I was born at Fairhavens, Chesterfield Road, Swallownest on 21 June 1936; the house had been built for my parents in 1925 by a local builder, Bill Memory, and was one of the first to be built there. By the time I was born, the houses on the right hand side going towards Beighton were very much as they are now but the other side was fields, mostly farmed by Mr Walker who's farmhouse stood at the cross-roads. At the bottom of the fields was a small sewage works, tastefully screened by poplar trees (more of that later).
My mother, a trained primary school teacher, had been married twice, her first husband dying in the 'flu epidemic of 1919. My half sister, Betty Hanson, was seventeen when I arrived and my brother, Peter, ten - I was very much the 'afterthought'. According to my sister, my mother's reaction on learning of her unexpected pregnancy was "Whatever will the members of the Mothers' Union say ?". My sister retorted that, without pregancies, that organisation would soon fold ! My father was the manager of the Co-operative grocery store at Treeton, having worked for Rotherham Co-op since leaving school at fourteen - apart from three years in the army during World War One.
One of my earliest recollections was being taken by my mother to Mothers' Union meetings where I distinguished myself by licking jam out of the tarts and leaving the soggy pastry cases on her plate- she was too busy talking to notice until it was too late.
On 3 September 1939, the Second World War began but our household had already been affected. My father had enrolled in the Civil Defence and was Senior Warden for our district - a real-life Hodges for followers of Dads' Army - and my sister, recently qualified as a teacher, had been evacuated with her pupils from a school in Sheffield to Rothley, near Loughborough. Little happened during the phoney war period but, as invasion seemed more probable, my father was asked to take on an additional role - that of invasion chairman for the parish. It was expected that an invasion would throw national, county and district administration into chaos and so the parish invasion chairman was to have over-riding powers to co-ordinate the work of the police, fire brigade, Home Guard etc. at the local level - basically, his word would have been law. One of his immediate tasks was to tour the area and mark all alternative water supplies - wells, springs etc - on to large scale maps; he also had books of secret orders which were kept under lock and key and which we never saw. He also had to arrange for a headquarters in the event of emergency and so he visited the builder, Bill Memory, and read him the order that, in the event of invasion, he would be commandeering his office (one of the few local houses with a telephone). His reaction was along the lines "Eh Cyril, you don't need any special powers, you can have the whole house because as soon as those buggers land in the southeast, I'm off to the northwest !"
As I got older, I suppose that wartime became an exciting adventure - you were not aware as child of much of the realities. There were the many people in uniform, the convoys of military vehicles (often held up in Chesterfield Road when the level crossing gates at Beighton were closed), the underground airraid shelters at Swallownest School where we were sometimes taken for practice evacuations (wearing our gas masks). Although the parish didn't really suffer directly from bombing to any great extent, there were the two massive raids on Sheffield and also we had frequent alerts because we were under the flight paths to such places as Manchester and Liverpool. Initially, I remember being got out of bed and taken to a communal shelter in the semi-basement of the shops on Park Hill but soon my father constructed an underground shelter in our garden. This was so strong that, after the War, he refused to try to demolish it and it was still there when my mother moved in 1964. I had a small bunk across one end of it and being moved out of bed and taken up the garden into the shelter became a matter of routine.
As the war progressed, the warning system became more selective. In some cases, general sirens were replaced by initial warnings from the Chief Warden to Senior Wardens - these were delivered in person and were 'colour coded' to indicate the likelihood of developing into an attack on that area. Then, as enemy intentions became clearer as a result of reports from Royal Observer Corps posts throughout the country, the warning could be cancelled (again by the Chief Warden) or the sirens sounded to alert the public. On one occasion, my father was alerted and called out his warden team; time went on and nothing happened but no stand-down message was received and so my father eventually sent his team home. The following night, loud knocking was heard; my father crept downstairs and, at each loud knock, quietly undid one bolt, then another. On the third, he flung open the door to reveal the Chief Warden. "Hullo Bill, have you brought the all-clear ?". A very flustered Chief Warden stuttered back "N-no, it's b-b -bloody purple"
On another occasion, a report came to my father during a raid that a magnetic mine had been seen floating in a small reservoir down towards the railway - this held water for the colliery. Although this seemed unlikely, he and a couple more wardens set off to investigate, having divested themselves of anything of a magnetic nature which could set the thing off. As they got nearer, my father realised that he was on his own - the other two having decided that the better part of valour was discretion; the magnetic mine turned out to be an abandoned oil drum!
There was, however, a real event. We were down in the shelter and my brother, by then about fifteen, was outside watching events. He was officially a messengerboy for the wardens (he had his own steel helmet) but he was a keen member of the ATC and aircraft enthusiast. Suddenly, my mother heard rapid footsteps up the path and down the shelter steps and in came Peter, out of breath and white as a sheet. He announced that a bomb was about to drop in the fields opposite and so the bang was awaited with baited breath. Nothing happened ! My mother thought that he was indulging in a leg pull and threatened what she would do if he tried it again but he insisted that it was true. They went above ground and the fields opposite were lit up like daylight. Some type of parachute flare had been jettisoned by a German aircraft and it had floated down, releasing a large number of separate flares.
And then there were the spies !! No, we didn't have any German paratroopers dressed as nuns but that didn't stop we children (and some adults) having vivid imaginations. In Chesterfield Road lived a lovely old lady called Miss Stevenson who, in her youger days, had worked as a companian to a minor member of the German Royal Family. How she came to retire to Swallownest I don't know but she was often to be seen walking round in a long leather coat (not often seen in a South Yorkshire mining village). She was also an amateur artist and could sometime be seen at her bedroom window sketching. Of course, we knew what she was up to - making plans and sketches of Beighton pit to sends to the enemy. Another target of our suspicions lived in a bungalow in Park Drive - a Mr Snider although we children knew that it was really Schneider ! This character had a cleft palate which gave him a serious speech defect but we also knew that this was just a pretence to hide his German accent. He also owned a derelict bungalow nearby and that was where we knew his radio transmitter to be hidden; as we got more adventurous, break-ins were attempted but we never did catch him in contact with Hamburg ! These rumours obviously reached the Home Guard since, on one of their exercises, they made a detour from their advance up Chesterfield Road, going up the Church Fields and breaking through the hedge at the bottom of his garden. An advance was then made up his garden and his protests were answered by the raising of rifles and many unrepeatable 'patriotic' retorts. On a serious note, however, one of my father's powers as invasion chairman would have been the internment of anyone suspected of having sympathy with the enemy. He often said after the war that he had his own list of who would have been rounded up but he'd never let on who was on it.
Another of my father's wartime roles was as a fundraiser. Having
fought in the 1914-18 war, his wish was that the troops returning
at the end of the conflict should have a British Legion Club to
welcome them. The actual club did not materialise until well after
the war ended but he set about raising money soon after the war
began. At the same time, he raised money for church funds and was
local organiser for the War Savings efforts, particularly the
special national weeks which were held, each focusing on a
branch of the armed services. My brother was a very skilled model maker and did a lot of trading at Woodhouse Grammar School to obtain damaged and battered Dinky Toys, mainly for their wheels. During "Salute the Soldier" week, he transformed Bolsover's Chemists shopwindow in High Street into a minature battlefield scene with vehicles, soldiers, barbed wire etc.
One of the main fund raising activities were the Saturday night dances held in the Church Hall; this hall has a wartime monopoly since the Miners' Welfare Hall had been commandeered as an emergency first aid station, manned by spare time volunteers of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. These dances were highly popular; blackout conditions made travel difficult and, after the raids on Sheffield, people were loathe to travel further afield. As part of "Wings for Victory" week, my father was persuaded to put on a 'ball' with a section of the nationally renowned RAF dance band, the Squadronnaires. If I remember correctly, tickets including supper were ten shillings (50p) and many people felt that it would be a financial disaster; they were proved wrong and the dance made a handsome profit. I remember being woken in the early hours of the morning by music from downstairs - the band had retired to our house for refreshments and were playing in the living room. During the same week, I returned home from Swallownest School to find two bomber pilots and a WAAF driver drinking tea; the pilots were between tours of duty and had been sent out to raise support for the savings week. They'd just been to address the miners at Brookhouse and were off to Treeton. Although it was against regulations for civilians to travel in service vehicles, I was put into the back of their truck, officer's cap put over my head (and I mean 'over'), an RAF greatcoat draped round my shoulders and off we went. What a story I had to tell at school next day.
As the war progressed, air raid warnings became less frequent although the blackout persisted, you still came across road blocks with Home Guard personnel demanding ID cards, buses still had windows covered in netting to stop glass shattering in an airraid . Throughout the war, when bombing did occur, the actual target was rarely mentioned. Newsreaders would say the bombs were dropped on a northern town, at random or over scattered areas. I can still remember the lady who delivered our milk, cigarette sticking straight out of her mouth who used to talk about the bulletins and express her good luck that she didn't live in Random or Scatterdarias since they always seemed to be copping it !
With mid-1944 came the build up to D-day and the massive army convoys passing south through Swallownest was a sign that something big was brewing. But the enemy still had some tricks up their sleeve and, in June, the V1 ("Doodlebug") campaign began. These were launched from sites in occupied Europe and mainly affected the South East of the country. As Christmas 1944 approached, the Allied advance in Europe deprived the Germans of their launch sites and so a 'last gasp' offensive was launched. In the early hours of Christmas Eve, fifty Heinkel bombers, each carrying a V1, crossed the coast between Skegness and Mablethorpe and launched their weapons in the direction of Manchester. The action was designed to create panic in parts of the country which had never seen a doodlebug. In the early hours, my mother was woken up by a strange sound which she had not heard before; German aircraft usually emitted a throbbing sound due to their engines being out of synch but this sounded like a badly tuned motor bike. She looked out of the window and saw this thing moving across the sky with flames coming out of the back. She woke my brother, telling him that one of our aircraft was in trouble; at that moment, the engine noise ceased and was followed shortly by a loud explosion. She assumed that the crew had perished. Only later did she learn that what she witnessed was one of the three V1s to land in Derbyshire (Beighton 5.40am, Chapel-en-le-Frith 5.45am and Buxton 5.50am). In all, thirty one of the weapons were reported to have exploded - but the panic hoped for by the Germans didn't materialise.
Late in 1944, came another development. Due to major coal shortages, the Government embarked on a largescale opencast programme - no use of public enquiries in those days. The land on both sides of Chesterfield Road [Swallownest] was excavated with draglines , scrapers etc working twenty four hours a day. The site became an adventure playground for we children and we spent many a happy hour riding in the lorries which took the coal to the screens at Tinsley. But the venture was not completely successful; below the Church Fields [approx where the entrance to the new Aston Manor estate is] where test boring had indicated a good seam, strange patterns emerged as the earth was removed. Circles appeared in the soil, these getting bigger as the hole got deeper; when the seam was reached, it was just as if someone had got there first with a giant pastry cutter. It emerged that the site had already been worked many years before by using primitive bellpits. On one occasion, soon after coal production had started, my father answered a knock at our door to find a man holding an empty bucket who asked of he could cadge a bucket of coal. He said that he was the nightwatchman at the opencast. My father, in rather unparliamentary language, suggested that since he was on a site of coal production, he had a bit of a cheek. The reply was to the effect that the opencast coal wasn't much good and "it won't burn on my bloody fire"; father felt that such honesty was worth a bucket of coal.
On 1 May 1945, there was great rejoicing at the news that Hitler was dead; the end of the war in Europe was obviously near. However, because of the need for co-ordination between the Allies, there was some dithering about an official announcemnt. On the afternoon of 7 May, I was in the upper playground at Swallownest School for playtime when we heard loud cheering and singing. A party from school, returning from the school garden up Aughton Road has been told by someone that it had just been announced on the radio that the war was over and tomorrow was to be a holiday. You can imagine that little work was done for the rest of the day. In Chesterfield Road, a large bonfire was built on top of one of the opencast spoil heaps, a Hilter effigy constructed, and VE Day celebrated in style.
One confession I have to make about the wartime period (and postwar rationing period) was that I was involved in the black market ! In those days, provisions were delivered in bulk to shops, to be weighed out by the staff. A little surplus was allowed to cover wastages etc but, if the grocer and his staff were careful, there was a small amount left over after all rations had been met. And so it was that my father would bring small amounts of provisions and send me to various places to deliver them. He never made anything out of it since he simply charged the controlled price but, usually when I was given the money, there was a little bit extra for me. So I was the profiteer ! However, my father used to say that if ever the authorities decided to punish him, there'd be no policemen to take him to jail and no parson to visit him there since they'd all been recipients.
But what of other memories ? The Church featured prominently in my early life - Mothers' Union already mentioned. My parents were regular churchgoers, my father becoming a sidesman and a churchwarden. At the age of seven, I joined the choir and, when my voice broke, a server. I resigned at the age of seventeen after a difference of opinion with the then Rector, The Reverend Theodore Henry Egbert Japing. This arose after the Church was restored in the early 1950's and the original organ replaced by the current one. It emerged that 'Thej' as we called the Rector wanted to replace the organist by a friend of his who was willing to travel to Aston now that there was a decent organ. His proposal was accepted by the Church Council but the choir was unhappy so I suggested a strike. Since it was my idea, I got the job of telling the Rector that if the organist went, so did we. He was not best pleased but our threat won the day and the plan was shelved but I was accused of being rude (which I don't think I was !) . I therefore resigned before I was sacked but continued my church attendance, returning to the choir when we had a change of Rector. It gave me great pleasure many years later to contribute to the retirement present of the organist who nearly disappeared in the 1950's.
Another centre of village life was the Church Hall at the top of Chesterfield Road. It had a large hall with sprung dance floor and stage, a smaller room for meetings and a kitchen. Various forms of entertainment were put on by professional concert parties and by local amateur dramatic socities. Together with friends from Church, I was in two of these - the Church Players run by Billy Oates (Senior) and the Swallownest Drama Society , run by Mr Bailey, a teacher at Swallownest Senior School. There were also the annual Nativity Play and Passion Play - the latter always enlivened for me by the appearance of Jim Beadman in Roman soldier's uniform, constructed I think in the fitting shop at Brookhouse Colliery. Jim fitted the part admirably because he had the classic Roman nose !
The Hall was also used for the annual Christmas Fair, Bring and
Buy Sales etc. I was always impressed at the Fair by the fountain
constructed in the centre of the dance floor by Alfie Parr from
Kilamarsh who was an organist at Church. From a pile of rocks, a
piece of tarpaulin, lights etc he could construct a wonderful
illuminated fountain. To me, as a child, it was one of the wonders
of the year.
We also had the Church Youth Club in the Hall, run by Norman Walker who for many years ran the Swallownest Post Office. I had a long association with Norman, acting as his Saturday morning telegram boy when I was about fourteen (wage half a crown - 12.5p), Christmas and summer relief post when I was older and even running the post office for him during his week's holiday (but I was in my twenties by then).
Unfortunately, the Hall fell into a poor state of repair due to shifting foundations and , in the light of prohibitive cost of repairs, was sold to an engineering company and then eventually demolished. The site is now occupied by the Nursing Home in Chesterfield Road.
Around 1950, it also became obvious that the Church was in urgent need of repair; some money was obtained from the NCB but the Church was faced with raising what then was the vast sum of £2500 (remember that the average wage would be around £6 per week). My father took on the task of organiser and the sum was raised well inside the time limit. As one effort, my mother wrote a history of the Church and a copy was sent to the Queen (now the Queen Mother) who responded with a gift of a canteen of cutlery to be used for fund raising. This was auctioned and bought by Mr Frank Bird who ran the demolition yard down Ulley Lane; if I remember rightly, the sum raised was around £100. When my father died in 1964, we respected his long stated request that we wouldn't have flowers at his funeral. I suggested to my mother that he'd spent so much of his life raising money for good causes that it would tickle him to have a final fling so we requested donations for the Church in place of flowers. This raised enough money to pay for the restoration of the window near the font, a project chosen because it contains, among others, the shield of the Duckenfield family, my brother-in-law's crest. A small panel in the window now commemorates my father.
In 1954, I went to University and afterwards moved away from Swallownest but I still return on occasions to see friends and relatives. I have happy memories of the many friends I made, some of whom I still see and others who were 'playmates' who I've lost touch with - Ronnie Careless, Lennie Blackburn, Brian Dale, Stan Cawkwell. When the Fiftieth Anniversary of VE day was commemorated in 1995, I was very glad to come back to Aston to the morning service and to be invited by my fellow pupil at Woodhouse Grammar School, Peter Wright, to come to the evening party.
But those who can remember what I wrote at the beginning of these ramblings will be saying "What about the sewage works ?" Two funny stories to end with. A house in Chesterfield Road was (probably still is) called Park View; its name comes from the fact that it and others were built in the parkland belonging to a large house situated up Park Drive. A new owner moved in and soon asked the neighbours how she could get down to the little park (remember the poplar trees); on being told what it really was, she very soon put the house back on to the market.
The other story involves a retired miner who shall remain nameless who was bemoaning the fact that his decrease in income was affecting his beer drinking consumption. A friend who worked at the sewage farm said that there was a part-time job going there so the retired miner applied and was set on but only stuck the job for a day. When he met up again with his informant, the latter said that he was surprised that he'd let the bit of a smell put him off after only a day ! To clean up the reply, the response was that it wasn't the smell, it was the thought that although he'd been a working man all his life, he'd always had some dignity but decided on his first (and only) day that when he had to resort to being the servant to five thousand backsides, it was time to take final retirement.
12 June 1999
Copyright Jon Layne 1999,2000, reproduced with permission