Unexamined Lives

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


Borrowash In The Post-War Era – Ruth Simpson

‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.’ T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

Many people who contribute to ‘Unexamined Lives’ do so because they want to re-visit past relationships and family experiences in order to make sense of them. For Ruth Simpson, however (who was born in Carlisle but moved to Borrowash with her family as a small child) it is the village itself that matters. In over three hours of taped conversation with project interviewers Paul Hart and Anthony Heron, Ruth does not mention the Christian names of her grandparents, husband, and children; we are not told how she met and married her husband or what he did for a living. It is the physical Borrowash of her childhood that she evokes in an extraordinarily detailed verbal mapping of a village with its shops, new and old houses, a primary school  erected on the site of a former pig farm and gypsy caravans in the aptly named ‘Gypsy Lane’. Ruth talks about the ‘unexamined life’ of a village in the years after World War Two and sees the human characters as pinpricks – important because of their relation to the geography rather than their interaction with those they loved, hated, pitied or befriended – a record of ‘activity’ in a setting – not a journey into the mind or a searching of the soul.

Ruth and her non identical twin, Suzy were the eldest of Edna and Walt Wildey’s four children. They were born in Carlisle; home to Walt’s widowed father who appears to have helped out with Ruth while Suzy remained in hospital; a newborn baby, awaiting a major operation:

‘He used to tuck me, apparently, in a little drawer and leave a bottle for me. I used to sleep in a Moses basket. He used to come and pick me up.’

The Wildeys lived in Kirkpatrick Fleming on the border of Cumbria until the twins were three. Walt had met Edna (who came from Derby’s Abbey Street) in an unusual way. According to Ruth:

‘Mum and Dad met as pen pals. Mum looked after her mother in Derby until she died and then they got together and got married in 1955. With Dad being up north, she joined him because he’d got a job at a power station near Gretna Green.’

The adult Ruth would return to Gretna and Kirkpatrick Fleming, taking her children to visit their Great Aunty Kathy, but there is no sense of nostalgia in her brief references to the haunts of her earliest days. Before her third birthday, Walt was made redundant from the Gretna power station and took a job at its counterpart in Spondon near Derby. Ruth does not say why the decision was made to uproot the family and move so far away; maybe it was to pacify Edna who still had relatives in Derby – or it could have been because there were no local jobs to be found. Whatever the reason, family life was interrupted because Walt initially moved on his own to keep in work, and lived in lodgings whilst house-hunting. After a short period at the power station, he started a new job as an electrician on the railway and remained there until taking early retirement in 1981. Six months after he had left Kirkpatrick Fleming, Walt Wildey introduced wife Edna, twins Ruth and Suzy and the  baby, Hazel , to their new home; 21 Kimberley Road in Borrowash, Derbyshire.

The house was to be home for the Wildey family for six years beginning in 1960 and Ruth very nearly failed to make it to 1966 when they were on the move again:

‘When I first moved into the village of Borrowash, I was three and a half and apparently I went up the middle of Kimberley Road onto Victoria Avenue and nearly got killed by a lorry and bus driver and Mrs Kirk of Kirks’ farm had to come and rescue me and take  me home.’

Kimberley Road has for many years now been a well established residential area in the village but in Ruth’s day, it was just beginning to take shape and resembled a building site. She describes a free-wheeling time when children played outside with whatever was to hand and indoor games were not the norm:

‘A gang of us used to go and play on the building site when we were kids: there used to be Suzanne Taylor, the Vesteys, Graham, Philip Murfin and me and our Suzy were the Wildey twins. … We used to have good fun in the street in Kimberly Road and played games and all sorts like that.’

Anyone over forty would be familiar with Ruth’s outdoor play experience. Messing around at the brook was a regular event; sometimes with its mishaps:

‘I can remember one day when I was a kid, I went down to the brook and cut my foot on some glass. I can remember hobbling up the street and all this blood everywhere coming out and I had to go to the doctor’s straight away to make it stop because I had to have a stitch in it.’

In the early 1960s, stranger-danger and fear of heavy traffic were not predominant worries for parents and it was really a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as far as the children were concerned. The feeling was that there was safety in numbers; if everybody else’s children were playing outside, then they would all look out for each other. Whole days were spent out of doors, roaming around in natural surroundings and also acquainting themselves with risk and learning how to deal with it. Ruth’s generation of children built up resilience in this way and tested themselves against each other, each learning skills through play that would prepare them for adult life.  Enjoying the brook and deciding just how far to go with  river play was probably as important in shaping  the adults they would become as hours spent in the classroom in a formal education setting:

‘We used to go out in the morning and then you went back at teatime. We had good fun when we were kids, playing in the river. We went down Station Road, where the brook is – just a bit further on that side. I never went near the weir. I wouldn’t go fully swimming in the river because it could be dangerous. We took that risk assessment before doing anything. We had good times – really happy memories.’

Generations before the advent of computers, games were a matter of custom, passed down through the generations, involving little or no expense and using whatever came to hand. Ruth provides a check list:

‘What time is it Mr Wolf? A French elastic game, cat’s  cradle, snobs, marbles – I wouldn’t play skipping- couldn’t get on with it – hopscotch…whip and top was before my time. We cycled everywhere and you could go anywhere.’

When not cycling, Ruth and her friends travelled in the vicinity on foot. A trip to Spondon involved wandering carelessly through neighbours’ gardens, crossing fields and clambering through hedges. It was an active lifestyle and remnants of folklore co-existed uneasily beside the forerunners of a more modern age. Borrowash was entering a period of transition. On the one hand, relics from the past were being swept away by symbols of progress:

‘There used to be a big house and flats that were knocked down to make room for the bridge. Dad took a photo of that just before the flyover was built and you can see all the signs of the bypass.’

Yet the aura of former generations and a deeply rural history was signposted by the presence of Romany gypsies who lived in a caravan in the aptly named ‘Gypsy Lane’:

I can remember Dad talking us for walks and walks! We used to walk miles down Gypsy Lane – Gypsy Lane with gypsies in it! We we were kids, whenever we said that the Gypsies were coming, everyone used to run in and out of the shop and turn the key in the lock so that the gypsies couldn’t come knocking at the door.’

While Ruth’s parents and those of her friends worked on the railway, the power station or at one of the factories in or around the village, the Romany gypsies still earned a living in the time-honoured fashion, selling their wares such as pegs from door to door. Otherwise, they kept themselves to themselves; living amongst but apart from the wider community where everybody knew everybody else – even down to  the names of people living in specific houses and who moved in when the original occupants moved on:

I can remember Evelyn Cook next door who used to live next to us, Mrs Taylor at 19, Borringtons, Slaters – then in years to come, the Vowles moved in at the bottom, just before the building at the top end of Kimberley Road.’

One end of the street seemed to be populated by older people and anyone who was different was noticed. Ruth does not comment on whether or not the newcomers living in the former Vestey house integrated themselves with the locals but as World War Two had ended less than twenty years ago, ‘the German Tribbensee family’ would have certainly stood out from the crowd.

As she looks at the village today, Ruth maps the Borrowash of her childhood. The familiar chip shop on Victoria Avenue was once owned by a greengrocer called Rogers, a furniture shop and a Samuel’s shoe shop were prominent outlets ‘on the main road’ and today’s bridal shop, travel agent and estate agent near to Victoria Avenue were respectively a chemist, a bank and a bakery. The Rajni Indian restaurant was once Simm’s sweet shop, popular with children – but the hardware shop remains in situ, now as then.

Many of today’s local residents value the excellent public transport facilities enabling them to visit Derby and Nottingham but in Ruth’s day, it would have been perfectly possible to live, work, shop and socialise in Borrowash without ever setting foot outside the village:

‘Dead on the corner of Station Road where there was a fishing shop that’s been shut down – that used to be a general stores – then across the road from there on the main road, you’ve got the pub Noah’s Ark,  you used to have a hairdressers,’ then a Fine Fare food shop; then we crossed over and on the other side, you’ve got the post office, the barber’s, Symms the bicycle shop. Then there used to be the pub on the corner, the Foresters’; there was a chip shop and a Co-op butcher’s then another sweet shop…’

Many of the older buildings such as a row of cottages were in the process of being demolished; the village was being rearranged to accommodate the needs of a growing population. The Foresters’ was knocked down and re-built in a different location as an estate pub, a community centre appeared, new streets and houses replaced the fields and a primary school was built upon a former pig farm at the back of Kimberley Road.  The village was changing before Ruth’s eyes:

‘I can remember when Balmoral ( Avenue) was built – you used to have a row of shops up there; then the Foresters’ moved  and I can remember Briar Close being built. I didn’t start school until I was five and a half because I had to wait until the primary school was built on Victoria Avenue. We were the first lot to move in as it was opened in September. We used to live on Kimberley Road and there used to be a pig farm at the back of us before they built the school and we used to see the pigs.’

Her family composition was changing too. Sister Hazel had been born in 1960 and David, the last baby made his entrance in 1963. The weather was particularly bad and Ruth recalls a sense of drama:

‘It was that bad winter. Dad put the car starter plugs in the fire, in a can to keep warm because he knew that Mum was going to go into labour. Anyway, she went into labour in the middle of the night and Dad couldn’t start the car, so we had to go right up to Mr Slater’s up the street to phone an ambulance or get a taxi to take them to hospital because he couldn’t get the car started, it was that bad.’

The advantage of knowing everybody in the street meant that you also knew who had a telephone when one was needed in an emergency.

The house on Kimberley Road appears to have been a rental property and in 1964, the Wildey family took a step up in the world and decided to buy. 169 Victoria Avenue was a terraced house; Walt clinched the deal at an auction for £1,500.00 and ‘it wanted a lot doing to it before we could move in.’ Moving must have been quite an upheaval but the acquisition of a television was an event in itself:

‘I’ve got a photo of it – it was a square television about 9 inches.’

Daytime screening was yet to come, so watching the television was a night time treat, consisting of specific children’s programmes ( ‘Rag, Tag and Bobtail’, ‘Andy Pandy’, ‘Wooden Tops’) and the new adult ‘soaps’ ( ‘Coronation Street’ had started, and ‘Crossroads’). It was also the era of the western, represented by John Wayne. Walt worked night shifts for the whole of his life and sometimes Edna was involved with Methodist church activities in the evening so it was only possible to do things together as a family at weekends. Favourite choices were going camping in Derbyshire in the summer and visiting the swimming baths at Bramcote in the winter.

Buying a van dealt with transport difficulties and also meant that friends could come too:

‘When we were kids on Victoria Avenue, Dad would say ‘Are we going swimming kids then?’ He got us four, the Burns kids which were three, ( that’s seven ), the Allens which were two ( that’s nine) – sometimes we had ten kids in that van – you wouldn’t get away with that now, would you?’

Those were not road safety-conscious days:

‘All squeezed in and Mum used to go all the time and she used to sit and watch and we’d be five squashed in the front and three in the back.’

It scarcely mattered because ‘we used to have fun’.

Camping in summer was a serious business – so much so that the Wildeys enrolled in the Derbyshire Camping and Caravanning Club. Facilities were far from luxurious on the sites:

‘Before they used to have classic toilets, we used to dig a hole in the ground!’ but the van and numerous successive tents afforded the freedom to travel and ‘we went all over – we used to go up to Carlisle to have a long weekend with Granddad and slept on his floor for two nights.’

Back home in Borrowash, Ruth considered herself to be a tomboy. One of the scrapes she got into involved setting a barn on fire:

‘this lad ( I’m not saying who it was) and I decided to have a bit of fun, so we set a barn on fire just for a laugh and we both got belted for it!’

but she also took her turn with the cooking, did babysitting in the community and emulated her mother (who was well known locally for her voluntary work with pensioners) by doing odd jobs for elderly people:

‘I can remember taking an old lady to Mrs Lee’s where she had her dinner and she used to make the mint sauce by hand. I helped her do the laundry through an old mangle. I used to go down the shops and all sorts – earned pocket money for doing quite a few jobs for people in the street. I went to the Co-op for them and I remember the dividend numbers.’

Ruth was not involved with the Methodist church to the same extent as her mother, but the Sunday School Anniversary was a big event, involving sitting on a platform at the front of the church in a new dress that had been bought in Nottingham especially for the occasion. A Sunday school treat was invariably a picnic behind the butcher’s shop and she went on an ‘all girls trip’ to Blackpool. She says little about her schooldays at Ashbrook Primary followed by Spondon House Secondary School and although she was never short of employment  in various factories, job satisfaction came second to her responsibilities as a carer, first for her own children and then, until his death, for her disabled husband:

‘I was first in a job at GIC for ten weeks, and then I went hairdressing and didn’t like that. Then I went to Baines Bedding; it became Profector Bedding and I stayed until it closed down. Then GIC again….’

It is a pattern best summed up by Ruth herself when she says ‘I left work to look after the kids; then I looked after him.’

When she married, Ruth and her husband left Borrowash and moved to Draycott but Edna and Walt Wildey remained in the Victoria Avenue house until 1995 when they made the decision to downsize to a bungalow in Bradbury Close. Unfortunately, it was not to be a particularly happy move; Walt developed cancer and died shortly afterwards and three years later, Edna’s health began to fail and she moved to Briar Close Care Home in the village where she stayed until her recent death. The couple are now buried together and Ruth is comforted by the fact that the memory of her mothers’ charitable work lives on:

‘A lot of people in the village will remember Edna Wildey with the pensioners.’

After her husband died, and with a lifetime’s experience of caring for her family, Ruth considered becoming a professional carer but decided instead to work for Amber Valley Volunteer Bureau as a cleaner:

I work going round cleaning for people in Ockbrook, Borrowash, Sandiacre , Draycott, Breaston and I’ve started doing one in Spondon now.’

Many of the people she cleans for are elderly and without family (‘amazing that there are  people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who have got no family living round them’) and Ruth, who grew up in an era when everybody knew everybody else’s business, played in each other’s gardens, helped to carry an old person’s shopping and thought nothing of it when a neighbour arrived at midnight to use the telephone in an emergency, has brought something of an earlier community spirit into her work today.

In the Borrowash of Ruth Wildey’s childhood, life was lived at a slower pace and in the absence of fast cars, the latest gadgets, the biggest houses and all the trappings of the consumer society; people made more time for people. In 21st century Borrowash when for one reason or another ‘a lot of people have got nobody’ there is at least one cleaner who believes that ‘chatting to people’ is an important part of her job.

As she said at her work appraisal:

‘We all like talking and I enjoy it. If you mention ‘can you remember this or remember that?’ they think it’s brilliant when I start, especially the Borrowash people. Can you remember such and such?  Can you know things like that?’

Ruth Wildey’s main interest in contributing to ‘Unexamined Lives’ was in describing the physical aspect of the village in which she grew up. What she has succeeded in doing, more by accident more than design has been to evoke the spirit of an era when buildings, shops, natural scenery, televisions, telephones and cars derived their sole importance from the people who used them. Today, as isolation begins to replace community, verifying the concept that ‘no man is an island’ – perhaps the reverse is true:

‘Cos a lot of them don’t have people. Not nowadays. Not anymore.’







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