Memories And Family Photographs From Astra Warren Nee Bancroft
My Memories by Astra Warren (née Bancroft)
John (Jack) Wesley Bancroft and Constance Elizabeth Hunt were married in July, 1928 at Cinderhill Methodist Chapel, Nottingham. Jack had been a bus conductor on the Derby-Heanor run: Connie and her sister Elizabeth (Liza) were cigarette packers at Player's modern factory on Castle Boulevard, Nottingham. The sisters walked five miles to work and back every day: at weekends, Jack would walk ten miles over the fields to court Connie. After their marriage, they moved into the Mapperley village shop owned by Jack's father. Their first child, a girl, was born here on Wednesday, February 14th, 1934, the same birthday as godmother Liza. Many conflicting influences were already at work. In the same village lived my paternal grandfather, Arthur Bancroft. (Despite enquiry, his origins are obscure. He came to Mapperley village as a young man after service in WW1, was well educated with Greek and Latin, an accomplished pianist. He had a sister, made a great deal of money working with a local estate agent.) He decided that I should be called Astra (star), though my parents preferred my mother's name, Constance. Since they were under financial obligation to him, this determined man got his way. He was also apparently, an admirer of an opera singer called Astra Desmond, which may have influenced his choice.
At that time, he was a Wesleyan lay preacher, well known on the Derbyshire circuit. It was a form of Sunday recreation to follow popular preachers round the chapels. In my birth year, 1934, he was 55. His wife, Hannah Maria, had died in 1928 aged 55 of cancer. Before her illness, she had run the shop for Arthur, walking over the fields to Ilkeston, the nearest town, for supplies. Locals often gave her lifts back in carts or drays. During her illness, she was nursed by her future daughter-in-law (my mother) while Arthur was frequently absent, busying himself with the souls of others. She had borne three sons, Arthur, William Aaron and John (Jack) Wesley, and one daughter, Winifred (Winnie). My mother spoke later of her sweet and uncomplaining nature.
Granddad Bancroft was wealthy; later, I was embarrassed to find out that he acquired his money through dubious property deals which caused lasting resentment towards him. He eventually owned much of the village, had a modern bungalow built on the village fringe. A grand piano, which he played well, had pride of place in the panelled sitting room which overlooked a beautifully landscaped garden whose vista melted into soft curves of rich pastoral land, wheatfields undulating beyond clipped hedges and massed displays of herbs and border plants. The square tower of a Norman style church flanked the view. Sadly, this ancient church had to be demolished (1964) due to mining subsidence. The hamlet of Mapperley is documented in Domesday Book.
The church, half hidden amongst ancient trees, commanded the approach up a hill from the Ilkeston-Derby road. It was a square solid symbol of stability and protection. Generations of families lain to rest on the slope, with a sense of still being present through continuing names on the gravestones.
"Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
The whole ambience of the village was a warm cradle; houses had been lived in by the same families for centuries. There was no need for street names or house numbers; each house was identified by its inhabitants. All the children belonged to the community, spoken to by name, watched over everywhere. Every house was a safe house. As I grew and started to remember, ail doors were open to me. My parents were busy in the shop, so nobody restricted my wanderings, and every house was home. Such diversity in a small community!
It was a golden treasury to a growing child, a box of rich gifts to be sampled at will. I regularly visited Miss Beer, a spinster, who lived in a cottage neat as a doll's house, a long bricked path flanked with rose of Sharon, dainty biscuits on a fragile china plate, tea in tiny cups, best manners expected, gentle courtesy, an unfailing welcome.
Mrs Boam ran the tiny Post Office. I sat on a high stool to watch her stamp and sort mail and answer the switchboard.
One house always closed belonged to Amy Morgan widely known as a clairvoyant; people travelled long distances to consult her; apparently she foretold my coming before mother even knew she was pregnant. On our visit in 1976 she refused to read for Jill, my daughter. (Jill subsequently died in 1995 after two battles with cancer. I have no doubt that Amy saw her long suffering and early death and refused to tell). The shop had a cellar smelling of salts used to freeze ice-cream churned with thick fresh cream fetched in cans from the farm dairy. But paradoxically, there was also the sickly sweet smell of laudanum, sold discreetly for the babies who cried with hunger during the depression, or the long suffering of incurable illness. This was home of dark stairs, tiny bedrooms and whispered words to protect a child's innocence.
I could walk down the street, past the "Black Horse" public house, to the Manor House, oldest building of the original hamlet and recorded in Domesday Book. It was thatched at that time, and divided between Hobson's residence and Udell's farm. This was my real home, my real family, a wayward and self-willed child accepted with humour as 'little sister' by Doll and Ernie (Hobson) , Jack, Nora, Ted and Joan. Every detail of their lives is sharp against other early shadows.
Doll was small, round and apple-cheeked, always smiling, always forgiving, watching, understanding, approving, and caring. Ernie, lanky, stooped, dominated by her strength and support, but with his own courage to go out each shift in pit boots, cap and muffler, cigarette hanging from his lip, and be clanged fast in a cage and dropped into the dark earth; a tall, gangling man with a quiet, laughing eye, greeting "Eh, my duck", beseeching and wheedling Doll the money manager for "enough for a pint". Each week's wages were kept in a square, worn tin, on the treasures shelf over the ingienook. Doll was the custodian of this tin, impressive in my eyes as the arbiter of what to spend, but I never saw her refuse Ernie his "pint" money. She might fight a token rearguard action against his cajoling, but she understood very. Well his need to escape the dirty dusty terrors and daily danger of that plunge down the shaft. Then, everybody else had gone out, we would sit, she and I, in the quiet, low-raftered room, with the steady tick of the grandmother clock, and the barbola-work mirror where a crinoline lady forever walked through the painted flowers. We would play squares, or snakes and ladders, at the huge table with its plush tasselled cloth, gas lamp hissing above and glow of pit coal fire in the black-leaded grate, until my head drooped. Then when Ernie's unsteady boots were heard on the bricked path after closing time, I was swiftly sent up the twisting boxed stairs to the white lime washed, bedroom under the eaves. There I snuggled into a warm cave made by a stone hot water bottle in crisp lavender and soap fragrant sheets.
Ernie cleaned himself after every shift in the galvanised bath set in front of the fire, first sitting, black to the eyes and a pint mug of tea in his fist, while Doll ladled the water steaming and we were all banished outside or to the kitchen. We took our weekly bath in the scullery, one after the other in the same water, fire under the copper, standing to ladle more boiling water into the bath, warm towels in front of the fire, bundled up in the inglenook bed listening to ghost tales (Nora loved to terrify me) until we were too nervous to go up to the shadowy, candle-lit bedrooms; or, worst of all, up the back garden path lined with neat rows of vegetables, to the smelly privy. Inside the rough brick shed was a scrubbed board with a hole in the middle set over the night soil can. This was at the far end of the garden, backed up against the fence, under a huge oak tree, where the cows stood at night in the adjoining field, adding to the terror with clashing horns and sudden movements in the dark shadows. Nora and Joan would take me; make me wait for last turn in the loo, then sneak off leaving me to make my heart stopped way down the long dark path on my own.
The best times, opening so many doors in the mind, were walks with Ernie, down the long lane to the "pond" (Mapperley Lake), where swam huge pike in the murky depths. Like most miners, by paradox, or perhaps natural reaction, his love and knowledge of nature was phenomenal. In those places, coal and industrial necessity lived in juxtaposition with ancient rhythms of rural peace. Ernie knew where to find sweet beech nuts, cob nuts and chestnuts in season, where the first snowdrops hid, and the nest of every bird. He would carry me over the bridge where the pond emptied itself as a gurgling brook, not ridiculing my irrational fear of the dark water depths which made me shake with fear. He dropped his quiet wisdom into my mind, the soft Derbyshire slur stamping ineradicably on my soul an influence for good, for tolerance, appreciation, and philosophical acceptance.
On these visits through the years, I tended the Bancroft grave, took fresh flowers, regarded it as my special charge, until, to my shock and distress on a visit during a college vacation, I found it had been removed with the building of the new church, and the black marble headstone and surrounds lost. Mother as next of kin had been notified of this change and not told me.
Udall's farm was the other half of the Manor House, run by grandparents Udall, their son and daughter-in-law. My playmates were their children, Tony and Joy. There were long days sliding and hiding in the hay loft, cows with silky eyes in the manure-warm byre, pigs snuffling, hen coops under apple and pear trees in the orchard, a huge low-ceilinged farm kitchen, the dairy wet and scrubbed cool with milk running mouth watering down the separator, carrying eggs in a wire basket, or cream with careful steps in a cloth covered jug to be spooned in thick yellow pools over stewed fruit. Doll and Ernie had four children, at this time in their late teens and early twenties; Jack, Nora, Ted and Joan. I came at the right time to be 'adopted', teased, treasured and taught.
Jack was handsome, dark hair and bold eyes laughing, moustached (my memory equates him with Clark Gable), Doll disapproving his casual attitude to a string of girls. He enlisted in the Royal Engineers, where he served as batman to a Major and in 1940 was evacuated off the beach at Dunkirk, carrying a wooden box containing a doll in Breton costume he had bought for me. He swam out to a ship, which '"was almost immediately torpedoed. Fighting clear, he ditched rifle, kit, boots - everything except the wooden box - as the survivors were machine gunned in the water. He told later how his determination to get the doll home to his 'favourite girl' kept him swimming until he was picked up at dusk.
Nora, slim, dark and extrovert like Jack, taught me to be wary. She was always up to something, like trying to 'curl' my straight fair hair with terrifying tongs red hot from the grate. Nora of the boisterous laugh and flashing wit, accepting limelight and adulation as her natural right, one year to be Carnival Queen in a white coach, silk dress and cloak, which became my forever fairy tale. She eventually married car salesman Ken and thoroughly enjoyed scandalising the village by turning up in various noisy cars. They became affluent, had overseas holidays, and retired to Dresden, Stoke, where we visited them on a trip in 1979. Nora died in 1995. Joan, fair and quiet like Ted, was the competent organiser and peacemaker. She also married a Ken, an accountant, lived near London: her daughter and a friend later spent a working holiday with me in Lesmurdie. Joan died in 1993.
From these two, I divined the female mysteries. We often slept cuddled together for warmth in the same deep feather bed, talk echoing over me until I fell asleep. I remember smells of face powder, lipstick daringly applied when Ernie had gone out, sand from the bag used as the bedroom door-stop mixed with water in a saucer, the sanstain smeared, on country-muscled legs as pseudo stockings, concentration needed to draw the eyebrow pencil 'seam', breaking into giggles. Such exciting preparations for a night of fun. The surging silence when laughing voices faded down the path, as they ran to catch the one bus out of the village. Doll and I then were together and content, Doll often working her dressmaking magic on the treadle sewing machine, (she was a trained tailoress), me always with paper and pencil, writing stories, asking about words. I reflect how much I learned from Doll and Ernie, who themselves had limited schooling, but great respect for education.
The huge table took up a third of the living room space, and all life circled around it. There was enough surface for all activities; dress-making, newspaper spread at Ernie's racing page, one end set for always available meals. Food of a forgotten wholesome splendour; all home made, pies with thick crusts, tarts, fresh eggs with amber yolks, bacon half an inch thick cut from a hanging flank, jams and pickles from the huge, cool, stone-floored pantry, milk frothing in the jug minutes from the cow, cream under its yellow crust, crunchy warm bread...
Bob understood what this place meant to me, and never objected to taking me back. Perhaps he knew that in understanding it, he had the key to me. He was the only one I ever shared it with. Even my children seemed like intruders when we took them there.
I treasure a crystal moment, after Ernie's death (obit 12.2.73); Doll and I walked alone to the churchyard to see his grave; we sat, hand in hand, wordless, yet the thoughts between us as clear and close as if we had spoken, both full of tears for all the happiness past; just as, years later, I often sat choked with tears for my own lost love. I'm sure she was often close to me in spirit. I was really her 'baby'. She was so quietly proud of me and let her pleasure show as my parents never did. I took all my achievements and small triumphs to her.
After Ernie's death she, the embodiment of all that was strong, noble and resilient, started to break up, was persuaded to live alternately with Nora and Joan, concealed from them her developing cancer and pain, and died peacefully on 11th November, 1980. I dreamed of her and Ernie departing on a long train journey on what I was told subsequently was the night of her death.
I write at length of Mapperley and its people, because it had such a profound and lasting influence on me. At every crisis of my life, my psyche has returned to take refuge, find comfort, in its basic soundness, normalcy and sanity. There was time for the spirit to recoup, to regain dignity and serenity, space to breathe. The echo of this perhaps explains my affinity with the great open spaces of Australia.