Unexamined Lives

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


All the World’s a Stage – Eric Highton

Eric Highton was born on 20th April 1925 at No 2, Elm Street, Borrowash. It is still his home, although the interior has undergone some necessary 20th century refinements to heating and water systems.

He was the youngest son of Elijah, and Mabel from Sheffield. Elijah, known as ‘Lidge’ came from a farming background and met Mabel during a hospital stay, prior to being invalided out of the First World Ward They married in 1999 at Sheffield Cathedral; moved to Borrowash and Elijah switched from farming to factory work at British Celanese. A daughter died in infancy and eldest son Donald was born in 1922.

Like Eric, Donald made a life-long home in Borrowash, working first at Barron’s Nurseries and then running an electrical shop in the village.

Elijah Highton joined the local Labour Party and his youngest son, Eric could be seen from an early age delivering pamphlets in the village and cycling between Committee Rooms and Polling Stations on Election Days.

A back story that would scarcely grace a postage stamp is more than most people know about Eric Highton – although there is scarcely a resident in Borrowash who has not encountered him in public persona: school governor; local politician; supporter of community projects; amateur thespian…

He has made his mark on Borrowash – but if it has left its traces upon him we don’t know and he isn’t saying.

Eric Highton is a man who retains not a single personal photograph; no family groups; no work-place snaps – and the pictures gleaned from friends and acquaintances are from later life with their subject in a public setting.

The private individual remains, by choice, resolutely offstage.

A little bit of my life in the way of theatre, amateur dramatics and so on. It’s quite interesting really because I started as soon as I went to school at five years old and played the part of a pirate in the Christmas play. It started from that time and I went through primary school and developed a little theatre group. We had plays in the shed; in the little back yard. Charged them a ha’penny to go in and at the interval sent someone over to Nadin’s sweet shop and they bought ha’penny bars of chocolate and from there it gradually developed.

Eric’s reminiscences begin with an account of amateur theatricals at his Borrowash Primary School; the domain of the redoubtable Miss Johns sisters.

The reign of the Miss Johns can be described at the very least as controversial; and to this day their supporters and detractors are equally passionate – their methods were either inspirationalor verging upon child abuse depending upon whom Unexamined Lives talked to.

Eric, like his contemporary, Tom Matchett remains a fan:

They were wonderful teachers in the old way and many people benefitted from their standards of education. Then teachers were regarded as being rather special – there was none of that ‘Jack’ or ‘Bill’ first name stuff that you get nowadays.

The two Miss Johns wouldn’t tolerate any kind of indiscipline; mucking about and so onThey used to put more emphasis on education for life and while it was a bit straight – laced; you can only do this and you shouldn’t do that; they did teach you to respect your parents.

School facilities were primitive with toilets at the end of the outside yard but to Eric it was allwonderful really – from the sympathetic Miss Williams; sorely missed on her return to Wales, to ‘Titch’ Johns, bowling up a storm on a field that doubled as a cricket pitch:

She was a bit unusual for a woman then …she used to bowl and bowl quite well. We played cricket and actually, she couldn’t bowl me out and I got fifty and she bought me a little green cap. I should love to have that little green cap now because it meant so much; if I’d won the Olympic Games it wouldn’t be any greater than that. But that was what life was like then. Small things that were greatly appreciated.

Eric has been a Governor of his old school for the past 65 years.

Former Parish Clerk, Frank Smith was and remains a gigantic figure for Eric who views him entirely as the sum of his public functions – which were varied and considerable:

Very little has been recorded of Frank Smith, the old Clerk to the Parish, and of course, Frank was quite a character and he was very much involved in a way as I’ve been with theatre and that sort of thing. He was a very good amateur conjurer and he was a very good pantomime dame and of course, Frank was a very good organiser of local events.

Eric’s enthusiasm is evident as he recalls splendid village carnivals courtesy of Frank:

It was an absolutely red letter day in the Parish. They used the old Manor House at one time; the house grounds and they’d get all the bits and go from there. There was no traffic at all so it was quite easy to assemble a lot of people from there. And they used the two fields where the school is now to assemble.

As a youngster, they were wonderful events for me.

People dressed up and decorated their own hand carts. It was a world of the imagination then and no doubt provided an early template for Eric’s own forays into the world of amateur actor-management:

Peter Meakin, you know, the Spondon laddie; he always regarded me as a sort of theatre and producer buff. It was interesting and I enjoyed it.

A Derby Road pub, The Wilmot, doubled up as a make-shift theatre and Eric was overlord of everything; writing, acting, directing and even supervising transport arrangements when the company went on tour:

We filled halls which was quite a feat with all the bits and pieces and we took the back cloths and the staging and proscenium arches and things like that in somebody’s cart.

The proscenium arches were made from oil drums; cut in half and stacked on top of each other, brother Donald took care of sound effects and electrical matters and a lot of people had a lot of pleasure out of it over many years.

Eric certainly gave it his best shot; writing and producing plays and adapting books such as the Dickensian favourite A Christmas Carol.

He retains some posters and cards but external events brought an abrupt ‘closed doors’ to dramatic endeavour.

It all developed, but then the war came and knocked it all about and I went into the forces and that was really then end of it for a long time… I didn’t carry on with it really…

The Borrowash of Eric Highton’s youth was quite a small village.

A journey into Derby was a major expedition, only to be undertaken once or twice a year and Elm Street was undeveloped:

Elm Street finished after about a hundred yards. It was just a dirt road and the gate went across it and that was how far it went.

It was the same with regard to Kimberley Road and of course there was no estate development – nothing like that. You could look over the fields at Barron’s Nurseries and all the bits.

Barron’s Nurseries, closed since the 1960s, and was a major employer for village people, including Eric’s elder brother, Don:

Before he went into the Forces, he worked for a little while at Barron’s. He used to start at about 6 o’clock in the morning, do an hour, then come back and have breakfast. That was how they began the day.

Don changed career after the war, but other employees, such as Eric Collier stuck with the business; later setting up a Nursery in his own name.

Barron’s established impressive credentials for tree moving and

George Barron was a lily expert who wrote scholarly books on the subject. Eric recalls a professional operation in Borrowash, involving three or four people all the time making wreaths and doing all the bits, keeping a full time carter occupied in taking the wreaths and things down onto the railway and dispatching them all over Britain. The specialists started work at 6 o’clock in the morning.

Looking at Barron’s I can remember in my mind’s eye the glass houses there and the lily ponds, because he used to have wonderful lily ponds outside the glass houses and the big water tower there pumped water from the brook and it was used for irrigation.

The present Elm Street allotment land was originally owned by Barron’s and the Nursery was also credited with developing the standard gooseberry bush: it really was the thing in the village.

The Barron’s Nursery site had other uses for a village in wartime – as a meeting point for the local Home Guard:

We used to meet at Barron’s because there was a water tower there and it was thought that the water would be available if the Germans bombed us.

You’re talking about thousands of gallons of water in the tower, you know.

It was quite a thing really.

I can remember lying in wait, before I went into the Forces, along the river bank there, the canal and the railway bank with a pike on a stick – a bayonet on a stick ready to do the Germans a mischief!

It was ridiculous. The idea was to lie in wait, concealed by the long grass until the paratrooper got within about twenty yards and then we could get up and charge at them and do a mischief with a bayonet on a pole! And of course, the German wouldn’t have a machine gun would he?

Eric was called up to fight in World War Two in 1943 and served in the Home Guard beforehand from the age of fifteen.

As a preparation for serious warfare it was about as useful as the popular television series Dad’s Army and was led by personnel bearing a strong resemblance to the characters made famous by John Le Mesurier and Arthur Lowe:

You think back on these things and you think – well, it couldn’t really have been like that and yet when you do think about it, it jolly well was! You had a band on your arm or whatever and then there was a bit of a uniform issued which didn’t fit anyway – it was old discarded Army stuff! You see, the problem was, the people who were in charge of the Dads’ Army groups were all World War One veterans with very little idea of anything with regard to the Second World War. I suppose their idea of warfare was in the trenches and what not. To be modern, they gave us an armband and I think we had a bayonet on a broomstick!

Each village had its own patrol and the Borrowash outfit was mobile; commanded by a Sergeant Wilson with moustaches and all the bits.

The mobile troop was assigned the duty of a return trip to Risley and members were ordered to assemble equipped with bicycles:

Well, all sorts of bicycles turned up! There were racing bicycles; there were butchers’ bicycles; there were all sorts of bicycles. The Sergeant had one of those with a double parallel bar and he put on his full military might:

‘Right oh then’, he says and got them all lined up. ‘When I give the order to MOUNT – you MOUNT! And when you proceed, you proceed! And I will count the timing! One two! One two!

Unfortunately, it was not a smooth operation:

We got on our bikes and got as far as ‘One two!’ – Well, all the gears were different; some had got fixed gears; some of them had got no gears. There were people all over the place; you’d never seen anything like it in all your life! People were cussing and swearing; the patrol didn’t even take off; it did about twenty yards and then that was it – the whole thing was abandoned!

On reflection and with hindsight, this was the best outcome because what we were actually going to do, I don’t know! If we got there and anybody appeared I think it would have been everybody diving for cover! You see, we didn’t carry anything with us to do any harm to anybody – it was just a mobile patrol! We ran over ourselves, never mind anybody else!

But at that time, it was supposed to be imminent. The Germans were going to invade and we were going to have to do the best we could.

We did a bit of firing practice. It was earth shatteringly loud. And we did signalling at night from the water reservoir. Lunacy really.

The Germans did not invade Borrowash – but the village experienced friendly fire from another source and the civilian population was ill-prepared:

I remember when the Americans came they held one or two dances at the Wilmot pub because it had a big long room.

The Americans just took over and it was a riot for a month or two. They’d got all the money in the world and all the bits and pieces. They didn’t know much about the war ; didn’t know what any of it was about – they’d never been over to see what it was like in France last time. They were just in Britain for a little while and they caused mayhem!

Years before Beatlemania, the Americans had a devastating effect on the women of Borrowash:

All the girls went mad for the Americans; in fact I’m quite sure that there were more than a few ladies who wished they hadn’t got too intimate with them. Borrowash was a simple village; it hadn’t got any sophistication – but when the Americans came over and they started dancing – oh my goodness me something to behold was that!

Wartime brought other privations – and novel ways to cope with them.

Eric made sure that he scheduled his Home Guard night duty to coincide with the arrangements of his friend, John Archer from a local farm because he used to have chicken meat so I always arranged my night duty with him because he’d bring something substantial. And then there was Dick Coates, the Butcher. I remember him saying ‘Well, we aren’t half having a terrible time what with all this rationing’. And Dick was always a bonny built lad of about sixteen stone – never went hungry in all his life!

Everybody smoked and the idea of being without cigarettes necessitated quick thinking and desperate measures. Lidge Highton planned ahead:

My father was a heavy smoker and he’d got four or five allotments. He filled two of the biggest with tobacco plants and they grew tremendously! We actually harvested these damn tobacco plants; put the leaves into boxes; cured them with sugar and molasses and whatever we could and let it all cure in bits and pieces. My father had a massive crop off those tobacco plants and there he was, puffing away with home rolled cigarettes! Of course, there was no question of any duty on them!

In Borrowash where we lived, the back room had strings across it with all these damn tobacco leaves hanging away, drying off before they were cured.

Shop- bought cigarettes were rationed but the one thing you could get was Astoria and they used to put a notice in the shop windows ‘Astoria available’. You were limited to two packets. Some of the cigarettes that were produced were absolutely abysmal; they were terrible. Blue John; Red Rogue; Black Cat; Robins. There were Players’ Full Strength and Capstans’ Full Strength and the thinking was in those days that the stronger they were, the better they were for you!

Wartime Borrowash-style was a far cry from active service as Eric and others were to discover.

He says nothing about these experiences but the economy of expression is significant:

If an invasion of Borrowash had taken place there would have been a terrible awakening, because civilians and the Home Guard had no idea of the real cruelty of the German Army and the terrible efficiency. There was no television news available – there were newspapers, but people had very little idea really of what it was all about. We survived and that was the way it went. I suppose we were very lucky.

They had survived but things had changed and people had changed:

Now peace was declared there was opportunity for people. Family and home started to mean something certainly to all the people who went in as young lads, pitched in and came back as men with some terrible experiences. They had a different mental attitude. They’d survived and they could now try to build a future.

I think that was why the Labour Party swept into power. Of course, like a lot of things, over a period of years things changed – but I’m sure that was the attitude immediately after the war.

Eric worked for a few months at a Borrowash-based factory, GIC Cleaners before securing a much – prized apprenticeship with Rolls Royce:

In those days, that was quite something to get an apprenticeship with Rolls Royce.

His eye for a quirky individual was sharp and someone who stood out was Frank Whittle, who claimed to have invented the jet engine.

Eric was not over-awed:

I spent a bit of time with Frank Whittle. Oh dear, oh dear. I’m sorry for laughing but he was a pompous little twit.

Foster Pegg was another colourful personality:

They were millionaires his family and he took part in speed trials on motor bikes. An absolute mad clown really; likeable in lots of ways – and he drove his motor bike at high speed out of the gates in Nightingale Road and hit the old transport Silver Ghost. He hit it sideways on and banged it at such speed the bike went through the back door; the back of the driver and went straight through to the other side. It was actually halfway wedged and there were two people in the back seat!

Foster Pegg catapulted out of the saddle; flew over the top of the Rolls Royce and landed in a shop doorway on the other side. He got up and said ‘Oh my God – I think I’ve done a little bit of damage here!’

Nevertheless, Eric considered Foster-Pegg to be quite a character and agreed to pluck grouse for him after a recent shoot.

Unfortunately, he carried out the operation in his test cell at work and when the boss toured with some visitors he started up this cylinder; it had a blower fan to cool it and of course all the feathers went up and then they came down. It was just like a damn snowstorm!

During the course of a long career and some wonderful jobs there were one or two close shaves with explosive results:

As a lad I did a bit on the test bed. We had a series of man hole covers running right the way from one end of the test cells to the other. Just over the side of the yard were the old toilets with the swing half doors. Alf, the labourer was very enthusiastic. To clean the cell, he unscrewed an octane feeder and washed them out with that. It was a big pipe and it pushed a lot of octane. Well of course it ran down the gully, then straight down into the drains.

Somebody in the bogs must have had a smoke – I can see it as if it was yesterday! There was a sudden series of explosions – the man hole covers went down all along the line blowing up; about twenty of them! There was a slight delay and the there were men running out of the toilets and they were covered in — well you can imagine!! It was all over them! It had blown back! It had blown into the gully – blown up – oh you’d never seen anything like it in all your life!

One of the chaps, Alan Samson was in a pinstripe suit. He always wore one to work – he thought that was his status….. Oh the bog job! That was wonderful that was!

Its funny isn’t it, how these things come back to you….

In the 1980s, Eric was engaged in different types of community activity and obtained a license to distribute European food surpluses in the village, possibly remembering the days of wartime rationing. It was a Government scheme and was not remunerated. Eric considered it to be a socially useful activity.

It seemed a good idea at the time but I’d got no storage space at allThe butter was diabolical because they delivered over a ton of the stuff. I was praying for cold weather. I filled the porch with it. It was higher than me!

Ivan Molson who had the dairy on Derby Road came to my rescue – he’d take it and store it in his freezers. But it was one heck of a job really!

Distribution rules were strict, but made to be broken:

Ockbrook was not on the distribution register, but there were pensioners and people I thought really needed it , so I used to go up there; take a car load . It gave me tremendous pleasure because so many needy people got the benefit of it.

Liz Martin was the Parish Clerk at the time and she sat in the Parish Office and I sat in the first room and people queued up. There were all sorts of people – even some of the police had it at some time. It all worked out ok.

Fortunately, people in need were the main beneficiaries:

There were pensioners and people on income support. My brother helped me. We had one distribution centre in the Methodist Chapel – we dished an awful lot out there and had a queue right up Victoria Avenue for it. Incredible. I used to take their details, but it was a very loose activity. Some of them came quite regularly and I’d think ‘Blimey – not again!’

Some people used to tell lovely tale about how poor they were, but some rolled up in cars to get at the stuff!

This went on for about a year and Eric was helped by friends but at times the enterprise seemed overwhelming:

There were lorries coming. Can you imagine it? Someone coming with a lorry load, knocking on your door and saying ‘I’ve got a couple of tons of meat here – what am I going to do with it? In fact at one time, in my front room, I had three big chest freezers full of it! I had regular nightmares about meat! And there was a chap called Owen Morley who was the bane of my life. Whenever I went out anywhere he was lying in wait and rushed out and said ‘Where’s my meat?’

Oh blimey! It was the very best quality Irish stewed steak and it really was top class. There was a lot of it. Such an enormous amount.

Eric Highton says: I’ve done some strange things in my life, one way and another.

We see him at school; in the Home Guard; at work; volunteering – but the man himself is elusive.

The records show – not a lot really about what he actually did.

I don’t know whether you remember him, but he used to go round the Parish. It was his life and he used to talk to people. He was quite a character.

He did wonderful work… there’s not an awful lot recorded about his work, but there you are. It’s a great pity in a way.

This is what Eric said about Frank Smith – a man he admired.

He could be talking about himself.

Thanks to Anthony Heron and Paul Hart for conducting the original interviews, Peter Ball and Philip Whitt for providing the photographs and Alice Beilby for the transcription.

Helen Clark.

2 Responses to All the World’s a Stage – Eric Highton

  1. Pingback: Eric Highton – Obituary | Unexamined Lives

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