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Kim Harris, 2008
Memories of Rushden

It seems to me that, looking back, what you did was almost as important as who you were, in a small town dominated by the leather trades.

Families seemed to me to be divided into those that farmed, those that made leather, those that manufactured from it, those that worked in it, and an array of non-leather families such as butchers, grocers etc, such as you found in any country town.

Given that, back then people were not as mobile physically, or socially; family and business relationships seemed to tend to continue over generations with this "bonding", continually being reinforced by attendance at the same schools, having the same interests and involvement in the same social sports, such as rugby, cricket, etc. Thus, if your family knew a series of families, you grew up automatically knowing them too, what they did, who they married, and where they went far, far, more than is the case today.

As a child it was entirely natural, it seemed to me, to meet people in the street or on a bus, who I did not know but who knew my name, and be asked about my father, grandfather etc and to be introduced as  "....you know Wilf Harris' son", or as "....you know JA Harris' grandson". On relating such a chance meeting later to your parents or simply asking a question as to who the person was, I do remember constantly being told that they were a third cousin or such, and so grew up with the fixed idea that a large proportion of the population were, indeed, family of some sort or other, but as to exactly what the relationship was I had no real idea. Occasionally too, one would come back home with a tale of meeting someone only to be told that whoever was "a bit of a wrong ’un" and to be careful, but what this signified was never really explained.

Obviously this led to a lot of visiting of each other’s homes and to some interesting sights. I recall, visiting a family called the Bakers who lived at The Limes, an old farmhouse in High Street South, who apart from having a talking parrot and lots of old shotguns in racks on a wall in the kitchen, also had, in the garden, an old abandoned "three holer" privy. Obviously going to the lavatory was, or had once been, a social occasion!

Going to school over at Wellingborough also meant that come the end of school holidays you were taken over to, I think, John Cave's factory on a Saturday and had a pattern taken of your feet. Later this was followed up by the arrival of several pairs of black school Oxfords at the house and maybe a new school satchel. These shoes seemed to appear fully soled and heeled each week during term-times, and in boxes.

Footwear seemed to me, being only a child, a bit of an obsession which afflicted everybody. People when they met you, seemed always to stare at your feet first, than look at your face. My father was forever having different leather samples "run up" as they termed it, to see how it looked and sometimes in exotic skins like crocodile, lizard or snake-skin, and I do quite clearly remember my mother, who had the mis(?)-fortune of having  ideal "sample-size" feet, complaining that she had over 100 pairs at one time and God-knows how many handbags and gloves!

This may sound perverse, but I had heard about a shoe-shop in the High Street that had what they then called a "Fluoroscope". This was floor-standing machine with a sort of metal hood at the top into which you could look and observe your feet, which were inserted into a slot at the base. Meanwhile a decent shot of X-rays were let loose and showed you your foot bones. Obviously the idea was to ensure a good shoe fit but to a child, the "magic" of seeing through your shoes and into your bones while wiggling your toes was simply enormous. Despite never really ever needing shoes, let alone ever having to pay for them, after much cajoling of my parents, I joined the queue of children who were quite happy to have their feet irradiated regularly at the shop. I just wonder what Health and Safety would make of that now! It’s a wonder our feet didn't glow in the dark!!

Along High Street South stood a pub called the Wagon and Horses and at which there appeared regularly a dray bringing with it the barrels of beer. The sight of these vast heavy horses pulling the dray and they rode up and the chance to stroke one as it stood with its feedbag on, resplendent with all its polished horse-brasses, was one that I also greatly enjoyed.

Rushden also had quite defined religious boundaries. Either you were "High-church" or a non-conformist, and the distinction seemed to count back then. My mother attended the Baptist church and my father none at all, unless forced. At Wellingborough School, I remember we had just one Catholic who was excused morning chapel for that reason. He remained in the school and in the warm while we poor Protestants had to stand in the freezing chapel for about half an hour each morning. Religion also dictated whether you enjoyed a drink or not.

From what I recall or what I learned, there seemed to be a grading of pubs in the town starting with the hotel the "Queen Vic" complete with gentleman's billiard room and ending with "The Railway". The Feathers is always linked in my mind to a rather drunken American airman during the war who, when apparently asked by a lady if she "could see a bit of the fire" one cold evening, turned toward it and scooped out a pan of blazing coal and dumped it in her lap! At least, that is what I was told!

Across the road from the "Wheatsheaf" was a blacksmith who, apart from shoeing the horses for folks, also made things and I remember he made me some runners for a sled my father had built for me down at the tannery, one snowy winter. Back then all sledging happened at a place called Mission Hill, although quite where that was in no unclear to me now. [off Irchester Road]  It was however a long, steep slope and we used all to gather for hours there, tobogganing and slowly getting more and more frozen.

Some other glimpses of life back then come to mind

For some reason old JA Harris had been fascinated by television before the war and had acquired a set despite Rushden being miles out of range of any then TV signal. This would have been in the very late 1930's I suppose. Anyway it just sat there as a conversation piece of sorts and I was definitely not allowed to touch it.

At the end of the war broadcasting of TV expanded and suddenly it was discovered that you could actually get the signal in Rushden and the thing worked and showed a picture of sorts. I gather that a call was placed to Ron Jacques of Jacques Electrical, who was for years "The Authority" on all things electrical in Rushden who arranged with my grandfather to have it on display in his shop window for a while, despite the fact that you still couldn't buy the things easily. I would guess that my grandfather’s set was possibly the first sight many had of TV, as it crackled away in the shop window. I remember being told that crowds came to see it, despite its tiny screen.

Other random memories come to mind such as the piles of bombs beside the roads leading out to such as Chelveston. There seemed miles of them, all stacked up and covered with a corrugated iron sheet, although clearly not armed and liable to explode.

My parents married in about 1937 and my Grandfather had a new house built for them, as a wedding present called "Threeways" up on the top of Hall Avenue. Part of the charm was, then, that it was away from the town and surrounded by empty fields and pasture. In the spirit of the times, it had to be "modern" and all electric to suit my mother’s taste, with no chimneys to be swept or coal fires. It was stuccoed white with a green tile roof which must have looked a bit daring back then. Their privacy only lasted for a few years as plans were put in hand for the area to be developed. These were interrupted by the outbreak of war with only the roads and gutters installed and, for some bizarre reason, the street lights. And so it remained as a "ghost town" of sorts until the early 1950's. Just an outline of a coming place to live which never seemed to arrive. When building did eventually restart start my parents quickly sold and left.

I remember from past conversations with my father that, while a lot from the town volunteered, not a lot who were in the leather trades actually served. The reason for this is that leather was a "reserved occupation" and their labour was more valued by staying at home making the stuff, than actually serving and shooting. In fact such was the shortage of labour that the ranks of the forces were scoured and many demobilised and brought back to work, much against their wishes.

I remember that Harris Bros was powered by steam back then, and had two huge boiler rooms providing the steam for the engines that turned all the overhead shafting wheels, which were linked by belting to the actual leather finishing machinery. The fuel was coke, and I think there were two stokers who did nothing else but stoke and trim these boilers. During the school holidays, I used to enjoy and ask to be taken down to the tannery by my father and always used to end up in the boiler rooms watching the stokers, who were ex-navy men and used to tell me tales - most probably all untrue - of their exploits in the Service during WW1-capturing German battleships etc etc.

The winter of 1947 was really severe and at times the tannery nearly got snowed in. Fuel was so short for home use and my Father used to allow the workforce to each take a couple of buckets of coke each home at the end of the Saturday shifts, so to ensure that they all had a warm house at least for the Sunday.

Quite a bit of what you might describe as "Barter" also happened during and just after the war. I remember coming home from school and going to use the downstairs garden porch lavatory and being a bit shocked to find hanging in there, head-down over the pan, a whole pig. Obviously someone had returned a favour of some sort at that time of strict rationing and had just dropped it off!!!

The Groome family were also apart of the extended Harris "clan" and I think were cousins but exactly what sort-second, third? I am not sure. Obviously they too were "in leather". I know one, Wilf (?) Groome, lived on the Hayway and was a bachelor uncle who drove a big Alvis Speed 20 - a very rakish bit of machinery then. Unfortunately he was taken very ill in the early 1950's and, as a result of my Australian Mother providing him with regular copies of the Australian Woman's Weekly and him reading about the Flying Doctor Service, left around £100,000 in his will to them - a fabulous sum in those days, considering that the average weekly wage was I suppose around a £5, then.

Kim Harris, 2008



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