SPRING 1967: The little boy’s body hung, limp, dripping, from the hooked implement which had fished him from the depths of the South Yorkshire Navigation Canal, at Mexborough.
He had brown tousled hair, was kitted out as neat as when dressed by mum that morning with dark, short trousers, and sporting one of those patterned cardies that Granville wore in ‘Open All Hours’.
Heartbreaking, if it wasn’t such a matter of fact occurrence for this young reporter dispatched from the nearby South Yorkshire Times Offices, just across the waterway, to “see what all the fuss’s about”.
Yet there was one detail that tugged the heartstrings and stayed with me through the intervening 50-odd years: the young lad’s sandals, brown ribbed, plastic I think, his white socks standing out against the ribbing, still fastened tight even though their wearer must have struggled so hard, kicking frantically against his fate.
I just thought, how can he still be dressed so neatly and yet now be dead. An accident, of course, that merited a short formal inquest. Just one of those situations which confronted a weekly newspaper reporter in those days. Your presence at the scene of a fire or accident was taken for granted by police, fire crew and the like, and true to say bad news is good news for newspaper sales.
Indeed each morning the ‘duty reporter’ phones round every local police fire and ambulance station to check-out any overnight incidents, standard procedure in the 60s and 70s. It seemed that you, the local hack, were granted freedom of this place, and in return recorded for posterity the hatch-match-dispatch that contributed to the character of this very special community, warts and all. Pit towns just those few decades ago remained much as they had been for a hundred years of digging coal. It seems incredible to me now, to contemplate their fate twenty years later at the hands of a vengeful Prime Minister.
Another tragic occasion springs to mind: a print night, a Thursday, the evening national news had reported Comet aircraft crashing into the Bay of Biscay, a Mexborough girl among the passengers. Close to Press deadline I was sent to interview the young lady’s family. Daunting? Not really, for the family sort of expected a ‘Times’ reporter to be interested. It was a mark of respect, if you like. I was even allowed to take away away a precious picture of their unfortunate daughter. Mission accomplished. The town was told, the readers paid their respects.
Canal deaths were not uncommon, but I can tell you that in those days it was not unknown for police discovering a body in The Cut to give it is push down to the next lock, and thence to some other bobby’s patch. Naughty eh!
In this rather morbid context, memory has just brought back a smile, in the shape of Reggie Thomas, quite a ‘character’, tiny in stature, sort of curled-up, crippled, but boasting a cheery red nose. Must have been in constant pain, though he never showed it when he chuckled over some jolly tale delivered from his regular seat in the Best Side of ‘The Staff’ public house, the Press pub as well as the best pub in town, mentioned in my previous meanderings.
Reg was a proof reader for the South Yorkshire Times, though by rights he should not have been there, as he expounded in his own favourite yarn. Apparently, donkey’s years earlier he had been late back to work, returning from the pub I wouldn’t doubt, but was spotted by the then owner of the paper Mr Turner, father of our present day (1960s) proprietor Eric Turner.
That great high panjandrum sacked Reg on the spot, yet amazingly suffered the misfortune of snuffing it before he could tell anyone in authority to act on his decision. Naturally enough Reg was not letting on, and so he worked on for another 20 or so years until it seemed his problems caught up with him despite his cheerful demeanour, and he drowned in the canal.
It was assumed that this was no accident, and that Reg had simply had enough, and jumped. I cannot for some reason recall the inquest verdict, which is unusual if I tell you that I found inquests the most fascinating procedures, not least because the Doncaster Corner, Kenneth Potter, employed a very attractive young female assistant, bespectacled, with auburn hair and a spring in her step.
I tried on occasions to catch her eye, with a view to maybe setting up a date, but she stepped a bit too lively, invariably slinging her hook before I could get to grips.
Mr Potter set up court locally in the old Market Hall, which also hosted meetings of Mexborough Urban District Council. What a contrast of styles the old hall witnessed, from the gravity of a well ordered inquest, the Coroner intent on a sensible and factual conclusion to affairs, while in an evening Labour-controlled Council affairs were often filled with sound and fury signifying ignorance and scant regard for any sensible debate, as the Labour members waged a bitter war of insults against the Citizens’ Party opposition.
On one occasion Citizens’ lady councillor Mrs Doris Leach had the phrase “sterile old cow” hurled in her direction. I did not report that remark in consideration to Mrs Leach. Maybe I should have told all.
Enough of that: where inquests were concerned many proceedings involved pitmen, pneumoconiosis victims, plagued by coal dust in their lungs. There would be a pension attached to the condition, the severity of which was expressed in percentages…50, 60, 70 per cent and so on. One hell of a job eh? In my first court report of this nature, where a coal face worker had been crushed to death by machiner, I had innocently to inquire of a colleague to which part of the human anatomy the word ‘scrotum’ referred. I’ll leave you to guess the context.
No wonder absenteeism figures at local pits were exceeding high, especially on ‘Miners’ Mondays’, when packed pubs provided a profitable market for itinerant traders plying their trade with baskets of tasty morsels such as mussels, cockles and the like, oh and offal including delicious pigs’ feet in jelly, all to be washed down by a pint or four of Barnsley Bitter (Barnsley was the very best beverage, but its days were numbered as I think John Smith’s bought out the brewery, calling time on this tangy, tawny ale).
A much more sensational inquest at that time (held in Wath-on-Dearne, birthplace of Tory high panjandrum William Hague) concerned the murder of Adrienne Pamela Taylor, a local St John Ambulance Nurse done to death by arsenic, administered in her daily flask of soup by her partner, a local golf professional jealous of her infatuation with a hunky lorry driver.
Having done away with Adrienne, her angry lover had committed suicide by detaching gas piping in his apartment. Forensic evidence could have come from the pages of a crime novel, detailing the dates on which she had ingested the arsenic, calculated from residual traces in her hair.
Coverage of the inquest earned a front page by-line for me and colleague John Clarke, for at this time I had temporarily abandoned ‘The Times’ to become district reporter with ‘The Sheffield Star’ evening paper. However after a year working with John I returned to the weekly, my true home.
I’ll end on a lighter note, relating the merry tale of Effie Corker, another Wathonian who nevertheless amused, charmed our readers by producing a child each year (I stopped counting at 12), and each year a local reporter was sent to record the event, accompanied by a photographer, either the indomitable Londoner Harry K. Wingate, or the talented but finicky Sheffielder Darryl F. Briggs, who always wanted a better photo than the one he had just taken, even if it was a road accident … “Do it again for Darryl lads”.
That pair were part of a fine team, a family, that served up THE ‘Times’, which sold more that 50,000 copies. Townsfolk couldn’t get enough of us. Nor we of them.
⊕ The Featured Picture: At the heart of newspaper production way-back-when, the fabulous Linotype machine, was wondrous a tool as any 21st Century ‘IT’ miracle in the hands of a skilled operator, here my dear departed friend Pete Franey. Each letter of every word in ever single line of type (hence the name) was selected on the keyboard as a brass matrix which fell into place to be lifted by a arm of the machine and cast in hot metal….