Unexamined Lives

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


The Navy Lark – Barry Wilkinson

Barry Wilkinson, born on Thursday, 8th May 1947 at Derby’s Queen Mary Nursing home, is a Baby Boomer.

The Boomers, born in a ‘baby boom’ between 1944 – 1964 (and whose numbers include the likes of Tony Blair, Sigourney Weaver and Bill and Hillary Clinton) have long been termed the ‘golden’ generation; high earners; beneficiaries of a munificent state – and above all, ‘game changers.’

This is the generation of whom it is said: If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there – those, whom through an accident of birth, enjoyed freedoms and privileges beyond the comprehension of their forebears.

When Barry Wilkinson retired in 2011 from his final role with The Prince’s Trust, he was the holder of two degrees; had risen to the rank of Warrant Officer in the Royal Navy where he was awarded the British Empire Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal and had lectured at TruroCollege.

His retirement promises to be equally busy with voluntary posts as a school governor, CountySecretary of the SSAFA/Forces Help (the armed forces charity) and membership of the Southwest Veteran’s Advisory and Pensions Committee.

His CV is a classic Boomer catalogue of achievement.

But on closer examination; the sixties decade was not so much the beacon of a brave new world as a bridge between the rigid  certainties of  early 20th century life and a post World War Two era where people travelled uncertainly; helped and sometimes hindered, by family, housing, income and education.

Terra firma – firm ground, may have often seemed elusive, and it is perhaps indicative that Barry Wilkinson has spent much of his life at sea.

It was in his blood.

Barry and younger brother, Keith (born in 1949), were the children of Robert ((Bob) a construction worker hailing from Tyneside, who had been earning a living building airfields in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire at the outbreak of the Second World War.

He volunteered for the Royal Navy; reporting for basic training at HMS Ganges near Ipswich.

Barry; later a Ganges recruit himself, describes the culture as harsh but fair.

He sheds no light upon his father’s experience, but recalls being taken there to see all the sailors marching around during childhood visits to his grandmother and two doting aunts atIpswich. His mother, Kathleen, worked as a tracer for the Ipswich engineering firm, Ransomes and Rapier and met her future husband during his time at Ganges. He was demobbed in 1946 and the young couple moved to Derby.

A rented flat in Derby’s Norfolk Street and a job at Perkins Clean Milk Equipment (later,Perkins Boilers) must have seemed humdrum to Bob after a war service euphemistically termed lively by his son:

He joined HMS Prince of Wales just before the ‘Bismarck’ action and, as an anti-aircraft gunner, saw the destruction of the Hood first hand. He survived the sinking of the Prince of Wales and then ended up in Basra, Iraq for two years as a motor-boat coxswain. He returned to UK and joined HMS Offa (a destroyer) for the rest of the war which included the D-Day landings and two Russian convoys.

Civilian life could not guarantee such thrills and spills, but marriage and children needed financing. Bob would have to be versatile.

Perkins Clean Milk Equipment, on Derby’s Mansfield Road, belonged to the Atkinson Family who also owned Church Farm in the village of Ockbrook. It was a useful acquisition; doubling up as a working farm with livestock herds of Jersey cows and pigs as well as providing a demonstration base for Atkinson products.

Bob Wilkinson was employed in his original trade as a builder; but took care of ‘general maintenance’ at the farm as well as the factory.

When the landlord at Norfolk Street gave the young couple notice to quit, Mr Atkinson rode to the rescue:

Mr Atkinson said that if he was prepared to convert the large room in the centre of the farmhouse into a flat, then he and Mum could live here for as long as they needed it.

This was where Barry spent the first two years of his life although I remember very little about it, except one very clear memory of hearing a pig squealing and escaping out into the farmyard to investigate. The unfortunate animal was being treated by a vet and I was quickly scooped up and put back indoors.

Church Farm was to be the Wilkinson home for only two years, but Barry distinctly recalls being among the sheep and pigs and the interlude afforded his parents a secure base and some lasting friendships:

One end of the farmhouse was occupied by the Farm Manager, Mr License who had a wife and two daughters in their early teens. Mother became very friendly with one of the daughters ( Betty) and I remember visiting her on occasions later on – she lived in Conway Avenue, Priorway Estate, Borrowash. Also, my parents became lifelong friends with Connie and Joe Wheatley who ran the grocery shop. Connie and Joe later took a grocery shop on the Priorway Estate and then moved to Cole Lane when they retired.

The Atkinsons had two sons who were slightly older than Barry and owned a property at 159 Cole Lane, where they kept open house at Christmas.

Bob liked his employers and village life suited him. He became a regular customer at Ockbrook’s popular White Swan pub.

He enjoyed his pint and also had a fine tenor voice and became in demand to sing at various functions. For a short time, he teamed up with a comedian as a double act and toured around the clubs in the local area. He also joined Derby Opera Company and I did a couple of productions at the Hippodrome in Derby as a ‘call boy’.

However, the birth of baby Keith in 1949 made the Church Farm flat seem cramped for a family of four. Bob, Kathleen and their children moved to a council house at 16, Newbold Avenue, Borrowash and this was home for Barry until 1960.

For someone who was later to make his career in the Navy, the proximity of water was significant:

The semi-detached house backed onto a field and within 50 yards was the disusedDerby canal – but it was still full of water and teeming with fish. Some stepping stones had been laid across and this gave access to the tow path along which you could easily walk to the bridge by the railway station. The lock at the back of the GIC factory was disused, but the gates were still in place. At the other end of the field was a typical canal bridge. Another field away, was the main Derby – London railway line and then the River Derwent.

Swimming lessons were a priority; but Kathleen insisted that Barry had proper instruction at Queen Street Baths in Derby, despite the fact that his father (a strong swimmer who had learnt to swim in the River Tyne) would have had me in the Derwent.

The canal was also near to the GIC cricket ground where Barry spent many happy summer weekends watching and playing cricket when he wasn’t roaming the spinney at the top ofNewbold Avenue or the area by the Lace Factory on the road to Draycott.

The river retained its magic:

I would disappear for hours on end down by the Derwent. I remember the old mills very well and also going up as far as the weir. The Derwent in flood was also very exciting which seemed to happen every year. I had a friend whose parents lived in the large white house by the railway bridge on the Derwent side. I think his father was the station master and the house had a large garden which went down to the mill river. There was a landing stage and his older brother had a canoe which led to some adventures!

and like most small boys, Barry became very interested in trains.

He spent many happy hours on the bank above the station near to the canal lock and was delighted to receive tickets for the open weekend at the Derby Railway works from aNewbold Avenue neighbour.

Meanwhile, Bob determined that his sons must share his musical gifts and the boys joined the choir at St Stephen’s Church in Borrowash until nature took her course and that was the end of any potential singing career!

Barry also studied the piano with Mr Farmer who lived on Victoria Road; but leaving the village and moving to Allestreee effected a natural conclusion.

Many parents paid for their children to learn the piano as a nod to upward social mobility, but Bob and Kathleen must have come to the conclusion that in the Wilkinson household, an ear for music belonged to the father rather than the son.

Money was sufficient but there was nothing to spare for ‘extras’ such as a family car, telephone or television.

Barry attended Infants School in Derby Road and remembers the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 largely because he and his classmates received goodies like a Coronation mug.

Kathleen took her children to and from school – on foot:

No ‘school run’ in those days – this was walking in rain, sunshine, ice and snow

16 Newbold Avenue was not centrally heated and there were coal fires in bedrooms as well as the living room and chillblains became an occupational hazard.

If a coal delivery failed to materialise, Kathleen was forced to improvise:

My mother remembers walking down to Gypsy Lane to collect coal left by the itinerants when the delivery had not happened

Winters were bitter, typified by the awful outside toilets at the school which froze in winter and the ‘ice slide’ all the way down the playground

but these miseries were offset by the pleasure of getting home in the winter to unfreeze in front of a roaring coal fie with toast and butter for tea.

Despite the food rationing that was still in place for a few years after the war, the Wilkinson family dined well on home grown vegetables, rabbits and at Christmas, a goose, courtesy of Church Farm.

Kathleen was friendly with the wife of the Estate Manger at Elvaston Castle and Barry recalls visits to a large thatched cottage in the grounds which had a wonderful inglenook fireplace; marvellous at Christmas time.

As parents, Bob and Kathleen were strict but fair. We were always encouraged to dress properly and to have short haircuts but were given the opportunity to express ourselves.

Treats might include the Works outings to resorts such as Skegness, Bridlington and Scarborough with holidays spent visiting family at Ipswich, commandeering a beach hut at Felixstowe or the occasional caravan break at Skegness.

Taken as a whole, there were hard days, but good days:

This opinion was cemented when listening to stories when I joined the Royal Navy. I had a far better childhood than most.

Like so many other local children; Barry and Keith were taught by the Miss Johns sisters at the Primary School in Victoria Avenue.

If owning a car denoted a certain social status, the Miss Johns’ vehicle spoke for itself:

They had a very large car, a Humber Snipe, and they used to drive down to the school every day, even though they only lived a short distance away on Victoria Avenue.

Unlike some children, Barry never had a problem with either of them, but I have to say I was in the ‘favoured’ part of the class…

His school memories have a sensational flavour:

I clearly remember a tragic event that occurred while I was at Borrowash Primary, when the father and elder brother of one of the pupils were tragically drowned, up near the cooling towers while fishing.

Other memories were of an earth tremor which occurred one afternoon ( no damage done, thankfully) and of one of the Johns teachers reading out an account of the torpedoing of the ‘City of Benares’ by a U-Boat which took many lives of child evacuees en-route to Canada in September 1940. There must have been some sort of connection….

As Primary School days drew to a close, the Eleven Plus loomed – the pinnacle of educational achievement for a Miss Johns protégée.

This examination;  regarded as a passport to the type of lifestyle formerly enjoyed only by the recipients of settled  privilege – or an elitist tool, designed to teach working class children their place – was, in reality, neither.

Certainly Barry’s career would have taken a very different course if he had not passed and been awarded a place at grammar school, but educational success or failure was dependent upon more variables than the outcome of a one hour examination.

The family home in Newbold Avenue was a council house and whilst in those days there was no stigma about living in a council house, I did wonder why my two uncles in Chaddesden owned their houses and we did not.

The culture in Newbold Avenue was neither conducive to academic achievement nor supportive to those of its number who achieved it:

There was certainly a lot of opposition to the Eleven Plus in those days and me going to grammar school did not go down very well with the locals.

Barry’s new school was Long Eaton Grammar school, instead of the Secondary Modern School, Spondon House which was attended by children who had either failed the Eleven Plus or had not been entered for it.

His first days at the new school were memorable, but not in a good way:

I remember my first days at Long Eaton GS quite clearly and I was in my new school uniform. Nobody else in the road had ever gone to GS and this singled me out for some abuse from my so-called friends! My mother also took some stick – I think this is one of the reasons why we moved to Allestree. Because my parents, especially my mother, had standards and these did not necessarily fit in with the rest of the people who lived in Newbold Avenue.

The bullying seems to derive from the usual stimulus; an individual standing out from the  crowd by virtue of being ‘different’ in some way, rather than a symptom  of inverted snobbery becauseI do not think the same thing happened on the Priorway Estate, simply because it was larger and more kids had passed the Eleven Plus.

But it was an unfortunate start to the grammar school and Barry became uncomfortably aware of other disadvantages. He did not gel with the ethos at Long Eaton which, like the majority of grammar schools, had modelled its curriculum upon that of fee paying public schools. Sport, for example, was taken extremely seriously, but in Barry’s case:

My parents were not interested in sport in the slightest which did hold me back a bit.

Life at Long Eaton Grammar School was predicated upon particular assumptions including the ability of children to motivate themselves; cushioned by the external support of a family background that, if not intellectual, was at least aware of the importance of education and the need to study:

I got little encouragement from my parents, especially my father, to study and as a consequence, did badly in end of year exams.

Detractors of the grammar school system would have seized upon customs at Long Eaton to prove the truth of their argument – that grammar schools benefitted a minority of children from comfortable backgrounds and confirmed the rest in their own limited expectations, ambitions and station in life.

According to Barry, little time was wasted upon the poor performers:

The Long Eaton Grammar School’s method of dealing with them was to put all those who did badly in the bottom class for the next year which soon gained the stigma of being the ‘no hopers’ class.

He had now lost most of my pals from Borrowash but was failing at school.

It is difficult to see how he could have smashed a glass ceiling dictated by money and background in the supposedly ‘classless’ ‘60s,  without a change in the family fortunes – represented by a bungalow in Allestree.

The area, and the fact that the bungalow was privately owned, re-set Barry’s life on an upward trajectory – aided by a change of school.

Long Eaton Grammar School had been a missed opportunity. Ecclesbourne, in Duffield was a new start.

In Allestree, grammar school children ruled the roost:

The majority of us where we lived were either at Ecclesbourne or Bemrose and the secondary modern kids (including my brother) were in the minority.

Ecclesbourne Grammar School opened in 1957; but the school that Barry attended in the 1960s was wedded to older traditions:

It operated on very strict discipline and most of the teachers were ex servicemen too. When I joined the Navy, it was just a different uniform and shorter haircut!

The headmaster was a strict disciplinarian and caning after Friday assembly was a common occurrence. I found Ecclesbourne difficult at first because the academic standard was so much higher than LEGS.

Teachers were larger than life ‘characters’ such as my Maths and Form teacher, the redoubtable ‘Norman’ Else. Norman was an ex RAF Flight Sergeant who had a fearsome reputation. I believe he had been at Bemrose prior to Ecclesbourne. ‘Norman’ was an avid fan of the TV detective series that were popular at the time and any misdemeanour was thoroughly investigated, ‘Z Cars’ style!

Barry found that a determined attitude began to pay off and was also influenced by making new friends who were working hard at their studies.

He developed an interest in reading and passed my English O level at fourteen.

A further three O levels were added to the tally of exams passed – including, by some miracle, Maths. It came as a shock to Norman Else too, who was convinced that I had somehow cheated and his interrogation stood me in good stead for the future.

But university, or any type of further education was not considered to be an option for Barry Wilkinson, and after leaving Ecclesbourne, he joined the Royal Navy and began basic training at HMS Ganges on 11th November, 1963. His choice of career owed more to his roots than anything he had learned at Ecclesbourne:

Petty Officer Wilkinson

There is a strong family tradition. Both mother’s great uncles were Naval Officers and my paternal grandfather and my father served in WW1 and WW2.

HM Ganges was well known to Barry from childhood visits but he had been sent to the wrong place:

Ganges was for boys who joined at 15 and I was 16 and 6 months old. Boys aged 16 and over went to HMS Raleigh in Cornwall, where the basic training was only 6 weeks as opposed to 12 months at Ganges.

His fellow recruits were not academic high fliers:

In the early 1960s, the school leaving age was 15 and of course, a lot left without any qualifications. The services were a good option for those who wanted to get out of their environment, especially those living with relatives, or orphans. There was also a hangover from National Service which had ended in 1959. Those who struggled with learning went into the Army infantry because they were easier to train.

The training at Ganges was 12 months because the boys had to play catch up! The first six weeks were spent in the Annexe, doing all the basic stuff and then we moved over to the main establishment.

About two weeks in, we were given a Maths and English test, and of course I got nearly 100%, having got my Maths and English O levels. It was a pretty basic test.

At Ecclesbourne, Mr Else had accused Barry of cheating in his Maths O level examination. Now history repeated itself and he was accused of cheating in the Navy tests.

There was nothing for it but to confess:

I declared my O levels! This led to an interview with the Officer in Charge who wanted to know why a 15 year old had arrived at Ganges with such qualifications! My real age was discovered and apparently, there had been a simple mistake in the recruiting process. I went off on Christmas leave and then came back to find that I was on my way down to HMS Raleigh. Compared to Ganges, Raleigh was a doddle!

The 1960s ushered in a range of freedoms in dress and behaviour – but life in the armed forces lagged behind:

Obviously over the years, things changed, the services must reflect what is happening ‘outside’, but in the 60s and early 70s, before you were allowed out of an establishment or off a ship, in or out of uniform, you were inspected and a jacket and tie was the minimum standard.

Also, things that were classed as offences are no longer so, since the law outside has changed – for example, homosexuality.

The one thing that has stood the test of time is zero tolerance of drugs.

Family background and social class were key determinants in career progression and matteredas they had done at grammar school.

Regardless of a person’s true origins it was regarded as essential to look – and sound – the part:

The lack of a posh accent and background was a bar to promotion when I joined. In those days, any Rating to make it to Officer from the ranks underwent intensive social training including elocution lessons! Some of the results were laughable! For a successful career, you had to move with the times. I saw quite a few colleagues of mine who did not make Chief Petty Officer or Warrant Officer because of their failure to do this.

Barry was not amongst the underachievers with, or without elocution lessons!

He joined the Meteorological Branch and progressed through the ranks, reaching the heights of Warrant Officer in 1985.

He served in Singapore, the USA, Norway and the Mediterranean and met Susan, a Wren, at Yeovilton. They married in 1974.

Barry’s later career was garlanded with achievement – and the boy who had enjoyed only mixed fortunes at his Derbyshire grammar schools became an instructor at the Meteorology School in Culdrose and a part time lecturer at Truro College.

He gained a BA (Hons) from the Open University in 1989 and an MA in Naval History from theUniversity of Exeter in 2009.

Susan sadly died after a long illness in 2003 and Barry has continued to live in Truro with his partner, Miriam.

In 1982, Bob and Kathleen Wilkinson moved to Cornwall to be near their eldest son. Bob died in 1997, but Kathleen is still going strong at 98.


Barry’s younger brother, Keith, a self-employed builder, lives in Alvaston and another cousin lives in Chaddesden.

Barry retains his affection for Borrowash:

Growing up in Borrowash was a marvellous experience.  I have been back several times in recent years and of course it all looks a lot smaller than it seemed at the time. It was good to be able to walk from the station down the old canal path to what was my back garden, but I had to keep glancing to the right because everything to the left had changed completely. I hope something comes of the canal restoration project – I used the history of the Derby Canal in one of my assignments some years ago.

Ecclesbourne Grammar School; the Royal Navy and the social revolution of the 1960s have contributed to Barry Wilkinson’s life of adventure, but perhaps the real secret of his success lies closer to home:

I always knew I could do it. My Headmaster at Ecclesbourne had said that I would never get anywhere near a degree.

I was pleased to prove him wrong.

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