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Brassed off by the cold and back again
From Coundon Grange to the frozen wastes of Saskatchewan. As Echo Memories discovers, there's no place like home - the occasional brutal murder and execution notwithstanding...
THE Brass family fancied a new life.
Times were terrible in the Durham coalfield in the Twenties. The Great Strike struck, followed by a deep depression. Pits shut.
Men were thrown out of work in their thousands.
But the Canadian government toured the district with a ray of hope. It held lectures, accompanied by coloured lantern slides, offering the tantalising prospect of becoming your own boss, of owning your own farm, of making your own way in a new country.
First to leave in 1926 from the Dean and Chapter pit, in Ferryhill, were William and Lily Brass. They were followed a year later by their son, James, his wife, Phoebe, and their 15-month-old grandson, Bill.
"There weren't many cars knocking about in those days, " says Bill, 82, of Coundon Grange, "so we were driven to Darlington's Bank Top station by William Abbey, the local bank manager in Ferryhill. He was a good friend of my dad as they went to nightschool together in Spennymoor. " From Bank Top to Liverpool by GNER. From Liverpool to Montreal aboard Canadian Pacific Railway's Montclare liner.
From Montreal to Regina, in the heart of Saskatchewan, on the main line. From Regina to North Battleford on the Canadian National Railway. They'd spent seven days at sea and more than five on rail; then they pushed deeper into Saskatchewan by horse towards the Dutch settler town of Edam - the very back of beyond.
"There were no cars, buses nor trains, " says Bill. "Only horses, with buggies in summer or sleighs in winter. " His mother worked on an Indian Reservation, his father worked at a store while learning with his grandfather to become a ranch farmer.
They got their own wooden homestead - Welcome Lake Farm - in the early Thirties. Young Bill's day would begin at 7.30am, milking the cows, followed by a ten-mile gallop on Shorty the horse to school.
Home again at 4pm to round up the cows on Shorty and to milk them once more before bed, with the aurora borealis painting the sky, and coyotes howling on the prairies.
At weekends, Bill would ride a stoneboat - a sledge pulled by a horse - picking out rocks from the fields his father had ploughed out of virgin land. He'd hunt gophers (critters that were chewing the crops) and collect crows' eggs (the government offered one cent for every egg or pair of crow's legs to stop them from pecking cows to death).
"One year we decided to kill a pig, " says Bill. "I managed to lasso its hind leg, and the plan was for me to pull it into a corner of the sty and for Dad to hit on the head to stun it, and then we would cut its throat.
"Dad got the axe. I was getting tired of holding the struggling pig. He aimed, missed and sliced its ear off, sending the pig squealing and blood all over the place.
"We forced it into a corner, got the gun, and it was all over.
"We had a good selection of pork for weeks. " Lysol, a disinfectant, was a crucial part of ranch farming, not least for when a stallion had covered a mare.
"Afterwards, he had to have his manhood dipped, " says Bill. "It was my job to hold the pail. " Vaseline was also vital.
Bill - barely ten - would return from a day in the saddle, his thighs chafed red raw by his rough jeans, and his mother would smear the jelly copiously over his sore areas.
Welcome Lake Farm was ten miles from Edam where the family's mail was delivered. "I was allowed to open our PO Box, number 141, " says Bill.
"There would be newspapers and letters from England and a few goodies. I remember one of the letters informed us that the man who took us to catch the train at the start of our journey had been murdered in his bank back in Ferryhill by a man named Norman Elliott, who had later hanged. " It was the cold that did for the Brasses in Saskatchewan. It was 30 degrees below freezing for months. Chickens that didn't roost had their legs frozen off; Bill's jeans froze stiff and stood unaided once he'd taken them off.
In such conditions, even the Durham coalfield looked attractive, particularly when it had recovered from the depression. In October 1937, the family travelled back to the other side of the world.
"I was sad to leave, " says Bill. "That was home to me, but my mother and father were ecstatic. They were very, very unhappy in Canada. " They returned to Spennymoor and found work at Chilton colliery.
"Those ten years were an adventure I wouldn't like to have missed, " says Bill, who started as an apprentice electrician at the pit and retired as an electrical supervisor for Sedgefield District Council.
"But I don't think I would like to do it all over again. " |Three of Bill's brothers were born in Canada: Stan, who now lives near Stoke; Joseph, of Spennymoor, and Alf, of Middleton St George.
Lily and Douglas, who both now live in Darlington, were born after the Brasses returned to the warmth of Durham.
BILL BRASS' family are related to the three young Brasses famously murdered by Andrew Mills - on the orders of the Devil - at a windmill between Ferryhill and Kirk Merrington in 1683. The Echo Memories version of the story, told here a couple of years ago, features as this week's podcast on The Northern Echo's website.
Here's another highly unusual connection. Pauline Carr, of Ferryhill, was one of many people who assisted with last week's article about the 1924 murder of Philip Nash Gee, the one-legged cobbler from Spennymoor. He was her great-uncle.
By amazing coincidence, her other great uncle - Oliver Leonard - was also murdered.
And he also had a wooden leg.
Mr Leonard was one of the four victims of Mary Wilson, the "Merry Widow of Windy Nook".
This Gateshead lady poisoned four of her husbands - Mr Leonard, a wealthy estate agent being the third. He succumbed to her rat poison in June 1957 after just 12 days of marriage, leaving her £50.
When her fourth went down with a similar complaint a little while later, Mr Leonard's body was exhumed and found to contain traces of phosphorus from the poison. His former wife alleged it was from sexual stimulation pills.
She was the last woman to be sentenced to hang at Durham in 1958, but she was reprieved because, at 66, she was considered too old to be executed.
The Merry Widow of Windy Nook passed away four years later in Holloway Prison.
POLICE Constable Philip Grieves was the officer who discovered William Abbey lying dying behind the counter of the Ferryhill branch of Lloyds Bank on Thursday, February 16, 1928.
Echo Memories has told of the murder of the bank clerk in recent weeks, along with the associated killing four years earlier of Mr Gee, the Spennymoor cobbler.
It was to PC Grieves that the unfortunate Mr Abbey gasped his last words: "A tall man did it. I'm going. " In the Seventies, as PC Grieves neared the end of his life, he wrote down details of his 26-year police career in note form. His daughter, Edna Larkman, of Newton Aycliffe, has kept his notebook, and it provides a fascinating, tantalising glimpse into crimes of the past.
PC Grieves was born in 1899 in Northumberland, but came south to join the Durham force in 1920.
He lodged in Parker Terrace, Ferryhill - the same terrace in which Mr Abbey was lodging at the time of his murder.
The notebook shows how the crime was solved with a tip-off from a traveller who scooped a sizeable reward, how there wasn't much direct evidence, and how the murderer cried for his mother when he was convicted.
The entry reads: "Info next day.
Traveller Williams, £400 of £500 reward, interviewed by me.
Norman Elliott apprehended Kelloe same afternoon.
Telephoned at 3.15pm and told all enquiries to cease. Memo from Chief Constable, all had worked so well in Ferryhill murder invidious to pick anyone out for commendation. Assizes June.
Found guilty. Had no witnesses.
Blk cap. "Mother" three times. I sat next to him at Aycliffe Magistrates Court. Appealed.
Dismissed. Hung Nov. " PC Grieves was moved to Whitesmocks, near Durham, where he was commended for catching a handbag thief, and then to West Cornforth, where he stayed for six years to 1936.
"Communist meetings, " he records. "Informer. Reports by hand. Confidential. " Was "Doggy" such a seething hotbed of reddery that its bobby was secretly spying on political meetings?
PC Grieves also alludes to nearby murder investigation in which he helped. "Adjoining beat, Bishop Kidd (? ) murder. Enquiries man with parcel early am train.
Result, train to Edinburgh stopped. " Did they find the murderer on that early morning train?
He also notes: "Aeroplane Tiger Moth in field between Tursdale and Bowburn. Cold. " In 1937, PC Grieves represented Durham in King George VI's Coronation procession in Hyde Park, London, and in November 1938 he was moved to Tantobie where he wrote this wonderfully enigmatic entry: "Bookies. War Incident Offices. Secret Meetings.
Helmet and revolver. " He retired from the force in 1946 as an acting sergeant and became the caretaker at Ferryhill Masonic Hall. He died in Newton Aycliffe in 1978.
How we'd love to know what secret war incident occurred at a bookies in Tantobie and involved a helmet and revolver.
FINALLY, following the murder of William Abbey in his one-man branch, Lloyds reviewed the safety of its staff and decided that no one should work alone in a bank. Other banks followed suit.