After The Flood

In the early 1960’s we moved from our old Victorian slum to a brand-new house on a brand-new estate in Kirk Hallam, Ilkeston. I was about seven at the time

The old house, which was tied to my father’s job at the iron works, had been flooded. We lost just about everything; the waters had come half way up the stairs.

The flood struck at on Sunday 4th December 1960. The normally placid Nutbrook stream, swollen by heavy rain, burst its banks and flooded the Ironworks and the bottom half of Crompton Street. The water carried a hidden danger in the form of highly flammable, Benzoline oil that sat on the surface of the water. I didn’t know until years later that the oil had been a problem. I remember my father sitting on the sill of the upstairs window of our house as he smoked and chatted to the people next door. Cigarette stubs were flicked into the water at regular intervals.

We were rescued by the fire brigade who took us all to a community centre where we slept in sleeping bags on the floor for a few nights.

It was a major adventure for us kids but not so much fun for the parents or the older members of the community. I could have slept on a clothes line in those days but I doubt some people there got a wink of sleep.

We were fed soup and sandwiches by the Salvation Army. Before the evening meal we all had to stand and sing ‘I’ll be a sunbeam.’ My father, a reluctant Christian at best, would move his lips like a poor ventriloquist then burst into song on the final line of the chorus.

A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
A bloody fine sunbeam am I.

During the day we played Beetle, Draughts, Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly. The older residents must have been sick to death of Ludo, but they gritted their teeth and played on. I think they’d have done anything to keep the more energetic kids on their backsides, sat at chairs and tables instead of hurtling around on the parquet floor.

In the evenings we stayed up well beyond our usual bedtime and played Beggar my Neighbour, Snap and Happy Families. At nine thirty we were strip washed in the totally inadequate toilet block before joining a queue to be given a mug of Ovaltine. After that, three quarters of the lights were turned out and we would go to sleep while our parents sat at the top end of the hall, discussing the future with their peers.

After a few days we were split up, some of us went to stay with Aunty Kath and Uncle John in their new house. They used to live on the same street as us but had managed to get a move to a new council house a few months before. They weren’t real relatives; we used to call every woman on the street, Aunty, back then. The youngest two went with Mum and Dad to stay at Granddad’s. He was a very strict old man and I never really did hit it off with him. He never could understand my reluctance to eat meat. In his day you ate what you were given or you starved. We weren’t disciplined enough for him either I don’t think. Anyway, I was glad I got to go to Aunty Kath’s, they had no children of their own and we were very spoilt while we were there.

The new house had everything the old one didn’t have, including a gas fire, a gas cooker, an electric immersion heater for hot water, a garden with real soil and a roof that didn’t leak. We felt we had made a step up.

The school was about the same distance away but now we could get a bus instead of having to walk. There were new shops that sold a wide variety of goods, instead of the one damp old shop that sold a limited number of items. We had a newsagent, a hardware store and a CO-OP supermarket. The estate was only part built; we were one of the first families to move in. We were surrounded by green fields, trees and hedgerows. A crystal-clear brook meandered across the field at the back of us. We could catch frogs, newts and sticklebacks, creatures we had only ever seen in books before.

To top it all, we had three bedrooms, which meant two if us sharing a room instead of all four being crammed into one. (When we were very young, three of us used to share one ancient double bed.) The mood in the house was completely different; we had more space and although it was still very difficult to find a place to be alone it was so much better than before. There was no damp, no silverfish, and no mousetraps. There were no more Saturday nights sat in an old tin bath while a howling wind whistled under the gap in the back door, now we had a real bathroom with a real bath and best of all, an inside toilet.

All the lights worked, we had power sockets to spare. Mum and Dad got lots of new appliances, I assume they rented some and bought others on the never-never. Just about everyone rented TV’s from Curry’s or Rediffusion; the latter also wired radio into houses. You could rent a washing machine too; we had a twin tub, (a washing machine and a spin drier in one unit,) at the old house everything was done by hand in the big sink in the scullery.

Amazingly the big old radio set still worked. We had found it floating around the stair well with the dog sat on top, the morning of the flood. Dad took it upstairs and dried it out. When we plugged it in at the new house it fired up first time. Reassuringly, it still decided what station it would play, it always had, no matter what we set it to on the dial.

The big old wooden cabinet TV hadn’t fared so well and never worked again after its watery experience. My dad said he was sad to see it go as it had the ghost of Logie Baird inside the cabinet. We all thought he meant Yogi Bear so we were very sorry to see it go too. The new set made up for it though. It had a screen four times the size of the old one and we could sit at the back of the room and still see the Woodentops or Huckleberry Hound.

The houses around us were still being built. The company building them used to boast ‘a house a day.’ I can believe it too. On the way to school in the morning there would be a set of brick footings on the opposite side of the street and when we got back in the afternoon there would be virtually a whole house standing there. I discovered how the miracle worked during our school holidays, the workmen would bolt pre-cast concrete panels together and in a matter of hours the bare brick footings had become the shell of a house. I’m still impressed when I think of how quickly those places were put together. They are all still inhabited now, fifty years on.

The bottom of the street was turned over to ‘private’ houses. They were made of mostly brick and each had a small wall at the front. Every house had a garage for parking cars that the vast majority of them didn’t own. When we lived on Crompton Street there were only two car owners and as one of those was a sales rep it was only really there at the weekend. The other was parked at the back of a property and hadn’t been started in all the time I lived there. Now, on the new estate there were at least a dozen cars. It was no longer an event to see one drive off, although any child fortunate enough to belong to a car owning family was classed as being, posh.

I will never forget my time in the old slum house by the ironworks. Life was hard, very hard at times and we had so little. What we did have though, was imagination, a steely determination and a comradery that would see us through most of life’s turmoils. In the new house we breathed clean air, we were ill a lot less, the kids with chest complaints who used to struggle to play in many of our games, could suddenly run all day long. We did get sick but were well again in days, not weeks.

Instead of playing on the filthy coal-dust and chemical-covered land between the iron works and the coke ovens, we now had a vast expanse of hills and fields to explore. We learned to climb trees, we discovered, (to my eternal shame,) bird nesting, we built dens in the copses and woods, we played football on grass. In the holidays we went out in a morning and weren’t seen again until early evening. We walked miles; we were explorers, searching out territories for future generations of children. I went back recently; most of it is built on now, though there are still some pockets of grassland and the odd cluster of trees to be found.

It’s a shame, kids deserve the freedom to wander and explore. My own kids never walked miles to see a working windmill, we used to take them in the car. They did get to see the countryside, but we had to go further afield to find it. ent 3;\lsd


  1. Sheila Matty

    Brilliant Trevor, although I was brought up in the Cotswolds and played in fields and trees all day, reading this took me back in time….We of the few Council houses that were built in the village were looked on as posh I’ve been told. We had an inside toilet and bath unlike the 5ft thick-walled cottages around who had outside loo’s mainly in their yard out the back. Seems you were either rich around here or poor. We were the latter with my Dad doing 100hr weeks plus having an allotment & gardening. Only people of an ‘age’ will appreciate this story. Me I loved it, and can’t wait for more….

    • tbelshaw

      Thanks for the kind words, Shelia. I’ve got 7 or 8 articles that were published by Best of British magazine. I’ll post a few more. Glad to know there are other people who recognise the struggles back then. 🙂

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