My name is Danny. I was born to Mary and John Wallace on the eighteenth of April 1852 and named Donald, Stewart. We were a working class family living in Liverpool, England. My brothers were John-Patrick (15) and Mark (9) and my sister Mary Victoria (5). We were a working class family; my parents being hard working and diligent. My father worked in the Merseyside docks; not two miles from home; building great steel and steam ships that were rapidly replacing canvass and wood.
My mother had a small laundry and sowing establishment and was constantly in demand with some of the upper class citizens; as well as a constant stream of sailors and working class people; that needed mending clothes or the sowing of new ones.
At 14 my brother John-Patrick started working with my father working for Mr. Donnington; who was a leading modern ship builder. Rumour had it that Mr. Donnington’s real name was once Dornier; German of origin; and that might be the reason for his uncanny ability with all things steel, steam and mechanical. At 43 he was a wealthy man. Besides ship building he had three ships carrying freight and passengers to and from the new world. His estate – ‘Willow Brook’ - was situated 7 miles out of Liverpool Bristol on the banks of the Mersey river ; where he took great delight breeding some of the finest horses in England.
At the age of three and a half my mother noticed for the first time that my legs seemed unusually spindly for an otherwise robust little boy. She assumed that I would fill out in time, but in a matter of weeks my usual spirited running around had diminished. I also started having spills more often than usual for a boy my age. She took me to the hospital where the doctor on duty examined me. With a frown on his face he told her to come back in two days. My mother and father were sufficiently alarmed that evening for my father to request leave from Mr. Donnington the next day to accompany us to hospital. Mr. Donnington didn’t hesitate because the father and son team never slouched off, were dependable and was never late.
We arrived at the hospital, were ushered into a small office and told to wait for the physician who would be there presently. Dr. Martin came in and sat opposite us at a clinically clean and uncluttered desk. He was not smiling. After the usual cordial greetings he decided to get right to the point. In these cases he tried to be as easy on the next of kin as possible but also to be absolutely honest. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Wallace’ I’m afraid the prognosis is not good news. It is very difficult for me to tell you this. Your son has polio in his lower limbs.......’ My mother interrupted him; she knew about polio but had no idea what the treatment was or whether it was curable. She said in a hardly audible shaky voice “Please Doctor, tell me, will my son ever be normal again?” “I’m sorry; we can arrest the disease but he will get worse before he gets better. We will eventually cure it but the damage is done.” He went on to describe the treatment and that I would have to wear special boots and steel braces to give the bone and muscle support to develop sufficiently to carry my weight.
We walked the three miles home in silence apart from my mothers’ quiet sobs. My father was not a man to display his emotions in public and all he could do is hold my Mother by the arm to support her. With the other hand he clung to my hand as if my fragile legs would collapse from under me at any moment. He didn’t dare speak for fear of breaking into tears and there was a lump in his throat which threatened to choke him.
John was not a drinking man, he was not opposed to a few pints now and then but generally he preferred to spend his evenings with his family. This night was different though; he went to the local and downed three pints in quick succession. As usual there were some mates from the ship yard. This behaviour was so foreign for John Wallace they immediately knew something was gravely wrong. They pressed him and to his utter dismay he broke down in tears and told them about Danny’s condition. His mates were embarrassed but to a man they patted him on the shoulder or shook his hand. A few even managed a: “If there is anything we can do ......”
The next morning, walking to work, men and women came to John and John –Patrick and shook their hands; in silence sometimes but mostly offering support. Within a week I was fitted with boots and braces. When my mother saw me like this she cried. I tried to run a few times but the concoctions on my legs made it impossible; however; I didn’t fall over any more.
Two days after I was fitted with the braces John was summoned to Donningtons office. He had a simple message: ‘I know about Danny. I want to help in any way I can. This is not an idle offer and I expect you to make use of it. Please share this message with your wife.’ Grown- ups pretend they don’t notice or are sympathetic. Kids are different though; on the first day wearing the boots and braces in the street the taunting started ’Steely, steely, steely!’or ‘Peg leg, peg leg, peg leg!’ Tears welled up in my eyes but I bit my lip and didn’t cry.
Within a few weeks something amazing happened. I was now known as “Steely” and I was quite happy about it; after all when I looked at the great steel ships and steam engines it was not a bad nick name at all!
It was now four and a half years later and I was on my fourth set of braces. Mark and I helped my mother in the laundry. Mark delivered and collected the heavier loads from the various inns in a two wheeled cart. My mother made me a carpet bag with shoulder straps so I could carry my load on my back, distributing the weight evenly on my legs. I delivered clothing all over the neighbourhood and also to two clothing shops in the city centre six miles away; which I visited once a week.
In my own neighbourhood I could hitch a ride on just about anything that had wheels. No coach driver or tram conductor would accept payment from me. In the city centre it was different and I did a lot of walking which; according to Dr. Martin; was good for me. He said the more exercise I had for my legs the better. I was now disease free and my legs were strengthening all the time. One rainy afternoon on my way to the shops I encountered three boys slightly older than myself. They started teasing me by walking ahead of me, dragging one leg. I did my best to ignore them so they changed tactics. One of the boys said to me: “Hey peg-leg, where are you going with that stupid bag on your back?” I still ignored them. The boy said: “Peg-leg, I’m talking to you; or are you deaf and dumb as well?” I couldn’t keep quiet any longer and replied: “I’m running an errant for my mother, just leave me alone. I’m not bothering you, so don’t bother me.” The one boy retorted : ”Oh, so you are not just a peg leg but a mommy’s boy as well. ” The three boys surrounded me as I walked and I couldn’t keep an eye on all of them. Suddenly the boy behind me shoved me hard and I pitched forward breaking my fall with my arms. I immediately rolled over to face my protagonists. All three grabbed me whilst I still lay on the pavement, shoved me into the gutter, and ran away.
I dragged myself to my feet; water and grime dripping from me; the humiliation and anger burning like a hot coal in my belly. Those three faces were lodged in my mind and I swore to get even. I took my soggy and dirty backpack off and checked the contents. The clothing was soaked and crumpled. I had no choice but to head for the laundry. Through the tears and sobbing, I related the events of the afternoon to my mother.
When my Father and Patrick arrived home my mother told them what had happened. My father was visibly upset and in a turmoil of emotions. He felt deeply sorry for me. Anger, frustration and a feeling of helplessness welled up inside him. He gathered me in his arms and held me for a long time. That night it was very quiet in the Wallace home. My mother and father went to bed racking their brains as to what can be done for me and what kind of future lay ahead of me. Kneeling side by side, holding hands, they prayed to God for guidance.
In the morning my father told me he had woken up with a resolve to seek an audience with Mr. Donnington. That he had no idea what his employer could do for me, he only remembered that Mr. Donnington was adamant that he wanted to help. On his return home he related his audience with Mr. Donnington. He said he listened intently and after asking a few questions said he wanted to think about it and that my father must come back the following morning.
The following day Mr. Donnington outlined his plan thus: “John, I discussed Dannys’ plight in depth with my wife last night. It is obvious that Danny’s future is not to be found as a dock worker or ship builder. We must set about finding out where the boys’ talents lie. I suggest he come and work for me at the offices as a messenger and errand boy. In that way he will learn and at the same time earn a wage. I will expose him to industry and commerce. Along the way he will learn arithmetic, geography, engineering and commerce. We’ll do this for a while and see how it goes. I will also let the men at the tool and engine shop have a look at his braces and see if we can’t come up with a better design to improve his mobility. To do his errands in town I will provide him with a horse. I further want to suggest he learns the finer arts of boxing so at least he has a chance to defend himself against such bullies as he encountered. What do you think?” This left my father momentarily speechless. Such an opportunity was only to be dreamed about. He managed to stammer “Thank you Mr.Donnington. I don’t know what to say. I think it is an excellent plan.” Mr. Donnington asked if Danny could ride. On my fathers’ negative reply he said: “Bring Danny to my office on Monday morning. He can come home with me. We will fix up accommodation for him in the stables and the men will teach him to ride. For the next few weeks he can spend Mondays at the office, Tuesday through to Thursday at the stables; Fridays at the office; from where he can go home with you for the weekend.”
The plan was set in motion. A world that I couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams unfolded for me. The tool room men had manufactured two sets of new braces out of spring steel giving me more flexibility and agility. The straps were replaced with steel ratchets and my mother lined the clasps with thick felt and sheep skin. The end result was that the braces didn’t chafe as before. These were fitted to two new pairs of boots of far superior quality and more comfortable than I had before. Willow Brook; Mr. Donnington’s farm; was like a palace and wonderland to me; the green countryside, the big Victorian house, the manicured gardens and the magnificent horses. It was almost immediately apparent that I had an unusual affinity with the horses. I learnt to groom, feed and take care of them in no time at all. Each night before I went to bed I went to each horse in the stable. I spoke to them, scratched their ears, stroked and patted them. By the fourth day; almost without exception; at the sound of my voice and footsteps the horses readily came to their stall doors to wait for me.
The first problem for me to overcome was how I would get into the saddle. One of the smallest horses was selected for me and after much deliberation two hand grips were fitted to the left lower part of the saddle. After some practice and a few spills I was able to combine a jump and pulling on the two hand grips to heave myself up landing on the saddle on my belly. I then swung my right leg over and came to a sitting position finding the stirrups.
By the second Thursday I proudly and confidently announced to my father I was now a competent rider. Mr. Donnington and my father decided to let me do another week at the estate to cement my riding abilities. Early on the Wednesday morning; Malcolm; the horse trainer; put my saddle on one of the bigger racing horses. He said to Danny: ”Mr. Donnington would kill me if he knew about this, but I have a feeling about you and I want to see what you can do on the track. I want you to take a flying start and get round the track as fast as you can.” He helped me into the saddle and offered me a riding crop which I declined. By now all the stable hands knew what was about to happen and they all moved down to the track. I was very excited and touched by a tinge of fear. About two hundred yards from the men, I signalled that I was ready. I let the stallion rip at full gallop. When I passed the men the trainer pressed his stop watch. I revelled in the powerful strides of the horse and the chilly morning wind in my face. I was talking to the stallion all the time, coaxing him to his absolute best efforts. When we reached the halfway mark the men realised I was going to post a very good time indeed! They could see me on the opposite side of the track and were spellbound with the ease and grace with which I, the small boy and the horse raced on in unison. Four hundred yards from them one of the men in his excitement started chanting: “Steely Dan! Steely Dan! Steely Dan!” They all joined in and watched Danny streak past them. The trainer looked at his stop watch with glee. The boy; at his very first attempt to race against the clock; was only a second and a half behind the best time the stallion had ever posted! He resolved then and there that one day he would give me the opportunity to ride in a proper race.
I was elated. I knew I had discovered something wondrous. Something mixed with pride, power and sheer joy. I had found my legs. I had discovered something I could do as well as anybody else and probably better than most. At the age of nine I knew instinctively that my future would be inextricably linked to horses.
Mr. Donnington heard about the little track escapade three weeks later. He feigned anger but was secretly pleased. He had discovered one of Danny’s talents. For the next four years I worked at ‘Donnington Shipbuilders’ and ‘Donnington Lines’ offices as an errand runner. My mare Nellie was stabled nearby. Her main function was two pronged. Firstly to deliver schedules, drawings and instructions to the various foremen at the dry docks, blacksmith, tool room and machine shop and to bring back their reports and requisitions. Secondly to deliver orders to various establishments in and around Bristol; and to collect smaller items like stationery, hand tools, fasteners and fittings. During this time I established who the three boys where that worked me over, where they stayed and roughly what their daily routines were. My writing, reading and arithmetic improved rapidly. Soon I was able to read the drawings and watched as the drawings turninto reality in the dry docks. In the process I now knew a great deal about ships from stem to stern, upper deck to engine room. I learnt about ‘pounds per square inch’ and ‘horse power’. How steam power from the boilers turned the mighty engines; even how the engines worked. I learnt about the trade routes; where silk, cotton, tea, tobacco, rice, spices, iron ore, gold, diamonds and precious stones came from.
With the aid of a globe of the earth in one of the offices I learnt that there are seven continents, where the great cities and ports were, about longitude and latitude; that the ships navigated the vast oceans with the aid of a compass and sextant. For the first time I heard about South Africa and that the Dutch East India company had established a supply facility in 1652. They supplied the ships coming round Cape horn on their way to India, with fresh provisions. The colony was under British rule but the settlers had pushed ever northward and there were now two ‘Boer’ republics: Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The more I heard about the vast open country; teeming with game and the sub tropical weather; the more intrigued I became.
In my twelfth year my legs had strengthened sufficiently that Dr. Martin announced there was no need for the braces any more. Soon after I enrolled at a gymnasium. Over the next two years my legs strengthened and my chest and shoulders filled out as I learnt all the skills of a boxer. On my errands in town I started looking out for the three boys who had accosted me almost three years ago. I soon spotted one of them walking along the pavement and rode Nellie slightly ahead. Dismounting from the horse I walked purposefully toward the other boy and drawing next to him, I gave him a solid thump with my shoulder. He was at least a head taller than I. He staggered backwards. Completely off balance and arms flailing to keep on his feet he had absolutely no defence against my upper cut to the chin. I put all the strength of my right shoulder into the blow and he was felled like an ox. Somewhat to my surprise he lay where he fell; it was a knockout punch. As the minutes ticked by and a crowd gathered I became concerned. I acquired a bucket of water from one of the shops and unceremoniously splashed it in his face. Spluttering and gagging he sat up and looked me in the face. All he could manage was: “You!” I replied: “Yes me. Peg leg. In future be mindful to refer to me as ‘Steely Dan’ or Mr. Wallace; if you don’t you’ll get more of the same.” Without further ado I swung into the saddle and went on my way; I could feel the eyes of the small crowd boring into my back. I had exacted retribution from one of the boys that accosted me years ago. Feeling more remorse than satisfaction there was no point in pursuing the other two. I now walked with an almost imperceptible limp. Without the braces and the strength developed in my legs I could swing into the saddle normally without the aid of the hand grips. I decided I wanted to learn horse jumping and arranged with Mr. Donnington to visit Willow Brook over a few weekends to learn to do this.
On my arrival I found a young pitch black stallion in the stables called ‘Trojan’. He was tall with superb lines. The horse was knee haltered. Malcolm told me Trojan was so spirited that if they didn’t knee halter him it was difficult to get near him or get a saddle on his back. Malcolm said: “If we could tame him sufficiently I think he has the makings of a truly great race horse, but so far we haven’t been able to train him properly because he seems to have a will of his own.”
I was confident that given sufficient and uninterrupted time with Trojan I could win him over. Malcolm and I went to consult Mr. Donnington. He agreed to give me three weeks off my normal duties to work with Trojan. On our departure Mr. Donnington said: “ Danny, how’re you going to do this?” I replied “I don’t really know Mr. Donnington, but Trojan and I will work it out.” With a puzzled expression on his face Mr. Donnington let it go at that.
I moved Trojan into the stall right next to my quarters. As before, I spent time with all the horses talking, scratching, rubbing and grooming them. By the third day all the horses; including Trojan; came to their stall doors as they heard me approach. I spent more and more time with Trojan every day; allowing the horse to get used to my presence, my smell, my voice and my touch. I rode Trojan for his early morning exercise with the other horses. He was skittish, stubborn to obey the reins, and bucked on a number of occasions. By the fifth morning things were showing improvement and I knew that Trojan was beginning to trust me.
That evening I spent a long time in Trojans stall. I decided to leave the knee halter off. In the morning I took my time with Trojan. I saddled him talking to him and stroking him all the time. He didn’t rear once although he flared his nostrils, snorted a few times, and was quivering a little by the time I rode him out of the stable. On impulse; instead of going to the track; I took Trojan out on the country roads. I walked him for a while and then spurred him into a gallop. Instinctively I gave Trojan the reins and let him run at his own pace. It was as if Trojan gained confidence and relaxed with every stride. He loved to run! The furlongs sped by and after about twenty minutes Trojan slowed down to a canter and finally a brisk walk. I let him regain his breath and turned around. We went to the gallop again. Gently I coaxed Trojan to as fast as he could go. The horse responded instantly to spurs, bridle and rider. I had found the secret. Let Trojan have his head for a while and he would co-operate wonderfully!
The next day saddling was a piece of cake. I took Trojan out on the country lanes for a run and then joined the other horses for training on the track. Malcolm was astonished at the change in Trojan. He realised that Donald Stuart Wallace had the makings of a horse whisperer.
Over the next few days I ‘introduced’ one of the stable hands to Trojan, relinquishing more of the training to him every day. Within a week, with the exception of his early morning run on the country lanes, Trojan was routinely training with the other horses.
Malcolm trained Nellie and I to jump over the next few days. Mission accomplished I was ready to go back to the city. On the last day at Willow Brook I asked Malcolm if I could try Trojan at the jumps. We were both impressed with the ease, strength and grace Trojan cleared the jumps with room to spare.