Delabole Now and Then

Delabole Now and Then

The more you have to do with people older than yourself when you are little, the more you are likely to have some sense of “then”, of life before the time we call “now”. My own sense of “then” goes back to a time long before I was born. Not that I can claim to know it, but I did hear a lot about it, much of it from my grandfather, Samuel Matthews. He was born in 1876 in Wesley Cottage, just below the now-demolished chapel in Lower Pengelly. His father, a quarryman, died an agonizing death from diabetes and gangrene four years later. The diabetes gave him unquenchable thirst; he would lie under the pump – I believe the one that still stands – guzzling all the water his body could hold . When gangrene set in, the agony was so intense that he had to be tied to his bed. A foot had to be amputated and was taken to St. Teath for burial. The rest of him followed soon after. His wife was left with four children to raise, for which she received five shillings a week from the so-called Board of Guardians. Samuel got polio, which made him lame for life, and rheumatic fever, but somehow survived. At thirteen, he went to school one day without the two pennies that had to be paid each week. The headmaster sent him home, and angrily threw a ruler at him as he left across the schoolyard. That was the end of Samuel’s schooling. He then went to live and work as a farm boy at a local farm. One day he discovered a clutch of eggs in a hedge, and was rewarded with an egg for breakfast, the only one he got in the seven years he was there. 

In later years, Samuel would say that there was never such a time as “the good old days”, only bad old days. He often recalled lying down in the hedge to cry in despair- poor, hungry, without a father, and set apart from others by his lameness. “Nothing but slavery and starvation” were the exact words he used to sum up the conditions of his early life, his “then “. But that was not the whole picture; his true feelings must have been more complex. He would talk fondly of the farm as “his college”; he loved to drive past and see again the yard and the buildings and the loft where he slept; he recalled with pride winning milking competitions and the occasional words of thanks or encouragement from the farmer. Despite, or because of the meagre diet, he lived to be 99. Another fatherless son of Pengelly was at the farm at the same time as Samuel – the epic character of William Henry Hawke (“Menny·) Geake. He lived to be 98 and, well into his eighties, was still carrying great logs up from the woods on his back. So whatever the shortcomings of life at the farm, it seems to have been good for longevity. 

Compared with Samuel’s struggles against poverty and disability, my own memories of growing up in Delabole in the 1950s and 60s seem like meagre fare. If there was pain, it was only that I could not run as fast or climb trees or throw stones as well as many other boys. But mostly it was, for want of a better word, pleasure, and pleasure that more and more looks like a priceless gift to have had. A big part of it was that you could go more or less anywhere you wanted, and we did. With little traffic up and down Pengelly, you could play football (three goals and in) in the road wherever there was a convenient wall. Then there was the station; the station yard – corn, coal, and Arthur Blake in his shed warmed by an upright coal stove; the railway line itself with its cuttings and embankments from around Vicarage Hill up to around Barton bridge; the vast expanses of the quarry and the dumps; the pump house with the red door part way down the pit built on top of a concrete tank that was home to frogs, toads, and newts, and the site of the annual miracle of spawn and tadpoles; the settling tanks behind the quarry mill where you could sail toy boats; Camelford Watering; New Found Out; Helland Woods – building camps, damming the river, trying to cook bacon and eggs over open fires, burning great piles of leaves, smoking mugwort cigarettes; Newhall Mill – haunt of barn owls and grey wagtails; all the valleys leading down to the sea – Tregragon , Backways, and Tregardock with its beach for summer bathing; and any field or hedge or wood or marsh or quarry that your legs or your bicycle could carry you to.

Most of this, of course, carried far too many potential dangers to pass a twenty first century safety review. But we had no thought of such things. Perhaps it was a miracle but, to my knowledge, nobody was ever seriously hurt. And we had the supreme freedom of being able to go anywhere we wanted in our native place – a vast and varied adventure playground open to all and completely free of charge. Could anything be better? 
Besides the place, there were the people who lived in it. Objectively, there seems no reason to suppose that the people of Delabole should be any better or worse than the people of any other place. But, making a conscious effort not to let sentimentality cloud judgment, I still must say that my overwhelming impression is that people were decent, cheerful, and kind. Wracking my brains for counterexamples, the worst I can come up with is one or two elderly ladies whose garden it was better not to kick your ball into, and perhaps a farmer here and there who was less delighted than others to see a bunch of boys wandering across his fields. But these are only the tiniest of exceptions to the general rule that you could expect everybody to treat you right and kindly. 

By the 1950s, the Methodist spirit that gave Delabole its three chapels, plus one each to Treligga and Trewalder, had ebbed. Even so, most children still went to Sunday School, including those whose parents never went to chapel, and chapel events marked the major festivals of the year: Christmas Bazaar, including dipping your hand in a barrel of sawdust to fish out a present from Father Christmas (Alfred Thomas); Harvest Festival and its lusty hymns about ploughing the fields and scattering the good seed on the land, followed later in the week by the auctioning of the produce, most memorably the giant marrows and the traditional loaf of bread in the shape of a wheatsheaf, gone stale and fit only for chicken feed; and, perhaps biggest of all in the life of a youngster, Sunday School Anniversary. As far as I remember, things always came off well on the day. How they did, though, is a mystery because all I can remember of practices, in the small Sunday school in Wesley Chapel, was pandemonium. Mrs. Popplestone and Mrs. Claudine Parsons (who collected everybody’s milk bottle tops for recycling to raise money for good causes in days long before recycling was even a word) were in charge. Their patience was sorely tried just in keeping the unruly mob in order, leave alone getting in any kind of serious practice. I have a particularly vivid image of the saintly Mrs. Parsons moving considerably faster than was her habit in and out of the rows of benches in pursuit of one boy who had better remain nameless. In the end, though, all was well, and every year the anniversary did the trick of allowing (or forcing) everybody to do something. Those who could, sang. Those like me who couldn’t, recited . And in some musical pieces (like ‘Look for the blue in the sky’), everybody, good voices and bad, joined in. Whatever one thinks of their purely religious aspects, Sunday School Anniversaries seem to me to be occasions that, for all sorts of reasons, it was better to have been involved in than to have missed. These are just a few impressions. Who can say whether or not they are accurate? And who can say in what ways life ~ then ” is better or worse than it is “now “ ? I certainly can’t and, not having lived full time in Delabole for more than forty five years, I wouldn’t even try. But what I can say for sure is that I feel enormously grateful to have grown up in the place I did. When my mother died ten years ago, I thought of selling our house in Pengelly since we live in Washington DC and keeping a foothold in both places has its difficulties. In the end, we didn’t sell, for which I am very glad. The children love coming to Delabole; the older ones have started to come on their own initiative. And we know two young American couples who have been to stay at different times who say that their days in Delabole were the best of their lives. It’s easy to see why.

by John Prust