Tag Archives: Rugby

A Life in a Year – 21st June, The Wonder of Woolies!

The very first Woolworths store opened in the United States on 21st June 1879 and when I was a boy the Rugby store at 30 High Street was one of my favourite shops in town selling things you don’t see any more Melba chocolate, spud guns, Embassy records, pick ‘n’ mix, broken biscuits, Homemaker china, Californian Poppy perfume, and Ladybird children’s clothes.

It was big, it was bright, it was cheap and gaudy and it was like an Aladdin’s cave full of treasure. I don’t know for sure how long it had been there but there are some old pictures of Rugby that show it in the 1950s in a fine old building but some time in the early 1960s Rugby got the full attention of the modernist town planners and much of the historic centre was swept away in a frenzy of demolition and rebuild and by the 1960s Woolworths was located in a modern brick and glass building with a concrete facade which would have looked trendy then but now just looks firmly and inappropriately time locked in its post war conception.

The dark days of Winter were the best time to visit Woolworths because stepping out of the gloom into the bright lights was like visiting Santa’s grotto.  The Rugby store was a big one, on three levels and with entrances from both High Street and Sheep Street which pre pedestrianisation were busy main roads cutting through the middle of town from Market Place to Hillmorton Road and as well as Woolworths there was Boots the Chemist, International Stores and a number of small local shops, sadly, mostly now gone.

Before it was modernised with tills at the exits it was a curious mix of the old and the new shopping experience. It had wooden floors and counters arranged in sections that were part self-service and partly manned by shop assistants.  Each section advertised its wares with a cardboard sign in a sort of aluminium picture frame which wobbled about on the counter. ‘Pick n Mix’ was close to the door with a mouth watering array of fizzy and hard boiled sweets sponsored probably by the local dentists.  Once past this distraction there were toys and games, hardware, gardening, shoes and clothing counters.  There were records too but these were mainly cheap long playing records not performed by the original artist. I was in there one day with my friend David Newman when he shop-lifted an LP of Warren Mitchell (Alf Garnett) singing war time songs.


On the subject of thieving, Rugby School Boys were not allowed to shop in the store and I always thought this was due to some snobbish rule imposed by the public school itself but it turned out that it was in fact a ban by the management of Woolies because despite the fact that the pupils were from very well off families they used to nick so much stuff that it had a negative effect on store profits.

Progressing deeper into the store the counters became less interesting for young children , clothes, kitchen ware, electrical items and furniture.  Upstairs, via the escalator on one side and stairs on the other, was really for serious mum and dad shopping and there was a cafeteria for tea and a sandwich.  The third floor was accessed by what seemed to be a curious set of back stairs but I can’t remember anything especially interesting on this floor.

Woolworths was best around December time when the place filled up for Christmas and for a young boy with a few shillings to spend on family presents this was the place to spend a Saturday afternoon and get all the shopping done in one go in just one store – it was brilliant.  I seem to remember that it was good at Easter as well when there were rows and rows of chocolate Easter eggs taking up more than its fair share of floor space.

Sadly, Woolworths ceased trading and went into voluntary liquidation in November 2008 and shortly after that the Rugby store, along with all of the others across the country, closed down. I don’t know what replaced it because I don’t visit Rugby any more but the loss of Woolies in Rugby and High Streets across the country remains one of the biggest retailing disappointments of the last few years.

A Life in a Year – 5th May, Dr Beeching closes Rugby Central Railway Station

Rugby Central railway station was opened in 1899 and had services between London and Manchester via Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield as well as various cross country services to places such as Southampton and Hull.  The station was under the management of the Great Central Railway until it was grouped into the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923 and it then came under the management of British Railways in 1948.

Rugby Central was located roughly midway along the Great Central line, and was a stopping point for express services, as well as a changeover point for local services. Until the early 1960s the station was served by around six daily London-Manchester expresses, and was the terminus for local services from Leicester or Nottingham from the north.

After we moved to Rugby and before dad could drive we used to use the line to get to Leicester but 1963 was a bad year for railways and the Beeching report in March proposed that out of Britain’s then twenty-nine thousand kilometres of railway, nearly ten thousand of mostly rural branch and cross-country lines should be closed.  The name derives from the main author of the report ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’, Dr. Richard Beeching, and although this report also proposed the development of new modes of freight service and the modernisation of trunk passenger routes, it is best remembered for recommending the wholesale closure of what it considered to be little-used and unprofitable railway lines, and the removal of stopping passenger trains and closure of local stations on other lines which remained open.

The report was a reaction to the significant losses which had begun in the 1950s as the expansion in road transport began to transfer significant passenger and goods traffic away from the tracks and British Railways continued making increasingly large losses despite the introduction of the railway modernisation plan of 1955.  Beeching proposed that only drastic action would save the railways from increasing losses in the future.  Thousands of kilometres of railway track were removed and hundreds of stations were closed in the decade following the report and many other rail lines lost their passenger services and were retained only for freight.

Most of the Great Central line was closed in September 1966 and on this date, the line south of Rugby Central and north of Nottingham Victoria was closed. The section between Rugby Central and Nottingham (initially Victoria, later cut back to Arkwright Street) remained open as self-contained branch carrying a local passenger service until 3rd May 1969; the station formally closed on 5th May.

This was significant for us because the Beeching Axe closed the Great Central Railway that ran from London Marylebone to Manchester Piccadilly but rather critically for us connected Rugby to Leicester and my grandparents.  Every other Saturday we used to use the steam train to Leicester via Lutterworth, Ashby Magna and Whetstone to Leicester Central and then a bus to Narborough Road (if we were lucky) to visit the folks.  With no convenient alternative route available to visit them, or to get to the football matches, this must have been an important factor in dad’s decision to learn to drive and join the motoring age.

A Life in a Year – 3rd May, Town Twinning Rugby and Evreux

Town Twinning became a big thing after the Second World War as people sought to repair relationships with their neighbours and I have often wondered what the process was for getting a twin town.

Perhaps it was like the draw for the third round of the FA cup when all the names go into a hat to be drawn out with each other, or perhaps it was like the UCAS University clearing house system where towns made their preferred selections and waited for performance results to see if they were successful; or perhaps it was a sort of dating service and introductory agency.

Anyway, the city of Coventry started it all off and was the first ever to twin when it made links with Stalingrad in the Soviet Union in 1944 and is now so addicted to twinning that it has easily the most of any English town or city with a massive twenty-six twins.  That is a lot of civic receptions and a lot of travelling expenses for the Mayor of Coventry.  Perhaps even more surprising is that Sherborne in Dorset, a town of only ten thousand residents has fifteen twin towns.

Rugby, my home town, twinned with Evreux in France on 3rd May 1959.  From 1975 to 1980 I worked at Rugby Borough Council and there was a strong Town Twinning Association with a regular group of Council bigwigs rotating biannually between visiting the twin town of Evreux in Normandy, France and then entertaining French visitors the following year.  In 1977 Rugby twinned with a second town, this time Russelheim in Germany, and this meant new people were required to fill the coaches and provide accommodation for visitors.  We expressed an interest in the Gallic option and in 1979 joined the twinners.

1979 was a year when the French visited the UK so we joined in the fund raising and the planning meetings in preparation.  We were excited about this cleaned the house from top to bottom, manicured the garden and prepared appropriate menus.  In 1979 I had only been to Europe twice, Italy in 1976 and Spain in 1977 and this hadn’t involved a lot of getting familiar with the locals so to have visitors from France staying in our house was a bit of an adventure.

The visitors from Evreux arrived one evening in September and we were introduced to our guests for the weekend Charles and Marie Rose Freret and we had a interesting first evening of ‘getting to know each other’  .  Luckily Charles and especially Marie Rose spoke good English so this happily meant that we didn’t have to communicate through embarrassing nods, pointing gestures and shouting but this was nevertheless an occasion when I wished that I had paid more attention to Pluto Thompson in school French lessons.

To be honest there wasn’t a lot of time for awkward or uncomfortable moments because the weekend was well planned with a civic reception, a garden party, an evening out and the inevitable visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.  The only clumsy time was when I produced a bottle of Piat D’or white wine.  I thought that this would be a winner because the adverts said ‘The French adore le Piat D’or’ but it turned out that they didn’t actually and Charles had never heard of it.  He drank it but I don’t think he was impressed!

Playing host was good fun but it was even better of course to travel to France and be entertained in Evreux and in the following year we joined the coach outside the Town Hall and set off for the English Channel.

Charles and Marie Rose lived in a middle class suburb just outside the city and the house and the ambiance confirmed what we already knew – that Charles was a traditional Frenchman through and through, proud of the culture and the French way of life.  He knew about wine and had different bottles for each course of evening meal (and he didn’t feel obliged to drink the bottle all in one go, which I thought was strange because doesn’t wine go off once the cork has been removed?), Marie Rose knew about French cooking and prepared an excellent meal and Charles turned out to be an expert on cheese (French of course) and the order in which it should be eaten.

The itinerary of visits was tremendous and we visited Paris (my first time) and did the main sights including to trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower on a disappointingly misty day.  On the second day we toured the pretty town centre of Evreux, visited Monet’s delightful house and garden at Giverney and finished the day with a trip to the Palace of Versailles where in the evening there was the most spectacular fireworks and water fountains display accompanied by Handel’s Water Music.

The final civic reception was held in the countryside at a Chateaux some way out the town and there was a sumptuous buffet of dining treats including caviar on wafer thin savoury biscuits.  Now, this was still at a time when my gastronomic experience could best be described as limited and I had never had caviar before so I took two.  How I wished I hadn’t because to me it tasted awful and with my fist bite I had a mouthful of slimy fish eggs that was beginning to make me gag and it looked certain I was about to make a show of myself.  I tried to wash it down with a generous swig of champagne and somehow managed to get it past the point of no return without serious incident but this left the problem of the one and a half biscuits still on my plate.  I thought about the toilets but it would have looked odd taking my food to the gents but fortunately there was an unnecessary log fire at one end of the room so I casually made my way across to it and discreetly disposed of it in the flames.

In the following year I changed jobs and moved away to Rugby and that put an end to Town Twinning for a while until over twenty years later in 2002.

A Life in a Year – 2nd April, Ernest Steel, School Crossing Patrolman

In April 2003 the School Crossing Patrol service in the UK celebrated its 50th anniversary.  Britain’s first Patrol, a Mrs Hunt was appointed by Bath City Council in 1937 to work outside Kingsmead school.  Despite the bombing raids, Mrs Hunt continued to work throughout the Second World War, moving to a new site with the children when the building was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942.

Experimental Patrols appeared in London in the 1940’s and Traffic Wardens were used to assemble children in Dagenham in 1949.  The idea proved very popular and other boroughs in London began to follow suit, leading to the Metropolitan Police deciding that this was something it should adopt and take over.

Patrols were formally recognised in Britain by the School Crossing Patrols Act in 1953 and allowed to operate across the country and the School Crossing Patrol Service in London officially came into being with The London Traffic (Children Crossing Traffic Notices) Law of 1953.

My Granddad Ernie was a school crossing patrol man in the 1970s.  He was Londoner and worked as a bus conductor on the old London double-decker Routemaster buses operating from the Catford depot in South London.  I can still remember him in his dark blue London Transport uniform with his red conductors badge and his leather satchel slung over his shoulder walking home from work in a jaunty sort of way all along Barmerston Road back to the flat my grandparents lived at, at number 50.  Granddad Ernie liked to have a drink (or two) and would always give my dad (who was a hopeless drinker) a headache after a night out and he used to smoke forty Embassy cigarettes a day until the doctor told him to quit or die.  He spent a lot of time sitting in his favourite chair watching the horse racing on the TV.

He was a really nice man but he never quite seemed to have the time for or the understanding of children that grandad Ted used to have.  He was generous and kind but just didn’t seem to have the time to spend with us on all of the trivial things that the other one did.  So it was a bit of a surprise when, after he had retired and moved to live in Rugby, that he became a lollypop man!

His first assignment was on High Street in Hillmorton but after they moved to Lower Street he had a transfer to Abbotts Farm shops where he used to see children across a stretch of dual carriageway near the Jolly Abbott pub.  The children seemed to like him and he would often come home with impromptu gifts.  Dad and I used to drive past him every day when we went home from work for lunch and he was always embarrassed to be caught holding a child’s hand because this exposed him as a softie when he had worked quite hard on his image of not really caring for the company of kids that much.

I like this picture of him, it was taken by the local newspaper, the Rugby Advertiser, but I don’t know why.  I like the way he has got his raincoat on over his white coat which sort of missed the point about it being white for health and safety reasons!

 He was a good man. He died in 1977 aged 75.

Age of Innocence – Danger, Water, Roads and Building Sites

Talking of catching things, we used to go fishing down the canal and this wasn’t quite so dangerous except when my friend Colin Barratt (who was forbidden by his parents to go to the canal on account of not being able to swim) fell in while struggling to land a four-ounce Perch with a home made rod and line.  One minute he was standing on the towpath with his garden cane rod and bit of string and there was an almighty splash and Colin was thrashing about in the water struggling for his life.  Between us we dragged him out without having to jump in ourselves and took him home and didn’t see him again for about three months after that but to make him feel better we told him that it was a monster Pike that had pulled him in.

Water always had a special attraction and when we weren’t messing about on the canal there was always Sprick Brook where we used to fish for minnows and red-breasted Sticklebacks and take them home in jam-jars in the days before goldfish.  Sprick brook ran under the railway bridge on Hillmorton Lane and was just the sort of place where you could have an accident and no one would find you for days.

One place that wasn’t nearly so dangerous as it is today were the roads and we used to play on our bikes without any real sense of danger and certainly without those silly cycle helmets that kids wear today.  Cycling however did get me into trouble once when I was about ten and persuaded some friends to tackle a cycle ride one afternoon to Leicester to see my grandparents without checking with anyone first.  I have to confess that this was both ambitious and thoughtless especially on a Raleigh Junior bike with 18” wheels and no lights and not in any way suitable for a fifty mile round trip.  Getting there was reasonably straightforward but the return journey was a bit more difficult on account of it being dark and us being completely knackered.  There was a search party that night for sure and I can remember being astonished about how much fuss was made over such a trivial incident when Dad intercepted me at Abbots Farm and sent me home immediately for a good telling off from Mum which turned out instead to be an emotional and tearful reunion and I can remember being thoroughly confused by that.

Apart from the dangers presented by the transport system there were other equally hazardous places to play as well.  Building sites for example.  There was a building boom in the 1960s and this presented all sorts of opportunities.  Especially good fun was climbing ladders and playing on the scaffolding and hiding in part constructed rooms.  There were piles of bricks to build camps (much better than Lego), sewer pipes to crawl through, sand and cement to kick around and oil drums and bits of timber to take away and use to build rafts to sail on the canal but this never worked either.  Once a passing police patrol car stopped and the officers watched us building a waterway craft with bits of stuff we had ‘borrowed’.  They teased us by asking to see our boat license and then as we dawdled about hoping they would just drive off told us to hurry up and get on because they wanted to see us fall off before getting on with their duties.  We clambered aboard and didn’t disappoint them.  I can still hear them laughing as I write this.

Perhaps the dumbest and most dangerous thing we ever did on a building site was to go underground.  In preparation for new houses on Bridley Road there were some new storm drains installed so we lifted the manhole cover and went inside, crawled through the pipes and made a camp in an inspection chamber where we sat in candle light and thought that it was all great fun.  I dread to think now what might have happened if there had been a storm while we were down there.  I certainly wouldn’t be writing this retrospective journal.

Most of these dangerous places are closed off to children these days, the railway line is fenced, building sites are secure, the canal locks have wooden guardrails and you would have to be just plain daft to take a bike out on a main road.  Given the modern restrictions it’s hardly any wonder I suppose that today children have to stop at home and watch the television or play computer games and are denied the pleasure of real dangerous activity and that is a real shame.