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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories





"How much is that doggie in the window? The one with the waggley tail"
Bob Merrill (Popular song 1953)

What tail?

It is true that when I was old enough to ask where I came from, no one would tell me, so I eventually asked the wise woman. That was my granny.

"Well", she said, "there was a gypsy caravan going past our gate one day in Spawd Bone Lane and when it had gone we found you on the road. You must have dropped off the back.”

Is there little wonder that for some time I had the feeling of being an abandoned child? Did this mean that I was an orphan, was I adopted?

Then there was my inevitable second question. The one that all parents of that era avoided because as I know now it involved that taboo subject of sex. Still, it was a perfectly reasonable question for a child of any age to ask, or so I thought at the time.

My mother told me I was born at Walton Hall. She always told me the truth when I asked her but she did not always tell me the whole truth. It think she was what is known as, economical with family background. It wasn't until years later that I eventually discovered there were no hidden skeletons in our family closet, but maybe, just maybe, there were one or two old bones.

We were, I was to discover later, a large, widely spread family; heaven help the person who tried to research our ancestral tree. My maternal grandmother was one of thirteen, my mother one of four. I never really discovered how many there were on my father’s side, that was a closely guarded secret and maybe for good reason. The truth is I never did find out and even to this day I still come across the odd relative or two lurking in the shadows ready to jump out and take me by surprise. We were, by all accounts, a large family on both sides of the divide. To a small person like me it was so difficult to remember them all; they just seemed to appear everywhere I went. To this day, I do not think that I ever knew one half of my relatives, who they were or where they came from, or even why some of them were kept well under wraps.

In the main, the family name was either Ellis or Harris and this is where the confusion lay. My grandmother’s maiden name was Ellis; she came from Castleford, and married a James Harris whose family originated from the Staffordshire potteries. They migrated northward towards the middle of the 19th century, arriving in Castleford to work in the local pottery or the glass industry. My mother married Ernest Ellis from Knottingley, but he was not of the same tribe. His family worked either at the Ferrybridge Pottery, Bagley's Glassworks or at Garlick's Shipyard. Confused?, if so then try to understand my problem. It could have got even worse because the first girlfriend I ever had was called Harris; she was from Normanton, that being well within spitting distance of Castleford. Just imagine the consequences of that liaison!

Maybe it was because of all this that I was so inquisitive from an early age, especially when it came to family matters. As my father once told me, once I started to talk, I just kept on talking.

"Better not tell him too much, he will let something slip out when he's not meant to.”

Whether, he actually said that I don't know, but I was certainly drip fed when it came to knowing about far-flung family and friends.

Just to confuse things further, I came from one of those families in which I also had a myriad of aunts, uncles and cousins and then an even larger group of surrogate relatives. "Who was that?”, I would ask. "Oh that is your uncle so and so”, or “aunt what's her name". Still most of them patted me on the head and bought me a present for Christmas or birthday, so was I bovvered?

Of these strange surrogates there was my Uncle Harold, a self-appointed relative who was married to Aunty Dolly, whom I always called aunt and uncle up to the age of being seven, only to find out that they were only family friends. It became very awkward when I discovered that he also taught in a school, my school, and was to become one of my junior school teachers. No favours to be had there I soon found out - that is unless he wanted to come over and watch a football match on BBC 2 on a Saturday afternoon. "Ask your Dad if he will be watching the football on Saturday afternoon, there's a good lad."

Then there was Aunty Polly and Uncle Joe who was a real Frankie Howard look-alike in both sound and vision. They were a lovely pair and you could always be guaranteed of a laugh when they were around.

I was born on 2nd November 1945 at Walton Hall, something of which I have always been rather proud. It was to be 21 years from being carried through the double fronted door, crossing the cast iron footbridge that spanned the lake, to my going back. For those who do not know this place, it is a small stately home just outside Wakefield set in the most stunning of settings. During the war years most major hospitals throughout the country were made ready to receive war wounded, particularly in preparation for the expected casualties coming back from the second front. As a result, Walton Hall and other similar large grand houses were commandeered to serve as Maternity Hospitals to cope with the baby boom that was expected following the hostilities.

Walton Hall was once the home of the eccentric naturalist Squire Charles Waterton who was born there in 1804. The family had plantation interests in Guyana to which the young Charles was sent. In 1812 he started to explore the hinterland around the estate of which he wrote about in his book, Waterton's Wonderings in South America. He was a skilled taxidermist and is credited with bringing back from his travels the anaesthetics agent Curare, when he eventually returned to the family home in 1820.

As a taxidermist he displayed his stuffed animals at Walton Hall, many of which can still be seen today, now exhibited in the Wakefield City Museum. Later he built a nine feet high wall around the estate, turning the park into what is credited to be the world's first nature reserve.

My father always told me the tale, that when he and my grandmother went to bring mother and me home after her confinement there was one pea souper of a fog. It was so bad that the ambulancemen got lost and ended up in a ploughed field. That was one heck of a start in life, don't you think? And I have been ploughing through life's fog ever since.

My grandmother Edith Harris was my greatest influence from the start, but to call her the wise women now appears to me as an understatement. She was always there when I needed her; if I was ill she came to help. Every Monday before I started school, she would walk up from Pear Tree Cottage in Spawd Bone Lane to look after and entertain me whilst my mum did the weekly wash. Of course like all housewives, washday was on Monday, Tuesday was ironing day and grocery delivery, Wednesday upstairs cleaning, Thursday it was the turn of downstairs, Friday baking day, Saturday up to Pontefract for a browse and to do some weekend shopping and at last Sunday the weekly day of rest. That is of course with the exception of the cooking of traditional Sunday lunch, which took up most of the day anyway if you included the vast amount of washing up that was to follow.

My grandmother always walked up to our house on Mondays because she did not trust the buses. "It could take you and drop you anywhere, they never go where you want them to go". The truth of the matter is that she once got on the wrong bus, one that said Pontefract on the front but what she failed to notice was the colour blue of South Yorkshire, not the green of the West Riding service. Although it clearly said Pontefract on the indicator board, the route this service took went to Pontefract via Ferrybridge and not past the end of Warren Avenue. She was in a bit of a state by the time she eventually arrived and for the remainder of her life never again trusted herself to get on a bus. I have thought of this many times and if I see the advert for MARS in bold red letters on the side of a bus I think of my grandmother, because buses don't go there either.

I am lucky, that I hold a very good memory. Although I may not remember now every time that I go upstairs what it is exactly that I am going for, I am able to recall events during those early years before I started school and the majority of incidents, major and trivial, throughout my school life.

One of my earliest memories before I started school was of Sam and Jim coming to paint the house maroon and cream. Weren't they nearly all that colour in the late 1940's? Being at the time somewhat defective in my speech, I could only say "Tam and Dim." On one of these days Sam had lost his paint brushes and both of these very amiable guys searched high and low whilst I watched with some amusement. It was only when Mr. Cooper, our long suffering neighbour across the fence found them in his garden that everyone realised that it was me who threw them there.

Everything went into Mr. Coopers; cricket balls, footballs, house keys, pegs from the washing line, Dad's tools, you name it, it all went that way, and eventually I was told by the Coopers in no uncertain terms …"You must never go near my fence again".

I suppose they were lucky to escape with just losing their paintbrushes. I was supposed to be the terror of the neighbourhood and had a reputation to live up to in those days, or so old Mr. Hilley told my mother. He lived four doors up and one day he was cleaning the guttering of his house and, needing to go inside for a bucket, he emerged to find me at the very top of the ladder peering with curiosity into the guttering. Poor old Mr. Hilley, he did not know whether to call to me and risk me turning and falling, or slowly and quietly climb the ladder and carry me down. Thankfully, he decided on the latter, and home I went tucked firmly under the old man's arm. From then on for some reason he banned me for ever from his garden. It appeared that I was fast running out of spaces to play, but the start of school came to the rescue and I would imagine this was to the great relief of all the neighbours.

The most remarkable thing about my mother was that she was never one to panic, although I think I gave her a few shocks over the years. She certainly went snow white very young but so did my grandmother and by the age of 30 I too was showing signs of this inherent family characteristic.

In those days even at the age of four, children were able to wander freely, and I did. To be honest I have never stopped; talk about developing an early wanderlust. Little Alan Woodhead up the avenue was my first playmate; we were of the same age, born within several days of each other and the only post war babies in the avenue. From the time he first toddled down to our house or me to his, we were pals. Warren Avenue in which we lived was surrounded by fields in those early post war days and before starting school we knew every inch of our territory and well beyond. He had two older sisters but as boys we did not like them very much, so I cannot recall me and Alan ever playing doctors and nurses or mums and dads with them. I must say we did gallop across a few plains together, these being the farmer's fields next door to where he lived. We made bows and arrows from elder branches that always snapped to give us a nasty bang on the head.

My mother was always keen on keeping me healthy and because of the continued post war rationing she had an allowance for orange juice and bottles of cod liver oil. Not every child enjoyed this concoction, but I did, so mum always made other parents aware, so they would sell or exchange their unwanted coupons. I remember going to the Food Office in Bridge Street to collect the bottles; I must have been the healthiest little fellow in the town. That was, until I caught the measles, followed closely by the whooping cough, all of these child ailments within a matter of weeks. Great, get them all out of the way before starting school because there certainly was very little time taken off once I got started - my mother saw to that.

First of all it was the measles. Surprisingly I can remember the occasion well. I lay in a bed that had been brought downstairs and placed next to the fire. I lay there with a horrible sticky mass of ointment and cotton wool on my chest, which I suppose was for the itchy, spotty bits. Then Dr. Murphy came to visit and in his unforgettable Irish accent came into the room singing, "Oi tought oi tor a puddy tat a creepin' up on me…" Bless him; he was only trying to cheer me up.

The strangest of things happened in that week as I lay in bed, or so I was told many years later. A lady living two doors down from Alan came to see my mother. She said that Alan and I had been in her garden and pulled all the heads off her tulips. And what is more, she had seen us doing it through the window. First my mother asked her why she did not prevent us, for which she did not have an answer. Then she asked what was she going to do about it. "Well nothing, because Alan and Roger have been in bed all week with measles. So they could not have done it." She told me this story many years later. Alan's mum later found out that she had not seen us, she only assumed that it was us because we were the youngest and the local likely lads, 'the ones most likely to'… In the event it turned out to be her son that had done the evil deed.
Now for a few more of my relatives, and there are rather a lot of these to choose from bona fide to surrogate.

Great Aunt Ada and Uncle Dick Thwaites were an old-fashioned couple who were most suited to each other. They were throw backs to more genteel times; they even looked out of place in the changing world of the early fifties. To say the least, they were an anachronism more suited to a glorious bygone age of Edwardian splendour. Neither did these two fit into our family pattern of hard work, although I would not deny that to get where they did they must have worked very hard at some point in their lives. Unlike all of my other true uncles, Uncle Dick did not have the traditional family workshop at the bottom of his garden, he did not keep hens, there were no children, but what he did have was his own bungalow in Otley, and a car! None of this was hardly surprising really in a town like Otley where a car and ones own home was an obligatory part of the retirement scene. In addition to all of this, which I suppose in the late forties and early fifties showed progress, they were highly religious. Not that the rest of our family did not go to church because the majority were Methodists, or Wesleyans as gran would call them. But these two were staunch believers, well steeped in Methodist dogma, so much so that Uncle Dick always wore a 'dog collar' just like our own minister did on Sundays. "Mum, why does Uncle Dick wear a dog collar. Is he a Minister too?” I once asked, the answer to which was short and sweet. "No love, but he is very religious", was what she said. I don't think I questioned her anymore on the subject, but over the years I have thought about it a lot.

Roger Ellis


Also by Roger Ellis:

Legend of the Iron Man
In The, friends and other pets
School Days is Happy Daze

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