A memory of growing up in Corby from 1962 – 1972, by David Robinson.
I was a teenager in Corby from 1962, when my Dad Keith’s job progression from Cransley Furnaces to Stewarts and Lloyds, via Kettering Iron and Coal, took us to the ‘steel town’; and I stayed there until I married in 1972 (currently living in Peterborough via Market Harborough and Leicester).
Back in 1962, I didn’t want to move towns, and that’s an understatement. Corby Grammar School was co-ed, a prospect which seemed challenging after 18 months at the single-sex Kettering Grammar. More to the point, my Dad’s descriptions of Corby were laced with folklore about ‘rough and dangerous’ streets, citing Studfall Avenue and Occupation Rd, where the inmates were likely to chop up their front doors for firewood’ – and the journey to my new school would take me along those very streets! (I feel compelled to add that I have now walked these roads hundreds of times, still do, and have encountered very little trouble, even when pubs and clubs were spilling out on to the streets at closing time in the 60s).
Dad’s tales had stemmed from an earlier time, and the folklore had been embellished over the years. Construction of the steelworks in the 30s had drawn workers from all over the British Isles, who would have had little to do but quench their ample thirsts on a Friday night. Corby gained a rough-and-ready image, probably exaggerated, which persists even to this day in other towns and cities: this is ironic, as – having been born in Kettering, literally within stone-throwing distance of the fearsomely-iconic ‘Prickett’s gang’ – and then moved to Corby as a teen, I agree with those who maintain that there is little to choose between the neighbouring towns.
Corby is itself legendary for its fair percentage of inhabitants with Scottish ancestry; and, to my ears at least, a ‘Corby Scots accent’ is still detectable, even three generations on, and even among those born and bred in England. On arrival in the 60s, my Dad insisted that my new friend Eddie was from north of the border, even though his father was as English as mine and his mother was Italian! I found the Scots’ loyalty to their homeland commendably dogged, including when attending a teenage party in the late sixties, where they were still repeatedly playing Andy Stewart’s ‘Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?’ from 1961.
Our new home, replete with yellow front door and ‘piped’ television, was in Newark Drive on the Mantlefield Estate – a modern-looking layout with large areas of green where children of a broad range of ages played fairly happily (it saddened me in later decades when the children had all grown up and those areas were empty). We moved into the end of a terraced block, next door to a pleasant ‘flock’ named Lamb, all four of whose daughters would prove good-looking to men slightly younger than I (the youngest, Gillian, would emerge 35 years later as my late Mum Hilda’s hairdresser at Corby’s Glenmoor care home on Rockingham Road). That first January, their late Geordie father introduced us to the art of first-footing (‘keeping New Year’ had been largely unknown to us in Kettering). Bob went on to try a range of jobs, including training as a bus driver. One day, he saw a big cardboard box in the road; as he swerved the vehicle around the obstacle, he was aghast to see a child pop out of the box!
But the first neighbour we met was the late Mrs Delbridge, from two doors down, as I accompanied Mum and my younger brothers, Malcolm (8) and Philip (4), in a search for Greenhill Rise, the ‘local’ shops, which were actually quite a walk away. It was here I reacquainted myself with ‘MAD’, the American humour magazine (1952-present) which I had been forbidden by parents to buy any more of in Kettering. The newsagents had MAD paperbacks reprinting older American articles which re-whetted my appetite. Why do I say all this? Because I went on to write and draw for the British version of MAD from 1978 to its closure in 1994 (all the while holding down a ‘proper’ day job in IT).
The Delbridges hailed from the far northern coast of Scotland, and Mum struggled to understand their strong dialect; what’s more, Mrs Delbridge later revealed that she had the same problem with our accent! Stanley Delbridge was a year older than me and attended the Beanfield secondary school (since sadly demolished). Stan was missing living on the coast and joined the sea cadets. Stan tended towards Elvis, as seen at the local Odeon in ‘Blue Hawaii’, while my slightly-younger taste took me via the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers to America’s Beach Boys and Byrds. When Stan joined me at our school fete in the mid-60s, some girls in my class asked who the ‘hunk in the blue suit’ was! He was keen to join the police, an ambition later also realised by his middle sister Marjorie, whom I once or twice helped with her maths homework. She was later featured in a Daily Mirror headline as ‘WPC Gorgeous’! I lost touch with Stan, but I would bet a tenner that he looks the image of his late dad, as they were ‘like two peas’.
Among the local sights was the ‘walking’ dragline excavator which our family would very occasionally walk out to see on a Sunday afternoon; note how easily pleased we were in those days! We arrived in Corby in time for the traditional Pole Fair, the historic event which, since 1862, has taken place only once every 20 years (the next being due in 2022). The eponymous pole is a greasy, perpendicular one, up which town worthies traditionally clamber in a quest to grab a cash prize at the top. In 1962, I recall that a young lad aged around 11 was the victor, after older men had been trying and failing, all day.
For me, the Francis Frith photo collection of black and white images, where all the vehicles seem like Dinky toys, captures Corby perfectly for that era. The town centre’s distinctive astronomical clock, decorated with moons and stars, appears faithfully in all photos since, rather like the clock in the ‘Back to the Future’ films. Frith’s frontal shot of Corby Grammar School, now sadly demolished and replaced, has become definitive. I was there till 1966, having been part of the small stream that was accelerated to O and A Level GCE (i.e. we missed a year. While I’m not sure this did me any good, I’m not sure another year of messing about would have helped, either).
The definitive headmaster was John William Rolfe Kempe, who had been a fighter pilot during the War – twice mentioned in dispatches – and a high-profile mountaineer, intrinsic in the conquering of Kanchenjunga, the ‘runner-up’ to Everest. Neither of these was evident at the time (in a way, I wish he’d told us, as this would have added flesh to the bones of someone whom I’d regarded as a cultural opposite); although an ‘open air’ approach to education was favoured, gleaned from Gordonstoun school (Prince Charles’s ‘Colditz with kilts’) at which John Kempe had taught maths (and where he would go on in 1967 to become headmaster at the time Princes Andrew and Edward were pupils). Hence Outward Bound, VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), canoe-building and weeks in the Peak District (at Derbyshire’s Ilam and Castleton) were highly regarded.
Among our Latin masters was Colin Dexter, who went on to create the Inspector Morse novels. To be honest, he frightened us to death at the time, but many of us agree that he was an excellent teacher. Three of us met up with Colin in Oxford later in the century, and I later sent Colin a short story from which he borrowed the twist-in-the-tail ending for one of his own tales: my name actually appeared in the story (although my friend Eddie Andrews went one better, appearing in one of the Morse novels as a Scene of Crime Officer, his actual job).
As with most of us, ages 12 to 18 were formative years. I would travel with friends on the bus to watch pop and rock acts at Kettering Granada, including the Hollies, the Searchers, The Who and more. Corby itself had strong local groups, some of whose members were at school with me, including Roger Buckby in The Invaders; and Jim Gaffney and John Hemmings (plus Rod Crozier, initially) in the Rising Sons, whose drummer was Rog’s younger brother Pete.
From c1965-67, I was singer-guitarist in a music group named ‘Frequency 209′, whose one gig at the Air Cadets’ Christmas party failed to trouble even specialised local record books, having begun well but foundering by the fourth or fifth number. The rest of the line-up comprised Grammar School lads Dave McAlpine (drums), Dave Bell (bass), Chas Stewart (rhythm and bass), all of whom attended the Covenanters youth group at the Baptist Church on Rowlett Rd – times which I enjoyed, despite having been agnostic for most of the time since. Later Dave Bennett joined us on vocals. We practised at the dark-wooden Air Cadets’ hut next to the so-named ‘old tech’ on Rockingham Road, then in another prefabricated building at the top of West Glebe (neither building seems to have survived the intervening half-century).
This space was secured for us by Dave Sykes, younger son of high-profile Corby councillor Tom Sykes, an unabashed left-winger whose day job was delivering mail for the GPO (Sykes Court, a retirement housing centre in Corby, is named after him); and with whom John Kempe, his political opposite, had a number of run-ins over comprehensive schooling, etc. (When, in her ‘later career’, my Mum worked as a tea-lady and cleaner at the Corby Council offices, she was taken aback by the aftermath of the Christmas parties, observing that the ‘Quiet ones were the worst!’)
Dave’s enterprising approach matched his father’s verve: at school, we produced a ‘pirate’ school newspaper. This publication sprang from the creative efforts of my friend Graham McPhee and I, begun in the third year, and Dave managed to persuade the nearby Smiths factory to donate cartons of crisps as free gifts! The younger Sykes was eventually lured away from Corby by the ‘bright lights’ of Manchester, where he was quickly promoted to social secretary of the university students’ union, booking acts like The Who, Soft Machine and the early Slade. Dave was involved in the south Manchester music industry until his untimely demise due to illness in 2009.
I left school in ’66, rightly or wrongly taking an office job at Stewarts and Lloyds in their computer department, mainly because I passed an aptitude test; I had little interest in the technical side, and ex-colleagues will probably agree that my thoughts were elsewhere, as my time was spent drawing a stream of cartoons, hopefully for their entertainment (one of which was my first published effort in the late, lamented _Wrestler_ magazine: the drawing, which I’m not especially proud of because it was drawn in black biro, is still visible on the web).
In 1967 I started to attend The Stables, a youth club tucked away in a wooden building behind houses on Rockingham Road, a fair number of whose members worked at Chester’s, the printer in the village. The club conformed to the record-player-and-table-tennis norm, but was a fair free facility for the time. Among its benefits, I met Susan, whose elder brother Steve I sort-of-knew from school. Sue and I would marry five years later at the Parish Church, which as one modern author wrote, ‘makes up for all the dumb things I ever did’. We were weekly visitors to the Odeon cinema on Rockingham Road, enjoying ‘The Graduate’, ‘Butch Cassidy’ and other examples of 60s kitsch (although the longest queue I had ever seen was probably for Cliff in ‘Summer Holiday’). The cinema was re-named the Rutland in 1969, with strange offerings including so-so documentaries like ‘Love in Our Time’ and the Swedish ‘I, a Woman’.
To this day, I travel back to Corby to visit in-laws, still passing by the 8-storey office block where I once worked (I use the term loosely), although its ‘brutalist’ design is now threatened with demolition.
Image description and credit:
This picture shows a large walking dragline which operated in the UK between the 1950s and 1980s, similar to the one mentioned in this story. The picture was taken in ~July/August 1986 by Mr D King. For an idea of scale, the photographer’s children, aged around six and ten at the time of capture, can be seen standing in front of the machine towards its rear. This picture is of W1400 N`2 which worked Cowthick quarry oppsite the steelworks next to Weldon. Although similar to Sundew, the boom is 26ft longer and over 200 tons of pig iron ballast were used to balance this legthened boom.
Link to source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sundew_dragline.jpg