In 1946 we went to Northampton, where my father had a new job with the Northampton Foundry Company. To celebrate, we bought a splendid house at Hillcroft, Boughton Green Road, which was the finest house that we ever had. It was situated in Boughton Green Road, in Kingsthorpe, the northern suburb of Northampton. In those days Hillcroft was nearly out in the country which began 100 yards further down the road. About a mile up the road was the ‘loony bin’ as we called the Lunatic Asylum, and occasionally one would see strange people wandering up and down the road from the asylum. Today it is still there, is very much enlarged and aggrandised, and it calls itself the Northampton University. The road is now built up almost out to the University and is very busy with traffic.
The winter in 1947/48 was a very cold winter, when snow lay on the ground for a month or more. For Frank and me however, it meant very splendid sledging down the road. We would start from our front gate go down the short approach, turn left and then sledge all the way down the road. It was a wonderful trip and there was so little traffic those days that we were rarely interrupted. Indeed traffic was limited by the hill, for only cars with chains on their wheels could get up with any confidence and little effort was made to grit the road, so it remained a delight for us. The following summer was exceptionally hot, and a great summer for cricket when both Compton and Edrich made 1000 runs in May and 3000 runs in the season – though England were beaten 4-0 in the test matches by Don Bradman’s Australians.
Hillcroft was a big house. It had previously been owned by the manager of the gas company who had installed gas lighting and gas central heating. We soon got rid of the gas lighting but we maintained the rather grand gas central heating even though it was rather expensive to run.
It also had a magnificent garden. On the downhill side was a garden we called the Dell. Part of it was wooded – Frank remembers that a stream ran through it – and I certainly remember curved paths that I ran along, pretending to be a train. At the back of the house was the main garden. First of all was the splendid tennis court – and grass tennis courts were still very popular in those days. There is a photo of Grandpa standing beside the tennis court. Then beyond it was a smaller lawn and beyond that was the orchard, with lots of apple trees. There was a small pavilion beside the tennis court which we used as an apple store and tried to keep apples wrapped up throughout the winter.
Beyond that was the vegetable garden and beyond that was a series of sheds where parents kept hens. That was the end of the main garden, but beyond that was a field which we called the One Acre field. This was approached by a track to one side which went back to the road.
Half way along there was a windmill or rather the bottom half of a windmill and somewhere along there was a Mrs Ames, whom my mother at first befriended, though later she fell out with them when they tried to borrow money.
My father spent a lot of time keeping up the garden. At one time they kept bees enthusiastically in the orchard, and one time they even had an expert who came in to do a public demonstration of how to prune apple trees. Parents didn’t altogether approve as he cut out a lot of the branches and made it look rather bare, but the result produced fewer apples, but bigger apples, which is not really what they wanted. But it was a wonderful garden and I learnt to play a lot of tennis, though at times we used the tennis court for playing cricket. They brought in a professional photographer to do some fine photos, some of which I show here.
Beside the house was a small garage, which was never used as a garage. Before the war both parents had been motor car enthusiasts – my mother had an Austin Seven in which they drove on an epic journey through the Highlands in 1933 – the year before they got married, camping out a small tent. However after the war they didn’t have a car until they went farming and bought a 1934 Riley shooting brake. Thus there was a garage at Hillcroft, but no car to keep in it, though eventually my father bought a Vespa which he drove into work every day. They kept their Vespa they went farming, and I borrowed it when I went the army, and I remember making an epic journey from Devon to Maresfield along the A272 riding the Vespa. It only went about 30 or 40 mph, so the journey took the whole of a long day.
But since the garage was not used for a car, it eventually became our train shed. I was keen to get a model railway, and my father was equally keen to buy one. In the days of scarcity after the war, it was not possible to buy a new train set, and eventually my parents managed to buy rather a splendid one, second-hand, for Christmas. I had been badgering them to buy me a train set – just enough track to make a circle and then a little engine and a transformer but they managed to buy a complete set. When I woke on Christmas morning, I unpacked all my presents, and found a splendid electric engine but then kept on saying Where are the rails? I was most disappointed when I could not find any, but when I went downstairs, I found the answer. My father had rolled back the carpet in the dining room and had spent the whole night laying out the train set and screwing it down to the floor so that it was not constantly coming apart. I was delighted and then spent the whole of the day running trains round it.
The train set consisted of an electric engine, a transformer, and both passenger and goods coaches. Most of the track was in the form of double track which made a rather splendid lay out. There were also a couple of crossovers, and some points which led off into sidings with single tracks. Eventually my father decided to transfer it to the garage and set up a waist level shelf the whole way round the garage – one had to duck down at the door to get underneath. He then screwed the track down to the shelves, and it was marvellous. The only trouble was that having spent 5 or 10 minutes running trains round it in every possible combination, there was nothing more to do, and one wished one could add something that was not screwed down and it would be more flexible. It was too perfect!
It was added to in time, particularly with the addition of a proper steam locomotive. The first was a Bowman, primitive and robust – a 4-4-0 234 model if I remember correctly. It went very fast, but it was difficult to control, and it was always falling off at the corner. I think we then bought a Basset Lowke, which was the Rolls-Royce of model steam locomotives – and made in Northampton too! They were fired by methylated spirits with a series of burners running along beneath the boiler. You filled the boiler with water, lit the burners, and when the water boiled you raise a lever and the train would puff off. The steam engines were great fun. I think we still have them in an ammunition box in the roof. I never got them out for our children – I don’t think either of them were particularly interested and I suppose that I am not really involved in things mechanical – perhaps Max will take an interest and Robert will do a layout for him!
I went to school for a year at Eaglehurst College which was situated in two houses overlooking a park at 37 and 38 Upper Park Road, NN1 4LB. I see from their website that the school was founded in 1886 and survived till 1972, when it closed. I remember in the classroom singing Linden Lea and in particular the verse that began
Let other folk make money faster in the air of dark-roomed towns,
For I don’t care a peevish master though no man may heed my frowns,
I’ll be free to go abroad and take again the homeward road,
To where for me the apple tree do lean down low in Linden Lea.
It seemed to me rather subversive then – indeed it seems to me rather subversive now, though I like to think that to some extent I can claim to have lived up to it!
I cycled to school every morning a cycle ride of some 2 ½ miles which took me half an hour or so. I suppose it wouldn’t be allowed these days, but in those days I think it was quite normal. I remember I passed the Northants Cricket club ground. I was at the age to begin to be interested in sport so I supported the Northampton Cricket club, Northampton football club (the “Cobblers”) and to some extent the Northampton rugger club, the “Saints”. The only one that was any good was the Saints, who have continued to do well. The Cobblers were then in division three and have remained down there, and the cricket club has been consistently at the bottom of the county table and I think that now they are at the bottom of the second class table. It is a fine example of consistent failure over 50 years, so somehow I continue to support them!
I even went to one cricket match when they were played the visiting Indians. Dennis Brookes, the opening batsman, scored a century, and the visitors were left with time for just 4 overs before close of play. However Northants had a new bowler called Tyson who was spending two years qualifying to play for Northampton. He was very fast indeed, and in those two overs took two wickets; indeed he was so fast that I did not see how anyone could possibly resist him, though on the next day apparently he became inaccurate and was nowhere near so successful. He went on to play in a number of test matches as “Typhoon Tyson” and had a short but brilliant test career.
My father worked for the Northampton Foundry Company which was a subsidiary of the Northampton Machinery Company which made machinery for the boot and shoe industry for which Northampton is famous. The Foundry Company was meant to provide the iron fittings for the machinery company. It was all owned by J V Collier, a prominent local businessman who also played a role in local politics – he became mayor of Northampton and an OBE. But he and my father did not really get on: it did not help that my father lived at Hillcroft which was a rather grander house than he had, and Uncle William’s money in a way gave him a status that Jack Collier felt he didn’t deserve, and eventually they fell out and my father left.
The company was situated in Kingsthorpe Bottom, in a valley between Kingsthorpe and Northampton. When I went back to the factory site, all traces of the factory had disappeared, and it was a modern housing estate. Just beyond it on the Northampton side was the grand factory of Barrett’s shoemakers, built in 1913.
I took rather a good photo of it in the evening light, and it has become one of my best photos on Wikipedia. When I looked up Barrett’s on Wikipedia there was rather miserable entry simply detailing how it had gone bust, so I added the picture and a brief text which I mainly made up from the inscription on the factory saying it was built in 1913. I then looked up Northampton itself and found that there was again only a miserable entry about the importance of shoemaking in Northampton’s history so I added my photo there. The Northampton entry has now been totally revised and is much better, but I see my photo still survives and is thus the most successful photo I have ever placed on Wikipedia!
When I visited Northampton in 2012 I first went to the excavations at Piddington and then into Northampton itself, pausing on the way to photograph the Queen Eleanor Cross one of the most impressive of Northampton’s ancient monuments standing beside the main road into Northampton.
I parked the car down a side road and when I return to it, I looked down and saw I was standing on this drain cover bearing the inscription Northampton Foundry Co Ltd. I had a frisson of surprise: it was almost like seeing a ghost, actually seeing something that my father had produced – the results of his very own work!
2nd March 2017. I have just received the following email from Jonathan Harding:
I was just googling my address and I stumbled across your lovely website.
I have lived opposite Hillcoft for 15 years now and love my life there. I have always wondered what my house looked like before and if there were any photos or stories from before.
I live in the big detached house opposite which is now on the corner.
Do you have any memories or pictures you could share? I know the house was owned by a Jewish builder and his wife had a little shop behind my house.
It was lovely to see the picture of your house and the garden too.
On to How we went farming
31st July 2015