Colin Pillinger – The ‘rock fan’ who set his sights on Mars

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Colin Pillinger and DP Lindegaard
Colin and Doreen Pillinger

Me with my little brother Colin in around 1950.

9 May 1943, something was up, my cousin Joyce Comley arrived “to mind me”. She was sixteen and very grand. Children then were supposed to be “seen and not heard” which didn’t suit me at all. We departed with sandwiches and a bottle of water, (not even Tizer!) I was told to “be a good girl and play nicely.”  Kingswood Park was a drag for my little legs, so was the day itself. “Pleeeease, Joycie, can we go home?” I wheedled as she swung lazily back and forth, always answering “When I say so.” Hours passed. Even when she called time, getting home took ages, every crack in every pavement had to be counted. I burst into the downstairs front room of 33 Victoria Park, Kingswood where Mum was sitting up in bed, smiling. In front of the window, in a cot, a small red item protested mightily, waving its tiny arms about. “It’s your new little brother”, someone said. “Why don’t you give him a kiss?” Pretending indifference, I said “I wanted a sister,” but planted the kiss on his forehead. As a reward they let me choose the baby’s name. I picked ‘Colin’, after a pretty boy in my class at Two Mile Hill infants. [Seventy years later I encountered the same ‘boy’ again, in a queue at the Eye Hospital. I took his photo; he didn’t remember me; he hadn’t heard of Beagle 2, though the neighbour who had brought him jumped up and down with glee!]

“Where did Colin get it from?” People asked. Our parents, Jack and Flo, poor, working class, were yin and yang. Dad, ingenious, volatile, with Micawberish optimism; Mum, quiet, a calm oasis, pragmatic, fatalistic. Dad waited for his ship to come home, Mum believed “What will be, will be.” She passed the scholarship, but family poverty drove her into factory work at thirteen. Dad left school at the same age. He worked on Bristol’s roads, laying mains for the Gas Company. He educated himself top to bottom via newspapers, the Times, Mirror, the Racing Post even the Young Soldier. As teenagers we would argue with him over his more outlandish views. “Thee dost think thee dost know everything!” he was very “Kangs’ood” when rattled, whilst Mum patiently knitted and did the crosswords.  She loved to read aloud to Colin and me, and Dad too. Tales about boarding school children with whom we had nothing in common; “Annuals”, “Look & Learn” and naturally, comics. She would also test our spellings and meanings of words from the Dictionary.

8 May 1945 was V.E. Day, but our street party happened the next day, Colin’s second birthday. In his green rompers, knitted in war-economy Sylko, he stood on a heaving trestle table while the multitude, mostly women and old men, sang “Happy birthday”. Colin took the applause like the trouper he became, his first taste of fame.

One day the next year, Mum knelt on the ground, to clear out ‘the medicine cupboard’, a must in every household, when she experienced pain so excruciating, she couldn’t get up. She told Colin to “run across the road for Elsie”, a neighbour. The front door latch was almost twice his height, but undaunted, he dragged a small stool through the passage, stood on it and managed to pull back the latch. Elsie, duly fetched, mobilised the street, someone ran for Dr Duerden at Bell Hill and Mum was operated on for acute peritonitis, her life saved by new-fangled penicillin and her three-year-old son.

Not that Colin was a paragon. When he escaped my pushing him about in a doll’s pram, or dressing him up as a fairy, he got into so many minor scrapes that the nurses at Cossham Hospital vowed to issue him with a season ticket. (He said later he’d got his money’s worth from Handel Cossham, the mineowner, in whose pits many of our blood toiled.) But then came a more serious accident. Some youths were on The Patch, the waste ground, where we played, messing with chemicals nicked from their workplace. They ran off when challenged, but Colin, always curious, went to investigate. The explosive blew up in his face and he needed extensive plastic surgery. The scars remained forever, one so near his eye, he was lucky not to have been blinded.

When Colin died suddenly a know-all on TV news said it was “An early rocket experiment gone wrong!” I was furious but Colin might well have said “Print the legend.”

1953, a Watershed: “Journey into Space” made its debut on the wireless. Everybody listened to the exploits of Jet, Doc, Mitch and Lemmy, first on the Moon then Mars. A small seed was sown in a boy’s mind.

Colin Pillinger Bristol Post articleColin started at Kingswood Grammar School in 1954, where he regularly carried off the Maths Prize, foreign territory to me. Our friend, Harold Baldwin, called him “The Professor”, but he was far from a swot. He was a rock music fan and was always the centre of a posse of mates, whom Mum entertained with chips, for which she was famous. KGS was ‘a rugby school’ but Colin loved the round ball. He and his best friend Ed White were offered prestigious scholarships at a Bristol school, but shock horror!  Saturday lessons! Miss football? Not likely. Both turned down the opportunity.

Colin was set to leave school at sixteen when our parents were summoned to meet an “angel unawares”. A teacher, Mr Hocking, convinced them to let Colin “stay on” into the sixth form and then university. The concept was as mysterious to them, as to other sages of Victoria Park, who knew their place. “Gurt big lad like that, oughtta be out earnin’, Jack, pay thee back”, they would go off muttering.

The rest is history. After Swansea University Colin came back to Bristol where he worked on the precious Apollo “Moon Rocks” and then came Beagle 2 which launched 20 years ago this year, a small hitchhiker aboard the ESA rocket. It was due to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.

While we cried on the sofa at home, Colin, on TV, the eyes of the country on him, kept his cool. “It’s a little bit disappointing,” he said.  Ridicule followed which he shrugged off equally bravely.

If only the bittersweet aftermath had come sooner, there may have been some comfort. Colin died on 7 May 2014 unaware Beagle landed safely, and only a slight glitch, one of the flaps failing to open, prevented its call home.

As I remember him, I can never forget I was with him the day of his birth and the day he died.


This article was first published in the Bristol Post on 30 May 2023.

Find out more about the Pillinger Family in From Little Acorns Great Oaks Grow: The Pillinger Family of Kingswood


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