A Boy’s Own Life in Chesterfield and area in the 40’s and 50s

 

By David McPhie .. (With additional notes by Stuart Needham) 

Chapter One… Early Years

I was born on 27th January 1941 at Scarsdale Hospital on Newbold Road in Chesterfield which was as big as the Royal Hospital on Durrant Road at the time. My father was William (Bill) McPhie, my mother Dorothy (maiden name Storer). My early years were spent in a ‘semi’ on Hunloke Avenue on the upper / southern side of William Rhodes School Boythorpe. We were, within a few years, to move to another ‘semi’ on Central Avenue at the western side of the school and in the later Forties to Riber Terrace on the northern / lower side of the self same school. imagejpeg-4

These three houses were all literally the other side of the road from the school and so I spent my first 12 years in the closest possible proximity to the place where I spent 90% of my school days. I was probably about five years old when we moved to Riber Terrace as my father left home when I was three and my mother and grandmother moved (I assume) to gain the benefit of a lower rental property; a mid terrace ‘two up and two down’ with an outside toilet at the bottom of the yard.

But first of all the Hunloke and Central Avenue days. I don’t really know what the stresses and strains of my parents’ marriage consisted of but I do know and can remember vividly even now that I was (at the tender age of three) directly involved in my father’s final exit! There was a cartoon character in the Daily Mail( ! ) called Teddy Tail, a close ‘relative’ of Rupert the Bear I believe and I was allowed to follow his adventures every day at some designated time . On this occasion however it conflicted with my father’s wish to read the paper too but my mother took my part and a conflict ensued. The result was a stormy (permanent) exit by my father. imagejpeg I was barely 3 years of age and virtually fatherless other than a weekly or fortnightly trip with him to meet my other grandmother, my uncles and aunts and cousins; and an annual holiday with them to Butlins at Skegness or to the Scarborough/Bridlington coast. Despite a reasonably good friendship with my three cousins, quite frequently I didn’t want to be there and most visits were quite traumatic  for me as my relationship with my father was often quite stressful.

Stuart Needham :- In friendship mode David, I, still only a child myself, just a few years older, remember a great sadness for you, and your father, and the vision remains of him waiting for you, of a weekend, at the corner of Riber to take you out with him, me not understanding then, why your ‘Daddy’ could only see you for such brief periods.

imagejpeg-10 My Uncle Fred and Aunt Marjorie, over the years had two pubs, the first one at Holmegate and the second at Danesmoor, both on the outskirts of Clay Cross. I can remember being taken there and placed at a table in the corner with or without a cousin or two whilst my father or Aunt Marjorie played either a piano or an organ and conducted singalongs of the popular refrains of the day courtesy of Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton, Doris Day, Dickie Valentine, Dean Martin, Mario Lanza, etc., and the instrumental ‘hits”by such as Reginald Dixon (the Blackpool Tower man ), Eddie Calvert, Mrs Mills and Russ Conway. Uncle Fred was a blunt, forthright man who was ‘king of the castle’ behind his bar, conducting his customers like an orchestra and bellowing to and at them in his basso profundo voice. imagejpeg-15 I can remember being appalled, even at such an early age, at the banality of the songs and the grinding relentlessness of the very sound of the organ, and to this day I still cringe with embarrassment when I hear that Blackpool Tower sound or the plinkety-plonk of that bar-room piano style. Even worse than this ‘in-pub’ exposure was their inhuman practice of leaving us kids outside a pub in the car at night, on the way back home to Clay Cross after a seaside outing to Skegness or Cleethorpes, whilst the adults had their pub sing-a-long inside. The excruciating boredom and the feelings of exclusion (albeit from something that we didn’t want to be a part of) were the stuff of nightmares at such a young age. I don’t think parents would dream of leaving their kids outside nowadays in an unlocked cold, dark car for an hour or so whilst selfishly boozing and singing the night away in the light and warmth of a public house. imagejpeg-8

My cousin, Raymonde, is not, I assure you, lighting up a joint on the back of my father’s motor bike; although the intensity with which I am concentrating on the task at hand may well have prompted her to take such extreme measures !

A very big impediment to our relationship was my diet. My mother was what I call a ‘lazy vegetarian,’ or a vegetarian by default. In other words she didn’t actually like anything other than chips and vegetables and as a consequence I existed on a diet of 80% chips and 20% new potatoes for the first formative years of my life; no, for the first 74 years of my life because that’s still fundamentally my diet to this day, but reversed as 60% potatoes and veg., 10% chips, 20% beans on toast and 10% plain omelettes. I eat virtually nothing else other than ( too many ) bars of chocolate! The saving grace is that I have never eaten vast amounts of food, I eat to live not live to eat.

My father couldn’t accept this, he was convinced I needed meat and fish to grow and thrive and therefore every time I went out with him I had to endure a ridiculous game of ‘what’s in the sandwich.’ He knew I wouldn’t eat meat or fish if it was given to me in an obvious manner so instead it was hidden in sandwiches that I was told were something else, or in puddings or soups. The favourite deceptions were fish paste and ham slices disguised as jam or salad sandwiches! My ‘taste antennae’ was by this time very finely honed however and invariably I would discover the ‘foreign content,’ and of necessity have to retreat to the bathroom or toilet to be sick, as refusing the offering was not on the agenda in my father’s company. For a small child to be subjected to this treatment and occasionally be exposed to unforgivable ridicule because of his chosen diet is not designed to foster emotional stability or a stable and lasting relationship between father and son. imagejpeg-7 I never came to terms with the father/son thing (more of which later) and my relationship with my mother was also somewhat unconventional. She only ever took me to three places, one being Walton Woods which was situated adjacent to Walton Golf Course. The wooded area itself was relatively small but was quite mature woodland with lots of fallen trees and rotting wood. This was ideal habitat for mushrooms and fungi and I have vivid memories of the many mysterious shapes and colours that proliferated in this small area. There were enormous growths of bracket fungus on both the upright and fallen trees and many different types of vividly coloured fungi on the woodland floor, the most memorable being the White and Red Spotted Fly Agaric, the Puffballs, the Ink Caps and the various forms of Bracket Fungus. We would take these home and check which were edible and which were poisonous,  although I don’t ever remember us eating any. In addition to this magical woodland world there were some untended and neglected patches of grassland between the wood and the golf course, where we would take a net to catch the many species of butterflies and moths that proliferated in this now extremely rare habitat. Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Commas, Orange Tips, Painted Ladies, Brimstones,  (the various) Blues, Browns, Whites and Skippers were the most common; plus the day flying Moths such as the beautiful Five Spot Burnett, the Red and Yellow Underwings, the Cinnabar, the Cream Spot Tiger and the Hawk Moths.

Stuart Needham :- Ref. the beautiful but lethal Fly Agaric. We too, Peter my lifelong companion and others, also frequented the woods and heathland mentioned. One could press on, up through the wood, breaking out into untouched meadows, an insectivorous world with all the Lepidoptera species you mentioned, plus the dainty ‘Small Blue’ and dragonflies, hovering and darting in the shimmering heat of a school holiday afternoon. Did you ever go to the old ‘Donkey Racecourse’, now alas heavily built upon ? These fields led eventually to the three Linacre Reservoirs, and along the way was a young naturalist’s (such as yourself) ‘heaven.’ Crab apple blossom, yellowhammers in the gorse bushes, an untainted brook which we drank from. Plus grebe, mallard, tufted duck, rabbits, foxes, woodpeckers, pheasant and partridge. We would also venture in the vicinity of the dappled shade of the river, where, in May, the trout rose and the bank sides were overwhelmed by uncountable swathes of fragrant bluebells, and the not so fragrant wild garlic. One had to walk there then, and before the advent of the car parks one would scarcely meet a soul all day.

The very profusion of these inhabitants of those magical fields and hedgerows is in stark contrast to the scarcity of them now. My favourite however of all the British butterflies, which still beguiles and bewitches me to this day when I am fortunate enough to see one, is the diminutive Small Copper. I challenge anyone not to be entranced and captivated by this butterfly should you be lucky enough to come across one.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that our native butterflies are gravely endangered and hugely threatened, due primarily to the loss of this very habitat which I found so enchanting in my childhood in the 1940s; the undisturbed, uncultivated fields and hedgerows that have in such little time (no more than 50 years) almost completely vanished. I was also interested in birds but all I can ever remember seeing were House Sparrows, Starlings, (both very common then but sadly not any more) Blue and Great Tits and Pigeons. I don’t think I knew where to look or what to look for at the time, that came later.

Another place my mother introduced me to was Somersall Park through which ran the River Hipper, meandering shallow and sluggish from its source on the moorland above Holymoorside on it’s way to ‘skirt’ Walton Dam before continuing it’s lazy,  and soon to be seriously polluted, way through the very heart of the Robinsons Works and Plowrights’ complex before following the Brampton Branch parallel with Chatsworth Road and the Queens Park, then under both the Great Central and Midland railway lines before merging with the River Rother in the vicinity of Claytons’ Tannery and Hydes’ Foundry . At Somersall we would spend seemingly eternal sunlit afternoons (occasionally in the company of one of my friends) by the river or stream as my mother talked animatedly and incessantly to numerous strangers, whilst I and my friend would wade ankle (or occasionally knee) deep in the water, turning over stones and pebbles to uncover the shy, reclusive Stone Loach or ‘Bullhead,’ as it was colloquially known to every young schoolboy. For invariably it was boys and not girls who splashed around in the water with fishing nets in pursuit of this British version of the more exotic Catfish. Or it could have been the Minnow, that miniature version of the much larger Trout, or the diminutive Stickleback, which also lurked seductively in such sylvan streams in those long lost days of childhood innocence.

It is indeed a tribute to the reproductive finesse of these alluring fish that they survived for so long and in such numbers, despite the fact that every evening there was a happy band of small boys wearily leaving the environs of Somersall carrying one or two jam jars crammed full of such skilfully caught ‘game,’ only to transfer them (if they were lucky) to a slightly larger jar or fish tank, there to live an unnaturally miserable existence and to die a few days later due to a lack of running water and a suitably ‘fishy’ stream-like habitat ! But we didn’t know any better unfortunately, and neither did most of our parents or even our teachers. This was truly a sad indictment of the lack of sufficient education in schools regarding the ethical and moral issues surrounding such matters. I was indeed as guilty as the next boy of massacring the local small fish population and indeed also (see a later chapter) inflicting the same carnage upon the butterflies, moths and smaller insect and amphibian population at a slightly later stage of my ‘interest’ in nature.

The saving grace of this early ignorance of the cruelty we inflicted upon such helpless creatures was the development of my later interest in nature and conservation and the instilling of an awareness in my children and grandchildren of the need to conserve the natural world in all its diversity, for the benefit and enjoyment of their own descendants.

Occasionally we would walk downstream from Somersall for about  half a mile to where the stream ran past Walton Dam, effectively a storage lagoon for Robinsons works, but which also doubled as a recreational fishing facility for their employees. My abiding interest in this fascinating enclosure of water was the life beneath the surface, and in addition to the roach, tench, perch, carp etc. that were imported for the sport of the employees and license holders, there was the largest colony of sticklebacks I’ve ever come across, hundreds of them within a foot or two of the water’s edge. Three spined, ten spined, I confess I cannot remember but I think there may have been both present in good numbers. The water was rumoured to be very deep and it was certainly steep sided, so one had to be very careful not to fall in and become one of the casualties that were occasionally reported. I avoided that fate however, and a number of years after being introduced to this stickleback ‘haven’ I was to transfer some of these delightfully truculent little fish to another of Robinsons storage lagoons, at the lower end of their industrial operation a mile or more towards Chesterfield at Boythorpe, but this episode must wait for our next move, to Riber Terrace.

My early schooldays were, as far as I can remember quite happy, although I did suffer from bronchitis and as a result missed quite a lot of those early years at both the Nursery School and the Infants. My best friend from those early days was David Young, who I have since tried to get in touch with, but without success. So if anyone out there attended William Rhodes Nursery and Infants from 1944 to 1947 and knows his whereabouts then please get in touch. In the second or third year of the Infants, in Miss Martins’ class we were being quizzed about the interesting jobs our relatives had and I offered “my Uncle Herbert is a tramp”! In actual fact he was a travelling sales representative for the ‘jam factory’ in Bolsover. Well, I got the first three letters right anyhow, but my mother and grandmother were less than impressed when Miss Martin told them of her surprise at the ‘prestigious’ occupation pursued by my Uncle Herbert, when they attended the school open day!

One early memory from what would probably be our last year at Central Avenue prior to moving to Riber Terrace was the winter of 1947 and ‘the great snow’. Our house was a mere 20 yards or so across the road from the school wall but I couldn’t get there for a whole week. I must have lived closer to the school than any other pupil but there was no chance of getting there  for any of us. Upon waking on the first morning after the onset of the snowfall, and looking through my bedroom window on the first floor, I was shocked but not disappointed to see that the snow had drifted level with the window sill ! I enjoyed that winter!

My more ‘domestic’ forays with my mother were to the nearby Queens Park for the swings, slides and roundabouts, but were I suspect as much for my mother’s benefit as mine! She would meet with her friend Maisie and her offspring, and they would conspire to be in the same area of the park at some stage of the day as Bill Bostock, the park keeper. The poor man was no match for them and they would tease and flirt with him mercilessly. My mother was by reputation a very attractive natural redhead in her younger days and I don’t know how serious this situation was, I should have asked her in later life. Between 1941 when I was born and 1945 the Germans were attempting to bomb the Tube Works and Donkins, and when the sirens would sound all the mothers in the park would run with their kids in the push chairs and prams to the nearest air raid shelter. I can (vaguely) remember this, but no-one will believe me! imagejpeg-2 My mother, after my father left, went to work on the buses as a ‘clippie’ and as a result I was left in my Grandmothers’ care for much of the time as the ‘shift work’ schedule she was rostered for involved working from 6.00 in the evening to 2.00 in the morning. So from the age of three to five I would go to bed every other week without a parent in attendance. My grandmother was I suppose fairly old fashioned and ‘morally upright,’ but we managed to build quite a comfortable rapport between us and she was probably responsible for what little stability I achieved during my childhood.

I often wonder what effect this unconventional upbringing had on my life, and the conclusion I have reached is that I (subconsciously) utilised the trauma of a broken home and the resulting lack of structure and discipline, and the instability that often reared it’s head, as a ‘spur’ to galvanise me to achieve my ‘goals’ in life. However I have often achieved those aims, only to then suffer a reverse due to complacency or recklessness, and this applies to both my business and my personal life. In business it’s called risk taking, vision,  or entrepreneurialism, but in ‘real life’ it’s called thoughtlessness, or at worst, stupidity! But then it has given me the ‘opportunity’ to experience on a couple of occasions the proverbial ‘Phoenix from the Ashes’ moment!

Copyright 2015 David McPhie All Rights Reserved

 

TO FOLLOW :-  Chapter Two .. Adventure, Freedom and Independence (The Riber Terrace Days) ..

In addition to my own reminiscences of the days I spent living and playing in the Riber Terrace area of Boythorpe, we will have some memories from Stuart Needham, who was a few years older than me, and lived almost exactly opposite on Minimum Terrace. We  knew  each other, and our paths frequently crossed,  but due to the age disparity we had a different circle of friends, so Stuart’s recollections will differ slightly and pre-date mine by five years or so , that being our age difference ..

Onwards to Walton Road ..

How Football, Cricket and Trains won hands down over School ..

Railway days parts  2 & 3..

The Newbold Years ..

Hudsons to ‘Some Kinda Mushroom’ ..

The Blueberries (or what’s left to tell after Ian (Lee)’s interesting and comprehensive story elsewhere on this site .. “Stalled at the Crossroads”, Parts One and Two ..

The ‘Smokestack’ at The  Queens Park Hotel ..

Top Rank Residency ( Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, Bill Haley, etc. ) ..

‘Velvet Underground’ at the ‘Vic’ ( Jethro Tull, Family, Free, Mott The Hoople, etc.) ..  both parts (1 & 2) already posted ahead of schedule ..

Local Band Connections ( Joe Cocker, Shape of the Rain, etc. ) ..

Bookshops and Craft Centres .. 

A ( very short )  Devon Interlude ..

The Wilderness Years ..

Business History and Philosophy ..