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Feather's Miscellany: Belle

Beautiful Belle was married to Ira for almost fifty years - and a right dance he led her for most of them...

John Waddington-Feather's story concerns a working class lass whose life reaches a plateau of modest triumph.

Belle, as her name suggests, was a beautiful woman. She was also a loyal wife and devoted mother. She was married to Ira for almost fifty years - and a right dance he led her for most of them!

She bore him four children, Harry in 1923, Rene two years later. Then there was an eight-year gap when Ira had been seriously ill and at death's door. John was born in 1933, and George in 1935. He weighed in at 6.3 kilos (14 pounds in the old weight) and Belle most assuredly had no more children after that.

Against all odds and advice, she sent them to the local grammar school and then to college and university. I say 'she' for Belle was the bread-winner for most of her marriage, weaving her children through college at the mill across the way, and carrying Ira after his injury in the RAF in World War 2.

That was remarkable enough, but what was even more remarkable was that she achieved this having left school at twelve years of age, a shy, hesitant girl with only a primary school education.

At twelve she was a half-timer, spending the mornings at school and the afternoons at work till she was fourteen. Then she went weaving full time in the mill.

Ira also left at twelve. Like Belle he'd passed his school leaving certificate and in common with the rest of the country's intelligent working class children he was booted from school straight into work. He started in a tan-pit, slodging about among rancid hides, up to his thighs in rotting pigeon muck in which the hides were cured.

Later, he worked in a nut-and-bolt workshop as a labourer during the day, attending night school to gain his qualification as an auctioneer and valuer. After the 1914-18 War he joined his brother Harry in his firm.

Belle should have gone to the girls' grammar school at Keighworth. She won a place but was denied it. Money was short (like educational foresight) and she was sent straight into the mill. She worked as a weaver till she was twenty-four and she met Ira at a fairground in Keighworth.

It was love at first sight - a love which remained strong between them
all their lives - and after a whirlwind romance they married in 1923 in her village church at Silegsdene, some five miles west of Keighworth.

They had two happy years of marriage, during which Harry and Rene were born. Then Uncle Harry, Ira's brother, died just turned thirty and Ira was landed with the business. Eight years older than Ira, Harry had been Ira's guiding light ever since their father died in 1903. Harry it was who'd set up the business at the age of sixteen then brought Ira into it later.

Without him Ira went to pieces. He began drinking heavily and living it up with the Keighworth business crowd. That set the scene for the rest of his life almost, till he left Keighworth a couple of years before he died.

How the marriage held, God only knows. But it did. Belle worked at it through thick and thin. She was a placid woman and made of sterner stuff than Ira, physically and morally strong.

The youngest daughter of a hill farmer, she'd been overshadowed by her two sisters and brother in childhood, and because she worked in the mill all her girlhood, she'd few social graces. She'd no office skills like so many middle-class wives in Keighworth, who worked in their husbands' offices (if they worked at all) and tended to look down on her as a mere mill lass. But it was her weaving throughout her married life which brought in the money.

More problems entered her life when her mother-in-law came to live with them in the 1930s. She was a domineering woman and ruled the roost. Ira spent longer and longer in the pub and at his club. Sheer grit and her love for her family pulled Belle through.

Her Christian faith, too, came into its own. A simple faith but strong, which kept her going, holding out against a tyrannical mother-in-law and a feckless husband.

Came the war in 1939 and Ira joined the RAF as a barrage-balloon crewman and Belle had some respite while he was away. Her mother-in-law had died and her two eldest had left home, Harry in the navy and Rene at college. Her youngest boys were growing up fast and doing well at school.

But the war brought other trials. She had to work overtime and relied on the next-door neighbour to look after her sons after school while she was at work. She worked long shifts and returned home exhausted each night. Then she collected her sons, fed them and put them to bed.

More stress came when Ira was injured and spent months in hospital before he was invalided out of the forces. For long periods, too, she heard nothing from Harry; only the shipping losses she read in the paper or heard on the news. Worst of all was when she learned of neighbours' sons and husbands being killed in action, when communal grief was shared, and when wives and mothers awaited the dreaded telegram from the War Office.

Rene became a great support to her at this time for she was at college only a few miles away and got home regularly. It was from her daughter that Belle began picking up the social graces she'd missed out on all her life. She became more self-assured, more assertive, a process which continued till the end of her life, as you will hear later.

It was 1943 when Ira was injured in an air-raid on Sheffield, the great Yorkshire steel city about fifty miles east of Keighworth. When he was discharged from the RAF he had a small pension, but not enough to keep a family on.

He tried to revive his business but without much success and returned to his old habits, spending his day drinking and returning home drunk most nights. In short, he drank his pension away each week and had to rely on Belle's weaving again. In some ways, he made a right mess of his life, but when he was sober he was a good enough husband and father and Belle stuck by him.

She worked till she was sixty and could draw the old-age pension, and for the first time in her life, she found peace. Ira, who'd become more and more infirm, stopped drinking.

She was able to invite friends round and began going out, becoming more confidant in any company as time went by, no longer fazed by the middle classes because unconsciously she'd entered them. She let people take her as she was or not at all.

Then disaster struck. In her late sixties, she contracted cancer and had to have a breast removed. Ira was housebound and was looked after by a neighbour till she returned from hospital. It was imperative they move house, so they moved to Shropshire where the weather was milder, into a small modern bungalow near one of their sons.

Belle was thrilled with her new home. She had a proper kitchen for the first time in her life instead of a cellar-head cooker. There was a small quiet garden which she enjoyed poddling about in and where she and Ira could sit out, even in winter, on sunny days. No smoke, no noise from passing traffic as in Keighworth.

As Ira remarked, it was the next stage to heaven; they were self-contained, cosy and monitored by their son and his wife. Belle had never been so content - or so well off.

Her self-confidence showed itself when she went out one day shopping for new carpeting. She needed escorting for she didn't know her way round Shrewsbury and she was quite frail. She no longer did the round of cheap shops as before, but walked round and round quality department stores till she was exhausted.

It was in the carpet department of the most expensive store that she had Sheila, her daughter-in-law, sweating cobs. She walked in confidently and soon had the assistant running rings round her. He ushered Belle to a comfortable chair and unrolled an expensive piece of carpeting at her feet. Belle pursed her lips and gazed thoughtfully at the sample. "Have you anything else?" she asked, looking him squarely in the eye.

It was 'Madame this' and 'Madame that' every time he spoke. "Of course, Madame," the assistant purred, scampering to the other side of the room to pull out yet another length of carpeting.

Sheila held her breath. She knew Belle couldn't really afford it. And so it went on, each sample of carpeting laid before her by the earnest assistant becoming more expensive. Soon, she had rolls and rolls of the stuff at her feet and Sheila just had to go outside. There seemed to be no way of stopping Belle and she could stand the tension no longer.

After some minutes Belle joined her, looking relaxed and happy.

"Well, Mother? What did you finally decide to buy?" asked Sheila, fearfully.

Belle smiled sweetly and said, "I bought nothing. I told them I'd think about things and let them know later if I wanted anything; but, of course, all I really went in there for was to rest my legs."

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