Unexamined Lives

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

By

Down By The Riverside – June Martin

 

2014 was a landmark year in the life of the nation because it marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. For June Martin, long-standing resident of the Priorway estate in Borrowash it bore an added personal significance because on 3rd of June, 2014, she reached the age of 80. Her children, Jeff, Janet and Nicola orchestrated the celebrations, beginning with afternoon tea at Hollies Farm and culminating in a memorable Sunday lunch in the Gun Room at Breadsall Priory restaurant:

‘We had the room to ourselves and there was Rosa and Barry, my two best friends I’ve known for years and the rest of my family and it was lovely. They bought me a cake – it was gorgeous.’

Family is important to June who lives in Depedale Avenue, Borrowash; the home she shared with her husband Fred for the majority of their married life.

Fred took early retirement from his job at British Celanese and his sudden death from a heart attack had not been anticipated by anybody – least of all, the 62 year old June who managed to cope with being catapulted into an unexpected widowhood by sticking to routine:

‘The lady from Ockbrook came over; she said ‘I’m ever so sorry about your husband, who’s going to do your gardening now? I said, ‘I’ve always done my gardening.’

Amidst grief and fear of an uncertain future, she took comfort from the fact that her youngest daughter Nicola (‘my little ‘out of the blue’ baby’) was still at home:

‘at least she was there, she helped me through’.

Some years later, tragedy was to strike again when June realized that sudden and persistent spells of dizziness, headaches and blurred vision were not the by-products of migraine but the precursors of a lack of vision.  It was a frightening time; not helped by the initial absence of a clear diagnosis:

‘I said to the doctor, ‘My sight seems to be going. I can’t see out the window.’ But he said, ‘Oh, it’ll go, it’ll go.’ So anyway, I lay there until about the same time the following night, probably eight o’clock, nine o’clock and I sent for the paramedics again. My head was so aching. They came and they said ‘I think you’ve got to go to hospital.’

The outcome was never in doubt:

‘I’d had a stroke at the back of my eyes. It took my sight and I’d got bleeding at the back of my eyes as well, so that was glaucoma starting. And that’s what they are treating me for now, glaucoma.’

Yet the onset of blindness has been mitigated for June by the warmth of her family relationships. She is tremendously proud of one and all, whether recounting daughter Janet’s lifelong fondness for dogs:

‘Every year she goes to Crufts – she stops overnight for two nights and loves it,’

son Jeff’s achievements as manager of ‘Erewash Sound’ radio,

‘Jeff’s always been into radio, from when his grandma bought him that first radio – he’s still got it now! He said it was the best thing she could ever have bought him!’

or Nicola’s popularity with her work colleagues.

‘The bar staff all came and gave me a hug. They told me how much they loved Nicola.’

Daniel and Josh, June’s grandchildren are always on hand to ensure that being blind does not mean that she misses out on popular culture or the latest television shows:

‘Josh is mad on Dr. Who. He came up on Friday and he said ‘Going to put you a video on Nana,’ It was Dr. Who. I can’t understand it, because, when there’s a lot of talking, you don’t know which is Dr. Who and which is the other two or three, do you? – but he likes it anyway so we put up with it!’

June looks back at her life and considers that things have turned out rather well. Others might not be so fortunate:

‘I know I’m like this but I feel sorry for these young children that are born blind. Some are born blind and deaf, aren’t they? How do they cope? When people tell me about things, I’ve got an image of it but they’ve got nothing, have they? They say that I couldn’t have anything worse, but kiddies could. When I hear about them being blind, I think, ‘Oh my goodness me!’ I’ve only gone through nearly seven years of it. I don’t know how they will cope.’

Yet life could have turned out very differently indeed.

June Martin was born in Burton. Her grandfather, George Fessey worked at the local pit head, inspecting the mined coal as a ‘check weigh man’ and her grandmother Minnie had given birth fourteen times with twelve surviving children. June was born ‘in the front room’ of her grandparents’ house and her mother Rose was visited by sister in law, Eleanor, who had bicycled from Derby with her husband, Arthur Stower.

Sadly, mother and baby’s time together was cut short after ten days when Rose died after scratching herself on a bedspring and contracting a postnatal infection.

Three weeks later, Eleanor and Arthur Stower were in Burton again – this time to attend the hospital to see baby June who had been taken there after her mother’s death. They brought her back with them to their house in Gordon Road, Borrowash. June had new parents and unbeknown to them, the Stowers had their only child because Eleanor was later to fall and lose her own baby. It had all been managed with an absence of paperwork and the minimum of fuss.

June’s natural father seems to have made sporadic, half hearted attempts to get her back, only notable in that they prevented her formal adoption by Eleanor and Arthur who to June have always been ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’:

‘When I was two years old, my father tried to get me back and my mother

(Eleanor) took him to court and the court made me Ward of Court because he wouldn’t allow me to be adopted.’

These events were of no significance to the little girl who remained oblivious to the fact that instead of being June Stower, only child of Eleanor and Arthur from Borrowash, she was, in reality, June Fessey, the youngest of seven children who lived with their father in Leicester.

Nobody told her the truth about her parentage, although in retrospect, she recalls that some strange things happened to her:

‘Things used to come back to my mind, because, I mean, I used to have these ladies come which I used to have to strip off in front of. And they’d be from the courts, wouldn’t they, if I was made Ward of Court? I believe they were ladies that used to come and inspect me. And I used to say to Mum, ‘Nobody else at school has to do this,’ and she used to say, ‘No – well don’t worry about it.’

June didn’t worry about it, but the truth forced itself upon her at the age of 13 when she was accosted by a man as she emerged from the outdoor lavatory:

‘Our toilets used to be up at the back. We used to have them pan lavatories. I’d be about thirteen and I’d gone up to the toilet and he was waiting for me when I came out and he said, ‘When you go back to Ellen’s get your bag packed!’ And I said ‘Why?’ He says, ‘You’re coming home with me.’ So I said, ‘How dare you take me?’ So I went down to Mum and my Mum had never told me I wasn’t theirs – I didn’t know.

Anyway, he came to take me home and me Mum says, ‘You’re not taking her nowhere!’ He wanted me you see because I was getting ready for work, that’s what he wanted me for. But anyway, he couldn’t take me, because, as I say, I was made Ward of Court and he’d have to go to court to sort it out and he didn’t want to. So that was the end of that.’

If June felt any resentment about the unexpected discovery that she was not who she though she was it does not appear to have been directed at the Stowers who had stepped into the breach after the death of her mother. Eleanor visited her brother’s family in Leicester several times a year; he remarried and had more children and apart from some brief contact with her eldest brother when she was fourteen, June picked up the threads of her life as an only child. Nurture was to prove stronger than nature, or perhaps it was easier to sacrifice curiosity to the known benefits of security and familiarity.

Aged eighty, the fate of her siblings remains a closed chapter and she is happy to keep it that way. In this respect, ‘Consider it not so deeply’ (Macbeth) has been an approach to life that has worked for June Stower and the aunt and uncle who had become the only parents she would ever know.

After Eleanor’s miscarriage, her doctor advised that the house in Gordon Road was too large and unmanageable and recommended taking a smaller property. June and her parents moved to a cottage overlooking the canal in Station Road. The row became known as ‘Teapot Alley’, but the origin of the name is contentious and June doubts that it had much to do with residents tipping their tea leaves into the canal:

‘Mum told me that a lady of ill repute lived in one of the cottages and when she was ‘entertaining’ a gentleman, she used to stick a teapot in the window! When she was available there was no teapot. But, I’ve heard one or two versions!’

The move suited Arthur because the cottage came with a large garden and Eleanor liked the idea of living in an end house, but got off to a bad start with the other residents when she tried to protect the family’s privacy by putting up a gate.

As June recalls:

‘Dad put a big gate up and a few weeks later, Mum just happened to look above it and saw a big package. If she’d have gone under it, it world have hit her on the head! Anyway, she had a little examination and found out what it was and she went up and banged on all the doors in the alleyway and she said to them ‘Whoever put that on the top of my gate, I’ll give you an hour to shift it!’ Anyway, she went in, but when she came out again it had gone. I don’t think she was made very welcome, was she?’

A parcel of human faeces was hardly the nicest house-warming present and did not augur well for neighbourly relations, but fortunately, better times were in store; the Stowers’ relatives also lived in the alley (Aunt Marge and Uncle Jack and Hazel), the Lindleys became friends and a gentleman called Harold Teal gave June violin lessons in return for a hot Sunday lunch cooked by Eleanor.

June lived in the row until she married and her own first child, Jeff, was born in Teapot Alley – but by 1957, a steady exodus preceded the demolition of the cottages. Individual families had done their best, managing without electricity:

‘When we first went down there, we had them gas lamps where the mantle’s on, you know, with a pull on. We had no light upstairs’

and tinkering about with the limited space:

‘They weren’t very big the rooms weren’t and we had to dig the middle of the floor out and level the floor off,’ 

but the cottages had no toilets or bathrooms. A single external pan lavatory emptied once a week and servicing three families was more akin to living conditions in the 1920s than the approach to the swinging sixties. The demise of Teapot Alley was inevitable. However, what it lacked in amenities was compensated by camaraderie and friendship and June looks back on her time there with affection.

It was a wartime childhood.  Arthur was in the Home Guard, Eleanor ‘used to go fire-watching on top of the flock mill’ and Teapot Alley had its own air raid shelter, equipped with chairs for adults, and a bed for the children. June and her friends became accustomed to the unaccustomed, realising that a small matter of war would not disrupt the important things in life – such as going to school:

‘We went to go over the canal bridge up to school and there was all these Home Guards and Air Raid Wardens. They said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come over the canal bridge because there’s been an unexploded bomb dropped in the Mills’ garden’. So I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna get a day off school here!’ but Mam marched me up the canal, over the bridge and took me to school that way.’

School was Borrowash Primary, and June remembers its two classrooms, outdoor toilets, individual mini bottles of milk:

we used to have a big fireplace and they used to put all these little milk bottles in the fireplace. It was warm when you got it and it was horrible. It came from the local dairy and sometimes there was ice on the tops of the bottles and they had to warm then up ’

and the rough and ready discipline of the younger Miss Johns:

‘she made me stand on this stool facing the class until dinner time.’

After Eleanor visited the school ‘and gave Miss Johns what for,’ June was spared similar punishments, but the justice the children meted out to each other was primitive with scant consideration for personal sensitivities. June entered into the atmosphere with gusto, never afraid to take up the cudgels on behalf of others if called upon to do so.

‘This girl at school was a bully. She used to pick on a younger girl called Edna Doody who was backward and she was always picking on her. I remember one particular time, there was a mess on the toilet seat and Marion went and told Miss Johns that Edna had done it. Well – I knew that she hadn’t done it and I said so, but Miss Johns wouldn’t believe me. So then this girl started bullying me at school, from school, to school – all around.’

Eventually, June decided that there was nothing else for it but to take revenge and it seemed appropriate that she devised a punishment to fit the original crime:

‘She came on down past our house with her little brother. And of course she was still calling me names, going  by our house, so anyway, I caught up with her in the field and when I got to her she stood against this tree, so I got this cow pat. It was soppy so I took the top off, got a stick and I daubed her – all in cow muck from head to toe. I didn’t touch her brother. He was nothing to do with it, bless him!’

That was not the end of the matter; the girl’s mother called on Mrs Stower to complain and demand at the very least, the laundering of the soiled clothes, but she had reckoned without Eleanor who was, as her daughter puts it ‘fiery’.

‘Mum turned to me and said Have you done all this?’ and I said ‘Yeah,’ and I told her why. So she said ‘Well, I’ve always been like this with my daughter. She doesn’t come telling tales when anybody’s hit her or done anything to her because I say to her, ‘If you don’t hit ‘em back, I’ll hit you!’

It was not quite the law of the jungle, but ‘survival of the fittest’ was an unwritten rule that seemed to govern the activities of the Teapot Alley crew – particularly when they came into contact with children from markedly different backgrounds, such as Robin and Gillian King who lived in the palatial Riverside House and attended private schools.

June and her cousin Hazel hung around with an all boys gang:

‘There was me, Hazel, there was Derek and Kenneth and Peter Green and Keith Green and then there was Michael and Jimmy Blavens and Cyril. There were more boys – there was only me and Hazel.’

The group was street-wise, certainly more so than Robin King who wanted to join in and rule the roost  and could not ( or would not ) understand  that his privileged lifestyle was apt to grate upon the sensitivities of children who came from homes without the luxury of an indoor toilet per family.

As June put it:

‘He was always wanting to be Top Dog, you know what I mean? He was always wanting to do things daringly you know… but if he did anything, we always used to chase him because… I don’t know – he always used to have toys we never had. Like go-carts and one thing and another.’

If Robin was irritating, Gillian seems to have been insufferable:

‘His sister Gillian, she used to have a horse and of course she used to come on it by our house. And I used to say to her ‘Can I have a ride, Gillian?’ and she used to say ‘Oh no you can’t! Mummy says I haven’t got to let anybody on it.’ So we didn’t get a ride on that either.’

What really irked the Teapot Alley gang was not what the King children had but the lack of basic ‘fair play’:

‘He was always in our garden or in our street or in our road or somewhere but you could never go off and play on his lawn or garden. And we didn’t always take kindly to him really.’

The Kings may have had money, but it was never going to win them acceptance. In the end, Robin’s come-uppance was brutal and meted out swiftly, in the style of the cow pat daubing.

 

Seventy years later, June has no regrets:

‘He did something wrong. I think it was to Hazel. He thumped her or something. And we chased him all up the canal to the bridge. He went over it and we didn’t bother. We knew he’d got to come down Station Road, so we waited for him. Anyway – he came back and he saw us and he went down by the station bank. His garden went to the station bank. We caught up with him anyway And so the story goes – I held him while Hazel hit him.’

Girls could be as tough as boys but it didn’t seem to put Robin off – or he was a glutton for punishment because he continued ‘playing round with the lads from the village more than anybody.’ He seems to have accepted that in street culture, the conventional social and class distinctions did not apply.

For June, a major attraction of Teapot Alley was its proximity to the river. She was an enthusiastic, fearless swimmer, happy to disregard her father’s warnings about what she might encounter:

‘Have you ever been along the canal and seen these pikes lying in the bottom, just waiting? We used to go swimming where the canal used to go in the back of the GI factory. Dad said ‘One of these days, the bloody pike will come along and have your toe!’ They’ve got teeth haven’t they, but you never see the danger, do you? You just jump in and go across.’

The water was always dredging up surprises – sometimes June might discover a bag of unwanted kittens:

‘Somebody had chucked them. Two of them were dead and two were alive. So I took the two home to Mum and we had them for years’

or a couple of sheep that had ‘rolled down and fallen in.’

Kittens, sheep and pike, however, were not the only things disgorged by the river. First there was the case of the supposed swan:

‘I was mushrooming with Dad and we looked across the weir and I says to Dad, ‘What’s that white thing over there?’ He says ‘Oh – it looks to me like a dead swan. Anyway, we’d better get off home.’ He brought me home and the next minute he was gone. He’d gone up to the police. Anyway, it was a woman. She must have fell in from somewhere because she came down the river and got stuck there. And she was naked you know – that was awful…and Dad told me it was a swan!’

On another occasion, the seven year old June and her five year old cousin, Derek, came across a body whilst playing by the canal:

‘Derek says, ‘June – there’s a man lying in the bottom of the water with just his hand above.’

Eventually they managed to wean themselves away from their horrified and transfixed contemplation and alerted the police (‘he was an oldish man. We found out later, he’d had a heart attack and fell in and drowned – must have gone down for a wee or something,’) , but Derek in particular  did not find it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and was troubled by nightmares for many months afterwards.

Living by the waterside had its advantages though –especially for June’s father who became a water bailiff with responsibility for monitoring the fishermen:

‘he had to check the rod licenses; Mum sold fishing tickets and they used to leave their tea cans and pay for them. I used to go down with about five mashing cans, down the river; they’d say where they were and I used to take them cans of tea.’

Meanwhile, Arthur enjoyed his own unique fishing exploits  – pulling wood from the river and building a couple of garden sheds; useful in their turn for keeping chickens, Eleanor’s chosen way of supplementing the household budget:

‘She used to go somewhere in Sandiacre and bring a hundred chicks back; day old chicks. And she used to rear them, they was all cockerels. Then at Christmas, Dad killed them, dressed them and people from the mill gave orders. She made her money that way.’

It was a practical way of living but left no room for sentimentality:

‘She used to have a favourite hen that was always coming into the house. We were eating dinner one day and Dad says to us ‘How do you like Penny?’ She’d cooked her! Me Mam had cooked her! Yeah – well, she was getting old – we might as well have her!’

Junes’ own preferences were for a series of dogs and cats. In the absence of dolls, she wheeled out kittens in a make-shift pram that Arthur had constructed out of orange boxes:

‘I know it’s cruel, but I used to put coats on these kittens and put them in the pram. And I got homes for loads of them. People used to fall in love with them. They’d got coats on; they had little cardies on.’

The family Staffordshire bull terrier in its turn seems to have deputised as a chaperone for June; waiting at the bus stop to escort her home after an evening’s dancing in Derby and repelling unwelcome male suitors:

‘One particular night (I can’t remembers his name, but then I probably shouldn’t), a man was standing in that shop window at the top of Station Road. I’d just got off the bus and the dog was a bit late getting up there, and he jumped out at me at the shop doorway. ‘Where are you going?’ that man said. Anyway – the dog came tearing up and got hold of his leg. And he kicked it, but you know what Staffy Bulls are! He said to me ‘If you don’t get that dog off, I’ll kill it!’ Anyway, I got it off and I walked down and he didn’t do it again.’

Junes’ first job on leaving school was as a counter assistant at Woolworth’s, followed by a stint at Williams’ cake shop and then nine years following in her father’s footsteps at the Celanese factory:

‘I was in doubling and twisting. I was yarn twisting, bobbin on top, two strands of bobbin down and onto a spindle which made it double the strength.’

The routine suited her and she only left to have her first child, Jeff – having met and married the man who would become her husband, Frederick Martin.

He was not a local boy. He lived in rented lodgings in London Road and had arrived in Derby to work at Celanese because there was no employment to be found in his home town of Gainsborough, Lincoln. June remembers a cheery chap – signalling his interest by waving at her from the works canteen but matters might have started and finished there had it not been for fate – in the form of a romantic disappointment:

I’d gone to meet my other boyfriend in Derby and he didn’t turn up. Who should come walking down Green Lane but Fred?’

He was quick on the uptake:

‘He says, ‘Well, if your boyfriend doesn’t come in a minute, can I take you to the pictures?’

I said ‘Well!’ Anyway, I went with him ever after that! When I went home at night, I said to Mum, ‘I’ve met a man from Gainsborough.’ She thought it was from the film studios!’

June had not bagged herself a film star, but she had met her future husband and the couple fell into a comfortable courtship routine:

‘He used to walk from Alvaston across the fields and I used to walk from Borrowash  and we used to meet half way with the dogs Monty and Chippy.’

They were well suited. Fred’s childhood in Gainsborough made him familiar with riverside life but he was fortunate not to be a victim of it and an old newspaper cutting testifies to a lucky escape:

‘Years ago, a whale came up the Trent and got stuck in the river. There were a lot of people down there and Fred decided to go with his Mum and Dad. They were trying to get the whale out and back into the sea; Fred was watching it there and all of a sudden, he fell in! By the time they got him out, an ambulance man said he was dead. So they took him to the morgue and his Mum had to go and identify him and her doctor went with her. He was a smoker and just happened to take his cigarette case out and he put it to Fred’s mouth and saw some breath on it! And he said ‘He isn’t dead, I think!’ and started to work on him. He was taken to hospital and was there for about six months or more.’

 

Fred had survived, but the whole business set him back academically and he could barely read and write when June met him. It also seems to have made his mother unduly protective and resentful of perceived female competition – in the form of June Stower; her son’s girlfriend and then wife.

Battle lines were drawn; to the extent that Fred and his young family were made to feel unwelcome:

‘I think if she came to my house, it was about five times, no more. We used to travel on buses, right the way down to Gainsborough with a baby and a young one. And she would say, when we got down there, ‘I’m going out for the day!’ We’d only just arrived!  She sent for us once and she said, ‘I don’t want to see either of you again.’

However, June enjoyed a good relationship with Fred’s father, a foundry worker and the girl who had made merry with a cow pat was not afraid to speak her mind to the mother-in-law from hell:

‘His mother got drunk one night and she said to me, ‘I don’t like you.’ I said, ‘Well, actually, it’s mutual, because I don’t like you either!’

Despite the best efforts of Mrs Martin senior, June and Fred had a happy marriage and their children were ‘The apple of me Mam’s eye. All of ‘em.’

As June looks back on a happy life, she takes pride in her children:

 

‘I’ve had three good kids;  they all kept out of trouble. I didn’t have any problems with them and they’ve all got good jobs,’

and eldest son Jeff’s words in a Mother’s Day card are a fine tribute:

‘If anyone needs a medal, then it’s you, Mum!’

Fred’s death came early, but June believes that ‘I’m luckier than most.’

Aged eighty, she is aware that her life could have taken a different course had it not been for the type of informal  ‘arrangement’ that, in the first half of the 20th century, provided a ready-made family for a childless couple and parents for  a baby who was to all intents  and purposes, an orphan.

June’s debt to Arthur and Eleanor Stower is life-long:

‘They were my father and mother. They brought me up from three weeks old. They were brilliant, you know. They couldn’t have been better.’

They did things differently in 1934. This arrangement, with all its undoubted advantages, would be extremely unlikely to occur in a 21st century Britain where things are done  meticulously by the book – but not necessarily from the heart.

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