Kathleen Ward (1910-1984)

My Mother, by George Barry Atkinson

Kathleen Atkinson, nee Ward, or Kit as she was affectionately known, was born in the heady summer of 1910, two years before the Titanic set sail and four years before the commencement of the first world war - The War to End All Wars - where the whole of British society underwent a radical change and things were never to be the same again. How this affected the Ward family, nobody knows.

If the war in Europe made the general population of Great Britain poorer, then my mother's family could not have become any poorer than it already was. Two wages, however - both mother Bridget (nee Shannon) and father, Joseph (Joe) Ward, were luckily, working - and working long arduous hours at that - ensured that the family, consisting of two sons and three daughters, were fed and sheltered as well as any of the other families on the street, and possibly better than many.

Poverty is not something children are aware is happening as long as their bellies are filled and they have somewhere warm to sleep at nights, and so it was that my mum, with her elder brother James (Jim) and sister, May, already in it, entered the world. Thomas (Tom) and Bessie were yet to make their appearances.

Kit had an excellent singing voice and there must have been enough money coming into the house later on, as she had singing lessons - presumably from someone relatively local - which ensured that her diction both musically and in everyday speech, was invariably precise.

From her early photographs, Kit was a beautiful child; family rumour had it that at one point in her early life, she was "stolen" by gypsies, however there is no actual evidence that this took place at all, but it certainly makes a good story.

As with most of the girls living in Darwen in the 1920s, Kit left school and went into the cotton mill. In those days, the mills were hot, unpleasant places to work and the atmosphere was thick with cotton dust and oil used to lubricate the looms. Each one made a dreadful, rhythmic clattering noise.

Kit was a weaver, and I remember going to see her when we lived at 573 Blackburn Road and I would be about eight, and attending Earcroft school (the site of which now accommodates a huge single concrete leg holding up a section of the motorway.)

In spite of the white gloom, I was able to find my mother who was looking after a whole row of looms; I saw her join two pieces of cotton together by putting the ends in her mouth and skilfully achieving a perfect knot by manipulating the cotton with her tongue.

As with other mill-workers, she communicated with other women by making rather grotesque shapes with her mouth rather than try to compete against the racket from the looms. Lip reading was the only means of communication over the dreadful noise which later on, was to turn Kit deaf - "weavers' deafness", an accepted manifestation of being surrounded by constant high levels of noise for prolonged periods of time.

My mother met George Atkinson, who was a handsome man with a twinkle in his eye for the ladies, especially the attractive ones, and Kit fell for him as soon as she first saw him from the balcony of the Criterian ballroom in Darwen town centre. She told friends that this was the man for her and that she was going to marry him.

And so she did, on Easter Monday 1936 and not too long afterwards, a son, Kenneth was born. In 1940, two years into the second world war, a diphtheria epidemic raged through the country, and their son was unfortunate enough to succumb to it.

Mum once told me that Kenneth was in the isolation hospital at Bull Hill, suffering from both diphtheria and a bout of scarlet fever. The hospital was situated just before the moors which surround Darwen, some five miles away from where they lived.

They had been visiting him during the early evening, when all appeared fine with him, and as they didn't have enough money to catch a bus back to Blackburn Road, they walked, hand in hand, delirious with pleasure, from being informed that Kenneth was well on the way to recovery. When they arrived home, a neighbour, one of the few in those days with a telephone, was on the doorstep to tell them that their son had died. He was aged four and a half.

The shock of this, together with the fact that George had been recalled back to Italy and do his part in the defence of the realm, sent Kit into deep depression. She took to her bed and was inconsolable. For the anniversary of Kenneth's funeral Kit wrote a beautiful poem which was published in the Darwen Advertiser:

No stain was on his little heart,
Sin had not entered there;
And innocence slept sweetly,
On his pale white brow so fair.
He was too pure for this cold earth,
Too beautiful to stay;
And so the angels came, and
Bore our little boy away.

Kit hid a silver locket containing a photograph of her and Kenneth plus a lock of his hair in a box. When she died, the locket, clasped in her hands, was buried with her.

My mother was told by her doctor that it was unlikely she would conceive again, but this didn't deter Kit and George from trying in spite of it being war time!

In July, 1943 the couple went to Morecambe for a holiday during one of George's periods of home leave. There, according to Kit, in the privacy of the sand dunes, she conceived Barry, who was born on the fourth of April, 1944. I've had an affinity with sand ever since!

I was born in the front room at Blackburn Road, opposite what was then, the Grammar school and which had thick rows of impenetrable rhododendrons facing the road - and our house.

Intentionally or not, in a bid to keep Kenneth's memory alive, perhaps, I was told stories of my deceased brother on a regular basis, and automatically, remembered him in my nightly prayers, whilst kneeling by my bedside.

Dad was fighting in Italy. Here is a photograph of him with some of his mates:

When the war ended in 1945, the British soldiers returned home and normal life started once again. Kit's sister, Bessie, together with baby Stephen, had been living with us at Blackburn Road during this time, which certainly would have been company for both of them, there is a picture showing the two sisters, taken in the back street of Blackburn Road. I would be around three years of age and Stephen, still a babe in arms.

The men may indeed have returned home, but history shows us that for many, this would not be the case. The men who went to war were not the same men who returned; they had changed, physically, mentally or both. Some didn't bother to return home whilst for some, it was the beginning of the end. And so George and Kit tried their level best to ensure their marriage survived through these turbulent times.

Here is a photograph of mum, dad and me, at a guess it is about 1950:

Here is a holiday photograph, it is in Morecambe as my cousin Marion is with us:

George, outside of the house, was the life and soul of any party, but inside the home he hardly spoke a word. Dad and I were poles apart and I honestly can't recall having any conversation with him. Here is George with Susan, our Yorkshire Terrier - we always had a Yorkshire Terrier:

Mum and dad were always singing together or by themselves, but this seemed to be a substitute for verbal communication. In saying this, dad was very generous with his money and neither mum nor I needed for anything. When I started college, Dad paid for everything, as I wasn't eligible for a grant.

Mum loved the occasional gourmet treat and as Darwen wasn't the centre of all things gastronomic, we used to love buying a "gill" (half pint) of prawns from a great character of a lady, who sold them directly outside Darwen market.

Dad bought into Fretwell and Sharples, a local coal delivery business. His business partner, Wilf Fretwell, lived at 87 Greenway Street, the front room of which was used as an office, with his gracious and reserved wife, Florry helping him. Thanks to his hard physical work, his honesty and his popularity wherever he went, and the enormous contribution from Kit, and her work, latterly, working in the office, the business prospered.

Dad is probably driving this Fretwell and Sharples lorry at Darwen Gala:

In 1957, dad "bought mum a shop" in Blackburn, which sold mixed groceries, including butter from a huge pat, large fresh cheeses which had to be cut with a wire and biscuits from boxes with glass lids. In the cellar Kit found box upon box of pre-war tinned vegetables and soups, which we couldn't sell, but which we all ate without any undue effect!

Our family had moved not just into a different town, but into a different culture and style of living. Mum hated it there, I hated it there and so after little more than a year, we packed up and came back to Darwen, living on Council Terrace.

Dad was still working every day, delivering coal and mum became "just a housewife" once again. I remember the house well; in the dining room was a quite magnificent mahogany fire surround which Kit used to polish regularly with vinegar and water to retain its wonderful patina.

Not long after our move, however, Kit got wind of a shop selling wools and soft furnishings, which was for sale at the top of Perry street - around a mile way from where we were, and so, once again the family packed up and moved here and lived in relatively cramped conditions behind the shop. Kit, though, loved it here as she was working amongst things she loved and serving people with whom she felt at ease.

The death of Florry Fretwell changed everything. Wilf Fretwell moved away from the area and George bought his share of the business, thus making him sole owner and this included the Greenway Street house, and so once again, the Atkinsons were on the move.

Here they are on holiday, it is probably about 1960:

It was about this time that I began to notice the cracks in my parent's marriage. By this time, I was away at St. John's College in York and during the summer months, I was lucky enough to secure a job escorting students from London to Athens and the Greek islands, and so it was usually the Christmas holidays when I was back with my parents.

Here are Kit and George dancing at Janet's 21st party:

What I experienced was my father staying away from home for as long as he was able, whether at work in his coal delivery, or driving taxis - dad's latest entrepreneurial venture. During the day, therefore, he worked in the business and directly after he'd eaten a meal, prepared for him by Kit, of course, who was invariably having to wait for him coming through the door, he'd be off working his taxis until late in the evening or early next morning.

The front room of the house which contained the office, frustrated her so much. In the Fretwell's days, Florrie forbade her husband or the workers to enter the house. Kit, unfortunately, was powerless to stop George and the other men from tramping into her house, dropping coal dust everywhere, thus leaving the carpets in a dreadful state.

Kit couldn't keep up with it, and employed a local lady, Gladys, to help her in the house. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up over forty pounds which dad swore blind was in the back pocket of his trousers and which had gone missing, Gladys was dismissed, never to return. Just what the truth of the allegation was all about, we'll never know; George invariably emptied his pockets in dishes all over the house, expecting mum to collect up the cash and put away for him. As a result, I was brought up surrounded by piles of money - and I give you my word, I never touched any of it!

This next photograph was taken in 1970 when Kit and George went to Ireland with Bessie and Jim:

Kit and George celebrated their Silver Wedding in 1991 with a rather splendid dinner at the Castle hotel, in Blackburn. I'm sure both of them, plus assembled guests were blithely unaware that it was the town's premier gay venue throughout the 1960s!

Kit's deafness was often seen as aloofness by many people; she simply couldn't hear speech delivered at normal volume, and this resulted in her not having many friends - besides, if local gossip is to be taken into account, Kit had every reason not to befriend new female friends in case they turned out to be one of George's many conquests.

She had a vast wardrobe of lovely clothes, which were never seeing the daylight as George stopped taking her anywhere, and devoted himself to his own pursuits.

Her pattern for going to bed, therefore, was to push a large wardrobe against the door to keep her safe from burglars - she had a "thing" about being burgled and whether this was to keep intruders away or her husband away from her side, I'm not at liberty to say, but as a result of this, George began to sleep in a different bedroom.

Kit began to feel completely undervalued and, indeed, unwanted by the man she still loved, in spite of his distancing himself. She had accepted his lack of communication and now, when she really needed to speak about something that would irreparably change their lives, she couldn't make contact with him. She tried to write letters to him explaining what she felt. I was at home one day when the post arrived. Mum and I saw him take the letter from her, off the pile and stand with the unopened letter in his hand. Looking at her, he turned and threw it on the open fire, unopened and unacknowledged.

She tried so hard to get through the impenetrable wall which had come between them, but the more she tried, the more George backed away. At breaking point, Kit packed her bags, walked out of her door for the final time and went to live with her deceased brother Jim's wife, May Ward.

Less than a week after she'd left, George had the house converted into two apartments and went to live in a room behind his taxi firm's office together with his Yorkshire Terrier dog, Susan, for company.

It was not long before Kit bought a snug little two-bed roomed house in between her two sisters, May and Bessie. May had re-married, following the death of her husband, Jim Turnbull, to Lawrence, whom everyone thought was a little bit "soft"; he was certainly a rather strange man, completely different to May's previous husband. Bessie was living quite happily by herself, following her husband's untimely death some years previously. An old friend of hers, Dyllis Atkinson (no relation) lived just over the road.

For the first time in many years, my mum felt secure and in charge of her own life, with nobody else to think about except herself. She bought herself a corgie dog for company, but Pepe, for that was the dog's name, proved too strong for her, and besides that, it wee weed whenever it jumped up at you, which was frequent. It didn't last long and she got rid of it - just to where, I'm unsure.

Although financially secure when she moved into the house, Kit was used to buying what she wanted, without having to worry where the money was coming from. George had refused to give her any money, claiming that she left him and so she didn't deserve any. One day, she succumbed to the persuasion of an antiques " knocker" and as a result, parted with some beautiful jewellery, including her gold wedding ring and an exquisite, small gold crucifix which she invariably wore around her neck.

By this time, I was married to Pam, with two sons, Adam and Daniel and Mum adored them. She so wanted to see, and spend time with her grandsons, but virtually every time my family came to the house, discontent would follow and mum would be left bewildered, and in tears. Neither my mum nor my wife could find a common ground, and relax in one another's company, so I started bringing the children by myself at weekends and holidays and we invariably had a lovely time together.

Kit's divorce eventually came through when she was sixty four and dad, two years younger. The divorce made her very sad especially as Kit realised that whatever George did, she would still be a part of him and she retained a spark of love for her husband with whom she'd shared her life for so many years.

She had a couple of suitors that I know of, but nothing came of either of their efforts at wooing Kit. I'm sure they thought her to be unattainable and out of their reach, which I feel she secretly felt. To her mind, nobody could hold a candle to George, who by this time was calling in unannounced, just to have a cuppa and a chat. Mum told me she wanted him to stop doing this and she didn't like him coming back into her life, but what she said and how she felt were two different things, as she once admitted to me.

Over the next few years, sister May died, and sister Bessie was seriously moving towards another marriage, so Kit was alone, apart from Dyllis, who had built up a life of her own. During one of my weekends there, I noticed that Kit was coughing more than usual, and this cough increased in severity until I persuaded her to visit the doctor, who subsequently referred her for an X ray at the hospital. A "shadow on her lung" was found, and although nobody said the word, we all knew it was cancer.

Mum took to her bed; Dyllis came and cared for her needs and brought her food during the week, and I'd arrive on Friday evenings, sometimes with the boys but later on my own, bringing nourishing food which Pam had prepared and frozen for her.

It became apparent that Mum's needs were greater than could be catered for in Darwen, with the limited assistance available, and so she reluctantly agreed to come and live in a residential home, just around the corner from my family and me, in Harrogate.

Although the staff were good to Kit, she found difficulty in adjusting to communal living, even though she was frequently wheeled round to the family house for visits and meals. Kit began to fail in health, and was admitted to Harrogate General hospital, where she died, holding onto my hand, on the fourth of August 1984.

Her last words to me were, "Take me home", and so mum was indeed brought home and buried in a beautiful grave, containing Kenneth's remains and topped by a marble cross draped by lilies, in Darwen cemetery.

As Kit's coffin was being placed in the earth, I wasn't surprised to see my father standing perhaps thirty feet away, just watching. I brought him over to the graveside and dropped a white lily into the grave, whilst George simply stood and watched. In silence.

Here is a compilation of photographs of Aunty Kit.

Click here for George's heritage: