To Rugby and Back

Herb and I were christened together while I was in Alliance Way, on 14 October 1919, and I went to Stoke Heath school. I don’t remember much else about Alliance Way. All I remember is that I went to school there and we used to go round the corner to see my Auntie Jenny and Uncle Edgar, who lived in the next road to us, Uplands.

After I don’t know just how long – about twelve or eighteen months, I should think (I must have been about six or seven) – Uncle Bert and his brother, Edgar, decided, because things were pretty bad in England after the First World War, that Canada was the place to go. Everybody was going to Canada and making a fresh start. So they decided they would go, get a job, and then, when they’d made some money, send for their wives.

Uncle Edgar and Auntie Jenny were always very close to Uncle Bert and Auntie Fanny. So what they decided to do was to give one of the houses up. They couldn’t afford to keep two houses going and then go abroad. Auntie Fanny gave up her house in Alliance Way and went to live with Auntie Jenny, and the two men went off.

There wasn’t any room for me, so they wrote and told my dad that he’d have to have me back for a bit. I don’t know whether it was a very popular decision, but I don’t think he had any alternative. So of course I went then to live at Rugby for a little while. And it was most peculiar, because when I went there I remember Beat, my stepmother, telling me she never knew my dad had got me until the letter came to say that they were going over to Canada and my dad would have to have me back for a bit while they sorted out what they were going to do. It was the shock of her life: she thought he’d only got Les and Phyllis. She could never understand why our Les was always asking why Chris wasn’t there!

My father had remarried about the Christmas after my mother had died, or it might have been early the following year – twelve months after, I was told. He’d been living at his mother’s and had gone to a servicemen’s club, for a drink. There he met someone who was lodging in a boarding-house where the landlady’s daughter was having some trouble.

During the war she’d been married to a Belgian who’d come here to work on munitions. He was a skilled man and had to come here to take the place of some of our men. They’d had a little boy, Austin. (I think she had to get married because of him.) After the war her husband was called back to his own country, but he was supposed to be coming back to her. But he hadn’t come back, and she’d been writing letters and she couldn’t find out why. So this man asked my dad if he could help him put some letters together to find out what had happened to the Belgian, because they didn’t know whether he’d been killed on the way over or what had happened.

My dad did some correspondence for the daughter, and he used to go and see her to ask her about things. And it appears that the Belgian was a married man with about five children in Belgium and he’d decided to stop over there with his own wife. So of course the daughter wasn’t really married to him, and he couldn’t come back because he would have got in trouble here for being married twice.

But that’s how my dad got in with Beat – the daughter – and he married her and went to live at her mother’s house. Granny James he used to call her mother – Beat’s name was Beatrice James before she was married. Before that he’d lived with his own mother.

When he got married to Beat he took my brother with him, but Phyllis stayed with Grandma Barnwell. Phyllis had always stopped with her grandmother. She spent more time there than with my own mother, I think. She was the first grandchild, and the apple of her grandma’s eye. But from now on Les lived with my dad and Beat and Grandma James. She was very nice, Beat’s mother; she was very good to Les – a nice lady. And of course I had to go and live with them too – with Grandma James.

My dad had a sister and brother, and they married a brother and sister. So Uncle Len was married to Auntie Vi, my dad’s sister. They always lived at home, because it was big house – Grandma Barnwell had about four rooms downstairs; they had two pianos and two three-piece suites. They were the sort of people who’d always have a good show even if they hadn’t got a penny.

At Grandma James’s when I lived there it was like a boarding-house. They were mostly single men, ordinary working men who liked to go down the pub. For the toilet you used to have to go out and round a lonely path. I used to nearly burst, because I used to wait till the very last minute – I was always frightened that when I opened the door there’d be somebody in there.

It was a big house, a weird house, with ivy all over it. You could hardly see out of the windows. I was terrified. I was always nervous. The ivy used to almost meet over the windows, and you used to see faces in this ivy on the windows.

Beat had a sister, Win, and when I went I used to share a bedroom with her. And Les had to share a room with Austin. Les and Austin got quite friendly, although Austin was younger – about five or six years younger, perhaps.

It was Austin that got me frightened of frogs. I can remember as plain as anything they’d got a little yard at the back and he’d got his cap in his hand and he said, ‘I’ve got something here. Put your hand in and see what it is.’ And I put my hand in and it was a frog! Oh it was horrible! Its legs all of a sudden shot out, and I had hysterics – I did, honestly. I wasn’t used to the rough and tumble so much when I went to live there, and I thought it was going to be a sweet or something. I remember that ever so plain. It’s funny, that’s the only thing I can remember about him. I never saw him again after I left Rugby. It was only kid’s stuff, but to me …

Hear Chris describe being surprised by a frog:

Of course Austin could get away with murder because he was Beat’s own son: our Les and I got the blame, but he got away with anything. Beat was all right to her own children – they went short of nothing – but she resented having me and Les.

I remember one Christmas when I was at Beat’s my auntie sent me a lovely doll and a lot of wool with it. I was better with my hands than with my brain when I was a kid, and even though I was only about six or seven I could knit. She sent me the wool to make things for this doll, but I remember Beat wouldn’t let me make things for the doll: I had to knit vests. She said it was a waste: I’d got to use some of the wool to knit a vest, because the winter was cold.

The first child she and my dad had died. That was when I lived there. He was only a baby – Douglas. I must only have been about seven, and I remember going into this bedroom where my dad and Beat slept and this cot was there. And – I can see him now, as plain as anything – there was this baby lying in this cot, and he’d got kind of a scarf tied round his head and he was lying in this cot, still. And Beat told me to kiss him, and when I did he was stone cold. And I can remember my lips froze.

I was too young to know what death meant, but I was always a bit scared of death after that. I think all these sorts of things made me on the nervous side. I wasn’t nervous when my mother was here – it was all these things going on all around me. I remember seeing that and I remember it all froze me, and I remember he’d got coins on his eyes. Of course they used to have bodies at home in those days.

Anyway, when Uncle Bert and Uncle Edgar got to Canada it was the middle of winter evidently and all the roads were blocks of ice. They had to wear socks on top of their shoes – they couldn’t walk. And they absolutely froze – of course central heating wasn’t the thing in those days. There was no work there – it was absolutely terrible.

They were after engineering work, because they’d worked at Alfred Herbert’s during the war. They used to work in the same department, but nobody could believe they were brothers. To look at Uncle Edgar you’d think he was ever so stern, but he wasn’t really. I remember Uncle Bert telling us once, ‘This fellow said to me, “He’s a miserable old whatsit over there, isn’t he? I’ve never seen him smile – he just keeps on to his job.”’ My uncle said, ‘Do you mind – that’s my brother!’ The man had the shock of his life. He said, ‘Well, you’d never think so.’ Yet really Uncle Edgar was the more lively of the two, but if he was at work he was at work – no larking about then. But he was always larking about when he was not at work.

Anyway, there was nothing doing in Canada, so rather than wasting time there, spending the rest of their money, they decided to come home. Uncle Bert had got a bit more than Uncle Edgar, and he only stayed there a matter of weeks or a couple of months at the most, I think. But Uncle Edgar was a bit short of money, so he didn’t come home until a couple of months after. It was silent films in those days, and to get the money to come home he used to play the piano to the films. My Uncle Edgar played the piano all without music – he could make it sound like a barrel organ or anything. He could do anything with a piano.

If things had worked out, I don’t really know whether I was going over with my auntie or if I’d got to stop here. I never wanted to ask – I didn’t want to know. I was a very sensitive kid. I didn’t want to be pushed around any more. I just wanted to think that they wanted me.

Up till then Auntie Jenny had her children – Eddie and Alec – in with her, to make room. But when Uncle Edgar was coming back Uncle Bert and Auntie Fanny had to get out quick. They’d got their name down for a council house just like Auntie Jenny’s, but they were waiting for the houses to be built, in Lowther Street. When the houses were finished they moved into number 42, brand new, in 1922 or 1923.

While I was in Rugby, my uncle and auntie used to keep in touch to see how I was, because they’d had me for a bit before then. I’d lived with my auntie right from when I was born – my auntie wasn’t married then but lived with my mother. I think my dad must have written to them and said that I wasn’t happy, so they decided that they would come and take me back. So I went to Lowther Street until about twelve months before I was married, when they bought a house in Glencoe Road and I then had twelve months there.

It used to upset me sometime when girls used to talk about their mums or their mothers. I’ve never ever called anybody ‘Mother’. Though I was close to my auntie I always called her ‘Auntie’. And I so much wanted a mother – it was one of those ambitions you have when you’re a kid. Oh I did want a mother! Though she wouldn’t be any different to my auntie – it was just the word, I think. When people said, ‘My mum this’ or ‘My mum that’ it was always for me ‘My auntie …’ ‘Your auntie? What about your mother?’ – you know. They weren’t really nasty, but they were curious why I never talked about my mother. And I thought, ‘Oh I wish I had got one so I could brag about it.’

When I was eleven I had the surprise of my life one morning when I got up and my auntie had got a little girl. In those days you didn’t talk about things like that, and she’d only told me that me and our Herb were going to have a surprise later on. I was never one to sleep a lot, even as a child, and I remember this morning waking up and hearing a baby crying and being very curious, and I remember my auntie calling me in – she must have known I was awake – and going in and this baby – Betty – was there.

Betty and Herb

Betty and Herb

I thought it was marvellous, because I was always mad on babies. To me she was just like a real doll – one you could do anything with. It was absolutely great – I was in heaven then. I was almost twelve, and I used to help look after Betty. We got very close, and when she was only about nine months old the cot came into my room by the side of my bed and she used to sleep in the room with me (and our Herb was in the bed as well). We used to sleep in there and I thought it was lovely. And of course I used to take her more or less everywhere.

Betty, Chris and Herb

Betty, Chris and Herb

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