My song today is, ‘I Fought the Law’. This song was written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets and popularized by a cover version that was recorded by the ‘Bobby Fuller Four’. The song went on to become a top-ten hit for the band in 1966. Their version of the song was ranked Number 175 on the Rolling Stone list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ in 2004, and in the same year, it was also named one of the 500 ‘Songs that Shaped Rock’ by the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’. The song was also recorded by 'The Clash' in 1979.
If ever there was a person who could be accurately described as poacher turned gamekeeper, then it was I. Before I retired after serving twenty-six years as a Probation Officer in West Yorkshire, I might have just as easily served twenty-six years in prison had I not experienced my encounter with a remarkable man during my mid-teens. His name was Mr. Northrop and he was a greengrocer who had a shop twenty yards from where I lived on Windybank Estate.
I once read that there is nothing so great as poverty and hunger to bring a good person down. I was born the oldest of seven children to Irish migrants. We came over from County Waterford in Ireland to West Yorkshire toward the end of the ‘Second World War’, and until I started work in my mid-teens in a mill in Cleckheaton, I never had money in my pockets long enough to lose the cold of its currency.
Our family of seven children at the time (I was the firstborn) was like all large working-class families of the time; poor but proud. Never having two pennies to rub together, our friction was often created by fighting for what we wanted and retaining the little we had. For the first seventeen years of my life, the provisions that our family used this week were always paid for out of my father’s next week’s wages as a miner on the pit face.
I was reared in the aftermath of the war years where certain foods were still rationed. For the middle classes, rationing had totally ended by 1948 but for many poor family’s like the one I was born into, it continued for much longer, as it was ‘rationing by affordability’ as opposed to ‘rationing due to unavailability’. All different kinds of food were now widely available during my youth; it was just that we could not afford healthier food!
I still recall that in the 1950s, when a boy or girl from a poor household went into the hospital for some operation or other, it was common for them to emerge half a stone heavier two weeks later because of being well-fed whilst there. It was also common that following hospital discharge, a young person from a poorer household would be given convalescence in some residential home either out in the countryside or at the seaside. The prime purpose of convalescence was to feed and fatten us up!
I recall two convalescent homes that I spent a few weeks in and thoroughly enjoyed. One was in the rural setting of Arthington (not too far from where I now live), and the other was at the seaside resort of Skegness. The seaside residential home was situated twenty yards from the beach, and was also next door to ‘Butlins Holiday Camp’. Whilst at the Arthington residential home, being the youngest person convalescing there, I was asked to undertake the role of the Bingo caller daily. I said that I would if someone would hold a card for me as I called out the numbers as I also wanted chance to win. It was agreed. Thanks to a photographic memory (i had memorised most number on my card), coupled to the sleight of hand when pulling the tokens from the hat, I could usually guarantee winning two or three lines or a house by the end of each session!
I never burgled a property in my life, and I could best be described as being ‘light-fingered’ when I started the First School in Heckmondwike. I will never forget stealing a little red racing car with rubber wheels from the desk of one of my classmates called Philip when I was aged 6 years. This was the first act of theft that I can recall, and it is the one that has caused me the greatest shame in my life. The little red car (small enough to fit inside the palm of a child’s hand) was an old second-hand one. It was well used and probably not worth much, but once I saw it run so smoothly across the playground on its rubber wheels, I knew that I had to have it at any cost.
For the past twenty years, I have bought small model-toy cars regularly, not for show, but to give to some child; any child! I place the cars in a drawer, and at the very first opportunity, I will delight in giving them away to some child visitor. It is my humble way of redressing the wrong for that first theft of mine.
As I grew older, I did all the usual thefts that many children then did, apple raiding from orchards, and stealing sweets and confectionery from shops (a modern form of shoplifting) when the shop owner wasn’t watching. In fact, I was turning into a veritable ‘Artful Dodger’. I recall once accepting a dare to steal a cream bun from the front of a cake shop window display. My friend Geoffrey went into the shop with me, and while he distracted the shop owner, I placed my hand behind my back into the low-level window display and stole the cream bun. Upon getting back outside the shop, I noticed that I had only stolen the top half of the cream bun. So, to avoid possible detection, we both went back inside the shop on some pretence, and after my friend again distracted the attention of the shop owner, I tried to steal the remaining half-bun. The owner saw me and we both scarpered. I remember that one of my heroes at the time was Robin Hood, and in the spirit of ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’, I would steal lots of sweets from shops to share my ill-gotten gains with my poorer mates.
My mother’s three younger Irish brothers each lodged at our house in succession as they made a new life for themselves in England. Uncle Willie was a drunk who would regularly return on a night inebriated. As we shared a room (he, in fact, stole my bed), I would usually rise before him the next morning, and presuming that he did not know if he came home penniless or with a few pounds of coin in his trouser pockets the night before, I would frequently steal a bob or two to spend on sweets. This was the perfect theft as he never knew how much he had arrived back home with.
By the age of ten or eleven years, I had begun to have romantic notions as soon as I realised that being in the presence of a pretty girl made me feel different; a ‘good kind of difference’. My first real girlfriend at school was 11-year-old Winifred Healey who agreed to ‘go with me’. To ‘go with’ somebody during the 1950s was to essentially publicly declare to all your classmates that you were ‘an item’ of girlfriend and boyfriend and that when you became adults, you would marry each other. We still, lived in the era when to break off an engagement to marry would lead a man to be charged with a ‘Breach of Contract’ before the court of the land, along with receiving a hefty financial penalty. Hence, giving one’s word was considered no light matter to be discarded at will, and giving one’s pledge to marry was a most solemn act! It was also a way of warning off any competitors to keep one’s hands off their intended bride!
Wanting to impress my new girlfriend, Winifred Healey, I decided to give her the biggest sparkler I could get my hands on. It had to be much more than the cheap rings one could buy (or in my case, steal) from Marks & Spencer.
At the time, one of my best mates was called Peter Lockwood (now deceased). Peter was one of two children, and by Windybank Estate standards, he came from a well-off family. He had a 20-year-old sister called Margaret who had been engaged for one year and was soon to be married. Mrs. Lockwood was a fussy and overprotective mother who she allowed her son Peter to mate with me. She essentially considered me to be poor but honest, and therefore a suitable influence for her son to be friends with. Occasionally, she would let me have tea with Peter in her house, and I was always pleased to eat there as she put on a good spread, even when it was just an ordinary mid-week day and it wasn’t a family member’s birthday or another special occasion.
On the day in question, I was eating tea at Mrs. Lockwood’s house, when my eyes caught sight of a sparkling gem on a nearby sideboard. It was the engagement ring of Peter’s sister, Margaret. My thoughts instantly turned to Winifred Healey, and at the first available opportunity, I pocketed the diamond engagement ring, made my excuses after thanking Mrs. Lockwood for tea, and left.
The morning after, I formerly presented the diamond ring to Winifred Healey at school. She was so pleased to have received such a sparkler that she gave me a big kiss on the cheek, before showing the ring off to all her classmates. However, our engagement elation was very short-lived, and by the end of the day, the police were on my trail and were entering the office of the Headmaster. Once Winifred was questioned, (they didn’t even have to twist her hands or raise their voice to her in a threatening manner) she forgot who she was ‘going with’ and gave me up on the spot! She must have received the biggest ever penance from the priest in the confessional box when she confessed her sin of receiving stolen property because two weeks after leaving school at the age of 15 years, she joined the convent and became a nun!
After my engagement with Winifred Healey went down the Swanee, I spent nine months as a hospital patient in Batley Hospital after a wagon ran over me and almost left me for dead. I could not walk for nearly three years, and so my immobility provided a lengthy pause in my thieving until the age of nearly 15 years when I was able to resume my illegal acts. I had just regained my walking ability when one summer’s evening as I passed the greengrocer’s shop, I saw the juiciest looking red apples I had ever seen just sitting there in the display boxes outside the shop window. I found it impossible to pass by the shop without stealing one or two, but as I did so, the grocer, Mr. Northrop, witnessed my theft from inside his shop window.
Recognising me, he came to the shop doorway and yelled after me, threatening to tell my parents of my theft when he next saw them, or the local Bobby (whoever he first saw).
For the following week I waited in trepidation because I knew that when my father found out, he would give me what for! Dad would not tolerate dishonesty of any kind, and he viewed any theft of mine as bringing dishonour upon the family name. About five days later, Mr. Northrop approached our house and walked down the garden path and knocked on the door. I cursed my luck as mum was out at the time and dad was at home. As I waited for the greengrocer to drop me in it, he said to my father, “Tell Mrs. Forde that your Billy can work at my shop on Saturday mornings if he wants to. He will be packing potatoes between 9:00 am and noon”. Without knowing it, my mother had approached Mr. Northrop the day after my theft from him and had asked the greengrocer if he had a Saturday morning job to help keep me out of trouble. And without asking me about the Saturday morning job which I was being offered, my father thanked the greengrocer and said, “Our Billy will be pleased to start next Saturday, Mr. Northrop. Thank you”.
I worked at the greengrocer's shop just short of two years, and the fact that this man had trusted me after I’d stolen from him, produced the desired change in me. I have never stolen since. The greengrocer had a full-time shop assistant who served on the front counter. His full-time assistant was aged about twenty and when I worked on a Saturday morning in the back of the shop weighing spuds, the shop assistant would be constantly bossing me about and letting me know that I was a mere spud packer and only ‘a part-timer’ and therefore beneath him! About one year into my Saturday morning job, Mr. Northrop realised that I was a clever lad who was good at mental calculation, so he allowed me to work behind the front counter serving customers whenever I got ahead of my spud packing. This was one move too far, however, for the male shop assistant, and one which he deeply resented.
About one month later, the till was short a fiver at the end of the day. A few weeks later (again on a Saturday), the till was short. When I was approached by Mr. Northrop, I instantly felt uncomfortable with my track record for dishonesty disturbing my mind. About two months later I had started a full-time job in a Cleckheaton mill, so I gave up my Saturday morning job. I thanked the greengrocer for having trusted me at a time in my life when I most needed it. I also said, “It wasn’t me, Mr. Northrop, who stole the money from the till”. He replied, “I know, lad. I know it wasn’t you”. As fate would decree, about three months after I stopped working at the greengrocer’s shop, his full-time employee was caught stealing from the till and Mr. Northrop dismissed him and employed another assistant.
My journey of these twenty yards from our house on Eighth Avenue, Windybank Estate, every Saturday morning to the greengrocer’s shop was my ‘road to Damascus’. This was the journeyed experience that converted me from poacher to gamekeeper; from purloiner to Probation Officer in years to come. You could say that ‘I fought the law, and the law won’. God bless you, Mr. Northtrop for believing in me.
Love and peace Bill xxx