1953 – Year of the pageboy
It was the Coronation year, UKIP hadn’t been invented, I was as yet to visit Turf Moor, and they dressed me up in this ridiculous garb. There’s me, a normal, lusty, rumbustuous, play out with my pals, kick a ball kind of lad, and they dress me up as an effing page boy. The town had organised a day of celebrations one of which was the historical pageant and procession through the streets of the town ending at the local park. You had to dress as something which reflected the history of Britain. In short, something that had put the Great into Britain.
I have never forgotten the humiliation. I was a normal lad. I read the Eagle and Dan Dare, Beano and Dandy, built dens, played in the local graveyard, fired catapults at the postman’s van as it drove by the house, was cheeky to passers-by and the best game of all was throwing stones across the canal at the windows of the Coop cobblers’ workshop which faced us across the water. For a dare we tiptoed and balanced precariously on the canal lock gates and lurched across to the other side of the canal. God knows what would have happened if one of us had fallen in. The dead dog in the lock we talked about for weeks and returned to stare at its floating body on a daily basis to see if it was still there. If no one was looking we sneaked up onto the railway lines and put a penny on the track. Then we came out of our hiding place to see how squashed the penny was after a steam train ran over it. Boy it sure was squashed alright.
We tramped for miles up on the hilltops and eventually reached Stoodley Pike, a great stone monument that looked out over the valley. At junior school I was king of the rounders team when we played in the playground. My reputation spread the length and breadth of the class.
In short, I was not a wimp. But still it was decided that a page boy I should be, decorated in something that resembled pantaloons, tights, a skimpy jacket, a fancy hat with a feather on my head, and this cushion I had to carry with a cardboard crown on it. I was aghast. But I was only 9. There was no arguing. My suggestion that I dressed as a footballer in a Burnley shirt though I’d never seen them, only heard of them, was given short shrift. Other lads went as Robin Hood or King Arthur or soldiers. But me; I had to be a bloody page boy.
Life at Roomfield Junior School (demolished now) consisted of sums, tables, compositions, craft and drawing. Once a year, the clay bin came out. The headmaster was called Harry Wilson. I don’t think I saw him smile in all the years I was in that school. In those days you got a good hiding for any misdemeanours. Teachers’ son I might have been but I had my fair share of thwacks. I got my own back on Harry Wilson one day when he thwacked me so hard, I thought right I’ll cause you some misery now and so I pretended to have a fit. His face went ashen; he really thought he’d overstepped the mark and that he was done for. He could see newspaper headlines already: Brutal Headmaster Kills Innocent Schoolboy. He hovered over me and I could see the worry in his eyes and face. Then I feigned sleep for the afternoon. Assuming I had recovered, his face returned to normal an hour later.
School dinners were appalling and not only were they inedible you had to walk from school in a long crocodile to the nearby Methodist Hall to eat them. In rain and snow and hail and tempest we trudged to this cold, damp, unheated, cheerless hall with the plaster peeling from the walls to eat, or attempt to eat on most days, brisket, mash, and soggy, limp cabbage. Jam roly poly and thin custard was the customary dessert. Sago pudding is a vision that returns to haunt me to this day.
Todmorden was a grim and grey place all those years ago. There were over 40 mills and great mill chimneys and line after line of terraced houses amidst the cobbled streets. My grandmother used to work in one of the mills until she and my granddad scraped the money to buy a small bakery shop. These were the days of smoke filling the air from the hundreds of chimneys and coal fires in the little terraced houses. Fog and smog were frequent. Young footballers coming down from the Northeast to seek their fortune at Burnley often landed at Todmorden Station to be met by the secretary Albert Maddox. Heaven only knows what they thought when they saw the vista below them of ugly mills and palls of smoke. And Burnley was even worse.
The weekly treat was a visit to the Olympia cinema. There was another place called the Hippodrome but this was old and smelly. In its pomp it had been the town’s theatre. Now it was the second cinema but was nowhere near as grand as the purpose-built Olympia. And anyway, the films were never as good. The Olympia was where Pathe Pictorial showed short clips of football matches, and on rare occasions Burnley. Today you can google Pathe News and see a dozen or more grainy black and white snatches of BFC. The Olympia by the way became a closed down Kwik Save, and is now demolished, and the Hippodrome thrives as the theatre reborn. The derelict Olympia was kind of sad and stood next door to the now equally closed down and demolished Abraham Ormerod Medical centre, a grand building where we trudged from school for vaccinations, of which there seemed to be far too many to a nine-year old like me. The Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre was also distinguished by the fact that a young doctor learned his trade there. Most doctors learn to save people and keep them alive. This one was different and was learning a different approach. His name was Doctor Shipman. A few good folks of Todmorden met their premature ends at his behest.
Anyway, at the Olympia we made a beeline, my dad and me, for any western that was on offer. This was the era of Randolph Scott, Joel McCrae and Audie Murphy and James Stewart. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. A big favourite film of the year was Dirk Bogarde and Kenneth More in Genevieve, the comedy story of the vintage London to Brighton car race.
But maybe the greatest film that year (and since) was Shane with Alan Ladd. I sat spellbound identifying all the way through with the young lad Joey, wondering why my dad couldn’t be more like Van Heflin. Alan Ladd became my superhero but this was spoiled years later when I read that he was so short that to make him look bigger he stood on a box to kiss his leading ladies and that special camera angles were chosen to make him look taller if he was fighting the baddie. It’s a favourite quiz question. Who played the part of Joey in Shane – answer – Brandon de Wilde. I spent six months after this dreaming I was a homesteader one day and a gunslinger the next. Playing Cowboys and Indians then was de rigueur.
There was an upstairs and a downstairs in this magnificent (to me) cinema. The plebs sat downstairs where it was cheaper, but of course being a teacher’s son, we sat upstairs in the balcony, very grand, and looked down on the town’s riff raff below. Pathe Pictorial newsreels showed things like Cup Finals and the conquest of Everest. These were stirring times to a young 9-year-old.
Maybe more importantly to a young buck like me was the end of sweet rationing. My parents were chuffed as well because income tax was cut. The nation was beginning to turn the corner. My father sat transfixed by the Goon Show on the radio; it was a little later before I became an addict. Journey into Space by Charles Chilton was the radio programme that had me hooked… but was it 1953… can’t be sure on that. Churchill was Prime Minister and Russia witnessed the death of Joseph Stalin. It is still imprinted in my mind how serious this was, according to my father, who studied the paper and predicted grave consequences for Europe and the world, especially as Prime Minister Churchill had allegedly had a stroke, something the government tried to keep secret. He had similar thoughts years later when Burnley Chairman Bob Lord died in 1981. My only thought was that there were now more sweets to buy. The papers were full of pictures of Sherpa Tenzing atop Mount Everest. I felt a burst of pride that indeed Britain was still Great.
It escaped my attention that Blackpool beat Bolton 4–3 in the Final later dubbed the Matthews Final. Nor did I notice that England were thumped 6 – 3 by Hungary at Wembley. English football was largely hump it, lump it and head it, and this had served England teams well over the years. Now along came players from the Continent with delicate skill and deft first touch and pass and move. There was widespread despair and shock. Yet it was an Englishman who hailed from Burnley, had played for Burnley, and eventually died in Burnley, who had taught the Austrians and Hungarians these skills and attitudes. Jimmy Hogan his name. In his old age he lived in Burnley again and he used to watch Adamson’s lovely passing team of the mid seventies and approved of what he saw. Not a lot of people know that.
Frank Hill was manager at Burnley and my father went with his football pals most Saturdays. I would one day be introduced to this Saturday ritual but was not yet considered ready. I therefore happily carried on throwing stones at windows and hurling cheek at the residents of Longfield Road. My grandmother lived in a little house just a few yards down the road. We’d have a walk round the park or the market sometimes. It was however much more fun finding dead dogs in the canal. I slept at my grandmother’s house every Friday night while the parents went off up to the pub high up on the moors near Mankinholes. Every Friday night we listened to Friday Night is Music Night by the light of a flickering coal fire. And on Saturday morning she made a pile of jam sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Funny what you remember after all these years.
Frank Hill was from Scotland but had been an Arsenal player and won three titles with them. My father always rated him highly because he had been the man who signed Jimmy McIlroy for Burnley. But according to my father he also had a penchant for making a few extra quid for himself every now and then. There’s a story that a lovely new pair of leather shoes he was wearing one day were courtesy of some cup tickets he had sold. Alan Brown the player had left the club and boy did my father rate him as a player. Hard as nails he was, six feet tall with a back as straight as a ship’s mast. Nobody messed with Alan Brown my dad said and this was in an age when football was all about surviving the brutal clatterings that were dished out all game long.
He talked about a player called Billy Elliott as well, another player made of concrete. But the significant thing was, Elliott wasn’t a defender he was a winger, and this was when wingers were often delicate little ball players with twinkle toes, who were simply seen by hulking full backs as objects to be propelled into the stands. It was quite a shock for the first full back (whoever he was) who, situation reversed; found himself surprisingly propelled into the stands by Elliott.
“Bloody ‘ell,” he no doubt thought when he landed. “That’s not supposed to ‘appen.” My father used to laugh at the crosses Elliott put over. “They were so hard and fast that the forwards used to duck to get their heads out of the way and Elliott didn’t like that and played hell with them.” Actually, Elliot used to bellow “which of you fuckers ducked” but of course my father could never tell me that.
“It was a damned good team and they could have won the title in ’53,” my father told me some time later when my interest had been kindled. Les Shannon was one of his favourite players, a cultured wing half who scored 15 goals that season. “There was a cracking centre forward called Bill Holden, he scored 22, centre half Tommy Cummings was outstanding, they won five of the first six games and until the middle of March looked like they might well win the First Division. But then after that they only won two more. The last game of the season at Arsenal might so easily have been the title decider if they hadn’t had a poor end of season. Even then they were only four points behind but it was all too late and Arsenal won 3–2 and won the title themselves. So, we finished up being sixth.”
In later years he was also quick to point out that it was a man’s game in the fifties. “They didn’t mess about then. And… they played on Christmas Day and then straightaway the day after on Boxing Day.” This was an age when a man could go to the match on Christmas Day and come back home for his Christmas dinner without fear of retribution from the wife. A woman knew her place back than.
“Then at Easter they played three games in four days. But Easter I reckon is when we lost the title. Out of three games we got just one point. If we’d won the two we lost at Easter, by gum, it would have been a close end to the season. And then if we’d beaten Arsenal at their ground on the last day. Yes lad, we had a good team that year.”
He must have talked about that team to me as the season progressed for one name I do remember is that of Albert Cheesebrough. That’s not a name to forget even when you are only nine years old; in fact, it’s exactly the kind of name a 9-year-old would remember. Funny name I used to think and I’m glad I’m not called Albert. Fancy having a name like Cheesebrough, I used to think. I still wonder today where a name like that comes from. The name Nutter originates in Blackburn (don’t laugh) but where the hell does Cheesebrough come from?
Mind you one of my favourite people of all time was called Albert. He was a small, round, bald little man who must have been in his sixties, retired, and lived further up the road from us. He sort of adopted us, came in and cleaned and cooked for us for a tiny wage. My mother being a teacher, worked all day, had no time for cooking or housework, and relied on him entirely. Mind you, if she’d been at home all day, she’d still have had no time for cooking or housework. This in fact was good news, for cooking was not her strong point anyway. I was 18 before I realised that cigarette ash was not part of any known recipe. At the weekends she did make the meals and as she smoked the cigarette ash plopped into any thing she was preparing. Every time I read a wonderful book called ‘Toast’ I am reminded of dear mama.
Albert was a treasure and always wore a three piece suit no matter whether he was cleaning or cooking, with a watch on a chain round his middle. It was Albert in fact who rescued a holiday. The money for this holiday, I forget where, had been put in an envelope for safe keeping. Alas everyone forgot where the safe place was that it had been put. It was Albert who found it under the bread bin in the pantry. There was much rejoicing when Albert caught the bus down to my father’s school to tell him the good news. When he fell ill and passed away there was much sadness and remorse on our part. It was back to mother’s cooking, braised steak her speciality; I have never been able to eat it since. We re-named it, bruised steak.
Then there was Jock Winton. That name stuck in my head as well. I’d like to be called Jock I thought, great name. First name and surname perfectly matched. From that name I could picture him before I ever saw him play. I imagined someone tough looking, craggy with cropped hair, with a square jaw and firm physique, not too big and not too small. And that’s exactly what he looked like when I saw him in a game. He was everything I pictured and his crew cut hair was his trademark. There’s a marvellous full page, colour picture of him in an early Football Monthly. Today I have that picture and magazine in my collection. I tried for an age to track it down. Eventually a Burnley fan and fellow collector heard of my search and came up with one. It brought a huge lump to my throat when I looked and was transported back to the 1950s. It’s nostalgia at its very best. It brings back memories that are both football and non football. If there’s a full page, colour picture of Albert Cheesebrough that you know of, do get in touch.
But the two players father raved over were two young players, Jimmy McIlroy who was only 21 and Jimmy Adamson who was just 24. “They’ll be great players one day,” he’d say. “You mark my words. That Adamson is so thin he looks like a half-starved scarecrow, and his legs are so long he can run up the field in just ten strides.”
I tried to picture this odd-looking man but when I saw him for the first time, he must have filled out just a bit. And the ten strides… I counted how far they got him… to the half way line was more accurate although even that was some feat with legs that would have looked more at home on a giraffe. He went on to become Footballer of the Year in 1962, which simply went to show that if you had spindly legs this was no obstacle to success.
They were happy days for a nine-year old. There were picnics at Blake Dean way up past Heptonstall Slack, and walks from Hebden Bridge to Hardcastle Craggs and the little café that served teas. Years later when we wrote her book, Margaret Potts remembered Sunday School trips from Burnley there as well, groups of them squashed into rickety old charabancs that managed to trundle over the moors with engine and gears straining and grinding.
If there’s an age that’s happiest maybe it’s being nine when all’s right with the world and you are protected and secure and your dad tells you football stories. Not that it was all a bed of roses; the winters spent in a house before the days of central heating when ice formed on the insides of the windows and you huddled round the coal fire to keep warm, were not exactly fun. But, in truth I look back at that time, and remember it happily. How could anyone not want to turn the clock back; for in those days it really was a time when Father Christmas came to visit once a year, the snow really did belt down and you could make proper snowmen.
And Burnley nearly won the title.Follow UpTheClarets:
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