There were several organised sports in Mellor: tennis and lacrosse in the middle of the village, and cricket near the Devonshire Arms. Across the road from the cricket field, behind the fishing ponds, Mellor had its football ground.
Lacrosse has always been Mellor’s real sport, and the village has held the North of England championships year after year. The club for many seasons fielded no less than five teams: 1st, A, B, C and Juniors. For a few years in my youth I played for the Juniors, wearing the all-white strip with red socks, and my hands enveloped in padded gloves. We practised in our spare time, endlessly throwing the hard rubber ball against a wall and catching it on the rebound, or having impromptu miniature matches around one of the goals on the field.
But team games (and ball games in general) have never been my forte, and I left lacrosse to those like John Jepson and Spencer Bancroft, who were more dedicated than I.
Apart from an occasional walk across the fairway, I saw but little of golf, since I did not come from a golfing family, but some of my friends’ parents had great leather bags full of golf clubs and multi-coloured umbrellas. ‘Paddy’ Padfield, who lived next door to ‘Beaumont’ for a while before his marriage, used to practise shots on the lawn. May and I watched surreptitiously through the hedge, greatly amused when he lost the ball. “Perhaps,” said Rose, who came to help on washday, “It’s gone up his Oxford bags” (a pair of wide-legged trousers popular in the ’thirties).
The sloping football pitch was full of ridges and hollows. An interesting diversion took place when the ball was kicked into one of the two ponds, having to be rescued by the use of long sticks, much stone-throwing and the help of the easterly breeze. But it was not a game I watched frequently, even though there were regular fixtures.
Besides the club opposite Dene Cottage, tennis could be played at a number of private houses which maintained their own courts. There was one at the Vicarage, and Mrs Snowden the Vicar’s wife was inclined to have tennis parties on a Sunday, much to the concern of the Chapel folk (and, no doubt, a few Anglicans as well). There was a fine red shale court at ‘Rawcliffe’, standing high above Damsteads Farm on a buttressed embankment. There was another at Bancroft’s house, just below the War Memorial, and a grass court at Longley’s at the foot of Townscliffe Lane. There were others, too, I’m sure.
Mellor Cricket Club could at least have the magic initials ‘MCC’ on its green caps, and I proudly wore a cast-off one from my father with the letters cunningly altered by my Mother to ‘MCS’ when I was at Mellor Council School. I recall searching Dad’s bag for the duck he claimed to have collected in one match, and my memories also include the great roller being dragged to and fro on sunny afternoons and the occasional shattered window in the new houses opposite the ground.
But before I left Mellor School, the cricket ground was put up for sale by its owner, Mr Greenhalgh of Mellor Hall. It is hard to believe that such a level plot of land, so near the bus terminus and in such a rural setting, was not snapped up by a speculative builder. There was no Green Belt in those days, but there must have been no demand for houses, either, for it remained unsold. Eventually it was adopted by Marple Urban District Council, which had just taken Mellor under its wing as the county boundary shifted a mile or so to the east. The old pavilion was demolished; swings appeared, a roundabout and a slide.
In the early days of the Recreation Ground, however, the Sabbatarian views of the local Councillors, especially Tom Sigley, ensured that the swings and other equipment were secured with chains and padlocks to prevent their use on a Sunday. This strict control was supported by the local residents, who were thus able to enjoy a day of rest undisturbed by the shouts of boisterous children. Those days have long gone.
The only other organised activities were those of the Scouts and Guides. In 1926, when the Scouts lost the use of the Drill Hall, the vacant Primitive Methodist Chapel in Moor End (not to be confused with the United Methodist Chapel at New House Hill) was bought by public subscription for £100. Trustees were appointed my father was one and they saw to it that the property was maintained in good repair. It was always known as ‘The Clubroom’ rather than the more conventional ‘Scout Hut’, for then it served the Guides as well.
In this building the Cubs met on Monday evenings, the Brownies on Tuesday, the Guides on Wednesday and the Scouts on Friday. Like New House Hill, it was a two-storey building with its upper floor at road level, and a cellar exposed on one side as the grass bank on which it was built sloped away from the road. The upper room was heated by a ‘Tortoise’ stove a great cast-iron affair on a stone plinth, which had to be fed with coke after an initial load of paper, wood chips and coal had been ignited. On a cold night, it could be induced to glow a dull red by opening the damper. It was a dangerous device to have in a room full of energetic children, and the flimsy fireguard was easily displaced. But no-one was ever seriously burned; perhaps we are over-cautious today.
The fuel for the stove was kept in the cellar, to which there was access by a flight of outside steps. There was also a trap-door in the upper floor, from which there was a sheer drop of ten or twelve feet to the earth floor below. The last job of the evening was to bring up coal, coke and kindling for the next occupants. I suppose the girls used the outside steps, but Cubs and Scouts were encouraged to slide down a rope suspended above the abyss, and to re-appear a few minutes later with a bucket of coke in one hand, having climbed the rope with the other. A Mrs Connor from Sundial acted as the caretaker, lighting the stove well in advance of the meetings to ensure that the room was warm on our arrival.
I joined the Cubs at the age of seven, encouraged by Derek Hall, who had started the previous week. We stayed together for many years, eventually running the Scouts between us but I am rushing too far ahead. Our Cubmaster (it was ‘not done’ to speak of a ‘Cubmistress’) was a Miss Chatterton from Compstall, aided by a Miss Crossley and Myles Amfield. Kipling’s Jungle Book stories are now well-known thanks to Walt Disney, but the idea of calling grown-up ladies ‘Akela’ and ‘Bagheera’ struck me as very odd. Myles was ‘Baloo’, the amiable bear, whilst the Scoutmaster, Tom Laycock, made occasional appearances in the guise of ‘Lone Wolf’.
After four years in the Cubs, tying knots, learning first aid and semaphore, laying trails over the hillsides, shouting “Dyb” and “Dob”, and eventually becoming a ‘Sixer’, it was time for me to join the Scouts. Tom Laycock came to see my parents to discuss the idea (things were done properly in those days) and to arrange for the purchase of a uniform. So I got my green shirt (worn with the sleeves rolled up for action, winter and summer), my navy serge shorts, green-and-blue knee-stockings, garter tabs, royal blue neckerchief, lanyard, belt, staff and the famous wide-brimmed hat. The first task was to get the four dents in the crown, and to hold them with clothes pegs until they were permanent. The brim was inclined to become wavy, and needed periodic ironing, but the hat had its uses fanning a camp fire into life, even carrying water which the later beret could never do as well.
My first patrol leader was Rex Coates, son of the local police sergeant. Rex was another product of New Mills Secondary School; he became a professor of engineering. His patrol was the Curlews, and the rival Kestrels were led by Roy Davenport from Glossop Road. It must be noted that these were the 1st Mellor and Marple Bridge Boy Scouts, not confined to Mellor as were Mr Jowett’s originals.
I enjoyed my Scouting days. We spent our time tying knots, learning first aid and semaphore, and laying trails over the hillsides just like the Cubs. We also learned twenty uses of the Scout staff. But it was the sheer fun of it all the happy camaraderie of boys enjoying life and yet at the same time learning to be self-reliant and useful to the community which made it all so agreeable. Nowadays we have Youth Clubs with paid leaders where the youngsters listen to records and play table-tennis; but none of these can match Scouting with its voluntary leadership.
Tom Laycock was an ideal Scoutmaster, or ‘Skipper’ as we called him. He was a bachelor who could devote a lot of spare time to his Troop, he was an engineer capable of making marvellous things in wood and metal, and he was a patient instructor. He had a wooden hut in his parents’ garden on Cataract, lit by a wind-driven dynamo. Here he kept his lathe for his model engineering projects, and here he examined ‘Tenderfeet’ in their knowledge of Scout lore.
My first summer camp, however, was not with Skipper Laycock, who was unable to take the Troop away that particular year. Instead, we joined forces with the Marple Scouts under their Scoutmaster Alan Macnair, assisted by Charles Clayton, who was a mainstay of the Marple Group for many years. We were to go to Croyde Bay in Devon, but first we were to have a weekend together in Marple Dale, behind the old Hall, now the site of the Grammar School.
For several of us this was our first night under canvas, and we could not sleep. We peered out under the walls of the tent, and were startled to see a light flickering from room to room in the unoccupied Hall, which was reputed to have a ghost. Then, through the mist rising from the river, a white shape came towards us. Petrified, we waited for the terrible apparition to manifest itself, only to hear the shape say “Moo” it was a stray cow! The light in the hall was the caretaker going his rounds.
Happy days! But happiness was not confined to Scouting. When I was in the Cubs, I was also a member of a ‘gang’ of boys and girls who played together, went tracking and devised treasure hunts. These involved a complex series of clues, often in code, each of which had to be solved in order to discover the next. Thus ‘HUBBRAR’ had to be unscrambled to read ‘rhubarb’. Lurking in the rhubarb bed would be the message ‘TAMROOD’, and so on to the prize.
Our gang had a ‘den’ in Slack Wood a bower under a hawthorn tree with the brook running by. Here we built a dam of stones and clods of earth to make a pool for paddling and sailing toy boats. We fished for sticklebacks and caddis larvae, taking them home in jam jars with a string handle.
A rival gang led by John Jepson would make periodic forays from their end of the wood into our territory, breaking the dam and throwing boulders into our pool. Immediate retaliation was necessary, and a raiding party would penetrate deep into Jepson country to destroy their hydraulic engineering project and wreck their den. Thus honour was satisfied.
We also egged each other on to further forms of mischief, including ’sapping’ or the stealing of apples from neighbours’ orchards. At Damsteads Farm lived Lily Sutton, an unfortunate lady of gargantuan proportions. She was the butt of our youthful wit, and we would chant
Was a glutton;
Ate some mutton,
Burst a button.
until she chased us away, threatening to tell our parents of our misdeeds. How heartless and cruel children can be! Miss Sutton’s problem was doubtless pathological, but we ascribed it to greed.
We ruined a good deal of hay by skylarking in John Brough’s barn at the Manor House, which he rented from Mrs Jowett. We would sneak through the yard and into the hayloft, having fights with handfuls of the stuff, and rolling it up into barricades. Jack Brough, John’s son, inevitably came and found us, sending us packing with a few stern words. But we were back again next week.
Winters then were proper winters, with frost and deep snow. The hillsides of Mellor were ideal for sledging, and from the nursery slopes we graduated to the long slope on the golf course. Our ‘Cresta Run’ was “Th’Ale ’Us Broo” (Ale House Brow), a steep footpath behind the Vicarage (once an inn hence the name) leading through a gateway to a gentler slope and round a bend towards a stream. Hurtling down the first slope one might miss the gateway, in which case a barbed-wire fence had to be negotiated by lying as flat as possible to clear the lowest strand. Th’Ale ’Us Broo was not a slope to be taken sitting up. An experienced tobogganist would eventually disappear from view, emerging at last from the final bend dragging his sledge uphill for yet another attempt on the long distance record.
The Roman Lakes (originally Samuel Oldknow’s mill pond) froze over in the winter, and those with skates disported themselves on the ice, playing hockey with inverted walking sticks. The water, partially drained after the boating season had ended, was only a few inches deep, and there was thus no danger of a serious accident when the ice was thin.
Being a non-skater, the Lakes to me were a summer retreat. Here was a large sheet of water, surrounded by trees and populated with midges. Boats could be hired by the hour, and another happy hour could be spent with the slot machines on the bank machines the like of which I never saw elsewhere.
Besides the conventional weighing machine, there was a genuine What the Butler Saw with Victorian ladies in their underwear, a machine for testing one’s grip and another for administering electric shocks. Best of all was The Football Match, where each player could make little men in heavy moustaches and knitted jerseys kick in unison inside a glass case, propelling a ball over a hummocky ground. A penny from each contestant produced the ball, and the first to score a goal got his money back. A similar game had two cricketers, one bowling underarm and the other making powerful swipes. You scored a boundary or you were out.
Walking past the lane leading to the Lakes brought us to the ruins of Oldknow’s Mill; this was a warren of underground passages which we loved to explore. Built in 1790, it brought the Industrial Revolution to Mellor, providing work not only for the natives, but also for imported ‘apprentices’ orphans from the workhouses of London. It was burned down in 1892. The twin lodges on either side of the river were still habitable when I was a boy, but it was proving difficult to find tenants. Soon the buildings would crumble away under the onslaught of the weather and passing vandals.
Walking on up the hill brought us to Stone Row, once a tenement for Oldknow’s workers, but no more than a slum in my boyhood. Further on, in the centre of Marple, were the newly opened Baths, presented to the town by Mrs Macnair, mother of the Marple Scoutmaster. The changing cubicles stood around the edge of the bath, leaving precious little room along the edge. Bathers chasing each other around the periphery could easily displace a curtain to reveal a youth struggling into his costume. On each side of the diving board were slipper baths full of hot water and carbolic soap where one was supposed to wash one’s feet before going for a swim.
Another new attraction in Marple was the Regent Cinema. It was originally two large dwelling-houses, and the window recesses on the inside walls were painted with local scenes Mellor Church, the Roman Bridge, Lyme Cage and so on. Here we came on Saturdays to the children’s matinees, especially if there was a Laurel and Hardy film. I also went for several weeks with Frank Starkie to see FP1, the serial story of a floating platform in mid-Atlantic, designed as a staging post for aircraft, none of which was capable of crossing in one hop without refuelling. The feats of Alcock and Brown and Charles Lindbergh were of course notable exceptions.
Two films stand out in my mind because of their intense sadness. We saw them as a family, and many of our friends saw them too. One was The Good Earth, an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel, full of harrowing scenes of Chinese peasant life during famine and flood. The other was Smiling Through. “I dunno about smilin’ through;” said Tom Sigley afterwards, lapsing into the local dialect; “I scriked (wept) it through!”
But there was no need to go outside the home for entertainment. There was of course no television, but we had our wireless set on top of a cupboard in the kitchen, with its horn-shaped loudspeaker on a long flex so that it would reach into the dining room. My Uncle Frank still had a crystal set which necessitated the wearing of headphones.
Children’s Hour from 5 until 6 every evening was a special time. The North Region of the BBC had Auntie Muriel, Auntie Doris, Uncle Eric and Uncle Harold as regulars. They sang, played the piano, told stories and acted plays, of which S G Hulme-Beaman’s Toytown series were our favourites. Every day, lists of those enjoying birthdays were read out, and twins received a special “Hello, twins, hello!” from Uncle Eric at the piano. We went into the country with Romany, and listened week after week to the serial Children of the Sun in which a fiendish oriental always had the heroes ‘caught like lats in a tlap’ in the closing moments of each episode.
Later, we had programmes like Monday Night at Eight
It’s Monday night at eight o ’clock;
Oh, can’t you hear the chimes?
They’re telling you to take an easy chair,
To settle by the fireside,
Look at your Radio Times,
For Monday Night at Eight is on the air
a medley of songs, sketches and jokes, with a detective story to solve.
Then on Saturday: “Each week we stop the roar of London’s traffic to bring you the interesting people who are In Town Tonight”.
It was through a children’s book review on the wireless that I first heard of Arthur Ransome and his book Winter Holiday. The book sounded so interesting that I asked for it for Christmas 1934, and was soon asking for Swallows and Amazons for my next birthday. Eventually I collected the whole series. Much of my earlier reading was drawn from my father’s boyhood books: bound volumes of The Boys’ Own Paper, The Golden Penny and The Captain, the latter containing P G Wodehouse’s first story, entitled The Lost Lambs. I should have kept those historic volumes! Then there were books by G A Henty and Talbot Baines Reed adventure stories with a high moral tone.
More reading matter came with the morning paper the Manchester Guardian at ‘Beaumont’. Once a week, folded inside it, was Tiger Tim’s Weekly, a picture paper of strip cartoons about the Bruin Boys a menagerie of animals, led by Tiger Tim, attending Mrs Bruin’s school. There were stories about elves and pixies, puzzles and jokes. At Christmas we always expected a Tiger Tim’s Annual, and Mother preserved a Tiger Tim story which I wrote at the tender age of five. Thanks to my sister, two years my senior, I could read and write before I started school.
As I grew older, I looked for more advanced reading. The ‘twopenny bloods’ like Hotspur and Wizard were my friends’ favourites, full of stories of cowboys and harsh schoolmasters. There was the Human Mole, whose ingenious machine burrowed underground like a corkscrew, and a little Indian who kept hand-grenades and other missiles at bay with ‘Clicky-ba’, his marvellous cricket bat. But I was not supposed to read such lurid stuff, and I turned instead to the Meccano Magazine, a journal for all boys with a bent towards engineering.
Of all my toys, my Meccano was my greatest love. Starting with the smallest outfit, it had gradually been enlarged on subsequent birthdays. Then my mother’s cousin suddenly presented me with his enormous set of parts, neatly packed in a strong wooden box. I learned more about motor cars, gear boxes, bridges and cranes from my Meccano and the magazine than ever I did from text books.
It should have been clear, I suppose, even in my boyhood that I was destined to become an engineer, but Father wanted me to go into a bank. Thank goodness he realised my true inclinations before it was too late.