Eileen’s father, Jack Brown, undertaker

Dad was a joiner and worked for the local undertaker. His original workshop was on the ground floor of a building which housed the working men’s club on the upper floor. There was always a low rumbling noise coming from above, which I could never fathom. I realised later it was the noise of the members enjoying their pint and a natter. Next to our house was a series of buildings which had once been used by a wheelwright and blacksmith, and the business was transferred there, which meant that Dad only had a few steps to take to go to work.

Mum used to go to the cinema one night a week so then it was just Dad and me. If he had a coffin to make and had to work late, I would join him in the workshop next door and watch him working. Sometimes he would set me on dusting the shelves, which contained all manner of boxes of nuts, bolts, screws, and so on. That was a thankless task as they were always covered in dust, especially sawdust. I used to imagine I was in a shop selling those items.

I can still see Dad now making a coffin. First he would saw the wood to the right shape using a motorized circular saw — a task I didn’t like to watch as I was afraid he would lose a finger. Luckily he never did. Then the sides of the casket had to be shaped by cutting grooves across the sawn pieces and scalding them with boiling water to make the wood pliable so that it could be bent into shape After the coffin was assembled boiling pitch was poured in to seal it. Dad was quite adept at tilting the coffin to cover the inside with the black stuff. It was almost like coating a tin before baking a cake. The next step was the lining, which would be finished off with a frill round the edge. Dad prided himself on his handiwork and spent ages polishing the exterior, which I helped to do. The lid was cut into shape also and beading put round and nailed on. There was also beading round the base of the coffin. Then there was the job of attaching brass screws to the lid, and last of all the nameplate of the deceased was added. The engraving of the nameplate was done by a professional engraver, I think. If a more expensive coffin was required, Dad would ask us to go and view it when he had completed it. We took it all in our stride and didn’t see anything gloomy about it all. If there were several deaths simultaneously Dad would sometimes stay up all night to complete his tasks. The neighbours couldn’t have been very pleased with all the hammering which ensued.

When Dad’s boss got too old to conduct funerals himself, Dad took over and enjoyed dressing up in his frock coat and top hat, which he would polish with a handkerchief before setting off. I think he only ever had one suit to wear on these occasions, and I recall noticing in later years that the backside of his striped trousers was nearly threadbare. It’s a good job the coat had tails to hide it.

There was always a bottle of disinfectant spray in the kitchen, which Dad used to spray the bodies when he went to measure them up, which he did with the aid of a local woman who used to act as unofficial layer out. This disinfectant was not particularly nice in my opinion. It was certainly no Eau de Cologne!

As he went about his daily work in the village, Dad would now and then hear on the grapevine of people who were very ill, and he would come home and say, ‘Old so-and so’s nearly dead!’ He was thinking that another casket would be called for. Unfortunately, there was great rivalry between funeral directors and he would be most disappointed if he found that the Co-Op had been commissioned for the task.

During summer, farmers would bring drays into the yard for repairs before haymaking started. They needed new spokes on wheels and other repairs. I hated hot summer days and recall spending lots of time sitting under these drays to keep out of the sun. I suppose I could have stayed indoors but then Dad would worry that I wasn’t well. He seemed to have an obsession with my bowel habits and every day when he came home from work he would ask my mum if I had been to the toilet. If I hadn’t it would be a dose of syrup of figs, which was horrible. Thankfully he stopped enquiring when my sister was born. Maybe he transferred his concern on to her, but I was very relieved, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The workshop was in three sections — the main workshop and two adjoining sections. One of the latter was used to store timber, while the other was converted into a Chapel of Rest to keep up with the Co-Op. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very big and if there was more than one body to be left in there, the others had to be moved out if relatives were coming to view their nearest and dearest. I’m not sure where Dad moved them to. It’s a good job he never mixed them up.

In later years my brother worked with Dad, and he was sometimes asked to be a bearer at a funeral. My brother is not very tall and on one occasion he was asked to perform the task at the crematorium. He was placed at one of the rear corners of the coffin with three tall chaps manning the other corners. Consequently the coffin was higher than him and he wasn’t supporting it in any way. He saw the funny side of this and couldn’t help laughing which didn’t go down well with the grieving relatives. After the service, the superintendent at the crematorium gave him a reprimand and said he would be barred if he did it again. I don’t know what Dad was thinking of in choosing a bearer so much shorter than the others. Mind you, one needs a sense of humour in that job.

For Christmas one year Dad made me a blackboard and easel. Another year he made me a desk with a chair attached. I’m not sure if I was very pleased with these items as I hated school and these seemed an extension of it.

Not so happy days

Mum and Dad used to row a lot — or so it seemed to me — and I was very reluctant to be away from the two of them in case they argued and I wasn’t there to stop them. I don’t recall exactly what sparked the rows, but I suspect they stemmed from the fact that Mum suffered from narcolepsy. She would fall asleep at any time and consequently wasn’t able to do the housework as perhaps she should have done. The house was always in a mess, and I always felt ashamed of the place as a child since my friends’ houses were always neat and tidy. As he left the house to go to work, Dad used to remind Mum to get the pots washed.

I remember one occasion when we were visiting my grandparents and it was decided that I should stay the night with them and Mum and Dad would go home and collect me in the morning. I cried and said I didn’t want to stay, whereupon Dad clouted my backside and told me to go upstairs and stop being a baby. I couldn’t tell anyone the real reason I didn’t want to stay, which was because I thought that if they rowed and came to blows I wouldn’t be able to come between them as I had done in the past.

Maybe I got it all out of proportion, but it did affect me. Looking back, we should all have been more understanding of Mum and maybe medical help would have been advantageous to her.

Dad was always secretive with his money and would always go into another room before getting Mum’s housekeeping money for her. That probably caused resentment on Mum’s part. She never knew how much he earned.

It feels a betrayal on my part now, but I tell it as was. Just after the war, Dad and Mum became friends with another family in the village who had two sons. We used to visit their house on a Sunday night for the grown ups to play cards. We went on holiday with them one year. Mum discovered that Dad was having a fling with the wife. She put up with it. It didn’t last long, as in 1947 Mum became pregnant for the third time and the ‘other woman’ ceased to want anything more to do with us. I think jealousy crept in. Things seemed to improve after my brother was born, but I don’t think things really improved until much later. Dad had another fling after I was married. Mum used to tell me about it, and I was at a loss as to what to do. Mum did nothing and the affair fizzled out. They seemed to get closer in later years, especially when my husband and I presented them with a grandson, of whom they were especially proud.

Going back to the days of the first affair. It was 20 November 1947, the day Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth got married. A gypsy came to our door and Mum told me she had said that she could see a broken ring. I asked Mum what the gypsy meant and she said it meant that she and Dad would part. (Mum always believed these things.) I never did understand why she told me that. I was only eleven. I was so upset, but I couldn’t tell her. I remember going to my aunt’s house in the village wanting to tell her how I felt but not being able to. I felt so sad as the wedding was being broadcast on the radio and the music made me feel so unhappy.

Is it wrong of me to reveal these things? I still loved them in spite of feeling unhappy. I have been so fortunate in my marriage to have had a loyal and loving husband.

Postwar entertainment

After the war, a group of people in the village decided to form a committee with a view to holding an annual Christmas party for the senior citizens of the parish. Dad was one of the committee members, as were a number of his drinking partners and their wives. They organised whist drives and suchlike to raise money for the event. The committee was entitled ‘The Old Folks Treat Committee. Not a phrase one would use today in this politically correct environment!

Regular meetings were held to discuss arrangements at the houses of the committee, and they came up with the idea of forming a concert party to entertain their guests on the day. And so the Barnby Dun Follies were born!

There were about ten people in the group. The men wore white shirts and black trousers and the women white blouses and black skirts. They took their task very seriously and even wore stage make up. They thought they were so good.

The Barnby Dun Follies
Left to right, back row: John (Jack) Brown, Reg Fretwell, Danny Morris, George Kimber, Arthur Huby; front row: Gladys Fretwell, Jessie Huby (Dad’s sister), Lucy Morris, Phyliss Hood, Annie Buckley. The man on the left is the pianist, Jack Glasby, and the man on the right is Charles Boulby, who was a comedian (a funny one, despite his serious appearance!). These last two men worked at the Co-op in Doncaster and were in a group called the Co-op Checks. Jack Glasby used to play the organ in Braithwaite chapel and was a friend of my Grandad Brown.

On the evening of the event, the partygoers were given their Christmas tea and then settled down to be entertained. The show opened with the whole ensemble on stage singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’. Remember this was just after the war. Then there was a series of ‘comedy’ sketches by some of the group. It didn’t take much to make people laugh in those days, and the acts were a bit basic. My aunt and another lady appeared on stage with a pair of handlebars each with bells on and proceeded to waltz around the stage one behind the other singing ‘Two on a Tandem’. There was also a sketch involving a dentist’s waiting room and the dentist appearing in front of the patients with the inevitable extra large drill. We made our own entertainment in those days.

But the ‘old folks’ seemed to enjoy it, word got around to neighbouring villages, and the Barnby Dun Follies went on tour. To villages close by. I was about nine or ten years old at the time and used to travel with them to these events. I would sit in the front row feeling proud as punch that I was connected with the travelling players. My brother from an early age could play the mouth organ, and he was called upon one year to entertain the troops. As he wasn’t very old, he seemed to go down well with the audience. In later years more polished groups were enlisted to entertain.

In the later years I was asked to help, and I will never forget my first party. I had a large teapot and was going round the tables pouring tea for our guests when I suddenly poured hot tea down the back of one old gentleman! He was very nice about it despite the fact that he could have been scalded, but his wife wasn’t so understanding and had a few choice words to say. I fled into the kitchen and didn’t reappear until the guests had all gone home.

Memory fails me as to how long the Follies were in existence, but the Christmas parties continued until about 1975. Dad had been chairman of this committee and he died that year and the remaining members seemed to lose heart. And the old folk were better entertained with TV and bingo.

Eileen in panto (I don’t know what she’s holding either)

Dad’s ‘acting skills’ must have been passed on to me as years later I appeared in two pantomimes organised by colleagues at the glass factory where I worked. My first appearance was in a non-speaking part. I and another girl were handmaidens to a sultan played by my boss. Our roles consisted of standing on either side of him fanning him with carpet beaters. The poor sultan suffered from piles and had to sit on a tyre covered with cushions for his performance. I’m not sure which pantomime it was. Maybe Aladdin.

My next appearance was as the Fairy Queen in Red Riding Hood . I may be wrong, but I don’t think there was a fairy queen in the original story. Maybe they created the part just for me. I was required to trip lightly across the stage as fairy queens do and my little attendant fairies would follow. My first line was to say, ‘Fairies, salute your queen!’ and they were all to curtsy. Unfortunately for me, I have big feet and tripping lightly was not easy. I sounded more like a heavy horse. One of the group tried to teach me, but as he was a six foot male with bigger feet than mine, he didn’t help much.

No more acting for me, I decided, so neither I nor the Follies ever got further than a village stage. Them were the days.

Holidays in Scarborough

After the war, holidays were taken in Scarborough. We stayed in a boarding house owned by a lovely buxom lady called Mrs Parks. As money was tight, we always went self-catering, but Mrs Parks would cook our evening meal if Mum supplied the raw materials. It was a real treat for me if we had salad as Mum would buy a bottle of salad cream, which was something which we never had at home.

The bedrooms were comfortable, but there was no bathroom. I’m not sure where the lavatory was. We had a jug of cold water and a bowl on a stand in our bedrooms to use for our daily ablutions. Brrrh!

After breakfast, Dad would always tell us to hurry up so that we could get to the beach before all the deck chairs were taken. It seemed compulsory to stay there until teatime. There was always a stall on the beach selling jugs of tea to have with our packed lunch.

One evening we would go to the open air theatre in Peasholm Park to watch a variety show. There were always clowns on stage and they would come into the audience with buckets of water and pretend they were going to throw them. I used to be petrified. Another evening was spent going on the miniature railway to Scalby Mills.

In 1948 the Australian cricket team visited England captained by Don Bradman, who was making his final appearance for Australia on tour. We were on holiday in Scarborough when the Australian team were playing at the North Marine road cricket ground. One could get in for free after tea, so Dad took me to watch. After the match, Don Bradman walked down the street surrounded by small boys all asking for his autograph. Dad and me followed too as he walked past the end of the road where we were staying. That memory of the great man wearing a gaberdine raincoat and a flat cap has stuck with me and it got me interested in cricket. Dad used to take me to knockout matches on Doncaster town ground if our village was involved, and one of the player’s wives used to tell us to sit on our hankies to bring luck to the team. I don’t know why sitting on a hankie could bring good fortune.

Dad’s boss, Mr A used to take us to Scarborough in his Austin car. I still remember the registration number — VL9524. This was a real treat, but there was always a feeling of apprehension going down the steep Staxton Hill near Scarborough. Mr A used to kid us on that the brakes would fail. Not such a nice thing to say to kids. It’s ironic really, as Mum died in a coach crash years later when the coach’s brakes failed on a similar hill.