I was born in Manchester, England at the Stretford Memorial Hospital, less than a mile from the Old Trafford Cricket Ground and the Manchester United Football Club Stadium, but my early memories were about life at Deep Clough, Derbyshire where I grew up. We lived in a semi-detached house in a valley about 7 miles outside Glossop Derbyshire, deep in the High Peak District of the Pennine Mountains, known as the ‘backbone’ of England.
Hardly a tree broke the landscape of the rolling peat moors, brown bracken and purple heather which surrounded us and above lay the twisting and winding, “Devil’s Elbow”, on Woodhead Road which was the road to Sheffield through the mountains.
The winters could be severe and I remember my father digging snow from the front doorway so he could get out to go to work. The snow was piled up to the upstairs bedroom windows and of course kids in the area would be off school until the weather improved. The road would invariably be blocked so my father wouldn’t be able to get to work.
In summer time, the landscape would be stunningly carpeted in purple heather, brown bracken, green grass and the grey mountains five hundred metres above sea level.
Below us was the railway line from Manchester to Sheffield where the steam trains would roar. We had no running water except from a natural well and no electricity. We used Tilley lanterns and cooked on Primus stoves.
My parents listened to plays or classical music on the wireless or played records on an old gramophone. The wireless set had a large battery or accumulator as it was called then, with a transparent case so you could see the bubbles rising inside. My father would take it to Glossop to be charged every so often.
Our water was drawn out of a well which was crystal clear and icy cold. My father raved on about how pure the water was and told my mum to give me as much as possible. Then one day he came running in and said, “Stop, don’t drink the water!” He had found a dead sheep lying across the stream that fed the well. After that we had to boil every drop of water.
A huge fireplace in our living room was where we burnt coal dropped to us by passing trains. The stokers on the trains would throw off huge cobs of coal as the train roared past. It would be a race to see who could grab the largest chunks. There would be my dad, Walter Smith and one of the Hully brothers running down the embankment with empty sacks to fill with coal.
The four Hully brothers lived next door. They were always tinkering with a motorbike or an old bomb of a car. I would love to watch them and played around with the parts lying everywhere. Three of them would go to work in a red van but the eldest stayed home.
I was about 4 years old at the time and once I filled the petrol tank on their motorbike with sand. They didn’t really appreciate that and I was banned for a couple of weeks. Another time I broke one of their best fishing rods. I brought it home, next door and said, “look, it’s unbreakable!” while bending it almost double until it snapped with a crack. While at their house I would become quite dizzy with all the cigarette smoke because they all smoked constantly.
At the time I had my own language which used to have everyone in stitches. I’d say things like, “we’ll lafta do that, laffn’t we?” or “we better do that, bettern’t we?” When my dad was working in the shed I’d say “you’d better plier it bettern’t you?” or “we’d better spanner it, bettern’t we?”
One day my dad was tarring the old shed outside with tins of black tar and went to the kitchen for something. I just saw all this beautiful black shiny tarry stuff and decided to cover myself with it. I think I missed my eyes but everything else was black. It was good they didn’t have phone cameras in those days otherwise it would have been all over the internet.
Another time, I emptied a tin of paraffin on the grass and it all turned blue. I never lived that down and when they were in the pub talking, after a few drinks, they would say, remember when Peter turned the grass blue? And roared with laughter.
My Aunt Flo and Uncle David lived in another set of semi-detached houses close by and the “odd couple”; Walter and Louise Smith lived next door. Walter was sort of a rag and bone man, who came home with masses of junk. Their house was over-flowing with an amazing collection of old furniture, military uniforms, old radios, watches, paintings on the wall, china mugs, and nick knacks of every conceivable kind. I would spend hours rummaging and playing with all these treasures.
I had a make-believe friend called John. I think I always wanted a brother so I made one up. I would have lots of conversations with John. My parents would say, “What did you do today?” I would say, “Oh, I went to play with John.”
My father was an engineer’s toolmaker by trade and would ride to work in Glossop on an old BSA Army motor bike and sidecar. My mother would look after all the animals, cook and look after me. She was a dressmaker by profession and had made wedding dresses in the fashion houses in Manchester before getting married. She used to make shirts for my father which were better than the bought ones.
We children in the area would be driven to school each day in a large black taxi provided by the Derbyshire County Council. It had nice smelling leather seats and large running boards down the sides. The taxi would pick us up again after school and bring us home.
The winter’s were quite severe and I remember being snowed in and not being able to get to school. The kids in the area would get their sleds out and we would have great fun sledging up and down the slopes.
At Christmas time we would have a party with a huge roast dinner. All the family would be there including Uncle David, Aunty Ethel, Uncle Arthur, Aunty Alice, Aunty Flo, cousins David, Audrey, and Christine (who was disabled), and Aunty Margaret and Uncle Rupert.
My cousin Christine was born with polio and spent a good deal of her childhood with calipers on her legs. She had so many operations you could see the long scars on her legs and arms. Her arms would hang lifelessly down by her side because she had no use in them.
Quite often she would lose her balance and, unable to break her fall, she would just close her eyes, scream and fall over. We would all have to rush and help her. She might have a gash on her head or shoulder or somewhere and Aunty Margaret would have to patch her up again.
This did not deter her however and she later married, had two children, travelled all round Europe with her first baby Isabella, moved to America and obtained a university degree and became a councilor. Quite an achievement for a so-called disabled woman and is an example of someone who overcame massive odds to pursue her goals.
My cousins Audrey and David who (I found out much later) were adopted because Arthur had congenital syphilis and they couldn’t have children, lived in Hadfield in a large rambling house near the railway station. There was a real bathroom, a television and a large recreation room where I would play table tennis upstairs with my cousin David.
David was more like a brother to me and maybe I looked up to him as the brother I never had. He would tease me terribly but I would put up with it, just to be with him. We would all go on holiday trips to Blackpool and Morecombe on the motorbike and sidecar. I would ride on the pillion, with my mother and sister in the sidecar. What a blast! It’s a wonder I never fell off because many a time I would fall asleep and wake up when we stopped. We’d have Morecombe rock, whelks and walk about on the beach with our wellington boots on. That one day out would be our annual holidays.
I remember Audrey took me to the cinema one Saturday afternoon. We had to walk the five miles or so to Glossop and when the show was finished, we went to Woolworth’s for a look around. We somehow got separated and I ended up walking back by my self. My parents were shocked thinking what could have happened to me on the road and envisaging all the dangers that could have been befallen me. But they didn’t.
Unfortunately danger did befall me one time because I ended up in hospital for a couple of days with concussion. I don’t remember anything but apparently I had been riding my bike on Woodhead Road to go and visit Alice and Arthur. I was spotted lying on the side of the road by a passing motorist who stopped and picked me up and took me to the nearest house which luckily happened to be Alice and Arthur’s.
The police interrogated the poor motorist trying to prove he had hit me, but he denied any knowledge and said he just saw me lying there and picked me up. It remains a mystery to this day so I might have lost control, or a passing lorry might have blown me over, who knows?
One time we holidayed in George Proudman’s mobile home which was a converted single decker bus. It was close to the sea at Morecombe and we spent a lovely week there, swimming, exploring all the crabs and small crustaceans in the sea and getting sun burnt.
At the time, we were pretty much self-sufficient with goats, pigs, hens, ducks, a donkey called Billy and a garden full of vegetables. My mother would make butter and cheese from goat’s milk and we always had eggs and fresh vegetables from the garden.
I had a little pet kid goat which I would play with for hours. One day when some delivery men came while I was at school, my mother tied up the little goat because it was being a nuisance while she spoke to the men. When I came home from school, I ran calling the little goat, but then my mum sat me down and told me quietly that unfortunately the little kid goat had gone to heaven and I wouldn’t be able to see it again. The knot she tied round the goats neck was a slip knot and the poor thing got strangled. I was inconsolable for days.
My father would try and hitch up Billy the donkey to a little cart he made but Billy was a wily old thing and did everything he could to avoid getting the harness put on. They would try to entice him with carrots and other little tidbits and eventually he would reluctantly succumb.
Billy would set off very slowly and there was nothing you could do to make him go faster. My father tried everything but he would just saunter along at his own pace. However as soon as he turned around to go back home, he was trotting along like a racer.
My little sister Janet came into the world when I was 6 years old. She was a premmie baby and I remember my father and I waiting outside the hospital on the motorbike and sidecar because in those day, fathers weren’t allowed in to see their children being born. It was drizzling rain and we ate some egg and lettuce sandwiches and drank tea out of a thermos while we waited.
It was a little while before mum and the baby came home, but the decision was made to move away from the bleak remoteness of Deep Clough to Smedley Place, Old Glossop and civilisation.
It was a tiny 2-up, 2-down cottage in a row of 4 with no bathroom or toilet. There were two outside toilets shared by the whole row of four houses. If anyone wanted a bath, you had to drag out the old galvanised tin bath which was hanging on the wall, boil up some water and make sure nobody came in the back door or the kitchen door while you were bathing.
Later on, I used to walk 5 miles to Aunty Alice’s because she had a real bathroom but before I had my bath, Aunt Alice, who was a French teacher, would teach me French. Then afterwards, we and uncle Arthur would have dinner and watch Inspector Maigre on the television.
Smedley Place overlooked a pond which was used by the mill on Shepley Street. I believe it used to be a cotton mill, but at the time we moved there it was disused and in danger of collapsing. Some of the walls had already caved in. It was owned by Union Carbide, an American company who had left behind scores of metal barrels full of chemical powder of yellow, orange, red etc. The lids were open so the fine coloured dust was everywhere. Nobody knew if it was dangerous or not and we kids just played around in it. Nobody got sick, so I suppose it was harmless.
On Water Street, which ran parallel to Smedley Place, there was a working cotton mill and I remember the noise of the machinery and the lights shining as they worked till about 9pm. It wasn’t long before it was closed however due to the downturn in the cotton industry. We kids found hundreds of bobbins of cotton of many different colours and we would throw them at each other or tie each other up in cotton.
Old Glossop was a medieval town and the narrow winding streets and lanes looked quite grim. The Derbyshire dialect was sometimes unintelligible and anyone who was not a local was a foreigner. I was a foreigner because I was born in Manchester 16 miles away.
I started primary school at Duke of Norfolk School which was right next to All Saints church built over 1,000 years ago. I remember being introduced to the school as a new student by our teacher, and all the classes eyes on me.
The first couple of years were happy and I made many nice friends. One time our school had a visit by an African girl who had jet-black skin like velvet. She was the first black person I had ever seen and I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world and that night I dreamt about her. I could not keep my eyes off her but she was only visiting for a short while then she was gone.
Later when I got into the higher classes, the teacher abuse became unbearable. Headmaster Mr Colclough and his second in command Mr Handforth gave me years of bullying. Mr Handforth would rub my nose into the blackboard, paint my nose with chalk, lift me upside down by my legs till everything fell out of my pockets, turn me over on his knee and smack the hell out of my backside while the whole class was in uproar. Then I had to scramble around picking everything up with the jeers ringing in my ears.
When my mother found out, she went round to the school and tore strips off them both. She threatened to go to the County Education Dept, so they apologised. I was scared stiff of maths (which remains to this day) because of Handforth who used to yell, “Right, number down your page, one to ten, mental arithmetic!” I believe Handforth had instilled in me this fear and those teachers had no idea what they were doing to those frightened children. Another teacher, Miss Downs would hit the backs of your legs with a ruler if you got anything wrong. It would sting for ages.
The Protestant church was located right next to the school and our classes were often taken into church for a service. A couple of my friends sang in the church choir and when I found out that they got paid for singing, I quickly joined up too.
I enjoyed singing in the choir and we would go for practice once or twice a week and on special occasions. Of course you had to be there every Sunday for the morning service. The church was over a thousand years old with a tall spire and a gold cross on the top. I was there and watched them as they put the new cross on the spire with a huge crane.
My friend Patricia Donlon and I would walk home from school together every day. The other kids thought we were lovers. We would have been 10 years old. Then one day a gang of kids gathered around calling us names. They made us kiss while they were all shouting and laughing at us which was very embarrassing.
Michael Bagshaw was depraved. When there was about a dozen kids looking on, he held Patricia down, pulled down her pants and showed everyone as they all stood around laughing as well as laughing at me. I couldn’t see because my view was blocked. Thank God!
Our next door neighbour, Ben Gee was a homo, as we called them in those days, and moved his gay lover in to live with him and his wife who promptly moved out as soon as she got somewhere to live. Ben Gee got me upstairs in his house one time on the pretext of helping him with some job. He Then rubbed himself against me and tried to have sex. I just pushed him away, because he was such a weedy pathetic individual.
Keith Tinsdale, Peter Bradshaw, George Peck, John Barber, Phillip Barber, Martin Dewsnap and I would hang out together most of the time. Keith lived alone with his mother and grandmother. His grandmother, Mrs Greenwood, was part of a very wealthy family in the district and owned lots of property. They had a Real Estate office in Glossop.
Mrs Greenwood had a bad leg and walked with a stick and she didn’t seem to enjoy much of the wealth as they lived in a very untidy, small house on the hill. I didn’t like going there because of the bad smell which emanated from the place. There was a black and white photo on the wall of a beautiful young girl wearing a large hat taken outside in a field with rolling hills in the background. Keith told me it was his grandma, Mrs Greenwood.
There was a large house at the top of Hope Street and one day a few of us were playing at the back of the house with the kids who lived there. Soon, we were joined by an older girl probably twelve or thirteen. I can’t remember her name She was wearing the green and white catholic school uniform and we being protestant, hardly ever mixed with the catholic kids.
Suddenly she asked us if we would like to see her having a wee. I couldn’t believe my ears and we all looked at each other but said nothing. Anyway, she lifted her skirt, dropped her knickers and pissed a fountain right in front of us.
It kind of shocked me at first but I got a bit of a kick out of it at the same time as I had never seen an older girls private parts before, let alone seeing them piss.
George Peck’s family had a removal business and you would often see large pantechnicon vans driving around town with ‘Peck’s Removals’ written on them.
Peter Bradshaw lived with his mother, father, teenage sister Gillian and grandmother who was partly blind. His grandmother wouldn’t allow Peter to bring any kids into the house with him but he would sneak me in for some sandwiches while she wasn’t looking. Then she would walk around with outstretched arms trying to grab me saying, “Peter, I know there’s somebody in ere, who is it?” We would be dodging around the room and hiding under the table while we ate our jam butties.
My life changed quite dramatically when it was time to sit the eleven-plus exam. On looking back now, I can’t understand why the education department didn’t prepare us more for this exam. It was basically an IQ test but was very obscure, ambiguous and was designed to test ones reasoning ability. If one didn’t have an obscure mind then you failed.