IN THE BEGINNING
OF MY FAMILY, FRIENDS AND OTHER PETS
One day in summer when I was very young, still
at the age where I still had to hold a hand when traffic was about, I
remember going on the bus to Leeds then catching another one out to Otley
with my mother and grandmother. To me it was a journey to the Venus or
Mars of the Dan Dare stories. I had never been this far from home except
when we went on our annual holiday to Filey. Gran was always pleased to go
and see her younger sister Ada, whom as a child she had virtually brought
up herself because of the size of family they both came from. I understand
this was a late Victorian early Edwardian tradition in large family
groups, where the older sisters would take the responsibility of raising
the younger ones, these being Ada and my Uncle Tom, of whom we shall hear
more of later. However, this was the first time that I had visited Otley,
just the place for Uncle Dick and Aunt Ada I thought, they surely fitted
well into the local community, Methodism and church social life.
For those who do not know Otley, it is on the North side of Leeds and the
first town one encounters when travelling from Airedale into Wharfedale.
In those days it was one heck of a journey from Knottingley by bus. It
took us a least two hours and we would arrive just in time for dinner. Now
on this, my first visit, when we were all sat down to our Yorkshire
puddings which by household tradition always came first. There I was knife
and fork in hand and well into my first mouthful and ready for the next
one when…"For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly
thankful"…Pause…"Aaa m e n". This eulogy and long amen came from Uncle
Dick who sat eyes closed and motionless at the end of the table complete
with clerical collar and handle bar moustache. He could easily have
doubled as one of the Earp brothers with that moustache, although I could
not see him with guns blazing at the OK Corral. There I was with a
mouthful of Yorkshire pudding and with another piece stuck on the end of
my fork ready to follow. Mother and Grandmother did not think to warn me
of this, but boy, was I ready for the next prayer after we had eaten,
hands together and with one eye open I saw my grandmother smiling,
accompanied by a sharp tap on the shins.
As to the Yorkshire pudding, I asked my aunt Ada why it was that we always
had it before the meal and never to finish with like normal people. She
said that the tradition went back as far as the Wars of the Roses which
were fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York. "This was some time
ago, well before I was born", she said, not quite remembering when. In
those days the pudding, in this case Yorkshire, like all others desserts,
was left until after the meal. "Anyway, whilst the brave Yorkshire
soldiers were eating their roast beef, mashed and baked potatoes and two
veg with gravy, those thieving, cowardly soldiers from Lancashire crept
into the kitchen and stole all of the puddings which was a bit of a blow.
So, to prevent that ever happening again, we always eat our puddings
first, this being the best part of the meal and too good to be stolen".
It is funny now looking back that I was brought up on these quirky little
stories from one or the other of my older family. However, she assured me
that it was true and Aunt Ada being a good Methodist and closer to God
than anyone I knew, I always believed her and still do to this day.
Especially, as Uncle Dick wore a dog collar.
The car my Uncle Dick drove was, I think, a black pre-war Austin Seven,
with discoloured yellow glass in the windows and leather interior that
smelled of Aunt Ada's mothballed fox fur that she always wore when
visiting and Uncle Dick's pipe tobacco. How I wish that I had this old
heap of metal today, but unfortunately the car and Uncle Dick came to a
very sad end.
Aunt Ada went to the ladies sewing meeting at the Methodist church in
Otley every Friday morning. Uncle Dick would always drop her off in the
middle of the town and then drive home. Now, I knew that he was not a well
man because he had a foul chest and was always coughing, I was told later
that he had congestive heart failure. However, on this particular morning
having dropped my aunt off at the church he set off back to the bungalow.
On the way he had a major heart attack at the wheel from which he died
instantly. The car went out of control, ran across the main road and
through the Co-op Funeral Parlour window where it parked itself neatly in
the showroom. Whether they got the job or not I never did find out but
aunt Ada sold up and came to live in Knottingley where she settled for her
few remaining years.
I remember the house on Carter Square very well; it was once part of the
old Knottingley poor house. It must have been quite a change for her from
living in peaceful Otley were everybody appeared to be the same age,
either elderly or just simply very old. Aunt Ada had what at sometime must
have been very good and expensive furniture. This made the house look dark
and gloomy, although it was decorated throughout when she moved from Otley.
It had an outside toilet, but my old Aunt was having none of this, she
told me…"I haven't used an outside toilet since I lived with my parents in
Castleford, and I am not going to have one now". So there, I thought,
that's telling you.
The first thing she did was to have one corner of the kitchen converted
and a toilet plumbed in under the stairs. Those stairs were so steep even
I had to use both hand rails to climb up them. Goodness knows how my aunt
at ninety managed, but she did until the time came that she was ill and
her bed needed to be brought down into her front parlour, as she always
called it. I believe she was the only one in our family to have a parlour;
everyone else had a front room that was only ever used on Christmas Day. I
remember my Dad carrying hot coals from the living room into the back room
on a shovel and after several smokey attempts, managed to get a blazing
fire going. All this had to be done before the dinner and in time for King
George's Christmas Speech on the radio.
Anyway, Aunt Ada's house was full of what eventually would become known as
"Victoriana or knick-knacks" as she called them. The display cabinet was
packed with China ornaments and other prized bits that I learned came from
her parent's, my great grandmother's house. There was one item that as a
child always fascinated me. It was a carving of a stags head with antlers.
I would stare at it, nose pressed against the glass every time that I
went, until one day she must have noticed me, that or the wet marks that I
was leaving on the glass. Unlocking the glass door Aunt Ada took it out.
"Do you know who carved this?", she challenged, thrusting it in my face. I
shook my head. "N…No Aunt Ada." She always did scare me a bit. "Your
grandfather did, one Christmas from a mistletoe bough. Jim was always
I remember thinking that he must have been bored if he spent his Christmas
carving bits of old wood. "I will leave it to you in my will", she said. I
was thrilled at the time and naively I believed her. Thinking back, for
heavens sake, who would leave a carved bit of wood to someone in their
will? Needless to say, I never got it when the will was read. Like the
glass walking sticks that my granddad made at Bagley's Glassworks. There
was a cupboard full, all of different colours; blues, greens and one in
clear glass with multi-coloured sweets called hundreds and thousands in
the shape of a mace. I was supposed to get those as well, but she must
have forgotten. Mind you when the Last Will and Testament was read no one
got anything, even my mother who looked after her during her last five
years of life was missed off the list. It all went to the Methodist Church
and other more needy charitable causes. That is except for the bits that
got nicked - and a lot of that went on I can tell you.
When she finally went off to the old people's home her so-called long lost
relatives descended on the house from everywhere just like removal men,
complete with hire vans. They came from Castleford, Townville; even the
Ashington gang came down from Northumberland. There were relatives and
friends who had not been seen for years and have not been seen since, most
of them were complete strangers to me. Oh, I had heard talk of them. "This
is your Aunty Alice from Ashington." She was known in the family as Alice
from Ashington. "And you have heard me talk about Uncle John and Miss May
- Aunt Ada's best friend. Oh, and this is Cousin Bill, you remember him
don't you? He gave you half a crown to go on holiday with". “Oh did he?
Thanks Cousin Bill".
No, I didn't remember him really, I just pretended that I did. He could
have been Adam for all I knew. Or Miss May come to think of it, who was
supposed to be Aunt Ada's best friend. She really got things together; she
was the appointed executor to the will and boy did the gang pull the wool
over her eyes. That furniture must have been worth a bob or two, judging
by the way it disappeared. As I said previously there were a few choice
items that on today's market would fetch a sizable sum in auction.
My young ears overheard a conversation between Alice the self-appointed
matriarch of the Ashington Gang and the gentle religious Miss May. "Now
when Aunt Ada is a little better, and when she is settled in her new home,
she can come up to stay with us in Ashington for the weekend". S'funny
they had never invited her before, who were they kidding. "All of her
favourite furniture will be in the small room we have set aside; it will
be like coming home." It certainly sounded like a good idea and very
generous to the poor befuddled executor. "Oh, that would be nice", she was
a real lady and very polite. "Just take what you think she would like".
And they did, enough to furnish a small house, never mind a small room. I
often wonder how much they got when they moved it on. Certainly everyone
was more than a little disappointed when the will was read. By some pure
chance I now have Aunt Ada's will, found in my mother's deed box after she
died. Charities did very well, the Methodist church best of all, I guess
it paid for the new roof on the old place in Otley. She would have liked
I have a green glass walking stick to this day. I took it when no one was
looking. Well, Aunt Ada said I could have it, didn't she? Although I
searched I never saw the carved holly bough; I suspect it must have got
thrown out, with all the theology books and the Victorian wind up musical
box that I rescued, the green glass paper weight that was blown by my
Grandfather and the oil paintings by the Wainwright brother of Castleford
who courted my grandmother and Aunt Ada when they were young lasses all
those years ago.
When I arrived on the scene with my mother, everything was piled high in
the garden, ready for the bonfire. Quickly letting go of her hand I
started to rummage through the stack and eventually carted off some choice
items away on my own. "I don't know what you want that for”, the folks
would say, “it’s just a load of old junk." This was a time when the old
saying, “If I knew then what I know now”, would have come in most
Childhood is a funny time; everything looks so big from down where you
are. I suppose that everyone is aware that there is a small person around,
but they do not really take you seriously. It is a time when you can
easily pale into insignificance and get away with almost anything, so long
as you do things that are not childish but more adult. Like walking down
the garden path with an oil painting tucked under one arm, a glass walking
stick under the other and mum carrying an old Victorian musical box that
did not play a single tune because the comb was broken. It all took
several discreet trips, but in the end I did okay and to this day I am
pleased to say that have several pieces of Aunt Ada's so called old junk.
I have always been fond of animals, particularly cats and dogs. I can
remember from being a very small child that if I found a dog wandering
around in the avenue, I would bring it home even though it may have
belonged to one of the neighbours. Or, if one wandered in looking hungry,
I would raid the biscuit barrel and feed it. The thing about animals is,
they remember, so there was always a constant stream of well-fed dogs
standing at the door, tail wagging, trying hard to look as if they had not
eaten for a month. I was told on several occasions that most of these dogs
belonged to someone and I must not bring them home. Then came the day when
a white terrier wandered into the drive and stayed. He and I sat in the
garden all afternoon, probably because I kept giving him biscuits. My
mother had to admit that he looked like a stray; he was certainly very
thin and ate as if he hadn't eaten for months. "He's a bit like my old
Nip", she said with misty eyes. Nip had been her dog when she was a young
girl, she never forgot and always talked very sentimentally about him.
When I went to bed he had gone to sleep on the lawn next to a saucer of
milk. I thought, if he's still there tomorrow he's mine. When I came down
stairs the next morning the dog was certainly the hot topic of
conversation, although one I did not want to hear. I heard my Dad say, "I
will ring the police when I get to work, someone may be looking for him".
I protested and it was explained again that stray dogs had to be reported
just in case their owners were missing them. "If he was your dog, you
would hope that someone would find him and return him to you. Wouldn't
you?” I had to agree but only with a reluctant nod of my head. I was not
happy that day and by lunchtime a young policeman arrived on his bicycle
to collect my new friend. He tied him with a piece of string and rode off
back to the police station. The dog looked back several times I was
inconsolable for me it was a 'black dog day', as Winston Churchill would
I think it was when I was five that they thought a dog as a birthday
present would be the best thing, at least it would reduce the steady
stream that sat around by the back door waiting to be fed. Either that, or
me doggynapping every stray that strolled past the gate looking hungry and
It all happened suddenly one lunch time when a very smart car pulled up
outside the house and an Alfred Hitchcock look-alike clambered out.
Shortly afterwards there was a knock on the door and a large man with a
Hitchcock sounding voice which I know now was due to him suffering like
Hitchcock from myxoedema, asked for my father. I knew what he looked and
sounded like by this time because of his scary weekly TV programme
‘Hitchcock Presents’. Above the conversation I heard high pitched yips and
yaps. When he eventually came in he had in each hand two small tan pups.
"This one is a boy”, he said holding out his right hand, “and this is a
girl. Which one do you want?" Smiles all round especially when I was asked
I chose the male corgi of the species and we called him Kim. Five pounds
that dog cost, a lot of money in those days. Kim was a Welsh corgi with a
very good pedigree who my father took to every dog show in the area. He
must have won him that fiver back in prize money time and time again. Kim
was a true Pembroke, not having a tail, only a stump where it had been
docked. We didn't have a car so we travelled to the shows by train, bus or
sometimes taxi. I recall one summer going to the open air show at South
Milford by bike and my dad riding with me on the child's saddle and me
holding Kim who had both front paws on the handle bars, whilst Dad
steered. Can you imagine doing that today? In India yes, but not in the
rural West Riding of Yorkshire.
It is difficult to recall now how real those pre-school days were, but
harmless and innocent they certainly were depending on which side of the
neighbour's fence you were living on. I can still remember so much of how
my protracted family first appeared to me because they were so numerous.
Some of whom I was very close to, being those mainly on my mother's side.
Others from my Dad's side were the true Knottingley folk; they were mere
blurs, faces to which I never spoke or had conversation. They never
appeared to acknowledge me unless I was with my mother or father.
Strangely enough they have remained so, and do so to this day. Most of
them are dead now, leaving children whom I know even less; sad really.
I vividly remember that day, the one before I started school. Little Alan
Woodhead and me were sat on the kerb edge in wellies, sticks in hand
splashing water in a puddle. We were wondering what this school lark was
all about and to be honest not looking forward to it one bit. I was off to
Chapel Street and Alan to Pontefract three miles away, which meant that
his mother had to take him on the bus. Neither of us thought this was
strange at the time but we were each to discover later the reason. Unknown
to me and to my little pal, his parents were moving to Chequerfield and
this was to be our last day of play together. We had been friends from the
time I toddled up to his house and he found his way to mine, we probably
caught the measles or whooping cough from each other. Certainly that day
as we sat by the puddle was the last we ever had together.
What must have been several weeks later I found my way to Alan's side door
only to be met by a strange face, to be told that Alan no longer lived
there. So off I skipped back to tell my mum. She in the kindest way
explained that Alan had gone to live in Pontefract to be nearer to his new
school. What things parents don't tell you when you're young! I suppose I
just shrugged my shoulders and went to find another pool to splash in and
wait for someone else to come to join me. Kids are like that, aren't they?
Still, by this time I had started at Chapel Street School and had more
than enough new pals to play with, but I really missed those carefree days
of splashing around in puddles and making mud pies.
Also by Roger Ellis:
Legend of the Iron Man
Sunday School Days
School Days is Happy Daze