Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Childhood autumn memories

Falling leaves, sycamore seeds and conkers...

Sunday, 7th November 2021, 6:30 pm
OLD DEWSBURY: This lovely picture is of West Park Street in 1909, which has not changed very much - the gas lamp has gone and I’m not sure if the postbox is still there, but I hope it is. Picture kindly loaned by Christine Leveredge.

The clocks have gone back and we can now well and truly say we are in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - autumn.

This time of year never fails to arouse memories of my childhood living in Springfield and attending St Joseph’s School, Batley Carr.

The route I took to school was always up Halifax Road and along Beckett Road where I marvelled at all the beautiful trees which abounded there.

In the autumn their leaves were burnished gold and fell to the ground in abundance when the wind blew.

We would search among the fallen leaves looking for the seeds of the sycamore tree which we called “Tommy twisters” because they looked like tiny aeroplane propellers.

We threw them into the air and they would spin and twist and turn before falling to the ground again.

Also mingling among the leaves were conkers which had fallen from the horse chestnut trees and which the boys would gather in huge amounts.

They would make holes in them, through which they would thread string, and then run off to challenge friends to a game of conkers.

There were no trees up our street but there was an allotment at the top where mother would send me most Sundays to buy a cabbage for the dinner.

I remember those autumn days as though they were yesterday, but some are more vivid than others.

One of these started on the day almost 70 years ago when my teacher, Miss Davenport, called me over to her desk at the end of class to ask a favour of me.

She knew there was an allotment near my home and asked if I could go there the following day and buy her some chrysanthemums.

She asked if I would take them to her house on West Park Street on Saturday afternoon, and wrote down her address so I wouldn’t forget. I was so overjoyed she’d chosen me to do this favour that I dashed out of school without asking for the money to buy them.

Mother wasn’t too pleased that she’d to give me the money.

But I assured her Miss Davenport would give it to me when I took her the flowers.

How proud I felt carrying those flowers up to her house, which was situated in one of the loveliest parts of Dewsbury.

But, when I rang the doorbell it wasn’t Miss Davenport who answered but her nephew, Nial, who was visiting from Ireland.

He said his aunt wasn’t at home but he would take the flowers across to the convent for the nuns to arrange on the altar the next day.

My heart sank when he took the flowers and closed the door without giving me the half crown I’d paid for them.

It was with a heavy heart and empty pocket that I made my way home on that autumn afternoon preparing myself for what was to come.

As expected, my mother ordered me to go straight back and get the money but I just couldn’t because I was too embarrassed to do so.

Mother relented when I promised I’d get the money from Miss Davenport at school on Monday but once again my nerve failed me and I daren’t raise the subject with her.

She had obviously forgotten, but mother hadn’t, and every morning that week she warned what would happen if I didn’t come home with the money.

I never did, and eventually mother accepted she was never going to get it, even though to us half a crown was a lot of money.

Young as I was, I had chosen that day to face the wrath of my mother, which I knew would be short-lived, to the shame of asking Miss Davenport for the money.

I have often thought back and asked myself over and over why I had lacked the courage to ask for what was rightly mine.

But I was only a child and living in a society where status, even among the poor, was important.

People looked up to those we thought were better off than us, and one of those in our book was Miss Davenport.

For, apart from being well educated, she lived in a posh house on a posh street and her husband was a local mill owner.

To our minds, people like her were up there and we were down there, wherever that was, which was why we looked up to them.

I was so proud when Miss Davenport had chosen me out of all the class to do this important job for her.

Nothing was going to spoil that for me because I couldn’t bear to think that Miss Davenport’s good opinion of me could ever be diminished.

They say that pride is painful, and I suppose that is what I was suffering that day but didn’t know it. But I was a child dealing with emotions never experienced before and there was no-one there to explain them to me.

This story wasn’t just about three bunches of chrysanthemums costing only half a crown (25p in today’s money) or that Miss Davenport had forgotten to give me the money.

She was a busy teacher with lots on her mind and half a crown wouldn’t have meant anything to her, but to our family it was enough to provide at least three meals.

Any mother today would have marched up to Miss Davenport’s house that day and got the money so rightly theirs.

It had been a great honour to me to get those flowers for a schoolteacher who our family were all in awe of.

She had taught my older sisters and my younger brother, Peter, who always said she had opened his eyes to the wonders of reading.

He would never forget the day she had read out to the class from the book “Wind in the Willows” and he was hooked on reading ever after.

My sisters slapped me around the head once or twice when I kept refusing to ask for the money, but I noticed they weren’t prepared to go up and get it.

No, this incident wasn’t just about money and flowers, far from it, but a way of life and how people viewed their place in society those days.

I have never forgotten what happened that day when I went to the allotment at the top of our street for those flowers.

The memory came back on my wedding day when I realised the flowers I’d chosen for the altar were the same as those I’d chosen for Miss Davenport – white, yellow and bronze chrysanthemums.

But mine hadn’t come from an allotment and I’m proud to say they had all been paid for up front.

I took them myself to the nuns at the convent to arrange on the altar the following morning.

Yes, I was an autumn bride and I couldn’t have chosen lovelier flowers to look upon as I made my marriage vows.

And, talking of memories, a former Thornhill man, John Croft, who is now living in Liversedge, has been busy writing his memoirs.

He has written them in verse in a book called “Rhymes of a Dewsbury Lad”.

The book, priced £9.99, can be ordered online by visiting https://myrhymebook.weebly.com