Men did astonishing things at which one did not wonder till after

I hated history at school. It seemed to be nearly all battles, maps with arrows showing troop movements and then failed treaties. To a 1960s teenager, history only went to prove that Bob Dylan was right to cry ‘how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?’

Strange then, 50 years or so on, that I should be planning a display for Shipley’s elegantly refurbished library to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

To be honest military history still doesn’t interest me that much. I don’t get excited about tactics or weapons and the finer points of uniform insignia pass me by.

But when I started to work my way through the pages of the Shipley Times & Express from 1914-18 for my website I was quickly hooked by the stories of people who might have been my neighbours and friends if I had lived here 100 years ago.

Much of my current research concentrates on the effect of World War I on the Home Front: on the changing role of women, the men whose conscience kept them from fighting and the way the community rallied round Belgian refugees. I’m also intrigued by the details that show how much daily life has changed – the fines for driving without lights because the candle had blown out; the number of horses then in daily use; and the fear of illness in those pre-NHS days.

By its nature, the Somme exhibition will concentrate on some of the 426 local men so far identified as having been killed, missing or wounded in the bloodiest battle in British history. The battle lasted 141 days – from 1 July to 18 November 1916 – during which there were more than a million casualties, including 19,240 British soldiers killed on the first day.

If we had been here then, we would almost certainly have known a family who were mourning a loss, or were anxious about a wounded or missing son or husband.

Harry Hirst (centre back) and his pals in high spirits before heading for trenches

Harry Hirst (centre back) and his pals in high spirits before heading for trenches

And even a hundred years later we can get a sense of some of these men, people like Harry Hirst who wrote to his family about setting off for the Somme:

“There were thousands of people lining the streets. Men and women rushed into the ranks and kissed us. One man carried my kit bag to the station and two girls carried my great coat and bandolier etc. I tell you it was fine sight.

“When we got to the station – I was among the first four – what a time we had. Women and girls threw their arms around our necks and kissed us, weeping all the time. I can assure you it fairly brought tears to my own eyes.”

Inevitably you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in the situation faced by so many local families.

Brothers Charles and Joseph Nutter had left Baildon several years before the war to start a new life in Canada but both signed up to return when war was declared. Both were killed.

Robert Helliwell

Robert Helliwell

Arthur Helliwell of Bromet Place, Eccleshill, had to write to his parents to break the news about his brother Robert.

“I got with our Bob in the fight and I saw him kill three Germans and then we got the order to retire. We were just getting into our own lines when Bob was hit. He had no pain. He said, ‘Tell mother and father not to take it too much to heart for the sake of the others. I have done my duty.’ “

Rev Richard Whincup

Rev Richard Whincup

Robert was buried just behind the line by the Rev Richard Whincup, the vicar of Windhill, who was serving as chaplain to the West Yorkshire Regiment. As chaplain he also had the task of writing to the parents of men who were killed and went out of his way to try to soften the blow. We now know of the often lonely, slow, painful deaths suffered by men brought down in No Man’s Land, unreachable by any of their mates, but most families were assured their son had died honourably, swiftly and almost painlessly.

Not everyone pulled their punches and then we get a vivid picture of men at war. Pte Jim Morgan of Hargreaves Square, Shipley, told a friend:

“There is a young fellow in this hospital for whom my heart bleeds. He has not a friend in the world and has not had one letter since he came to France. He was lying for 30 hours surrounded by the corpses of his beloved comrades who fought and died by his side for the honour of the old country. He is like a broken straw cast upon the mighty ocean of the world, tossed here and there, God knows where.”

Such experiences must have changed lives. Even those who survived and returned physically unscathed cannot have been the same as when they went away.

One is left wondering what it was like for the families. What was it like for the widows of Charles Hall of Moorend, Idle, and John Parker of Windhill, who were both left with five children to bring up? Or the widow of Stephen Dobson of School Hill, Windhill, who had three children to raise, the oldest not yet two and a half at the time of her father’s death.

And how did families cope when the breadwinner arrived home unable to work through loss of a limb, or blindness or shell shock?

If my teachers had introduced me to the human side of history way back then, maybe I wouldn’t have waited until my fifties to get interested. It wouldn’t have taken much, just a couple of paragraphs like these by Sgt J E Yates, who fought alongside men from Shipley & District at the Somme:

“Almost imperceptibly the first day moved into the second when we held grimly to a battered trench and watched each other grow old under the day-long storm of shelling. Big shells landed in the crowded trench. For hours, sweating, praying, swearing, we worked on the heaps of chalk and mangled bodies. Men did astonishing things at which one did not wonder till after…

“At dawn the next morning we were back in a green wood. I found myself leaning on a rifle and staring stupidly at the filthy, exhausted men who slept around me. It did not occur to me to lie down until someone pushed me into a bed of ferns. There were flowers among the ferns and my last thought was a dull wonder that there could still be flowers in the world.”

somme display details for blog

References: all the quotes are taken from articles in the Shipley Times & Express except the passage by Sgt Yates which is quoted from Capt E V Tempest’s ‘History of the Sixth Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, Volume 1 – 1/6th Battalion’, published by Naval & Military Press.

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A shove in the right direction

It was only a gentle shove but my mother’s hand in the small of my back was enough to get my five-year-old legs tottering down the path to the door of Blackham School before I could have second thoughts and beg to be excused from entering this strange new world.

Mum with bike


Elsie Coomber wasn’t a hard woman – I can never remember being smacked even though that was commonplace in the late 1940s and 1950s when I was a child – but she was always willing to give a push in the right direction if she believed it would be good for me. The next time I recall feeling the maternal hand in the back was my first visit to the school dentist a few years later. As soon as the nurse said to the dozen or so anxious kids in the waiting room, ‘Who’s first?’ I found myself being eased towards the door marked surgery.

In those days a visit to the dentist was even more traumatic than today, with the never-to-be-forgotten, smelly rubber gas mask put over your mouth and nose until you passed out and then the process of coming to in some pain, with a mouth full of blood, your tongue seeking out the gap where once there had been a tooth. Above all the nausea. Mum knew that seeing other groggy, tearful kids stumble back from that mysterious room on the other side of the door wouldn’t make me feel any better about going in, so I was the first.

At the time, I seem to remember, I wasn’t too thrilled at always being encouraged to be the first to face my fears but now it seems like one of the best of many good things my mother taught me. Not that I was a good student. As I look back over the 65 years since that first day at school, many of the biggest mistakes came when I put off unpleasant experiences only for them to get worse the longer they were left. What an idiot not to learn such a simple lesson, especially as that first shove took me into a place I still look back on as one of the most influential in my life.


By modern standards, I guess Blackham Primary School would not be considered up to scratch. Even back then it didn’t have a great record of pupils ‘passing’ the eleven-plus examination to grammar school but it’s hard to know if that was the school’s fault or the raw material the teachers were working with. Most of the 30 or so kids were, like me, children of farm labourers. Nearly all of their parents had left school aged 14 with barely the basics needed to follow their own parents into labouring jobs, and books were not much in evidence when you entered most homes in the village.

Blackham School

Blackham School


The red-brick school itself was certainly basic. It stood alone, well away from either of the two centres of the village so just getting there every day felt like a long trek along ‘the main road’ with mysterious woods on either side and branches meeting threateningly overhead. Apart from tiny, peg-lined boys’ and girls’ cloakrooms at one end of a central corridor and a small kitchen where the dreaded ‘school dinners’ were produced at the other, the school consisted of two rooms.

Hundred, tens and units

To the left was the room where the ‘small’ class of 5-7 year olds learned the basics: pencilling over pale dotted images until we knew how to write our letters, and then adding tails to them so we could join them up; learning, thanks to Janet and John, to read simple words and then moving on to slightly longer ones, speaking out the syllables and then crunching them together into a word we had heard; and setting out our sums neatly in hundreds, tens and units in exercise books with helpfully squared paper and finding out how to carry numbers over from one column to another and, finally, the satisfaction of a tick to denote we had got it right.

That was also the stage when we started to look at all those mysteries printed on the back of our exercise books. Some, like multiplication tables, would soon be familiar. Others, like ounces in a pound, and pounds in a stone took a little longer to grasp. Yards in a mile wasn’t too tricky to understand but acres, poles, perches and roods remained a mystery even to a country kid.

Once we had mastered all those skills, we moved across the corridor to the hall, a much larger room which housed the ‘big’ class until we were ready to go on to secondary education. This room was clearly designed to accommodate two classes but I never once saw the wooden screen dividers pulled across. Despite its size, it was heated only by a single pot-bellied stove on which, in winter, we tried to warm the bottles containing a third of a pint of milk provided free each day to make sure the post-war generation grew strong. At the corridor end of the room there were trestle tables where meals were eaten and occasional lessons taken when we needed room to spread out; at the other were desks equipped with inkwells facing the blackboard. And in the corner, a door into the head teacher’s house which formed the far end of the school.

The smelly Elsan toilets were in a small brick building in a field below the large concrete playground. We didn’t notice that the toilets fell well short of standards acceptable today. For many of us they were more hygienic than the ‘bucket’ lavatories we had at home. Similarly we took it for granted that even though there was an electricity pylon in the next field, the school, like our homes, had no access to electricity. And for me, at least, that lack of power changed my life.

Oil lamp

I seem to remember the school day finished at 4 p.m. Anyway, it was certainly late enough that in the winter it was too dark for us to see to work for the last half hour or so before going home. On those occasions the head teacher, Mrs Forbes, would fetch an oil lamp from her house and bring one of her own books to read to us. Sitting in the gloom, I became spellbound by the life that existed in books, especially the world created by Arthur Ransome in the Swallows and Amazons stories. With Mrs Forbes reading a chapter or so a day, we worked our way through pretty well the whole series of adventures.

Until I was nine, I only left the village for the annual charabanc to the seaside, so I never imagined there was a real place with mountains and lakes big enough to sail on and with places like Cormorant Island where children could explore. The biggest stretches of water I knew were three village ponds, one of which was behind the church where we fished. Launch a boat on one of those and you would be on the other side in seconds. Similarly, John, Susan, Able Seaman Titty and ship’s boy Roger were like no-one I knew. Most of us were happy just to have a second-hand bike, let alone spend weeks having adventures in a sailing boat. But I didn’t feel deprived. To me they were invented people doing exciting invented things. That is what books were and I couldn’t get enough. I was in love with stories.

I devoured everything I could get my hands on – books, comics, newspapers. I even used to creep into the houses of other families where I knew the children had different comics, read them and slip out again without saying a word. The wireless provided me with even more stories – Dick Barton was a special favourite. And at school we were given the freedom to write our own tales, most of the boys re-winning the recent war as intrepid airmen shooting down the Hun.


I’m sure there are many people who look back at Blackham School with regret, wondering if a more formalised education in a bigger school might have suited them better, brought out more of their talent. I was just lucky that what that school taught, I needed and wanted to learn. There is one regret: one day Mrs Forbes called us out, one by one, to read out the words on an A4 sheet of paper to make sure we could pronounce them. There must have been about a hundred words and I sailed through all of them, except euphemism. To say I was a little disappointed would be euphemistic.

I still dip into Arthur Ransome from time to time – in my bookselling days I always included Swallows and Amazons when topping up stocks of Puffins and remember with a smile the day a small boy asked for Swallows and Amaze-ons – and looking back on a career that has included bookselling, publishing and journalism, I can trace much of how I got here to the day my mum gave me a shove in the back and said ‘I’ll see you later.’


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Reflections on reaching the 15th tee

The deaths within a week of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey hit me, as my dad used to say, like a sack of spuds.

It wasn’t just that we had lost three outstanding artists – being cynical, I still get to enjoy their work. And I didn’t know them, so it wasn’t a personal loss.

No, their deaths reinforced a growing recognition at the back of my brain of my own mortality. People of my generation are dying with alarming frequency. Worse, all three were a few years younger than I am.

Oh bugger, I’m getting towards the front of the queue.

I think we all have a psychological big number. For me it was 70. I sailed through 50 and 60 without a care and while I don’t feel how 70 used to look when I was a kid, it did seem like a landmark when I reached it, greeted more with trepidation than celebration.

For a while there seemed to be nothing to do but just plough on until fate pointed a bony finger at me and said, ‘you’re next.’

But then I remembered something Malcolm Allison said in our time working together: ‘There are two types of worry. You worry about things you can’t control and you worry about things you can do something about. If you can’t control something, like the weather, there is no point in worrying about it. If you can do something about it, don’t spend time worrying, get on and do it!’

I can’t control when I will die – beyond not doing things that put me in harm’s way – but I can control what I do with whatever I have left and what better time than the beginning of a year to resolve to make the most of your life?

I’ve decided to be optimistic. After all, I have good genes – many people in my family have lived into their 90s and some even passed 100. I’ve been blessed with good health most of my life so far, I have control of my weight, I don’t smoke, only drink in moderation and, for the time being, we still have the wonderful NHS.

I also have most of my marbles. Occasionally it takes me a while to fish for a word or a name but they usually come in the end and one of the glories of technology is that it is possible to store the information you want and retrieve it easily.

So, I’m making plans for the next 20 years, taking me up to 90. I think of it as a game of golf with five years representing one hole. That means I’d still have four holes to play with the possibility of some extra holes in a play-off or spending time in the 19th with friends. The other thing about golf I’m hoping to emulate is that while it has its frustrations and bunkers, even out of bounds, you are usually in a peaceful, beautiful place with people you like.

Because I can’t guarantee there won’t be a storm stopping play before the round is finished, I am making sure I use each waking hour as well as I can. That means less TV wallpaper and less social media. It means getting in less of a stew about the idiots in Westminster, though that is going to be hard.

On the plus side I will free time to read some of the 2,000 books I’ve accumulated, and to listen to the music I enjoy or some of the gems on Radio4Extra.

Instead of thinking of myself as semi-retired, I am going to set achievement goals. I like the saying that you are not really dead until the last person speaks your name, so here’s a chance to give people something that will make them want to speak of me after I’ve gone.

I plan to become a better writer, a more productive historian and to learn new skills like design and photography that will not only interest me but help me achieve my goals.

Most of all it means adding to the things I’m already proud of so that when those last few seconds finally arrive, my last words won’t be ‘Is that all there is?’

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Thank you, Bill

untitled (5) Is it possible to call someone you have never met a friend? Probably not. Yet when I heard this week about the death of William Zinsser, someone I had ‘known’ through his books, the exchange of a few letters, a handful of phone calls and messages on his blog, it felt as though I had lost a friend.

I first became aware of him in one of my ‘get your act together’ moments that included buying a copy of his best seller On Writing Well. It is simply the best book on the craft of writing ever published and I return to it time after time just to get me back on the right track.

Bill Zinsser was an outstanding teacher. He understood the teacher’s craft as completely as he knew that of the writer. Talking about how On Writing Well came about, he said: ‘I did a lot of thinking about how to help other people write warmly and well, and that process had nothing to do with handing down grand truths from an essayist’s perch. It had to do with leading by the hand, building confidence, finding the real person inside the bundle of anxiety.’ And even though Bill never bothered to have an email account, he kept up to date and each of the new editions of the book took into account the latest technology and quoted newer writers to make his point.

Impressed by On Writing Well, I quickly bought his other books and was delighted to find he was a keen sports fan, had been a movie reviewer, loved travel and was a devotee of the ‘great American songbook.’ I wrote him a fan letter and received a reply – all his letters were in his own hand until losing his sight in recent years – that showed genuine interest in what I had said.

He also told me of his new weekly blog and Zinsser on Friday became the way to kick-start every weekend. He had the same ability to charm, inform, entertain and stimulate as Alistair Cook used to have in his Letter from America. Through Bill I learned a lot more about writing, but also about musicians like Mary Cleere Haran and writers like Joseph Mitchell.

I loved the way he was curious about so many things and that he could not only tell people the theory of good writing, he could demonstrate it in his own work, even when writing about music, a subject that has to be among the hardest to put down in words. This from his masterpiece – and own favourite work – Mitchell & Ruff, the portrait of jazz musicians Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff:

‘Two black men were playing long stretches of music without resorting to any printed notes. Yet they obviously hadn’t memorized what they were playing; their music took unexpected turns, seemingly at the whim of the musicians, straying all over the keyboard and all over the landscape of Western tonality. Nevertheless there was order. Themes that had been abandoned came back in different clothes. If the key changed, as it did frequently, the two men were always in the same key. Often there was a playfulness between the two instruments and always there was rapport. But if the two players were exchanging any signals, the message was too quick for the untrained eye.’

I had arranged to pop in and see Bill the last time I was in New York but he was taken into hospital just before I arrived and so I never got to thank him in person. I will always be grateful that I found his work and connected with him, albeit briefly. It certainly felt like friendship.

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The mystery of the workhouse baby

The birth certificate

The birth certificate

The envelope contained a copy of the birth certificate of the first-born child of my great grandmother Elizabeth Coomber, nee Gasson, and instead of sorting out the mysteries surrounding this boy, it complicated them even more.

Elizabeth is a key figure in my family tree. She was the much loved grandmother who raised my father and about whom he always spoke with great tenderness and admiration; the mother of eight children of her own, six of whom survived to adulthood; the housewife who supplemented the family income by taking in washing when the only mechanical aids were a ‘copper’ to heat the water and a mangle to help the drying process; and the woman who acted as the unofficial midwife in the village for women who could not afford to call the doctor.c

Thomas Marshall and Elizabeth Coomber

Thomas Marshall Coomber and his wife Elizabeth

Elizabeth’s first child was born seven months before she married my great grandfather, Thomas Marshall Coomber, and I’d been hoping that the certificate would confirm whether or not Thomas was the father. But it didn’t.

The baby’s name, according to registrar John Dawe on 13 June 1884, was George Marshall; no father is given; the mother is Elizabeth Gasson, Domestic Servant and she was living at the Union Workhouse, East Grinstead.

Three years before, aged 16, she had been living with her parents at Bolebrook Cottage, Hartfield. She presumably started work soon after that and as a domestic servant, she is likely to have lived in. But her employers wouldn’t have wanted the upheaval of a baby.

But why did she go the workhouse instead of back to her parents? Were they ashamed of their pregnant daughter? Was it case of ‘never darken our doorstep again?’ Or perhaps there were medical complications and the workhouse infirmary was the only care she could afford. Unless the workhouse kept detailed records that I have not yet found, we may never know.

I was first made aware of the problems around the identity of this son by Frank Wiltshire, a friend in Australia, researching the stories of the men who fought in the First World War from my home village Blackham, in east Sussex

One of the names on the illuminated list of those who served that hangs in Blackham church is T Gasson, Royal Sussex Regiment. Frank’s research showed a complicated story.

The census returns of 1891 and 1901 have him down as Thomas George Coomber; at his marriage to Annie Towse on Christmas Day 1889 he is Thomas George Marshall Gasson Coomber; and his papers when he joined the Territorials in 1908 have him down as Thomas Coomber.

And the family all assumed that he was the son of both my great grandparents, just born a little early!

But in the 1911 census he is living with his wife and children a couple of houses away from his parents at the home of bootmaker William Mills. And he gives himself as Thomas Gasson.

And having been discharged from the army as time-served in April 1916, he is obliged to re-enlist and does so as Thomas Gasson.

What on earth was going on? Was he Thomas Marshall’s son? Or had he found out that he wasn’t his child and reverted to his mother’s maiden name?

At some time – I can’t wait for the 1921 census to be released! – he reverted to Coomber and I once met one of his sons who was still Coomber in the 1990s.

I just hope a few more clues come to light.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to find out how long Elizabeth spent in the workhouse and whether it was just for the birth or perhaps longer.

And I wonder if the humiliation of giving birth in the hated workhouse was the reason in later life that she became an unofficial midwife, saving other women the shame of being too poor to call the doctor.

Or maybe that’s a 21st century, romantic interpretation and perhaps she just needed the 2s 6d that women like her usually charged for their services.

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