Unexamined Lives

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


A Practical Woman – Joan Millband

Joan Millband says I’ve lived in Borrowash all my life but is not planning on being buried there. She is no stranger to cemeteries; a graveyard visit was as integral to her childhood as a trip to the sweet shop and it had some plus points:

I like to read headstones: you can learn a lot from headstones, can’t you?

But on balance, Joan could have done without the regular pilgrimages to Nottingham Road Cemetery:

I used to have to go up winter, summer, rain and snow with my Gran and my Aunty Annie Boothwaite and take these damn flowers.

I used to have to go and get the water and take it back.

Any flowers left over after family graves had been decorated would be placed on the unknown grave.

The ground wasn’t consecrated where he was. I think they found him on the railway line. The Boys’ Brigade or someone from Chapel made a wooden cross for it and there was a jam jar and I used to go and put my little bits and pieces in it. It was just a mound of earth. I can’t be one hundred percent certain, but I think they found him on the railway line….

Funerals were memorable occasions:

I went into the old cemetery as well and I think the last person to be buried there was Old Lady Smith who used to go into The Forrester’s with my Gran. It could have been 1950; she was the mother of Frank Smith the Parish Clerk. I can remember walking down behind the coffin. I was being nosey; I was a kid, I just tagged along.

Many years later, holidaying in Fritton with husband Brian; the local cemetery was an essential port of call:

When we went on holiday, I always used to go round the cemetery. Mind you, I did get a fright one day! We went to Fritton; it’s way out in the country in East Anglia. We walked round the graveyard; tried the door to the church and it was open so we went in. They’d fetched the plaster off the walls and behind the door were drawings and pictures and it looked like they were going to do them up. Brian opened a door and it went ‘eek’ and on the other side was a coffin! It was empty mind you…

It was a relief to step back into the graveyard and measure its upkeep against the less than exacting standard of the burial ground in Borrowash:

I think if the hedges had been cut it would have been better, but it wasn’t and there was all weeds growing up. If you’ve got to go, you might as well go where it’s nice!

But in her own case; weeds or a lack of them will be purely academic. Joan Millband has decided to donate her body to the University of Nottingham School for Biomedical Science. It will cost £90 instead of £3,000 for a funeral and she will be collected from home in a van, two or three days after her death.

Joan’s great grandfather, James was born in 1856, in Duddleston near Birmingham, the son of William Bailey and Anne Glaves. William was a jobbing basket maker and we know that Anne was illiterate because she made her mark on her son’s birth certificate in place of a signature.

Railway plant layer James, married Elizabeth from Breaston and they became parents to 9 children born in Reader Street, Spondon and Annie, who made her entrance in Ockbrook.

Joan recalls some of them, but not all:

Aunt Randa, Aunt Bertha, Aunt Annie, and Uncle John – I don’t remember an Edward — I’m not very good at remembering people.

Another son was a casualty of the First World War and appears to have been erased from family memory thereafter.

Joan stumbled upon William’s existence purely by chance after the death of her own father in 1987.

I only heard bits and pieces

One snippet had surfaced years earlier, when she prevented her grandmother from discarding a small condolence card edged in black and inscribed with the words: In loving memory of Private W. Bailey.

As she sorted out her father’s possessions after his death; Joan discovered a commemorative medal belonging to Private W Bailey 4072, 7th Lancers.

William Bailey had joined the Royal Warwickshire regiment on his enlistment, but the battalion suffered heavy casualties and by the time of his death in April 1918, the troop had amalgamated with the Lancers.

The fact that relatives could fail to preserve the memory of someone who was killed in action seems unusual, but reserve was a family characteristic, epitomised by Joan’s grandmother, Adela:

You know, she was a character in her own right; she wouldn’t have anybody in the house! Mrs Dakin used to go in and that was about it. She said ‘people only come in your house to look and see what you’ve got and go and talk about it.’

Years later, during the Second World War, the pattern would repeat itself:

My Mum’s sister’s husband got burned in a tank so he was very scarred, but we didn’t have anything to do with them. They lived in Chaddesden. My Dad and Uncle Charlie were working on aero parts at Rolls Royce; Uncle Charlie was on the test beds. Dad never talked about it, my uncle Charlie never talked about it. The only thing I know is that when Royce’s was bombed, my Dad had come home from nights and my uncle Charlie was still there. Dad went back to see if he all was right and he’d dived under a steel table…

Joan’s mother; Annie Pye was the daughter of Arthur Proctor Pye and Susan Goodhead.

Susan died when her granddaughter was about eighteen months old and Joan has no memories of her at all.

Arthur was a French polisher; a skilled craftsman, who specialised in creating a very high gloss finish on figured wood. He was employed by Porter’s furniture shop in Derby and after the death of his wife, moved in with Annie and her family.

19, Victoria Avenue in Borrowash was a two up, two down private rental with a ‘hut – plus – sink’ in the outside yard deputising for a kitchen, and an outside toilet.

The toilet; a primitive contraption with a chain and a box and a tap doubled up as a fish tank:

My mum’s dad lived with us and he used to go fishing and he always brought the fish home but in water. He used to put them in the cistern of the loo and you’d go to the loo to spend a penny and what would happen? You’d get splashed.

They were in a bucket – live silver coloured ones and then in the toilet cistern. He could have killed them and we couldn’t have had them for a meal, couldn’t we?

Cramped living conditions must have added to family tensions but impromptu excursions were not always successful:

Granddad said to Mum ‘I’ll take her out’ and she says ‘All right,’ and he took me to the greyhound racing up Friar Gate!

Mum says when we got back ‘Ooh, where have you been?’ and I said ‘Oh, we’ve been to the dogs!’ You had to scrape Mother off the ceiling. And Granddad off the ceiling! Well – he should have warned me not to say anything, shouldn’t he?

The trip made an impression on Joan, because the outward journey was by train:

We went on the train from Borrowash. It was the first time I’d been on a train so it would have been a fun ride for me.

The porter on the train was also called Joan and she came from Newbold Avenue. It was ‘Hello Joan’. ‘Hello Joan’. You know?

But we didn’t come back on it. He lost his money so we had to walk!

After seven years and prompted by a family quarrel involving his other children Harry and Nelly; Arthur left Annie’s household never to return.

Joan and her parents heard nothing – until Annie found out by chance that he had died by reading an obituary in the local paper.

This caused a permanent family rift and Joan has not seen her cousins Andrew, Dorothy and Kathleen for over fifty years:

I was horrified and hurt on behalf of Mum and I’ve no desire to see them. When Mum died I got my own back and didn’t tell them about it either.

I was loyal to my Mum….

Joan can remember her father’s mother very well. Adela Bailey, a tough old bird was born in 1888 and went into service in Nottingham:

She said they had to be at the top of the house and in the morning you had to get down and make the fires and everything before everybody else got up. It was a house on Long Row. I never went, but I know where Long Row was- those great big Victorian houses – bay windows and all the lot! Posh. She learned to be tough early on in her life.

Adela’s future husband, Thomas Cooper, came from Ticknall:

My Dad used to tell me that on a Sunday, when it was a nice day, they used to get a pony and trap and go to Ticknall in it! You couldn’t do that today! Not safely anyway!

Thomas worked in the Acid Department at British Celanese and came home smelling something awful!

But he supplemented his income by helping out with the cattle on a Harrington estate farm and, according to Adela:

Walked a bull from Elvaston to Derby Market, leading it on a pole with a ring through its nose.

For a while; Adela, Thomas and their young sons Robert and Charlie lived in a rented cottage on the Harrington estate.

Joan’s father, Robert recalled opening the gate for the elderly Earl who rewarded him with a silver coin:

He earned more opening that gate in a week than Granddad did in wages!

Adela bestrode the stage as a colourful presence in Joan’s childhood.

During wartime, she refused to observe the recommended home safety procedures:

You used to have these black curtain things up. Planes came up and over, up and over and the sirens used to go. I remember the first time I was with my Gran and they went – and Josephine from next door and her Dad came round and they went down the pantry! It went down one step, then three more down there. This was in Kimberley Road and eventually Gran says

‘I’m not going to do this. If they’re going to kill me, they’ll kill me in my bed!’

So we never did it after that. We just watched the planes come over; she’d have the curtains open so you could see them come over, you know.

After the war, Adela settled into a comfortable social routine – with the child Joan as a regular companion:

I used to go in the Forrester’s in the Jug and Bottle with my Grandma, because she went in every night and sometimes with Old Lady Smith. She had a bottle of John Bull and then she’d take a pint of mild home in a jug and she always said that if she broke the jug she wouldn’t go again. I used to go in with her and it was Mr Francis and there was a little tiny pint pot he had hanging on the door jar. He’d fill it for me and give it me and when I drank the first one, I used to say ‘More please’. It was when I was between five and ten.

Adela was unsentimental and practical – qualities that came to the fore when her husband; Joan’s grandfather, died in sudden and tragic circumstances.

Dad and Uncle Charlie were waiting at the bus stop outside Burrow’s fish and chip shop on Victoria Avenue. They were waiting to catch a bus to go to work at Spondon Power Station.

Granddad was walking to James’s paper shop and he saw them and yelled out

‘Idle buggers!’ and he didn’t see the bus! It was a foggy morning and it hit him. He collapsed from shock! The driver just scarpered…

Thomas was taken to hospital and died shortly afterwards.

Adela; unable to go to the funeral because of her bad legs was upset in her own waybut found a way of coping via her mordant sense of humour:

We all went to the crematorium and we came back and she’d got a bit of sandwiches and things you know. I sat on the sideboard. I always had to sit on the drawer. It was there and I had to pull it out and sit on it, because that was my place at the table.

So – I’m sitting here and she’s sitting there which was her place and she starts to tell us all funny things and make us laugh. She told us about the man she once went to lay out! She put her hand on his tummy and the dead man made a noise and the man who was with her shot off and left her!

Joan’s grandfather had died in unusual circumstances; an inquest was held and there was a certain amount of media interest. It must have been distressing but Adela retained her quizzical perspective:

The accident was in the paper and the chap who came to interview Gran – he was made up – eye shadow on and all! And when he’d gone, Gran looked at me and says ‘I don’t know why we talked to him, do you? Or words to that effect!

Joan’s childhood in Borrowash was populated with local ‘characters’ like Mrs Dawson (a little woman, as fat as she was round), Mrs Jackson (she didn’t like me because I cheeked her and she picked on me) and Old Man Bradbury (he used to keep his horse in that field where those houses are built).

Dr Smith, the local doctor, lived in a very nice house and he had a goldfish pool outside with goldfish in.

He practised from home:

I had to go for my injection; I don’t know what for – measles or something. He had an ornament on his mantelpiece in the surgery and there was a gas fire and he had a little gas ring that he put a saucepan of water on and put the needle in it. He said, when he was going to stick the needle in, that if I watched those ornaments that he had got; cows and horses and sheep – those that were standing up would sit down or lie down and the ones that were lying down would stand up. And do you know, they didn’t!

It was a good distraction technique althoughI never forgave him for that!

Objects convey the sense of a bygone age – such as a pair of shoes:

They were black and they’d got ankle straps and by the time I’d got from the top of Elm Street to the bottom, I’d scratched them because I was kicking stones. The trouble I got into because of that – so I decided they’d do for dance shoes

a coat:

Mum bought me a black rain coat that was shiny and a sou’ wester. I said ‘Can I go and show Aunty Hill next door?’

and a decidedly unflattering dress:

Mrs Dawson was a wheeler-dealer type and she’d go to jumble sales and pick things up and sell them. Well she’d got this red dress and my Mum bought it and made me wear it. I hated it. It’d got black and white – well, they looked like elephants to me – and I hated it! I still don’t like red. Mum thought she was doing the right thing in getting it because we hadn’t got any coupons.

Nearly seventy years later, Joan re-visits the sharp sensations of a child; the snow of ’47

It came up to your knees it was so deep

drinking vinegar from a bottle

I used to go for my Mum – you used to have to fetch it from the shop in a bottle and by the time I got home at the bottom of Elm Street, I’d drunk half of it

and the peculiarly distasteful smell in the green grocer’s shop

Haddock’s had got a smell all its own. I can’t describe that smell. It wasn’t clean and it wasn’t dirty. It had a wooden floor but it never seemed as if it had been brushed or cleaned; he was an old man…. The Larkins took it over after him.

Joan and her friends made playgrounds and dens where they could find them with cans and bits of string adding to a traditional arsenal of inexpensive street toys:

We used to play in Elm Street – we played rounders, ‘kick can lurky’ – you had a can and you kicked it and you all ran off! I used to have (I’ve still got it); a big button and you’d put a string through; peg it on somebody’s window; tie them together, pull it and run! I had a whip and a top and skates and a skipping rope and a ball.

Presents at Christmas were usually whatever was available at the time; perhaps a comb or something like that. I had a stocking and I always got a shiny penny put in it and an apple or an orange. I don’t think I ever went without anything, or perhaps I didn’t notice.

I remember one Christmas I got a little dinky car; it was somebody else’s. It was second hand when I got it.

Chad Valley had cornered the market in toys because of the war – time ban on German manufacturers.

Joan owned five dolls and the essential accessory – a miniature pram:

There was a shop in Charnwood Road in Derby and there was this shop – and the man sold prams.

There were two dolls in a big pram and I said to my Mum ‘I want one of those.’

She said ‘You can’t because we can’t afford it,’ but I got them both and I’ve got them still! The bigger one of the two is called Lucille and the other one has got ginger hair, so she’s called Ginger.

I remember getting on the trolley bus in Derby with this big doll wrapped in a shawl. The bus was full and I was standing holding it and somebody got up to let me sit down because they thought it was a baby!

So I said ‘She takes first size baby clothes!’

Like most local children of her era; Joan attended the village school, run the by Miss Johns sisters:

There was a blast wall in front of the school door and you had to go right up to the end to go to the loo. It was a bit cold in winter, and when you went in the door there was the cloakroom. You hung your coats up and you went in – there was a wood burner and there was a curtain half way through so it was split into two classrooms.

Joan was not the most enthusiastic pupil:

I sat in the cloakroom and I wouldn’t go into the classroom and Miss Johns the headmistress came to get me. I wouldn’t move. I grabbed hold of the peg and I kicked her; so they sent for my Mum!

Years later, she acknowledges that it was quite a nice school. Some people did learn.

Amongst the high fliers were John Brown from Manor Road who studied at Oxford University and his sister Nan:

She was a don at Oxford – and they’d only grown up in the village like I had! They lived down Manor Road and my Dad used to take me to see John because my Dad and John’s Dad were friends. We used to go down the bottom of the garden; get in a little row boat and go up and down on the canal. It’s silly isn’t it? I’d forgotten all that.

Joan’s other school friends are scattered to the four winds and the course of their lives must have been affected by success at the Eleven Plus examination like Nan and John; failure, or opting out of the process altogether, like Joan:

I wouldn’t take it. Miss Johns couldn’t make me.

Annie Cooper however, had other ideas for her daughter:

She wanted me to be better than I was

and Joan found herself enrolled as a pupil at the fee paying St Philomena’s Convent School inDerby.

Paying for private education was a wrench on family finances. Annie’s job at the Flock Factory inStation Road covered the fees initially, but Joan’s education came to an abrupt halt when her father became ill:

He was off work with sciatica so I had to leave. I didn’t want to – I just did it and tried not to think about it.

Plans were hastily re-arranged and Joan secured a job at the Co-op in Derby’s Burton Road; followed by a transfer to the Spondon village branch.

At eighteen; she was beginning to mount the career ladder as Manageress of the Sitwell Street Co-op Confectionary Section – but then she met Brian Millband.

Joan’s future husband worked at the Co-op Coal Depot and the couple married when Joan was 22. She left her job to concentrate upon being Mrs Millband.

Leaving a job upon marriage was not unusual then but Joan’s reservations were occasioned by the man, not the job;

He was good looking, but even on the way to church, my Dad said:

‘Are you sure about this one? You can call it off…’

After 25 ill-matched years, during the course of which, the Co-op Confectionary Section must have seemed more than usually inviting, Joan was forced into the unwelcome role of bystander as Brian called time on the marriage:

He was working in the Derby Post Office then. One day, he just came home from work; went straight upstairs and came down again with a packed bag. He ran off with another woman.

It might have been better if Brian had run off. What he did was to run back and forth, making it impossible for Joan to re-build her life.

I eventually told him that if you think you’re coming back again, you can just come as a lodger and pay your way!

So he said he was going to commit suicide and I said ‘Ok – fine. Can I have the car, please?’

In fact, Joan experienced five wretched years of constant worry, tension and distress, culminating in Brian dying on the very day that her divorce came into court.

He was back with the other woman and they had a caravan at the side of the house.

He went into it; lit a cigarette and the whole thing went blast off! There was a gas explosion; it just blew up and that was that.

I never knew whether or not it was an accident or if he had carried out his threat to commit suicide, I just don’t know.

Once thing was certain – and that was that the difficulties caused by Brian were not over.

Joan’s solicitor informed her that she was liable for funeral expenses

I said I’d buy the coffin – and that would be that…

but fortunately, no bills were ever submitted. The marriage was finally over – and life could begin afresh – although this would not include re-marriage:

I’d got no desire to pick up any man’s socks ever again? Why on earth should I?

She remained close to her parents and, after their deaths, continues to live in Borrowash. Jo and Chris from Lowestoft have been her greatest friends for over forty years:

Brian and I met them in the ‘60s on holiday.

Jo and Chris have agreed to ensure that Joan’s wishes are carried out after her death:

I’ve researched it all – they want complete bodies at the Centre – you’re no use to them if you’ve had a post mortem… and then, when they’ve finished, you have to tell them if you want your remaining bits buried or cremated.

I don’t mind – and I won’t know about it anyway! I like to think I’ll be of some use to student doctors learning about bodies so they can cure diseases.

And – I think it might catch on anyway! The people over the road were very interested when I told them. They didn’t know you could do that.

They might make enquires and set it up themselves for when they go. You never know, do you?


Helen Clark would like to thank Alice Beilby for the transcription; Paul Hart and Anthony Heron for the original interviews and Joan Millband for her time and patience.


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