Monday, November 12, 2007

The changing world (1) First memories at Topcliffe 1946 - 52

The evidence for my entry into the world is a birth certificate dated 12 May 1946 at Newport Monmouthshire, England. The last two words are significant as on the birth certificates of all my children except the eldest, it shows their father was born in Newport, Gwent, Wales. I think it was Harold Wilson who moved the goal posts. I am not Welsh but English and in character Yorkshire to boot. I was taken north in 1947, a babe in arms, and did not leave until I went to university in The Great Wen in 1964. I have not lived in God's county since, but tribal and sporting loyalties as well family are there and I regard myself as a Tyke in all but place of birth.

My father was the fourth and final generation of the family to have worked in iron in Newport. His story is told at He came north to the place where he had met my mother Mary, in 1940, thanks to the army. They had met at Castlegate Methodist Church,Thirsk, where her father, George Graham, was the pastor. When the government was sending young women from Thirsk for war work in Manchester, she asked if she could go to Newport as Fred was back there at work as a toolmaker at the request of his employers. The said employers had forced him into the army though he had a reserved occupation. The reason was his trade union activity. He had stood up to exploitative bosses and feared that after the war, as soon as they could, they would be rid of him. So he jumped to the village of Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, before he was pushed. There he worked initially for the engineering manufacturers, Bamlets , in Thirsk, We lived next door to my maternal grandparents as he was now pastor for Topcliffe Methodists . The house was shared with Tom and Joyce . Tom Rayner, eldest son of a local farmer, had married my mother's younger sister and the house belonged to the family farm. We were there for five years. Joyce was a very loving aunt who soon had two boys of her own. Tom was a disciplinarian and I was in awe of him but enjoyed visits to his family farm, less than a mile away, down the hill (yes the village was aptly named Topcliffe ) and past Lister's mill. The mill dam made for seasonal flooding of the River Swale, blocking the farm road. It also gave excellent fishing below the weir and my grandfather had free access to this, a kindness from Mr. Lister, the owner. Grandad took me fishing there, one of my earliest memories before I started school. We received our milk, in a can brought by Uncle Tom, straight from milking his cows

Other pre-school memories are the outside toilet. In those days such toilets were not flushed. You sat on a box.
But I believe were were flushing ours. There was an outside shed which served as laundry room. No washing machine but a boiler for the clothes , a posser to wash them and a big mangle to squeeze out the water, Monday was always wash day. From the kitchen beams hung sides of home-cured bacon. There was no fridge but a cool pantry.

One thing, other than Tom, frightened me in that house. On the landing before I went to bed, I would see two paintings of Highland cattle. Big long horns and shaggy coats were frightening to a small boy and for decades after I had nightmares of being chased by cattle. My father told me his bad dreams were of still being in the army. Lives are affected by traumas real or imaginary.

My parents had married in the local chapel just down our road, Church Street. Grandad had been the minister then but when I was pre-school he was at Altofts near Wakefield . But chapel was the centre of social life. It was Sunday School in the morning and service in the evening. The large gallery and hand pumped pipe organ are memories as is the big event of the church year for us kids, Sunday School Anniversary . A platform, always seemingly rickety to me, was build above the communion table area in front of the pulpit . Children did their special music and recitations from it. You were expected to learn "your piece '. My public speaking was from that platform at I believe the age of four when I recited,

Jesus died for all the children,
All the children in the world.
Red and yellow,
Black and white;
All are in his sight.
Jesus died for all the children,
All the children in the world.

I had never seen anyone not white!

It was a good start for the fourth geneation of Weeks preachers.

Our Yorkshire Methodism then was lively and evangelical. We were t'chapel folk. Other folk were t'chuch, Church of England and spiritually dead as far as we were concerned. Harvest Festival with a special visiting preacher like on Sunday School Anniversary was the big day in the year, Harvest Festival Sunday, church all decorated with gifts, was followed by Monday evening service, supper and auction of produce. Money raised was for chapel funds and often there was friendly rivalry as to who bought what followed by great satisfaction for the donor if her stuff had made a good price.

Sadly, this Methodist chapel like many other rural ones, has been closed. The triumph of liberal theology. My grandfather was the first minister there 1940 or so. My uncle was the last about sixty tears later. So the Methodist Chapel Aid fund is awash with money and now in 2018 our present church has been able to borrow from it for our new Presbyterian building.

Of course there were the major festivals too. Christmas was always preceded by the adults going round the community in dark and cold singing carols. It was a very sociable time, even with snow on the ground. Singers looked forward to those places where they would be invited in for a drink (always non-alcoholic) and a mince pie.

We had like other Yorkshire villages the custom of luckybirding on Christmas and New Year mornings. Children would go out early while folk were still abed and loudly sing,

Luck , lucky bird,
Cluck, cluck, cluck.cluck.
If you get uo you'l have no luck.
A hole in your stocking,
A hole in your shoe,
Please will you spare us a copper or two.
If you've not got much a penny will do.
Luck bird, lucky bird,
God bless you.

We would come home enriched by a few coins. We would get some on Boxing day too by a method of begging unique to Topcliffe, Yowling. All the local children would go as a crowd to the houses of only the wealthier villagers and yowl. This meant shouting "Yule" with a drawn out , "Yoooooooooool, Yooooooool ". After a few minutes of this the householder would come out with a shovel full of hot pennies heated on the coal fire (no central heating) and throw the coins over the crowd. Children scrambled for wealth.

Once a year to there was an annual village horse fair. For the week before, gypsies would come with horse-drawn caravans, to trade horses. The fair dated back centuries to a royal charter. Locals disliked the gypsies and eventually the fair was stopped by an act of parliament no less. But when I were a lad, gippoes were not liked. I suppose it was the only time we got to racism but as gypsies are white, no-one thought of it as prjudice . No, we disliked them because we regarded them as untrustworthy thieves whose women knocked on our doors selling sprigs of heather with the implied threat of a curse if you did not purchase. Ours was an homogenous ethnic community , save when the gippoes came. Society divided on the lines of church or chapel. You were of one or t'other even if you did not attend.

I started at the village school, aged five in 1951. That must also be the time of my political memory, mother hearing on the radio that Churchill was back as Prime Minister. Labour was out. She seemed pleased. Not she was a Conservative but because Churchill was the great man. The local doctor has given baby me the compliment of saying I had a Churchillian brow. I remember well, old Doctor Toby Mitchell. His surgery was opposite our house. He has a gruff, scary voice. I am told it was due to a silver plate put in his throat after the effects of too much pipe smoking.

Going to school was a walk down the street and across the busy main road. I do not recall being accompanied to school. It was a safe place. I do not recall any supervised crossing of the busy road linking the A!, Great North Road, to Thirsk and Teeside . I do recall tripping over the uneven pavement near the chapel and having a bloody face and knees. Short trousers only in those days for us lads.

School would have had two classes only though to leaving age of 15. You were there for 10 years unless you passed the 11 plus exam and made it to the Grammar School. Uncle Tom's youngest sister Winnie had . Few did and I was to be one of the fortunate ones too.

We left Topcliffe in 1952 after February I know. I can tell that because I remember being told that month that the King was dead. Before the Coronation in June 1953 we were settled in our own Terrace House, Skipton upon Swale, four miles away , and with a different school.

I cannot remember much about starting School but I do know we had slates to write on. As we left , Trerank, Church Street, Topcliffe, my grandparents moved into the house with Tom, Joyce and their boys, Robert and Arthur. Cancer had forced grandad to retire form his ministry. He had come to Topcliffe to die which he did in agony. He was not given enough morphine for an easy going. In fact the doctors initially told the family he was terminally ill but did not tell . He left behind a priceless record , a diary account of his life from his conversion as a boy around 1910. He was an agricultural laboure in the far north of Northumberlan. He became an active leader of men organising the agricultural workers' union before he was accepted for the Primitive Methodist ministry after a time in the army in occupied Germany. We still have his postcards from there as well as his account of the first world war as experience by an ordinary Northumbrian .

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