When you think of growing up in Rushden, as I did, in the twenties and thirties, you have to remember that we were the children of returned soldiers from the bloodiest conflict of all time, World War 1, or 'The Great War', as it was called at that time. The country, and the town, was impoverished by a costly and fruitless war, and those lucky enough to have come back from the trenches were short of work, because there was no money left in the system.
As a family, we were poor. Luckily, I didn't know this, because all the rest of the town was equally poor, so we were ordinary. I am the same age as Her Majesty, born in the summer of the General strike, which was alleviated a bit by the glorious weather, I was told, we had that year.
I started Sunday school at the Mission in Wellingborough Road, because that was the nearest to my home, when I was three. The first personality I remember was John Spencer J.P. who was a local councillor, a magistrate, and also a near neighbour. I knew him because he was the church secretary and, from his accustomed place on the platform, each Sunday he would stand up at his spot in the service to read the notices. Whenever an outside event was planned, he would add the rider, "If wet, in this hall." Among those wise men at the Mission was Jimmy Robinson, proprietor of our local fish shop. Arthur Robinson who I think was no relation, and Bill Catlin, sire to our famous Bert, who was always called Herbert at Sunday School, and not least, Ernest Bandey, Sunday School Secretary, man of firm conviction and heavy hands. Every other person seemed to be called Clark, and was somehow related to the founder member John Clark.
My playground was Spencer Park, named for the aforesaid 'honest John' Spencer, when he was, presumably, chairman of the 'Rushden Urban District Council'. This park was supervised by Park keeper 'Ding dong' Bell, and another named Bailey. These two had absolute power in their own area of work, and we were scared to put a foot wrong, in case we were prosecuted, or so we felt. The discipline instilled into all, during the war, was still inherent in, not only the people, but in the children of those people. Anyone who wore a peaked cap was in charge, and made his presence felt. Incidentally, on Sundays, all the amusements in all Rushden's parks were locked up, so there was no disturbance to the special day, and Sunday was, indeed, special.
The 'Sunday' park was the Hall Grounds, as it was then called, and the park keeper was named Tom Roberts. Mr Roberts wore a full park keeper's uniform of navy blue, and the usual peaked cap suitably badged with the legend, Park-keeper. He lived with his family in the little picturesque lodge at the entrance to the park, in High St. South, and felt that he was ruler of his domain. I remember him as tall and upright, like a guardsman, and he carried a swagger stick, so he could point it at misbehaving boys, which would be sufficient to quell them. Each Sunday one of the town's four, or was it five, bands played concerts from the bandstand. The bands were allowed to collect contributions from in-coming visitors. Everybody knew Tom Roberts, and he knew most of the people who came through his gates.
When we had money enough to go to the cinema, (we called it the pictures) we had the choice of the Palace or the Royal Theatre. No-one called it the Royal, it was just the Theatre; in that rather superior cinema, there lurked a monster, SNAP Branson, so called because he would snap his fingers at any erring clients to let them know he was aware of their misdeeds. He could control the three-penny rush without any seeming effort, simply using his fingers in that way.
On the site that had been left vacant by the disastrous fire at Cave's factory, one of Rushden's most well remembered characters ran a small fair. It was the centre of attraction for junior boys for whom, at that time, it was normal to wear a school cap. Tommy Essam, was the showman, Rushden's own showman, who ran the fair. He was a generous man who attracted kids to his fair by distributing toffees, "hold your hats out" he would say, and about half a dozen boys would benefit from a capful of sharps toffees. The less lucky ones would hang about until they got their share. Tommy was no fool. Around his money spinning torn bola there was a ready made nucleus of a crowd. Tommy's prizes were worth winning and I dare say there are homes to this day that have in them some item that was 'won at Tommy Esaam's'. Later, when the Ritz cinema was built on the site, Tommy disappeared for a time, but came back to open up on the site behind 'Fishy' Jim Bates' fish-shop. Tommy had a sign on his tombola. 'The Lord helps them that help themselves But Lord help them that help themselves here'.
Bates' Fish Shop
Opposite the site of Tommy's fair was a greengrocer and fruiterer. His well known name was Billy Keller, he was loud voiced, as though he had spent all his days on a market stall, crying his wares, but I think he had always been in the shop on the corner of Victoria Road.
Talking of loud voices, another Rushden character who was before my time, but famous in my parents day, was one, Buck Turner, who was reputed to be a poacher extraordinary, travelling miles under his own power, and always with game to sell, hi addition to this exploit, he was the town crier. Having given out whatever proclamation he was required to do he would end with, 'now don't say old Buck aint told yer.'
H.E. Bates tells a little anecdote about Buck Turner, that when he - that is H.E., was of school age, he was dressed for school and, unusually, wore a pair of brown shoes. It was the custom for boys to wear black boots to school. Buck saw him, I believe, waiting for the bus, swaggered over to him and said, in his town crier's voice "BROWN SHOES?", until H.E. wanted the ground to swallow him.
Another from that period of time was 'Sugar Bill' Desborough who hailed from Wymington, but ran a sweet stall on the fairground , on that piece for real estate that now is the cenotaph. Then it was the village green, and a regular venue for stalls on a Saturday evening (I have been told).
One tradesman I know to have been real, and part of my own childhood was Harry Green, who was an ice-cream man. I knew him first as a vendor of Walls' ices, and he had one of those stop me and buy one tricycles. Later he started to produce and sell his own ices, and he had a pony cart, with which he travelled all over the town. He closed his business when the war stopped his supplies to make his ice-cream.
When I returned from war service, I worked for the Rushden Co-operative Society, as a coal man; my foreman was one Bill King. Bill was one of those men whom everyone knew, and he knew something of everyone of them, and was a raconteur, with the gift of making everything he said sound like a great event. His great adversary in argument was Dick Barrett, a private coal merchant, and had I not been otherwise occupied I could have listened to those two characters talking all day. All was factual, though embroidered a little and all was highly amusing. Nothing that had happened in the town was overlooked by these two.
One more town’s-man of importance, was Bill Elliot. When the 'Baths' were opened in the twenties, Bill was the man chosen to be guardian. He supervised the swimming, kept the premises in tip top condition, took the money at the turnstile, every time the pool was open. The pool opened from May to September. As soon as the pool closed, so as not to waste his talents, he was employed to paint every lamp post in the town, with that municipal green paint. My friend at my infant school in Moor Road was Roy Elliott.
It is true to say that it is people that form a town, not buildings. A grand Supermarket out on a greenfield site, may do an awful lot of trade, sucking the life out of the nearest town, but it never becomes that town. My best memories of Rushden are from when it was self contained, where businesses employed the people of the town, and the people spent their wages within the town. We knew for whom we (or our fathers) worked. George Selwood, Harry Eaton, Zoonie Green, Benny Ladds, Charlie Horrell, not forgetting Jack White. We bought our fish or game from Jim Bugby, our fruit from Billy Keller, groceries from Tailby and Putnam, or the local corner shop. We knew each other and respected each other. That is my conception of Rushden's heritage.