Monday 8 November 2021

Jack Pleasants


Many of our stories, like that of the previous post, are based on information provided by family or descendants. However, there are other stories which may not get told, because there is no one to pass them on. Jack Pleasants' story would have been one of these, but for his name showing up on a ship's passenger list, with an unusual place of birth. By means of publicly available records, we've been able to piece together something of his life.

Jack William Merrilees was born in New York USA, on 10 November 1897. His mother, Jessie Merrilees, came from a theatrical family and, with her mother and two sisters, travelled to New York from England in 1894. She was quickly involved in stage shows, including Broadway, getting good reviews. A short-lived relationship with Max Gottlieb resulted in Jack’s birth. After a season in “The Telephone Girl” at the end of 1899, Jessie Merrilees with two-year-old Jack, headed back to England. In 1901, Jack’s mother was back on stage in Cardiff in Wales, then Glasgow and Edinburgh and London in following years. Travelling and being minded backstage would have meant a rather disjointed existence for Jack.

In 1908, Jessie married fellow music hall artiste Jack Pleasants. He was a well-known performer in UK, and his voice can still be heard today, thanks to discography sites on the internet. Young Jack promptly took the new family name. Given the peripatetic nature of his parents’ life, it was inevitable that Jack was sent to boarding school. He was educated at Margate College, in Margate in Kent.

With rising tensions in the immediate years before World War 1, and uncertainties about work prospects, the new Dreadnought Scheme looked like a good opportunity, and Jack applied to join it. He sailed on the SS Themistocles, arriving in Sydney on 22nd December 1913, aged 16. He was sent to Grafton Experimental Farm and spent the next four months in farm training. There is no record of where he was placed on leaving Grafton on the 21st of April 1914, but he worked his way down to the central western area of New South Wales.

In the second year of the war, he enlisted in the Australian Army, at Forbes on the 22nd of February 1916, aged 18 years and 3 months. Following basic training in Sydney, he embarked on the HMAT Ceramic on the 7th October and travelled to Plymouth UK. From there he was transferred to France in February 1917, joining the 17th Battalion at the Front on 19 March 1917. On 15 April he was listed as ‘Missing in Action’. He, with many others, had been taken prisoner by the Germans in the village of Lagnicourt. They had been trapped while defending it, and captured when their ammunition ran out. These prisoners of war were taken to Lille, where they were locked in the casements of Fort MacDonald for ten days with little food or water, then returned, “starving and reeling from the shock of capture”, to the 'Reprisal' area, that is, a German front-line area which was exposed to the British shelling, and where they were used to rebuild trenches and recover bodies. By 1 June 1917 he had been transferred to Dulmen Internment camp for re-allocation, and two months later was in Gefangenenlager Zerbst, Anhalt, in Germany. Jack turned 21 years-of-age in the Zerbst Camp. The blockading of Germany in 1917-18 meant food shortages across the whole country, and in Jack’s camp this led to a hard existence, rife with malnutrition and disease.

After the war, Jack was repatriated to London on 2 January 1919. He eventually arrived back in Australia in early 1920, but was in a bad way and was granted a war pension because of his incapacity.

Jack stayed in Sydney for the next few years, until his country of birth called. He migrated to California in USA and, by 1933, was living in San Francisco, working as a salesman with Wuelker Reflector Lighting Corporation. His Army pension was now being paid by the US Government and, in 1934, he decided to join the American Legion (the returned servicemen’s organisation). For that, he successfully wrote to the Repatriation Commission in Australia for a record of his Service, to replace papers which "had been stolen in 1922." Around 1938 Jack moved to Los Angeles and began work with W.E. Welborne, a lighting fixtures supplier, again as a salesman.

On 13 January 1939 at age 41, Jack married 33-year-old Martha Caroline Drake in Los Angeles. His employer was also now involved with heating equipment and, in 1942, Jack switched to the engineering side of the business. After World War 2 ended, Jack moved across USA to New Jersey, where his wife had been born, and where her parents were. In 1948, Jack was working as an engineer with the Aeroyal Manufacturing Company; he stayed in New Jersey until after 1967, when his wife’s parents had both died.

In retirement, Jack moved back to California, to San Diego. ​On 20 December 1976, survived by his wife Martha, Jack William Pleasants passed away aged 79 years. There were no children.

What a contrast between the early and later parts of Jack Pleasants’ life! His early life as a child of the theatre, the boarding-school boy, the Dreadnought Boy, then the prisoner of war, was certainly not a settled one; his was a life filled with drama and extremes. Little wonder that Jack opted for the quiet life, with steady employment and infrequent change, when back in USA.