A poser for the Prof

First published in Features

This week’s column departs from doggerel depot and comes full circle back to Walter Willson’s

SOMEWHAT optimistically seeking the benefit of the column’s learning – its fetchings up, anyway – a letter arrives from Prof Stephen Regan, head of the English department at Durham University.

Stephen’s a Crook lad, speaks the language, almost didn’t go to university himself because it would have meant being parted from his pigeons.

“My English teachers convinced me that I could always come back to the pigeons,” he said a couple of years back. “I never thought I’d come back as professor of English at Durham.”

The Times has named the department the best in Britain for the third successive year: a canny few miles since Prof Regan would catch Fulton’s bus from Crook to attend St Bede’s RC grammar school in Lanchester.

Back, at any rate, to English as she is spoke and to a “remarkable” letter, addressed to the Professor of English, from 96-year-old John Lee in Perth, Scotland.

Mr Lee, his handwriting immaculate, seeks the meaning or significance of a rather unusual “chant”

taught at his mother’s knee in Hetton- le-Hole – “where the formal education of the inhabitants rarely, if ever, extended beyond the age of 14”.

He remembers it well:

“Where ye gannin’?”

“For a paper.”

“What for?”

“The royal family.”

“What did they give you.”

“A clarty ha’penny.”

“Oh, the greedy things. What did ye buy.”

“Cups and saucers, plates and dishes. Little black men with calico britches.”

It may simply be, of course, that every doggerel had its day. If there are new tricks, we’d love to hear of them.

REMARKABLE lads, these Regans, sons of the sergeant in charge of Durham Constabulary’s police dog section. Stephen’s brother Stewart, former managing director of the Football League Championship, is now chief executive of Yorkshire County Cricket Club – and as the wilting White Rose today starts its last-gasp fight against relegation may himself be rehearsing those lines about noblest Englishmen, an’ all.

IT’S a Lanchester reader, coincidentally, who seeks to correct last week’s reference to the “monstrous regiment of women”. It should be “monstrous regimen”, he says, and quotes a column of that name in a deceased magazine called Scallywag.

Scallywag may well have had regimen’s talk, but it was the Scottish Protestant John Knox who, in 1558, published a pamphlet called The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

All this, of course, stems from the table-turning issue of women in the Darlington and District 5s and 3s League. They may sympathise at the Black Bull in Melsonby, near Richmond, where last week’s annual egg and bacon pie baking competition was strictly men and boys only.

“Ladies,” says Martin Vickerman, one of the organisers, “may help to carry a particularly heavy pie across to the pub for judging.”

From former Metropolitan police superintendent Ken Otter, meanwhile, the front page of a 2004 edition of London Police Pensioner.

Ken supplies his own, captivating, caption: “Cunningly disguised, and using the alias Mavis Miggins, Gadfly is arrested after trying to infiltrate the Wear Valley Women’s Institute (domino section) committee elections.”

THE Rev Leo Osborn, chair of the Newcastle upon Tyne district of the Methodist church, reports hearing a sermon a couple of weeks back at which the preacher explained the significance of domino doubles.

Children of the 60s may remember Deck of Cards, a similar song by a one-hit wonder called Wink Martindale.

In doms, says Leo, the double one is the Old and New testaments, double two represents the four gospels, double three is the six days of creation, double five the ten commandments and double six the 12 apostles.

What, though, of double four?

He’ll provide the answer, promises the minister, by next week.

CHIEFLY, of course, these columns are all about threads: sometimes unravelling, sometimes the opposite.

Few have been more discursive than that which began on July 23 – an innocent inquiry about “ghost”

bus stops – like the Hippodrome in Shildon or Bellerby’s in Bishop Auckland – still being requested long after the disappearance of the commercial premises of that name.

The subsequent journey has traversed the region, particularly of late taking in Walter Willson – the grocery store chain once familiar on every North-East high street.

Readers have been ransacking the back cupboards of their memories: like the 213 from Darlington to Sunderland, we get there in the end.

CLEARLY it was a remarkable firm, engendering loyalty among its workforce and alliteration – Walter’s windows always wanted washing with warm water – among the irreverent.

Marjorie Robinson in Trimdon Village sends a white-aproned picture of Jack Hare, her father, 13 when he began with Walter Willson’s in Choppington, Northumberland and in Wingate when he retired half a century later.

Barney Corrigan, born in Esh Winning but now in Whickham, is among several readers who remember that Walter’s was the “Smiling service store”.

The Esh Winning branch employed a chap called Billy Hughes, one of two Billy Hugheses in the village.

For the rest of his life, says Barney, the store man answered to Smiling Service Billy Hughes – “just to differentiate the two.”

Mrs A Loughlin in Durham still has a tea caddy, circa 1916, inscribed: “Smiling Service Shops.

Walter Willson’s Ltd. Everywhere.”

John Barr in Darlington recalls, almost credibly, being taught that in the war suspected German spies were ordered to say “Walter Willson’s”, without so much as mention that the windows wanted washing.

And in Easington Colliery, says Stephen Howarth in Sadberge, bus passengers still ask for Walter Willson’s – which like the 239 from Peterlee, just about brings us full circle.

GEORGE Tuthill left school at 14, began as a Walter Willson’s errand boy at Langley Park – west of Durham – was a stocktaker at head office in Team Valley, Gateshead, when the company was bought by Alldays in 1998.

The company, says George, was started in Bishop Auckland in 1875 by Walter de Lancey Willson and Stephen Aitchison.

By the early 1950s there were 193 shops – “mainly in pit villages” – proudly boasting that they delivered the personal touch. Even when Walter Willson’s finally put up the shutters, says George, there were almost 1,000.

*LAST week’s column wondered why Barton, between Darlington and Scotch Corner, was known as a “barley town”. John Todd, who lives there, quotes the answer from Joan Walton and Helen Robinson’s “Millennium souvenir of Barton” – the name derives from the Old English Bere-tun, meaning an enclosure or store for barley or grain.

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