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-
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