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A H Chettle, undated c2005
A H Chettle

A Backward Glance

I’ve heard it said that, the further up the hill, the more often we pause and take a "backward glance” at the broadening view. The demands and exingencies of working life now long past have necessitated a number of domestic removals over the years. Finally we have, run aground in one of England’s Eastern counties. Something of an intellectual desert, but from which we are too old to face again the trouble and trauma of house moving. Now, therefore, in the calm September of my years, - mellowed perhaps by a glass or two of Algerian Amontilado, my thoughts turn often to the joyous days of my youth, spent in that small Midlands town now so far away. The frustrations and pressures of work-a-day life no longer a distraction, I thought to set down a few of the joys, (and tribulations) of those halcyon days we took so much for granted.

Times for ordinary folk were far from easy in the 20s and early 30s. My father worked in the shoe trade, and there were often times of ‘short time’ working, or when men were ‘stood off’ with no entitlement to Dole money, and of consequent financial hardship. Doubtless, my parents had many worries with which they dealt as best they could - I knew nothing of these. My memories are only those of a secure and happy boyhood and upbringing. I think we had, in those days, a freedom which will never return, and which modern youth can never know. We could run in any field, climb any tree, and fish in any stream, without a care. As far as I recall, we troubled no-one, and no-one troubled us, as long as we kept more or less within the accepted standards of behaviour.

I was born in a small house at the bottom of College Street, rented from Mr. Hollis, the butcher just round the corner in Duck Street. I clearly recall my mother coming quite crestfallen one day, to announce that the rent was to be increased from 2/6 to 3/- per week. A trivial amount now, when such a sum (about 15p) has come to mean so little against today’s inflated prices. With my father’s wage probably at around £2 per week of 48 hours, it must have been something of a blow.

The Hall Park

This lovely park was always a source of delight to we boys, there were, in season, superb ‘conkers’ to be had from the many magnificent Chestnut trees - -  (I once had a ‘twentyfourer’!) – woods in which to engage in tracking games, and, best of all, the brook.   As in so many small towns and hamlets, the early settlement of what was to become Rushden must have begun in the environs of this little stream.   On its meandering way across the lower sections of the town, the water passed through a number of underground culverts, or tunnels.   These were more often than not impassable in winter, when the flow of water was greatly increased by heavy rain. In the drier months however, having purloined candles, or even a flashlight from our homes, we were equipped for a great adventure of exploration.   We would enter the first section of tunnel actually in the lower wood in the Hall Park.   The two sides of the tunnel floor sloped inward, so the method of progress was to run along beside the water, jumping from side to side as required by loss of balance or footing. There were also many large drainage pipes which crossed the tunnel at intervals, and these had to be negotiated, scrambling either over or under according to size and height.   The first section was quite short, and we emerged into daylight outside the Hall boundary wall in Skinners Hill, not far from the then Scouts’ Hut.   The next section was entered somewhere by Claridges factory, it passed under Wellingborough Road at the bottom of Church Street, under the Lightstrung Garage, and emerged again at the end of Duck Street, behind the old Bright’s Mineral Water Factory.

A very short open section here before plunging again into darkness for a longish haul which brought us out a little behind Corby’s leather Factory, halfway toward College Street.   Again a short spell in daylight, then underground once more, for another lengthy spell to bring us out at the bottom of ‘Puns Lane’ by the bottom of Carnegie Street.   If not then too exhausted, we entered again the realms of darkness, to finally emerge, wet footed and filthy, but triumphant in Spencer Park, close by the W.W.I. Tank.   In retrospect, the potential in all of this, for some dreadful catastrophy staggers the imagination.   A fall, a cut, a sprained, or even broken limb, not to mention the possibilities of infection which must have existed in these dark and slimy corridors - - - - ;   the problems associated with the extrication of an injured small boy from so remote and difficult a situation - - none of this.

Beatty’s Field

Another of our popular haunts, ‘Beattys’ lay on a line roughly from the top of Irchester Road across to Wymington Road, by the old Windmill.   We reached it via Wellingborough Road, through a small spinney or wood - where now is the bottom of St. Mary’s Avenue - and up through the fields.   There were many attractions in this expanse of agricultural land.   Blackberries, trees, birds’ nests, a pond teeming with various fauna, - Newts, Frogs, Spawn and many others.   We would occasionally filch a few potatoes from our homes, light a fire and ‘cook’ them.  As I recall, they were usually blackened and ash-covered on the outside, and almost raw in the middle - but washed down with a bottle of ‘Kali’ water, or even ‘Spruce’ - it seemed a feast to us. A little later, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, I bought my first motorcycle, - for 2/6, - and good old Beatty’s was the arena for my learning to ride, (and fall off).   That old ‘Radco’ was the forerunner of many more machines - 37 in all - which over all these intervening years have carried me many thousands of idyllic miles, until recently, well into my 70s, I thought it time to settle down and behave like a ‘proper’ Granddad, as my Granddaughter put it.

The ‘Pull and Push’

The single track line between Wellingborough and Higham Ferrers provided us with many hours of amusement.   The ever watchful eyes of Inspector Knight and his stalwart band at the near-by Police station precluded any more hazardous pranks, but there was always something to engage our interest.  On the (rare) occasions when the fare was to hand, we could board the train and travel to Higham and back.  If we were - more usually - lacking the fare, we could always stand on the foot bridge, wait for the engine to pass beneath, and get covered in black specks of oil and soot.   Strange how many of our youthful pursuits involved the accumulation of various forms of dirt upon our persons and clothing.   The Rushden platform, on the week-end before a Bank holiday, I remember thronged with departing holidaymakers, complete with luggage, all bound for far-away places - Hunstanton, Yarmouth - further even, ’Skeggy’ perhaps, or Mablethorpe!


I did not enjoy school.   School was not there to be enjoyed, it was there to be endured.   Contrary to the old adage, it was certainly far from the happiest days of my life, and I do not recall anyone of my acquaintance liking school.   I was by no means one of the brighter intellects, and few subjects held any real interest for me.   Consequently, I did the absolute minimum, just enough to get by without attracting the unwelcome attention of authority.

I only ever attended one school, - Alfred Street, an ‘Elementary’ establishment catering for pupils in two sections - ‘Primary’ and ‘Senior’ - in all from the age of about 4 or five, until 14, when one either went to work, or on to higher things - Wellingborough ‘Ringworms’ or ‘Redcaps’ maybe.

The Primary Headmistress in the mid twenties was a Miss Swannell.   A prim, though kindly lady, hair drawn tightly back in a bun.   Memories of this early stage in my education are somewhat vague, but I do remember that in the afternoons, we were told to fold our arms on the desk top, rest our little heads upon them, and, if possible, take a short ‘nap’.  This of course, was extremely boring, so we spent most of this period covertly pulling faces at one another.

The Senior school turned out to be a very different kettle of fish from the kindly and protective ambience presided over by Miss Swannell. Suddenly, life was real, life was earnest.   Discipline, by modern standards, was very strict.   Minor misdemeanours were generally dealt with on the spot, via a clout round the ear with whatever implement came to hand.    More serious offences called for one or more strokes of the cane across the open hand.   On receipt of this stinging retribution, we quickly scuttled back to our places, and endeavoured to alleviate the burning pain by grasping the cold cast iron of the desk frame.

The Headmaster at the time of my joining was a Mr. Ryall.   A man, short of stature, yet of terrifying aspect to we boys.   Grey pin stripe trousers, dark jacket, grey waistcoat, wing collar, black tie, waxed moustache -  always immaculate, from the tightly brushed back greying hair, to gleaming black patent shoes.

Mr. Ryall always looked to me as if he were about to explode.   When the news spread that he was leaving us, our delight knew no bounds, we could not imagine that any replacement could possibly be worse than he.   How wrong we were - - - our new ‘Gauleiter’ had even more stringent ideas on the disciplinary methods for small boys than did Mr. Ryall.   Slimly built, very tall, brushed back hair style similar to his predecessor, similar formal style of dress, and with a permanent look of soured disapproval on a pinched face that struck terror into our hearts.   In the main, I think he maintained, as far as possible a certain ‘distance’ between himself and we pupils.   I do not think he liked us very much - and we certainly did not like him.

The ultimate punishment was to be ordered to stand outside the classroom door, in the hall, to await the passing of Mr. Reid, going about his administrative duties.   When he chanced upon us, trembling in anticipation of our Nemesis, he would enquire as to the offence we had committed.   Upon this, he would thereupon judge the appropriate penalty, call another teacher as ‘witness’ escort us to his office and lay into us with one of his collection of canes kept for the purpose.   An experience not easily forgotten, though I must have been a slow learner, for I suffered it a number of times.

One of my frequent transgressions was that of paying more attention to the construction work on the building of the Ritz Cinema in Alfred Street, than to whatever was going on in the class room.   This seemed to me far more interesting than some old clap-trap about the Plantagenet kings.

Of the teaching staff - on entering the school via the upper playground entrance, the first room on the right was that of Mr. Morris, one of the very few with whom I felt any rapport.   I would judge him to half been a very good teacher.   He somehow wangled a small pottery kiln, and amongst other things taught us the rudiments of handicrafts.   This captured my interest - being by nature more practical than academic.   He also played the violin, and by a happy accident, it was this small talent of Mr. Morris that changed the whole aspect of my life, and earned him my undying gratitude.   It happened this way.   One day, I had, for some minor contravention of the rules been detained after normal school hours.   As I left, making my way along the hall, Mr. Morris was in his room, playing his violin.    The music Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalieria Rusticana.  It was my first experience of the whole world of great music.   Without knowing, he started me on a path into a world into which I am still able to retreat, and wherein I can find comfort, solace and inspiration in beautiful sounds through all these subsequent years.  It was Mr. Morris who unwittingly pointed out the way; I have since attained a modest proficiency in music, but he was the catalyst.

Next along from Mr. Morris was Mr. Huke.  In my day he must have been nearing retirement, and was surely the most senior member of staff - as a young man, he actually taught my own father.  Mr. Huke was not, I thought, a happy man.   Generations of recalcitrant small boys must have worn away his resolve - in the way that constant dripping water wears away a stone.   I expect he was relaxing a bit, and finding the antics of a large and inattentive class increasingly irksome. Whilst good order was always maintained - by means of the usual summary methods - he always tended to give us an easier time than his neighbour in the next room - Mr. Brightwell.   A very large man this, rotund, red of face who ruled with a rod of iron - or rather bamboo, which he used freely in order to stimulate our interest and ensure proper concentration on the subject in hand.    He was a member of the National Football Referees Association, and his watch chain was hung with various medals and awards from this august body for his services.   Given his long-standing interest and involvement with the game, he tended to favour the lads who shared his interest, or who showed any sort of promise on the field of play.   Since I never have and still have not the slightest enthusiasm for football - or any other form of sport for that matter - I usually got pretty short shrift from him.

Oddly, though it is difficult to imagine anyone less poetic than Brightwell, poetry was one of his subjects.   He must have known that with our obstinate young heads it was a hopeless task.   One of my own particular hates was Longfellow - ’Hiawatha’ - how I detested the monotonous rhythm of the thing, the endlessly repeated lines, - boredom brought to an art form, I abhor that work to this day. Mr. Brightwell had another way of enlivening the monotony of a school afternoon. Therefore, Brightwell, with a sense of ‘Schaden Freude’ no doubt’, would select one of us, - often the most inept - to stand before the class and read aloud ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ - - IN FRENCH!    Having no knowledge whatever of the French language, we stumbled along in our clumsy local dialect.   This would doubtless provide him with some amusement, and I expect was later recounted in the staff room with great mirth, but for the chosen victim, it was a harrowing experience. Nowadays, I have grown more fond of verse as an art form, but it took many years to eradicate the hatred of poetry instilled in me by that man.

Our games, in the absence of any suitable green area in the school vicinity, meant a ‘crocodile’ up to the Rushden Town Football ground, in what I think is now Hayden Road.   I quickly learned that the position of Goalkeeper involved a good deal less running about, and I was not particularly interested in who won anyway, being of a somewhat non-competitive nature.   Once a week, were marched up to Newton Road School, where Mr. Gardham, a very pleasant man, attempted to teach us woodwork. Under his watchful eye, we produced various small items of household furniture with varying degrees of aptitude.   On Thursdays, escorted again by Mr. Brightwell, we were out again - to the Swimming Baths in Midland Road.   Most of us could swim pretty well anyway, having taught ourselves in local streams, Mr. Brightwell did not enter the water, but if in one of his rare good moods, would throw halfpennies into the deep end for us to dive for.   Yet another outing was the occasional visit to the school garden, under the supervision of Mr. Huke.   Situated at the rear of Moor Road School in Station Road, we dug and raked and sowed as directed; we never discovered what became of the vegetables produced on this small plot.

Come to think of it, we must have spent a fair amount of time wandering about the town, what with the bath trips, football afternoon, woodwork and gardening - but for us, anything was better than the classroom.

Next along the hall from Mr. Brightwell was another master with whom I had a special rapport.  Mr. Hales, a most kindly man, who soon reminded me that he and I had previously met. Whilst still very young, perhaps around 4 or 5, I had developed acute appendicitis.   This meant a stay in Northampton General Hospital - for the youngest ever Appendectomy at that time - or so I was told.   I was placed in Knighton Yard, - a men’s ward, and so of course was made much of by the other patients.   In the bed opposite mine was a man who would always gladly ‘lend me an egg for my breakfast.  Perhaps it should be explained that in those days, if a patient wanted an egg for breakfast, these had to be brought in by one’s family - they were not supplied by the hospital.   The nurses would collect the eggs from patients the evening before, mark them indelibly with the patients name, and they were returned boiled the following morning, for breakfast.   Long after when I first joined Mr. Hales’s class, he remembered me, and, to my embarrassment, recounted the egg-lending story to the entire class.   In spite of this long-standing connection, he showed me no favouritism - but he never punished me for any misbehaviour without first apologising.   Rather disrespectfully, we called him ‘Buggy’ Hales behind his back, but I have no idea from whence this nick-name was derived.

The last classroom on the Alfred St. side of the hall was the domain of Miss Bennett.   Again a kindly soul, really not quite firm enough, to properly control a class of some 50-odd boisterous youngsters.   She taught us, among other things, English.   One of the few school subjects in which I took any real interest.   Miss Bennett told us that English was the finest, and most expressive language in the whole world.   I firmly believed her, and still hold it to be so.   Whatever Miss Bennett would have made of the present-day pollution of our native tongue, I shudder to think.

In the broad corridor off the hall, somewhere opposite Mr. Huke, was a classroom divided from the hall itself by a vast glass partition, - the lair of Miss (Granny) Groom.   A formidable lady of mature years, which had done nothing to mellow her soured outlook upon life, her permanent smirk of disapproval accentuated by her somewhat angular appearance.   She played the piano for morning assembly in the hall, and bestowed a fierce glare upon all who chanced to meet h Prom time to time, curtains would be drawn across the glass partition of Miss Groom’s room, and a ‘girls only1 lesson would take place.    We boys were mystified by this, and these was much speculation as to what went on at these segregated sessions, - - - in fact, - a lot of us are still wondering!    Sometimes, a few brave souls would risk very serious retribution by trying to peep through the curtains at whatever was on the blackboard.   If caught in the act by a member of staff, or worse, the Head, the penalties would be very severe indeed.    I guess these adventurous few went on to win M.C.s and D.F.M.s in later years.

The only other room off the hall was on the College Street side, that of Miss Miller, I forget now what was her subject, but for some reason we always thought that there was some sort of liaison going on between her and Mr. Brightwell. All quite without foundation, of course, and with hind sight, highly improbable.   Miss Miller was very strict - with a bunch of unruly 12 to 14 year olds, I suppose she had to be.

If I have given the impression that the maintenance of good order and discipline involved a certain amount of corporal punishment - then it truly did, I would point out, however, that I never recall having been punished unjustly, or undeservedly, or with any other connotation other than corrective penalty, well deserved, each teacher bad his or her own methods, each side knew just about how far to go without overstepping the mark,  As far as we were concerned, the general ambience was one of cautious respect, tinged with fear.   I believe that initially, all discipline is based on this theory.   Remove the fear, and with it goes the good order which eventually turns into self-discipline - the best kind of all.

An excellent example of this was Mr. (Moggy) Morris.   He kept a whole selection of sticks and canes in a rack behind his desk.   If at any time the class became at all unruly, he would spend some time selecting a weapon from this array.   There followed a display in front of the class - striding back and forth, flexing the cane and perfecting his grip.   Then, wending his menacing way up and down between the rows of desks, uttering dark threats, the brandished cane whistling within inches of our cowering heads - terrified we were.    Yet, upon reflection, all this was pure theatricals - for I never recall him actually hitting anyone, - psychological warfare.  However, it might not have worked so v/ell had not the threat been only too real when issued by other members of staff.

For all the pontifications of modern theorists, those of us not considered worthy of further education left school at 14, mostly with a firm and useful grounding in the ‘three Rs’, a reasonable command of the English language, and some sense of responsibility and discipline.   Vandalism was unknown.   In later years, I have interviewed young people for employment who, though at full time education until the age of 16, were barely able to correctly complete the application form.   Though, it must be admitted, a few of them were extremely competent at breaking door and ignition locks on Ford Escorts etc., so I guess that instruction in modern technology was not entirely wasted - for them at least ,

I think Messrs. Reid, Brightwell & Co did, in the time available, a far better job of turning out young citizens that the present crop of trendy theorists currently guiding our young people.   I learn that the most severe corrective measure that can now be taken by our educational establishments against any infringement of the rules is one or more days suspension!!   If they’d suspended us, as an alternative to the more punitive methods that kept us on the straight and narrow, we’d have shouted ‘Yippee’ - gone fishing, and tried it on again,

In the field of child psychology, I feel that there is no substitute for a clump round the head with a Methodist Hymnal.

Girls seem to have figured scarcely at all in this narrative.   Alfred Street was a mixed school, so we were aware of their presence, as they existed alongside us.

We had little to do with them, and in the main considered them to be more of a handicap than anything.   We were strictly segregated at break-times, girls in the lower playground, boys in the upper.   Girls knew nothing of fishing, hesitated to pick up and hook a worm, they could not climb any but the easiest of trees, seemed to have little interest in newts, frogs, beetles, etc., and did not care to suffer wet feet or dirty clothes in the cause of scientific exploration.   Also, they were treated far more leniently in class than we were.   The general consensus was that they were best avoided as far as possible.

Many of my young friends’ names are now inscribed upon the War Memorial up the Green, opposite the Church.   I go occasionally to read them and reflect. Looking now upon the state of our once loved and proud country, I wonder for what was their youthful promise wasted.   I do not suppose that we were the ‘Cream of the Nation’s youth’ - but they were good lads, and there was much good material there.

Further Afield

How fortunate, as far as youngsters were concerned, the geographical location of our town.   Almost everyone had a bicycle - (£3. 19. 6. or 2/- a week from Currys) - and many expeditions were made info the surrounding countryside.   A favourite spot was the ‘Ballast Hole’ or Ballasole as it was generally pronounced.   Here were all the elements of a small boy’s Paradise.   A wood, a stream, from which Newts, Sticklebacks, Minnows, and the odd Gudgeon could be caught, to be carried home in a string-handled jam jar.   The near-by railway, main line to the North, along which thundered the great express locomotives of the L.M.S. - sometimes even a wave from the driver or fireman.

Ditchford was another popular haunt.   The river, shallow enough for a leisurely paddle, and here and there, deep enough for a swim.   Just downsteam of the bridge, the stream divided briefly, to form a small island.   We would occupy this marshy area, and defend it against other marauding gangs trying to evict us.

On warm Summer weekends, the green area between the river and the railway was often thronged with families picnicking, children playing and paddling, reminiscent of a holiday beach.   No thoughts of the Costa Del Thingummy in those days.   In fact, a local joke, when asked where one was going for the holidays was to reply "Ditchford-on Sea."   Other venues, easily reached by any lad with a bicycle, were Sharnbrook, Felmersham, or Irthlingborough.   In these delightful places, we could fish, swim, sail boats --- all the things dear to the hearts of boys.   A great local occasion was the visit by Mr. Hore-Belisha M.P., the then Minister of Transport - (he of the ‘Beacons’) - to open the new bridge spanning the river at Irthlingborough in 1936. All my life it seems, I have had half an eye wondering what lay over the horizon.   At the lower end of the Irthlingborough by-pass there used to be a sign-post, pointing North - "Carlisle 297 miles" it read.   I had no idea where Carlisle was, nor what, if anything, went on there.   It was fascinating to me, to imagine that this very road, (the A6) which ran through the centre of our small town would, if followed, lead one to a place so far away.

One day, I determined, I would visit this magical place, and in due course, many years on, I did.   I found it a fine city, steeped in history, quite worthy of my youthful dreams.

Our free time seemed to be so full in those days, Rushden Swimming baths, Wilby Lido, and occasionally Overstone Park, such memories.   Pages of snapshots in the album of life, such as the day we all rushed out of school to see the great Airship R101 pass over Rushden, at quite low altitude.

"Awlus Ghopsin"

Arising from my interest in the English language, I have a great interest also in dialects - including of course, our own "Ruzdin" tongue.   The late, and lamented Reg. Norman, one-time contributor to the ‘Evening Telegraph’ was something of an expert on this.   I do not think I ever spoke in a very pronounced local brogue, but took delight in hearing it authentically used.   The T.V. folk once made a short ‘Cops and Robbers’ series, set around the grand old Victorian Police Station in Rushden.   The actors spent considerable time in the locality, but never got anywhere close to the authentic delivery - apart from ending almost every sentence with "M’duck." The origin of many of our local expressions still eludes me.   An example was (phonetically) “Bellarl” - as in "He wern’t arf givin’ it Bellarl" - meaning to do anything at a furious pace.  What was ‘Bell Oil’ ? if that is the correct interpretation, and how did it come to mean any sort of frenzied action.   Another was the term "Head Serag" - for one in charge. This surely derives from the Italian "Seraglio" - theatrically a producer or again "it wern’t arf a Bramah" - meaning any fine, or high quality object, a reference, one would think to the eminent engineer Joseph Bramah (1748 - 1814) but his mane is not used as a superlative in this context in any other part of the country to my knowledge.   So why in Rushden as a term of excellence?   Many of these colourful and interesting expressions are nowadays falling out of use, more’s the pity.   A great deal of colour and character would be lost if we all spoke ‘Standard English.’

There seems no logical reason for setting down all this trivia - much of it has been recorded by more competent pens than mine, it must be excused as the sad ramblings of an ageing old ‘codger.’   We appear to have learned little, apart from the price of everything, and the value of nothing. But to the old men, like me, it seems a pity that England no longer "To herself doth rest but true."

My own education in the University of Life entered a new and very different phase when, in 1940, I responded to what has been described as a "cunningly worded invitation to get killed." During the ensuing six years or so, my outlook underwent a subtle change.   A seed of cynicism tinged with bitterness was implanted.   Post war events, right up to the present day have done nothing but confirm that view of affairs, and reinforce, if anything, my views, and opinions.   Those who fought at Agincourt and Waterloo are long forgotten, - the brave deeds and sacrifices on the Somme, at Mons and Passchendaele soon will be. Likewise Arnhem, Dieppe, Alamein, Imphal, Kohima, the Ledo Road, and so on.

When it was all over, and we had miraculously survived more or less unscathed, they gave me some medals on pretty coloured ribbons, and everyone shouted "Hurrah."

But it was all for nought - look around - the England for which they endured so much, and so bravely fought, is no longer ours.

It is gone forever.

I have reached the conclusion that sadly, "The labour and the wounds" really were - "In vain."

A. H. Chettle

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