Margaret Stoll Memories
This story begins with an ending — a death. The death was that of a very much loved woman, my godmother, my late mother’s best friend.
My godmother was Annie Franklin Toase née Wighton, and she was one of the few people who remained staunchly loyal to me, to my mother and to all our family throughout her life. My mother died in 1975 at the relatively early age of sixty-three, my godmother Annie lived into her eighty-ninth year, but she never wavered in her loyalty.
My partner Barry and I were glad to visit Annie in hospital. Annie had taken an instant liking to him when I introduced them in May 1998 only a few months after we got together. Unlike many of her generation, she wasn’t concerned about the formalities and conventions — she simply recognised a good man when she met one and she was happy for me.
Even in Annie’s very last days, when she had so much difficulty in breathing, she still had a warm smile for us and a loving kiss, and we were happy to sit quietly holding her hand. The very last service I was able to do for her was to arrange a chaplain’s visit where she made her last Communion, which ensured that her last couple of days in this life were peaceful.
Barry and I attended Annie’s simple cremation along with her daughter Anne and Anne’s two sons, one of whom had travelled from Wales to Essex to attend his beloved grandmother’s cremation. Anne had laid out a traditional Yorkshire funeral tea for us in her Essex cottage, and the five of us chatted and reminisced.
There was no question but that Barry and I would travel from our home in Essex to Yorkshire for Annie’s memorial service. Because Barry had never been in the Yorkshire Dales we planned to do a little sightseeing at the same time. We stayed overnight in the ‘Buck Inn’, Thornton Watlass, where we were warmly welcomed and we attended Evensong in Ripon Cathedral the Sunday before the memorial service. Those pure, haunting choirboys’ voices and the wonderful organ music put a smile of sheer pleasure on to Barry’s face.
The following morning we drove around some of Wensleydale’s beauty-spots and small market towns — Bedale, Masham, Leyburn — but the sky was full of snow and looking very threatening so we promised ourselves another visit when the weather was better.
The memorial service was held in the village church, Holy Trinity, Little Ouseburn – the church which had so many recollections of my earlier life and of family members now no longer with us. The little church was packed, her favourite hymns were sung. Even though it was a grey, damp, chilly day the atmosphere was joyful, the service one of thanksgiving for a long life well-lived. Everyone at the service had some pleasant memory of Annie to relate. Although she had always lived a quiet, ordinary life, by her simple, sincere actions she had touched so many people’s lives and she would not be forgotten.
Yorkshire in February can be bleak, but there were snowdrops lying in great drifts everywhere you looked — symbols of hope and rebirth. We saw the interment of Annie’s ashes in her parents’ grave, then we attended the buffet and get-together following the memorial service in the local pub, the ‘Green Tree’, which has its own place in this story. I renewed acquaintance with many people, some of whom remembered me from my earliest years.
I realised sharply just how far my life had changed, and how far I’d moved from that village community over many years and the many different places where I’d worked and lived. And yet, that was the place of my origins, and three generations of my family lie in that quiet churchyard.
Before the memorial service Annie’s daughter Anne gave me a copy of a book called ‘Victorian Ouseburn — George Whitehead’s Diary’ edited by Helier Hibbs. This was the book which started me on my journey to find my family.
The original journal was written by one of the earliest of local amateur historians in Victorian times who jotted down what he saw around him and what happened in the lives of his neighbours in his village and the surrounding area.
I was fascinated to read about the village where I grew up, fascinated that some of my family members were mentioned and also a lot of surnames appeared which had been familiar to me in my childhood.. This book reawakened my interest in family history. I did start on it once before some twenty years earlier but I didn’t have much idea how to go about it and apart from some help from my second cousin Malcolm Gudgeon there was no one I could ask for advice.
This time round we had computers, we had Internet access and immediately I was able to tap into a vast pool of knowledge and help from fellow enthusiasts around the world. I discovered Yorksgen, which is an online mailing list for people with Yorkshire roots. It comes under the umbrella of GENUKI, which is Genealogy UK and Ireland. I subscribed and lurked for a while, reading other people’s messages.
One of the most knowledgeable people in the list is a family historian named Roy Stockdill, and I took his advice on board. I realised that I’d had completely the wrong idea. The accepted and correct way to do family history is to start with yourself and work back systematically generation by generation, checking and verifying everything with original sources — birth, marriage and death certificates, wills, census returns and any other contemporaneous documentation.
Working back generation by generation posed a problem. I was illegitimate, and I’d had it well hammered into me that I ‘mustn’t try’ or ‘mustn’t look’ for the paternal side of the family. At a very young age I absorbed the impression that they were somewhat up-market and that I wasn’t, so they wouldn’t want to know me.
I was fortunate in that I at least had a name and a few details about him, so in theory I had a starting point — but should I look further? I realised that if my family tree was not to be devoid of half its branches I would have to start looking into my putative father’s family.
This was the first of the many ethical dilemmas with which I was to be faced. I decided to pose the question to all the other members of the online mailing-list Yorksgen — should I? Back came the reply from far-flung places and from all points of the compass — helpful, warm, supportive — ‘Yes, these grandparents are yours, this DNA is yours, you do have the right, go for it!’
I was enormously encouraged. I realised that the whole atmosphere had changed, that there wasn’t the shame, disgrace and secrecy about being illegitimate that I and my poor mother had to endure all those years ago. The word ‘illegitimate’ actually means something which shouldn’t be there, which has no right to exist, and that is exactly how you were made to feel.
My mother Ada Mary Metcalfe worked as a domestic servant at a country public house, the ‘Green Tree’, in the village of Little Ouseburn in the Vale of York. She lived in the little row of cottages diagonally across from the pub; the family had lived there since about 1908. My maternal grandfather Daniel Metcalfe was a farm worker, but I think by the mid-1930s his working life was over.
My grandmother Hannah had asthma and heart disease and she died in 1938. I don’t remember her face, but I do remember legs in black stockings and a long black skirt, under which I crawled as a baby and was told not to.
My grandparents had had a lot of sadness and hardship in their lives. Two of their children, Esther and Annie, died in babyhood from the effects of whooping-cough. My grandfather’s work on farms was becoming increasingly precarious. Several of his contemporaries had moved into industry in places like Leeds or Manchester, some went to Canada in search of a better living, but my grandfather was too attached to his home area and his own familiar environment.
My aunt, Lilian, had been a cook up to 1926 when she developed poliomyelitis and became unable to walk. She had learned her craft as a cook under the old upstairs-downstairs system of going into service in a ‘big house’ in her early teens, starting as scullery-maid, then kitchen-maid, then assistant cook, finally as cook.
Lilian sat on the floor for most of the rest of her life but was always busy from there — she did all the cooking, she sewed, knitted, you name it. She and my godmother Annie’s brother Mack Wighton had been in love, and I’ve been told what a good-looking couple they made when dancing together, Lilian in her green dress with her long auburn hair. But when Lilian had poliomyelitis and realised she would never walk again she broke off their engagement.
Mack didn’t want this – he wanted to care for her, but she was convinced that it would not be fair to him. ‘I could never have been a proper wife to him, never have given him children’, as she told me years later. Her clear and realistic assessment of the situation was the one that prevailed. This loving and unselfish couple agreed to part but they never forgot each other and Mack, though he later married, never did have children.
My mother was born in 1911 and died in 1975 of asthma and heart disease. At the time she met my father she was twenty-two and he was sixteen. In the summer of 1934 things must have looked rosy for her. She had a boy-friend, a local farm-worker; she was working for what seemed to be a nice family; she had just bought herself a small box camera and used it to take pictures on a trip to Scarborough and of the people around her. She had a job — in a time and place where jobs were scarce — and she only had to walk across the road to go to work. She did domestic work at the local pub, and my father was the second son of the licensee and his wife.
She did have a boy-friend at the time who dumped her when her pregnancy became known – he didn’t want to father another man’s child, which was a common attitude at the time. Many of the local farmers’ wives wouldn’t give her domestic work because they were all respectable church-going women and couldn’t be seen to condone her ‘shame’.
She even wanted to join the Church of England Mothers’ Union at one time but wasn’t allowed to because, although a mother and a church member, she wasn’t a wife. Her life was ruined because she had no chance of marriage or of getting away into a better job.
At the time of my birth in 1935 she was really the only wage-earner in the family and to have an illegitimate child was a disaster from every point of view because it meant she couldn’t work, and the only money coming in would be my grandfather’s old age pension when he became entitled to it and the small amounts my aunt earned from sewing, knitting, and making hand-made gloves.
After my aunt’s illness and once she realised she would never walk again she sold her bicycle and bought a portable sewing-machine. She used this to make, repair and alter clothes for people who paid her a small amount of money, and also to make my clothes and do all the sewing and mending for our family. Better-off women would donate their cast-off clothing and my aunt would use the material — which was often of excellent quality — to make clothes for me. I remember I had a lovely pinafore dress which she made from someone’s cast-off tweed skirt. With a hand-knitted jumper under it, and warm underclothes, I wasn’t badly-dressed or cold.
My grandfather was sixty-three at the time of my birth in August 1935. On his sixty-fifth birthday in February 1937 he would have become entitled to what was then called Old Age Pension (now Retirement Pension). Whatever the weekly amount was then it must have formed a substantial proportion of our family’s income. My mother received no benefit or allowance of any kind for being a mother or for the time she was unable to work.
In the United Kingdom we now take many things for granted which did not exist a few decades ago. There were no benefits or help of any kind for an unmarried mother and her child. An eighteenth-century law stated that an illegitimate child was not part of the family — and therefore not the responsibility of — either the father or the mother. The Poor Law of 1834 provided for the building of workhouses — in some places called poorhouses — for the destitute poor. This meant anyone who could not earn their own living and this would obviously include an unsupported mother and child. This was a constant theme of Victorian novelists such as Dickens, Hardy, Gaskell and others.
Workhouses were only abolished in 1930, but until the birth of the Welfare State in 1948 there was still the Poor Law mentality if you couldn’t work and your family couldn’t or wouldn’t help. Some young women were actually sent into a mental hospital just because they had an illegitimate child. Obviously they would be separated from the baby and would never know what became of it. They would have no choice or say in the matter. Some of these poor women stayed in the big mental institutions for decades and were only released when the climate of opinion changed and the big institutions were closed. By then they were so institutionalised that they were unable to cope with the world which had changed and become more complicated. They had to live in ‘sheltered housing’ where although they had a degree of independence there would be someone on hand to help with the practicalities of life.
Although my family lived in the direst poverty I was never conscious of being cold, hungry, badly-clothed or badly-shod. This is thanks to my grandparents, my aunt and my mother, who were incredibly hard-working, self-sacrificing and resourceful. They had pride and independence and also a strong sense of priorities — what mattered in life was the roof over our heads, food, clothing, warmth, cleanliness and not being in debt. They weren’t too proud to accept cast-off clothing and other forms of help which occasionally came their way, but they never begged or scrounged. They didn’t ask for much in life, and they never put their needs or wishes before those of ‘the bairn’.
Although this is only sixty-odd years ago life was very different then. There were well-to-do people but they lived outside the village and we didn’t see them except at church. We didn’t have advertising aimed at us at every turn saying ‘buy this, buy that’ with the unspoken inference that you are somehow losing out if you don’t have the latest consumer goods, cars, holidays, Christmas goods, you name it.
My family was poor but they had their pride and their sense of priorities. When I started school in September 1940 I was given a few pennies a week to take to the school branch of the Yorkshire Penny Bank to start my savings account, and this happened every Monday morning.
The family always had a small insurance policy for me, ever since my grandmother died when I was three and my grandfather realised that without insurance it was difficult to pay for her funeral. He growled to my mother: ‘Get that bairn insured’. What were called ‘penny industrial’ policies were the most basic form of insurance, and someone would call every week to collect the penny or two premium. I don’t suppose they thought of it at the time, but what they were doing was ensuring that I learned the basics of personal finance. I can’t imagine having no bank account or insurance of any kind.
As an unmarried mother in the late 1930s my mother was at best patronised and exploited, at worst shunned and discriminated against. But she gave me the best start in life she possibly could.
She stayed at home and breast-fed me for the first six months of my life, but from then on the rest of her life was unremitting hard work cleaning other women’s houses. She was a ‘daily woman’ who did ‘the rough work’. But I can remember her singing as she went about the chores at home, and her welcoming smile when I came home. I have only understood in very recent years just what she must have gone through, and it is too late to thank her and to give her the honour and gratitude which is her due.
I knew from very early years that I was ‘different’. Some children weren’t allowed to play with me, and once I started school there was the systematic and continuous bullying and victimisation which went on until I got away from the children who’d grown up with me, when I went to bigger schools with a larger catchment area.
The very earliest time I had any awareness of this ‘difference’ was when I was only about three. I used to like to go next door to play with a girl who was about three years older than I was. On this particular occasion something must have been said, because my mother came in and spoke to my aunt. She was upset, and said something like: ‘I can’t understand why they should be like that – after all they have one of their own’. I had come back indoors to sit on the floor by my aunt, and I asked ‘One of what?’ My aunt gathered me closely into her arms, and with a tone in her voice that I’d never heard before said simply ‘A little lonely girl who has no one to play with’.
That tone in an adult’s voice clearly said ‘ask no more questions’. It was never explained to me why one little lonely girl should be prevented from playing with the little lonely girl next door.
‘YOU CAN ALWAYS PUT HER INTO A HOME’
I knew for a long time that the difference between me and other children was rooted in the fact that they had fathers and I didn’t and that was somehow ‘wrong’. I learned very early on that it was useless to ask questions about why I was different, why I hadn’t a father, what all the bad words meant.
The fact that I didn’t have a father also meant that I didn’t have brothers and sisters and I felt this lack keenly. All the other children in the village had at least one brother or sister and most of them had several. At one stage I was so desperate for a sibling that I fantasised about my mother expecting another baby and I told all my school contemporaries this. They told their mothers, their mothers spoke to my mother, and I was made to realise that this wasn’t something I should say or even dream about. I can imagine the waves of shock and horror that this innocent wishful statement caused in that village! In some families I would have been smacked or otherwise disciplined, but they didn’t do that. I picked up a lot of the things I should and shouldn’t do simply by atmosphere.
People who grow up in a so-called ‘normal family’ can have no conception of what it is like to be a fatherless child. In the traditional nuclear family you know who your parents are, their parents, your aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and even if you don’t get on with them at least you know who they are and you have a sense of what your background is. I’ve known people whose father died before they were born, or when they were too young to remember him. But even they were more fortunate: mother could tell them stories of him, show photographs, and they would have both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Growing up like that gives you a sense of identity, otherwise you go through life with the feeling that something is missing, that there’s something out there if only you could find it. I don’t want to seem self-pitying, because one thing I’ve learned is that life isn’t fair to anybody, and nobody ever said it would be.
We attended the local parish church regularly and my grandfather would take round the collection-box. I can see him now — dignified and upright in his Sunday best black suit with his silver hair shining in the lamp-light. On Sunday afternoons I would be sent to Sunday school.
One of the ideas I had trouble grasping for many years was the concept of God as a loving Father. The idea is usually put to young children as ‘like your own father, who loves you, protects you, feeds and clothes you, and punishes you when you’re naughty’.
The trouble was, none of this applied to me. I didn’t have a father who did any of those things. It wasn’t until I married and had children of my own, and saw a father’s love and care demonstrated by my husband Brian Underhill to his own two baby girls that it made any sense to me at all. Brian was a ‘new man’ before the term was invented, and, in advance of many of his generation, didn’t regard child-care as ‘the woman’s job’ so he wasn’t too proud to change babies’ nappies and do other necessary jobs. He was happy to be present at our younger daughter’s birth, which was almost unheard-of in 1963.
There was a strange atmosphere at home around the time I was seven or eight. Years later I realised that this was the time in 1943 when conscription was introduced for all single women in wartime. The Poor Law thinking which still existed then meant that a single mother could be considered suitable to be conscripted into the women’s services or sent away from home to do farm work or to work in industry.
This kind of thinking seems to take a very long time to die away. It would be a long time before the Children Act 1989 enshrined in law the principle that the child’s interests must come first. Nowadays a child would not be removed from a loving home, even a poor one, unless there was good reason to suspect neglect or abuse.
It was about this period of time that I began to hear the words ‘put her in a home’. This was somehow linked to the idea that I was a very badly-behaved child who ‘wasn’t grateful for all that had been done for her’. Any child might say she wasn’t badly-behaved, but in my case I think, hand on heart, that it’s true. My activities were quiet ones. I grew up with the idea that I had ‘little jobs’ to do, usually fetching and carrying things for my aunt, who did all the cooking and washing up while sitting on the floor. Weekly baking-day, when she made bread, pies and cakes enough to last all week, was particularly busy.
I loved reading, writing stories and illustrating them. I lived in a fantasy world peopled by elves and fairies, Vikings and Saxons, knights on horseback and ladies in tall hats riding side-saddle. I had a few dolls, but they wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do — they were no good at acting parts in the stories and plays I wrote for them. I never wanted expensive toys — they weren’t available anyway — but I was conscious that I could never get enough books to read, and if someone brought me more paper and pencils with which to write and draw, they were my friend. So none of my activities were noisy or disruptive ones.
I didn’t ‘play out’ very much with other children, mainly because I could never be sure that so-called ‘friends’ wouldn’t suddenly turn on me and start bullying, chasing and hitting me, because I was such an easy victim with no father to protect me. I lived with this bullying for years, and one girl at primary school was the ringleader and instigator of all the bullying that went on.
All the family took care of me and I was well-loved by all of them. My grandfather Daniel Metcalfe and I used to take long walks in the countryside, and I wish I could remember one fraction of the country lore he would impart in normal conversation as we went around. Although Grandad could no longer work, he loved to be out in the countryside, watching the changing seasons and the crops and farm animals, and if we happened to meet a former work-mate of his he would stand and talk for a while, which, child-like, I found very boring. I think he used to give his opinion on the crops, advice from his long experience, whether there would be a good harvest or not, that kind of topic. Grandad also showed me foxes’ holes. He used to ‘follow the hunt’ on his bike, and when the huntsmen came along he would shout ‘He went that way, maister’. When the hunt met near our village-end he would say what a fine sight it was.
Grandad was what became known as a ‘working-class Tory’. He would touch his cap when the horsemen went by and I would always ask him ‘Why?’ This was my often-repeated question about many topics, and he would always reply ‘There’ll always be master and man, my lass — always was, always will be’. There was no regret or envy in his tone, simply a statement of fact, but it was clear that he knew which of the two he was.
Some winter evenings by the fire my grandfather would sing. His favourite songs were ‘The Ship that Never Returned’ and ‘To Be a Farmer’s Boy’. I wonder if he had been thinking of his relatives who had emigrated, and the life that he had had as a farm worker starting as a boy of twelve.
My aunt, although she sat on the floor and could not walk, was my main carer, and she spent long periods of time reading to me. By means of my aunt reading the same stories over and over again so that I learned them by heart, I learned to recognise words and then to read — I don’t ever remember being taught to read at school. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.
My mother was out at work doing heavy cleaning jobs and the ‘rough work’ in other women’s houses and when she came home she had our home to clean, washing to do, with no modern appliances. People sometimes say ‘Don’t you remember all those wonderful radio programmes in the 1940s?’ No, I don’t — we didn’t have a radio, we were too poor; all we had was a wind-up gramophone and records from the 1930s. It is difficult to imagine now, living in a Western developed country in the twenty-first century, but we didn’t have electricity. We had nothing that could plug into a power socket and our lives were lit by paraffin lamps and candles once darkness fell. There was no indoor plumbing apart from one cold-water tap in the kitchen.
Later, as a grammar-school girl with homework to do, I worked by the light of an oil-lamp on the only table, with my aunt sitting close by knitting quietly and my mother sitting by the fire mending her stockings.
I always remember my mother as cheerful and optimistic, except perhaps at the very end of her life when she began to realise how much she’d always had to give up and to do for other people and how little she’d had out of life herself. It was the tragedy of her life that she never met some kind, generous, affectionate man who was willing to accept her for herself, to love her for her many good and genuine qualities, to pamper her a little and make her life easier.
We were given a second-hand radio about 1944 and the batteries were ‘accumulators’, 2 volt cells, which had to be taken to the local garage to be recharged at intervals. I’ve carried them, and they were heavy. Of course there was no television. Electricity was installed in our cottage as late as 1958. It had been installed in the rest of the village in the late 1930s but my grandmother was too ill to be disturbed, in fact she died on 6th August 1938 when I was a few days short of my third birthday. The old lady in the end cottage also refused to have electricity installed — she saw no point in it, ‘all this new-fangled nonsense’.
According to the thinking of the time, the fact that my mother had a child of school-age to care for need not have been a barrier to her being whisked off into the forces, into agriculture or into industry. People used to come to our home and while I was sitting in my quiet corner with my books and papers, I would hear voices over my head: ‘you can always put her into a home’. I somehow linked this with my bad behaviour. One of the visitors to our home was the local District Nurse and she spoke to me very sharply saying that I wasn’t grateful for all that had been done for me and I deserved to be put into a home.
I had not the slightest idea what these people were talking about. I wasn’t ‘grateful’ for being loved and cared for by the people closest to me, because I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary — surely every child deserves to be loved, cared for and protected? A child cannot be responsible for what its parents did or failed to do because no child asks to be born. Its birth is down to actions by two other people.
In addition, I didn’t know what was meant by ‘a home’ as in ‘put her into a home’. I had a home already. I asked my mother once, and all she could tell me was that a home was ‘a big building with a lot of windows where there are a lot of children’. Why I should go there, she didn’t explain.
I never found out just how my mother got out of this difficulty, how she convinced the recruiting authorities that she had too many home responsibilities to be called up for war service. Given the atmosphere of the time, I have a feeling that it was nothing to do with the fact that she was a single mother with a child to care for. It was probably much more to do with the fact that she had an ageing father who was suffering the effects of a lifetime of hard physical work outdoors in all weathers, that she had a badly-disabled sister — what was called a ‘cripple’ in those days — and that she was the only able-bodied adult to work for them and to give them the care they needed.
I also think that the family closed ranks yet again and spoke up against the idea. My mother once told me that if someone before I was born had offered to take me off her hands, she would have seized the chance. But once I was born, and she saw my little face, first she and then my grandparents and my aunt all fell in love with me — what we’d now call instant bonding. From then on, I was ‘their bairn’ — they all felt equally responsible for me and they all did whatever they could to bring me up in a warm, supportive and loving home. I’m sure they resisted, to the limits of their power, the idea that I could be taken away and put into some institution.
I had no idea of being grateful to them then, but I have had since. It’s the reason why I wanted to make sure their names were all recorded on a proper tombstone, even though some of them had been dead for decades. People like them are an example and an inspiration, and they should never be forgotten.
For some young women war-time conscription proved to be a blessing in disguise. They saw places, met people, had experiences that would never have come their way as domestic servants or farm workers’ wives in the village environment. Life suddenly took on new horizons, and some weren’t slow to seize the opportunities that came their way.
I was always an avid reader and could never get enough books so it was a wonderful surprise when, towards the end of the war, we suddenly had a school library. A box of books would arrive and we were allowed to choose a book, take it home to read, bring it back a week later and get another one. (I think this miraculous event occurred weekly, but it may have been two-weekly.) The first book I chose to borrow and read at home was Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, and although the teacher told me it was ‘too old’ for me — I was nine — she couldn’t stop me choosing what I wanted. This book opened an entirely new fantasy world for me. Elves and dragons I was familiar with, but the other peoples in Tolkien’s imaginary world were new, and I lapped it up.
I think I unconsciously absorbed many of my beliefs and values not only from my family but in the children’s books I read. I loved Violet Needham’s novels for children: ‘The Black Riders’ and ‘The Stormy Petrel’. The idea of a young boy being involved in adventures between imaginary countries, acting as courier and covert intelligence-gatherer, fired my imagination. Young Dick was fiercely loyal to those who had been kind to him following the death of his adored father. The password of the revolutionary group he belonged to was ‘fortitude’. I liked and approved of that idea.
Once a year there was a day-trip to Scarborough organised by Sunday School, but obviously this did not happen during the war years. This was almost the only opportunity that we had for anything like a summer holiday. It consisted of one day, and the time at the seaside was only about five or six hours at most.
It’s difficult to realise now, but as late as the 1940s life was pretty well pre-determined depending on where you lived and who or what your parents were. In our village school there was the unspoken assumption that unless you ‘passed your scholarship’ at age eleven, you would leave school and go into farm work if you were a boy, or domestic service if you were a girl. I never knew ‘what I wanted to be’, but one thing I was certain of — I did not want to be a maid. No matter how the older people talked, pointing out the good times in the private service jobs they had had, there has always seemed to me to be something degrading in performing personal services for people who are fit and able to perform such services for themselves. Nursing is a different matter – it has been defined as carrying out services for another person which he/she would do if he/she had the ability or knowledge.
I always thought I would do something which involved books — reading, writing, drawing pictures, but I had no idea how to get into this kind of work, or even if there were these kinds of jobs. I knew someone must write the stories that I so enjoyed reading, and draw the illustrations — but I didn’t realise that they got paid for what seemed to me to be a great pleasure, still less that they could make a living this way.
Things changed with the Education Act of 1944 when, for the first time, the school-leaving age was raised to fifteen and education was divided into primary and secondary. At secondary level there was a further subdivision into modern schools, technical schools, and the old-established grammar schools. So instead of going to the same village school from five to fourteen and then leaving to go to farm work or domestic service, other opportunities opened up. I went to King James’ Grammar School at Knaresborough in 1947. I went there a year late via Boroughbridge County Modern School, but the atmosphere was different and you were judged on your own merits and not on whether you had a father or not.
It was another disaster when my grandfather died in 1948 because his small income, old age pension, disappeared. There was no Child Benefit in those days and the only family income would have been what my aunt could earn with her sewing and knitting and my mother’s earnings as a menial domestic worker. At the same time I was at Grammar School and just beginning to want the kind of things that children of my age wanted at that time — a Guide uniform, money for Guide meetings and camp, a tennis racket, a hockey stick, Christmas presents for my school friends….not to speak of ordinary things like new shoes and school uniform! Swimming lessons and piano lessons which I very much wanted were of course completely out of the question.
In some families I would have been forced to leave school at the earliest possible opportunity, to get any kind of a job and to start bringing money home. That possibility was never mentioned, and it’s just one more thing I have to be grateful for. It was always assumed that I would take my GCE ‘O’ level exams, so instead of leaving school at fifteen I stayed on for a further year.
Many years later my aunt apologised to me because she knew I’d always wanted to go back to school to re-take the exams that I’d failed. I only got four passes out of eight, and I knew I could have passed others with a little effort. Given life over again, that’s what I’d do, but we don’t get a second chance. My aunt said she didn’t know then but there were grants and various forms of help that were available by that time and she was sorry. In any case, those four ‘O’ level passes gave me entrée into jobs that I wouldn’t otherwise have been considered for.
My years at the village school covered all the war years. I was five in 1940 and not quite ten when the war finally ended.
We didn’t go through the privations that many people had to endure during those years — being bombed out of home, being evacuated, having the battlefront brought to our doorstep — because our village was deep in the Yorkshire countryside. There was rationing of course, but we were poor anyway, so food was no more and no less difficult to get than it had been before the outbreak of war. There were fewer luxuries, but then I don’t suppose there had been many to start with. My grandfather and the other men were used to growing vegetables, not as a hobby but as a means of survival. Some things didn’t change. We saw people around in uniform but the war itself was at a distance, and our lives were never in danger.
We had an outing every Saturday when we would go and tend the family graves in the churchyard and then walk on to Great Ouseburn where we could buy the tiny amount of sweets that the rationing system allowed us every week. This was the same route as the one I took every day to and from school, only walking with my grandfather, my mother and my aunt in her wheelchair, I knew I wouldn’t be chased and bullied.
Most mornings when the children walked to school we would walk on the stone parapet of the little hump-backed bridge near the church. One morning in autumn it was misty and the lichens on the stonework were damp and slippery. There was a water-course below which used to feed an ornamental lake when the ‘big house’ was lived in by the local grand family, but it had been allowed to become silted-up. My foot slipped on the damp stonework and I fell into the mud.
I heard the rest of my school contemporaries go running into the distance screaming. No one came to help me, and by the time the headmaster had been told and had come to the scene, I had managed to drag myself free of the clinging mud and was on my way home, all my clothing soaked and filthy.
I sobbed and cried all the way. I was so sorry I’d walked on the bridge — I knew it was dangerous — I’d never, never do it again — I promised aloud many times on the way. I arrived at the farmhouse where my mother was making butter in the outside dairy, turning the handle of the heavy barrel-like wooden churn. She screamed when she saw me. I was taken home and had to be stripped off and washed, then I was put to bed to recover from the shock.
In the previous century, when that watercourse and ornamental lake had been kept clear of silt for the enjoyment of the ladies and gentlemen at the big house, people had actually drowned from falling off the same parapet. I was lucky in that there hadn’t been any heavy rain and that I landed close to the edge and not right in the middle. I could easily have drowned, or been sucked into the clinging mud, while my school contemporaries were running off in a panic.
One incident that occurred because of the war was when York, that famous cathedral city and railway centre, was bombed. I was fast asleep, and woke when I was carried downstairs wrapped in an eiderdown and was held on my aunt’s knee. She and my mother were crouching under the table. The front door was open, and my grandfather was standing there shouting ‘Give it to them, lads — go on, give it to them!’ My mother shouted ‘Come in, Dad, shut the door, they’ll see you!’ I could see lights in the sky from the attacking bombers and defending fighters overhead.
When I was nine, one evening early in March 1945 we had all arrived home from school as usual. Bombers were taking off just about 5 p.m. from the air stations round about, and on this occasion we saw one go over the village with smoke and flames trailing from it. Then an appalling crash….
This was a Halifax bomber of the Royal Canadian Air Force with a full load of fuel and bombs, because at that stage in the war the Allied air forces were bombing German targets around the clock. The bomber crashed minutes after take-off so the bomb-load it was carrying exploded, igniting the fuel and causing a massive fireball.
We couldn’t go to school for a couple of days because the road we normally walked along was blocked by debris from the crash. When we could go, we began to realise the extent of the damage. Of the group of beech trees that stood by the road near the church, one was completely burnt away, and another one had all its branches burnt on one side. There was the remains of one wing stretched across the road and for several days we had to pick our way round the debris. In the field next to the churchyard was a huge crater. The church was badly damaged from the blast and it remained unusable for six years until it was restored and rededicated in 1951.
Opinion in the village was that the pilot had struggled to guide the aircraft past the village so that it would not crash on to houses. Perhaps so, more likely he was trying to gain height or was trying to return to base which was only a few minutes’ flying time away. Whatever the truth, four aircrewmen’s lives were lost. Fifty years later a commemoration was held and an engraved window in the church was dedicated. It turned out that there had been survivors and they returned for the service, along with the Canadian High Commissioner. At the time and for many years, opinion was that no one could possibly have survived the explosion and the fireball, even if they survived the crash.
One fortunate circumstance was the time of day. All the children were home from school, the men were in from the fields and farms, and the women were busy with tea-time. No one was about, there was no traffic on the road, so no one was on that stretch of road to be caught by the blast and the fireball.
Many years later I discovered that the bomber was a Halifax Mark 3 of 6 Group which was made up of the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was based at RAF Tholthorpe near Northallerton and it crashed on 5th March 1945 at 5 p.m. Of the seven crew, four were killed and three survived. The dead aviators were interred at Stonefall Cemetery, Harrogate, but one later was exhumed and taken back to the USA for burial in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington DC. It might seem surprising that he was still serving with the RCAF so late in the war and hadn’t been absorbed into the United States Air Force, but they did have the choice, and having operated as a fighting unit over many dangerous missions the whole crew would have developed a close bond of comradeship which meant that they tried hard to stay together as a crew.? At that stage in the war the bombers were reaching far into southern Germany and take-off at 5 p.m. meant that they would be over the target some seven or eight hours later and would bomb the target around midnight, then turn for home and run the gauntlet of defensive fighters and ground artillery, reaching base – if they survived – early in the morning. On that particular evening twenty-five Halifaxes took off from RAF Tholthorpe from 420 ‘Snowy Owl’ and 425 ‘Alouette’ Squadrons. Of those, five crashed on or soon after take-off because of severe icing problems, and four did not return from the mission. The Halifax which crashed just outside our village was from 425 Squadron, mostly made up of French Canadians, and it failed to gain height due to engine failure which in turn was due to severe icing on the wings. The target for the night was the southern German city of Chemnitz. That particular night became known as ‘The Night of Ice’ because nine bombers in all from 6 Group crashed as a result of the same problem.
This is all documented by Patrick Otter in his book ‘Yorkshire Airfields in World War Two’, although he does say that there were no survivors of the Ouseburn crash. In fact there were, and this is due to the design of the Halifax bomber which was easier to get out of than a Lancaster.
At the end of the war in August 1945 every schoolchild received a fancy card with the royal coat-of-arms and a thank-you letter from the King. On the back was space for ‘My Family’s War Record’, so that whatever exploits family members had carried out could be recorded and kept as a souvenir. There was nothing that I could write on mine. We had just survived, lived our normal poverty-stricken lives war or no war – that was all.
The international get-together of family history enthusiasts was based at York University in Heslington village just outside York and was called Yorksgen 2000. It felt a bit strange to be in self-catering student accommodation again, but it was great to get together with so many people with a common interest.
They had come from all points of the compass and from every continent on the planet. The one thing they had in common was that they all had Yorkshire ancestry and Yorkshire roots and I met some friendly, wonderful people who would become long-term friends even though we might never meet again. As well as the serious side, of listening to experts who could tell us where all the different records were kept and how and where we could look up details of ancestors’ lives, there was fun and humour. We also had talks from people who were by no means experts, but who had followed a trail themselves and had written and published their own story.
Having use of the car meant I could get out and about. I wanted to visit the village where I had grown up and see if there were any people there who still remembered me. I tried to phone Cynthia, who was still alive then, but she wasn’t in. I drove to the ‘Green Tree’ Inn and had a pub lunch, chatting to one or two of the old men who go there regularly. It was a strange feeling for me to think that I had probably been conceived within its walls.
I drove down the village street and had a chat with Helier Hibbs, the amateur local historian who had published George Whitehead’s journal which had helped to start me on this chase. He invited me in for a cup of tea, and he and his wife remembered my mother twenty-five years earlier.
I visited my family’s graves in the churchyard, then went on to Great Ouseburn. I took pictures of the white cottage where Graeme and his mother had lived in those wartime years.
I wanted to try to see an old lady who would remember my family, and I knew she lived in ‘Cosy Cottage’. Her son-in-law was up a ladder doing some outside painting for her. He recognised me although I didn’t recognise him. He was Ted Smith who was married to my second cousin Barbara on the Metcalfe side of the family – they live in Shropshire, but they were visiting. They were surprised and pleased to see me.
Mrs Mary Gudgeon, and another old lady who was there, were surprised that I had found Graeme and even more surprised that I had found cousins and more brothers. I think they did know that Douglas was my father, but they were pretty non-committal about it. They would much rather talk about what was happening in the here and now.
I drove on to try to see some of the other places where family members had lived and worked. I remembered an old newspaper cutting from the time when my great-grandparents George and Ann were about to celebrate their Diamond Wedding in 1931 and they had been interviewed by a local journalist. In that report my great-grandfather George Metcalfe had said he worked at a place called Wilstrop in his youth. He had started life behind the plough when he was only ten which must have been in 1855. He had even ploughed with oxen – echoes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle!
NB: Great-grandad George talked a lot about the election which was held that week. It was the last General Election to be held on a Tuesday – since then they’ve always been on Thursday. It was quite a notable election since it returned a National Government and also, it was the first election in which men and women could vote on equal terms. George talked a lot about how bad times were – it was 2 years after the 1929 Wall Street crash which had effects worldwide, but he talked about farmers not being able to pay their workers, who always wanted more money. Interestingly from my point of view, Great-grandmother Ann had nothing to say about the historic change in voting rights. She disapproved of modern women. ‘Aren’t they awful, with their short skirts and painted faces’. That would have been the first time she could have gone to vote, but although George talked about voting, she didn’t mention it. She died that same week. Now, I wonder what she would have thought if she knew I’d been active in the women’s movement, always struggled for women’s rights, even went on Women’s Lib marches in London in the 1970s. My younger daughter Liz campaigned for boys and girls to do the same school subjects. She needed technical drawing and metalwork because she wanted to be an engineer, eventually going to work on the Trent engine project for Rolls-Royce, Derby. What would great-granny Ann have thought of that?
George’s mother, Susannah née Parker, had been born at Tockwith and she had married Richard Metcalfe at St Helen’s Church, Bilton-in-Ainsty. Richard, and most of his brothers and sisters, had been baptised either in St Helen’s, or in St John the Baptist Church, Kirk Hammerton which is a neighbouring village. I was able to discover all that by looking at the microfilmed parish registers in York Central Library.
The registers of Kirk Hammerton Church are what are called ‘Dade registers’. A vicar surnamed Dade had the bright idea that a lot more detail should be put into registrations of births, marriages and deaths, and for family historians this was a milestone decision. In those parishes where his ideas prevailed a lot more information is included and so it is much easier to identify ancestors. This is especially valuable for the time before national registration started in 1837, and also in times when first names were repeated through families, with no second names to help in identification.
I drove around all those country lanes and looked at the fields my ancestors would have known so well. The fields were ‘white even unto harvest’ as it says in the King James Version of the Bible. I was struck by how far apart all the places were, and by our modern standards, what long distances poor people without access to horse-drawn transport would have had to walk. There’s a long lane called Church Lane leading to St Helen’s Church at Bilton-in-Ainsty, and poor people taking a new baby to be baptised there would have had a long trudge from the village through rain, snow, mud or dust depending on the time of year.
John and Jane Metcalfe, Richard’s parents, would have made that journey every year, then they moved to Kirk Hammerton for the middle group of babies, then back again to Bilton. John and Jane had been married in November 1778 at Acomb which was where Jane came from. Their first child, Mary, had been baptised in April 1779 and they’d had a baby every year from then until Richard, their twelfth and last child, was born in 1801.
Wilstrop Grange still exists, but I thought that the Wilstrop where my relatives had worked was probably a large estate and they had worked the fields for the land-owner. It’s not so far from the Marston Moor battlefield which was a turning-point in the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century. I stopped by the battlefield memorial and looked out into the far distance over those quiet fields. I wondered if my great-grandfather had turned up bones and rusted weapons with his ploughshare. I pondered on the futility of it all — men speaking the same language pursuing and slaughtering each other over the cause of whether ultimate decision-making should lie with a hereditary monarch or with an elected parliament. I recalled that our country had actually been a fledgling Republic for ten short years. I knew which side I would have been on had I been alive then, and it wouldn’t have been the side of hereditary titles and plumed hats.
The second Sunday of Yorksgen 2000 I decided to go back again to Bilton-in-Ainsty where my great-great-grandfather Richard Metcalfe had been baptised two centuries before and where he had married Susannah Parker in 1827.
St Helen’s is a beautiful little church but, sadly, there was only a tiny congregation. It had been restored in the mid-nineteenth century by the Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott, so it wasn’t exactly the same as it would have been when the young couple Richard and Susannah stood at the chancel steps to make their solemn vows to each other in God’s presence, then walked up the aisle to kneel at the altar for the blessing. But the old stone Saxon font where so many of my relatives had been baptised was still there. The visitors’ book shows that many people go there from all over the world. I was glad that I had walked and stood where so many of my family had been before me, and I wrote in the visitors’ book that my great-great-grandparents had been married there in 1827.
I had hoped that my newly-discovered fourth cousin Adrian Metcalfe and his wife Christine would be able to come to the York gathering from their home in Scarborough. Chris is another family history enthusiast and computer enthusiast and I was looking forward to meeting them, but unfortunately they couldn’t come.