IN THE BEGINNING
OF MY FAMILY, FRIENDS AND OTHER PETS
"How much is that doggie in the window? The
one with the waggley tail"
Bob Merrill (Popular song 1953)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Also by Roger Ellis:
Legend of the Iron Man
In The Beginning...family,
friends and other pets
School Days is Happy Daze