Some of the Facinating Memoirs Produced by Caroline
I had never heard of anyone having their life story written and printed in a book except celebrities. I still cannot believe that my memoirs have been written in this way. I would certainly recommend anyone to do this.
Jimmy was born in Edinburgh in 1938, the oldest of nine children. He tells hilarious tales of a happy childhood despite the family’s struggle to make ends meet. Growing up to become a butcher, Jimmy kept greyhounds and entered an exciting world of unregulated dog racing called flapping.
Marie was also born in Edinburgh in 1938 which has been her home ever since. But some of her family have gone far and wide, creating connections from Scotland across the oceans to Canada, America and Australia. With the help of her brother Felix, Marie tells both her own story and the tales of those who made their lives across the seas.
These two books were commissioned by Jacqui Glasgow. Marie and Jimmy are her parents. Jacqui says:
It was a real pleasure meeting Caroline. She engaged with my parents sensitively and with good humour to elicit the stories of their lives. She made them feel at ease and they felt the process was extremely relaxed and enjoyable, bringing back stories which were almost forgotten. I am so happy with the memoirs and delighted how Caroline has captured the essence of my mum and dad’s lives. These are priceless little gems full of fantastic stories which can be enjoyed by future generations of our family. Thank you Caroline for your patience and for doing such a wonderful job creating these beautiful books of treasured memories.
Like many people, Jimmy didn’t think his story was anything special. He told me, “I didna think I’d done anything because I just done it but everything’s coming back to me now. Reading it made me laugh but it put a lump in my throat too.”
He certainly made me laugh but I’m glad he can now see what a fantastic story it is. It’s particularly wonderful for his grandchildren to understand the world Jimmy grew up in, especially those who now live abroad. One of the best things people say about my books is, “That sounds just like him talking” so the story followed Jimmy’s rhythm which added to the humour.
I went by train from North Yorkshire to Edinburgh where Jacqui booked me into a local B&B and I carried out the interviews over two days, returning later to do the same for Jimmy’s wife Marie. All follow-up work was done by post, email and telephone. This worked very well.
Marie’s book is slightly different, bringing in family tales of previous generations who went across the seas to find a new life. Marie’s older brother Felix joined us to fill in details of the years before Marie was born. I made sure we didn’t repeat what was already in Jimmy’s book.
Like many people of their generation, Marie and Jimmy had few pictures of their childhood. Jimmy’s only one was badly damaged and I spent some time on Photoshop fixing it as best I could. However, I never make these pictures perfect because that takes away some of their character and their history.
It’s good to add another book about a woman because there aren’t enough of them on my shelf. Ladies, do you think you don’t have a story worth telling? I bet you do!
I grew up on a five-storey stair in Tennant Street, Leith. That’s five floors with a flat each side of the stairs. It’s not there any more, it’s been knocked down.
I don’t want to criticise my Dad because he worked hard but his older brothers were right rough and ready and liked a drink and that was what my Dad learned. They didna hand over all their wages to their wives and neither did my Dad. When all us children came along he didna change.
When he came in with the money my Mum used to say to him, “Just keep it and you keep the kids! It’s not enough!”
Nearly all the men were like that then. I seen it when I got older and tried to help her. I thought, I’m never going to be like that. When Dad was away in the war we got money from the Army but it still wasn’t really enough.
There was no room to do washing in the flat so once a week my Mum piled our things in a pram and I had to help push it to the washhouse up in another street. Sometimes she kept me off school to help with the washing. Women would be scrubbing away in clouds of steam. The things they said! I was just a wee lad, folding up the clothes.
“He never got it last night! Think he was gonna get summit if he gave me any money!”
They were swearing, really giving it big words!
“The old bugger come in but I had a splitting headache and was glad of it!”
I didna know what they were saying at the time. My Mum didna say too much because I was there.
We were always on the lookout for moneymaking schemes. Every Sunday men used to sit on the landings of our stairs gambling with cards. Every stair was full of them. There were all kinds of people, some who’d run away from the Army or the Navy. Gambling was illegal so my brother Andrew and me worked as shotties - lookouts. Andrew would be at the back entrance, me at the front.
Every time they changed over to another man dealing the cards they’d throw us two or three pennies. We done well! If we spotted the police coming we shouted, they’d all scramble away and by the time the police came in they’d gone. I gave my mother all the money and she was glad of it and passed a few pennies back to us.
The gamblers used to love drinking sour dook, which was buttermilk. My mother knew all about it from making butter up in Shetland. Sometimes she still made her own butter, shaking up cream in an old jam jar. A woman used to come on Saturdays and Sundays with a big can of it and up would go the cry from the men on the stairs, “Jimmy, get me a pint of sour dook!” I didna like it but the gamblers couldn’t get enough. Another woman used to come round from Newhaven at weekends with a basket of mussels and buckies and they sent us to fetch those for them.
One day I was sitting watching for the police when four or five taxis came down the street, one pulling up at every stair. You didna see taxis in our kind of street very often. Women and men climbed out but they were in ordinary clothes so we didna bother. Then they pulled off those clothes and were in police uniforms! They rushed into every stair and people were jumping off the landings to get away but a lot got caught. The inspector then was called Merrleas and he’d been trying to catch them for years. Me and Andrew just took off as fast as we could and hid.
Our parents were Marie and Felix Prior and we were named after them. It wasn’t as confusing at home as you might think because our mother got called Maria and Marya a lot and you knew by the tone of her voice exactly which Felix she was talking to! We also had an older brother called Frank.
Both our Mum and Dad belonged Edinburgh. Our father was born in 1901 and had two brothers and two sisters - Frank, Robert who was killed in World War I, Maggie and Mary, who we always called May. Times were hard then if you didna have much money. Our Dad’s family were very poor and he ended up with badly rickety legs.
At that time rickets was rife among children in poor districts, caused by a lack of good food and sunshine, which stopped bones forming properly.
Felix’s oldest son has traced back to where our family came over from Ireland and on one of the birth certificates the father’s job is given as a fish seller. That man must have been illiterate because he has signed his name with a cross. For a later birth his job was given as cattle dealer, so he was coming up in the world but there was still the same cross again on the certificate.
Our mother was born in 1902. Her name was Marie Philp and she had four sisters and a brother, Mary, Nell, Kate, Annie and Tom.
She and our Dad never said much about their early lives, which is a shame. Our Mum’s mother did a lot of waitressing up at the zoo when there was a function on and I think our Mum and her sister Annie helped out.
There are a few funny stories which have come down through the generations. When our mother was a teenager her family all went to a place just out of the town, Dalmahoy, for a holiday in a farm cottage.
Our mother’s sister brought her pal and the two of them were sent to fetch milk from a farmhouse about half a mile away. They thumbed a lift and this car picked them up and took them away past where they wanted to go. Then the driver stopped and said, “Now you can get out and let that be a lesson to you never to get a lift with someone you don’t know!”
They had all that distance to walk back and our Granny says, “Where the hell have you two been?”
They told her and she leathered the two of them. The pal got it as well. Every time she gave them a whack she said to the pal, “Your mother will be thankful for what I’ve given you today!”
At the end of the holiday the sisters all got together and put horseshoes in their auntie’s suitcase after she’d packed it. They had a long walk and the auntie kept complaining about how heavy the case was! A fish van came along and gave them a lift. There were lots of them this time so that was allowed! There was only one boy in the group and he was the youngest so they stuffed fish down his shirt then ate them when they got home.
This is the story of a family business, Brightside Foundry of Sheffield founded in 1864 by my great grandfather Ambrose Firth. He was one of the old school of Sheffield manufacturers who by hard work and practical skill laid the foundations of a profitable business in iron and steel heavy engineering. The words family and business are just as important as each other in this story. However, it was not only my family who were important but the many other families whose men worked for the company. Like so many businesses, their dedication was not enough. Gradually the family lost their majority control, as too often happened, and Brightside was sold at the end of the 1960s to a company which then went bust. It was just over a century from start up to wipe out.
My very sincere thanks to you for your clarity of thought, sorting the confusion and leading the way to the printers. It has been a joy for me to collaborate with you in this effort! Congratulations to you for your encouragement and keeping the momentum going! Just what was required.
Like many people who set out to write a book, Anthony had a wonderful time researching it over many years but found the writing very difficult. I think he was pretty fed up when he came to me and so was Mrs Firth, if I’m not much mistaken.
He had a marvellous collection of information, piles and piles of it in fact, and it was very satisfying to take the burden off Anthony and turn it into a readable story. First I worked out who all the characters were. Different generations often had the same name so I made sure each had a clear identity. The story of any business is always a story about people.
So close was Anthony to his subject that one of the first things I said to him was, “You haven’t explained what it was that Brightside actually made!” Without blinding everyone with science, I picked out the most important elements.
As a writer you also have to “kill your darlings”. This means cutting material which you love and might bit quite good but doesn’t actually fit in to the story you’re telling. So there was a bit of pruning though no butchering.
This is a great story of a British business and the people behind it. A copy has gone to the Sheffield Archives where it adds an important chapter to the story of the city’s steel industry.
Family folklore reports that the nineteen-year-old Ambrose Firth (Antony’s great grandfather) started in business on his own in 1864 with a hundred pounds. The Brightside Foundry was founded in Bright Street on Brightside Lane in the Attercliffe district.
A century later the firm was looking back at these early years and Ambrose’s venture was described in the company literature as a jobbing foundry “specialising in ingot moulds and maintenance iron castings”. For the lay person, an ingot is a lump of metal formed in a mould by pouring liquid metal at temperatures in excess of 1,000°C. The shape of the ingot mould would be formed in the pattern shop in wood to give precise dimensions for one-off moulds, depending on what kind of product it was destined to become.
At the time there were many slum houses in the area. There was no separation of industry from residential streets and new businesses often simply took over a house or a group of houses and worked from there.
George Grant, who joined the Brightside Foundry aged 14, was a great source of information for this book because he could recall the stories of the early days handed down from his grandfather and father. All three generations worked for Brightside. George recounts a story told by the workers about the dangerous, dirty and smoky streets where Ambrose began his business in those completely unregulated days. The tale was that cupolas full of molten metal were poured from the upstairs window of what could have been little more than a hovel.
It was comparatively easy to start-up in foundry work as ladles or “pots” of molten iron were for sale from the larger iron smelters on a casual or daily basis. How they were transported by horse and cart is hard to imagine.
The steel business of Sheffield in 1864 was dominated by the “Big Four” - Firth’s (the other Firths!) Brown’s, Cammell’s and Vicker’s, often selling pots of molten steel to smaller businesses. The big four handled the heavy work, then there were the specialist companies with much smaller niche markets.
In 1869 Ambrose, aged 23, married Sarah Milner who had been born on 9th April 1849 and was then aged 20. Sarah’s father Manwaring was by then a property landlord along Gilbert Street as well as having his business in table knife manufacture and being a cutlery dealer. He appears to have been a rough tough man. According to Elvia Jones, Ambrose’s granddaughter, Ambrose married Sarah “to rescue her from her stern and savage father”. Sarah had a brother Thomas who apparently was not much nicer than his father.
Phil Lovell was born in Sheffield in 1929, surviving so many brushes with death that he earned the nick-name Lucky Lovell. These included his house being bombed in the war, a train crash and two crash landings while in the RAF. Then there was the morning when, on a trip along the River Nile, he woke up to find a crocodile snoozing next to him.
He tells a fascinating story of Sheffield life of the 1930s and 1940s, then many entertaining tales of his posting to Africa with the RAF. Later Phil worked for the city housing department where his maverick way of solving problems led to more adventures
For many years I struggled to find the time to write my life story. I started to gather information and wrote copious notes but never got on with the writing bit. One day my daughter told me about Caroline Brannigan. From then on the task was made easy with her pleasant manner and the way she patiently and gently gathered information with an efficiency gained from her many years of writing and interviewing. The job was turned from a nagging worry into a very pleasant experience which I really enjoyed. I am extremely pleased with the result because she made it into my book. It sounds as if I had written it myself.
Caroline says, This was one of several books wrapped up by clients and placed under the tree for their family and friends at Christmas. It’s the highly entertaining story of an ordinary boy growing up in Sheffield in the 1930s and 1940s. Phil’s adult life is also the story of his wife Betty, who died not long ago, and it has been great for their son and daughter to read about her young adventures too. They had no idea their mum went on the back of Phil’s motorbike, let alone about the times they fell off!
The book also contains Phil’s memories of his mother, who was a dancer, and his father, a stage manager, and their wandering lives before settling in Sheffield.
Phil’s life story contains many funny moments but it wasn’t all a laugh. After their home was bombed in the Sheffield Blitz Phil and his mother and young sisters walked past the smoking remains of Walsh’s department store where they had shopped the day before. They trudged on for ten miles to find safety with relations in the countryside. I sourced a photo of the burned out store for the cover. Inside Walsh’s was a beautifully stitched tapestry belonging to the mother of another client who had taken it to be fitted to a footstool. It was destroyed. Such are the lives of ordinary people intertwined.
Before we could afford a car, Betty and I were enthusiastic motorcyclists. I’d bought my first motorbike when I was 20, an ex-army Ariel 350cc still camouflaged, which I painted. It was a great bike and the beauty of motorcycles in those days was being able to take them apart yourself and put them back together again. Betty rode on the pillion, which had no springs. We went all over the place, Blackpool, Liverpool, Southport, Bridlington, Scarborough and Cleethorpes as well as lots of runs closer to home.
We didn’t mind what the weather was like. Clothing was in short supply so most motorcyclists wore ex-RAF kit which you could buy in military surplus shops. Betty and I had flying suits and my goggles were Mark 8s used by Spitfire pilots. Hardly anyone wore helmets and instead we had woolly hats.
A farmer who knew me asked if I could collect some chicks for him. That was a way for me to make a bit of extra money.
“I’ve only got a motorbike,” I pointed out.
“You’ll get them on the bike,” he assured me.
Off I went 30 miles to a farm and collected a pile of boxes about three feet high, full of at least a hundred tiny fluffy yellow chicks, which I had to strap across the top of the panniers. Then off we all went back to Buxton.
After our wedding I changed the bike for a brand new Norton Dominator, a beautiful model with rear suspension and telescopic forks at the front, unlike the Ariel. I made the panniers for it - you couldn’t buy that sort of thing then. People today can’t imagine what it was like after the war with so many things either in short supply, very expensive or impossible to get.
Living in RAF married quarters, Buxton was a costly place to shop for food so we’d go off on the bike to Sheffield to visit our families and stock up on food from the market. The panniers were stuffed full and Betty had a wooden-framed Bergen rucksack on her back full of tins, the weight resting on the panniers.
One winter’s night we were riding home in the dark along the notorious Thirteen Bends between Baslow and Bakewell. I’d always told Betty that if I got into trouble she should jump off.
“I could never jump off!” she said.
“You must do.”
That night we hit black ice, skidded and I knew I couldn’t hold it.
“Jump!” I shouted.
And Betty jumped.
Then I deliberately laid the bike down, that’s better than hitting something. I lay on the road with my leg trapped underneath but the crash bar I’d added stopped any serious injury. I managed to get up then had to make a choice.
“Shall I go for my bike or shall I go for Betty?”
Betty won. I went back and found her sat in the road unable to get up because the heavy rucksack was still strapped to her back. She wasn’t very happy and was beating her fists on the ground. It wasn’t me she was angry with, just the accident.
I helped her up, we got back on the bike and carried on home. We were both bruised and my knee had to be strapped up for a few days but otherwise we were all right.
She loved her job at the Liverpool Victoria and was very good at it but they didn’t employ married women so sacked her when she became Mrs Lovell. People can’t believe it today. She got a job in the tax office in Buxton then had a call from the Liverpool Victoria begging her to come back.
At seven o’clock each morning I used to take her on the bike 12 miles to Bakewell to get a bus early enough to reach Sheffield on time. One day Betty had just sat down on the pillion when one of her friends leant out of a window nearby and they started chatting. I was sat there with my hand on the throttle, anxious to get going.
At last the window shut and I set off, not realising that Betty had stood up to adjust her coat under her, and she somersaulted straight off the back. It was a quarter of a mile before I realised because you can’t feel a good pillion rider, which Betty was. I put my hand behind me and thought, “She’s not there!”
I went back and she wasn’t very happy about it, but hadn’t hurt herself.
Betty and I had some great motorcycle holidays both before and after we were married, loading up our camping gear and heading for Combe Martin in Devon and Land’s End before it was blocked off. There were no motorways and Buxton to Combe Martin took 14 hours, setting off at 2am. Every time we got behind a hay wagon we just couldn’t get past!
A girl who worked in the Naafi in Buxton begged to borrow my bike one day because her father was in hospital in Blackpool.
“I’ve got to get there fast because he’s not got long to live,” she told me.
It was a big bike and she was less than five feet tall and I agreed reluctantly. When she set off she couldn’t put her foot to the floor.
“Whatever have I done?” I thought as she roared away.
I was on tenterhooks until she came back the next day, having managed to be with her father when he died. Then she told me that all through the war she’d been a motorcycle despatch rider! So I needn’t have worried.
Once when I was in Sheffield Betty’s mother asked me to give her a lift to a friend in Totley. Out we went to the bike where she perched herself on the pillion side saddle.
“You can’t ride like that!” I said.
“I always rode like that with Tom,” she told me. That was her husband and in the 1920s!
“Go on then,” I said and took her all the way to Totley and back and couldn’t even feel that she was there. She was a perfect pillion passenger.
A Kindle edition of Gama’s Journey is available through Amazon
When Abdul Qadeer Khan was born in Nagpur, India, he was rather small so his parents gave him the nickname Gama after a famous wrestler, he assumes to provide inspiration. It must have worked because their son thrived and went on to become an MSc in chemistry. After establishing a successful career in India he and his wife Farhana came to Britain where Gama became a respected authority on pollution control, his work culminating in the award of an OBE.
Caroline is a real professional. She had four meetings with me and by asking the relevant questions helped me to tell my story. Based on these meetings she was able to write my book, Gama’s Journey. We were very impressed with her friendly and polite methods. After a couple of meetings she became our friend. I would recommend her to anybody who wants to have their life story written.
Caroline says, I was very pleased when Qadeer’s son approached me to commission a book to mark his father’s 80th birthday. For a long time I’d hoped to write the story of someone who began their life in India because these stories are often remarkable but not recorded enough.
Qadeer had already written some of his story but his family felt that it was a little too much like a professional report. Naturally, as a scientist, this was Qadeer’s style. They wanted more about his childhood and personal experiences.
I made sure I understood what Qadeer’s work in pollution control had involved and wrote it in a way easily understood by a lay person without trivializing it. I also brought out more of his sense of humour and used many comments made by his wife Farhana which added another dimension to the story.
Working with the Khan family was delightful and I’m proud to think of this book going out to be read in India.
It was very hot in the build up to the monsoon so when the rains came it was a relief. All the boys and girls would go out to get wet. It was such a nice feeling. Once the monsoon arrived it would rain very heavily for seven to ten days continually but it was still very warm. Then there would be a few dry days before another week or so of rain. There was a lot of mud everywhere.
Invariably, the monsoon would arrive in my home town on June 7th. Ten days before that it arrived in Kerala and Goa. The monsoon continued until September when the rain became less intense before ending in October.
Our front garden was full of roses and marigolds and at the side was an allotment for vegetables. Our home was in a jungle area where many fruit trees grew. When I wasn’t at school I would be either swimming in the lake by our house or picking fruit, eating it straightaway under the tree - dates, mango, guava, mulberries and other fruits which I have never seen in Britain.
The jungle came close to the house with a lot of snakes. The Nag in the name Nagpur means cobra so we lived in Cobra Town. There were so many of them! Goodness knows how we survived. If someone was bitten the area round the bite was cut and allowed to bleed to wash out the venom. I don’t think anybody in my family was ever bitten. Snakes only bite if they think they are in danger.
Farhana once had a close encounter with a snake. When I went to Britain I went alone to see what it was like and Farhana went back to live with her family until I had settled.
One day our son Asif, who was about two, came in pulling something behind him. My sister thought it was a stick until it moved. She swept the snake on to the floor then picked Asif up, stood on the dining table out of harm’s way and shouted, “Snake! Snake!” My father had visitors so they all came running. They got rid of the snake but my father was very upset. He said, “Gama has gone to England and left his family with me to be safe and now this happens!” As a penance he gave money to poor people.
When I was a boy there were no fridges and food was kept in a cupboard with a wire mesh door. One day a snake got underneath it and my mother shot it dead with a 12-bore shotgun. Forever after that the cupboard was covered in holes as a reminder. At night the light of our lamps attracted insects which in turn attracted the snakes who wanted to eat them. There were a lot of snakes where we used to swim but we were told that if the snake goes underwater it’s not a poisonous one. I don’t know if there’s any truth in that.
Two kinds of monkeys lived in the jungle, one with a black face and the other with a white face. Each group had a dominant male who would attack you if threatened but the others would just rush up then run away again. They were quite big, as tall as a small boy when on their back legs. We would look for a mango tree full of monkeys and throw sticks at them so they ran around, dislodging the fruit which we caught and ate.
One day when I was about ten I was alone when the monkeys spotted me. One of them rushed up and slapped me on the face! I started crying, my brother Achay heard and came running to save me. I always say that I used to be quite handsome until the monkey hit me!
I was told that a tiger used to come at night and sit in the wartime trenches in our garden and watch the house. I’ve seen a panther, hyenas, peacocks and deer in the jungle near our home. I remember a man called Paul was killed by a wild boar at the edge of the lake. Our elders used to point out the tree under which he was attacked and warned us not to go alone into the forest.
Robin Hutton was born in Dublin in 1918 where his cot was moved away from the window to avoid snipers’ bullets. When Robin was ten his parents returned to England and he went as a boarder to Fulneck, the Moravian school in Yorkshire. After university he taught there, his career interrupted by war service where he came under fire once more, this time with devastating results. Robin went back to teach at Fulneck and ran the archive after his retirement, having a connection with the school which lasted nearly 90 years
Robin’s son Roger says, The books look great and we’re very pleased. We’d like to thank Caroline for all her hard work. It’s great to have Dad’s story left to help us to remember him by.
We have all enjoyed the experience of reminding one another of memories forgotten. Dad found Caroline most helpful. He didn't get to see the final book but we have it now and it will be treasured for generations to come.
Caroline says, Robin Hutton nearly made it to his hundredth birthday but not quite. He didn’t see the printed version of his book but had approved all the proofs. Our work together began with my advice to separate off his father’s story into what turned out to be Robin’s first book, The Seven Stone Champion, before tackling Robin’s own remarkable story. My main task was to make sure the many anecdotes ended up in the right order, that the people mentioned were identified clearly and that a little historical backdrop was added to explain the events in which Robin was swept up. For example, he thought he was British but, by an accident of birth and timing, was surprised at the outbreak of World War II to find he was officially an Irishman.
I love recording these accounts of ordinary people who found themselves living through extraordinary times, stories which would otherwise be lost. It also tells Robin’s role in the history of Fulneck School.
In one of the many coincidences which occur in my work, I was able to put Robin in touch with another of my clients whose father he had known well and they enjoyed a wonderful time reminiscing.
September 1939, just before war broke out, found me visiting my brother Eric in Dublin. It was on this visit that I decided to explore the mysteries of St Michan’s Church in the centre of Dublin. It surprised me to find that it was a Protestant church, Church of Ireland, dating back several centuries. It had vaults where some peculiar air quality had preserved some of the bodies stored there. I paid the entrance fee and warily descended the stone steps to the vaults. There they were, a row of coffins with their lids off, each containing a body, a skeleton covered with leathery skin. It was eerie and weird, even more so when the guide invited me on payment of a further shilling (5p) to “shake hands with the crusader – it will bring you luck!” Tentatively I touched the skeletal fingers of the body in the last coffin as it gazed at me with eyeless sockets, wondering I know not what. Many times since I have wondered whether perhaps, just perhaps, that shilling was the best money I ever spent.
I was well aware of the political situation in Southern Ireland as the clock ticked remorselessly towards war. This was reinforced a few days later when I went by train to Bray, a seaside resort a few miles south of Dublin. There I saw what I was told was the Irish navy on manoeuvres. True or not, what was more disturbing was a conversation between some ladies in the train carriage discussing “a wonderful speech they had heard on the radio”. It was in fact a speech by Goering in Germany.
When Chamberlain made his announcement of the declaration of war I was still in Dublin with Eric. I listened to the Prime Minister on the radio on Sunday September 3rd in Eric’s flat. My first thought was to get back to England as soon as possible but to do so a visa was required. Because I had been born in Dublin and was living there in February 1922 when the Irish Free State broke from Britain, my visa stated that I was a citizen of Eire! Arriving back in Manchester I went to join up but after looking at my visa the sergeant said, “We don’t want you.”
Britain didn’t want citizens of neutral Eire in the armed forces. How very different it was two years later after the terrible retreat at Dunkirk when they were desperate for recruits.
I was born in Cornsay Colliery near Durham one morning in 1936 and the King cleared off with Mrs Simpson in the afternoon. After serving my time as a joiner I started my own building business which I had always wanted to do. During my life I’ve climbed mountains all over the world which gave me a great sense of excitement and feeling of achievement. For all the mountains I’ve climbed, the most enjoyable thing I’ve done was the Coast to Coast Walk with my wife Pauline, carrying my baby son on my back.
(This book was commissioned by Brian’s son and daughter)
Thank you for everything and the time you have taken with our dad. He has enjoyed it and been pleased with the care you have taken with it. I think it has also helped him through this difficult year after our mum died as it has been an interesting and enjoyable experience for him.
Our mum had wanted him to do his life story for a long time and just a few weeks before she died reminded us to ask him to do it. The story sounds just like him and it has been so good to learn about his life before we came on the scene. We cherish having this book and only wish our mum could have been there to help.
Caroline says, I had Brian’s name written down for a long time on a note in my file of possible clients. I had written, “His wife Pauline would like him to do it.” She had seen one of my other books. Sadly, it was only after Pauline died that Brian got round to it. Brian tells some very funny anecdotes so it was a mixture of laughter over those and tears as he recorded the happiness of his marriage to Pauline. I made sure, as I always do, that her contribution to his many achievements was acknowledged.
People used to say Cornsay (in the 1940s) was such a rough place that football teams from other villages refused to play us. Gangs of boys used to hang around street corners but to me it was just home. I was very happy there but being a shy quiet lad I had to learn to look after myself.
The village had a great sense of community and everyone knew everyone else. With no television and being far from the nearest town, the football field was a favourite place to gather and on a summer evening 300 people might be up there, playing football or cricket or just chatting. It was years before I even went into Durham.
There were lots of children around and with houses being small we spent most of our time out of doors whatever the weather. We made dams at the beck to make a six foot deep pool which was dangerous if you were three feet high and couldn’t swim. After a day making a raft out of old oil drums the others went home but I decided to have one last go on my own. I was about seven. Starting off in shallow water it felt great, poling along, then the water got deeper and blacker and the pole got stuck in the mud. I jumped off but missed the bank, fell backwards and thought that was the end of me but I managed to get myself out.
I walked home soaking wet and stood at the back door.
“Ma, Ma! I fell in the beck!”
She appeared and sorted me out. She wasn’t angry, that wasn’t her.
We used to roam for miles, right across to the Colliery Wood then on to Harrisons Wood where an enormous horse grazed. If it saw us it would come charging over, teeth bared ready to bite, and we had to run away as fast as we could, leaping over the fence or scrambling through a hawthorn hedge. We could have been trampled to death but kept going back because it was exciting.
Being chased by bulls was another thing but cows could be even worse. You had to be good at getting up trees fast and wait until they lost interest, then scarper.
These were the last days of heavy farm horses and also the huge steam traction engines which travelled from farm to farm to thresh grain from stalks before combine harvesters cut and threshed in one. As children we watched the machine puffing slowly along the lanes and into the farm yards. At harvest time we followed the reaper and stood the bundles of corn in stooks to dry.
We were always dirty with bumps and bruises. One day my mother put me in smart clothes because visitors were coming but I managed to find the remains of a bonfire to play in, turned up at the back door covered in soot and was sent to bed.
Irish labourers arrived with bulldozers to excavate a new open cast coal mine about a quarter of a mile away. They let us kids do what we liked as long as the boss wasn’t around. I was standing on the caterpillar track of a bulldozer that had stopped. Suddenly the driver gave it a sharp jerk just for the fun of seeing me fall off.
I must have had nine lives.
The remarkable story of First World War soldier Fred Atkinson of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry told in his own words
After fighting in fierce battles at Mons and Le Cateau, Corporal Fred Atkinson was captured and spent three years in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. In 1920 he left the Army and settled in Northallerton where he wrote this memoir.
Caroline says, Most of my work involves interviewing people at length then writing their memoir for them. This was different, a hand written manuscript from 1964 which Fred had tried to get published to mark the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. He was just a bit too late, with publishers writing to say they already had other stories ready.
Fred died in 1967 and his possessions passed down the family until earlier this year they came to Elaine Sayer, his great niece. She was astonished at the archive Fred had accumulated, boxes and boxes of documents and photographs - and this remarkable manuscript.
The first thing was to commission Sue Hillmer to input the words into a computer. She has the skills to unpick handwritten documents and input them accurately. Then I began to sort out Fred’s story. Elaine and I did some detective work to find out more about his background. Frustratingly, Fred usually wrote about himself in the third person so I had to work out which things had actually happened to him but, after going through other documents and photos, this became clear. How I wish I could have asked him a few extra questions!
We ended up with a highly readable story which makes complete sense to a modern audience. It is still his story but edited and with a few extra notes. I was very moved by his tale of endurance through great suffering.
Elaine says, Thank you so much for all you have done to produce such a lovely book from my great uncle’s 53-year-old manuscript. I had only met Fred when I was a child and knew nothing about his wartime experiences until I inherited an archive of family documents and photographs. When I came across the manuscript I was determined to get it published.
At first it seemed an impossible task, until I pulled one of Caroline’s other memoirs out of our bookcase and saw her details. After our first conversation I knew Fred’s manuscript would be printed.
Caroline, you made everything fall into place and did the work in a very short space of time. I am sure Fred would have been truly delighted with his book. Thank you on behalf of the Atkinson family past and present.
Please go to the contacts page, send Caroline an email, include your phone number and she will put you in touch with Elaine.
(The last stand at the last ditch at the battle of Le Cateau on 26th August 1914).
The bombardment from the artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire at this time was as though an arsenal of high explosives had been let loose upon us. After playing their fire on our position for many hours preceding this violent onslaught, the result was disastrous to us. During this terrible inferno there was no communication and no ammunition. The rumour had spread during our previous engagements at Mons and St Ghislain that the Germans were not taking any prisoners.
‘Survivor’ (as Fred Atkinson called himself) silently and sincerely called upon God for wisdom, guidance, courage and protection. Then with all the lung power he could muster he shouted, “Let’s charge! We might as well die charging as die in this hole!”
The bombardment immediately died down and our position was rushed from all sides by the 26th German Infantry Regiment. Five men of my section, including myself, managed to rise from the slaughter. Glancing to the right, my attention was drawn to the tall figure of my Company Commander Major C.A.L. Yate about 20 yards away, stubbornly resisting capture by a number of German officers. He was brandishing his revolver high in the air, loudly exhorting, “No surrender! No surrender!” Then one of the German officers approached from behind and snatched the revolver from the Major’s grasp as a mounted German Commander looked on. Major Yate was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
About 30 yards away to the left I noticed Private Atkinson of my section wriggling upon his back with hands and feet in the air, being attacked at bayonet point within a few inches of his stomach. At this moment the mounted German Commander galloped towards me, halted and in plain English angrily requested, “Where is your machine-gun brigade?”
“We haven’t one, Sir!” was my reply.
“You’re telling lies, you merit to be shot!” he snarled.
Just then Private Bryan, a young soldier of my section, staggered towards me gasping, “Oh Corporal, I’ve been bayoneted!”
With the help of Lance-Corporals Hepworth and Harper the lad was moved to the road and laid down. Whilst under extremely heavy gun fire from our own artillery I hurriedly took a field dressing bandage from the inside of Private Bryan’s tunic and bound up his chest wound.
Two comrades, using the ‘armchair’ lift, carried Private Bryan whilst we were hustled by our captors to a stable. This was full of seriously wounded British prisoners of war lying upon bundles of straw. Many of these casualties had received head and neck wounds, some lacerated beyond recognition. They lay bleeding and helpless under the attention of a German medical officer. We were then searched.
“Now we’re for it Jim!” I whispered to my comrade, implying that we were going to be shot. We believed the rumour that no prisoners were being taken and were reconciled to our fate. Indeed, as time went on we were very much surprised to find ourselves not shot.
The Battle of Le Cateau ended at 4.30pm. Official history gives the time as 3.30pm, not taking into account so small a unit in the continued fierce action of ‘B’ Company 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Private Bryan had received bayonet wounds through the upper arms and chest. The news later of his recovery (subject to a recurring wound) seemed incredible.
Thus ended one phase of the war for some of ‘The Old Contemptibles’ and another began for those taken into captivity.
David and Annifer were born into two of the families who helped turn Sheffield into a city famous for steel. They tell their stories of childhood evacuation to the country to escape wartime bombing while the works continued to produce vital products. After joining Arthur Lee & Sons David experienced the fluctuating fortunes of the business over more than 40 years. A highlight was the couple’s appointment as Master and Mistress Cutler.
David and Annifer Lee say, Caroline Brannigan has the skill and gifts of a talented interviewer and writer which enabled us to produce our memoirs from the years of 1933 to 2016. This has been a gratifying opportunity which we would wholeheartedly recommend.
Caroline says, This story tells an important part of Sheffield’s industrial history. I knew very little about the steel industry and worked with David to make sure we told the story accurately but also in a very human way so it would be understandable to all.
It was satisfying to be able to tell the story of both man and wife as Annifer has led an extremely interesting life in her own right but also, as so often happens, held the fort at home when the children were young.
There were some very sad parts to cover, the handling of which we discussed carefully beforehand, but also some very entertaining anecdotes. Most life stories contain light and shade.
Their individual stories were told in the first person but when writing about both of them I used the third person, such as when they were Master and Mistress Cutler.
In the early 1970s David was invited to join the historic Company of Cutlers, which was a great honour. Founded in the seventeenth century to protect Sheffield’s cutlery trade and ensure high standards, its modern role is to promote the industry and the interests of the city in general. The Master Cutler is Sheffield’s ambassador of the steel industry.
Members must be in business in the Hallamshire area, manufacturing a cutting edge or the materials which go into it. Membership is open only to 33 people - Master, Senior Warden, Junior Warden, six searchers and 24 members. The term searchers originates from the men who used to ‘search out’ makers and check their standards were satisfactory. Later David was surprised to be asked to become Master Cutler for 1976/77, beginning in the October. “It was very exciting,” says David. His grandfather Percy Lee, his uncle Wilton Lee and father-in-law John Hunt had all been Master Cutlers. Annifer would now become Mistress Cutler, following in her mother’s footsteps. Their youngest daughter Rowena thought Annifer was going to be Mrs Cutlass.
The grand inauguration event was held in the Cutlers’ Hall, one of the finest livery halls in the north of England. Always a demanding job for Master and Mistress Cutler, the function list lengthened dramatically as 1977 dawned, the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee. High profile guests such as the Archbishop of Canterbury attracted press attention and occasionally television cameras and the Lees had to get used to flashbulbs bursting in their faces.
Taking a few lessons in speech making, David’s first attempt sparked this reaction from his tutor: “That was very good .... but how dull!” His material was interesting but David had to change his monotone delivery.
Annifer’s role was more wide ranging and about half of the events on her calendar were attended without David. She found herself President of the Townswomen’s Guild, many invitations came through the Council of Voluntary Service and each religious denomination held events requesting her presence.
At most Annifer was expected to give a speech, having to select an appropriate topic. Her mother advised, “It’s no good relying on David, he has a job to do and his own speeches to write so you’ll just have to get on, write them yourself and do the best you can.”
Annifer recalls, “It was good advice. The verse speaking I had done at school was very helpful and I soon learned to stand up, speak up and shut up.”
The title of this book comes from Rosemary who, being married to a busy farmer, was always waiting for him to turn up for meals. She used to say that one day she would write a book and call it Waiting For Tom, though in the end it is the story of both of them. Rosemary and Tom write about farming in the Yorkshire Wolds and Dales. They also describe growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Rosemary in Sussex and Tom on his father’s East Riding farm.
Without Caroline’s help we would never have completed our story. We are most indebted to her for sorting us out and guiding us through.
This is a fascinating story ranging from Hurstpierpoint in Sussex to a farm near Market Weighton in East Yorkshire and then over to West Burton and Thoralby in Bishopdale, North Yorkshire. Tom and Rosemary had begun writing their own stories about 20 years before but came to a halt, as so many people do, daunted by the scale of it. I put it all together, asked many extra questions and made sure it flowed well. Then I carried out interviews to cover the years Tom and Rosemary had not written about.
The couple share a set of great grandparents. Rosemary had begun with a laborious description of their predecessors and was disappointed some time ago to hear a grandchild describe this as “really boring”. If people wonder why they should employ me, this is a good reason. The stories were interesting but needed to be made readable. Also, most of the family history was moved to the end so that we could start with Tom and Rosemary’s first person accounts of their own lives.
Sadly, family history can read like a court list, rather like “Norman Stanley Fletcher” at the beginning of Porridge. By the time I’d finished with it, this section was much more readable. This is one of the many very good reasons why it’s worth investing in my skills. Another granddaughter has just finished the book. “I couldn’t put it down,” she said.
There were moments when Rosemary felt it was all getting too much, even with my help, for they had already written such a lot. Like most people, they kept remembering things they had forgotten to put in. It is my job to guide, encourage, to push gently when necessary and take as much of the hard work out of it as possible. I also help people to come to a point where they feel the book is ready to go to print. You can keep adding for ever but I ensure that nothing vital is omitted. At last, with my help, Tom and Rosemary have the book they always wanted to write.
(Tom tells of his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s on the family farm in East Yorkshire)
Mother sold eggs to the egg packers at Beverley and the money she earned went to pay Mabel and to buy groceries, clothes, and all other household things. Father’s younger brother, Uncle Guy, used to come every Friday evening to help get the wages ready for noon on Saturday. Things were extremely tough in the 1930s and I can remember that Mother had to lend them cash on more than one occasion to pay the wages.
As well as feeding her own family, Mother provided what were known as the louances, mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks for the men at the busiest times of the farming year such as hay time, harvest and threshing days. Before combine harvesters, cereals were gathered into sheaves then stacked. There they would stay until a steam traction engine arrived to power a threshing machine which knocked the grain from the straw. This process required about eight men. The louances consisted of home baked bread, butter, meat and cheese and perhaps a slice of apple pie. My mother also cooked a huge midday dinner for the family.
We used to thresh nearly every week in winter and lead a lot of the straw straight into the yards. There we left the trailers with gaumers on, which were wide rails angled outwards from the trailer body so that the beasts could eat all the straw. Modern varieties of cereals are much shorter on the stem.
We were fortunate to have electricity in our house but, like many people then, used it only for lighting. Washing was a huge chore in those days, carried out in the wash house next door. On wash day, always Monday, an enormous boiler bubbled away in there over a fire of coal and wood. This was used to fill a dolly tub into which soap was grated, the whole lot stirred with a long stick called a posher.
After rinsing in a large sink the clothes and linen were fed through a mangle on iron wheels, its heavy wooden rollers three feet wide turned by hand using a big wooden handle, the water cascading into a bucket. A wooden shelf below caught the washing. Large items were carried to the line strung across the orchard from an old horse chestnut tree, the small things being hung in the yard.
One large room in the farmhouse had been the old kitchen and dining room where meals were served to the single workers in my grandfather’s time. The big table was still there and could seat three across each end and seven or eight down either side. A wide board full of horse brasses hung above the fire place. This was where mother and her helpers served hot meals to those who had come to buy stock at the yearly sales we held in spring, selling perhaps 200 to 250 beasts – cattle, sheep and sometimes pigs. On sale days the auctioneer Dick Hornsey would stand on a tumbrel and auction the stock near the fold yard door.
The single workmen used to sleep above in a large bedroom which, after I had left school, became my own. As I write this it makes me lift my shoulders and shiver as it was one of the coldest bedrooms in the house. The sun only shone into it for an hour or two at the most in the very early morning. A staircase by the cow house once led up to this room but by the time I moved in a new set of stairs had been added from the big kitchen below.
As a young boy I had a much cosier bedroom with a window looking on to the garden. At night Mother would come to see me when I’d got into bed to teach me to say my prayers and she would often pray with me.
Not every house had a bathroom in those days but we did and a flush water toilet. Smaller country cottages often made do with an earth closet, a wooden seat over a bucket or pit which had to be emptied from time to time. There was a bath, a wash bowl and a small chest of drawers for towels. In a dry summer sometimes there was not enough water to have a bath but then Father had the well deepened to solve the problem.
Before the flush toilet was installed, there was an old toilet down a passage on the way to the stables. This was a wooden seat with a hole over a big tub on wheels. The tub had an iron ring bolted onto the end and when it was full we fastened a horse with traces on to that ring and pulled it out, taking it to one of the ploughed fields to spread out as fertiliser. We rode home standing up in it and as we passed the pond yard often turned in there and had a row round, using shovels as oars.
A life story with tales from home and abroad
Nora Lewis tells her entertaining stories of life as a Nursing Sister, first with the Merchant Navy aboard the Queen Elizabeth passenger liner in the 1960s and then as a member of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, work which took her across the world.
Before enlisting, she qualified as an SRN at a London hospital then trained as a midwife, spending time out on the district, pedalling her heavily laden bicycle to women in labour.
Nora also gives an intriguing account of her childhood when, being the daughter of a prominent railway engineer, she lived in a house on the platform of a busy rural station.
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that if I had not found Caroline and used her skill, knowledge and expertise my memoir would never have been written. Random ramblings have been transformed into a coherent story and the book pleases me, my family, friends and acquaintances. Apart from that, it has been a very pleasant and helpful experience recalling sometimes hidden memories - like clearing out an old cupboard, but in a good way! Thank you, Caroline!
The first time I met Nora, Winston Churchill had just walked past. I had a stand at the Leyburn 1940s weekend in North Yorkshire, standing in astonishment as a succession of impressive military uniforms, French resistance fighters armed with grenades and even King George VI passed by. Nora, in her uniform of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, told me that she had long wanted to do a memoir and often gave talks about her experiences. I was keen to work with her but later Nora rang to say she would do it herself. A year or so passed. She rang again and said, "Help!"
Like many people, Nora had several strands to her tale which we had to sort out. Her father, Terence Miller, was a prominent railway engineer and she had an interesting childhood spanning Kirkcaldy, Helensburgh, Bottisham & Lode in the Fens and St. John's Wood, London. Then came all the great tales of nursing training at the Middlesex Hospital, London followed by midwifery at Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital and then a life at sea.
Nora was very keen to include her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1987, describing her experience as a patient and her dismay that amid medical advances some of the fundamental strengths of nursing care have been lost. She is a keen campaigner for change.
There was also her love of horses and work with the Riding for the Disabled Association, settling in the famous horse racing town of Middleham in Yorkshire, and her time spent in the United States, Middle East and Canada.
We began with a plan and a budget but soon realised more words would be needed. I gave Nora the options of covering things in less detail or leaving out certain sections. As always, the number of words was not exceeded without the client knowing beforehand.
Nora, as so many people do, decided she wanted the book done thoroughly or not at all. I loved listening to her stories and writing the book, which is proving very popular. It's highly entertaining.
We also got on very well and I had to keep stopping Nora from asking me to talk about myself (which I love to do but that was not what she was paying me for).
When the book was finished we went out for lunch and had a really good natter. I feel I've made a new friend, so thank you Nora.
In my own copy of Nursing In The Navy Nora wrote, "For Caroline, what a star! Couldn't have done it without you!"
(Nora was working as a district midwife during her training in London)
In the early hours of one morning I delivered a baby for a woman whose family had come over from Pakistan. She had been very uncommunicative and I was to learn that it was part of her culture, that you just got through the pain of childbirth and that was that.
Her husband remained in the background until the child arrived and mother and baby had been checked and bathed. Then the kitchen door swung open and he arrived with a large tray bearing tea, bread and butter and an enormous fry-up of bacon, eggs, sausage and beans. The new mother tucked in with relish.
Then the door swung open again and out came the same laden tray just for me. As I was writing up my notes the supervising midwife arrived to check all was well. The kitchen door swung open again but this time out he came carrying a little tray with glasses of cherry brandy for us all, including the mother. This was all too swiftly followed by a second round. All this at four o' clock in the morning!
Afterwards we packed up our considerable amount of equipment on to the bikes, including the delivery pack, now containing the afterbirth in a plastic bag.
"Thank you!" we called back to our kind host and off we went into the dark.
Half way down the road the delivery pack fell off with a clang and all the steel bowls went rolling down the silent street into the gutter. As the odd light came on in nearby windows and curious people looked out to see what all the noise was about, we raced to retrieve our things. Standing gasping by the bikes once more, we thought we had got away with it. Then we looked at each other.
"Where's the afterbirth?" I asked.
There, in the distance, was the plastic bag and heading straight for it was a large dog with a hungry look in his eye. We ran down the street to head him off.
"Leave it! Leave it!" I shouted, snatching up the bag from under his twitching nose and making off back to the bikes. By this time we were hysterical with laughter, made all the worse for it being amplified among the neighbouring houses, still mostly dark and quiet. What those behind their twitching curtains thought I just do not know.
The Story of Kirwin & Simpson
Kirwin & Simpson supply seating to Britain's most prestigious theatres and cinemas. With more than 70 years of experience, their work is in demand across the world.
This book tells the story of how Bernard Simpson began repairing seats in his garden shed in 1944, leading to a highly successful family business now in its fourth generation.
Bill Simpson, Bernard's son, writes:
I had never heard of anyone having their life story written and printed in a book, except celebrities and film stars. I still cannot believe that mine has been written in this way.
At first I was apprehensive but I enjoyed Caroline's weekly visits and our telephone chats and it has certainly brought back many memories for me. I would certainly recommend anyone to do this if they get the chance. It is a once in a lifetime experience.
What a great story this was! So many family businesses have fascinating histories and it pains me to come across those which have been written in a pompous and dull way. When I first heard that Bill lived near Rugby I thought it was too far away but we arranged for me to come down for a full day of interviews, stay over at a hotel, then carry out another day's work, followed up by additional questions by telephone and email. It worked very well, involving other members of the family who work for the company.
As often happens in my work, I had to understand the technical side of the business and write it in an understandable way for outsiders while keeping the human story strong and making it a good read. There were a lot of funny tales to tell.
It was great to hear about contracts for prestigious venues including the Stockport Plaza, the London Coliseum, The King's Theatre in Edinburgh, the St. Ann's Warehouse in New York and the Orient Express. Kirwin & Simpson's work has brought them into contact with some of the biggest names in showbusiness and provided wonderful backstage stories never told in print before.
Short notice jobs are all part of the trade. Kirwin & Simpson were called in one afternoon to re-upholster a piano stool ready for that night's performance by Victor Borge, the Danish comic piano virtuoso and comedian. Sometimes sets arrive only the morning before a performance and if something is not quite right or has been damaged in transit it must be repaired. If that involves upholstery then an urgent call will go out to Kirwin & Simpson to come to the rescue. Dressing rooms and bars are now all part of the portfolio.
Occasionally a prima donna will throw a hissy fit and demand instant changes or they will not perform. Managements, faced with embarrassment and losses, must comply. After Kirwin & Simpson refurbished one dressing room, the star concerned complained that the colour of the shower curtain offended him and he would not go on that night if it was not changed. So it was. Another actor well known for his bad temper poured fruit salad over Bill Simpson's head and trashed an expensively upgraded dressing room.
In 1982 the West End made a major coup with the signing of film star Elizabeth Taylor to appear in her American stage hit Little Foxes at the Victoria Palace theatre. Said to have been paid $50,000 a week during the US tour, Taylor was used to getting what she wanted and demanded a dressing room in which everything would be lilac. Kirwin & Simpson's reputation for excellence landed them this tricky contract. Taylor informed the management that she found the sight of fish swimming in an aquarium to be very relaxing before a performance but even this had to have lilac coloured fish. Finding a lilac shower curtain proved extremely difficult. On the Sunday evening before the superstar's opening night on the Monday, Andrew and Anne Simpson finally managed to fit a satisfactory curtain. Anne was transfixed by the rows and rows of shoes lined up awaiting their owner's arrival and tried on a few for fun but found them too tight.
Joan was born in a small Yorkshire mining community in the 1920s. Her father was employed at the local pit. She tells of his tough working life below ground in an industry which has almost disappeared. During World War II Joan did a heavy manual job in a steelworks producing vital products for the military.
Her story is one of surviving challenging times, of hard work raising two children mainly as a single parent and the satisfaction of coming through it all, still smiling.
The idea to write a book about my life came from my family. I wasn't so sure about it myself but Caroline made it so easy and simple for me. She visited my home several times, asked me questions and just let me talk. She also helped me to pick out suitable pictures to include in the publication and the end result was a wonderfully well written story that I hope my extended family will enjoy for years to come. I'm really pleased I did this and my heartfelt thanks goes out to Caroline Brannigan for bringing my story to life for the generations yet to come.
I was approached by Joan's son Martyn and his wife Nora to produce a book for each of their mothers. Since both mums lived close to each other I carried out interviews with one in the morning and the other in the afternoon on the same day each week.
Joan's story was fascinating, growing up in a small mining community near Sheffield then working at a steelworks during the war. She was concerned about how we would handle the story of her marriage, which was unhappy and ended in divorce. Many people have parts of their lives which are not easy to talk about. As always, I advised giving the facts straight and this is what we did. I pointed out that the marriage was only a small part of a long life but had important results, her children. We went on to focus on how strong Joan had been to bring up her children as a single mother and how hard she worked to make ends meet. It was partly in gratitude for this that her son Martyn felt her story should be told.
(The parts in italics are extra research added by Caroline Brannigan so younger generations can understand the background to the story)
When I was old enough I got a job at Samuel Fox, the steelworks in Stocksbridge, where the pay was much better but the conditions were very hard for a young woman.
From 1941 women aged 18 to 60 had to register to take the place of men called up from their jobs into the armed forces. The women were conscripted and had to go where sent. They were not allowed to move jobs without permission. Joan was too young at first and does not remember being called up but by the age of 18 was already doing an important job at Samuel Fox's steelworks.
Sammy's, as it was known, was a very large steelworks employing several thousand workers in the valley of the River Don. The plant stretched for about two and a half miles and into Deepcar. The houses of Stocksbridge and Deepcar run up the opposite side of the valley.
When Joan worked there the plant was undergoing huge modernization begun in the late 1930s as war loomed and steel production was seen as vital for making weapons and ammunition.
Sheffield steel plants, so vital to the war effort, were targeted by German bombers and even those further out were hit, including Sammy's. Joan's son Martyn remembers children finding unexploded bombs from time to time while playing around Stocksbridge right up to the 1970s.
Stocksbridge produced some of the world's finest stainless steel. After the war they went back to supplying steel for car parts and Gillette razor blades, fine wire for making into springs for clocks and watches and many other specialised products.
Sadly, the boom times have now gone as developing countries such as India and China have produced cheaper products. However, at the time of writing Sammy's was still in business.
Now I was one of those sleepy-eyed workers from Thurgoland who left their homes in the morning for the early shift, 6am to 2pm. Then you would switch to 2pm to 10pm. After that came the night shift but I was too young to do that, thank goodness. It was a long walk in all weathers to get the bus to the steelworks but usually other people were walking along with me so I did not mind. Looking back, it was a rough life in many ways but you just did not think about it.
In the wartime blackout no lights were showing at all, only the thin beams of our torches pointed down in front of us. Shine it up into the sky and you would get a good telling off. Dad was always very protective and, despite the fact that he was working long hours himself, would come to meet me off the bus when he could.
Going through the gates of the steelworks among crowds of other workers, many of them women during the war, was like entering another world. It was completely different to anything I had experienced before. I'd known about Samuel Fox's all my life but nothing could prepare me for the tough conditions inside, very noisy with steel clanking and machines whirring. They put me in a boiler suit and set me to work.
Most of what we made was for the military. At first my duties were fairly light, packing cartridge clips into long tubes. Before the war the large shed in which I found myself had produced the delicate steel frames for umbrellas and now those skills had been transferred to essential items for the armed services. You had to hope that you never lost or broke something like an umbrella because you would never be able to buy a new one. That first job was not so bad. Being on piece work, it was all systems go to boost your wages. At first I was very slow compared to others whose hands seemed to work like lightning.
I don't know how it came about that I moved into the wire department. Working in a pair with a man, I had to bend down to lift a large and heavy coil of cable as it came off the production line to where he was standing ready to chop off the end and carry it away. That was not suitable work for a teenage girl. It was too heavy but I had to do it. Throughout my shift that was what I did, heave up the coils of cable and pass them on. At the end of the day I was worn out. Later I often suffered from pains in my arms and wondered if it went back to those tough conditions in the works.
With most of the young men away in the armed forces, those left behind were older and often had daughters of their own. Sometimes you could see in their eyes that they really needed someone stronger than they had been given and would try to help me and the other younger women. I could tell that the man I worked with got annoyed if I was too slow but he tried not to show it. They felt sorry for us, thinking "I wouldn't like my daughter to do this." But it was wartime and you got on as best you could. When I got home all I wanted to do was go to bed. I can't remember how long I did that but it was too long.
One winter's day I left work to find snow lying thickly on the ground and no sign of any buses. Wrapping myself up in my coat I set off to walk all the way home. I was already exhausted from my shift and in no fit state to make a journey like that but felt I had no choice. I was walking, walking, walking and thought it would never end. Thank goodness, after a couple of miles there appeared the figure of my father who had struggled out to find me. It was such a relief to see him and I do not know what would have happened to me if he had not come along because within a few minutes I found myself nearly passing out with fatigue. He just managed to catch me as I went down. Leaning on him, I managed to get back somehow and I remember the sight of his feet just plodding on and on through the snow. Dad was not very keen on me being at the steelworks but Mum ruled the roost and if the money was coming in that was it.
Break times were very welcome and we'd crowd into the enormous canteen where women stood behind a counter and spooned food on to your plate. There was not much on offer but they did their best and it was quite good. Nobody expected to have a choice, you ate what you were given and we were ready for it. I was so grateful just to sit down for a while. Later I was moved to work in the canteen and that was much better.
By the time I went to Samuel Fox's the worst of the bombing was over and I experienced no raids, thank goodness, while I was working there.
When the war ended in 1945 men returned from the armed forces to their old jobs and the women who had replaced them were told to leave. Some were happy to go, others resented being pushed out and losing a well paid job.
Eric Cooley was born in South Wales but spent most of his working life as a consulting structural and civil engineer based in Scotland. His early work in Glasgow ranged from sorting out damp problems in tenements to designing the blocks of flats which replaced many of them. From bridges to hospitals, Eric never knew what projects would land on his desk next or where they would take him and he worked in the Middle East and Australia.
Now that we have reached the end of writing and publishing my autobiography it is time that I thanked you again most sincerely for all your hard work in producing the book. I was very impressed by your attention to detail through all our meetings and preparation of the various drafts. Nothing was too much trouble to you and I had complete faith in your ability to bring the project to a successful conclusion.
Eric's work had taken him across the world and he had many interesting tales to tell. At the start he wasn't sure how long the book would be or what format it would take so we agreed a budget beyond which I would not go without agreement. As the tales unfolded we had regular updates on the word count, number of photos etc. The result was a beautiful hardback book with dust jacket and colour photos all the way through. Many stories of this kind are never written down. Who knows that at the end of the Festival of Britain in 1951 Eric's temporary concrete bridge was tested to destruction and that it all went wrong? His descriptions of Dubai at the beginning of the mass development which altered it completely give a valuable insight. For a while he held the record for the highest building there – all of 14 storeys. One of my skills is to unpick technical stories and write them so they are enjoyable for the lay person, asking many questions until I am sure I understand them exactly. I particularly love hearing about 1930s childhoods and between us Eric and I were able to paint a picture of a young life in Wales quite different to today.
Those early summers I remember only as sunny and warm and holidays were spent in North Wales close to the family roots in Llangollen. We stayed near my aunt, who looked after my grandfather in their house which was named Cwm Teg, meaning dry valley. In those days the railway company ran a wonderful scheme of camping coaches. Arriving at Cardiff station we looked for the train to North Wales. At the end was our very own coach which had been converted into a caravan on rails with compartments fitted with bunk beds instead of seats and another turned into a kitchen. By removing partitions a fairly large living room had been made. A corridor ran alongside the compartments linking them just the same as in an ordinary carriage of that era. We even had a toilet and washing area.
Climbing aboard, we set off on the three or four hour journey up to North Wales. At Llangollen Station a little shunting engine came to take our coach away to a pleasantly situated siding by open country where it was connected to water and drainage pipes. Llangollen was a short walk away for shopping. Here we would spend a week or a fortnight having a marvellous time. Down the hill from my aunt's house was a canal in which we could swim and also the River Dee. Many happy hours were spent picnicking and messing about by the water or fishing. You can't do that today for barbed wire now keeps out all so-called illegal fishermen.
Barges ran from Llangollen along the canal and for a few pennies you could ride on a horse-drawn barge up to the Horseshoe Falls where the horse would be unhitched and walked to the opposite end ready to tow us home again.
My many aunts, uncles and cousins would often join us, the men perhaps only for the weekend if work was pressing. I remember chattering groups strolling across the bridge over the canal, picnic baskets swinging, the women in sun hats, children skipping along happily, to a place marvellously called World's End, more a small community that a proper village, where we would find a field in which to sprawl on rugs, eat sandwiches, play rounders or just doze in the sunshine.
On other days we might head along the canal to a pretty little country church, then it was another mile through fields to the village of Llantysilio and a pub called The Conquering Hero for a big lunch. You had to make up your own games in those days and on the green outside the pub we played a form of cricket but, lacking a bat and ball, improvised with a stout branch of a tree and a fat twig. In the unlikely event of a catch, the whole side was out. Kick the Can was like hide and seek. Someone threw the can as far as possible and the person who was 'it' had to retrieve it while the others ran to hide. It was a great game which could last for hours, with complicated rules of capture and escape, all based around the can. It was great fun. I had a very happy childhood.
When war broke out in 1939 Richard Schadla Hall thought he was a 19-year-old Englishman. The authorities weren't so sure. Born in America to an English mother and a German father, he grew up as a little German boy near Berlin until the family moved to England in 1928 where he swiftly changed into an English boy. No wonder that when Richard volunteered to fight for his country he was sidelined into the Pioneer Corps with 'the King's most loyal enemy aliens' where he found himself among German and Austrian Jewish refugees, Italian-born Glaswegians and the Latvian-born Coco the Clown.
After being cleared to move to the Tank Corps he became an officer, later serving in the Military Police in peacetime France where once more he rubbed shoulders with some colourful characters. Returning to England with his wife Gwen, he joined the East Riding Police Force, rising to become Chief Superintendent.
Thank you for the delivery of my story in its final format of a book. A look at all the random and very strange things which happen to all of us on this short and perilous journey through life and how we coped should certainly be recorded and the way you have done it for me is very good.
Being half German myself, I understood immediately Richard's feeling of not quite fitting in, despite the fact that we are both English by culture and language. It is not something either of us talks about much. Many of my clients born in the 1920s were swept up by world events and their lives changed for ever by war. Often only the stories of the famous are written down yet Richard's account of serving with the British Military Police in post-war Paris put a new perspective on the death of a well-known traitor. By contrast, Richard's tales of being a young policeman in peacetime Yorkshire often had us both roaring with laughter. Contrary to popular opinion, we half-Germans do have a good sense of humour!
In about September 1940 I found myself posted to Westward Ho! a curiously named seaside village near Bideford on the north coast of Devon where presumably it was thought that we could do no harm. My name, Pioneer Schadla Hall, fitted in well. The camp buzzed with the sound of foreign accents for many were enemy aliens who had been interned on the Isle of Man then released after interrogation. On arrival I applied for transfer immediately but this took some time.
Meanwhile I settled down amid a cosmopolitan mix of recruits in a benign, gently anarchic regime where the sandy beaches and the fact that we were based in an old holiday camp with little wooden chalets added to the surreal atmosphere. One very fat Jewish tailor was so big they couldn't find a uniform to fit him and instead of saluting when he saw an officer his lifted his bowler hat. It was a very strange sort of place all round. I was one of the few who spoke fluent English. The mess room was run by the former head waiter of the glamorous Trocadero restaurant in London, a German, so the food was very good. It was all rather civilized and while our comrades in other branches of the Army shuffled past steaming pots carrying metal mess tins into which dollops food were piled, often one on top of another, we sat at tables eating off china plates brought by waiters.
We were a rather funny lot, kept in order by various captains whose backgrounds were more clear-cut British. I shared a billet with four others - two ex-musicians, the corporal in charge of transport and a Jewish lorry driver. One of the musicians was Cecil Aronovitz, a South African from a family of German Jews who had fled Germany to escape Hitler. Cecil then chose to leave the safety of South Africa to fight on the side of the Allies. A viola player, he later worked with the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin. So many excellent musicians found themselves in the corps that we had a professional standard orchestra. Coco the Clown was there, a Latvian Jew whose real name was Nicolai Poliakoff. He was the most famous clown of them all and had been working in Britain for many years before the war.
The delighted locals suddenly found themselves invited to shows featuring famous names. It really didn't feel like the Army but more of a side show. Each week a new intake would arrive from the internment camps. At one time a lot of Italians arrived, all of whom spoke with strong Scottish accents, having been rounded up from their homes simply because they had been born in Italy. One of my most dangerous roles in the war was to referee a football match between the Scottish Italian contingent and a team of Germans and Austrians. I wasn't terribly familiar with the rules. The Mediterraneans were losing and got upset, hence my problems.
Being a driver I went into the transport section. One of the other drivers was a German Jew, Von something or other which indicated he had come from a high ranking family, and he had been a racing driver. Another was called Heinz. Coming low in priority for vehicles, we spent our time behind the wheels of two American Fordson trucks, an Albion lorry and one or two staff cars including a tiny two-seater Austin. One day I had to take a senior officer, a very large man, to Bristol in the Austin. Returning across the Somerset hills, his great bulk squashed in beside me, I had a hell of a job getting up the steep slopes, crawling along in bottom gear. I was tempted to ask him to get out and push. But I didn't.
Other duties included a twice-weekly drive to Bideford to get the rations and night duty guarding the coast where it was extremely unlikely any enemy would land. The Fordson trucks had powerful engines which went like the clappers and the German racing driver and I would race each other along the narrow, winding lanes at over 60mph. Luckily very little traffic was around. Later the Transport Section was moved to Ilfracombe about 25 miles away where I was billeted in a hotel. I made friends with a local family who loved golden syrup and I managed to divert a tin to them from my delivery.
Meanwhile things were changing at home. After being released from internment, I think my father moved in with his secretary, I'm not quite sure. He died in 1941. Despite the air raids, my mother moved to a small mews flat which she rented in Notting Hill, West London. The London blitz began in September 1940 and was raging when I arrived on leave at Christmas to visit my mother at her flat.
My fellow Pioneer Norman Eckhart had asked me to drop in on his mother who lived in Islington so I called in dutifully. Before me sat a very fat Jewish lady yawning her head off.
"I am very sorry," she said in a strong German accent, "but I have been on fire watch at St Paul's Cathedral all night."
My mother had become a secretary with the Salvation Army in Holborn who were working flat out to help blitz victims. She was a feisty woman, a more forceful character than my father who was a gentle sort of a bloke, and was 'doing her bit' for the war effort. When the air raid siren went during my visits to her, which it did almost every night, we headed for the cellar as the bombs began dropping. No raids were made on Westward Ho! and my mother was in far greater danger than I was. An invasion by the Nazis was expected but certainly not there.
Had they come I would probably have been shot as a traitor, being a German lad serving with the British Army, but I didn't think about that too much at the time. My life in the safety of the West Country was rather privileged compared to a lot of others. I couldn't wait for it to change.
Eric Hall was born during the tough economic times of the 1930s in one of the most poverty-stricken villages in Yorkshire, North Newbald near Hull. Life was dictated by the landed estate which owned it. Lessons he learned there helped him on his path to success in a large public company, Farnell.
Eric Hall says:
Writing my book with Caroline has been a very enjoyable experience. I had put this off for many years. I had so much to say and found myself plunged into the task of looking through the vast amount of material I had collected in my career and personal life. The past nine months have passed so quickly as the work mountain was scaled easily with Caroline’s guidance, help and gentle pressure. I looked forward to each of our meetings.
I can recommend her approach to the work which involved her dealing with a busy old man. Thank you Caroline for all your care, patience and friendship during our time working together. The whole family send their good wishes.
The book is an excellent presentation, with well set out pictures, of a hectic working life travelling the world.
Eric’s family commissioned me to produce a book to mark his 80th birthday. This turned out to be a long but highly enjoyable project starting with the story of Eric’s parents and grandparents. Like many clients he wanted his grandchildren to know about the world he grew up in where material things were few but wild adventures were many. His story of village life stretching back through family memories to World War I is an important little piece of East Yorkshire history and his photos capture their tough life.
Unpicking this story, sorting out all the characters and prompting Eric to give full details of his early life took time but was well worth it. The story of the village joiner fitting a farmer and his wife for their new double seat to go over the earth closet will always be a favourite of mine. (See extract).
After this came the story of a complex but fascinating rise to success in a large company. As a professional interviewer and writer, I turned a long cv into a proper story which captured Eric’s personality and highlighted the huge influence of his early years on his professional life.
Just before his 60th birthday, Eric was fired in a controversial sacking which drew national publicity and hundreds of letters of support. It was an emotional moment during our interviews, not the first in my work and it won’t be the last. Telling a difficult part of the story to someone not offering judgement can be a very positive experience. We then discussed, as I always do in these circumstances, exactly how the subject would be handled. Eric and his two sons went on to develop their own highly successful company and he remains, as he says, a very busy man.
I often use direct quotes from a client’s husband or wife where relevant and Mary Hall’s contribution was very useful even if Eric didn’t always think so.
Books don’t usually take this long but Eric wanted his story told fully. I kept in touch with his family at each stage. Eric’s testimonial mentions “gentle pressure” which means I don’t allow people to go on more than necessary just to make more money for myself. I want my books to be a good read. There will always be more to say and it’s important to draw a line at some point.
You can always have a second edition!
Our homes on the village green had no running water or proper drainage and my father’s first job of the day was to walk 500 yards to a spring to fill two covered enamel buckets with drinking water. These were suspended from his shoulders by a yoke and as little kids we’d run alongside trying to take some of the weight. Most houses had a drain outside the back door into which slops were poured. The pig sty would also usually have a drain. These pipes led to the beck which ran nearby and, even before people understood the effects of bacteria, the water was known to be a source of sickness. Towards the end of the 19th century new powers had been given to local government and the council had installed an iron pump on the green to provide what it hoped would be cleaner water to halt the high death rate, particularly among children. The result was the opposite because polluted beck water seeped into the pipe which was eventually sliced in two to cut off this poisonous supply.
Rather than walk to the spring, some people still insisted on taking their water from the polluted beck which looked so pretty bubbling past their doors but was in fact pretty awful. In 1935 pumping stations were built to divert some of our beck water to a new air base at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, as Britain contemplated the awful prospect of another war, but nothing was done to improve our own water supply until mains were installed in 1939.
Under the County Act a new school had been built into which were placed two rows of washbasins to teach children basic hygiene because they turned up with grubby hands after feeding calves, pigs and doing other mucky chores. The basins were still in use when I was there. Even in my childhood, skin diseases were still rife and from time to time epidemics of diphtheria and other serious illnesses would sweep through the village and carry off some of the children. I can vaguely remember little friends who seemed to just disappear.
My mother paid sixpence a week (2.5p) into a scheme to ensure the presence of the local nurse during childbirth. When a new arrival was imminent, I was usually sent out by the nurse to buy her some Craven A cigarettes, even though I was only a very little lad. In the packet were 10 cigarettes plus four free ones marked, “Four for your friend”. My young uncles, knowing the routine, lay in wait for me, insisting, “We’re the nurse’s friends! Those four cigarettes are for us.” I could do nothing to stop them.
With no NHS, people dreaded anything serious which would bring a doctor’s bill and used the local nurse if possible who cost less. There was no well-equipped GP surgery, no free ambulance service whisking you to hospital, no 999 and no phone anyway. When a growth appeared on my ankle the nurse was summoned to perform an operation on our kitchen table. No anaesthetic was given, just the family pinning me down as I screamed my head off. During World War II, my Aunt Nellie (the wife of my mother’s oldest brother) was appointed first aid nurse for the village to treat injuries caused by air-raids. Being in the countryside, she hadn’t much to do and offered to help with more everyday problems. My mother and her sisters would have died rather than go to Nellie and preferred their own home-made remedies.
One of their mysterious ingredients was something called Spanish Black (a kind of liquorish) which came in a dark block and was sliced off for mixing into various beneficial concoctions. Another cure-all was ginger beer which my parents made by mixing ginger and water then feeding it with sugar. They called it, “growing ginger beer”. Chesty coughs were usually treated with peppermint cordial mixed in hot water. Any child who started sneezing was fed a hot drink of lemon and sugar. Otherwise it was a five-mile cycle ride to the chemist in South Cave who mixed his own medicines and pills. Being outdoors so much and living in a mostly self-contained community, we hardly ever seemed to catch colds. In Beverley Market was a little wooden hut containing a chair where a man would pull out a bad tooth for a few shillings. Fillings and so on by a proper dentist were only for the better off. It was there for years and as a teenager I was only too glad to use his services after being struck down by toothache.
Closets, as our toilets were called, were in small brick buildings at the ends of our gardens, white-washed frequently and scrubbed clean every day. No water and sewerage system was available so a wooden plank with a hole was placed above a large bucket which had two handles. Some families had a longer plank with two large holes for adults and a small one for children, so visiting the lavatory could be quite a sociable event. Usually cold ashes from the fire would be sprinkled into the bucket to keep the smells down. The Daily Express newspaper cut into squares would hang on a nail to be used as toilet paper. Once a week at four o’ clock in the morning my father would dig a hole among the raspberry canes and, when I was only seven, my younger brother and I had to carry the bucket to the hole before we left for school and tip it in. It was the custom to make this perilous journey at unsocial hours to avoid the stigma of being seen, even though everyone else was doing the same. Unpleasant though it was, this was a very environmentally friendly way of disposing of waste, contained no chemicals and always ensured a fantastic crop of raspberries. Every year, my father would dig up two rows of canes and plant two new ones. One good thing about being in a village was that nearly everyone had a bit of land on which they could grow food. We had half an acre at one point.
A mischievous trick for young boys like me was to slip out in the dark armed with a thin bit of pipe, creep up to the closet in which sat some unsuspecting child - the victims were nearly always girls - put the pipe through a hole in the wood and blow out the candle inside. This was swiftly followed by running footsteps back to the house and cries of, “They’ve blown my candle out!” Another prank was to tie nettles on to a stick and prod that through.
One of my favourite memories is of Billy Moore, the village joiner, fitting a new closet seat for a very elderly farmer and his wife, Mr and Mrs Beaulieu (which we pronounced Bewler). He had a solemn sense of humour for kids.
One Saturday morning I sat watching him cut two rough holes in the plank. Then he called Mrs Beaulieu for a fitting. “Could you just have a seat, Mrs Beaulieu,” he said and, as she did so, he drew a pencil mark around her bottom (fully clothed, I might add). “Thank you, Mrs Beaulieu,” he said, very politely, and off she went back into her kitchen. Getting out something called a spoke shaver, so named because it was used to shave wheel spokes into shape, he honed the hole to the correct size. “Right,” he said, easing himself up again, “we’re ready for another fitting” and along would come Mrs Beaulieu again until the size was right. Then it was Mr Beaulieu’s turn to be measured for his closet seat. Finally a smaller one was placed in the middle and each one finished by sandpapering.
Castleford was a working pit town when Brian Kent was born there in the 1930s. When he was nine his father, a miner, died of lung disease. The family’s fuel allowance was stopped and Brian went scratting around on the muck stacks for any waste coal which might burn on the kitchen fire.
After National Service in The Army he married Maureen Kelly from Surrey. Tempted by new opportunities offered in Australia, they took advantage of a government emigration scheme and sailed off among thousands of other ‘£10 Poms’. Later they returned to Castleford, a round trip of 26,000 miles, and Brian embarked on a new set of adventures as a postman.
I saw Caroline’s advert in the Dalesman magazine and had wanted to do a story about my life, so I contacted her. After talking on the phone, she came to see me and I was very impressed by what she said she could do. The first visit was to set things out and the ensuing ones were to get all the information that she needed.
The atmosphere of our meetings was relaxed and the story unfolded with no pressure. Caroline has an easy, relaxed manner and a thoroughly professional way. She also consulted my wife, Maureen.
Caroline kept me informed by telephone as to how things were going and if something was not quite right she corrected it. She also helped me to select some nice photographs for the book and incorporated them into the story very well.
Her skills really shine through. If anyone wants to have their story written, without doubt I would recommend Caroline Brannigan as she would do justice to any life story.
All my relatives and friends have been very impressed by the book and say how brilliant it is, well set out and a riveting read. I am surprised how many people have taken to it.
Thank you, Caroline for an excellent job well done, from one very grateful client.
Castleford in West Yorkshire has changed dramatically since Brian Kent was a young boy in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a busy and, for a lad, an exciting place to be with coal mines, furnaces and trains. With his father in a sanatorium and his mother working long hours to keep the family, Brian often had to fend for himself. I think it was only when he told me his story that he realized how much he had had to rely on his own resources.
As a boy he saw it all as an adventure, having a great time with his mates. However, after 1945 when his father died, Brian watched with envy other boys with their dads. It was very moving to hear. Yet Brian has a great sense of humour and a determination to enjoy life, whatever it throws at him. In his thirties he was diagnosed with a serious illness from which he nearly died yet Brian was still cracking jokes from his hospital bed.
The story of how he and his wife Maureen set off for Australia was a fascinating piece of social history which I’m glad to have recorded and many copies of the book have gone Down Under.
I was born in Castleford, West Yorkshire in the mid 1930s. The road is still there but the house has been swept away. Standing on the new green next to a sign saying No Ball Games – a rule I would have ignored as a lad - places me right in the middle of our old front room.
Dad was a miner at Briggs’s Colliery and because the owners didn’t care how much dust miners breathed in, he became one of the many who died from lung disease, in his case TB silicosis. I have faint memories of him playing with me when I was about four. After that he was taken to a sanatorium in the fresh air of Ilkley and I hardly ever saw him again. The 30-mile journey would mean nothing today but with no car and little money, it was hard enough even for my mother to get there. For a while he did get better and came home again but later had to return to the sanatorium. In 1945 came the news that he had died.
Our two-up, two-down house in the Cutsyke area was next-door to the working men’s club and typical of thousands built in the town for people who crowded in during the 19th century in search of jobs. Most swapped a gruelling life on the land for a better paid but dark and dangerous existence down one of Castleford’s five pits. With a canal, the railway and many factories, including a big glass works, it was a busy and in many ways exciting place to grow up in. Lighter industries such as tailoring and rug making employed thousands of women. My mother worked at the rug mill, L.R. Davis, which I can still see from my home today. She was one of the first six workers there when it opened.
The most important of our few rooms was the kitchen with its stone floor, a couple of cupboards, a table and chairs in the middle and a deep stone sink like a trough with a single cold tap. Under the staircase was a pantry for storing food. Fridges were a luxury we saw only in American kitchens in films. My mother cooked on a couple of gas rings. By the time I was about nine, my brother was out at work and so was my mother, because she was now the main breadwinner, so I soon had to learn to rustle up something in a frying pan if I was hungry. During the war fresh eggs were in short supply and I became a dab hand at mixing powdered egg to scramble. Like many hard-up families at that time, we ate an awful lot of bread and jam because it was cheap and filling. I can’t touch it now. What I remember most about childhood meals is that there wasn’t much food at all, a combination of rationing and not having much money.
Light came from gas jets on the walls covered by fragile glass mantles. Returning home from school on winter evenings I had to turn on the gas and light it quickly, then replace the mantle without breaking it. This was a tricky thing to do and one day the mantle slipped from my fingers and shattered. I was in big trouble. Evenings in our small, cosy kitchen were accompanied by the hissing of the gas lights and the crackle of the coal range which had a fire in the middle, an oven on one side and a boiler, our only source of hot water, on the other.
A room at the front had the refinement of wooden floorboards but we rarely went in there because furnishing it was beyond our means. Bikes and other bits and pieces found a home there instead. Like most of the people we knew, we had no bathroom and once a week the tin bath was brought from its peg on the yard wall into the kitchen and filled laboriously with hot water.
Our back yard, which was just dirt, was shared with four other houses and had a block of toilets in which each family had their own. In between were shared wash houses with big stone troughs and mangles where the washing was done. I don’t think there was anywhere to heat water so my mother must have filled a bucket in the kitchen and hauled it outside. A wall separated us from the other yards and houses backing on to us and it was easy for me to scramble over to see my pals. That and the street outside with its barber shop and general store was our little domain.
The narrow stone staircase was very dark even in the daytime and at night was lit by a small gas jet at the top. Upstairs were two bedrooms. My parents slept in the front but most of my memories are of my mother alone. She had a bed and a walk-in cupboard, so she was alright and had somewhere to hang her clothes. The back room contained a double bed which I had to share with my brother. It was very common for children to share and some bigger families were eight to a bed. Our room contained nothing else, apart from a blind at the window, had bare floorboards and was very sparse but we managed. Everyone around us was in more or less the same boat so we didn’t feel hard done by, even though we had a bit less because my mother was a widow.
While my father was alive, our coal store was kept filled by the mining company but when he died, that stopped, just when we needed it most. In the harsh winter after his death, I would be sent with a bucket to ask neighbours for coal and they always gave it if they could for ours was a close-knit community where people looked after each other. There was very little state help for anyone sick, unemployed or widowed.
The muck stacks stood round the pits like mini mountains and were always dotted with kids and adults alike scratting about for anything good enough to burn. It could take all day to fill a sack, then I’d hang it across what we called the stack bike, an old bicycle with no tyres, and push it home, my face, hands and knees grimy with coal dust. Sometimes this waste had sulphur in it which would explode with a bang on the fire but it gave heat so we put up with it. Kids with dads working in the pits who had plenty of coal at home would sell their stack pickings but I needed ours for the range. We weren’t supposed to be there but only half-hearted attempts were made to stop us. Better coal was to be found scattered around the railway trucks waiting to leave but that meant dodging patrols, usually under cover of darkness. Sometimes we’d get chased but could run faster and got away with it. We needed the fuel so I had to do it. Despite all the industry around us, the countryside was never far away and Aketon Woods were another source of free fuel. Today the M62 sweeps right across where I once foraged for sticks and played hide and seek among the trees.
Much has changed since then. My town has been struggling to find a new identity since the pits closed but has various new exciting attractions. The sculptor Henry Moore was born here in 1898 and we’re not far from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. On the site of one of the muck stacks stands Europe’s biggest indoor real-snow slope and people come from all over to ski and snowboard with equipment we never dreamed of. But I was there first! In winter the black gloom of the stacks was transformed by sparkling snow and I’d tie cardboard to my feet, find two sticks and go skiing down the sides, falling in a heap with all my mates.
The air was smoky from the chimneys of the glassworks and the huge ovens where coal was burned to create another kind of fuel called coke, the red glow of the fires clearly visible. Every now and again the town would rock to a crashing sound which I believe was the contents of the furnaces toppling down inside as they burned, like an avalanche. The walk to school skirted round a mine where coal wagons were being shunted around the rail yard with a clanging and a screeching which was thrilling for a small boy.
Denise McCool was born in Leeds, West Yorkshire during World War II, just before the city suffered its biggest air-raid. As the emergency services put out fires and pulled the dead and living from bomb-blasted ruins, Denise slept in her cot in the hospital basement where nurses had taken their patients for safety.
Childhood illnesses caused speaking to come late to Denise but memories of the care she received left her with an ambition to help others and in the 1950s she joined Jimmy’s - St James’s Hospital, Leeds - as a nurse. Not many years before, her parents had struggled to pay doctors’ bills and Denise saw the amazed relief of patients who now had the NHS to look after them. It could also offer a miracle cure, the antibiotic.
Growing up in a remarkable time of change, she remembers the thrill of hearing ‘Rock Around the Clock’ for the first time. After marrying and having four sons, Denise saw the passing of equality laws which allowed her to become one of Leeds’ first full-time postwomen.
Thank you so much for helping me to tell my story. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but had no idea there would be someone out there to help.
Denise’s story shows how many dramatic changes happened during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The NHS and provision of better housing made a huge difference to millions. Sadly for Denise, she just missed out on the wider educational opportunities taken for granted today. She remembers the thrill of hearing Rock Around The Clock for the first time, a mix of excitement and fear, for nothing was every quite the same for teenagers after that. We often had a good laugh doing this book. Denise told me about wearing a hoop under her 1950s skirt to achieve a fashionable wide look, only to sit down and find the hoop, skirt and petticoats flung up to nose level. On a more serious note, to record how much discrimination women faced before laws were changed is an important part of social history.
Stiletto heels had just started to come in with very pointed toes and looked wonderful. We told customers all kinds of awful things like, a pointed toe was actually better for their foot than a comfortable wide one and they were all too happy to believe us. They had only to look at my own feet, clad in low-heeled, well fitting shoes, to see that it wasn’t true. We were on our feet all day apart from breaks so stilettos would have been crippling. The thin stiletto heel had a metal tip which would catch in gratings and drain covers and you’d see women trapped until they could wiggle themselves free.
Naturally I was desperate to have a pair and the first day I put mine on, I felt different. I was no longer a child, I was a young woman. Above the stilettos we wore wonderful dresses with huge full skirts in bright patterns and colours. They were so pretty, their skirts puffed out with layer upon layer of petticoat so they swung as you walked. We soaked the petticoats in sugar to stiffen them up and make them stick out even further. Some women even used a hoop suspended from the waist. I borrowed one from a friend to wear to a party and had never worn one before, nor have I since. Clicking along in my stilettos, my huge skirt swinging and my hair in a long pony tail, I was out to impress. At the party I got a drink, sat down and, whoosh! Up flew the hoop taking my skirt with it up to nose level. The drink went all over me and I did feel a fool.
This was the time when teenagers were first invented. Before then, the generations mostly listened to the same music, did the same dances, watched the same films and listened to the same shows on the radio. In 1955 Bill Haley burst on to the scene with Rock Around The Clock and suddenly we had our own music, rock ’n’ roll. I remember vividly the first time I heard it. I was about 14 and went to the cinema with my cousin where they played it on one of the news reels. The effect on young people in the audience was electrifying. They jumped up, dancing around and some even started ripping out the seats! Part of me was terrified but it was thrilling because the beat really got to you. We’d never heard anything like it before and nothing in the music world was ever the same again. All the old people were condemning it as Satan’s music but we knew it was ours.
Despite being thrilled by the beat, I was never much good at the new dances but had to go because that was one of the only places for someone like me to meet boys. I could shuffle round when needed. There was never any alcohol, just coffee and orange juice. It was always a live band, playing a mixture of old and new numbers, and I loved to see them in their smart, matching coats. I was disappointed when records took over from live performances. You still had to know the old style dances but I was better at the new ones because you could just shake around without worrying about hanging on to a man and stepping on his toes. At the beginning, all the girls lined up against the wall on one side, hoping to be asked to dance by one of the boys lined up opposite. You’d see someone walk towards you and were just about to say how pleased you would be to dance when he’d go up to the girl next to you. Some were in the flamboyant Teddy Boy outfits with long, colourful coats, shoelace tie, black drainpipe trousers and gigantic crepe-soled shoes. If you were 4feet 6inches you’d be 5feet 6inches. All had elaborate DA hairstyles, the hair slicked over at the back with Brylcreem into what people then were too polite to tell me was a “duck’s arse” shape. They were always busy combing. For the older citizens of Leeds it was all too much and even I was a bit nervous seeing them hanging about on street corners but you had to admit they were very smart and clean. I never saw a scruffy one.
In the early 1930s, Thomas Barker kept a couple of cows on his Yorkshire farm to provide milk for the family. His wife Hannah made butter by hand, packed it into her basket and took the bus to market in the nearby town of Northallerton. The farm had no electricity or mains water and power came from horses. As soon as he was old enough to help, their son George learned to milk by hand. By the time he retired from his own dairy farm in 2005, George had reared a pedigree herd of 250 cattle with computers monitoring every stage of the 1.5 million litres of milk produced a year.
Thomas Barker had a saying, “Bad times don’t last for ever, neither do good” - something his son would often recall during the roller-coaster ride of farming.
In this book, George also details the Barker family history, going back to the 17th century, a name often seen around Northallerton today, including the town’s well-known department store.
Don't wait until you are too old, do it now. To make it easier, use a professional writer such as Caroline Brannigan who has the expertise to ask the right questions and bring out your forgotten memories. You owe it to your descendants so they will know what you did with your life. It might encourage them to do the same for their children and grandchildren.
It is astonishing that in one man’s lifetime, his experiences of dairy farming can go from the doldrums of the 1930s to the hi-tech environment of the 21st century. Not only was this a personal memoir, it was a piece of social history. Many of my books contain fascinating stories of farming life which would otherwise never have been told. There were also many wartime anecdotes including the prank theft by Canadian air crew of the golden lion statue from outside Northallerton’s inn of the same name. Tucked away in George’s archive were pre-war farming photos which can now be enjoyed by a wider audience.
He mentions “forgotten memories” in his comments above. That’s one of my strengths. I know a great deal about 20th century social history and can ask people how outside events affected them. For example, I mentioned the terrifying events of the early 1960s when East and West threatened to wipe each other out in a nuclear war. George recalled harvesting potatoes, wondering if anyone would be left alive to eat them, a long forgotten moment. It was fascinating to hear all these stories and to produce a book which will be widely enjoyed.
It is hard to believe that in only one man’s lifetime we have gone from hand milking into unsterilized buckets to the fast, efficient and hygienic methods of today. Some older people say pasteurized doesn’t have the delicious flavour of the untreated milk of the past but neither does it have the dangers.
Every day of the year, night and morning, my father and our farm lad had to do the milking, with me and my dog helping to get the cows in from the fields in the afternoons, if it was summer. Once my father could sell milk to the Milk Marketing Board, he began to keep a few more cows. By the time I was ten I was given one cow to milk before leaving for school and again on my return. By the time we got a milking machine, there were about ten to twelve cows milking. Do you know how many squirts there are in a pint of milk (about half a litre)? Depending on the cow, whether it’s a good milker or hard-drawn, there are about 400. Cows weren’t giving big yields in those days, when getting a gallon at night and upwards of two in the morning was considered good. But that was still an awful lot of squirts for a little boy’s hands. At first my fingers ached but gradually the muscles grew stronger.
Milking took place in the cow shed where I’d sit on a three-legged wooden stool, my forehead laid against the rough, warm flank of the cow and the bucket standing precariously on the straw beneath. My father held his between his knees but I couldn’t manage that and sometimes the cow would kick the bucket over, especially if there were flies about and she got fidgety. Many years later I got kicked in the mouth and lost part of a front tooth. The dentist had to take the other one out as well and so I had false teeth from very early on in my life.
Full buckets were poured into 10-gallon churns where they were then taken two at a time, first on a wheelbarrow and then when we got more than two on a wooden trolley to the milk stand at the road end. They were covered with wet sacking on hot days until it was collected. The lorry was open-topped and rattled along the lanes from farm to farm with up to 50 churns secured by a chain for delivery to the dried milk factory in Northallerton. Our record was six churns in a day. Sometimes a churn would be returned the next day as being sour. It depended on who sniffed it. They used to have someone at the dairy called a ‘sniffer’ and if he didn’t like the smell, it was sent back and you didn’t get paid. One day my father got mad about this and put the same milk back on the stand with a different label and it didn’t come back.
In spring my father and Stan would pen the sheep then clip the wool by hand, sharpening the sheers on a stone between clipping each sheep, then my mother and I would roll up the fleeces ready for sale. Every now and again we would herd the flock to my grandfather’s dipping trough. We had a new tup every year and a new bull every three years. At lambing time a cardboard box always stood by the fire in the kitchen holding a frail one which, if it survived, would be fed on cow’s milk from a bottle. We often had pet lambs. Pig killing day was an important event when a relative, a butcher, came up to do the deed. He’d say to me, “You keep back and get ready. I want you to catch the pig’s squeak!” An old tooth off a binder was adapted and with a sharp point the pig was hit with it between the eyes using a hammer and the pig dropped dead instantly. It didn’t have much time to get scared.
Pig killing was always done on a Saturday. On Sunday, the carcass would be cut up and my father would lay the pieces in a shallow, lead bath filled with salt and salt petre and leave them to cure into ham or bacon. In the kitchen my mother and Mary were busy rendering down the fat in a huge pan and pouring it into jars. The blood was mixed with oatmeal to make black pudding. The liver, kidneys and other offal were shared around the community because we couldn’t eat it all at once and with no fridges or freezer, it wouldn’t keep.
It is only since I have been collecting my ideas for this story that I have realized what hard work life was in those days! Harvest saw my father and his workers striding to a corn field with their scythes to clear a path round the edges along which the horses could pull the binder without trampling on any of the crop.
With a clear path cut, the horses would be hitched to the binder, an unwieldy-looking contraption with a long sharp blade to cut the stems which then passed on to great swirling sails, as they were called, which rotated rather like a windmill to scoop up the cut crop and drop it on to canvas collection sheets. They were then pushed into another section to be tied with string and the sheaf dropped to the side. The sheaves had to be picked up by hand and stacked in stooks to dry before the laborious job of building a stack in which the grain would stay safe and dry until winter provided enough time for thrashing. Once a year the canvases of the binder had to be dismantled and sent to the saddler to have their leather straps repaired.
Harvest time and hay time meant everyone helping and I would come home with the sticky tops of barley horns stuck to my clothes. I soon learned to cover my arms to avoid a thousand tiny cuts and to protect my clothes with an old sack. Once the wind and sun had done their job, out we went again on the cart to collect the crop before the rains could ruin them. My hands became filthy with bird muck, for crows loved sitting on the stooks and had left their mark on them. Young lads were always put on top to load the cart and I had to know what I was doing, putting the heads to the middle while keeping a close eye on the weather. The sides of the cart were low but above rose the open shelvings, which had been added on to make the area bigger. With a man on one side forking up sheaves and sending them sailing up to the top of the cart for me to catch, I was kept very busy, often dusty and hot. By the time I had risen eight feet or so up from the cart, it was time to clamber down, fasten ropes to hold it in place and start filling the next one which had come back from the stack yard and stood ready and waiting.
Hay time was much earlier, usually around late June, the grass cut and left to dry much as it is today. A machine with twirling legs like a huge spider was pulled by a horse along the rows to turn it, someone following with a fork to shake out any big lumps. Once it had dried off, it was raked up into long swathes and was stacked up loosely into haycocks to finish the process. I can remember it taking ages in a wet season between showers to dry out enough to be stacked, my father frowning as he watched it deteriorate and turn brown. June is not always a kind month for hay making. Suddenly one day my father would give the order to collect the hay with everyone heading to the fields with rakes and forks to load the carts. Sometimes a horse-drawn hay sweep was used to pull the haycocks along the ground back to the stack yard. Hay was our most valuable crop because it was a good feed, so it was built into square stacks under the protection of the pointed roof of our Dutch barn. Stack building was a skill now almost lost but vital then if crops were to be preserved from the weather. A haystack began with a layer of straw to keep the hay off the damp soil. A forkful of hay was forked up to a picker, then on to a stacker who placed it carefully making sure to keep straight sides within the Dutch barn. Sometimes the close-packed hay started to warm up and move, so a wooden prop was added. Wheat was better able to shed rain off the ends of the straw and it was often stacked outside, the pointed tops thatched with straw to keep the rain off. It was an extraordinary amount of manual labour to produce relatively little.
Farmers didn’t have the technology to both cut the crop and remove the grain at the same time, as combine harvesters do now. Getting the grain off the stems is called thrashing by farmers, though the boffins think it’s called threshing. This mainly took place in winter. Thrashing days were an exciting time for a small boy. Early in the morning, a great hissing and clunking could be heard from the lane as the steam traction engine trundled along, hauling the thrashing machine. My first memory goes back to 1939 and I watched this heavy monster rolling across our field towards the stack yard and then sinking down hopelessly into the mud. My father had to get planks of wood to help it escape. Farmers had to provide the coal and someone had to go to Ainderby Station to collect a load. The cart would be weighed empty, then led beneath a large hopper from which the coal would cascade, then weighed again for the bill.
Men would pick apart the stacks, forking the sheaves onto the top of the thrasher where the binder twine was cut and passed to someone who fed the sheaves down on to the huge, speeding revolving drum, shaking the grain out to fall through several sieves of different sizes, so the bigger and best grains were diverted into sacks. Smaller grains (seconds) went into other sacks. Bags of wheat weighing 18 stone (114kg) were loaded onto backs and carried up granary steps and tipped on to the floor or left stored in sacks. By the time I was 18, I was carrying these huge sacks myself. Barley was in 16 stone bags. It wouldn’t be allowed today.
Our farm had several thrashing days each winter and they were good ratting days, with Punch in a frenzy as the rats fled the diminishing stacks. People stood about with sticks to attack the animals which threatened the food on their table. Many of our neighbours came to help as we would help them. My father would take samples of his wheat down to Northallerton, laying the grains out in his hand. Buyers would bite a grain and if it pleased them would say, “How many quarters of this do you have, Mr Barker?” Wheat was always sold in quarters. A quarter was 560 lbs or a fourth of a ton in weight.
When autumn arrived animals were housed inside and Stan our horseman took a sharp, V-shaped hay spade to cut a large square chunk out of the stack for the horses and my father cut the hay for the cattle. During the long months indoors, our cows stood eight in one byre, twelve in the other, plus the bull, poky little places you can’t imagine keeping cattle in today.
Terry Baker was born in 1936 near the harbour in Scarborough, known as the Bottom End of town, and lived there with his family until a wartime parachute mine blew the roof off their home, with them inside.
As far as young Terry was concerned, that was just another adventure in a life full of mischief and mishap - sledging down a snowy street on a stolen ladder, hanging on to a rope as his brother went over a cliff edge to take seagulls' eggs and dodging bullets from an enemy plane.
As a high-spirited little boy, he led his parents and teachers a merry dance. Today, Terry and his wife Kath are keen ballroom dancers.
At 17, he joined the Army and began a life-long love of wildlife as he found himself first in Kenya, then Malaya.
Terry also tells the story of the ups and downs of his steel construction business, including his dramatic years in The Falkland Islands just after the war with Argentina, and his eventual move to running a 1,000-acre game shoot on the outskirts of his home town.
I didn't listen much when I was at school. It was all a bit boring. Only when I left did I wish I'd paid more attention and since then I've learned a lot, running my own business and handling big contracts. But I still have a hang-up about my writing, so Caroline's service was ideal. I thought she was going to be a stern, teacher-like figure wearing a big hat and telling me off. She wasn't a bit like that and we ended up having a good laugh. The photographs she took for the cover are excellent. I'd like to thank her for the many miles travelled and the hours spent in compiling this book. I held a launch party for my book in a hotel, attended by about 40 relatives and friends. It was a good night.
I'd like to thank Terry for saving my life - or at least my dignity - when, taking the photograph for his book cover, I was about to back into a large ditch. Terry has had several different careers and travelled extensively. I worked with him at the beginning to create a 'map' of where we were going so that the end structure would be right. This is one of the most difficult problems faced by those wanting to write their own stories. Like most clients, Terry kept thinking of more things as we went along and we had to work hard on getting the dates and chronology right. Some of his stories are very funny, others unprintable, on which I gave sensible advice, having had a good laugh over them first.
When I joined The Army aged 17 in January 1954, I left Scarborough for the first time. I'd never been on a train before. The furthest I'd been on a bus was a few miles for Sunday school outings. I'd never seen a city and Mr Crosby, who wasn't pleased that I was leaving his farm, warned me grimly, "You'll regret the day you get down to see the big city" but I took not a bit of notice because I wanted to see for myself.
Because I'd signed up blindly for the Rifle Brigade, I wasn't in a Yorkshire regiment but was sent to a training camp at Winchester. As the train set off from Scarborough, I could see my mother and everyone else standing by the fence beside the Mere waving me off. I was very excited as the train picked up speed. I couldn't believe that after years of seeing them coming and going, I was on one at last. I had never travelled at such a speed and couldn't wait to see what the difference was between a town and a city.
The little train from Scarborough pulled under the vast canopy of York railway station where I had to find the London express. Hundreds of people were milling around and trains, puffing steam and smoke into the air, were coming and going from all different places. It all felt very strange.
So inexperienced was I that I didn't know what a platform was. I asked a porter where the London train was and he replied, "You want to be down there on that platform." So I asked, innocently, "What's a platform?" In my mind it was a wooden stage that you stood on. He came back a bit sharpish, "Don't you know what a platform is? Are y' a bit thick." And so I said, "I must be else I wouldn't be here!"
Somehow I found the right place and stood with my single suitcase by my feet as the biggest locomotive I'd ever seen came chugging into the station spraying soot everywhere and hauling more coaches than I could see the end of. There was a garbled announcement over the loud speaker but I just managed to catch the word London and off we went.
At King's Cross I had to find my way to Waterloo so I went to a desk and was directed down some steps to buy a ticket on the Underground. Everyone else seemed to know exactly where they were going as fast as they possibly could but I didn't even know what the Underground was.
Few had the time of day for a young lad from Scarborough. To the annoyance of those behind me, I was completely taken aback by the sight of escalators rumbling their way down into the depths but took a deep breath and stepped out. Tunnels weaved left and right I must have asked a dozen people along the way for directions.
Their London accents, some posh like on the radio and some not, were a shock to my ear. The Tube maps on the walls were a complete mystery to me and I wondered if perhaps I should have paid more attention at school for my reading wasn't very good. When you can't read what you're looking for, you start to wonder, "What the hell am I doing here?"
I was a busy mother with two young children when one day I bent down to put the washing on and felt a searing pain shoot through my head. Doctors thought at first it was a virus which would go away. It didn’t. Later my family were given the devastating news that I had suffered an aneurism - a bleed on the brain - and that I had a less than one per cent chance of survival.
Most made their final goodbyes but not my husband Simon. He decided this was a chance, however small, and that his wife would take it. And I did. Simon was my general, he went into battle for me, but it was a long and rocky road back to good health. Having astounded my medical team, I now want to share the story of what happened to us, of how my Christian faith comforted and inspired me and how I am at last winning a life-long battle against my weight.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my story would make such an amazing book. Caroline has done an incredible job in a wonderfully sympathetic way. Thank you Caroline, I shall forever be indebted to you. My book is my future.
Working with Sally-Anne and her husband Simon was a mixture of laughter and tears. Our greatest challenge was the structure, sorting out what happened and when. This was an intensely personal story about tough times. Sally-Anne showed great courage and I’m proud she felt I helped her to tell the story with empathy, gently guiding and advising along a road with many potential pitfalls. One of Sally-Anne’s friends said after reading the book, “I was worried she wouldn’t get you, but she has, absolutely” which is what I like to hear. Sally-Anne was a hugely inspiring person to work with and I’m proud to have written this book for her.
My memory is still rather muddled after the move to the acute stroke ward in York in November. I had to learn to do things all over again – walking, talking properly, dressing, washing, making a sandwich. My occupational therapist Lois and I clicked immediately and that was a major factor in my recovery.
At first I couldn’t eat and was on a drip. The first days were full of tests on my voice, my swallowing and all kinds of other things. They forced me to sit for a long time in a chair when I’d much rather have lain in bed but it was the first step in strengthening my muscles. I hated it, I felt so tired. “Is it time yet?” I’d be hollering every five minutes. I was a pain. The nurses were fantastic, patient and kind but firm about the things they knew were essential.
When Simon wasn’t there, I was desperately anxious and felt lost without a phone to link me to the outside world which seemed such a remote place now but they wouldn’t let me have one at that stage.
Every now and again a strange but kindly face would appear at my bedside, one of the religious people who visit hospitals offering comfort, prayers and texts to anyone wanting them. From one lovely lady I bought a wooden cross and from then on hugged it to me for comfort. Above the bed hung a washing line of photographs of the children, of me, of Simon, letters and cards. In a little black clutch bag I kept by me were some architectural drawings of Headlands, the house we wanted to build, which I’d look at and think, “I hope that happens.”
Thanks to Simon’s rota, which now could have a lot more names on it, I had a visitor every lunchtime and every evening until I came out. By now the prolonged stress was taking its toll on my husband. Every time he sat down at home he fell fast asleep but never missed visiting time. Christmas was speeding towards us and he had hundreds of geese to prepare for the table, spending two days up to his neck in feathers. I surprised him by remembering an order from months before about which he’d forgotten completely. It was a reassuring clue that my memory was still intact.
We had many happy memories of past Christmas Days. My favourite meal of the year is Christmas lunch with one of our own geese. Simon cooks it like nobody else and he was determined that this Christmas would be as good as it possibly could. After leaving my bedside on Christmas Eve, he stayed up for hours making preparations and didn’t get to bed until after 2am. Then he was up again at 6.30am as the children attacked their stockings and because he had a goose to cook.
Christmas was brought to York District Hospital and it was brought big-style. Our wonderful friend Wendy had been out and bought the children presents, wrapped them and put them in sacks because Santa was making a special extra delivery to the hospital. It makes my cry to think about it.
At lunchtime Simon appeared in the ward carrying my best oval serving dish on which sat a goose cooked to perfection, surrounded by roast potatoes and all the trimmings. The hospital kitchen provided the vegetables and all the nurses were really excited. “We’ve never had goose before!” they said. We sat round the table and ate this wonderful feast.
After leaving me about 3.30pm, Simon went to his parents and then on to mine so both sets of grandparents could see the children. Afterwards he took them home and shot back to York for evening visiting. I just don’t know how he did it.
Christmas was a bright spot in a gruelling time for all of us. With the help of Gareth, my physiotherapist, I had to learn to walk again. From the ward I would be wheeled in my chair into the physiotherapy room where two parallel bars stood on which I had to balance myself and try to move my reluctant feet. It was such hard work. I felt pathetic.
But I wasn’t going to give up and one day, with Simon, the children and some friends there for the occasion, I walked the entire length of these bars, about three metres, and I felt euphoric, as if I’d completed a marathon. They were all clapping and cheering and Simon says I had a big grin on my face.
Washing progressed from bed baths to showers in a wheelchair and then on my feet. My co-ordination was all to pot and when they tried to teach me to blow-dry my hair, I couldn’t manage it. From early on Simon had contacted a friend of mine who was a hairdresser and said, “Can you come in and sort Sally-Anne out? She looks a mess” and it boosted my self esteem to look presentable. It was a step toward the normal, the ordinary.
Peter Pybus was born in Hendon, Sunderland, in 1936. “Oh my God, that’s the backside of the town!” people told him later. Well, maybe it is, but there’s good people in every town, he says. You can’t help where you’re born.
Peter went on to set up his own business selling seed all over the North East from his base in the Yorkshire Dales, somehow also fitting in working as a Special Constable and secretary of the North Yorkshire County Show. A huge fan of Scottish dancing, Peter picked the title of his book, saying, “Everyone will know that’s me!”
He survived bombing by the Nazis and, as a founder member of the Federation of Small Businesses, continues to wage war on red tape and people sadly lacking those two vital senses: common sense and a sense of humour.
Why write a book? Many of my friends and customers said that I should but I gave up the idea long ago. However, by accident or good fortune, I met Caroline Brannigan. Over a cup of tea she explained all the requirements and has written this book for me in a very professional manner.
It took five or six sessions of two hours each session talking to Caroline, who recorded our conversations on tape. From these recordings, she has produced a first class book.
I can highly recommend her to anyone who might think it is impossible to put their memories into words. Don’t delay, start today!
Working with Peter G. Pybus was a highly entertaining experience. Though his life has not been a laugh every minute, far from it, he showed a sense of humour and strength of character which I admired. I can’t say too much more or he’ll accuse me of “flannel”. He was a classic example of the kind of person for whom I set up this business, someone with interesting stories to tell who would never have the time or inclination to write them down himself. I am also glad to have put down his memories of the Sunderland blitz to remind future generations that it wasn’t just London that suffered.
When I was chairman of the Parish Council, three bins for dog waste were provided by the district council. Later I had a call from a woman at the town hall to ask how things were going. I told her, “They’re wonderful. There’s only one little fault, my Jack Russell can’t reach them.”
Common sense went out of the window. She started to tell me how to use a doggie bin and I could not believe what I was hearing. There was me, chairman of the Parish Council, being told how to collect dog dirt.
(and from a later part of the book)
In early 2010 I got an invitation to go to 10 Downing Street, and I thought, “I wonder who lives there?” Anyway, I went down and it was amazing what a huge complex there is behind that small façade. The Prime Minster was missing, in Brussels, no doubt signing off another bit of red tape with which to strangle small businesses.
There was a big crowd in of about 150 from all kinds of groups including the Institute of Directors and the CBI. Alan Sugar was there and wormy Mandelson, both of whom I can’t stand. Much too smooth, both of them. They can turn any negative into a positive. They don’t look you in the eye but anywhere else. Beware anybody who can’t look you in the face, that’s what I’ve always thought. I felt like saying, “Oi! I’m over here!” They were the only two dignitaries who were circulating and both got an awful lot of stick.
Sugar had come out with a statement saying that Government couldn’t be expected to support businesses that were going under if it was their own fault. I overheard a dairy farmer getting at him, “I’m getting 16p a litre for my bloody milk and it costs me 26p to produce it. Is that my fault?” Sugar’s answer was, “Sell your cows.” I thought that farmer was going to explode. “Who the hell’s going to buy them?” he asked. But of course there were never any answers.
I also heard this farmer say, “The trouble with you lot is you get into London and there’s a skin round you. You haven’t any idea what’s happening outside.” He was furious, and the language, well, Downing Street or not he expressed himself plainly.
Mandelson was worming his way round and you could hear him repeating himself, “It’s a worldwide recession, a worldwide recession …. ” like a cracked record, till we were sick of it. The Labour Party had had nothing to do with it. He was getting heckled relentlessly but I have no doubt that our visit there made no difference whatsoever. Then they were voted out anyway.