Unexamined Lives

The story of the 20th century as lived by residents in the Derbyshire village of Borrowash


A Borrowash Childhood – John Burge

Like many villages, 21st century Borrowash unites the bustle of the present with the romance of the past.

We bear the names of our ancestors and walk their streets. Some of us live in their houses.

But it is almost impossible to imagine what life was really like for a Borrowash villager in the seventeenth century and even the practices of sixty or seventy years ago bring to mind LP Hartley’s comment that:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

John Burge is the son and grandson of Borrowash butchers and was born on the 15th August, 1933 at 11 Nottingham Road, now part of the Coop car park. Across the road, a shop at number 6 was opened by his grandfather at the end of the 19th century and until 1951, when the last chops were served, the sign was an essential landmark for local shoppers. .

The Hortons moved to Borrowash in June 1934 and were soon regular customers of the butcher. Mrs Horton and Mrs Burge decided that they had more in common than a fancy forhomemade potted meat, a Burge speciality.

According to John Burge:

Mrs Horton came into the shop and I came crawling in on my hands and knees and she said to my mother ‘I’ve got one at home his age’, that was Alan, John’s brother, who’s three days younger than me.

So I was duly taken up to John’s, 30 Victoria Avenue, to see Alan. Well, Alan and I didn’t get on at all and John and I got on like a house on fire and have done for seventy seven years. I was his best man, godfather and such like.

In 2011, John Burge and John Horton shared their boyhood memories with the Ockbrook and Borrowash Historical Society.

In the 1930s and 40s, Borrowash was very parochial; men went outside the village to work at Celanese, Rolls Royce and the railway, but women were able to find jobs closer to home atGIC; Fares factory and Baines Everett, the Flock Mill.

John Horton provides a lively account of street life:

There was a small grocers on the corner of Elm Street and Victoria Avenue, Jack Haddock and his wife ran that for many years; on the other corner was Annie Moore’s shop, she sold clothing, shoes, boots, pots, pans, you name it, Annie Moore sold it. In the Parish Magazine it was called the Wonder Emporium of Borrowash.

Next door was Olive Mount, the hairdresser; there was Fishy Elson’s shop which was demolished to widen the entrance to Victoria Avenue. Next to the end of the cottages where John lived was Bernard Wright the Blacksmith. Next door was a beauty salon; then there was Marshall the Cobbler and Frank Whitton Electricals.

The men’s barber shop was particularly interesting for small boys:

Next to the post office was Joe Hooley who had the barber’s shop. We used to call him belching Joe because while he was cutting your hair, he’d keep belching in your ear hole. All the kids called him that.

Refined tastes were satisfied by John Horton’s first employer, Leonard Stanifourth-Mill:

We served all the county people and had some very nice people we dealt with. Of course, in those days, they would just ring through, even if it was a loaf or a pint of milk they wanted. You’d get the carrier bike out with the basket on the front and deliver, go up Ockbrook or down Shacklecross, Cole Lane, that area: it was the sort of thing that was done in those days.

During wartime and the early years of the peace, when rations were tight and even the pubs were closed for half the week because of a beer shortage; life continued its untroubled course for the privileged clientele of Stanifourth – Mill, demonstrating as usual, that its not whatbut who you know….

My boss had a lot of contacts in the wholesale department of food and drink, so with being a freemason, belonging to the Lodge of Nottingham, he had all these contacts whereby he was able to get hold of stuff that nobody else was able to get hold of like butter, cheese, bacon, you name it – provisions groceries. So a lot of the customers, by paying quite dearly for it, got extra rations.

Meanwhile, the majority of people made do by rearing for consumption (they had swill buckets and the like) , the single pig per family permitted by The Ministry of Food and subsequently presenting it for slaughter to B Burge: Family Butcher, conveniently doubling up as a registered slaughter house.

The Burge family home provided another essential service for the village as John recalls:

Where I lived at 11 Nottingham Road, a visiting dentist used to come from Wirksworth , Mr Woodward, every Thursday afternoon and do dentistry in our kitchen; extractions. He used to bring a treadle drill and suction because there was no electricity, only gas.

People used to wait in our living room and he used to do extractions and fillings on Thursday afternoon from two until five and we had a little plaque on the wall that said it. They don’t go to anyone’s back kitchen today…

For people unable to afford the sophisticated fare on sale at Stanifourth Mill, the savoury ducks or faggots made by Grampy Burge were a mouth-watering treat:

He used to make them in big trays and on Thursday evening it was savoury duck evening and the workmen coming up from the train, what they used to call the workmen’s train, they used to have a tin basin in their haversacks and call in the shop on the way home to get savoury ducks. I think it was the tea for nearly everyone who lived round Victoria Avenue and all round there. They were in big trays and granny had a big spoon that she used to dish them out with. It was six pence for one.

John Horton looks back with relish:

You used to take your basin down and they’d put them in your basin for you. My wife Diana lived on Manor Road as a child, at the far end and her mother used to send her up with a basin, but of course, it smelt so appetising, she kept dipping her finger in, so when she got home, she only had about half the amount and her mother says ‘they’ve not give you much this week!’

But war, its shortages, make do and mend, and sheer excitement, coloured everything for small boys.

As John Burge says:

I’ve great memories of Borrowash during the war. That was really when I start to remember things happening.

The night they bombed Borrowash I was in our front bedroom at 11 Nottingham Road and there was an air raid on. I’d be seven or eight and my mother had got me in bed with her. Dad was fire-watching on the GIC roof; they used to do fire-watching there, and we heard these bombs screaming down, and my mother must have panicked a bit because they were so close. The next thing we knew, the place was lit up because one had made a direct hit on the warehouse at the back of the chemist shop which was just across the way from us. Others fell and didn’t hit anything at all. It was a miracle, really, because they all came down one side of Victoria Avenue and the other side of Station Road and down into the fields and past the river and such like.

For John Horton’s friend, disruption was closer to home:

Henry, his grandmother lived on Manor Road, just off Station Road.

She had a hen coop at the top of the garden and there was an outside toilet there. Well, one of these bombs landed just at the corner of the Manor Park and blew the hen house.

God knows where that ended up and the hens – but it also blew the toilet down because for a long time after that, they had a shed with an Elson chemical toilet in it until they could get another one built.

John Burge recalls the bomb disposal unit arriving to deal with unexploded bombs and marvels that somehow, nothing got hit because it came down right in the centre of the village.

A scene from the film Apocalypse Now springs to mind as John Horton describes the effect of the incendiary bombs:

God – they flared up like a great orange ball over the chemist. Borrowash has never been so well lit before or since. You could hear them coming.

But people accustom themselves to anything and the boys got used to hearing the noise of the sirens coming down the chimney; Junkers’88 and Messerschmitt.

We’d stand there, listen: ‘Oh, that’s one of ours, that’s a Gerry’.

The houses shook and in the morning, there was shrapnel to collect and corrugated iron shutters (‘the zincs’, to Grampy Burge), to put up at the window.

The natural demarcations of day and night ceased to exist and the Horton house was well equipped with blackout stuff:

Everywhere had to be pitch black – there were no lights anywhere; even the houses had to have blackout stuff and if you had to go out at any reason at night you couldn’t. On a dark winter’s night you couldn’t tell where you were going could you? We had blast walls in Borrowash, but in some areas, they put Andersonshelters in. I think the Corporation houses did that, but of course ours weren’t Corporation – they were privately owned houses and the council put in these blast walls. I know we had one across our kitchen window.

Every night brought new dangers and the rumours from elsewhere in the country where very often the stairs were left standing when the house was gone were sufficiently unsettling to make Mrs Horton take extra precautions with the children:

My mother used to bed us down in the pantry, which was under the stairs. Big shelves down on the floor, then something on top of that, then a mattress and Alan and I slept there. That was when the sirens were going every night. I know that when it used to go off, everyone would get up and Annie Moore was frightened to death in the corner shop and she always got my mother to take us down to her cellar until the All Clear went.

John Burge will never forget his wartime hospital stay:

I was in Derby Royal Infirmary, having my tonsils out, the night they bombedDerby Station.

It was quite an experience! They put us under our beds on our mattresses while it was going on and I thought it was a proper adventure. I’d be petrified now, absolutely.

Not everybody escaped unscathed:

George Griffin who lived in Elm Street had his leg crushed on Derby Station that night, He didn’t lose his leg, but he had a bad limp ever after that. It was amazing they were able to save his leg, really.

Wartime apart, life in Borrowash proceeded in time-worn patterns.

School for John Burge was Borrowash Primary in 1938, followed by Long Eaton Grammar School and a career on the railway until retirement.

The Primary School was heated by gas and coal fires and presided over by the Miss Johns sisters:

Big Miss Johns and Little Miss Johns; they came from Devon. They were excellent teachers, both of them. They lived at 177 Victoria Avenue.

Another teacher, Mrs Dunn also officiated as choir mistress and organist at St Stephen’schurch and her teaching colleagues were Miss Waldron, Miss Wood and Miss Towndrow.

It was an all –female staff with a tragic story for Miss Towndrow:

She became Mrs Eels. She got married and her husband was a pilot and he was killed in an air raid over Germany…

Church, in its various denominations, was the key to all aspects of village life; both spiritual and secular.

John Burge’s grandparents married in St Stephen’s church in 1891.

His grandmother was a founder member of the church and John himself sang in the choir until he left Borrowash for London in 1965 to work on the railway.

He remembers the choirs with affection:

They were very good the church choirs. Who’s left now? Are there any Garrets left in Ockbrook?

Harry Garret was the Choirmaster, he’s been dead for years.

We used to augment the choirs at Easter; we used to do ‘Olivet to Calvary’ one Easter and Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ the next Easter. I don’t know whether they still do. – Mind you, they’ve altered Ockbrook Church Choir a good deal.

I’ve only been to funerals recently…

Do they still have confirmations at Ockbrook? It was on the circuit at one time and they used to come from Borrowash and Spondon.

I was confirmed at the same time as Bugger Hudson.

Her name was Mrs Hudson and she was a lady known for her ‘ripe’ language and she was known throughout Borrowash as Bugger Hudson…

At Christmas, choristers from St Stephens borrowed a porter’s trolley from Borrowash for their harmonium and traversed a carefully chosen route for carol singing:

We went round the select areas to collect for church funds because they gave you more; Manor Road, Gordon Road and Central Avenue. We used to pull it round and Mrs Dunn used to play.

Nativity plays, performed two or three times were key attractions, but disaster struck one year when Cynthia Holmes accidentally set the straw of the manger on fire with the hurricane lamp.

Fortunately, the vicar, Mr Gibbs, saved the day by dousing the conflagration with water from the font.

Another fund raising scheme for St Stephens was the church hall dance to 78rpm gramophone records at ‘one and six including refreshments’.

Chapel was also influential in Borrowash.

According to John Burge:

There used to be two, The Prims and The Wesleyan and never the twain met, really.

He credits The Wesleyan Chapel with the birth of Borrowash Victoria Football Club:

Albert Anderton (his brother Arthur still lives on Field Close) was instrumental in starting the Borrowash Vics.

They were very big Wesleyans and went to Chapel. It was really an offshoot of the Wesleyan Sunday School.

Meanwhile, John Horton was a keen member of the Boys Brigade.

One summer camp, in the grounds of East Bridgeford Hall, was ruined by torrential rain. Tents were awash and the elderly owner, Mrs Fox, provided shelter in the harness room of her stable.

Everyone had to have a mustard bath in the big kitchen after we got wet through.

Visits to the cinema, either Spondon Pictures, or The Gloria at Chaddesden, were extremely popular.

But transport was a problem, as John Horton, a pupil at Spondon House School, knew better than most:

They’d got some very old London transport buses they used in the war with open stairs at the back.

They must have been clapped out. I think London transport had finished using them and hadn’t scrapped them. It must have been Trent that bought them.

We used to get up Bear Lane, near to the top and the damn bus would conk out. It wouldn’t go any further, so we all had to get off and they managed to get it up with nobody on it and we’d get on again at the top. They had gas bags on the top and Trent had a trailer thing on the back like a big gas cylinder on two wheels towed behind the bus and it supplied the bus with gas.

Once safely ensconced at the Spondon matinee, film buffs paid three pence downstairs and five pence upstairs for a Saturday serial:

I can remember one; it used to terrify me. It was called The Clutching Hand…

And if they wanted to get you out then they just ran the film faster!

The importance of the village pubs, in the absence of television and wirelesses that were more crackling than sounds, should not be underestimated.

To John Burge:

The singing at the Noah’s Ark used to be incredible!

The Noah’s Ark in those days was noted for its singing, wasn’t it – don’t mention any names!

Of course, we lived almost directly opposite and it was in the days when it was double summer time, so it was light till about 11 o’clock at night and even when they’d run out of beer, they’d still be in there, singing away when Jerry Dickson kept it!

But for the ladies, nothing could beat a whist drive, held in the Moravian Lecture Room in Ockbrook, (known as the church hut), or the Primitive school room.

John Burge watched the old ladies from his seat on the Spondon bus:

On a Saturday evening they all used to go to wherever the whist drive was; they’d drop them off at the church and if it was at the Lecture Hall, they’d get off at The Cross Keys and walk down and coming back, they’d walk down and get the bus outside The Queen’s Head. If they were running late, the Trent bus driver waited for them.

If they’d been at the church hut but hadn’t finished, he’d wait outside for them until they had finished and someone would run out and say ‘ They’re just doing the gentlemen’s booby, they won’t be a minute’ – all of them, Mrs James and Mrs Clifford and the like!

Far more ladies went than men; there was a clique of the ladies that always used to play gentlemen! Elsie Cook; Dolly Griffin! Mrs James always did!

It was always one and six, including refreshments and whatever it was for, it didn’t matter, and they went to it!

The passion for whist was such that it was a guaranteed source of funds for any group taking the trouble to organise an evening.

Modern day political parties might take note that:

These women didn’t care who it was for – they just had to go! They were quite catholic in their tastes and I’m not talking religion. It could be put on by the Labour Party, the Co-op or the Conservative Primrose League.

But the correct refreshments were essential:

They were always the same. Potted meat sandwiches with home made potted meat from Burge’s shop.

Political organisations were flourishing, but again, anybody could go to any or all of them and frequently did. Perhaps popularity was consequent upon the quality of the refreshments…

Mr Moore, Manager of the Co-op ran Co-op classes in the school room at the back of the chapel, attended by John Burge who learned about the Co-op and the Co-operative movement.

Meanwhile, his grandmother was a lynchpin in The Primrose League:

It was quite active in Ockbrook and Borrowash; my grandmother was a sort of I should have to say ‘chairperson’ now, shouldn’t I?

And I’ve still got her badge with PL on it.

That was Granny Burge.

They were like the social offshoot of the Conservative Party. Primrose was something to do with Disraeli; they were his favourite flower – and Queen Victoria. Don’t ask me what the history of it was, but they formed this Primrose League and it was really a social thing – they weren’t really political at all! It was just one of those things!

But I know they always used to like a Christmas Party…

Looking back over their boyhood years, John Burge and John Horton are amazed at how Borrowash has grown.

As John Burge sees it:

Harrington Avenue and Charnwood Avenue – we still call it the new estate ‘Well, she lives up on the new estate’.

John Horton agrees:

That’s right. When people were being re-housed out of some of the old cottages before they demolished them, they were being re-housed on the new estate, so even now we still refer to it as the new estate, but they’ve been up for sixty years!

The old village as we knew it, most of the cottages were clubbed after the war, weren’t they?

Like the Burge family home

The Borrowash of today is different from those days of Chapel, savoury duck, The Primrose League, potted meat sandwiches and the female obsession with whist.

In the words of the poet Edward Thomas:

It would have been: Another world.

Ay and a better?

If we could see all, all might seem good. (As The Team’s Head Brass).

But John Burge reminds us that while the years may go by, some things are eternal:

Living opposite the Noah’s Ark, of course I saw a good deal of life, to say the least.

There were one or two choice moments to behold there, but there we are. I’ll finish now…


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