Austin Mitchell was born 19 September 1934 and went to Woodbottom School in Baildon. He was a TV reporter and worked on ITV's Calendar before becoming MP for Great Grimsby. He died 18 August 2021 aged 86 at Leeds General Infirmary.
WOODBOTTOM DAYS by AUSTIN MITCHELL MP.
He put together some memories of his days at Woodbottom and very kindly sent them to Marian Taylor on 15 April 2009. You can read a scan of the original here or simply continue reading.
I'm proud to put "Woodbottom Council School" first on the list whenever I have to set out my qualifications. It was a good school in a pretty mixed area where a wide range of kids were brought together to have the rudiments of education pushed, sometimes bashed, into them. It stands out in my memory, much as the black, grime-encrusted, Victorian Gothic building built behind, its high, protective wall like a fortified castle stood out on the landscape. It was a dark, forbidding structure and I was never sure whether the big walls were to keep the kids in, or the world out. Still, it was a magnificent monument. Why on earth did they pull it down instead of leaving it to commemorate the generations of alumini. Of whom I'm (1939-44) one?
Woodbottom was good because it brought together the kids from three different areas: Woodbottom, the original village, a mixture of older terrace housing and back-tobacks built for the workers in the mills, C.F. Taylor's, and Baildon Combing, Charlestown, older, mixed and rural, with fields round about, and, between both the big, new estate of Ferniehurst, built in the housing boom of the early Thirties. Ferniehurst was new, more upmarket (our house cost an astronomic £350 which had my dad worried for years about whether he could afford it). It's semis were built for what we'd now call middle and lower middle-class families. I was one of the first generation of children of that estate. Woodbottom was my local school.
Higher Baildon was posher Baildon. Its kids went to Sandals school or, in the case of my friend Richard Whitely, who lived right at t' top o' t' bank, into the private system. So class certainly existed though we never felt it as kids. Adults did though. My dad complained that he'd been asked where he lived at the Conservative club. When he said "Ferniehurst" the bloke never spoke to him again. So Baildon was John Braine's "Room at the Top" exemplified. The higher your altitude the posher your attitude, a sociology lesson which only came to me later when I delivered newspapers in the area. The higher you got the more Daily Telegraphs and Daily Mails you delivered. In the Ferniehurst area it was the Daily Express, in Woodbottom the Mirror, and for me personally, the Beano.
I don't think the adults from the three school drawing areas mixed much outside the pubs which were all in Woodbottom - my dad, programmed to Tetleys, went to the Queen – but the kids certainly did. I was in General Jaggers Army, street fighting up and down the terrace alleys in Woodbottom, though, so far as I remember, Ferniehurst kids played in Woodbottom but the kids from there didn't came up to us. Our play was all battles and fortunately I was heavily armed throughout the war with a double barrelled pop gun and a black painted Tommy Gun. It was solid and made no noise so I made the necessary rat-a-tat vocally. That ruined my singing voice and ensured that I'd never do duets with Judy Garland.
Still, we managed to keep Woodbottom free from Germans and to protect the vital strategic tankers Butterfield's Tanker Works had parked in rows. We never considered the Japanese threat. Perhaps we knew enough geography to realise they were too far away, though one of our battle cries, in our street charges, was "Bataan!" Don't know why. The Methodist Sunday School, just under the railway arch, also brought us together. So did what I thought was called "the wreck" – really the Recreation grounds with swings, see-saws and the chance to fish in the fishless Aire, which smelled more of wool than water. Until Mrs Thatcher cleaned it up by closing all the mills..
I began school at the same time as another, less epoch-making, event: the War. So my earliest memories are dominated by visions of us huddled in the air raid shelters at the back of the school on the allotments, sitting in the gas masks we carted to school with us every day. Modern kids carry huge satchels full of homework. We had tins of gas masks. I was particularly proud of mine: not the standard issue but a Mickey Mouse mask with little inflatable wings. Breather heavily and it made farting noises which I found endlessly amusing, though the teachers didn't. It was difficult to breath in (I'm surprised we all survived) like the standard ones, but more comfortable and, being bright yellow, more easy to identify if ever the bodies had to be collected. There were indeed a couple of bombing raids but at night . So we never used the shelter in battle and my prayers were never answered. School wasn't hit. The whole area, Woodbottom, Ferniehurst, Charlestown, was a natural playground. Not big city, it wasn't rural either, but bounded by the river and the canal (fishing with jam jars) woods and a quarry (exploration), ponds (frogspawn), and the moors (mines, kites and dodging golf balls). It was a kind of wonderland. In those days, before telly, kids played out all the time and throughout the year. So in Woodbottom, the world outside school was far more interesting, active and enjoyable than the time in school itself. Once in school there was bo escape. You couldn't see the tempting world outside through the school windows. We were detained and discipline was tough and backed by the cane which I don't think I ever had. Lessons in the junior school, which was the downstairs part of the building and the lower playground, fortified against the bigger boys in the upper playground, seemed more religious than they would be today. So I remember a lot of Bible stories, but apart from the names of Hengest and Horsa (which we memorised) not much else. There must have been some Robbie Burns in there, too, because I once went home and cried because I wasn't Scottish. The daftest thing a Yorkshireman could do.
Except for the two days a week my mum worked in Bradford market, I trailed up the St. Aidan's Road hill for lunch. I don't remember school meals, or even if they were provided. It was quite a hill and I remember the clatter my new clogs made as I ran up and down it, though I was so embarrassed by the din that I refused to wear them after a week. Besides, they hurt my feet. Harold Wilson was ridiculed for claiming to have gone to primary school in clogs. I actually did, but not because they were standard footwear any longer, rather because mum was always on the look out for a bargain and they were cheaper than shoes which were rationed. Thank God she relented and let me stop wearing them. Otherwise I'd have had to take them off and go down St. Aidan's in bare feet.
I do remember running home on D Day to tell my mum that we'd landed in France. We were sent home early to spread the good news (on the assumption perhaps that no-one had a radio). Mum was at work. So she never got to know and I sat on the doorstep refusing to tell anyone else. You never know, there might have been enemy agents about. Indeed, the Misses Murgatroyd next door – they owned the bakery in the bottom road shops - were a bit suspect. I was shocked to be told by Emma that the King and Queen, George I and Elizabeth (who'd driven past Woodbottom School in their Coronation tour, though they may not have noticed it, assuming that it was a prison) were "a stuttering king with a drunken queen".
At lunch times we could escape down to the river, though that became more difficult to get to when the recreation ground became overflow accommodation for tankers produced at Butterfield's Tanker Works (R.I.P.). I assumed at the time that these were vital to the war effort, perhaps in the desert, though with hindsighte, they were more likely to be milk tankers. Woodbottom also provided another escape at lunchtime, with mill lasses in cotton uniforms sitting on walls or on the pavement edge, eating fish and chips from either Crabtree's or Wood's (the posh one). The sons of both chippies went to Woodbottom. They smelled more interesting than the rest of us.
Eventually came the day for my class's great move upstairs. Here was a new world , past the Headmaster's study where the Head, Mr. Hawkesworth, was rarely in since he seemed to spend most of his time in Shipley at the Education Office, past the big hall used for assemblies and exams, and into one of the four classrooms on the top floor. Here the big kids lived.
The education and the discipline upstairs were more straightforward though the playground was more brutal. In those days of through schools some kids stayed on to the age of fourteen. This was before the 1944 Education Act which only came into effect in 1945. After it the 11-14s no longer stayed on in primary schools praying for the day they could leave. They were transferred to "Modern" schools which became the dustbins of the system but left primary schools much happier places. Before it we little creeps were chucked in with a lot of big brutes which always increased my enthusiasm for going home for lunch, or dinner, as Yorkshire calls it.
In lower school I remember one lesson which isn't on today's curriculum. It was about the Demon Drink. The Band of Hope came in and dropped worms into a glass of alcohol. The worms died, causing one of the kids from Woodbottom to say he now knew what to drink if he ever got worms. At the end we all signed the pledge and I never saw booze in quite the same light again though I'm not sure how many years my signature was binding, I was a bit young to make a life time commitment I've not kept.
Woodbottom school days weren't the happiest days of my life. This was before the days when educationalists had decided that school had to be happy to work. Woodbottom wasn't the best education for happiness. School was a matter of duty, not enjoyment. I liked it but I was a bit overawed by it. Education was more pedantic then and Woodbottom School was a dark and brooding place, not the airy, light, bright place today's schools are. Yet it was the best grounding anyone could have, because kids from all kinds of backgrounds went there, so it was a good, social mix. Much better than today's segregation.
I don't say that I enjoyed it. I wasn't too upset when I won a County Junior Scholarship and was carted off on the daily school special all the way to Bingley Grammar. After all, what's education about? For Public School chaps it's a privilege to be paid for, to buy the charm and the confidence to get to the top. Out in the real world, for us ordinary mortals, it's to give us the skills and education to face the world and teach us to live together as a community. Can't fault Woodbottom for that, and the legacy is leaves is strong. So you can take the boy out of Woodbottom but you'll never take Woodbottom out of the man. Thank St. Aidan.
Ferniehurst at War by Austin Mitchell
From Yorkshire Post Newsroom
Now it can be told. Austin Mitchell gives an inside account of one of the forgotten stories of the Second World War in suburban West Yorkshire, where everyone did their bit in the battle for democracy – but some may have done a little bit more than others.
STORIES have been pouring out of the archives from the war. Once these were long kept secrets. Now, with the Official Secrets Act lifted, it’s time to tell them, therefore time for me, as one of the few surviving participants, to tell a story never before told: that of Ferniehurst’s War. This was the struggle of a new estate built in the once sylvan fields of lower Baildon, near Bradford, by specbuilders.
When Churchill said we’d fight them on the beaches and various other places he didn’t include Ferniehurst in the list so as not to give away its strategic location. But we were ready to fight them there too, and that story deserves to be told before Ferniehurst’s reserve army and heroic strategists pass on to the heavenly estate. Me with them.
Chamberlain’s famous broadcast on Sunday, September 3, 1939 was made in the sixth year of Ferniehurst’s life and the fifth of mine, the estate’s first baby after my parents had moved there from terrace housing in distant Halifax. I didn’t hear the broadcast and don’t know how many residents of Ferniehurst did. It concluded that “this country is now at war with Germany” and Ferniehurst switched off, looked out of the window, saw nothing had changed, and ate its dinner.
I knew already that war was coming. My dad had told me. In July, we’d been for a week to one of the new holiday camps then opening up all over Britain. Ours was Middleton Towers near Morecambe where, surprisingly in view of its location, it hadn’t rained for a week. We’d had so much fun and, more importantly for dad, at so little cost, that he’d promised to take us all, me, David aged two, and mum, back in September. That promise stopped me crying in the car on the way home but before our happy return he cancelled the holiday on grounds, which he confided to me (because he couldn’t tell mum) we’d be at war.
I kept the secret, knowing, I suppose, that everyone on Ferniehurst had only bought their houses six years before and had paid massive sums of £3-400 for them.
At first nothing changed. Ferniehurst went to war. I went to school. I started that September, with a tin containing a gas mask slung over my shoulders and a determination to see it through to 14 (then the school leaving age and only eight years away) or the end of the war. The first big change was the laying up of our newly bought car. It was put on wooden blocks in the garage to save petrol and ease the strain on Atlantic convoys. Next came the air raid shelters and here Mitchells were in the forefront of military technology. With the help of neighbours, and with me kept out of the way, Dad dug a huge hole in the back garden. He bricked up the sides, put railway sleepers over the top and covered it all with soil so that German troops advancing up (or possibly down) Baildon Road couldn’t have seen it.
Dad worked at BDA Dyeworks at Charlestown. Being a Yorkshire kid,I naturally assumed that wool was a basic and essential industry. Troops couldn’t fight without uniforms. So it was something of a relief to me in my Defence HQ when other air raid shelters began to appear in the shape of big brick structures built in the street almost overnight. One sat right outside our house, obscuring the view of mill chimneys across the valley. It sat there, massive, solid, always locked and empty. I never found out who had the key. It couldn’t have been the Misses Murgatroyd next door. Annie was anti-monarchist – she shocked me by telling me we had “a stuttering King and a druffen Queen” so she might have been disqualified even as a Warden. Emma wasn’t too active but why were they always dressed in Nazi black and always watching out of their window? Could they hear our planning through the thin party wall? Had the shelter been built in front of them to conceal what was going on? Indeed I did occasionally wonder whether they might be German spies sending radio signals about Ferniehurst’s preparations for war back to Germany.
Slowly the arsenal of democracy was being built up. Mum made the blackouts, black sheeting religiously pinned up so that the Nazi bombers flying overhead wouldn’t notice the embattled focus of democracy at 33 St Aidans.
Dad built a greenhouse which served the double purpose of further concealing the air aid shelter. He also built a hen house and put in a dozen hens whose eggs sustained the troops. We were pretty self sufficient, which would have been useful had Ferniehurst been besieged, but with the reservation that I wouldn’t allow my rabbits to be eaten. Additional sustenance came from a furtive man, I christened J49, who brought cheese and sugar to our back door. Presumably this was black market. Since the statute of limitations must have run out, it’s probably safe to reveal that he lived in the next house to the bottom on the left hand side. With Wood’s and Crabtree’s fish and chip shops open throughout the war plus a “British restaurant” providing cheap basic meals for us plebs over Baildon Bridge, our diet was so varied that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would have been proud of us. Indeed the British restaurants must have been good because when I got to Oxford a decade later two still operated there.
I also I remember eating pigeons, rabbits and even dog meat (recognisable because it was dyed green) which we queued for in Shipley, pretending we had a dog at home. It can now be revealed that I was also experimenting with ways of varying the British diet and alleviating food shortages by making pineapple slices (these days I’d call it “New Pineapple”) by soaking slices of turnip in yellow dye and pineapple flavour.
I was armed. Only with a popgun at first. In those early days of the war, weapon supplies were rudimentary and even the Home Guard started out with wooden rifles. Those weapons got better. So did mine. At first I contemplated using my cricket bat to crack open the heads of invaders. I decided, however, that it was better to keep the bat clean for my trial for Yorkshire C.C.C, which was then the birthright of every Yorkshire lad. I couldn’t present myself at Park Avenue with a bloody and battered bat. So I put it back in its glass case and acquired a Tommy gun which I painted black. Unfortunately, the handle you turned to make the rat-a-tat-tat was broken so I had to make the rat-a-tat-tat noise in the back of the throat.
By this time we had a sten gun in the house. Dad brought it home from the Home Guard. He hadn’t been called up: health grounds, I think.
In fact, I don’t remember many dads being called up into the services on Ferniehurst and I wonder, looking back, whether the exempted occupations system didn’t work in favour of the middle-class. Down at school more kids from the terrace houses in Woodbottom and Charlestown had fathers serving in the forces than seemed to be the case with we happy few from Ferniehurst. I don’t know the size of the casualty list and there’s no Ferniehurst War Memorial. Ninety three deaths are commemorated on the Baildon memorial, a high figure for a village with ten thousand people but there are no addresses so there’s no tally of Ferniehurst’s killed, wounded and missing. We did our bit but I can’t measure how big a bit that was.
I drew up maps of Baildon and made several copies to help any British troops tasked with recapturing Ferniehurst by demonstrating how they could advance up the backway via snickets, up Baildon Green, along the Glen and through the woods rather than up Baildon Road or along Otley Road, both of which the Germans would certainly have blocked.
The invasion never happened. In fact, come to think of it, not much did. I remember spending only a few nights in our magnificent air raid shelter and most of those were false alarms. On two occasions I could hear bombs falling somewhere, though not on Ferniehurst, because my mother kept opening the door to go into the house to make tea. No-one could work the primus dad had installed and he’d never thought to install an en suite toilet. I don’t know how they managed that out in the street shelter because I can’t remember ever going there.
In each case when bombs actually fell the target was Bradford rather than Ferniehurst.
In Ferniehurst, we never felt any possibility of defeat. Our shelter began to drip with damp and dad decided to use it for growing mushrooms. The shelter in the road outside was left open to become more of a health hazard than a protection because mysterious night visitors used it as a toilet. We kids broke up the breeze blocks blocking the exits and used the shelter as a battle training ground: Baildon’s only one. You could fire out of it at any available attacking hordes, so younger kids were forced to run round like Indians round a wagon train. The battle training may not have frightened the Germans but it certainly terrified the Misses Murgatroyd.
Gradually life returned, though not to normal, for these were straitened times with rationing, scarcities and mothers spending a lot of time queuing. By this time I was in uniform myself. First as a wolf cub, and, in 1944 as a scout, and we felt ourselves to be a reserve army. In 1944 the Baildon (St John’s) 9l Shipley Scouts became part of Yorkshire coast defences when we were sent camping at Sandsend, presumably because all coastal troops had been withdrawn for the invasion of Europe. We patrolled the beaches and went to sea to seek submarines, though some were sea stick I wasn’t but I was amazed to find it all quiet on the eastern front.
By 1944, victory was in the air. Any other outcome was inconceivable. Particularly to readers of the Wizard & Rover. Finally, in May 1945 came victory and with it our great VE Day street party, the first and possibly the last time St Aidan’s Road did anything together as a street. Ferniehurst had come through.
VJ Day followed in August, by which time Ferniehurst was too exhausted to organise another party. We kids seized the initiative and built a big fire in the back garden of the Misses Murgatroyd at 35 St. Aidan’s. I remember it as huge. They never let us have a fire in their garden again. It looked like a battlefield afterwards. The only one St Aidan’s Road had.
Next year we all got certificates personally signed by King George VI thanking us for the tremendous efforts we’d made, along with the Commonwealth, to win victory for Britain. If I hadn’t lost mine I’d put it in the Ferniehurst War Museum. If there was one.
- The Yorkshire Post Newsroom. Monday, 13th February 2012