Unexamined Lives

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


Fathers and Daughters – Hazel Middleton

‘I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.’(Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto  Eco).

When Unexamined Lives interviewers, Paul Hart and Anthony Heron sit down to talk to people who have agreed to share their experiences with our project, they do so with no preconceptions. There is no written list of questions, no subjects are ruled in or out and the ball is literally in the interviewee’s court. What we hear and what I later write is what they want to tell us and what they want to leave out is their prerogative too. Hazel Middleton who was born in 1938 at her grandmother’s Borrowash home; 58, Victoria Avenue, was never in doubt about what she wanted to say.  She chose to speak about her father, Arthur Wallis. It was a close relationship and his interests and enthusiasms became hers – so much so that in Hazel’s own words:

‘Dad always said I should have been a boy.’

Like his wife to be, Arthur Wallis was born in the village and he and his parents lived at 162, Nottingham Road. Today that property is still in the family’s possession and is home to Hazel’s younger sister, Brenda. Hazel knows little about her father’s relatives except that her great, great grandfather came from Scotland at a time when it was the norm to die in the place you were born and any new arrivals would be advised to take measures to fit in with the locals. Hazel’s ancestor changed his name:

‘The name Wallis was spelt with ACE at the end, the Scottish way and when he moved down to England, he changed  it because Dad used to say ‘I don’t know why you changed it,’ you know? It was just to fit in with the English spelling.’

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Arthur’s father (himself a sign writer who also turned his hand to painting and decorating) had upwardly–mobile career aspirations for his son which in those days amounted to securing ‘an office job’. However, Arthur had other ideas and Hazel describes how he struck out on his own:

‘He secretly went and got a job at Fairbrothers’ and served his apprenticeship as a joiner and cabinet-maker. I have actually still got the cupboard he made in my shed that he did for his apprenticeship piece.’

He probably disappointed his father, but Arthur’s job choice may have been subconsciously influenced by him. Hazel treasures a stool made by her grandfather; one of four passed down to each of his children and it is clearly the work of a craftsman:

‘He carved them hand-carved and I’ve got a photograph of him carving them in his workshop and on one end of the stool he put WRW which is William Russell Wallis, his name and on the other end he he carved 1605 which was the date on the timber, a beam out of Wilne Church. When it burnt down, he went to help in the restoration and he was allowed to have this beam, so hence the date on this stool. It is very heavy but I treasure that stool.’

As a young man, Arthur also developed a keen interest in photography and took many pictures on glass plate of Ockbrook and Borrowash scenes and it is likely that he also owed his keen eye to the painting and sign writing skills of his father.

Fairbrothers’ factory on Draycott Road became something of a family firm. Hazel’s aunt worked as a forewoman there and Arthur’s future wife, Olive Wells worked in the spinning section. Arthur and Olive became a couple after distinguishing themselves as wallflowers at a staff dance:

‘Neither of them could dance so they both sat out all night and that’s how they got talking.’

Arthur did not cut a dash on the dance floor but he was a smart mover in other ways. As the possessor of a motorbike, he gave Olive lifts home and the two eventually married in Ockbrook church where Hazel was later christened. Her sister Brenda completed the family six years afterwards. Hazel describes a happy childhood. There was not much money in the family and holidays were few and far between but the children enjoyed a healthy outdoors life in the countryside in an atmosphere of exploration and freedom. Hazel and her friends were adventurous:

‘We used to go off up the fields and down to Barron’s Brook and one day I fell in- well I went in, slipped down the bank and went in. I’d got new plimsolls on and white socks and of course, I got all wet and I went home to Mum and I said, ‘If I tell you what I’ve done, you won’t smack me, will you?’

Girls as well as boys climbed trees and were chased by the farmer’s wife if she caught them playing in the stoops in the field. Hazel picked poppies in the cornfield although her mother refused to have them in the house:

‘She said, you can pick them but I am not having them in the house, they will give me a headache.’

Hazel’s birthday was on 5th November and when her father left Fairbrothers’ and became the village joiner, Bonfire Nights were memorable events:

‘If it fell on a Sunday you had it on a Saturday and with Dad being the village joiner at Borrowash, we’d always got plenty of chippings and shavings to stuff a guy with and he usually found an old shirt and a pair of trousers and a waistcoat and then we’d stuff it and my friend would come and help me and then on the actual night, he would put bangers, little penny bangers in the pockets of the waistcoat and as the guy burnt, the bangers went off and then we used to put jumping jacks in among them and we had a lovely time.’

The Borrowash of Hazel’s childhood was a place where fields were plentiful, gypsies were often to be seen and although modern young men like Arthur Wallis roared up and down the lanes on a motorbike, the older generation still favoured more traditional forms of transport. Arthur nearly came to grief by narrowly avoiding a collision with Lord Harrington of Elvaston Castle:

‘Dad used to ride his bike all round down the lanes and he was going along one day and I think it was Lord Harrington came along in his pony and trap and nearly  knocked him off his bike just on one of the corners before you get to Thulston.’

Hazel remained deeply suspicious of ponies and traps after a frightening experience with them when helping her father at work:

Dad used to charge accumulators to work your radio for the people of Borrowash and I asked if I could go round with Mr Bradley who delivered them for him in his pony and trap. Mr Bradbury said ‘Cause she can come’, so off we went up into Borrowash, loaded up with accumulators and we were in Elm Street and Mr Bradbury got out to give another accumulator and he said,  ‘Now hold the reins and if she starts to move forward say ‘whoa Peggy.’

Unfortunately, despite ‘quite enjoying it’ at first, things took a turn for the worse when some children started to goad the pony:

‘These children came along, I don’t’ know who they were now but ‘Oooh, look! Gee up Neddy!’ Old Peggy started to walk on; I managed to stop her somehow and Mr Bradbury came out just then and cleared the children away. And I went back and I said to Dad, ‘I’m not going there again. I’m not going in that pony and trap again. He laughed at me but I never went again.’

Later on, as a family man, Arthur abandoned  his motorbike in favour of ‘an old Standard’ car and Hazel remembers many enjoyable excursions with her mother, sister and friend Margaret motoring in the Peak District, playing games such as ‘I Spy’, counting the number of pubs in the villages and spotting the women drivers. At that time, it was unusual to see a woman taking the wheel and Hazel’s mother never became one of the rare ‘lady drivers.’ Cars and driving were very much a male preserve and Arthur was proud of Old Wheezy’, lovingly maintaining it and doing all the necessary repairs himself. It was an interest her shared with his eldest daughter:

‘I used to help him because I just loved anything like that, messing about with things and helping him and watching him and I know if we went up a very steep hill up Derbyshire, the bottom gear used to slip so he used to back it back up and we all had to get out and walk up. He’d turn the car around and reverse it up the hill and then we’d go and get in again and off we’d go. But it was a lovely old car. I wish I’d got it now, really.’

Cars in those days were very basic; in the absence of internal heating, the family used car rugs and when Hazel eventually started to learn to drive, she devised her own methods – amounting to a strategic positioning of a hot water bottle and layers of warm clothing. She remained fond of the car and resisted an approach from her driving examiner who offered to buy it when she passed her test.

As well as a passion for driving, Hazel shared her father’s interest in carpentry and joinery and when Arthur set up his own business, he had an assiduous helper:

‘I used to drill timber for him on his little electric drill and he would mark out where he wanted holes drilling and I would sit there drilling holes, I loved it.’

When she attended Spondon House secondary school (where Arthur had a brief stint as a woodwork teacher), girls were confined to cookery and needlework lessons rather than learning how to master a planing machine, but Hazel made up for it when she left school and took a job at Bemrose factory in Spondon:

‘I liked doing things with my hands and I went into calendars. I loved making calendars. I used to go on a machine and cut them out, cut the calendars out and I just used to love it, because I had always liked working in Dad’s workshop on Nottingham Road at Borrowash and hammering nails in, making little dolls’ furniture and hammering nails in. I used to go across every evening when I came home from school, he would have a big fire going. It wouldn’t be allowed now, a big fire going in the corner of his workshop with all the shavings around, it was closed but it was a round one and it used to get red hot. It used to glow red. I mean, he had electric in there long before my aunts had it in the house, they’d got gas light.’

If she had been a boy, Hazel would certainly have inherited her fathers’ thriving joinery business; as it was, the skills she learnt were not in vain; the adult Hazel Middleton was able to save money by installing her own kitchen and doing repairs to her car. The practical streak was inherited by her daughter:

‘After Dad retired and he used to go to his workshop as a hobby, he used to work his lathe because by then, his eyesight was failing. It terrified me him using his lathe. My daughter, Jane, she let out the other day that he let her have a go on it, she said and his circular saw. I said ‘I never knew that’. ‘No’, she said. ‘But we were very careful’.

Hazel was proud of her father’s reputation as the village joiner and he amassed an impressive clientele:

‘Mr Henry used him – he lived in a big house in Ockbrook. Dad used to make the frames for his screen printing business  – oh Dad was a perfectionist and it took him longer than he’d charge for and I know Mr Henry at one time said ‘Arthur, no way have you charged me enough,’ and he gave him more because he was so pleased with the work.’

Another notable customer was Lady King whose husband was Chairman of the Electricity Board and Arthur observed that there was no central heating in the large house but, unsurprisingly, ‘Every room had got an electric fire on full in that house.’

Hazel was sixteen in 1953, the year of the Queen’s Coronation and she recalls her mother commemorating it:

‘Mum made a little thing of the Coronation; she built the coach from a kit and Dad fitted up a spot light from the bedroom window to show it off.’

Sadly, the year was memorable for the Wallis family for another reason; it was the year in which Olive, Hazel’s mother, died. Olive had a long-established health condition involving an ill-functioning heart valve. Today, it would be possible to correct it via a fairly straightforward operation, but in the 1950s nothing could be done and Hazel became accustomed to worrying about her mother’s health:

‘She was never really very strong. I never knew her to be very strong. I’d go to school and I would be thinking about her and I would wonder if she was poorly when I got home or in bed and she would tell us that she was all right, she was fine but we knew she wasn’t.’

The extended family pitched in, especially Olive’s sisters and mother who joined forces to look after Hazel and Brenda. Arthur also made his daughters’ welfare his top priority:

‘He said he wouldn’t marry again because of us girls and he lived with me all his life.’

Meanwhile, although he would have a long life, Arthur’s own health was not good because he developed diabetes at the age of fifty. Again, at a time when medical knowledge was less advanced than it is today, doctors were not confident in managing some illnesses:

‘Old Doctor Dower had to read up what to do with a diabetic and he was put on insulin straight away; he was in the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary for a fortnight and they used to let him out to go to the cinema opposite the Infirmary. One day he caught the bus home to Borrowash. They won’t miss me for an hour’, he said and then he caught the bus back and went back to his ward in the DRI.’

Gradually worsening glaucoma forced Hazel’s father to give up his joinery business and there were other warning signs before a particularly narrow escape involving his beloved car. Hazel describes the incident that marked the end of Arthur’s driving days:

‘He drove for quite a long time until one day he was going home and he stopped at the bottom of Huntley Avenue and he got a diabetic attack where he needed sugar and he’d got the dog in the car . At the time, we had a collie dog and someone fetched the ambulance to him. They had seen him at the bottom of the car and the dog wouldn’t let them in. He was slumped at the wheel and the dog stood with her paws on him.’

Luckily, a passer-by knew where Hazel lived and she was able to come to the rescue

(and detach the dog) but Arthur was persuaded to give up driving, except on the rare occasions when supervised by Hazel:

‘When I was learning to drive, going up the Peak in Derbyshire, and I loved it, he used to say ‘do you think I could have a little drive, dear?’

Hazel, who was taught to drive by her father and who inherited his love of it, has now curtailed her own driving:

‘I don’t go so far, partly because I’ve got arthritis in my knee and sometimes it pains me to drive, but until a couple of years ago, I was driving a friend of mine up to Yorkshire and for a holiday in Bridlington. We had a friend’s bungalow up there and then we drove around – and I’ve even driven abroad. That was bit hair-raising but I thought if I put myself in the middle of the road, I’m all right on the outside of the road. I didn’t do so badly.’

Today, as Theresa May embarks upon her period of office as the United Kingdom’s second woman Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton bids to become the first woman President of the United States of America, professional barriers for women are being breached. This is still a work in progress but in the 21st century, when the England women’s football team has achieved more on the world stage than its male counterpart, it would be unthinkable for girls to be banned from the woodwork class.

In this context, Hazel Middleton who was wielding the lathes and drills, installing kitchens and servicing cars in mid 20th century Borrowash comes across as a type of feminist pioneer.

She may not have become Prime Minister, but in her own way she smashed the glass ceiling that defined what women could, or should, enjoy and do and therefore is an inspirational role model for her children and grandchildren. Hazel knows whom she has to thank for that:

‘We lit the fire with wood shavings and that –  and it was a danger really when you come to think of it, but I enjoyed it and he taught me how to French polish and I helped do headboards whilst he did them for Bain and Everetts and Divan Headboards.’

Hazel was a dutiful daughter and Arthur had a home with her for his entire life, but the benefits were lasting and reciprocal. As Hazel Middleton who grew up in Borrowash in the middle of the 20th century would be the first to admit:

‘I owe a lot to my father.’ 

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