My friend Bill Milner, who has died aged 76 from mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos, worked in the building industry during the 1970s and 80s.
Bill had a hard life. He was taken into council care in 1954 when he was eight years old, with his younger brother, Fred, aged six, but never understood why. As far as he could remember, they had been quite happy at home living near Lambeth Walk in Kennington, south London, where Bill was born. His father, Thomas Milner, was a corn and cereals warehouseman, and his mother, Alice (nee Skeggs), worked at United Dairies at Vauxhall.
The brothers were placed in Wood Vale in Norwood, a large Victorian institution housing more than 200 children. They ran away only to be brought back to the home, where they were punished – strapped and made to stand in a corner for hours.
After some months they were moved to Shirley Oaks in Surrey, an even larger establishment run by London county council (LCC). They lived in cottages of 10 run by a house mother. It was a better place, and near woods and open fields, which Bill loved. Eventually, Bill told his brother that they should knuckle down and accept that they would never be going home.
Bill attended Sedgehill comprehensive school in Lewisham. He hated playing football and often deserted the pitch, preferring to explore wildlife in the long grassy borders of the playing field. Later, on an outward-bound survival course in Dartmoor, Bill, about 14 years old, went off alone and discovered a nearby family farm, where he offered to help out for a week. The farmer wanted to give Bill a paid job but he had to to finish his education. Bill became a prefect but, later, after a serious altercation with the head, he was expelled.
At 16, Bill worked as an apprentice blacksmith and welder, and lived at an LCC hostel, a Grade–II-listed pagoda, in Blackheath. He loved it there, especially the large garden where he looked after various animals. However, Bill did not take to the work, and, instead, did general labouring, including as a brickie’s labourer. He was promoted to chargehand and worked for Harry Neal building contractors throughout the 1970s and into the 80s.
Bill’s dry humour and wiliness in his dealings with the outside world helped him to overcome bouts of depression. Uppermost, his interest in nature prevailed. Bill had a mental breakdown in 1984, and, during this period, met Jane Keane, who became his partner. She helped link Bill to therapeutic treatment and support in south London.
At last, Bill had a permanent home, in Telegraph Hill, south-east London, with Jane, a jazz and blues singer with Mess of Blues, a band of which I was also a member. Bill was our unofficial roadie and we became friends. His characteristic gruffness gradually mellowed, as wider friendships grew.
Bill is survived by Jane. His brother, Fred, predeceased him.