-FAMILY AND EARLY DAYS-
My name is Harry, not Henry, not Hal. Sometimes called ‘Aitch’ ? no just plain Harry. My father’s name was Henry Arthur Dodd....and my eldest brother Albert Charles... but me? Just plain Harry. As there were six children in the family I think they may have run out of names. However, now there is a Royal Prince called Harry, I suppose I ought to be more sanguine about it.
I was born in the mid 1920’s in a mining village [population about 16,000], in the North East of England and although I was the third birth, I was fourth in the hierarchy as the ones before me were twins, a boy and a girl. There were more births after me, another boy and another girl. A live-in maid/helper made a total of nine in the household and we therefore needed substantial accommodation.
My father was allocated the managership of the Nimmo Hotel with five bedrooms. I doubt if it was ever a hotel, though it may have been. In fact, it was a very large pub with outhouses, unused stables and pigeon lofts etc.
The Nimmo Hotel, Wheatley Hill, Co. Durham
He had severe heart trouble from the First World War and barely left his bed. My mother did the important work of ordering the supplies using the local telephone box and the cashing up at the end of the day. There were numerous hogsheads of beer delivered down a ramp into the cellar and boxes of bottled beer into the bottle store. She went to bed every afternoon, played the piano and ‘floated about’.
We had male and female bar staff and girls to deliver drinks to the various drinking rooms. There was also a cellar man to carefully connect the sweeping lead pipes from the barrels to the hand pumps upstairs always avoiding any fractures in the pipes.
There was a portly man who tended the small coke stove used for some central heating and he supervised the three full-sized billiard tables situated above the bar which were well used by the local community. He seemed to make frequent visits downstairs for a drink of beer. On Sundays, my brother and I enjoyed a “mis-spent” youth at those billiard tables.
My eldest brother, by six years, of Albert Charles fame was the family star and he was financially supported to go to Durham University for a degree in chemistry. After graduating, he was expected to support the next son in a similar fashion. However, he blotted his copy book by having a son by the girl next door. Given his new family commitments, the sequential financing plan thus failed and so none of his younger siblings went to university. He was subsequently given a post at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough and then went to Chicago, USA to take part in the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. I recall he once shot me with a Diana Air Rifle when I put my head round one of the stable stalls. The slug hit me above my top lip, I was lucky; I still have a faint scar. The gun was banished to the very top of a large piece of furniture we called the Delft-rack.
The four boys went to the local Grammar School, and they included my next elder brother William [Billy] by four years, one of the twins. As had been expected, he was more slightly built than his brothers. A very keen scout, up to Rover standard, he was extremely well liked throughout the village because of his training of the many miners’ sons. He went, I think, to the 1936 Scout Jamboree, held in the grounds of Lord Barnard Estate at Raby Castle, later to be an area in which I lived. By the time he left School in 1937, our stables had been renovated. They were being used by Ringtons Tea, with two magnificent horses drawing two elegant black and green cabs, distributing tea. ( similar to this below ) Billy got a job with them and dressed in a leather coat, drove the horses in all weathers with the promotions of the various caddies containing tea.
In 1939, the Second World War broke out and he immediately volunteered for the RAF, becoming a bomber pilot. Coming home once having been wounded by shrapnel, he refused to talk about it. Early in 1944, he was reported missing in action and was later to be found killed in action over Berlin. He was sorely missed. Later I was given a photograph of his grave, taken by an RAF relative of mine.
His twin sister, Vera, did sterling work in the busy household and married a local colliery engineer and they had a brilliant son. My youngest sister, Betty, married a local boy, had a daughter, but suffered for many years from asthma and died at a fairly young age,
The youngest son, Walter, was just over one year younger than me. We did everything together, nowadays we would probably be called ‘tow-rags’. He was of medium build, wore spectacles and was very academic looking. After training as an electrician at the local colliery, he was taken up by the ICI at Billingham where, by coincidence, I also lived a short while afterwards. He eventually went to Boulby Potash Mine at Whitby where, apart from the potash, the mine was also being used to study neutrinos from space. These are now being investigated for the Higgs Boson particle by the Large Hadron Collider and OPERA at Cern, Geneva and are suspected of travelling in excess of the speed of light in contravention of Einstein’s E = M C²
He married a local nurse, who bore him a boy and a girl, rose to a top appointment with British Gas in London before retiring to the Isle of Wight, where I saw him occasionally when I moved to Dorset.
Walter and I were once involved in a ‘major crime wave’ when we were seen throwing stones at the billboard by the local bobby [where are they now? Was I responsible for his demise?? See more later]. He said ‘I know you’ - everybody did...’I will be down to see your father shortly!’ He duly did and we were suitably dealt with for bringing shame on the family name. His elegant reconstruction of the crime must have given him a thirst, which had to be slaked by a large pint of beer.
It was possible in those days to safely roam far and wide, which we did. Sometimes to the ‘Slack’, a small wooded area where we could climb trees, sometimes to the moors to catch butterflies and search for skylarks’ nests; sometimes a visit to the ‘gassy-gutter’ for blood sucking red worms in the effluent from the colliery nearby and to the pond on the other side for miniature dragons of the Crested Newt variety. This pond, at the appropriate time of the year, was used by us for the collection of frog spawn, which we placed in a waterproof biscuit tin with a supply of weed. We left the container on the wall of what was originally the ‘midden’ for horse manure and watched with interest the development of tadpoles and small frogs. However, they were not similarly appreciated by the family and staff when frogs began jumping all over the yard.
Our other area of adventure was ‘Bonseys Pond’, a derelict clay pit full of water previously used by a small brick works. This was often used for the disposal of unwanted dogs and sometimes ‘dragged’ by the police for the occasional suicide body. The sides were tremendously slippery, the water visibility was zero and, with hindsight, it was a miracle we survived as neither of us could swim and probably could not have clawed our way out anyway. We would put a worm on a rush, and in seconds pull out a ‘doctor’ or a ‘stickleback’, so many in fact, that the jam jar was so full that few survived due to lack of oxygen.
Adjoining the pub was the Palace Theatre, which, over time, became a very popular cinema. The rear section, originally used for the scenery, safety curtain etc was very high. We used the wall next to us to see who could throw a stone, or a snowball up to the roof. The rear outside wall was used by the miners to play handball, with many a side bet taking place.
I did manage to see a variety show before it became a cinema, courtesy of a ‘freebie’, to be amazed at the magician and be impressed by the leotarded strong man challenging the miners to bend iron bars, which he did with ease.
Winters in the North East were very cold and snowy and was the season when sledging became the usual pastime. The local blacksmith was in demand to shape iron bars into sledge runners with a bolt hole in each end. A hot poker then made a hole in a chunky piece of timber and a sledge was made.
The miners’ terrace houses were all on a severe slope and the back road was ideal terrain for sledging. The occupants had to use their front door as the rear was lethally glacial from the numerous sledgers careering down on ‘belly flappers’. As a sledger, you had to make sure you missed the telegraph pole at the bottom!
A spell of fine weather meant roller-skating, playing pseudo ice-hockey in the local schoolyard until chased away by the caretaker. The skates were soon worn out as we could not afford the quality ones with ball-bearing wheels. Our main pleasure in fine, windy weather was kite flying. The local Co-op Society supplied us with hoops off the butter barrels to be made into the standard kite shape and covered with brown paper and glued with flour and water paste. They had to have numerous ‘tailings’ made from old newspaper, plenty of string and a ‘belly band’ at just the right angle.
It was then off to the ‘heaps’ which were the shale remains after the coal had been extracted. In the shape of an escarpment, they made ideal thermals for the kite. As there were obviously some coal remains, they were continuously smouldering away and in one case there was a shallow cave of reddish-yellow appearance. Legend had it that a man had fallen in and burnt to death there, probably apocryphal.
Next to this area was a whippet racing track, which was surrounded by old twisted, rusty wire fencing. To unwind this would reveal ‘tarry tout’, which was hemp about half an inch in diameter and when placed in the smouldering patch of the heap would glow and then make a flame when blown on. If the sun was shining, you could use the top of a bull’s eye torch to ignite paper and get your flame that way instead. The nearby area must have been, at one time, a garden as there were old potatoes growing and we could dig them up and ‘cook’ them on a small fire ignited by the tarry tout.
If we were affluent we would spend a whole ‘half-penny’ on a small custom built kite and acquire numerous bobbins of cotton. They went so high they went out of sight and paper messages were sent to heaven. They were one heck of a job to rewind! In wet weather, we had to resort to indoor activities. Jigsaw puzzles of King Kong, which were made of quite thick plywood and were capable, when complete, of being held up like a picture. We would read the exploits of the wily old Baldie footballer in the Wizard and Joe Cover in the Hotspur who could bowl a ball to land vertically on the stumps!
First World War flying ace, Manfred Von Richtoffen, who was shot down and imprisoned in 1917 and killed in 1918, was another adventure read. Some of the famous aircraft were to be later seen at Old Warden, Bedford.
Sundays, of course, meant we had to wear our best clothes for Sunday school, after which they were immediately removed. The local Church of England was under the care of the ‘Rev. Pat Casey’. Not Catholic, but High Church with incense etc. He was not averse to pointing out some of his more recalcitrant black sheep on their rare attendances.
We would sit at the back of the church, with a small glass tube firing seeds of rice at unsuspecting victims, probably girls, or spin carlings ( a sort of pea) with a pin through them, on our pew on the Sunday before Psalm Sunday. I was never acolyte material, but size wise I was press-ganged into blowing the organ. A wary eye had to be kept on the lead weight indicating the amount of air in the bellows. Failure resulted in the music for the hymns being in the wrong key! I was paid sixpence, but was made redundant when an electric motor was fitted. Attendance was recorded by a star stamped on a card and regular visits resulted in a special prize of a Bible or a prayer book presented at the annual Christmas party in the Church hall. I still have them.
One of the highlights of the week would be the two penny rush on a Saturday afternoon. It was held in the Palace Theatre/Cinema next to where we lived. Hoards of rowdy children waited impatiently to get in and were then even more rowdy once they were inside. The main feature would probably be a cowboy such as Gene Autrey and then there was what I presume was, a compulsory ‘educational section’ like ballet etc, which resulted in a tremendous amount of booing. If the film projector broke down, there would be much stamping of feet and the supervisor, who carried a long cane, would be pelted with apple goucks [cores] and orange peel.
Finally, the ‘pièce de resistance’ would be the serial – Flash Gordon would be trying to rescue his girlfriend Dale Arden from the clutches of the dastardly Ming. Would he, or would he not? See next week!
One of my other friends was Reuben, who did not go to Grammar School. He seemed bright enough to me, but some miners would not approve of their offspring going to a ‘posh’ School. Miners and their widows used to be given free coal. The coal was very small and dusty and was delivered to the back street to be put into a hatch in the coal house. Those who could not manage to do this themselves would pay sixpence to have it done for them. Reuben and I supplemented our meagre pocket money doing this and would return home black with what is known as ‘the pulleys on’. This expression came from the black soot rings round the eyes when miners first went down the mine. My family thought it was hilarious, but sent me for a very early bath.
However, it gave us the opportunity to buy elastic propelled aircraft to be flown on the unused football pitch, also used for pitch and toss by the miners.