Unexamined Lives

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


The Family Way – Lily Pidgeon

Lily Pidgeon, one of nine children and mother of ten, has lived in sheltered accommodation since the death of her husband in 1992.

Ron, who worked at the Rolls Royce Associates Nuclear Department, took early retirement and the couple enjoyed a decade of leisure, epitomised by continental holidays and a memorable ruby wedding anniversary celebration.

Relatives, family and friends from all over the country came and what a party it was!

Sadly, Ron’s quick and brutal death from lung cancer at the age of 69 brought a halt to those good times; life could never be the same again and Lily found herself reluctantly vacating the three bedroom marital home in Craddock Avenue, Borrowash.

There were compensations:

I was offered a bungalow at the other end of the street, so I still remained in the area.

And the children rallied round:

They carpeted through the bungalow and set my entire home up for me and I was made Queen for a day! I know that their Dad would have been so proud and what a wonderful new beginning it was.

At a sprightly 64, the newly single Lily determined to make new friends and have fun;teaming up with her Craddock Avenue neighbour, Jean Woloski. The two widows joined a ballroom dancing class in Spondon and were soon sufficiently emboldened to venture intoDerby’s Assembly Rooms where they tried the weekly Tea Dances:

At first we felt like a couple of wallflowers and just danced together ….. But after about a month, we were part of the gang; met up with some very sociable people and that was the ritual for many years – including some great Christmas parties!

Now Lily’s dancing days are over but she considers herself to be a very lucky mother, gran and great gran; acknowledging the benefits of being matriarch to a large and supportive family:

Daughter Vivienne does my cleaning; daughter Elaine does my shopping; daughter Lynne cooks my Sunday lunch and the sons come to see me as much as they can.

From time, to time visits from her remaining sisters:

They’d all come here, make a pot of stew and dumplings

spark memories of family meals in childhood days at the old fashioned wooden table with no table cloth.

We’d sit here and talk about our youth and we would be screaming with laughter in the end – what we used to get up to.

‘You didn’t know I pinched your stockings!’

‘You didn’t know I did this.’

Age has brought its inevitable baggage; one sister stricken with Alzheimer’s disease and we’ve all lost our husbands but the pull of family is as potent  as ever for Lily, now in her 85th year:

There’s no Wednesday meetings like there used to be, you know – but we do visit – we do. They visit me. They all come here.

This is the headquarters!

Big families were the norm to Lily.

Her mother, Helen was born on 27th September 1896 at Normanton Barracks; the second of Joseph and Emma Harvey’s eleven children.

The atmosphere in the Harvey household was one of military precision:

My Grandpa Harvey was a regimental sergeant major and my dear Grandma was his lackey!

The children were very strictly brought up – Granddad treated them as his regiment!

This meant enforcing a strict moral code and when the 22 year old Helen had a baby without acquiring a husband, she was disowned by her parents (as they did in those days) and had to go to the workhouse.

Baby Frederick charmed his grandparents who gave him a home, but the invitation was not extended to his mother.

Helen went into service as a housemaid on a farm in Ambaston; leaving her baby behind.

The separation must have been traumatic, but better times lay ahead, because at Ambaston, she met the man who was to become her husband; Albert Wootton.

Albert who also worked on the farm, doing the hard graft had his own sad back story:

His mam, my Dad’s mother, died and my Granddad Wootton cleared away!

He left my Dad and his brother on a doorstep and they were put in an orphanage – Barnardo’s I think.

Fortunately, help was at hand because my Auntie Alice, Mrs Toon found out and took them to live with her in Melbourne.

The Toons were market gardeners and it was predictable that both boys would make a living on the land – which is what Albert Wootton was doing when he met the new farm housemaid; Helen Harvey.

Soon the two had become an item and got married in 1922. Their first baby died at 3 months old, but the death of one child was swiftly followed by the birth of others.

Life was hard

The first Wootton family home was officially a tied rented ‘cottage’, courtesy of the Ambaston farmer In reality, it was an old railway carriage and must have been extremely cramped. After the birth of Stanley, who made his appearance on Christmas Day 1925, a change of address became a priority because the owner of the railway carriage decided to sell it.

Lillian Ada Wootton was born when her parents were between residences:

My mum had a wonderful sister, Millie. My Uncle and Auntie loved children and they took my mum in and her two children, Dorothy and Stan.

They had a couple of spare rooms and I was born at their house, 22 Allen Street, Allenton.

Meanwhile, Albert, who was now tending the stables at Elvaston Castle, continued the hunt for a permanent home and fortunately, a cottage in Borrowash at 21, Chapel Street became vacant:

They moved what bits of furniture they had. My aunties helped out and Grandma Harvey was very kind – but Granddad Harvey was still treating his children as if they were his regiment. He never really got over my mother’s downfall of having an illegitimate child…

Helen’s first baby, Frederick, remained with his grandparents while the rest of the family moved into the Chapel Street cottage.

Their new home was roomier than the railway carriage – but not much!

Up Chapel Street, there were only small cottages

Albert had changed jobs yet again and was now working for E Buxton, delivering coal to Thulston, Elvaston, Borrowash and Ockbrook using a horse and cart:

We had a pump – my Dad used to bring the horse and cart up – we called the horse Mary and he would feed her and we used to get the water for Mary out of the pump. It was right opposite our house in Chapel Street. We had a sink but we never had any running water. We had a copper that we used to have to fill for our baths and our washes. And the toilet was half way across the other side.

When we’d have to go to bed, there’d be three at the top – girls – and three at the bottom, in a double bed. Because we were in that little one bedroom, see…

Life revolved around Lily’s mother, Helen Harvey.

We had such a lovely mother. My mother was Mother and Dad!

Dad hadn’t got a care in the world, really –as long as he was having his game of darts, having his pint and delivering his coal.

It was a traditional household; Albert grew vegetables, enlisting the services of Mary the horse:

We had everything from the garden, and to be honest, we used to have to wait until the horse came up and get the old manure you know and take it round the garden.

Helen ruled in the kitchen; occasionally teaching the girls how to bake, but usually it was ‘Get out of the kitchen, there’s only room for one!

She probably breathed a sigh of relief when the weather was good and she could pack the children off with navvy sandwiches, a big bottle of cold tea and jam jars to go fishing in the River Derwent by Elvaston Castle:

It was like our Blackpool! And Mum used to say ‘Don’t bring back any tadpoles with you – we don’t want no frogs!’ We had to get all the tadpoles and then empty them before we came home.

Lily considered herself to be a tomboy and sometimes missed school to help her father with his coal round. Albert seems to have acquiesced – with reservations:

I used to fill up the coal with Dad and he used to say ‘Well there’s only one thing, gal,you’ll have to be careful when we go by school because your mother’ll kill me!’

I said ‘She won’t know, Dad.’

He said ‘She will – somehow!’

The informer was likely to be the School Inspector or School Bobby who was certain to call at the homes of truanting children.

Usually Lily liked school – but doing the coal round was an education in itself and provided some salutary lessons about the make up of the local community.

Albert’s wages were entirely determined by the readiness of his customers to pay for their coal. No money meant no Sunday dinner for the Woottons.

The villages of Ockbrook and Borrowash were geographically close but socially and economically diverse:

Ockbrook was the posh side. We used to say they were posh up there. But do you know something? They were the worst payers!

Coal was delivered on a regular round, but paid for later – and it fell to Lily and sister Betty to confront the Ockbrook clientele:

Betty and me had to walk from Borrowash to the big houses of Ockbrook to collect their coal money before we could have our Sunday lunch.

Dad had to get the money in before he could have his wages from Mr Buxton onPrincess Drive.

So we had to walk up and get it and it used to be awful.

They’d say ‘Well, you know, we haven’t got it. We haven’t been to the bank,’ or some such excuse!

It was mostly Ockbrook people that we didn’t get the money from.

The people in Borrowash were generally very good about paying.

I suppose it was because they knew us as a family and nobody looked down on us.

But the Ockbrook people used to be a bit toffee nosed.

The Chapel Street cottage was too small for a growing family, but Helen’s attempts to move into preferable accommodation in Kimberley Road were thwarted because of   a black market in council housing allocations policy:

She was offered this house in Kimberley Road, but she never did get it because Mr Fielding was the local councillor and if you slipped him a fiver, you got a house.

The Woottons needed all their spare fivers so stayed put.

Money was scarce, but there was no lack of entertainment in Borrowash where we used to have the pantomimesYou got in if your face fit and mine fit – I made sure!

A walk to Spondon offered the incentive of a trip to the cinema and entertainment at home meant listening to the old Philco radio – when it worked:

My Dad used to get the knob out, get a matchstick, put it at the back of the knob and make it work

or watching Albert improvise:

It was lovely – my Dad used to sing and tap dance.

He’d get the old copper top and put it on the floor and give us a tap – he’d tap dance to us and sing.

He used to sing that song ‘Broken Hearted Clown’ and we’d all cry!

Like the majority of her contemporaries, Lily’s first experience of school was Borrowash Primary, where the Miss Johns sisters reigned supreme:

One Miss Johns was the headmistress. Her name was Gladys.

And we used to call the other one Titch because she was like a man.

She always had her hair cut like a man; she walked like a man; she wore trousers when women didn’t. She spoke rough like a man.

She was just the opposite of Gladys the head teacher.

Lily would later enjoy writing, but initially presented a challenge to the sisters:

They tried their hardest to put everything into my right hand.

I screamed. I said ‘No! I don’t want to!’

And they said ‘Oh well, it’s no good us trying, Mrs Wotton. It’s no good us trying to get Lillian to be right handed. She continually insists on being left handed.’

The pressure was off at the Methodist Sunday School where being left handed was  not a problem and Lily also attended Stores Class; the Co-op educational programme  run by Co-op Manager; Brian Moore:

We used to take our own pencils and a book and it was all about the Co-op, because the Co-op was a big name in those days. They were called Co-op classes. There was no such thing as college for us in Borrowash and Stores Class was like college for us.

She completed her formal education at Draycott Secondary School; leaving at 14 to start work in a factory.

In the interim; the outbreak of World War Two brought changes to family life.

Ill health meant that Albert, (now working at Barron’s as a gardener) was not required for active service and joined the Home Guard, but Lily’s older brother, Stanley was called up.

The reality of war was being enacted in all its horror many miles away from Borrowash, where the eleven year old Lily found much to excite and little to fear:

We had to get ready for air raids and each night we’d be prepared to go to sleep in the shelter which was built on the tennis courts on Nottingham Road.

We were always first there as soon as the siren went and we didn’t realise what danger we were in because we used to have fun instead of sleep!

We thought it was lovely, seeing the searchlights going over, you know! We thought it was a show!

Hunting for shrapnel was an adventure:

We used to go picking it up afterwards – after the bombs. We thought it was worth gold!  Mam used to get it off us and say ‘In the bin!’

We were never frightened of war.

In the absence of immediate family casualties; Lily’s wartime memories have the flavour of a ‘Carry On’ film:

There was a bomb dropped behind the chemist’s shop. And there was one where the Catholic club is.

And where Dad used to take the horse at night – we were really lucky that Mary the horse wasn’t there at the time!

When Royce’s got bombed, my second grandma lived in Cotton Lane and that’s where they were bombed.

She was ever such a big lady and she was fastened between the settee and the wall.

My granddad used to say, when he came on the scene, ‘They had a job to get Liz out!’

Lily’s older sister, Dot, who was now working, appreciated the proximity of the army barracks at Thulston where they sometimes gave dances when things were quiet – and perhaps Gerry wouldn’t bother coming to Derby to drop a bomb!

Other family members responded to the war period in different ways, including Albert Wootton; now firmly ensconced as a member of the Home Guard:

My father and the other Home Guards made the Noah’s Ark pub their headquarters and they would go and meet up for a pint or two before parading in Borrowash. Dear Mum would be watching over us….

The Home Guard provided  some benefits to the family – like the army blankets and goodiesthat Albert brought home – but for Helen Harvey,  the advantages  were counter – balanced  by the fact that :

My dad became a drinker.

Ever the home-maker; Helen was sustained by her good friends amongst the  Chapel Street neighbours and worked hard to support her children, but patience has its limits and  direct action became imperative:

One day, she walked into the local pub and heard my dad singing his head off and amongst the audience were two ATS girls! At first, my dad never saw Mum, so she waited her opportunity until he went to these girls and asked them what they would like to drink.

Mum simply said ‘I’ll have what they’re having, please!’

Dad was so shocked because my mum never touched drink – only tea and water, so, being sarcastic, Dad offered Mum a glass of water!

She poured it all over him.

She then got him by the scruff of the neck and marched him home after giving him a good wallop! That was my father’s gay times – and he never went out without her again!

The end of the war, marked by:

A big celebration; Mrs Overton fetched the piano out and flags were hanging out of the broken windows

found the Wootton children embarking upon independent lives with partners and families of their own.

Lily’s first job at Fares factory was followed by a transfer to the G I C factory and then Benwell Fireworks factory in Draycott.

She called time on the fireworks job when one of the sheets of gunpowder ignited and set fire to an employee who was in the room at the same time and he died.

Life wasn’t the same after that…

Explosions of a different kind lay ahead:

On my 17th birthday, my sister Dorothy and her friend Joan decided to treat me to a shandy in the Wilmot Arms in Borrowash. In those days you weren’t supposed to be in a pub until you were 18, but, boy was I thankful!

In the piano room, was this handsome man, playing the piano! We couldn’t stop staring at each other! Talk about love at first sight!

Ron Pidgeon was the best birthday present I ever had.

He was on leave and was expecting to be de-mobbed after six and a half years in the army.

The two became an item; Ron proposed to Lily at the Vernon Arms in Spondon and they married on 13th December 1947.

Just to keep things in the family; Ron’s brother, Ellis and Lily’s younger sister Betty followed suit, also marrying a year later, in 1948.

Ron and Lily moved in with Helen and Albert who were by now living in a three bedroomed house in Spondon.

Like her mother, Lily had a large family and Helen’s help was invaluable, even when the young couple were allocated a home of their own in Harrington Avenue:

I was so close to Mum, because Mum was helping me to do everything when I had my children – I had six in seven years!

And Mum would knock on my door at half past eight in the morning, help me get the children  to school, take two to school, bath two and help me do my work and that.

She was lovely – we were bound together, sort of thing.

Lily’s family was complete with the birth of her last child in 1966.

She puts subsequent bouts of ill – health down to constant child-bearing, and believes that her own children learnt the lesson I think and didn’t have so many.

In the mid-20th century, medical knowledge of women’s health was relatively limited and while Lily would go on to have 10 children, her sister, Dorothy’s hysterectomy at 22, following a burst appendix, meant that an otherwise happy marriage would possibly be blighted by the inability to have children.

Dorothy had taken care of Lily’s first baby, Tony when the younger sister had endured a long period of illness with a second pregnancy.

What happened next would be difficult to envisage today when the responsibilities of family members each to the other have loosened – but it remains perhaps the most powerful testament and tribute to the emotional ties linking the Wootton siblings.

Lily’s words are honest; unsparing and deeply poignant:

Dorothy became very devoted to my baby, Tony and eventually, Dot and husband, Frank approached myself and husband Ron about adopting him. My husband was dead against the whole idea and it was very hard – but having been bonded with a very close family of sisters, we all help each other.

I did what I had to do because I loved my sister very much. I couldn’t stand to see her pining so much.

Dorothy herself stuck to the condition of adoption agreement determined by the sisters; Lily saw her son every day.

The two are close and devoted; but such a selfless act is never without personal consequence:

Did I do right? It is always on my mind and always will be until the end of time…

The irony remains that obligations to ‘family’ differently perceived and in different circumstances – resulted in the firstborn sons of both Helen Harvey and her daughter Lillian, being raised by relatives other than themselves.

As Lily’s own family expanded; her father continued to battle ill health; dying at the comparatively early age of 60.

There were happier days ahead for Helen, and her children were delighted when at 72, she eventually made a very happy second marriage, to Alan, a widower from Spondon.

Her death in 1985 was softened by the fact that her children had been able to witness their mother at last:

taking on a new lease of life! She was never sort of cash and they used to have holidays – my mum never had holidays before. They spent lots of time at Matlock Bath as my stepfather had worked at the big hotel there in his youth. And they went to Skegness too.

Lily’s life now is, as always, centred upon her family; children, grandchildren and great grandchildren too numerous to mention!

They keep saying ‘so and so’s had a baby, Nana’.

‘Ooh! – not another!

But it makes my life happy. It makes my life worth living!

Keeping up with old friends is another pleasure, but Lily prefers to write:

I’m not a phone lover! I love to sit and write!

If I’ve seen anybody in Borrowash that we used to go to school with, I’d get straight home and write it down. Just a little note – but then I’ve finished up with four pages! Writing is the biggest thing in my life.

Surrounded by her children (Here’s my daughter now – hope she don’t come up with any stories!) and entertained by the exploits of the younger generation, Lily is captured now, more than ever, by memories of the original family unit:

You know, there used to be a shelf in the oven. Mum would be putting in the bacon.

She’d warm that up for us; wrap it up in a tea towel or something like that. We used to say ‘Get off! It’s my turn! Get off!

Good old days!

It’s like having them all here again, talking about it and laughing.

There’s not many people has had a good life like that is there?

Not today…


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