Thursday, 29 October 2009

Book Review

‘Call Back Yesterday: Northenden Remembered’ by Winifred A. Garner, pub. Neil Richardson, 2nd Edition 2002 (ISBN: 1-85216-147-7), 67pp, £5.75

I found this book in a newsagent’s shop, in Northenden, a few weeks ago. It’s a volume in Neil Richardson’s extensive series on local history. It was first published in 1986 and re-published in 2002. I confess that I bought it for the illustrations, but on reading the text I found it very interesting and affecting.

It is an autobiographical account of a young girl growing up in the Mersey Valley village of Northenden, between the First and Second World Wars. Winifred A. Garner née Payne was born in 1910 and died in 1992. In her book she outlines the lives of her parents and grandparents and then describes her childhood, teenage years and early twenties. The account ends with the birth of her daughter in 1935, two years after she and her new husband had moved into a (then) new house in Baguley. In a sense this is recent history – but it’s already a time that is rapidly passing out of living memory.

The first section of her book describes social relationships which would be inconceivable today. Winifred’s maternal grandfather secured himself a position as coachman-handyman with a well-off Northenden family. One of the daughters of the well-off family married a rich Manchester businessman. When the businessman’s family moved to Marple they took Winifred’s grandfather’s family with them and provided them with a cottage. Winifred’s mother, Deborah, worked as a ‘between-maid’ for the rich family and they paid her medical bills when she fell ill and advanced her education by allowing her to read all the books in their house. Later Deborah secured herself another position, with another well-off family, and this relationship seems to have been equally paternalistic.
Of course, paternalism was probably not always as idyllic as the above account suggests. In fact, at one point Deborah found herself working for a “very bad-tempered lady” – and soon left that employment. In addition, for every working class family who secured themselves a position with rich paternalists, there must have been hundreds who didn’t. But I believe that, when reading accounts such as this, one should be careful not to criticise the past by the standards of the present. By the time that Winifred came of working age these paternalistic relationships had largely broken down, and rather than go into service like her mother, she worked for a number of commercial enterprises in Manchester and Northenden.

Winifred seems to have had a very happy childhood and obviously grew up in the bosom of a very loving family. Both her father and uncle saw service in the First World War – but both returned safely. Winifred recalled spending a weekend sitting outside the Post Office waiting for her father to alight from a bus. Unfortunately, he actually returned on the following Monday afternoon, while she was at school.

Winifred tells us that in her childhood most children were expected to run errands for their parents and other adults. She seems to have relished this aspect of her life – and, if nothing else, it was probably very good for her socialisation. Writing about these errands gives Winifred the opportunity to describe various Northenden shopkeepers and tradesmen and their various wares, services, foibles and eccentricities.
Northenden, like most communities, seems to have had its fair share of eccentrics. One of these was old Tim Bardsley who would sit outside his terraced house in Church Road and wave his walking stick at passing (errand running) children and shout, “I’ll have you!” Winifred imagines him chuckling to himself at the memory of the children’s “scared faces and scurrying legs”. Another was the village constable, PC Scragg, who invited himself to a family party and left with his helmet on back to front!

Through the media of local folklore and events Winifred was also aware of a darker side to life. Eight years before her birth a seventy year old butler shot and killed his ex-employer and was himself shot dead by a policeman. By the time of Winifred’s childhood this murder had attained a prominent place in local legend. Another gruesome murder occurred in the 1920s.A 14 year old lad was abducted from Manchester and stabbed to death in a local wood. She also tells us that people often drowned in the highly polluted* river Mersey: children playing, rowing accidents and suicides. Bodies tended to be recovered from the Cheshire side of the river because the authorities on that side paid more for recovery than those on the Lancashire side!

Winifred witnessed the transformation of Northenden from a rather pretty, rural village to a Manchester suburb and in reading her book we witness her own transformation from a country girl to a rather fashionable young woman who obviously revelled in all the cultural delights that a big city, like Manchester in the 1920s, had to offer.

Sadly, time has not been too kind to Northenden. The major changes began in the late 1920s/early1930s when the neighbouring Wythenshawe estate was purchased from the Simon family by Manchester Corporation and developed into the vast housing estate that we know today (a transformation which Winifred and her family benefited from, of course). Because Winifred’s book ends in 1935 we learn nothing of subsequent changes: the rather brutalist town planning of the latter half of the 20th century, the motorway building which has left Northenden an island surrounded by roads and the river, and the laissez-faire developments of the last couple of decades which have relentlessly filled in many of its remaining open spaces. Still, in a few spots (Ford Lane, Boat Lane, St. Wilfrid’s Church and churchyard) we can still catch a glimpse of the village that Winifred knew and loved.

This is a delightful book, written in straightforward and eloquent prose; highly recommended to anyone with an interest in social history, local history or the Mersey Valley.
You can obtain a copy of this book by sending a SAE to Neil Richardson, 88 Ringley Road, Stoneclough, Radcliffe M26 1ET. I also note that you can buy all of Neil Richardson’s books via the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society website (http://www.mlfhs.org.uk/).

Dave Bishop, October 2009

* Earlier this year, on a walk from Northenden to Didsbury, I was amazed to see huge shoals of small fish (gudgeon?) in the river all the way from the Tatton Arms to Simon’s Bridge. Obviously the river is much, much less polluted now than it was in Winifred’s day. This has to be a very definite improvement!

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