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Feather's Miscellany: Friendship – A True Tale

...They met at Keighworth Fair, when she was twenty one and he twenty. By all accounts they fell in love at first sight; certainly she was beautiful and he good-looking. He was also an auctioneer, a good catch, yet they were in other ways not very well matched...

But the marriage of Ira and Belle was turbulent, though blessed by the friendship of Clarice and John.

John Waddington-Feather tells a personal story.

Friends are jewels in the crown of life; they adorn us wherever we are, and we cherish them all our lives. Sad indeed is anyone without a friend, who leads a life of self-centred emptiness. Friends are like loyal spouses, always there when the going gets rough, as well as sharing our joys. Good friends are constant, for ever at hand in times of need.

Take the case of Ira and Belle, who couldn’t have been a more different couple, yet they married, and perhaps their differences may have been the reason for a rocky married life. Yet they stuck together and weathered all life threw at them. They were still together at a very loving end, thanks in large measure to their friends, especially Clarice and John, as you’re about to hear.

In 1901, Ira was born in a pub, “The Railway Tavern” at Ingerworth. If it’s true that environment plays a large part in our character building, then that was certainly the case with Ira. The pub was a rough, working man’s pub, violent with fights often breaking out. The landlord had to be tough and he gave Ira a tough up-bringing, which might account for the violent side of Ira’s character.

Ira’s father, Luke, died in his early thirties when Ira was four. His widow, Ada, re-married a photographer who supped more ale than he sold and he didn’t last long either. On his death, Ada sold the pub and bought a tiny small-holding, Kirkstall House, in a hamlet overlooking Keighworth, living off the capital she’d made in the pub and keeping a few hens and beef cattle till her sons, Harry and Ira could start work. They were so poor that one winter they ate bran bought in for the cattle and the game Ira poached off the nearby moors.

Both brothers left school at twelve and were put into jobs in Keighworth. Harry in an engineering works and Ira in a tannery. Both had passed to go to the local Grammar School but weren’t allowed to take up their places. Not long after Ada left the pub her twelve-year old daughter died. She had, indeed, a hard life which made her a hard woman to live with.

Ira’s job as a labourer in a tan-pit was to turn hides regularly, up to his waist in a slurry of pigeon and hen muck in which the leather hides were being tanned. As a twelve-year old he was so tired after work his brother Harry would meet him and carry him home on his back. Ira left the tannery and took a cleaner job in an engineering firm which made nuts and bolts. As a labourer one of his jobs was in a warehouse stacking crates filled with ironware. Lifting the heavy crates during his teens gave him a strong frame which lasted him a lifetime.

Meanwhile, Harry at sixteen went to night-school, qualified as an auctioneer and estate agent, and set up his auctioneering business. Ira was to join him later when he’d also qualified at night-school – along with Keighworth’s future town clerk, some young school teachers, and budding accountants and lawyers in the town. There weren’t many universities and colleges in those days.

In 1914 war broke out and Harry volunteered for the army. He saw action at the front as a gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery and survived a gas attack, while his brother, Ira, volunteered under age and joined the Royal Flying Corps. He ended the war as an officer cadet in 1918 in the newly formed Royal Air Force. Then, when they were demobbed, the two brothers went back into business as auctioneers and land agents and in the course of business in Keighworth Ira met John, a middle-aged genial bachelor who’d inherited the family brewery, King’s Ales, which supplied pubs all round the area with its ale, including several pubs the brewery owned outright. Ira and John became lifelong friends as you’ll hear.

Meanwhile, in the little village of Silegsdene, four miles from Keighworth up the Aire Valley, Belle was born in 1899 on a ten-acre upland farm. Her father, George, died when she was twelve leaving his widow, Mary, to run the farm and bring up four children. Her eldest son, Fred, helped a while on the farm, which didn’t bring in enough money to feed them, so he went to work in the mill as a warp-dresser.

Belle also went into the mill at twelve as a weaver, having, like Ira, won a scholarship to the Grammar School in Keighworth which she wasn’t allowed to take it up. Her two older sisters worked in the offices of a mill and printing works as clerks. So poor Belle had scant social education as well as a shortened academic education.
Living on a farm and working in a mill, she spoke only in dialect and was very shy; but what she may have lacked in social graces she made up for in intelligence and grew into a beautiful woman, much sought after by the youths of the village, where her best friend, Clarice, a spinster all her life and a fellow weaver, also lived.

We never know what destiny has in store for us and the two twelve year-old youngsters little knew their paths would meet and become one a few years later. They met at Keighworth Fair, when she was twenty one and he twenty. By all accounts they fell in love at first sight; certainly she was beautiful and he good-looking. He was also an auctioneer, a good catch, yet they were in other ways not very well matched.

Belle came from a hill-farm and was rustic, shy. Ira was an extrovert and by now a partner in a thriving business, where some of the couthness of his brother had rubbed off on him. He’d also gone to night-school and extended his education, so that both and his brother were well thought of in Keighworth; and as long as his brother was alive, Ira was under control, for he’d a vile, quick temper which surfaced at times, especially in drink.

He wasn’t popular with the lads in Silegsdene either, who thought he was stealing one of their lasses when he began courting Belle, so they made life unpleasant for him whenever he visited the village. One even let fly at him from a distance with a shotgun. It peppered his thick overcoat and after that he took good care to watch his back when visiting Belle.

The courtship didn’t last long for Belle became pregnant and they had to marry. They’d no money and set up home at first with Belle’s mother, Mary, who’d moved into the village from the farm and ran a draper’s shop, selling and making clothes. To add to their troubles, Ada, Ira’s mother could no longer run her farm and was also kindly taken in by Belle’s mother. While they lived there, Clarice frequently took their young son, Harry, and their daughter, Irene, born two years later, into her own home just round the corner from the shop to look after them.

She did the same when Belle and Ira moved to Keighworth down Garlic Lane into a house on which Harry, Ira’s brother, had put down a deposit and bought much of their furniture; for Harry had made quite a bit of money through his business and playing the stock market. He’d always been a father figure to Ira and more so now, when he realised the intolerable position they were in living with Belle’s mother over the shop.

Harry was refined, spoke well and was a sidesman at Keighworth Parish Church, someone of stature in the town. He played the piano well and read widely, especially Shakespeare; attending theatre productions in Keighworth and Bradford and listening to orchestral concerts. By contrast poor Ira, who’d slogged his way up through a tannery and engineering factory retained many of his old working-class habits; though he did have an eye for antiques and good paintings – and he knew stacks of verse from his schooldays which he often recounted in old age.

Then tragedy struck. When Harry was only thirtytwo he died after a short illness. It shocked the whole town and Ira was devastated. He hit the bottle and became violent at home. After a spell with her sister in Lancashire, his mother came to live with them, so Belle had a domineering mother-in-law to deal with as well as her drunken husband and two young children.

She stuck it out through the lean years of the 1920s and ‘30s, when she and Ira were helped out by John and Clarice. Indeed, it might be said it was the loyalty of a confirmed bachelor and the love of a middle-aged spinster which held Belle and Ira’s marriage together.

In 1932 Ira became very ill with rheumatic fever and was bedfast for many weeks. He couldn’t work and the money began to run out. In addition to the day-to-day running of the house, doctors’ bills had to be met. There was no National Health Service then, and when mortgage repayments fell behind eviction threatened. Belle went to work in a mill across the road from their home and one day returning from work, while Ira was still ill in bed, she found a wad of Ł10 notes tucked under his pillow after a visit by John. John never owned up to leaving the money. Shy and retiring he was like that. So was Clarice.

Belle and Ira had two more boys in the 1930s, who had to be fed and brought up along with her other children, now at the Grammar School. In time, Ira recovered and was able to work again throughout the lean thirties, but he still drank heavily, burdened with his domineering mother and the worries of running a business. He was a jovial, generous man when sober, none better; the character I put into my Keighworth Chronicles, but in drink he was another man, often fighting in the street outside pubs; which that wasn’t uncommon in Keighworth then. His friend John stood by him through all this, and Clarice, living with her widowed elderly mother, also helped Belle by taking in the older children at weekends.

In 1939 war broke out and Ira joined up, leaving his business, which he had to start from scratch when he was invalided from the RAF two years later, badly injured in an air-raid, which left him crippled the rest of his life. In some ways, Belle led a more tranquil life while Ira was in the forces. It gave her respite from his drunkenness and after her mother-in-law died in 1935, she was mistress again in her own home. Clarice helped her bring up her family, continuing to take in Belle’s two younger boys to give her a break and also finding extra food, which was then rationed.

Meanwhile, the two older children had grown up; Harry going into the Royal Navy and seeing action in the Atlantic and later in the Pacific. Irene went to college and qualified as a primary school teacher. When he left the navy, Harry, too, continued his education and went to Leeds University where he graduated, as did his two brothers, John and George, a few years later. And all the while Belle slaved away in the mill to give her family the chances in education she and her husband never had; and at the same carrying a sick husband who struggled not very successfully to revive his business.

He owed so much to John, who helped him again and again, taking him out each Saturday with a couple of other friends by bus or taxi up the Dales, where they had the odd drink before returning home. It was a familiar routine for some years till in 1957 both Clarice and John died suddenly; one from cancer the other from pneumonia. Ira and Belle were bereft.

Even after death Clarice and John helped them, for Clarice bequeathed her home and savings to Belle and her family, and Ira was given the job of selling off John’s pubs and other property, which earned him a healthy sum to kept him going till retirement and his old-age pension. When she also reached pensionable age at sixty, Belle also retired having seen all her family graduate; but such a lasting impression did the loving and loyal friendships of Clarice and John make on Belle and Ira’s middle son, John, (named after his brewer godfather) that he’s written the story about them here.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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