Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Derbyshire Days of Bessie and Joe

The following is adapted from a family history describing the lives of Elizabeth Walker, or Bessie as she was known, and Joe Wyche, born in Derbyshire in 1918 and 1916 respectively. This excerpt describes their early lives in Tideswell and Buxton.

Until the age of five, Elizabeth lived above her father’s pork butcher’s shop at the junction of Lightwood and Fairfield Roads in Buxton.

Her father, Wilfred Walker, was from Tideswell and had struggled up from grinding poverty, one of eight children. He worked at Cressbrook, a nearby mill, from the age of 11, walking two and a half miles each side of a 12 hour shift. Later, he attended Workers’ Education Association classes, provided by Manchester University, then served an apprenticeship, and eventually became involved in local politics, often speaking in Buxton market-place.

Wilfred employed two men and two women at the shop. One of the women helped Bessie’s mother, Emma, look after Elizabeth and the house. Her name was Maude Holmes; she was plump and had ‘pebble’ glasses with thick lenses.

Bessie’s father would go round all the farms to choose his pigs, buy them and kill them himself, and they were processed in the basement of the house. Bessie would put on a long butcher’s apron and help stir the blood-soaked mix for making black puddings.

At the top of the house was a big attic with a swing attached to the roof. Bessie would swing to and fro over dozens of round cheeses drying on the floor. Another memory was the bathroom, with its black and white tiles.

Bessie went to some sort of nursery school around this time. All she remembered was that they did a lot of physical exercise with dumb-bells of different sizes, depending on how big the pupil was.

She recalls going down the Via Gellia into Buxton with her father every Sunday morning, and that there was always some adventure or other.

One day, at the age of four, Bessie had a bad accident. She was run over outside the shop while her mother was inside, checking the shop window. There was a sweet shop across the road and although she had been told not to cross, she wanted to buy an ice-cream. Perhaps it was lucky that the car which hit her was driven by a doctor. She was in a coma for a fortnight and no one was sure if she would live or die. Afterwards she always remembered her bandaged leg and the scar she had on her forehead for many years.

When Bessie was five her father sold the shop to one of his employees and the family moved back to Tideswell. A sister to Bessie (Beatrice) was on the way and Bessie’s grandparents were starting to get on in years, so it seemed the right time to return. Wilfred had also undergone a serious operation for haemorrhoids, revolutionary surgery at the time, and perhaps wanted his family around him too.

In Tideswell the family rented a house just along from Emma’s parents, the Jacksons. It didn’t compare with living over the shop in Buxton. There was no bathroom with black and white tiles, only an outside dirt toilet at the ‘top of the back steps’. There was no great attic, and no Maude.  Sunday School and ‘Chapel’ took the place of Sunday walks with father and, at first, there was no car to ride in. In Buxton, the family had had the second petrol vehicle ever. But Wellcroft, the Jacksons’ home, was close at hand and Bessie made lots of friends.

When Bessie was about ten her grandmother Jackson became ill. To help out Bessie had to wash her grandmother’s hair, scrub the stone steps and heave a stone of flour up steep Hardy Lane, from the shops. Her Granddad and Grandma Jackson died within three months of each other and after that Wilfred put a bay window in at Wellcroft, brought hot water to the bathroom and enlarged the garden. He repaired the garage, discarded the old copper and iron grate in the kitchen, installed one of the first electricity supplies in Tideswell, and much more. And the family moved into Wellcroft.

Wilfred loaned one brother-in-law at Tideswell money to set up as a farmer. When he couldn’t make a go of it, and couldn’t repay the debt, Wilfred accepted the fields instead of the money.  So Wilfred and his brother, Ernest (a very bright man with whom Bessie spent a lot of time as a teenager, putting the world to rights, when he was crippled with arthritis) had a go at being farmers, going off to the fields every day with their sandwiches. Neither had a clue, but they seemed not to have a care in the world. They had a cow or two and a sheep, with which everything went wrong. The other brother-in-law also borrowed money, to start a coal delivery business, but never re-paid it either, so more fields came into the family, which Bessie and her sister eventually inherited.

While Bessie’s father cast around for a full time job, two people who had done business in his shop, the office manager and chief commercial traveller for a firm of butchers’ suppliers (Cramptons in Manchester) tried to persuade him to join them in a butchers’ wholesale business. He eventually agreed and this business became Gill, Roberts and Co. (Gilcro) – Wilfred being the Co.

Bessie had meanwhile started at the village primary school. The headmaster was known as ‘Banty Baker’ because he kept bantams in the garden of the school house. Every day after registration he would line the boys up, march them out of school, and set them to work for the day on the school garden and his own large garden next door. The girls were set copying pages or reading. The whole day could be spent copying pages and pages about events in the British Empire and Bessie hated it. The concept of ‘the Empire’ was important and Empire Day was celebrated with a holiday and a ceremony.

Fortunately the children had a good infant-level teacher and in standards one and two of juniors, but once they got to Banty’s class they learned nothing. All his energies went on his hens, and he was a stern taskmaster too.

On the day her grandmother died Bessie was kept at home to take messages to all the relations in the village. When she finally got to school she was late and very upset. Banty took her by the chin and stood her in the corner on a stool for the rest of the morning.

After Tideswell, Elizabeth attended Lady Manners school in Bakewell – as did one Joe Wyche, her future husband. Lady Manners was the oldest co-educational school in England (founded in 1636, it admitted girls in 1896). To get in, you had to pass the ‘Common Entrance’ exam, which was very difficult.

Bessie didn’t think much of Joe at first – he used to follow her home from school and him and his friend Ralph Reynolds would take the mickey out of her. The children used to catch a train (later replaced by a bus) from Millers Dale to Bakewell, and Joe would always put his hands out of the window in Monsal Dale Head Tunnel to collect soot and then smear it in one of the boys’ faces.

Although he was usually at the centre of any trouble at school, Joe took his rugby very seriously. He played for a very successful team that beat King’s School Macclesfield 95-0 in a memorable match. Joe subsequently taunted his Deputy Head mercilessly, as he had been a ‘King’s man’.

Tideswell was very different in Bessie and Joe’s young days and Bessie always felt the main difference was that there was so much more going on. People had to make more of their own entertainment but there were more amenities.

Of course, Tideswell was famous for its well-dressing ceremonies. The well dressing was part of a whole carnival week in June. Each day of the week there was a different activity. Tuesday, for example, was the day the Non-Conformists marched around town, while Church of England members marched on a Thursday. Wednesday was sports day. Many other activities took place: a flower exhibition and competition, horse racing and motor bike racing on ‘The Cliff’. Even the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, came to see the racing. Friday was the day the members of the Order of ‘Odd Fellows’ marched, with their silk top hats and coloured sashes. The first Saturday the Carnival Queen was crowned. On the last Saturday the carnival proper was held, with competitions for best fancy dress, best decorated float, best marching band etc. There was a cow roast and bowling wooden skittles to win a live pig and the wells were decorated traditionally with flowers and stones to form intricate pictures.

All proceeds went to the Hospital and Nursing Association. Elizabeth had to go every Sunday morning with a notebook on a round to collect contributions from members. If you didn’t belong to the Association you couldn’t have the village nurse or get into the hospital in Sheffield. This was before the NHS was even dreamed of.

Life was very conventional. People never overstepped the mark and everyone understood where that mark was! No cards or other games were played on Sundays and a hat had to be worn to Chapel. People kept any ‘dark secrets’ to themselves and even their own family weren’t always aware of them. For example, Elizabeth’s father had been married before he married Emma. His first wife died in childbirth along with their baby son, but neither of Bessie’s parents ever mentioned it to her. She only found out when Uncle Ernest’s wife, Sally told her much later.

On Sundays there was Sunday school in the morning, then the main church service, Sunday lunch at home, then Sunday school in the afternoon, a church service in the evening and then choir practice.

The Minister was Alfred Clegg, who used to teach literature at Liverpool University, and Elizabeth’s father was a great friend of his. Clegg was a genuine, well read, intelligent and common sense sort of a Minister. He had a terrific row with Wilfred over the building of the new Sunday school, with Wilfred wanting the best builder at the right price and Clegg the idealist wanting to give the work to someone who needed it.

Clegg also wrote religious plays for the church, which Elizabeth took part in. Also in these plays was Joe, still regarded by Elizabeth, and particularly her family, as ‘beyond the pale’. But the two started courting. Bessie’s Aunty Emma, her mother’s sister-in-law and by birth a strict Scot, saw the pair walking round the outskirts of Tideswell and reported it to Elizabeth’s mother so she could ‘deal’ with it. Whatever was said was not enough as Bessie and Joe continued to ‘walk out’.

Joe’s family were not as fortunate as Bessie’s. His two sisters didn’t go to the grammar school at all, and his brother William only went until he achieved the basic School Certificate. Joe’s father Tom was a quarryman and all work at the quarry was suspended for three years during the Great Depression.

Joe’s family lived at the chapel cottage. The Congregationalists had bought an old cotton factory as their first chapel building, which had a cottage at one end for the Minister. When a new purpose-built chapel and manse were built next door, the original chapel became the primary school and Joe’s family lived in the end cottage, three narrow storeys high, with low ceilings and no toilet. 

Joe’s mother was the caretaker at the new chapel. The family used the school toilets in the yard and Joe went to the chip-shop, owned by his grandparents, when he wanted to have a bath. To make money to take Bessie to the pictures in Tideswell he had to peel potatoes in the chip-shop each Saturday.

 Although it was a source of great bitterness for Joe’s father, he had help paying for equipment for Joe’s schooling from his sister-in-law, who lived in Romiley. She was married to a man called Joseph who was the station master at Miles Platting, the big goods yard, and sported a top hat and chain of office. The couple had no children and wanted to adopt Joe, but made do with buying him the odd suit, taking him on holiday and sending him pocket money.

By the time Joe was 18 and taking the Higher School Certificate examination, Elizabeth was 16 and taking the School Certificate. The exams were taken in the town hall. They were already seeing as much of each they as they could in secret and, by coincidence, sat next to each other to do their exams. Joe was a Prefect and ‘protected’ Bessie from the attentions of Maurice (later Sir Maurice) Oldfield, who was Head Boy at the time and went on to head MI6.

Joe was 19, and at college, before he was allowed to go to tea at Wellcroft. There is a photograph of him putting the name plate on the gate at that first visit, which was when Bessie’s parents started to warm to him.
Pictures: Top: Buxton, from Solomon's Temple. By Onofre Bouvila
Middle: Lady Manners School, Bakewell. By George Wolfe
Bottom. Dressed well, Tideswell. By John Ragla

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Shepley Spitfire

August 1940, and the Battle of Britain was entering its second month.

Among the pilots of 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron, defending the south coast - including the vitally important Portland naval base - was 22-year-old Douglas Shepley of Holmesfield, Derbyshire, who had married his fiancée only weeks before.

Douglas had already been credited with shooting down two German Me 109s, on 8th and 11th of August, when on the 12th 152 Squadron was sent to engage a German unit which had just bombed a radar station on the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately, two Spitfires never returned from the fray: P9456, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Withall, and Douglas’s K9999, both believed to have been shot down somewhere near the Needles.

For Douglas’s family this was the third devastating loss in less than a year. His sister Jeanne, a nurse in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, had been killed in October 1939 when the liner on which she was returning to England was sunk by a U boat near Gibraltar. Then, in May 1940, his elder brother, George Rex Shepley was shot down while dropping supplies to a garrison in Calais (for which he was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross).

In the face of this latest tragedy Douglas’s mother, Emily, and his widow, Frances, decided to commemorate Douglas and all he meant to them by buying a Spitfire for the RAF in his name.

The idea of military vehicles and weapons being gifted to the Forces was not new. During the First World War the government had encouraged people to donate money towards the purchase of tanks, ambulances, guns and other equipment, a strategy which had proved very successful and attracted funds from around the world. Indeed, 152 Squadron itself was named after the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose donation was big enough to buy a fleet of DH9As.  (The then Indian Territories provided many such ‘gift squadrons’, their origins being reflected in their names and in the design of their badges; 152’s badge depicted the Nizam’s head-dress and the words ‘Faithful ally’.)

Having proved so successful earlier, the ‘gifting’ campaign was revived during the Second War, in particular by Lord Beaverbrook when he ran the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production. A list drawn up by the Ministry costed a single-engine aircraft (usually a Spitfire but sometimes a Hurricane) at £5,700, rising to £20,000 for a twin- and £40,000 for a four-engined plane.

Having set their sights on a Spitfire, Emily and Frances set to work raising public awareness about Douglas, organising event after event – dances, tea parties, whist tournaments and jumble sales, installing collection boxes in theatres and pubs. The people of Derbyshire and neighbouring south Yorkshire somehow found money to help: Bolsover miners donated a percentage of their earnings to the fund and Sheffield ARP held collections at all their posts. In just 15 weeks the family had raised enough to buy the Shepley Spitfire.

The aircraft chosen was W3649, built by Vickers Armstrong in 1941. The name Shepley was painted in yellow below the cockpit. After its inauguration flight in August, a little over a year since Douglas’s death, it became part of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, before serving with 303 (Polish) Squadron and then 485 (New Zealand) Squadron.  There, Shepley was requisitioned by Group Captain Francis Beamish, who used it as his personal plane, flown by him alone. Beamish survived several engagements in the Shepley Spitfire, but finally went down in the English Channel during a battle with 40 enemy aircraft on 28th March 1942.

As you would expect Douglas Shepley is commemorated on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede, in honour of those with no known graves, but a reminder of his and his family’s courage stands closer to home. When the brewer Hardy’s & Hanson’s built a new pub in Totley, near Holmesfield, it ran a competition to decide a name. Seymour Shepley, Douglas’s only surviving brother, nominated ‘The Shepley Spitfire’, and the brewery agreed. Seymour pulled the first pint at the pub commemorating his remarkable family in the winter of 1979.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

It’s only words …

An old cookbook we were looking at recently included a reference to ‘boozy cheese’ – we liked the sound of it but were a bit put out to discover it was merely cheese made from a cow in a boozy, or stall. Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and while we were delving into lost Cheshire dialect we came across a few other words we’d like to make a comeback...

v billyminawky – a foolish person

v cater-cornered – bent out of shape

v dade – to guide a child who is learning to walk

v aunty-paunty – full of beans, spirited

v tickle-stomached – squeamish

v drabbly – wet weather with the rain drizzling continually

v fribblin – small, meagre

v huckermucker – disorder, in a mess

v ess-lurdin – someone (or something) that likes to get close to a fire

v bogfowdered – puzzled or in a jam

v naffle – to do a small, trivial job – nafflin about is to faff about doing little jobs that take a long time

v croodle  – to crouch down

v fleek – to bask in heat, either in the sun or in front of a fire

v cazzardly ­ – unsettled, changeable (usually of weather)

v skitterwitted – scatterbrained

v camperlash – swearing, bad language

v daffadaindilly – daffodil

v gawpsheet – an idiot, numbskull

v toddlish – tipsy, slightly drunk

v rattle-skull – a talkative person

v quizcuss – a interfering, inquisitive person

v izles – flecks of soot

v mozy – tough, juiceless (of fruit)

v dwindle-straw – a puny, feeble creature

v poweration – a large quantity of something

v tattarat – an unstable person who  goes from one thing to another

Any others gratefully received!


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Some new additions

Mow Cop
Photo: Tony Grist
We were sent a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1920s and 30s this week – someone who didn’t want them but didn’t think they should be thrown away (quite right too!). They’re mostly photographs, captioned by hand in writing that puts us to shame. (We think the writer was twelve at the time, to make things worse.) The photos are from right round Europe, but of most interest to us were a 1925 photo of Mow Cop folly captioned ‘…long famous as a landmark which it is now proposed to demolish’ (thank goodness that didn’t go ahead – we knew there was a long-running dispute over the land in the 1920s but didn’t realise demolition was ever on the cards); and a later one of the not-so-lucky Hooton Hall near Chester being demolished to make way for new houses. The collection also includes a number of politicians, including Mrs Mercer, the ‘first Lady Mayor of Birkenhead’ (1924/5) – hard to imagine anyone wanting to keep a picture of a modern-day MP in their scrapbook.

We’ve also added more local documents to our collection. We have several letters written by John Sneyd of the Staffordshire landowning family (Ralph Sneyd went to court in the 1850s to claim Mow Cop belonged to him; in the end he had to share ownership with Randle Wilbraham), and also more legal documents from the Challinor archive, detailing wills, indentures, loans and court cases, mostly from the Leek area. (This seems to have been a massive archive – we know quite a few people who have items from it and we believe the William Salt Library also has a large collection.) We also have some letters written from Liverpool in the 1790s: addressed to ‘Mr Cooke, of the Upper Pool near Hereford’ and ‘Mrs Edwards in the marketplace, Westbury’, they give you an idea of the size of the population at the time!

Our favourite, though, is a loan agreement made in 1766 between two Macclesfield men: Humphrey Goodwin, twister and button dyer, and Edward Bennett, hatbandmaker. Humphrey borrowed seventy-two pounds off Edward, around £8,500 today, to be repaid along with thirty-six pounds’ interest. We’ve found Humphrey in the records –  he was born in 1742 and christened at King Edward Street Presbyterian chapel; he married Hannah and had at least four daughters. Edward is proving more elusive so we’ll have to dig a bit deeper for him. What we really want to know, though, is what Humphrey did with the money …

Bond between Humphrey Goodwin and Edward Bennett, 1766 
(click to enlarge)

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Ferry 'cross the Mersey?

This tranquil scene, of what could be a father and son fishing, was sketched near Seacombe, Wirral in September 1811 – completely unrecognisable as the busy ferry port of today.  

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Season’s greetings to everyone who’s let us loose on their family tree this year – we’ve had a great time researching some really interesting characters (and unearthing a few things perhaps best left undiscovered!), and look forward to meeting more of you in 2014.

Here’s how you would have spent your Christmas had you booked into the Crichton Hotel in Blackpool in 1937; and an example of a hand-painted card, sent to Miss Hilda Pickering of Macclesfield in 1921. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Messines revisited

The story of the model village of Messines, as reported in our September blog, generated lots of interest, with people wanting to know how the model was rediscovered, and how it was ever lost in the first place.

Well, it was found through the detective work of two local historians – Richard Pursehouse and Lee Dent, members of the Chase Project military history group – and involved a host of volunteers, several archaeological units, Staffordshire County Council and researchers from across the globe. Plus, of course, a dog.

In 1920 the process of winding down the military camps of Cannock Chase was well underway, with reusable materials being salvaged and anything of value sent for auction. Remarkably, the Messines model didn’t seem to be considered important by the authorities, and it was ignored but luckily not destroyed. With grass and tree roots starting to encroach over the following months, local Cubs and Scouts tried to clean the model up, but when the huts surrounding it were torn down, it was completely exposed to the elements and began to deteriorate.

The future of the model seemed a little brighter come the 1930s, when Ernest Groucott, an ex-Grenadier Guardsman, undertook some renovation work. As an army driver he had been active in the area during the war and had seen the model being constructed. By 1932 he was giving guided tours of the model for a small fee and a restoration fund had been set up.

But this memento of the First War could only decline further as Britain faced the Second, and while local children played on it in the 1940s and 50s, by the 1960s it had almost completely disappeared from view.

And so it remained until 2007, when Richard Pursehouse picked up what he thought was a stick to throw for his dog – and discovered it was in fact concrete.  Richard and Lee had been researching the model since discussing it on a trip to the Somme Battlefields the previous year, and had tried to find the site. However, seeing the overgrown condition of the area, with not a glimpse of the model to be seen, they had more or less decided (like the Council) that it had gone. But now, a little scraping revealed patches of concrete around the gorse bushes … how much of the model remained?

In December 2007 Staffordshire County Council commissioned Birmingham Archaeology to assess the area identified by the Chase Project.  With the help of Dolores Ho of the National Army Museum in New Zealand, Richard and Lee continued to research the model, establishing the existence of the viewing area on three sides and that it had been built ‘under instructions from Lieutenant Colonel J.G. Roache for the use of the Regimental School to instruct officers and NCOs in Topography’. The Chase Project was able to gather an extensive dataset of maps, photographs and diaries to help archaeologists in their task.

Finally, in 2013, a full excavation of the model took place, with the site being declared to be of international as well as national significance.  The model was freed of scrub and dirt and a laser scan carried out so that an exact 3D replica can be built.

Unfortunately, although largely made of concrete the model is actually very fragile, and it was decided that it had to be re-covered to protect it from the elements and damage from burrowing animals. It was therefore covered with a breathable membrane, followed by a layer of sand, rabbit-proof netting and finally specially selected soil.

In this way the Messines model has been made safe for future generations as they contemplate some of the most momentous events in British history.
The model under construction.
Photo courtesy of the  National Army Museum New Zealand
Detail of German strongpoint north-east of Messines.
Photo courtesy of the Chase Project

Site of the model cleared prior to excavation.
Photo courtesy of the Chase Project

Anyone with any information on the model can contact the Chase Project at The group is now also researching the Staffordshire Tank Banks of the First World War.