The Hartlepool man who still played the piano after an arm amputation

Two sweethearts who left Hartlepool – hoping for a better life in Australia – got our attention last week.

Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 10:00 am
Jonty and Mary with their three sons in their backyard at Port Kembla in the early 1930s.

Today, we continue the tale of Jonathan ‘Jonty’ Burnett and his bride Mary Ann Wilson Cole, with thanks to their descendant Megan Smiles for sharing it.

Jonty Burnett was first to head for foreign climes and set up a family home.

The West Hartlepool 4th Artillery Volunteers Band, which Jonty was a member of.

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But when Mary later arrived in Port Kembla, Australia in November 1913 after a lengthy journey from Hartlepool, she only had to wait three days for her wedding day at St Peter’s Church of England in Sydney.

Life was no easy task for the former Hartlepool couple. The First World War would start within a year.

Mary and Jonathan went on to have three boys, each five years apart. Megan told us: “I am the daughter of the youngest son, Clifford.

“Even in times of hardship they set fine examples for their children to follow, making the best of whatever situations they faced.”

Music was a big part of their life and Megan said: “My grandfather became involved in the Port Kembla Town Band and was presented with a conductor’s baton as first conductor in August 1913. Jonty used to also play the piano at the picture theatre for the silent movies to earn extra money.”

Musical evenings were a regular feature at the family home and Megan said: “Jonty could play almost anything that blows and piano and Mary played the cello. I have also found out via a newspaper article from West Hartlepool that they had a piano sent out to Port Kembla in 1915, the middle of the First World War.”

But what seemed a blissful existence was soon shattered. “Just over a year after my father was born, Jonty had an accident at work,” said Megan. “His left hand was caught in a fan and severely damaged. He had to have the hand amputated and spent time recovering.”

His caring workmates made attachments for him such as a rubber covered ‘finger’ for piano playing and a guide for the cue when he played billiards.

“After some practice on the piano he was able to play more notes with his right hand to make up for the shortage of base notes and people were amazed he could play so well,” said Megan.

Through all of this he kept his sense of humour and got on with life while Mary returned to primary school teaching after the accident and taught at Port Kembla Primary School for many years.

Megan, from Canberra, first contacted Memory Lane after spotting an article in the Mail from 2014.

It told of the West Hartlepool Old Operatic Band – also known as the 4th Durham Artillery, West Hartlepool 4th Durham Artillery, West Hartlepool Old Operatic Silver, and West Hartlepool Operatic Brass Band.

That same article was of great interest to Megan who told us: “Both my grandfather and great grandfather (both named Jonathan Burnett) played in this band and I have old photos of the band from around the 1900s.”