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Folk history: secretly tanked up

Northampton Bluesman ‘Uncle’ Eric Whitehouse has seen a few things and heard a few more, these are his stories…

When you live in a place for a long time, amongst people who are also ‘settled’, you hear whispers and stories that come from the fabric of the society in which you have nested. This oral history, which sometimes becomes folklore, is passed on along through time, unnoticed by wider society, but it exists by word of mouth and, these days, via the internet.

I have lived in Northampton, more or less, my entire 74 years; my mum worked in boot factories and my dad tiled bathrooms. I am intensely proud to be a Northamptonian but, as I wend my way round the old familiar streets, I feel the presence of the earworms of history tapping me gently on the shoulder to remind me of the things they said happened here. These stories are not oral history as such but lie somewhere between that and what D.Trump calls ‘fake news’. They incorporate rumour, gossip, and slander and can be either totally innocent or vicious condemnations. Here are a couple for you to ruminate on.

On Saturday, 25th January 1958, my dad and I boarded a specially chartered train at Northampton Station en route to Liverp[ool to witness an FA Cup debacle between the greatest little team in the universe (Northampton Town) and the mighty Liverpool. We were 10,000 strong that day. In those days, railway carriages came in the compartmentalised version, so beloved of Hercule Poirot, and we were crammed in with about six other sardines, two of whom were ‘young ladies’, bedecked in Cobblers favours. We got into conversation with them and it transpired that one of them was the daughter of a well respected Cobblers player of the war years and it was from her that I first heard the story of ‘the day war broke out’.

It’s a matter of public record that the Cobblers record defeat of all time occurred at Bournemouth in September 1939, our claret heroes being trounced 10-0; Oh dear! – but so far so good. But listen on. According to my insider information, on the way down to Bournemouth the news came through that Germany had declared war and, of course, this would mean the end of league football, players drafted into the army and an insecure future for young men. It seemed it was all over and this was too much to bear.

Consequently, the coach pulled over into the car park of the nearest pub to mark the end of an era. One thing led to another and by the time they reached Bournemouth (late) the team were well lubricated. I have heard different versions of this story over the years and one even had goalie, John Clifford, throwing up in the goalmouth! The Cobbs went out in style. None of this may be true. Who knows?

My second story concerns Abington Park and the strange mound between Tony Ansell’s Cafe and Welly Road. My cousins and I used to play there as children and the hill always loomed large and slightly sinisterly in my consciousness. I think the reason was, and is, that it rises from nowhere and has no apparent purpose.

When I was a teenager I was active in the local anti-war movement and the CND agitation which resulted in local action in the form of a sit-down in the Town Centre on a Saturday afternoon, which stopped the traffic and resulted in nineteen of us being arrested. May 1962. I have always been interested in the history of social, political and religious movements and, somewhere in the years following my involvement, I came across information which offered an explanation of ‘The Mound’.

Bear in mind that my information came from a pacifist-leaning source, but it seems that, after World War 1, the government were left with a surplus of tanks for which they had no use.

Somewhere, some bright spark politician came up with the idea of presenting the surplus hardware to deserving boroughs in the country as a reward for their war effort. What was not realised was that in the country, at that time, there was a widespread revulsion for the horrors of war and a strong feeling that this must never happen again. People were sick of the carnage and did not want to be reminded of it.

I have seen one of the remaining tanks in the grounds of Hatfield House. A movement developed in the country to bury the jingoistic reminders of the horror and I know that in several towns and cities the tanks were buried on the instructions of local councils. Could it be that Northampton, with its radical traditions, was one of these?

This has, from time to time, been denied by local officials and those of vested interest, but if it ain’t a tank, what is it? A statue of Ronald McDonald? This may not be true, but who knows?

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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