“How do you spell the word ‘committee’? My questioner was Sid Franks, the editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian, and this was my first-ever job interview. It was in February 1958, shortly after my 17th birthday.
I don’t know whether my answer was right or wrong, but I must have made something of an impression because Sid took me on as a trainee reporter, for the princely sum of £3 10s a week. It was the start of my career as a writer.
The chief reporter was the somewhat eccentric Keith Ashwell, whose mother, Carol, kept a mink farm. She had been brought up in the Spalding area, and was famed locally as the author of a rather risqué biographical novel called Branton’s Bridge. In that era it was considered to be extremely sexy, and my mother forbade me to read it, but it was tame stuff by the standards that came in after the famous “Lady Chatterley” trial of 1960.
The other senior reporter was Doug Wiles, and my fellow trainees were John Claridge, a talented young footballer from Holbeach whose ambition was to be a sports writer, and Joan Caswell. George Hix reported on affairs in Holbeach but was often in Spalding, while Eric Gibson ran our Bourne office. I was only employed by the Free Press for two years, but during that time there was quite a turnover in editorial staff. Ashwell and Wiles left, and former Boston Guardian reporter Hugh Clancy became our chief. Hugh was Irish, and his wife, Vi, served as a Spalding town councillor for many years.
During this period we were re-joined by Malcolm Scott, home from his National Service. Malcolm’s father was the Rev Irving Scott, the Bourne-based Methodist Superintendent Minister who had served his church as a missionary in China, and knew the missionary Gladys Aylward, whose story was told in the 1958 file “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” Some years later my father and I attended a series of lectures on comparative religion by the Rev Scott, and I still have the copy of The Analects of Confucius he gave us.
Other reporters to join us were Tonie Gibson, who later became editor of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, and Brenda Reeson. We must have been a good editorial crew, because Tonie, Malcolm and I were all destined to eventually become editors.
Reporters, photographers, and the editor were – and still are – the public face of newspapers, but in the 1950s and 1960s the industry was labour-intensive, due to the method of production which involved setting the newspaper in lead-based type – from which we all inhaled the fumes on a daily basis. The Free Press, although part of the East Midlands Allied Press group, was typical of most small-town newspapers in that it had a flourishing commercial printing business. Consequently, there was a lot going on behind the shop front in Hall Place. In fact, the premises stretched as far back as the rear of the Post Office in Hall Place, and our vehicle access, and that used by most of the staff, was via Gore Lane between the Post Office and Mayfields sweet shop. Older readers will remember that Mayfields used to be Gydes, photographers.
Although the newspapers were printed in Peterborough, all the make-up was done in Spalding, and we had four Linotype operators, a team of compositors, and two proof readers. And, separate from the editorial team was the advertisement staff, presided over by Derek Abel, who was a talented watercolour artist. Our accountant was Emmy Patterson, whose brother, Gus, shot with me in the Pinchbeck Rifle Club team. The boss of everyone except the editorial team was the general manager, Walter Cook, who was one of the area’s keenest wildfowlers.
Our sub-editing team’s chief was Frank Ward, who blew a cool saxophone in a local dance band. The oldest sub was Freddy Bolwell, who sat opposite the sports editor, Bruce Robinson, who chronicled the weekly fortunes, and often misfortunes, of The Tulips. Holbeach (“The Tigers”) always seemed to be a better football team to me.
In the era, trainee journalists got all of the relatively boring, routine jobs. We wrote up all the weddings from details supplied on forms filled in by the families of the bride and groom, and we all had calls we had to make, some weekly and others daily. My calls list included most of the local clergy, and the undertakers. This latter series of calls was because the editor insisted that anyone who died, irrespective of his or her standing in the town, had an obituary in the newspaper.
My favourite undertaker was Charlie Burrell, whose premises in Red Lion Street doubled as a furniture shop. Coffins were made in a workroom above the shop which was accessed by outdoor steps on the side of the building, and on cold days it was a haven of warmth in which joiners planed and assembled the oak or elm boards and fitted the brass handles.
Having got the names of the deceased, either John Claridge or I had to visit the grieving relatives to get the details for the obit. In the era it was surprising how many corpses were laid out in the front room of the house, awaiting their funerals, and on several occasions I was asked: “Would you like to see him?” My stock reply was: “Thank you, but I would rather remember him as he was.” In truth, the chances were I had never even heard of the chap until his name and address was supplied by the undertaker.
And, as if writing obituaries wasn’t gloomy enough, we also had to visit the scenes of the more spectacular road accidents, along with one of our two-man photographic team, Gerry Fox and Les Prudden. Fortunately, in the era all of the photography was in black and white so bloodstains were not obvious.
Office transport in those days consisted of two vans, and a horribly under-powered BSA Bantam motorbike which was ridden by junior reporters and the young advertisement salesman, Roy Fisher. One cold day in late autumn I was out on the bike making my clergy calls, and while riding along a country lane I hit a sugar beet which had fallen off the back of a lorry. The impact pitched me into the wet grass on the left side of the road, while the bike ended up embedded in a hawthorn bush on the right side. I was unhurt, but the bike had fared less well, and was quite severely bent.
I managed to get it back to the office, and went to make my excuses to General Manager Cook. On the way to his office I met up with Tonie Gibson, and I told him what had happened. “Go easy with Walter Cook”, he said. “I’ve just been in to tell him I have crashed one of the vans.”
Considering the editorial staff had reduced the newspaper’s transport fleet from three vehicles to one in the same half-hour, Walter took it rather well, but insisted I got the bike repaired as cheaply as possible. The result was, when it came back from Ross Porter’s motorbike shop in Double Street, it was a real rattletrap, and one evening Roy Fisher was out on it when the exhaust pipe fell off and the hot gases coming off the engine set light to his trousers. It wasn’t much later that Roy left us to train as a Baptist minister (a calling he stull pursues in the USA), and I have often wondered if the traumatic experience had somehow influenced his life-changing decision.
The following summer the 1,000-plus entry National Angling Championships were held on the Welland above Spalding, and, because I was the only reporter who understood the sport, I was responsible for most of the coverage. I must have made a fair job of it, because it was not long afterwards I learned that I had been accepted as a trainee sub-editor on Angling Times, the EMAP group’s first essay into national sports publications. Angling Times had a weekly circulation of over 150,000. Its offices were, and still are, in Peterborough, so I could commute from my Spalding home.
But what followed was another story……………