»  Life on Delapre Estate

1950 aerial

———————

Most of the estate — Gloucester Avenue/Crescent/Close, Friars Avenue/Crescent/Close, the prefabs — was built in the late 1940s as part of the Labour government's house-building program. Houses is what they built. No school, library, playground, park, church, pub, cinema, or shops (but see below) … just houses. That was all right. People on the estate were glad enough to have a house.

———————



School, library, playground, park

All were in Far Cotton. Our nearest school was Far Cotton CPS, a mile away. The school in Hardingstone village was about the same distance, but only village children attended it. In the mid-1950s a school was built on Mere Way, but too late for us.

The nearest library was the one in Far Cotton, opposite St. Mary's church. The rec was our nearest park, though we were taken to Abington Park often by my mother, and I knew it well from an early age. The rec had a small playground — swings, slides, roundabout — on the west side.

 

Churches

Northampton and the countryside around are well supplied with lovely old churches, some of them (Brixworth, Earls Barton) going back to Saxon times. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton town center, built by Simon de Senlis on his return from the First Crusade, is one of only four churches in the "Crusader round" style still surviving in England.

For us on the estate, the nearest churches were in Far Cotton: St. Mary's (Anglican, dating from around 1880), and Methodist and Baptist chapels nearby. St. Edmund's church in Hardingstone was very little further (one mile, vs. 0.8 mi. to St. Mary's), but there was no bus, Hardingstone Lane was unlit and creepy in the dark, and there was a mental town/country barrier to be surmounted.

There was, in any case, not much church-going among the residents of Delapre estate. Our parents probably felt that we got sufficient religion at school. (Under the 1944 Education Act, every school day began with an "act of worship" — hymn, lesson, brief sermon, prayers — and every school curriculum had to include regular Religious Instruction.) Some of the kids were shipped off to Sunday School at St. Mary's in Far Cotton, but this was just the traditional English working-class way for married couples to get a couple of hours' privacy on their day off. If asked, people would have said they were glad their kids were getting some extra R.I., but sex was the main point.

The only regular church-goers I knew were the Starmers at No. 64 next door. They were Roman Catholics, and went to St. John's church at the foot of Bridge Street. ("Along with all the navvies," scoffed my Dad. Northampton had a big contingent of Irish laborers. The town features prominently in Dónall Mac Amhlaigh's 1960 Irish-language classic Dialann Dioraí, translated by Valentin Iremonger as An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile. The town Irish were of course solidly R.C., and many of them attended St. John's. Everyone looked down on them as wild, uncouth, unwashed, and addicted to drinking, fighting, and procreation. Mac Amhlaigh's quiet little book — the pronunciation of the name, by the way, can be got from its common English spelling: Macaulay — gives a different picture.) Incidentally, Peter Starmer did not go to Far Cotton school, but to an R.C. school in the town. The Starmers were not Irish. I don't know where their Catholicism came from. Possibly they were recusants from the North.

 

Pubs, Cinemas

The main place for socializing among working-class English people was the pub. The nearest pubs to Delapre estate were:

Though closest, the Queen Eleanor was thought a bit too grand for anything other than special occasions. I don't recall anyone from the estate ever going to The Sun, though I suppose people must have. Pub-goers favored Far Cotton, riding down on the bus, and then home again at closing time.

I don't recall seeing any drunkenness on the estate, though you occasionally heard stuff. In fact it was more usual for man and wife to go to the pub together as a social outing. Mr. and Mrs. Davis (or Davies) at No. 70 did this every week, dressed up for the occasion, on a schedule you could set your watch by. The Stents took similar outings, though I think less regularly.

Northampton town was well supplied with cinemas. The nearest to us was the Tivoli in Far Cotton, where the Towcester Road turned into St. Leonard's Road. My own family didn't patronize the "Tiv" much. Going to the "flicks" was a sufficiently major event, we would go to the grander places in the town.

 

Shops

Shops, we had. The middle third of Gloucester Avenue's north side was undeveloped waste ground. Just east of that was a little row of shops, in older buildings that pre-dated the building of the estate. In my earliest memories, I think there were only three. Going from west to east, they were: the wool shop, the paper shop, the fish and chip shop.

The first shop (as we approached from the west, having walked through the jitties from Friars Avenue) was the wool shop. My mother was a keen knitter, dressmaker, and crocheter, and this was where she bought her supplies.

East of that was the paper shop, so-called because it was responsible for delivering our periodicals:

We were a great reading household.

The paper shop was also our source for candy, fireworks (in the weeks leading up to Guy Fawkes Night), and small, cheap toys. It was, as we would nowadays say, a great "resource." A family named Robinson was running it by the early 1960s, but I don't recall if they were the earliest proprietors.

Last in the strip, bordered on the east by a short track leading to a locked gate into the allotments, was Bill Tuckey's fish and chip shop. For orderly queuing inside the shop, there was an inverted-U wooden rail planted just inside the door, the horizontal I suppose three feet from the ground. When we first started going to the shop I was small enough that I could walk under the rail, to reach up and touch it from beneath. The last time I recall going there was in 1984, 35 or 36 years later. Bill was the proprietor for all that time, and even (I think) for some years after. He had a shrewish wife who eventually, at some point in the later years, left him, or (more probably) he her.

A bag (small, hand-sized, waxed-paper) of chips (i.e. french fries) cost 3d. (i.e. three old pennies, pronounced "thruppence" — about four cents at the then-rate of exchange). A piece of fish, deep-fried in batter, was ninepence and up, depending on the species: cod, hake, plaice, "rock salmon" (which I think was a euphemism for dogfish). However, Bill would sell us kids a bag of "bits" (fragments of batter from his periodic sweeps of the deep frier) for a penny, if he was in a good mood, which he generally was when his wife wasn't around.

Bill also sold wet fish in small quantities, though he wasn't a regular fishmonger. The other feature of his shop I remember was the brands of soda. We got our household soda — Corona brand, the bottles furnished with a stopper pressed down by a wire spring — from a traveling service, but Bill had exotic kinds: Cream Soda, Dandelion & Burdock, Tizer. (Though this last was slightly less exotic, as Auntie Annie in Birmingham — Muriel's mother-in-law/cousin — used to feed it to us.) Bill was a great Rugby fan. He always had a season schedule for the Saints, our town rugby team, posted up in his shop somewhere. His shop was always spotlessly clean — he scrubbed it constantly.

As time went by the little strip of shops gradually expanded westwards along that north side of Gloucester Avenue. Two more shops were added at some point in the early 1950s: a greengrocer just west of the wool shop, then a hardware store to the west of that. Soon afterwards the Co-op store went up west of those. My own parents didn't belong to the Co-op, but Peter Starmer's did, and I used to go there with him on a Saturday morning for his family's supplies. I remember one Saturday he had a five-pound note with him to pay for the goods. It was the first five-pound note I had seen — the old black and white one, legal tender until March 1961.

 

Gambling

Working-class people in England are, or were, chronic gamblers. To us kids on the estate, the most visible aspect of this side of the national character was the Pools.

Pretty much everyone "did the Pools." Prizes were stupendous. One Friars Avenue family — their name was Digby — won £75,000, equivalent to well over a century's income for an average local family in the early 1950s. To my mother's great scorn, the Digbys took a fortnight's vacation in Torquay, this being apparently the limit of their sumptuary imaginations. (Torquay is a lower-middle-class seaside resort in the English southwest — locale for the 1970s Fawlty Towers TV sitcom.) Then they retired to a modest house in Hardingstone.

Other than the Pools, I can't recall much gambling, though everyone had a "flutter" on the Grand National in the spring. Not to have done so would have been considered unpatriotic. There was a dog-racing track down at Cotton End, just south of the river along an eastward track from South Bridge. I suppose some of the neighborhood men patronized it. In fact I recall one neighbor, though I forget which one, breeding racing dogs.

 

Transport

Nobody on the estate owned a car. To get anywhere, you walked, bicycled, or took a bus. I can remember my father, in the late 1940s, going to work on a bicycle. Buses were much the most popular form of transport, though. Three of the municipal bus lines served Delapre, all starting from The Drapery, Northampton town center.

It cost a penny to ride the No. 7 bus to Far Cotton in my childhood, a penny ha'penny to the town center. These were old, pre-1971 pennies, of course — twelve to the shilling.

These were all red municipal buses, serving the town. There was also a system of green buses serving the countryside all around, and out to Cambridge, Oxford (each forty miles away, though in different directions) and even further beyond.

 

Work

Everyone on the estate belonged to the manual or low-clerical classes. My mother, a State Registered Nurse, was unusual in having any kind of professional qualification. My father did whatever minor clerical work he could get. Bob Longdon and Ernie Sansome were truck drivers; Tom Starmer a butcher; Fred Allen was a cinema projectionist at the Savoy in town. John Smith's father worked in the town's main department store in some capacity; Mr. Ratcliffe was a clerk for a manufacturing company (elevators) in the town. The other men did unskilled work for the railway, or for Phipps's brewery just north of South Bridge, or in the shoe factories, or one of the small industrial outfits in Far Cotton. If the women worked, it was low-grade factory work or something similar. I think my mother was the only one with a regular job involving any kind of real skill.

 

Politics

Politics made an appearance only at election time, when cars used to cruise up and down the street to take voters to the polling booths. The cars were of course laid on by the parties for this purpose, each festooned with party banners in red (Labour) or blue (Tory). John Smith said his Dad was a Tory, but this was exceptional. Delapre Estate was pretty solid for Labour, like Northampton at large.

 

Play

The main focus of life for us kids was of course play. We played in the street, there being practically no motor traffic. The Opies' 1959 classic Lore and Language of Schoolchildren describes a good deal of my own childhood. We played in our gardens: it was in John Smith's garden that I first heard (from the house: his older sister Pat had a record player, which of course she played much too loud) the voice of Elvis Presley. We played around the neighborhood. There was a popular game called "tracking," in which you set off alone with a piece of chalk, making occasional marks with it as you went, so that your playmates could track you … if you left enough marks, if they could distinguish the marks from the ones made in some previous edition of the game, if you didn't cheat, etc.

We played on the Gloucester Avenue waste ground. The middle third of the avenue's north side, from the shops all the way along to opposite the Friars Avenue outlet, was waste ground, lightly seeded with builders' rubble from the construction of nearby houses. It was about twenty yards deep all along; then came a fence — sharp-pointed steel uprights painted green, coming up through, and joined by, a single steel cross-piece six inches below the points. On the other side of the fence was the Gloucester Road allotments. There were gates at the east and west ends of the fence for access to the allotments, but these were often locked.

(For no reason I can fathom, a particularly vivid memory remains of walking home from school one November evening across these allotments. I suppose I was five or six. My sister was with me, and Pat Smith from the house opposite ours, and possibly John Smith, and I think also "Bubbles" Allen. It was getting dark and I was slightly scared, but the older children kept reassuring me. Whan we got home at last, there was a fire buring in the living-room at No. 62. My mother had bought us some playthings — perhaps this is the feature that makes me remember the scene: we normally never got toys except at Christmas and birthdays, and this was neither. There was a board game, I forget which one, and a small set of painted Indian figures for me, complete with wigwam. There was some candy, too, I think, and a book. I sat by the fireside playing and feeling very happy, in the way that perhaps only small children can.)

The waste ground on Gloucester Avenue was, by the way, the perfect place for a November Fifth bonfire. Neighborhood kids would be piling up old furniture and waste wood for weeks beforehand, and nursing nightmares that some rival group, or lone idiot, would torch the pile before the great night.

As we got older, we played further afield. Delapre woods, along the east side of London Road, and the meadows behind them, which went on for ever to the east, were great favorites. For adventurous boys, there was Danes' Camp at the west.

"Danes' Camp" was the local name for the old Iron Age earthworks officially known as Hunsbury Hill. I suppose the Danish army must have occupied the place on their razzia through the East Midlands in the 860s, and the memory had impressed itself in the minds of local people sufficiently for the name to last eleven centuries.

We spent much less time playing around Danes' Camp than we did in the woods and fields of Delapre, though. Danes' Camp was farther away and harder to get to than the Delapre woods.

It was also much used by Gypsies, who were mysterious and scary to us children. The Gypsies — "Didecoys" to the locals — would park along the grassy track leading from Towcester Road to Danes' Camp (it shows on the map as a westward continuation of Mere Way). When we boys were older and bolder, it was a "dare" to go to this place at night and spy on the Didecoys. I remember doing so once and seeing them all seated in a circle round a big fire made of waste wood, like Red Indians. On another occasion, or perhaps the same one, we were discovered, and chased out of there by a ferocious Gypsy roaring: "I'll cut your livers out if I catch you!" We believed him, and ran for our lives. The Didecoys always had a lot of mean, mangy dogs, and left prodigious quantities of rubbish behind when they moved on.

 

Families

The estate was populated almost entirely by nuclear families: Dad, Mum, kids. In the provincial English working class of the 1940s and 1950s, divorce was unknown, single parenthood unthinkable.

There is an episode in one of Anthony Powell's novels where the upper-class hero, who has joined the army to fight WW2, is in conversation with his working-class — though Welsh, I think — sergeant. The sergeant had spoken of a couple of his aquaintances who had fallen in love and got married some years before. "And how are they now?" asks the upper-class narrator. "Why, all right," replies the sergeant, clearly baffled by the question. "Why should they not be?" That was our mentality, too. High expectations were for those who could afford them.

Women were expected to keep their houses clean and their children clothed and fed. Men were expected to bring home a paycheck (actually an envelope with cash in it, visible through small circular holes in the envelope — nobody had a bank account, or would have known how to use one) and to keep their gardens neat. Kids were expected to go to school; and, when not at school, to amuse themselves and keep out of the adults' way.

Two was the commonest number of kids, as with our family, the Starmers, the Allens, the Stents, the Sansomes, the Smiths, and the Ratcliffes. Only children were a bit of a curiosity, and under suspicion of being "spoiled." The Longdons' five was the upper limit of normality. The old philoprogenitive tradition lingered on in places, though, and not only among the town Irish: the Blands, eastern neighbors of the Smiths, had twelve kids. They didn't socialize, and it was a matter of neighborhood speculation how they slept twelve kids in one of our three-bedroom council houses. I only remember Maureen Bland, a girl about my own age, pretty but in an off-puttingly "Mediterranean" way: black hair, dark eyes and skin. Some people said the Blands were Gypsies who'd settled, but I doubt this is true. Gypsies hardly ever settled. They liked being Gypsies.

And the distinctions I note here were very minor by the "diversity" standards of today. Everybody was white and wellnigh everybody was English. Most of the people I grew up among had grandparents, probably great-great-grandparents too, born within a ten-mile radius. Since neither of my parents were native Northamptonians, we were regarded as being outsiders, and a bit "stuck up" on that account (though also because my father wore a tie to work and my mother insisted on speaking Received Standard Pronunciation). The town Irish were positively exotic, the Didecoys even more so. The ice-cream van was owned by an Italian family, the Gallones; Dr. Koplowicz, our dentist in the town, was Polish ("Pliss to reents now …"), but these foreign-nesses were assumed to be some kind of déformations professionels. Mrs. Cadd down the street was Scottish, and allowances were made for her — she had a notoriously sharp tongue — on that account. Everyone else I grew up amongst was English, English, English, and English. This was England when — as my mother said bitterly in her old age — it was England.

Though most of the men on Delapre Estate did industrial, automotive, or commercial work, the general ambience was in fact more country than town. I am pretty sure no-one in Friars Avenue kept a pig, but there were chickens in some of the back yards. Shooting for low-grade game birds — wood-pigeons and rooks — was allowed on some of the nearby land, and I can remember seeing men of the neighborhood strolling along Friars Avenue with shotguns and fowling-pieces under their arms, looking to get something the wife could put in a pie. (More martial shooting sounds could sometimes be heard from Simpson Barracks, a mile south of us on the London Road, which had a rifle range.)

Delapre Estate was a quiet place, populated by men who saw themselves as breadwinners bringing home a weekly wage to their families, and perhaps a pigeon or a rabbit for the pot at weekends; and by women who strove, with varying degrees of determination, to keep themselves respectable and their houses clean; and by kids who heard no command from their elders more often than: "Go out and play — mind you're back in time for supper."

Out we went, to play immemorially old games in the trafficless street, or down the jitty to the shops for a pennyworth of candy and a picture comic; or off to the woods and fields that rolled endlessly away across the lovely, ancient English landscape. It all seems very long ago now, very far away.