Desmond Paul Henry 1921 - 2004

British Pioneer of Computer Art | Manchester's 1960's Precursor to Digital Art.

Memories & anecdotes relating to Henry's life.

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Memories of sea-side holidays in Nethertown, Cumbria 1959-72

The former fisherman’s cottage called Plessington no longer stands on the western seashore of Nethertown, Cumbria (formerly Cumberland). It was condemned in the early eighties after a change in ownership and pulled down. But the holidays my family and I spent there make up some of my best childhood memories. When I took my own children in the late nineties, it just was’t the same without the cottage. Some people were starting to build another cottage where Plessington had stood.

Nearly every summer, from when I was two and a half years old in 1959, my father would take our mother together with myself and two older sisters on a long train journey from Manchester to Nethertown. For many miles the train ran along a high embankment along the seashore. Then you knew the journey’s end was close at hand. Once we had arrived at the tiny station we would unload all our luggage which my father would take by taxi to the small Fisherman’s cottage called ‘Plessington’, while the rest of us walked over the fields. The cottage was named after Blessed John Plessington, one of the forty English martyrs who was coincidently also pictured in the stained glass of our parish church of the English Martyrs church located in Whalley Range Manchester. My father had found the cottage advertised in the Catholic Herald. It was owned by a Catholic lady doctor living in Egremont. A lady called Mrs. Pritt would come to clean while we stayed for two weeks. I remember she was very cheery but hard to understand because of her lack of teeth and also I think her accent.

Plessington was a single storey cottage, built from timber with a verandah at its front which did not face the sea as the other cottages along the shore did, but was perpendicular to the beach and so protected from the sea winds. Once at the cottage, we had no electricity, just one ceiling gas lamp which my father lit every evening by hand with a taper. There was no running water, only a pump out the back. We used old-fashioned matching porcelain jug and bowl sets for washing ourselves. The toilet was an oil drum plus seat situated down a little path at the end of the garden in a small, dark hut infested with spiders. Trains went by regularly along the embankment behind the cottage which made the whole hut rattle and shake alarmingly. It took a lot of courage to use this toilet. Once this receptacle was full, my father had the job of emptying it at high tide as it was turning.

Although the cottage was well-supplied with candles, my father would not let us use them for fear of causing a fire. So he had contrived small battery run torches for us to use instead. There was also a real fire on which my father would make toast using a toasting fork as it was often cold enough for a fire in those summer evenings. We would sit around the dining table and play cards together on a heavy green furze/baize tablecloth which I found very tickly to the touch. There I learnt how to play ‘Sevens’, my father’s favorite card game. The furniture was old-fashioned and I remember that one of the mattresses was stuffed with straw!

That first summer of 1959 when I was two years old, I was too timid to go down to the beach across the steep slope of what seemed to me huge pebbles! So, a white enamel bath was filled with sand and brought up to the garden for me to play in. I had been very ill with an unusual form of gastro-enteritis just before that summer and so my parents felt especially indulgent towards me. It was in the garden that I first saw bright orange marigolds and that my father taught me how to tickle the legs of grasshoppers with a piece of grass. At Plessington, my father’s customary jacket with breast pocket bulging with pens and screw-drivers was replaced by jumpers, which made having a cuddle far more comfortable from my point of view! Though to be fair, my father would often thoughtfully put his jacket around me so I didn’t get hurt by any hard objects!

During the summers which followed, my father would take me out on the rocks to catch crabs. We carried a white enamel sanitary bucket to put them in. I had to be very careful not to slip on the shiny black and feathery green seaweeds. I also carried a wooden handled spade with its bright red metal tip for lifting up rocks. My father helped me see all the wonders of the rock pools and the little creatures they contained. He would capture the crabs, keep them in the bucket and then set them free to have a race across the sands to the sea. I can still remember how their claws would scratch on the enamel of the bucket. I remember how my father made me feel very proud while assisting him in this important task of crab-catching.

There was nothing my father enjoyed so much as looking out to sea with his binoculars from the small wall with a palisade atop which edged the cottage garden. On a clear day you could see the Isle of Mann or even dolphins. We also saw the Pirate Radio ship- Radio Caroline. Having spent seven years in the army during WW2, he also enjoyed it when the firing range at Seascale was being used for target practice out to sea by tanks. You could hear the guns in the distance and see small puffs of smoke.

When the tide was out you could see a semi-circular low wall which I learnt had been used to trap fish. The rocks on the beaches were forever moving and changing from one year to the next. One year, there was even the prow of an old wreck sticking out of the sand and we spotted a conger eel swimming in the pool surrounding it. There was nothing my father enjoyed more than a good storm and there was usually at least one during our stay. He would take us all out to walk along the sea edge searching for kegs of whisky washed ashore on the raging waves. We never found one but he never gave up hope. More than once a fierce sea came right up to the garden wall of the cottage.

It was in Nethertown that my father was at his most relaxed and communicative since he had no study to retreat to and no drawing machines to play with! It was the beach at Nethertown with its amazing pebbles which gave me a love of pebbles and rocks and taught me to be on the look out for things other folk miss. I think my father found some of his own childhood again at Nethertown. My mother had never been on holiday as a child and so it was my father who taught us how to make sandcastles and dig dams, learnt during his own sea-side holidays at Bridlington. But he would’t go in the cold sea. I did learn to steel myself against the biting cold but I didn’t like it if there were jelly fish.

We used to walk up the winding concrete road from the ramp which had been used as a firing range, up to the village. We got our milk and eggs from Mossops farm and groceries and pear drops from the newsagent’s. How my mother managed I don’t know. There must have been a cooker but I think the clothes washing was done by hand. She used to throw potato peelings to the seagulls and I would watch them swoop excitedly and carry them off.

Then on Sunday we had to get to Egremont for mass. I think we went by taxi. One time we walked back to Nethertown and I remember my mother keeping us going by singing French songs of her youth from the one holiday she had had with her school at the age of 14 in her native Belgium.

In 1965 we got our first motor vehicle- a Volkswagon Camper Van. My father insisted he would only consider owning a vehicle in which he could make the all-important cup of tea (after all, stopping for a cup of tea had saved him from a V1 which dropped on his convoy during WW2). The camper van meant we could now drive around the area and visit the Lakes, take the train at Ravenglass and visit St. Bees Head.

My holidays got even better once my cousins’ parents ( The Melias) rented a modern bungalow up in the village. I think my mother envied its modern conveniences but for us children nothing could ever beat the special quirkiness of Plessington.

In the seventies and eighties, the high radiation levels on the beach caused by discharged water from the nuclear plant at Windscale (now called Sellafield) made it a less appealing place to visit. But I will never forget the comforting feeling of being lulled to sleep by the low roar of the sea after spending a day in the invigorating fresh air and almost constant bracing wind. It was all most exciting and magical.

Once my father purchased the stone-built cottage- Lower Brigg Hey Farm (Cragg Vale)- in 1970, visits to Nethertown became much less frequent and the last was in the mid seventies. Renovating the cottage took up the weekends and holidays and became a much-loved retreat for my parents, until my mother’s death in 1992.

Submitted by: Elaine O'Hanrahan (b.1957), youngest daughter of Henry.

Memories of sea-side holidays in Nethertown, Cumbria 1959-72

Above: Henry outside Plessington in 1963

Memories from an ex-student of Desmond Henry

I came across this (Henry’s web-site) by chance. I was a student of his at Manchester in the early - mid 70's. I hadn't realised that he was such a polymath. A very popular and well liked man. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him again after I graduated.

Submitted by: Des Browning

Parties, Hand Grenades and Philosophy

I remember you (Elaine O'Hanrahan) pouring me a drink at one of those parties ! (Henry threw regular parties for his students at his home in 4 Burford Drive, Manchester 16)

Your father also came and gave a talk on philosophy at a youth club that I was involved in at that time. Do you have the inert hand grenade that he used to keep on his desk at the university? I'm sorry to hear that he took early retirement under those circumstances. Still, he was clearly not a man to sit back and do nothing after that. I'll keep an eye on the site in the future.

Submitted by Des Browning, in 2011.

Power of the Search Engine

got up at 6.20am yesterday morning, and for some reason (maybe to with the fact that I had a 9.am lecture on Medieval Arguments for the Existence of God) thought about Desmond Paul Henry. He was the lecturer at Manchester University whose fine teaching, and 'cool' image finalized my decision to transfer from doing a Politics and Modern History degree, to doing Philosophy.

I assumed that he must be dead by now, and went online to see if there was an obituary, or anything.

What I found, astonished me. I\'d no idea he was so involved in computer art. The astonishment was compounded by the fact that I specialize in the philosophy of visual art, and in my last book, had a chapter on digital art. If I\'d known about his work, I would have included him in the chapter!

Desmond used to wear a leather jacket, had longish grey hair, often had a cigarette in his mouth, and spoke in the most wonderfully mellifluous tones.

Towards the end of my first term at Manchester in autumn 1971, I went to to his office to discuss the transfer. He said he was glad that they'd 'corrupted' me into choosing philosophy. But it turned out there was a problem about a logic course that majors in Philosophy had to do, so I ended up going back to my home city - Leeds to do a Philosophy and History of Art degree.

I subsequently did various higher degrees, and taught History of Art at the Universities of St. Andrews and Oxford, before eventually attaining my ambition to become a Professor of Philosophy. (I now hold the Chair at the National University of Ireland, Galway.)

It's clear to me, that Desmond was a pioneer of computer art at the world level, and not just the British one. The reason why he hasn't been more widely recognized is because his work was on a home made computer, rather than a commercially available model - which would have engaged a wider international audience.

But having now seen the quality of his work, I'll certainly be looking to write something about him in the next appropriate book I do.

Submitted by former student: Paul Crowther- Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland.