I made my somewhat premature arrival on this earth on February 13 1941, in what my mother always referred to as Spalding Myntling Home on Pinchbeck Road. Less kind souls referred to it as the Work House, which was the purpose for which it was built in the 1830s, with a capacity of 300 men and women. It was later renamed The Pinchbeck Road Hospital, before it was demolished to make way for a modern re-development.
In the early 1940s it was Spalding’s maternity hospital, but by the end of World War 2 it had ceased to fulfil that function, and Spalding mums not opting for a home delivery were taken to Boston’s Wyberton West hospital.
It says much for the healthcare standards in 1941 that there wasn’t an incubator anywhere in the town, so my cot was put close to a radiator until I had gained enough strength to be allowed home. “Home” for my mother and I in the era was my grandparents’ house in Pennygate, because my dad was serving in the RAF. He was an aircraft electrician, and his pride was that he was one of the talented team which prepared 617 Squadron’s Lancaster bombers for the famous Dambusters raid.
After my dad came home in 1945 we qualified for one of the prefabs in Wygate Road. They were constructed of galvanised steel and were supposed to have a life span of 10 years, but I note that, having been enclosed in brick shells, they are still providing comfortable homes 60 years on, such was the brilliance of their design.
When I was five I was enrolled at St. John’s Infant School in Hawthorn Bank. Pupils were there for three years, before they moved on to junior school. Teachers were Miss Russell in class one, then Miss Bell, and finally the head teacher, Miss Knot. I was marked down as an ill-behaved trouble-maker from the start, for the simple reason that my mother had taught me to read, so many of the lessons bored me rigid. Miss Knot said I needed a challenge, so instead of doing a year with Miss Bell I was moved straight into her class.
It was while at St. Johns that we had to endure the awful winter of 1947, which culminated in flooding in the town when all the ice on Cowbit and Crowland washes broke up and got jammed under High Bridge. My father reckoned he drove one of the last vehicles into Spalding as the flood waters started to lap over Cowbit Bank.
The flood problem was only really resolved with the implementation of the Welland Major Improvement Scheme, which saw the widening and straightening of the river below Deeping St. James,and the construction of the Coronation Channel. A lock on the Welland below the West Elloe bridge, roughly opposite the Smedley’s canning factory, meant that the river through the town was no longer tidal.
My sister, Mary, had arrived on the scene in 1945, and because we were a family of four we were allotted a house on the developing St. Paul’s Estate which, together with the Windsor Estate, marked a huge investment by Spalding Urban District Council. From our house we could see the jibs of the big excavators as they carved out the Coronation Channel in the area by St Paul’s Church. All of the bridges over the channel were constructed on dry land, then the waterway was dug beneath them.
By this time I had moved on to the Willesby School in Winsover Road, where the head teacher, Jack Worley, ruled the roost over teachers Miss Coles, Bertha Peacock and Gus Fidler. Gus was a favourite among us lads because he was a football fan and a talented artist who drew a weekly football cartoon for the local Saturday sports paper, the Pink ‘Un. But it was Jack Worley who fired my interest in literature and was probably responsible for my decision, in my early teens, that I would do my best to become a writer.
Jack told us that, when he was at university, one of his lecturers was H. G. Wells. He read extracts from the great author’s books to us, and encouraged me to read some of his science fiction, including The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, and The Time Machine – perhaps heavyweight stuff for an 11-year-old. I enjoyed the stories, but couldn’t really understand the message behind The History of Mr. Polly, which was a social comment rather than an adventure.
Jack also allowed us to see the school’s records from the previous century, which included details of the careers pursued by pupils after they had left. I was amazed by the note “went to sea” at the end of so many records, reflecting the importance of Spalding as a port in the 1800s. It also frightening to note how many pupils passed away during their schooldays, some with the note “went into a decline and died” – a reflection of the infant mortality rate 100 years previously.
By comparison we were a healthy lot, yet most kids caught measles, mumps and chicken pox, and a few got polio or the sometimes-lethal scarlet fever. Among adults, any form of cancer was believed to be terminal, and TB was greatly feared.
I enjoyed the Willesby School, but my following years at Spalding Grammar School were not quite so happy………….
I often wonder if male school teachers are still given nicknames by their pupils, in the way they were over 60 years ago. My first form master at Spalding Grammar school at the beginning of the 1950s was “Jesse” James, one of the history teachers. Jesse, who lived in West Parade, had spent much of his war in a German POW camp, and he told us quite a few tales of his incarceration.
Another teacher who had spent an interesting war was “Holy Joe” Chignell, our religious instruction teacher. He had been a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, and he was always reluctant to talk about his experiences. I remember one lad asking him: “How many Jerries did you kill, sir?” We were all surprised and maybe a bit disappointed when he replied “Oh, I do hope none.” What he wanted to talk about was his role as personal pilot to the acclaimed violinist Yehudi Menuhin during the musician’s tour of the Middle and Near East immediately after the war. He had been thrilled by the intellectual discussions the pair had enjoyed, although we lads thought that flying a Spitfire must have been much more exciting. He eventually became the headmaster of a Church of England school.
The assistant head was “Cal” Green, and my “couldn’t care less” attitude to his two subjects, maths and singing, must have driven the poor man to distraction. He often used to order me to remain silent during singing lessons, and I must confess that, to this day, I could still empty a church, or a pub, if I chose to burst into tuneless song.
“Cave” Ackroyd (well, he did have rather prominent eyebrow ridges) taught chemistry, at which I wasn’t too bad, and “Deadwood” Oakeshot taught biology, at which I was useless. Physics was taught by “Charlie” Coulthard, who bore such a strong facial resemblance to Formula One driver David Coulthard that I e-mailed the racing champion five years ago to ask if Charlie was a relative. I still await his reply.
Other teachers were the vertically-challenged “Duckweed” Dalby, “Bunge” Ramsden (a keen beekeeper in his spare time, who once removed a swarm from the base of the school flagpole), and “RC” Jowett, who drove a Jowett car and was rumoured to be related to the owners of the Bradford-based automotive manufacturer.
There were only two teachers who managed to really fire my imagination. The first was “Chink” Hallam, whose history lessons really brought the subject to life. I might have been quite good at the subject had he not left to join one of the country’s leading colleges as a lecturer, just as we had got to the early Victorian era.
My favourite teacher was “Wal” Goode, a native of Birmingham who held a double doctorate in English Literature and Music. He never had the bad luck to try to teach me music, but his English lessons really inspired me, and without his advice on my essays, and the glowing reference he gave me when I left school, I would never have landed my first job as a trainee newspaper reporter.
Wal lived on Pinchbeck Road, opposite the Royal Mail Cart pub, where he always drank in the bar rather than the lounge because he preferred the company of what he termed “honest, working people.” Last time I was in there, more than 20 years ago, a seat at the bar bore a brass plate in his memory with the inscription “The Doctor’s Chair.” I do hope it’s still there.
All of this brings us to the head master, “Sid” Woodward. Let me be honest: he and I never got on. I won’t go into the boring details of it all, and anyway I was most likely responsible for at least half of the ill feeling, but I left at the end of the fifth year and told him that I wanted to train as a journalist. He told me that I wasn’t nearly bright enough, and anyway “journalism is not what you see on the films – it’s not all chasing around in fast cars, accompanied by glamourous women, you know.”
Sid had a plan for me: he told me that a local solicitor who was a governor of the school wanted a trainee clerk, and the job could be mine. “If you apply yourself to it, you might one day become an Articled Clerk”, he promised.
Somehow it didn’t seem very exciting, and, thanks to Wal putting in the good word, I was working as a trainee reporter on the Lincolnshire Free Press within a month of Sid’s gloomy lecture.
The 1950s weren’t all about school. I wasn’t really attracted to team sports – I had no interest in football, I was frankly scared to play cricket having once been hit in the face by a ball, and although we were forced to play rugby at school I was too skinny to get any enjoyment out of the game.
My parents enrolled me in the library around 1950. In those days it was in Ayscoughfee Hall, in the big room on the left as you look at the building from the street, and I am sure I learned as much in that room as I did at school. Elsewhere in the building was a museum of stuffed birds, which had been relocated from Red Lips on Street, while the big room on the right housed a dancing school which set my sister, Mary, on the right track for a stage and TV career.
Most importantly, I did discover angling and shooting in the early 50s, and throughout a long journalistic career (58 years at the time of writing) I have, for the main part, made my living by writing about both subjects.
I can thank two lads I met on the river bank for making me a good angler and introducing me to shooting. George Knowles and Gerald Wilson were a year or so older than me. George lived on Roman Bank, and any women who attended the Girls’ High School may remember his dad, who was the school janitor in the era. Gerald lived in St John’s Road, and both were apprentices in the building trade.
However, fishing and shooting, and my other memories of Spalding in the 1960s and early 70s are best reserved for another story on another day……