»  1950s Northampton — Town Life

Abington Park


This page is just some notes on life in the town as I remember it.

I didn't actually get to know the town until my teens. My stamping grounds as a child were Delapre and Far Cotton. With some exceptions, I don't think I ever did get to know Northampton really well. Being an outsider — my parents not Northamptonians — didn't help.

Among the exceptions: Abington Park, a favorite place of my mother's from my earliest childhood. The picture on this web page was taken in Abington Park in 1947, or perhaps 1946. I'm the guy having issues with the ice cream over on the left. My sister Judith is in the deckchair, my mother behind the pram. The other person is unknown to me.

Hospitals, too. My mother worked at all the Northampton hospitals, I think, and also did "district nursing" — traveling round the town visiting people in their homes. I did some hospital time on my own account, being a sickly child. One way and another, I got a comprehensive look at the town's medical life.

Major entertainments were a town thing, too: cinemas (we rarely patronized the Tivoli in Far Cotton), circuses every year on the Race Course, Christmas pantomime at the New Theatre.

These few exceptions aside, my knowledge of the town was patchy. I've written some notes here, for what they're worth. First, the parts I did know.


Abington Park

As can be seen from the picture, my memories of the park go back to the beginning of memory. In our Perry Street days it was just a ten-minute walk away. When we moved to Delapre it became a couple of longish bus rides, but we (in this context I think mainly my mother) were not deterred.

We also had aquaintances in Sandringham Road, near the park's southwest corner. These were two ladies, Mrs. Glenn and Miss Stott, who had let a room to my father at some point — perhaps when he moved to Northampton ahead of my mother in 1943. Prim, ferociously respectable, and set in their ways, they weren't particulary child-friendly, but I think they did their best, and I remember them kindly. We used to drop in for tea with them on our way to and from the park, and I think they might have done some minor baby-sitting duties with us.

The park was full of wonders. There were ponds with ducks on them; a playground with swings and slides; bowling greens and tennis courts; flower gardens; a lovely old church and graveyard; a mysterious windowless tower (for pigeons, which English people were fond of eating until recently). Most exciting of all were the aviary and the museum. The aviary was just a path lined with big cages. In the cages were all kinds of birds, some quite exotic:  cockatoos, budgerigars, canaries, parrots. The star of the show was a peacock. I must have spent an aggregate of several hours standing there waiting for the peacock to spread his tail. He always would, sooner or later — he was an obliging fellow.

The museum was one's training for reading gothic fiction in later life. I believe it was actually the old manor house. Everything — floors, stairs and banisters, paneling in some of the rooms — was old dark wood, worn smooth with age and polished bright. There were glass cases with strange stuffed animals in them; a whole room of Victorian toys and doll's houses; old costumes and shoes; musket-balls, cannon-balls, and bits of armor from the Civil War; a painting of the fattest man that ever lived (so we were told) — an 18th-century Northamptonian whose name I have forgotten. Most thrilling of all, there was a mummified hand from an Egyptian tomb. It was the kind of place H.P. Lovecraft would have enjoyed.

And there was the park itself, a wonderful place to stroll, picnic, and play in the summer. On the Wellingborough Road side there was an artificial hill, actually a pile of dirt that had been excavated to make one of the ponds. We chased each other up and down this for hours. There was a bandstand nearby, a fine ornate traditional bandstand, where town and military bands would play on Sunday afternoons. Abington Park — oh!

I'm glad to see that Abington Park is on the internet. This website has some good pictures.



Leaving aside the Tivoli in Far Cotton, there were at least 8 cinemas in the town.

Grandest were the Savoy in Abington Square and the Gaumont at the northwest corner of the market square. These were real picture palaces in the heroic prewar style. The Gaumont had a restaurant on the premises — this, in the days when middle-class folk rarely, and the working classes never, went to restaurants. I associated restaurants vaguely with sin — adultery, probably. Restaurants were for real toffs. Both the Savoy and the Gaumont had electric organs that rose from a pit at the front. Both had fleets of "usherettes" — presentable young ladies to escort you to your seat, or sell you ice creams and snacks in the intervals. (My brother married an usherette.) Both had elaborate programs: main film, "B" film, advertisements, newsreels, and "features" — little travelogues usually. A night at the "flicks" was really a night out.

For the rest, there was a pecking order. The Picturedrome, opposite the Race Course, was all right, as was the Coliseum in Kingsthorpe Hollow; the Plaza on Wellingborough Road was a bit sleazy; the Ritz and the Essoldo best avoided. Down at the bottom was the Temperance Hall in Newlands, just north of the Market Square, said to harbor more communicable diseases than the basin of the Congo.

There was also, for kids, Saturday afternoon flicks. For threepence admission you got to watch Flash Gordon, Tarzan, or some other action hero; and, if it was your birthday, you might be brought up on the stage by the emcee for congratulations, to much jeering from your friends in the audience. Early lessons in embarrassment.

Northampton had two stage-theaters: the Repertory in Derngate, which put on proper plays, and the New Theatre in Abington Street, which was really just a music hall, putting on variety shows — comedians, conjurers, dancers, "specialty" acts. We kids were taken to the New Theatre for traditional Christmas pantomimes: raucous affairs with juvenile humor for us, smutty humor for the accompanying adults, and endless cross-dressing. Nowadays the political-correctness alarms would be going off thirty seconds into the show.

Once a year the circus would come to town, erecting a huge tent on the Race Course. This was a sensational event, quite hard to get tickets for. I forget the names of the circus proprietors, though I believe there was more than one (perhaps more than one a year — my memory is vague here). The performances were entirely traditional: trapeze artists (my favorite), tightrope walkers, lion tamer, clowns, acrobatics on moving horses, elephants, human cannonball. It would never sell nowadays. For one thing, the animal rights people would come down on you like a ton of bricks. To a kid of six or seven in a sleepy provincial English town, though, it was all very wonderful.



The big hospital was the General on Billing Road. My mother did at least one spell of work there, and I was hospitalized there myself at least four times:  tonsils & adenoids around 1950, mastoidectomy 1952 or 1953, appendectomy 1954 or 1955, motorbike accident 1963. To a child the place of course seemed infinitely large. It was sensationally clean: on a children's ward after my mastoidectomy, we boys used to relieve our boredom by sliding up and down the corridors, using our folded-up dressing-gowns as sleds. The hospital staff must have been exceptionally sure-footed.

Next to the General, a little way down Cheyne Walk, was the Barratt Maternity Home. Barratt's was a big firm of shoe manufacturers in the town. I suppose they had endowed the place. Mum worked there too, for a while — she worked at all the hospitals.

Way out along the Kettering Road at Spinney Hill was Manfield Orthopædic Hospital. Mum disliked working there because it was so far. It was a nice place, though, if you had to be hospitalized. One of my schoolfellows was in there for problems related to polio (I think — there was a lot of polio around). I went to visit him. The place was beautiful, set in lovely parkland, with rows of French windows opening from his ward onto rolling lawns.

St. Edmund's hospital, where Mum spent the last fifteen years or so of her working life, was on the Wellingborough Road, opposite St. Edmund's church (now defunct … and not to be confused with the other St. Edmund's church in Hardingstone). It had ob-gyn and geriatric sections, known to the staff as "Gynie" (hard "g")and "Gerrie" (soft "g"). Mum mainly worked in the geriatric section. She didn't like geriatric nursing much — most of your patients leave feet first — but stuck at it for long enough to become Assistant Matron, no. 2 in the nursing hierarchy of the hospital. (The Matron was a lady named Mrs. Aldridge. Her husband was Mayor of Northampton, 1977-78.)

(Some years after she retired, I was driving Mum past St. Edmund's. We saw a grand new wing being built. Me: "Looks like they're expanding the old place." She: "Not really. It's just for clerical staff. There won't be any more beds." Me: "Clerical staff? What will they all do?" She: "Oh, keep track of bed linen, purchasing, dealing with relatives, that sort of thing." Me: "Well, who did all that stuff before?" She: "Myself and Mrs. Aldridge." The Bureaucratic Age had arrived.)

Out Duston way, west of the town, was St. Crispin's mental hospital (frankly called an "asylum" in my childhood), where my father, afflicted with Alzheimer's, spent his last few days on Earth. The place closed in 1988. Northamptonians, a conservative lot, mainly referred to St. Crispin's by its original name, Berrywood, usually deployed for derogatory purposes: "Yer'll end up in Berrywood if yer goo on like that …"

Much more interesting, though secretive and little known to the townspeople, was St. Andrew's hospital out on the Billing Road. This is where John Clare, the "Northamptonshire peasant poet," was institutionalized, 1841-64. St. Andrew's was "private" — actually a charitable institution, but it was known that you needed some "pull" to get a bed there. Stars of stage, screen, and radio used to take spells in St. Andrews to get their neuroses worked on — or, it was said around the town, to dry out. The great radio and TV star Tony Hancock was a customer.

Mum was also a District Nurse for a while. (My recollection was that she worked for the Queen Alexandra Nursing Service. Looking this up on the internet, though, the QA is a military nursing service, so that can't be right.) The work involved traveling around the town visiting people in their homes. This supplied Mum with a rich fund of lurid horror stories about the conditions poorer people lived in, and fortified her obsession with hygiene.



The town was well supplied with shops, the main shopping thoroughfares being The Drapery in the very center of town and Abington Street heading off north-east to Abington Square. Gold Street, going west from the town center, was a good secondary shopping area.

The town boasted two department stores: Adnitts in the Drapery (later Debenhams), and the Co-Op in Abington Street. Not being Co-Op members, we patronized Adnitt's on the rare occasion we could afford to.

More familiar to me were the town's two (at least) establishments of F.W. Woolworth, and the similar Littlewoods and British Home Stores. These were the standard dime-store format: goods laid out on flat displays, assistants stationed behind working the cash registers.

Poole's toy store in Abington Square was a big attraction, especially around Christmas time. There was an even better toy department in the basement of a store near the public library in Abington Street, but I've forgotten the name. Johnson's?



The educational system in 1950s England was straightforwardly structured by money and IQ. Parents who could afford it sent their kids to private schools, either day or boarding. There were no boarding schools in the town. The nearest were boys' schools at Oundle, out Peterborough way, and Stowe, in Buckinghamshire. The toniest school was one for girls at Derngate, near the town center. Notre Dame girls' school in Abington Street was also private or partly private, I think, but nothing like as tony as Derngate.

Everything else was state schools, organized under the "tripartite system" established by the 1944 Education Act. Everyone took an exam — basically an IQ test — at age 11. Top scorers went to academic "grammar" schools; the second tier went to "technical" schools; the rest were sent to "secondary modern" schools, from which they were expected to graduate at age 15. It wasn't an inflexible system. I was at university with a girl who had late-bloomed her way out of secondary modern school. It did come under criticism for shutting off kids from opportunity, though, and from the 1960s on was replaced by a system of "comprehensive" schools taking students of all abilities. Whether this was really an improvement is still a topic of debate. I am certainly not going to complain about the old system. Thanks to the 1944 Act, I got a first-class academic education free of charge.

At any rate, the town had a boys' grammar school, which I attended, and a girls' grammar school, which my sister attended, and a substructure of technical and secondary-modern schools about which I remember almost nothing.



In modern times Northampton got a reputation as radical. The town was strong for Parliament in the Civil War. Northampton actually made all the boots for Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. (He never paid, a thing townspeople were still grumbling about 300 years later.) In the 19th century the town's electors insisted on voting repeatedly for Charles Bradlaugh, who as an atheist was technically not eligible to take his seat in Parliament. There is a statue to Bradlaugh in Abington Square.

In my own childhood the town was solidly Labour. The English class system is not easily fathomed, though. Our Labour member from 1945 to 1974 (meaning that he was elected, then re-elected seven times) was Reggie Paget — which is to say, Reginald Thomas Guy Des Voeux Paget, a fox-hunting country squire from a good county family, who had attended Eton, England's premier private boys' boarding school. An engaging and very worldly man with a deep gravelly voice, Reggie used to come and talk to us Sixth Formers at my own school — titbits of Parliamentary gossip mixed with sound instruction in matters legal and constitutional. Everybody liked Reggie.

The main impression made on me by elections was automotive. Because working people did not have cars, volunteers used to race around on Election Day taking supporters to the polls. I used to sit on the wall outside our house with my pals John Smith and Peter Starmer, watching the cars run up and down Friars Avenue. John Smith's people were Tory, so he cheered the cars with blue election stickers. This was eccentric, though. Everyone else I knew was Labour, like my own family, and we cheered the cars with red stickers.



When I was growing up in Northampton, the town was served by a municipal bus fleet — red double-deckers (smoking only permitted upstairs). The country villages around were served by green buses, both single- and double-decker, operating out of Derngate bus station (just above and right of center on the bottom row, center map here). Other private bus lines served the town too: York Buses, Midland Red, and Wesleys are the only names I recall. I think York may have run the green buses, but I'm not sure.


Northampton Speech

Northampton people spoke with a distinctive accent, doing odd things with consonants, vowels, and grammar, and using some peculiar dialect words. This is mainly a thing of the past now. Early 21st-century Northamptonians use the same flat cockneyish speech as everyone else in southern Britain. I can still hear the old style of speech, though, in my mind's ear.

Dorothy Grimes included this sample conversation in her 1991 book Like Dew Before the Sun: Life and Language in Northamptonshire. This is Northampton speech as I remember it.

    'Allo, stranger — ain't seen yer f'r a good while — are yer bin bad?
    Ah, a bit middlin', what wi' the screws an' the face-ache. 'Ow a you then, gal?
    Well, bedder'n I were two month agoo with all that bronical trouble. I were abed a week wi' that, y'know. 'Ow's your chap these days?
    Oo, 'e's up the 'lotment most o' the time now, even when it rains — one thing, we do get some nice taters — not like some on 'em you buy — all gone sapy. It all 'elps — things don't get no cheaper.
    No, they don't gal — makes yer frit t'look at some o' the prices.
    Yis — I reckon kids' clothes'r about the wust. Our gal 'as a job t'manage with 'er bab, but we 'elp 'er out — a bit of 'elp's worth a lot o' pity, they say, don't they?
    Ne' mind, we wouldn't be without 'em, would we?
    I dunno s'much, some days. 'Ere, are yer got the time? 'Tain't five 'an twenty to, is it, yit? 'cus om got me bus t'catch — I shall be late else. Om godder get our tea an' give our Terry 'isn when 'e comes in an' see as everything's cleared up …
    'Ere, 'ang on — doin' a lot o' scrattin' about, ain't yer?
    Yis, well, I goo out with our Glad, y'know, a Sat'dys, an' shiz a bit p'tic'lar. You should see 'er glinin' about. I don't want 'er t'think om slummocky, even if we do live in muck an' comfort sometimes. Anyway, shladder goo. T'da.
    T'da, ma duck. 'Ere's your bus a-comin'.

[the screws = rheumatism;  face-ache = tooth-ache;  'lotment = allotmentsapy = spoiled;  frit = frightened (Margaret Thatcher, a Lincolnshire girl, used this word in the House of Commons once, to general bafflement);  scrattin' = fussing;  glinin' = looking around furtively;  slummocky = slovenly.]