-Bore Rifle Association. The photo below was probably taken in the 1950s and shows Derek with his Spencer shotgun, standing at the side of the family shop – the cottage opposite is still there.

It was during the early 1960s that Derek met the late Gray and Judith Usher, then fellow-members of Clevedon and District Archaeological Society. Derek who was a huge influence on Jane’s  love of Clevedon history,  took her to meet Gray Usher who used to write for the local newspaper. Derek and Gray would give talks about Clevedon.

Gray and Judith Usher gave Jane membership of the Civic Society for her eighteenth birthday and at the first meeting she went to in 1972, they reformed the History Group which Jane joined immediately. It would have been very difficult for Derek to be part of the group at this point because he was getting up at 3.00am, doing six weeks in a run with a week off, which made it very difficult to organise a night out! His hours changed at the end of the 1970s and he then began to attend meetings.

Derek and Gray formed the North Somerset Archaeological Research Group and undertook a series of digs in the local area. Only a couple of years ago, Derek identified the locations of his photographs of the digs for the County Archaeologist without hesitation after 65 years. The photo below shows the Roman Temple site discovered by studying aerial photos of the moorland fields near Clevedon.

Derek also began to accompany his niece Jane to the County Record Office where, like her, he began to transcribe records of Clevedon’s history. After his retirement in the mid-1980s he produced two booklets for Harry Galloway Publishing, The Kenn Hangings of 1830, and St Andrew’s Church Clevedon Churchwardens’ accounts, 1730-1801.

Derek’s collection of photographs was impressive, photographs that he shared generously on social media; which gave so much pleasure to so many; and sparked an interest in local history and research in many more, myself included. These are ten of my favourites:

This photo taken by Edwin H Hazell shows the Clevedon Urban District Council Fire Brigade with Captain Sir E H Elton Bart and Superintendent Mr Henry Reeves. Clevedon’s original horse drawn fire brigade.

Below we have the lovely ladies from Hales Home Bakeries. Their factory which was a major employer in the town, stood on the Clerical Medical site on Tickenham Road and vans like this were a familiar sight in the 1950s and 1960s. On holiday in the west of Ireland many years ago, the family wanted some cake from a corner shop and ended up with Hales’ jam tarts made in Clevedon.

These photos were taken by Tom Lilly, born in 1909. They show Clevedon’s first Carnival Queen, Rene Harrill. In those days, whichever girl sold the most tickets in aid of the Cottage Hospital became Carnival Queen. This would have been sometime in the early 1930s. Rene sold an enormous number of tickets – she had a captive audience, as her parents kept the Waggon and Horses in Old Street! I don’t think anyone knows what the tickets were for!

A couple of rare pictures of the Boer memorial dedication with the crowd beginning to gather. Lots of people, normally from outside of Clevedon call it the Boer War Memorial which is actually incorrect, it is in fact the Peace Memorial, erected initially to honour the dead of the Boer War.

This one is a photo of the post office workers in the early 1900s. They had four telegram boys working there at the time.

Derek took this photo of the Junior Wing of the North Somerset Archaeological Research Group. It shows the group searching the mudflats below Blackstone Rocks for cannon balls that were fired from the Wains’ Hill battery. When the new hatch was built and Kingston Hatch was closed it changed the tidal flow and the mud was washed away there. The cannon balls started to show as did musket balls from shrapnel shells. Some unexploded shells showed too and the bomb disposal unit used to come down to blow them up. 

Clevedon beach in 1869, with the pier structure lying on the pebbles waiting to be used. Mrs Hollyman’s lemonade stall on the right.

A rare one of a traffic free Copse Road! Well almost! When I interviewed Jane  back in October she explained why the whole character of the houses on the Clevedon Community Bookshop side of Copse Road is so varied. Essentially, it depended upon when the people on The Beach sold their gardens for development which they often did, either to rent them out and live in the smaller houses or sublet the smaller houses to someone else. The other side of the road was fields, and houses were only built when the fields became available at the end of their leasehold.

This gentleman’s name was Britain, he lived in Kenn in the 1960s and he used to pedal to Clevedon to pick up old stock from the greengrocers to feed his chickens. Derek’s brother Harry nicknamed him ‘The Ancient Briton’. Eventually he became a danger when the traffic got heavier.

The very recognisable Hill Road, always a popular shopping destination but with slightly less traffic!

And finally, a photo of the Council work force cutting road stone in the Old Church Road quarry. Most of the stone from this quarry was carboniferous limestone used for the roads. It was very difficult to work with and weighed very heavy! The quarry was part of Clevedon’s common, so that people from Clevedon and indeed Kenn could take stone to build a house – but they couldn’t sell the house! Most of the stone used for building is the darker Pennant sandstone from Conygar Quarry from the north side of Court Hill.

Derek’s photos as well as those of others were always a great resource for the books of photographs that Jane worked on. Her latest book included his memoirs of childhood in Kenn Road in the 1930s.

After he retired, Derek, who rarely sat still for long, took on a paper round and then worked for Baxters’ butchers shop in Hill Road until he was 82. He was known in Hill Road as the Butcher’s Boy. Both jobs kept him active,  kept him in the heart of the community he loved so much, and kept him in pocket so that he could buy the necessary bits and pieces that he needed for his computer and camera.  He stopped working at Baxters when the shop closed leaving only one independent butchers in Clevedon.

Around about the same time, he  set up his own blog as well as joining Flickr and Facebook in 2007, all of which gave him hours of pleasure. One of Derek’s first jobs when he retired was to scan all of his interesting negatives dating back to the 1950s

In later life Derek also took photographs of Clevedon Rugby Club for the local newspapers. This particular one shows Matt Carpenter scoring Clevedon’s first try, backed up by Harry Knowles and Ashley Vailes.

Apparently it was touch and go! Clevedon were winning 19 to 9 and became a bit over-confident. They leveled at 19 all  and then in the last play of the game, Taylor took a penalty and the end result was Clevedon 22 Cleve 19!

This was one of Derek’s most popular rugby photos. This action shot was downloaded over 650 times from the website. Derek was very sorry to have to give up taking photos on a Saturday afternoon when Clevedon was playing or the Colts or Junior teams had matches on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, his chair and the terrain were not very compatible. He used to follow the play up and down along the line inside the rope, and on one occasion he got bowled over when a tackle swept him and one of the players off their feet.

He became an expert photographer of plants and insects.

He also loved taking pictures of the moors particularly those showing the early morning mist, he would say:

‘Mist on the hill brings water for the mill, mist on the moor, brings sunshine to the door.’

Derek maintained that this was the truest and most reliable weather forecast that there ever was.

The final, very large photo was extremely popular – it was downloaded 3,311 times.

It was also in later life that Derek became an aquarist and lined the walls of his flat with tropical fish tanks when he took to breeding fish – Jane likened it to being in a television shop!

Derek will be hugely missed by his family, friends and the local community. He was a man of many skills and talents with a huge range of diverse interests. He contributed so much to our understanding of the town’s history, recognised formally when he was awarded Personality of the Year in 1995, nominated in 2001 and again awarded the title jointly with Jane in 2017.

To finish off! How many people knew that this hugely talented man also wrote poetry? He left a poem which encapsulates his thoughts on death and the afterlife, which is proving to be a great comfort to his family. In his own words, he explains how he wrote it for a friend:

‘Some years ago now a Dutch friend asked me if I could write something to help his wife.

Fredrica had come to Holland – a stranger – and was feeling a little isolated – she had become friendly with a neighbouring lady who had helped her in many ways to become integrated

Then she was devastated to find that the new friend had cancer and the loss impacted on her and left her extremely upset.

I had myself experienced a similar happening some years ago when a friend of mine who was almost as close or perhaps even closer, than a brother was killed. I could realise how it left ‘Freddie’ feeling so wrote out for her the following’

Rest in peace Derek with very warmest wishes from Gabrielle.

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