SUNDAY SCHOOL DAYS
OTHER DIVERSIONS... AND A FEW OLD BONES
Like a bolt out of the blue, 1960 arrived, and we
were at that fortunate age of 15. Had we known then, we were about to be
thrown headlong into a new and exciting decade. This new era loomed before us
like a great adventure. OK, we had a slow introduction in the late 50's to the
new popular music scene with singers such as, Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Joe
Brown, Lonnie Donnegan and Cliff Richard, all of them, apart from old Lonnie,
still around today as shinning examples of the age they stood to represent.
Remember Lita Roza? She once came to the Town Hall to sing but I don't think
that she ever came back again. Suddenly our clothing and hairstyles were very
different; this was the first time that a teenage generation had been able to
take hold of life by the throat and enjoy themselves free of global warfare.
The opening year, 1960, went off with a bang. It was as if the ground had
suddenly erupted and pitched the whole generation into this brave new world.
Not a world such as Huxley described, but one that simply exploded without
warning. In our parent’s eyes things were really quite outrageous. One could
hear them murmuring, "No good will come of it - they ought to be put in the
army." Now stop a moment and think about that. Had it been so, the 60's would
have been just like any other decade, music and dress styles would not have
changed and today's generation would not have what they have now. It was the
beginning of a cultural revolution that brought friendly changes; not one born
out of bloody conflict. Unfortunately, now I am the one who goes around
saying, "Bring back National Service."
I can still hear my Dad saying, "Just look at that...", as he watched Jerry
Lee Lewis play the piano with his feet, "...what next?" I think that he was
just about coming to terms with all of this when who should turn up but The
Beatles and the Rolling Stones. "Just look at their hair...", and off he went
again. They were just guaranteed to upset the older generation, but boy,
aren't they still entertaining us?
"Singing?... that's not singing", I would hear him say. Still we loved it, and
I think deep down he was fascinated, although he would never admit to it. It
certainly never stopped him from watching Six Five Special whilst he sat and
had his tea. If today's live concerts are anything to go by the music of the
60's will live forever and Lennon and McCartney will be revered as the
Beethoven and Mozart of their day. And one only has to see a Rolling Stones
concert to see the amount of energy that is generated from a group of
60-year-old rockers. Roll over Beethoven!
As we know, nothing could have been worse in our parent's eyes, but in ours,
well it was a different story. We were not being moulded; we were in fact the
ones who did the moulding. So all was going well, until I was asked one day
what I was going to buy with my Christmas money.
"As it happens…" (I had given the matter some careful thought), "..well, I
said I've 'er seen this guitar in …", and that's just about as far I got.
"What… is wrong with the piano?", I was asked. "Nothing..", I replied. I had
in fact started to play rock, my first piece of sheet music being the Johnny
and the Hurricanes' classic, Rocking Goose, which was considered to be a
racket when I played it…over and over again. When I played B Bumble and the
Stingers version of Nutrocker that was pure sacrilege.
Then I thought of a way around this generation deadlock. "Well, Ian and I
could play and sing some carols at the Sunday night carol service, couldn't
we?" Now that went down very well, so off I galloped to Pontefract and bought
my first guitar for all of the £9 that had taken a year to save. I did keep my
part of the bargain, and although we did not get any applause from the
congregation, Ian and I did get asked back the following Christmas. Oddly
enough, my type of music did become more acceptable at home and was found to
be very entertaining, judging by the number of times I was asked to play and
sing whenever aunts, uncles and friends visited or when the local concerts got
to scraping the barrel.
The author J.S. Fletcher was brought up in Darrington, near Pontefract, at
Denby House, the farmstead belonging to his maternal grandmother. In his later
years he became a leading detective writer of the 1920's and 30's. During his
earlier writing career, he wrote several books with a local setting using a
vast store of knowledge gathered from his boyhood days. In his biography
Memories of a Spectator published by Eveleigh Nash in 1912, a chapter that he
calls The Old Order Changes, deals with those events that he recalled as a boy
living in Darrington. He describes times in his life when his mother and
family were growing old and how illness and death was gradually becoming a
more common feature of his life. So it is, and so it was with me.
By the early 1960's my grandmother and several great aunts and uncles were no
longer with us. Funerals had become a regular feature of my parent's lives and
in a lesser way of my own. Those aunts and uncles I had known from birth, who
most probably cooed over me when I was first born, and then became the source
of Sunday morning visits, were slowly decreasing in number. Still at school, I
was never part of these family functions when nieces and nephews, cousins,
brothers, sisters, sons and daughters saw each other again, probably wondering
if the next get-together would be due to their own departure.
The only funeral that I ever attended in my teens was that of my Great Aunt
Mary Lizzie. It was during one of those long summer holidays in the early
sixties; I was in my mid teens and had not known her well. The only time we
had met was when she tripped over the cat lying on the kitchen floor and broke
her leg. The cat was OK though. Being on holiday from school, I had no excuse
not to go to her funeral.
What a day it turned out to be, as my old Gran would say… “It's raining stair
rods." If you have ever wondered how the French must have felt on the field of
Crecy or Agincourt with the English long bowmen discharging their fusillade of
arrows like a rain storm, this was how it came down; cold, stinging and
penetrating and we were soaked. The morning had started fine and warm so no
one had brought a mackintosh and not one of them had thoughts of bringing an
umbrella. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday finery, the men in their best
suits and the ladies in fine, thin, summer frocks, hats with big brims, and
high stiletto heels. I can see it all now, Knottingley cemetery in the pouring
summer rain and everyone dressed for the sun. It just goes to show that one
cannot trust the British weather, even at a funeral.
It was a sorry bedraggled sight of mourners that trudged down the concrete
path at the cemetery. It was an even sorrier sight that huddled around the
open grave to watch Aunt Mary Lizzy being lowered down into a waterlogged
hole. The ground staff had thoughtfully placed wooden planks around the grave
for convenience sake and to cover the soggy surroundings.
Mary Lizzie, as she was always known, was a maiden aunt. I did not know her
very well but I did know her sister, my Great Aunt Annie, who lived in Gillan
Street and was one of the very best. She was a diminutive figure and on this
sombre occasion she was wearing a black straw hat with a sprig of artificial
flowers and fruit, now sodden and drooping with the rain. She couldn't see
well at the best of times, but she couldn't see anything now because of the
rain on her spectacles, the lenses of which were like the bottom of a Bagley's
bottle. Anyway, her poor old eyes were streaming with tears, so all in all,
her vision was in a sorry state. One of her nephews urged her to come closer
to the hole so that she could watch her dear departed sister being lowered
"Come here Aunt Annie", he whispered, encouraging her to come forward. His
name was Charlie, and he had a milk round. As she stepped onto the boards, now
wet and slippery with mud, her feet went from under her and down she went
heading straight for that gaping hole. Faster than a western gunfighter,
Charlie's arm shot out, grabbed my aunt and dragged her back from a fate worse
than…falling head first into someone else's grave. Always the humorous type he
chuckled, "By 'ell lass tha' nearly beat 'er in there. Good job I caught thee
or tha'd a been down there affore 'er."
That was the first incident of the day and there was more to come. As we left
the cemetery and Aunt Mary Lizzie, the sun came out and we all started to
steam. It was certainly uncomfortable in those taxis, wet trousers, squelchy
boots, and the ladies complaining of soggy underwear. The only thought on the
men folk's mind was they were at desperation stage for a pint at the pub
before the funeral tea.
This was the first funeral tea that I had ever attended. The sandwiches and
cakes were not as good as the chapel teas. I recall that we were all given a
bag of left over cakes to take home as we left the pub, such old fashioned
Yorkshire generosity eh? If ever there was a Victorian style bun fight this
was it. It was straight out of the pages of Dickens. We were reading David
Copperfield at school at the time, as the set book for The College of
Preceptors Examination, a type of pre GCE work out. It would not have been out
of place if the ladies had been wearing black crinoline and veils to cover
their faces, the men in stove pipe top hats and long tail coats. I felt like
the young David, attending his mother's funeral, with the evil Murdstones
looking on, knowing that he and his spinster sister were to inherit everything
and all wee Davy was to get was a trip to his stepfather's bottle washing
We were escorted to the long room of a large local public house in which an
equally as long mahogany table ran down the middle. There must have been a
good two dozen mourners, if that is what they were. I reckon all they really
wanted to see was what the old girl had left them. There were to be many
disappointed faces leaving the room at the end of that day!
I was by far the youngest, dressed in my best and only suit feeling quite the
toff in my new winkle picker shoes and yellow socks. Yellow socks for a
funeral? I wonder now how I managed to get away with that one. The curtains
were closed out of respect, so I was told. Tea was served; crab and beef paste
sandwiches, cream cakes, and the full works, with which I am sure you are all
by now familiar. Then a dignified man who had remained rather aloof to
everyone in the room, tapped on his saucer with a spoon and asked everyone in
a polite voice to be silent for a reading of the will. “This should be good”,
I thought, never for one moment realising the part that I was to play.
Now for some reason I managed to get myself sat next to this dignified, sober
fellow who turned out to be Aunt Mary Lizzie's solicitor. I was told later
that in the living memory of all those present, this rather archaic reading of
a will had never been done before, so it was for me, indeed all of us, a
rather exciting experience - for some more than others as it turned out.
Anticipation turned to sheer horror for me when suddenly my solicitor friend
turned and said that I, as the most likely person to have nothing to gain,
should read the will. So, that was my mind settled. He duly handed me a rolled
parchment which, judging by the thickness, was lengthy. He indicated with a
grave nod for me to proceed.
This was pure drama, and naturally I started in a shaky voice. "This being the
last Will and Testament of…" I read out my great Aunt’s name Mary Elizabeth,
and I felt like adding Ermintrude Annie, but out of respect I did not. This
was a poem we learned at Chapel Street many years previously and one that, for
whatever reason, had become lodged in my brain. Can anyone else remember that
graphic poem about the girl who went to the country to visit her granny?
Mary Elizabeth Ermintrude Annie
Went to the country to visit her granny….
I began to read to a room that was now as silent as…I carried on. Everything,
absolutely everything was being left to Aunt Mary Lizzie's sister and brother
in-law. So why, oh why, had she insisted on listing every item from household
linen, furniture, ornaments, jewellery and savings? Me thinks my fragrant old
Aunt was a bit of a tease. She was mocking her beloved family, first by
getting them all to gather around the table, appointing her solicitor to draw
up a will that took a good 30 minutes to read, and then giving all her
possessions to one couple. I must say that they did deserve every penny
because they were the ones who had always looked after the old girl in her
final years. No one else had bothered with her, so why not them? Mind you,
they did live next door.
I was beginning to enjoy myself because I was instructed to pause after
reading each item so I knew what was to come next. It was getting better by
the minute; secretly I was laughing inwardly but dare not let it show. Then we
arrived at the jewellery section and this is where all hell broke loose. I
must have been about half-way through the list of gold this and silver that,
pearls this, brooches the other, chains and hat pins, when the silence of the
room was broken suddenly by sobs from somewhere at the far end of the table.
And they became louder and louder until one of the nieces from whence the
sound was coming let out an almighty wail. "Oh, I shall have to bring it all
back," and carried on weeping into her handkerchief.
Very red-faced and tearful, she explained that Aunt Lizzie had promised that
the jewellery was to be hers one day and so, slowly and discretely over the
last months of Aunt Mary Lizzie's illness, she had helped herself. Low and
behold, for some reason her aunt had either forgotten or changed her mind. Bit
of a blow really, because I knew how she felt, having been promised by several
uncles, that one day I would inherit their woodwork tools, but never did I
receive a single item. How very embarrassing it was to confess to everyone
gathered there and then to have to bring it all back and hand it over.
The following day, I had a telephone call from the brother-in-law who had been
left all the loot. "Thanks for reading the will yesterday, you really did
well. Is there anything of your Great Aunt’s that you would like to have as a
memento?" I thought for a moment and said, "Well I did rather admire the
mahogany banjo barometer hanging in the hallway." Had I asked for too much?
"It's yours lad, collect it when you are passing." Which I eventually did, and
it still hangs in our dining room, a constant reminder of the strangest
funeral that I have ever been to and the source of a yarn that I have told to
many who admire the piece and ask from whence it came.
Not one of the oldest pubs in Knottingley, The Winston stands on the left at
the far side of the level crossing going up Womersley Road. It was built in
1942 but was not opened officially until after World War Two, in May 1945, as
part of the VE Day Celebrations. My aforementioned, short sighted Aunt Annie,
was married to Uncle Fred, and up to my being a ten-year-old I was always
struck by the words he spoke each night as he went out through the door. "Just
slipping out Annie, won't be long." If we were visiting, and being inquisitive
I would ask. "Where is Uncle Fred going Mum?" She would always hesitate before
answering. "Just going up to see Winston," was always the quick reply. When I
was very young this would pacify me and I would think what a wonderful friend
Winston must be for Uncle Fred to visit him each night. As I got older, I
began to think it strange that Winston never came to see him, or that we had
never met this wonderful, but unseen, friend of Uncle Fred's.
This puzzled me somewhat, so I thought I would ask my Dad. I learned from him
that my mother, being a staunch Methodist, and in an effort to protect me from
the temptations of evil drink, she did not wish me to know that Uncle Fred
went out every night for a pint at The Winston. Seemingly, this took roots in
her own childhood in which my grandmother, coming from Wesleyan stock, married
my grandfather, who had other values on how he should behave when out with the
lads. It took me years to find this skeleton in the family wardrobe by which
time it was too late. In other words, he enjoyed a pint or two and why not.
He was a glassblower and it is a known fact that glass blowing in those days
was a demanding occupation. It required skill, precision and lots and lots of
puff. Working alongside the furnace was hot work even on the coldest of days.
Understandably, it was thirsty work and a regular source of fluid was needed -
hence the hole in the fence between Bagley's Glassworks and what is now the
Steam Packet. Through this secret way that everyone in the town knew about,
must have been carried many thousands of pints, even quarts of beer to quench
the thirst of the glass workers. Anyway, from what I can gather, every family
has the odd bone in the closet, don't they?
My Mother's relatives lived in Rotherham, except for my grandmother who lived
at Pear Tree Cottage in Spawd Bone Lane. They were a fairly ordinary lot but
not being residents in Knottingley, they thought, spoke and behaved in a very
different manner. Now the other side of the family I would call a proper
Knottla' crew. They weren't rowdy, heavy drinkers or anything like that, but
they had to my young mind, prominent local characteristics, if that means
For some reason Knottingley has always managed to have itself a boat load of
notable characters. I suppose all towns have them, but believe me, this one
has had its fair share in the past and the biggest portion of several other
towns if you ask me. We as young lads often rubbed shoulders with a few of
these oddballs in the 1960's, just seeing them about the place was something
never to be forgotten. There was sweet old Sid who had the nickname of Legga,
because rumour had it that he once went into a shop and asked for a leg of
cheese. He lived down the Croft as did Tommy the boxer. There was old Chibby,
always laughing, the happiest soul you could ever wish to meet and Tabs, who
ran the Sparrow Castle gym, and whom, as a very small boy of no more than four
or five I was privileged to meet. There was old Grandpa Wray who once chased
me with a fish filleting knife around his shop on Hill Top. Mr. Jory had the
chemist shop next door and if he couldn't come up with a cure your last hope
was gone, unless you had the guts to go to the surgery where Dr. 'Spud' Murphy
always managed to talk you out of what was wrong. My pal Ian had an uncle,
'Figs' Farnill Firth who, when a very old man in his 80's, could still carry a
hod full of bricks up a ladder onto the scaffolding. Even my dear old Aunt
Mary Lizzie, who also lived in the Croft, was in her own way someone to be
reckoned with. It must have been the Knottingley air, the beer and the
environment that brought out the nicest kind of eccentricity in the town’s
Remember Cousin Charlie the milkman, you know the one who saved Aunt Annie
from a fate worse than a premature burial - he was an absolute card. Come
rain, frost, snow and ice he always wore a flat cap and an old muffler around
his neck. Once when a customer asked him, "Charlie, it’s mid-summer, why do
you still wear a muffler on a belting hot day like this?" Charlie, plonking
the milk bottles on the step gave one of his brief, haven't got time to chat
answers, "Soaks up sweat," and was gone, galloping off to finish his milk
Even the two town doctors were one offs. Dr's Murphy and Kehelly were part of
the town’s history and remain the stuff of legend to this day. If you did not
like one, you went to the other, if you did not like either then it was tough,
life was too short. Dr. Murphy once gave me penicillin injections for an
abscess, never asking if I was allergic to it, so I promptly vomited all over
the chemist’s floor on Racca Green. When hearing of this from my mother at my
next appointment he said, "Aw, oi tink he's had enough, he's cured now." I
always hated injections after that episode.
Have you ever thought, if you had one wish to go back to a certain age and
start again, what that age would be? To me the age of fifteen would be my
answer. Again it was that magic year, 1960, when the whole of life's rich
pageantry lay before us. You have given up childish things, or have you? There
are new temptations, girls being one, the odd cigarette, and the sneaky glass
of beer, going to cinema under age and seeing an X rated film. I kid you not,
the first time Ian and I went to see a very risqué French film at the
Alexander in Pontefract, he wore his father's overcoat in an attempt to try
and look older, and it worked. Not that the film was worth seeing. Still, not
total freedom, there was always the first degree when you came in late
smelling of things you shouldn't, things not experienced by parents probably
since their teenage years.
It was hard to visualise our parents as being teenagers once, but that they
were. "You have to remember, your mother and father were once your age, and
they know what it is to be tempted by the adult world. Don't think they do not
know what you get up to, or the way you feel." She was right, but Mrs Roe, our
Sunday School Superintendent, was nearly always correct. I suppose if anyone
had our interests at heart it was her. Quiet and very discreet, never
interfering, gently guiding, she kept an eye on all of us through childhood
and those early teenage years. Once again we did not appreciate her at the
time and maybe she did not realise it either, but like Miss Wake and Mr.
Radley, she was also partly responsible for directing and moulding our young
lives. They don't come better than her these days.
Such was that time for me, whilst at the same time trying to wrestle with
school and GCE's. Knottingley did not have the lures of a major city, not even
a prominent town, but it had its uniqueness. A cinema that was showing films
that had been everywhere else before arriving at this, their final
destination. Pubs that had seen more life and boasted more ghosts due to the
town's maritime influence than any that other towns had to offer. Nora Brown's
fish and chips, and Morris's pork pies, were as good as anywhere, and a pint
of bitter in any of the pubs you wish to name was always excellent.
So began the slow ascent from early teens into middle teens, that striving for
academia and attempts to get sufficient GCE passes to jump the hurdle onto the
home straight. With some it was easy, they had known for a decade in which
direction they were heading. Ian's father was a builder and he, despite being
good at languages, took the plunge and joined the family business. Other
friends went to University, others to teacher training college. I finished up
at the College of Remedial Gymnastics and 40 years in the NHS and all the
excitement that had to offer as a Chartered Physiotherapist.
Seriously though, my time in the NHS turned out rather surprisingly to be one
big adventure. But that is another story.
In 1963, school days came to an abrupt end. Looking back, I think I had a
privileged childhood. I was fortunate to have the parents to which I had been
born. I made good friends at all of the schools that I attended and the
schools did their best with me. On reflection the grounding that was forced
upon me at Chapel was worth every threepenny bit that went into the collection
plate. Above all, those years in Knottingley helped me in what was to follow,
of which at the time, I had no idea. Our town was multi-faceted, it had the
richest of people in the Poulson family and also the very poorest. It had the
kindest of people; it had the hardest and meanest of people. It certainly had
the gentlest, in people like my mother, grandmother and my eventual
mother-in-law. It had those who would want to fight as soon as look at you.
Those who would shirk work and those who would simply work their socks off for
the benefit of their family. But, all of them, every single one of them, had
their good sides and I mixed with them all at some stage during my young life.
What eventually followed, the places I would see, and the famous people I was
to meet, I could not have guessed in a hundred years. What Knottingley and its
people did for me, for which I am forever grateful, was to give me an ability
to speak with anyone, no matter what their background, religion or belief.
Whether they were the highest of professionals, doctors, judges, barristers,
professors, businessmen, royalty, TV people, famous sports personalities, or
the man in the street who worked hard for his basic wage, it was all the same.
Some of those I met were hardened criminals, murderers, armed robbers, drug
pushers, drug takers, one an armed kidnapper shot by the police, to me they
were no different and I was able to communicate with them all, laugh and have
a joke, but above all be accepted by each and every one of them. You cannot
ask for better than that in life, but that is yet another chapter.
"Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end…"
Lines of a
popular song, sung by Mary Hopkins c.1965
Also by Roger Ellis:
Legend of the Iron Man
In The Beginning...family,
friends and other pets
School Days is Happy Daze