Unexamined Lives

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


‘In Her Own Voice’ by Helen Clark

Unexamined Lives’, the story of the 20th century as it was lived by residents in the Derbyshire village of Borrowash, has interviewed and transcribed conversations with over fifty people since the project began in 2010 and this paper will aim to provide a sense of women’s collective experience.

The women who shared their lives with us form part of this study and shaped it. They did not respond to questionnaires but spoke freely with interviewer ‘prompts’ at a minimum.

Recordings were usually obtained over two or more sessions; all were separately transcribed and sent to me as the writer. I did not meet the interviewees, but telephoned subsequently, asking them to say more about some points of interest.  The calls proved to be immensely productive.  I suspect that the relative anonymity of the telephone meant that the speakers felt less inhibited than might have been the case if discussing sensitive topics in person.

None of the subjects read what I had written about them prior to publication in ‘The Derby Telegraph’ because of the need for objectivity. My judgements are my own, but I hope that the recordings and writings properly reflect the priorities of the interviewee – not the predilections of an external project team.

The women of ‘Unexamined Lives’ are aged (to date)  between 86 – 30,  have never met each other  and might consider that they have little in common, apart from living or working in the same village.

They would be wrong.

To a greater or lesser extent, the women we interviewed were in thrall to a father – and subsequently, the control of a husband. When children arrived, the pattern repeated itself as the wife/mother centred  herself in the house, supervising  the preparation of  food and physical care of  children and her daughter assumed her mother’s place as   ‘companion’ to the father.

Christine Murfin, born in the 1940s, declares with pride:

‘I was a Dad’s girl. I’d got him just there!

Gardening!  Every time he turned around in the garden, he’d fall over me! I was always with him.’

As a child, she helped her father Frank at Redhall’s Dairy and was happy to take instruction as a young woman when he established a rose-growing business:

‘He’d give me the labels and say ‘there’s the orders,’ and I had to write all the labels out by hand.’

Lillian Wootton, growing up in the 1920s, willingly skipped school to join her father, Albert, on his coal round:

‘I used to fill up the coal with Dad and he used to say ‘Well, there’s only one thing, gal – you’ll have 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.’

To some extent the father/daughter relationship was determined by the wisdom of the era. Boys were simply a sounder economic prospect and so a daughter took on some of the perceived ‘duties’ of a son

Mary Dickin speaks of her father, Frank Slater, who returned from the First World War with a debilitating war wound:

‘He wanted a boy. He wanted a boy to go farming with, you see. I was a girl and he said that girls were no good.’

However, the pressure of family income does not explain the relationship between Claire and Ian Anderson, over half a century later.

Claire, (30 in 2014) follows in the footsteps of Christine Murfin and Lily Wootton.  From the age of four, she accompanied her father to matches at local football club, Borrowash Victoria.  Her sisters, brother and mother, did not enjoy the game and neither did she:

‘I’m less than passionate about football,’

but she ‘mucked in’ at ‘Ando’s Sports Bar’, named after her father because:

‘I’ve always seen it as mine and Dad’s thing. That’s the only thing I’ve got that’s just me and him.  I’m a proper Daddy’s girl. I know it sounds sad, but I can honestly say he is my best friend.’

The advent of potential husbands muddied the waters; demonstrating that three was a crowd with the father and suitor as rivals.

Anne Smith, born in 1938, pretended to be taking her dog for a walk when she was really meeting boyfriends.

‘Dad was really strict. If you went out, you had to be on the last bus and when I was a teenager, I used to take my dog for a walk. I walked down to Fares Factory. That was my meeting place to see my boyfriend. Dad used to say, ‘You taking that dog on a walk again?’

It was the only thing that could get me out. He wouldn’t let me out of the house otherwise.’

Anne was delighted to land a job as an assistant at the exclusive Hunt’s dress shop in Derby:

‘I just loved it. It was high fashion. Lady Scarsdale from Kedleston Hall was a regular customer’

but when she married, her father and father-in-law joined forces, insisting that she stay at home to help her husband on the farm.

Gil King was barred by her father from attending the 1947 FA Cup Final between Derby Countyand Charlton Athletic.

Sir Robertson King; Chairman of the Electricity Board, did not consider a football stadium to be a suitable venue  for a fifteen year old girl from  the  prestigious Riverside House family home who was educated at a private boarding school; ‘Horsley Hall’.

He did not know that  Horsley’s moral code left  much to be desired; that  Gil  (already a prodigious  drinker and smoker),  had embarked upon a sexual affair with her Deputy Headmaster, or that the school would be closed following  a scandalous court case on child protection,  recounted in national newspapers with a painstaking attention to detail.

His desperate attempts to control Gil were unsuccessful, perhaps encapsulated by a screaming headline in ‘The News of the World’:

‘Electricity Chief assaults daughter, fifteen,’

but the worst of Gil’s behaviour was aimed at the mainstay of the home, her mother, Lady Dorothy.

Robertson acted as an ineffectual referee between two desperately unhappy women as Gil smashed doors and broke curfews.

Eventually, she was sent by Court Order to a Magdalen Hostel in London and married a bounder called Tony with whom she enjoyed a scurrilously ‘open’ marriage.

Dorothy’s enfeebled dependence on Gil in later life was a trial to them both.

Women’s education, regardless of their social and economic status, did not seem to lead anywhere.

For Sally Murfin, it was a matter of pride that her daughter Christine followed her lead by winning a place at Long Eaton Grammar School for Girls.

Once there, all ambition appeared to be satisfied and there was never any expectation that Christine would pursue her studies further.

In any case, the educational role models for women in the village were neither plentiful nor inspiring and were typified by two formidable females who ruled the local Primary School with a rod of iron.

In retrospect, the connection of the Johns ‘sisters’ who presided at Borrowash School might have been sexual rather than sisterly.

‘One of the Miss Johns was the Headmistress; her name was Gladys. She was a lady.  And we used to call the other one Titch because she looked like a man. She walked like a man, had a haircut like a man, had a rough voice like a man and wore trousers when women didn’t’ (Lily Wootton).

But of greater consequence was their classroom management style.

Children who did not sit  in the ‘grammar school entrance row’ were subjected to punishment and humiliation and June Martin, now in her late seventies, recalls being ordered to stand on a chair at the front of the class, having had her mouth washed out with soap.

It is all too reminiscent of Lowood School in ‘Jane Eyre,’ but in the first half of the 20th century, such methods were accepted if not liked.

Christine Murfin channelled her academic ambitions into studying to become a lay preacher at the Borrowash Methodist church. Her mentor was a female neighbour and Christine enjoyed the challenge, but abandoned it without question when her mother became ill:

‘Mum took a nosedive with her health. Dad was working all hours. Something had to give, so I stood down.’

Lily Wootton, who skipped school to help  her father on his coal round and  was disciplined by the Miss Johns sisters because she was left handed, later derived pleasure from  writing; began  her own autobiography in a notebook  as an 80 year old widow  and now considers writing to be ‘ the most important thing in my life.’

Women’s expectations for themselves and their families were toughened by experience.

Anne Smith who  admired the evening dresses at Hunts’ dress shop and  still keeps two ‘in a box; blue chiffon and pink sequins, but I’ve lost my 22 inch waist!’ was unable to withstand patriarchal pressure to give up a job she loved.

The welfare of her children was a different matter and Anne put up a valiant fight:

‘The bedrooms were wet and damp and it was even in the beds. It was a terrible place. This man came round from the estates office and I said ‘I can’t have my children all sleeping in one room.’

She walked from Borrowash to Spondon to demand a modern council house for her family instead of the old, damp farm tenancy lodging that was endangering her children’s health.

She got one!

Other women too, defended their families whilst stifling their own needs.

Nancy Payne, married Bine at Ockbrook village church in 1938 and as a young married woman, enjoyed a wonderful social whirl with the Rotary Club in Northampton. Money was in plentiful supply as were   beautiful evening dresses and the pretty young wife was the toast of the town. She had to scale down her ambitions and work on the floor of a shoe factory to feed her children after her husband suddenly keeled over and died from a heart attack in front of the family at the breakfast table.

Her daughter, Angela, recalls her mother’s hair turning white overnight but that did not deter her many suitors who were forced to withdraw when Nancy’s conduct demonstrated that:

‘I’ve had the best and I can’t be dealing with the rest.’

Annie Slater (Dakin) who was born in 1915 did re-marry, but this decision was resented by some of her children and caused a rift in the family.

However, there was a happy second marriage for Lily Wotton’s mother, Helen Harvey. She was totally ‘spoiled’ by husband Alan whom she married later in life but was unused to high living and treats at hotels after years of frugality. According to Lily, Helen died a happy woman, after a glorious swansong   of good food, money in her pocket and holidays!!

When Lily’s own husband, Ron Pidegon died and she found herself a widow in her mid sixties; she determined to be a merry one, befriending   a woman in the same street who had also lost her husband.

The two attended ballroom dancing lessons and went to Tea Dances in Derby at the Assembly Rooms. At first they were reduced to dancing with each other but then, as Lily says,  ‘were accepted by  the in-set’ and were never short of partners or fabulous excursions at Christmas!

Jessie Webster married Albert Entwhistle in 1940 and moved with him to his home town ofClayton Le Moors outside Accrington. He   was unfaithful; she left him and then went back. She left him again when he did it again. But she was now pregnant for the second time and without a man!

Jessie endured the enforced public shame of returning to her parents’ home in Borrowash with two small children but without a husband. Back beneath her father’s roof,   she was the butt of prurient village gossip despite being the innocent party.

Later, in an attempt to provide for her family, she attracted further comment by taking a ‘common’ job as a barmaid in a pub in Derby. She re – married but suffered a further setback when her fireman husband died suddenly. Impoverished, but resolute, Jessie’s enforced economies included saving bus fare by walking miles between stops in order to add to the family finances.

Phyllis Wymer’s husband ran off in 1941 leaving her penniless, and faced with the task of caring for Pamela aged 3 and baby Valerie as a single mother.  She trained as a welder and died of exhaustion when Pamela was 13.

The work ethic passed to Pamela, who describes her pride as owner, Mrs Hooley, of a popular greengrocery shop in Borrowash.  She took delight in beating off competition from the new supermarket, (‘you can’t beat fresh’). Sadly, Pamela’s husband, like her mother Phyllis, was to become a victim of his working circumstances, and after 45 years of toiling on the railway, Ron Hooley died of asbestosis. His widow is now engaged in a legal battle for compensation.

Joan Millband’s husband was a charmer who swept her off her feet when they met at work at the Co-op.

He started an affair with another woman and for a time, played the two of them. Then Joan put her foot down and threw him out; subsequently instigating divorce proceedings.  He wanted to return and when she refused, he became a human torch in the family caravan at the bottom of the garden.

‘He went into it, lit a cigarette and the whole thing went blast off! It just blew up and that was that!

I’ll never know if it was an accident, or if he carried out his threat to commit suicide. I just don’t know.’

His mistress tried to get Joan to pay for the funeral but she refused.

Like Nancy Payne, she has no desire to re-marry:

‘I’d got no desire to pick up any man’s socks ever again. Why would I?’

Instead, she socialises with friends, especially ‘Ron and Chris who I met on holiday with Brian in the sixties,’ and intends to donate her body to science.

Claire Anderson, 30, has a string of failed relationships behind her, and readily admits that she picks the wrong men, but does not want to miss out on a family:

‘I can’t see myself getting married, but I’m going to put myself on the Adoption Register. I’d rather do that than IVF.’

Many of the older women in ‘Unexamined Lives’ took multiple jobs – they had no difficulty in finding employment, but it was usually ‘for the money’. Working locally at the Co-op was a popular choice and the Co-op made up the educational shortfall by putting on ‘stores classes’. For Lily Pidgeon ‘the Co-op was our college.’

Claire Anderson, now working in sales for an Estate Agent but determined to become an area manager, describes her own working life including an abandoned university degree course as ‘random’.

She has made money as a tequila girl in Tenerife and a club bouncer in Bristol (her version of the casual factory job) but takes greatest pride in her social work on a city project with sex workers.

Some of the women found an outlet in ‘theatricals’ of various sorts.  Anne Smith appeared in fancy dress in the annual carnival, organised by a local factory ‘GI, Borrowash’; others took leading roles in the pantomimes devised by Parish Clerk, Frank Smith.

Looking back from the perspective of a grandmother in her eighties, Lily Pidgeon said:

‘You had to ensure that your face fit – and I made sure mine did!’

Angela Payne was a talented dancer; she accompanied her father to amateur singing groups and theatricals. Angela was offered a place to study ballet at the famous ‘Sadler’s Wells’ school inLondon at White Lodge. Might she have followed in the footsteps of Margot Fonteyn?

However, her father, Bine Payne, decided that it was ‘not right’ for his daughter to go so far from home so she lost her chance. But he sent his son to an independent public school as a boarder. The boy had to leave when his father died and drifted subsequently, with a series of different jobs and ‘new starts.’ Angela’s potential remains in the realm of ‘might have been.’

Other women, like Gill Hawksworth, found an outlet for their creativity (or an escape from mundane jobs) by ‘organising’ events in the community; putting on street parties in the 1970s and 80s for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the wedding of Princess Diana.

Women saw themselves primarily as nurturers and carers; taking immediate responsibility first for children and then their aged parents. Elderly relatives lived with the daughter of the family – whether or not she was married.

Like Annie Dakin, they also cared for unmarried brothers/nephews, taking them cooked teas and doing their washing.  Girls who had been their father’s companions as children, bonded with their mothers when they were mothers themselves.

They then relied upon their own mothers for help with the childcare. This was the case with Lily Pidgeon and Anne Smith whose mother supported her in her fight for decent housing.

Claire Anderson, childless, but still her father’s ‘best friend’ was surprised when her mother, Lyn, rather than Ian, showed understanding and sympathy when she was diagnosed with a depressive illness.

‘Dad’s ‘old school’.

When disaster struck – like flooding in 1970s Borrowash, women like Gill Hawksworth took charge, organising the neighbours and taking care of people whose homes were uninhabitable.

On the whole, the women did not drink or go to the pub (unlike Claire and her friends today) – although it was not uncommon for them to go – or to send their children – to ‘fetch the men out’. During  the Second World War,  Lily Pidgeon’s mother caught her husband treating service girls to drinks in a  Borrowash pub ‘The Wilmot’, marched in, ordered a pint of beer and poured it over his head.

‘He didn’t do it again!’

Some women were rabidly teetotal and their daughters would have to disguise the smell of alcohol on their breath if they went to a pub with a boyfriend. But occasionally, there would be an older woman who drank in The Forrester’s and had her own pint pot behind the bar. As a little girl, Joan Millband accompanied her Grandma to the pub!

Women met their boyfriends at dances in Derby – little went on locally – although the cinema in Spondon was a good night out. Children were plentiful – not always within marriage. Lily Pidgeon’s mother, Helen Harvey, was sent to the workhouse when she got pregnant outside marriage.

Her little boy was ‘granny-reared’ – brought up by her own parents, but Helen was banned from the house on the express command of her father, Major Harvey ‘who treated his children as if they were his regiment’.

Later, partially repeating the pattern, Lily Pidgeon gave up her eldest child to her sister for adoption because her sibling could not have children. Lily says that until she dies she will be haunted by that decision. Her son, Tony says, understandably, ‘Why me?’

She says, ‘Did I do right?’

The constant childbearing caused women’s health to suffer – and in the case of Lily Pidgeon, 10 children in quick succession caused mental illness as well.

But women’s lives were relatively sheltered.

Even in the 1960s, Chrissie  Hall  ( who with  husband, Martin, worked as an  extra when the sexually explicit Ken Russell film ‘Women in Love’ was filmed  at nearby Elvastaon Castle)  says that although she knew that the pill existed, it was certainly not something she would have taken and she had never met anybody who had obtained  a ‘termination’.

Chrissie was distrusted because she took the first – ever maternity leave from her job as an employee of Derby City Council. Chrissie felt tremendous guilt because she could not stay at home with her daughter Kate; she needed the money. As so often, a woman ‘stepped in’ to help take care of the child – Martin’s mother.

Many girls were ‘tomboys’ – and a common phrase, repeated with aplomb is ‘Dad said I should have been born a boy.’ They swam in the Derwent with their brothers; went skating, played marbles – and then married and turned into mothers!

In later years  ( post menopause) with the pressure of sexuality behind then, some women took on a fresh lease  of life  –  joining the Women’s Institute or Mother’s Union; also political parties because the parties put on whist drives with potted meat sandwiches from Burge the Butcher.

They had interesting lives, took freedom and snatched bits of freedom where they could, but they were not free.

Maybe Claire Anderson who says she is ‘Sorting her Act Out’ at 30, will be able to use her voice in a way that was not open to her predecessors.

They may have been quieter. But what they have to say is no less relevant for the daughters of today and granddaughters of tomorrow.

Their spirit and ‘joie de vivre’ is their legacy to the women of the 21st century and is best captured by the irrepressible Lily Pidgeon at the end of her interview with ‘Unexamined Lives’!

‘There used to be a shelf in the oven. Mum would be putting in the bacon. She’d wrap it up in a tea towel or something like that.

We used to say ‘Get off! Get off! It’s my turn!’

Good old days!

It’s like them all being here again – talking and laughing!

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

Not today….’

3 Responses to ‘In Her Own Voice’ by Helen Clark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.