Monday, 6 February 2012

The five towns of Arnold Bennett


I have never been renowned for my good memory, but even a good memory does not mean you can recall the past in any detail. The fact is we have to rely on those who went before us to provide details of our history. Mostly it is in a verbal form, and the accuracy of such accounts cannot be relied upon. Written records are likely to be more dependable, but even they can be doubtful depending on their origins. In this instance I have very little to support the accuracy of what I write; mostly it is the product of hearsay. My lack of records is also responsible for the sparseness of detail, and gaps in the continuity. I am not excusing errors and omissions in my story, but I do feel it necessary to point out that not everything I write is guaranteed to be completely accurate. In my attempts to steer close to the truth I have left out stories and details that are suspect.

It is said that often a birth is accompanied by signs and portents, for those who are able to read them. Such things suggest the way in which a new life will develop; the star that appeared over Bethlehem would be a good example. Regarding my own birth it must be said that the few signs there were did not appear favourable, though in retrospect it seems they were accurate enough. What were these meagre signs? Well to begin with I must record that I shall never be absolutely certain that 22nd of April 1933 was my true date of birth. Being a first born may have had something to do with the difficulties encountered from the moment of my birth. The time and the place may have been contributing factors as well. I am told that the birth of the first child is often more difficult, though it has been said that I was already demonstrating my salient characteristics, which I am told is stubbornness, and an aptitude for being difficult. Whatever the reasons, I am told that I showed a decided reluctance to appear. My mother had a most difficult day trying to give birth to me. She was completely exhausted by the time I eventually made my appearance and that was about midnight.

If I had been curious about my birth I might have asked for details, but I was not. When I began to write this history I realised how little I knew about it, I also became aware that those who might have known were no longer available to provide the answers to my questions. This is why I have never been able to find out whether the particular midnight on which I was born fell between the dates of the 21st and the 22nd, or whether it was the 22nd and the 23rd. The other mystery I have never solved is the precise moment of birth; was it before or after midnight. By the time the doctor, who presided over the event, became aware of the time, he was not sure which date to record. It was rumoured that he resorted to the toss of a coin to decide, which at the time might not have seemed important. Today however it does not seem an auspicious beginning when I look at my birth certificate and realise that my date of birth could have been one of three days. There were no assistants to keep note, no efficient hospital staff, to record when I was born. I was born in my mother’s bed at home, a common occurrence in those days. My mother would never have gone to a hospital even if one had been available. She had an intense dislike of hospitals and was never to enter one for an illness, and certainly not when giving birth to which was considered to be a natural event not an illness.

Is the precise date of birth important? Many would say not, but there are just as many who would say it would be vital to know. Could it be that such a confused and haphazard beginning augured for an uncertain future? Looking back, with the advantage of hindsight, I would have to say it most certainly did.

It does not improve one’s feeling of confidence when a further error is mentioned. My mother was born in Wales and her family were Welsh, and it had been decided that if I proved to be a boy then my name was to be Glyn. The story goes that in the weary hours of that midnight birth, the doctor being English noted the given name without confirming the spelling. So I became Glynn which was never intended, it was an error which vexed my family very much indeed. A minor error you might say, when you consider the various ways in which my name could be spelt, it does not seem important. Later in life it became something of an issue for me, when I discovered that my name was also given to girls and that usually on those occasions it was spelt Glynn or Glynne. These minor errors when added together would be enough to worry anyone who placed importance on the signs and portents. A further bone of contention arose regarding my name, a matter on which my parents had some heated words I have been told. When my father received the news of the pregnancy far away in India, he wrote to say that if the child was a boy, he wanted the name to be Peter, and after my arrival he proceeded to tell everyone that he was now the proud father of a son named Peter. Not being present to ensure that his wishes were adhered to, it was some time before he discovered that his wife, with the connivance of her family, and particularly aided and abetted by her sister, had decided otherwise.

Even if the signs had been noticed at the time and plans made to counteract the negative influences I doubt that much could have been done to improve matters. Whatever fate lay in store for me there was no changing what lay ahead; the finger of fate had written and it is certain that its writing could not be changed. It had been decided that I was to be GLYNN WILLIAM BISHOP, the first born son of the daughter of a Welsh coal miner.

Had I been able to judge such things I am sure the location of my birth would not have added a single jot to any feeling of confidence regarding my future prospects. I was born in a small council house, one of many built at Fenton, mostly built under the supervision of my grandfather. They were part of a fast growing suburb which was one of a number of small towns that had become known collectively as Stoke-on-Trent, known too many as the Potteries. One could be forgiven for thinking that this spread out collection of collieries, pottery manufacturers, and brick works, was known to the outside world as Stoke, because if it’s obvious relationship with Smoke. I can recall thinking along these lines as a boy. It did seem a most appropriate name when you considered the blackened condition of the buildings that made up the locality. In fact I was later to discover that the place had existed long before the pottery industry came to the area. Stoke is an Old Saxon word meaning stockade. There was a Saxon fort here on a strategic ford across the river Trent, long before Roman times. - The author Arnold Bennett described the city of Stoke as being made up of five towns, but this number did not include Fenton, which, having its own town hall, was surely entitled to be included, so maybe the number should have been six. - Some of the more attractive outer suburbs of the city contained a large proportion of private houses, but the inner and industrialised parts of the city comprised of a dense conglomeration of terraced houses which crowded close around the industrial sites previously mentioned. These ranks and files of terraced houses were the result of the industrial growth of the city, and the need for housing on a large scale. For the working people they were both cheap and conveniently close to the occupant’s place of work. They were well built and maintained by the council, and my grandfather was one of those councillors who could be justly proud of what was undoubtedly a vast improvement in living conditions for the ordinary working man at the time.


The potteries as it used to be, a picture taken by a newspaper photographer and framed as a pictorial record and a piece of local history. The girls were on their way to work early in the morning.

Councillor Jones was a socialist to his very core, a dyed in the wool member of the Labour Party, and a determined fighter for the working man. He could have afforded to live in the more salubrious outer suburbs, but that would not have agreed with his beliefs and principals. For him nothing would do other than he should share the life and living conditions of the men he represented, who were mostly coal miners like himself. And it could be argued that there were some advantages to living in this small council house at 14 Warrington Street. The rent was very moderate, and it was only a five minute walk to the Glebe pit where he had once worked. It was in this little house that I was born, and where I was to live for the first three years of my life.

Another picture taken in the Potteries sometime during the 1920s would be my guess; these pictures were on the wall in my cousin’s house and I could not resist photographing them.


A short distance away from 14 Warrington Street was a triangular road junction called Victoria Place where the main road running through the Potteries, from Longton in the South/East, divided and went separate ways to Stoke and Hanley to the North and North/West. This area between the main centres had once been green countryside, but as the pottery industry grew, and more and more coal mines were created, the highway became skirted with cottages and later with the terraced council houses which eventually became Fenton.

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