FROM Rawmarsh to Massachusetts and back again, from poverty to possibility, from a letter to the Advertiser to the publication of a biography that acts as a quickfire documentation of this town’s recent history.
The story behind Diane Bailey-Boulet’s Poverty to Possibility — Snapshots From A Yorkshire Boyhood is an extraordinary one.
Back in March 2005, Diane wrote to the Rotherham Advertiser from her home in Boston, Massachusetts, to say she was beginning research on a book about her dad Harry Bailey’s childhood growing up in Rawmarsh in the 1930s and 1940s. She wanted to meet with anyone who knew her father as a child and young man.
The response was good and 15 years later Harry’s story is told in an excellent book which has received a strong recommendation from her cousin, former Advertiser sports editor Les Payne.
The book tells the story of coal miner’s son Harry, who went to the University of Sheffield, became a doctor, practised medicine in Boston, taught a generation of Harvard Medical School radiology students, then served in the United States Navy, retiring with the rank of captain.
Diane says: “Sadly, he died of cancer in 2003. I set out to write about his childhood as a way to honour him and cope with my grief. He was my first hero.
“Thanks to the generous support of the Advertiser team, I was able to make contact with several of my dad’s childhood friends and mentors from Rawmarsh and Rotherham.
“What they shared about his life and their childhoods growing up together in very difficult circumstances helped me better speak to my family history, who Harry was as a child and how friendship, mentoring and community were so important to what he achieved.”
Diane made five trips to Rotherham to research her book, having not visited since 1970, when she was just nine.
She said: “I realise now that the origins of my writing journey trace back to 50 years ago. It was 1970 and we were visiting my dad’s cousin, Ernest Payne, in Rawmarsh. A retired coal miner and now widowed, he lived alone on Blyth Avenue.
“Fidgety and a bit bored by the grown-up conversation about times and people I knew nothing about, I wandered outside to explore Ernest’s small, cobble-stoned backyard. I spotted a pile of coal there.
“Growing up in an oil-heated house in New England, I had never seen coal before. The black lumps of it were something exotic to behold. Curious, I enthusiastically scanned the pile, then plucked a small piece of coal from it like it was a prize at a county fair.
“With renewed enthusiasm, I headed back inside to show everyone the coal lump. When I asked cousin Ernest if I could keep it, his expression was one of clear astonishment.
“He had seen and hewed countless tons of it in his lifetime. There was nothing exotic about coal to him. Nonetheless, he replied to me in a gentle, if weary way: ‘Aye, lass, you can take it.’ While the rest of that coal pile has long since been burned to heat Ernest’s house, the lump I plucked from it has somehow managed to stay close to me for five decades, from England to the United States, and through moves from Massachusetts to California to Florida, and points in between. It rests safely in my bedside table drawer to this day.”
Diane’s later visits to Rotherham stirred some memories and revealed some tremendous stories.
She said: “Several of the stories I write about emerged from conversations with my dad’s extended family members and childhood friends. I did not know, for example, about the tragic demise of an ancestor, Thomas Wilson, in the belltower at St Mary’s in Rawmarsh during the 19th century.
“My dad’s close friend and mentor, Horace Bailey, discovered it and sent me an article about the somewhat raucous, dramatic inquest that followed Thomas’s death.
“One of my most memorable experiences was meeting local Rawmarsh butcher, Walker Scales, on my first trip to Rawmarsh in 2004. In his 90s at the time, he still ran his Rawmarsh shop that had been active since the early 20th century. When I asked Mr Scales if he remembered my dad as a child, he didn’t. However, he described a memory from a generation earlier around 1915 of my grandfather, my dad’s dad, as a ‘right stiff lad’, a tall, slender teenager. Walker Scales would have been a very young boy then! While I was in Mr Scales’ shop with my cousin Val Payne, a man walked in to buy a pork pie. Hearing my accent, he asked why I was there. We got chatting and discovered that he was related to Val on her mother’s side, a family reunion within a family reunion.
“My research took me up ladders into the belfry at St Mary’s to see the magnificent bells, and a few pigeons, there.
“I went down a coal mine at the National Coal Mining Museum for England in Wakefield, where I experienced first-hand the darkness and claustrophobia of being below ground. I wondered what it must have been like to work underground day-in, day-out in far more difficult conditions, especially as a teenager managing ponies, as my grandfather did.
“I also spent time carefully reviewing fragile paper local health records in the Wakefield Archives to understand the context of families’ lives in the early 1930s.
“I loved visiting the small Carnegie Library on High Street in Rawmarsh while it was still a library; it was such an important resource for my dad when books were otherwise unaffordable to his family. When I was there in 2004, I pulled a birth records book from the shelf, and the first page I opened listed the birth of my great-grandmother Lucy (Thompson) Dyson, who grew up in Upper Haugh. That experience had a surreal quality.
“I also enjoyed living in the present on my visits, taking in Wentworth Woodhouse in various phases of its restoration; shopping at Parkgate, and loving being back in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. I had a very good roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Sunday roast at the Earl Grey near where Moxon’s Yard used to stand. My great grandmother Frances used to send the boys round to the Earl Grey to get her daily bottle of Tennent’s.
“Most of all, I loved being welcomed into the homes of so many childhood friends of my dad’s in Rawmarsh, Wath and Mexborough. They had such fond and often funny memories of my dad. The wartime chapter I wrote about cricket, peace and pancakes stems from what his friends told me. His friends truly embraced what I was doing. They treated me like family.
“My dad died in 2003, yet somehow, throughout this journey, I felt like he gave me three Yorkshire dads in his place after he was gone. They each show up as children in the chapters in my book.
“I’ve so enjoyed the trips back to South Yorkshire since 2005. I was on my way there in March when Covid conditions meant I needed to return to the US.
“While it took a long time from start to finish, I have no regrets. As one friend told me: ‘Good things take time.’ I am glad that the dream of a book to honour my dad and bring some of the history of the area to modern readers is now a reality.”
The story opens on Doncaster Road, Rotherham, on Christmas Eve 1929 and carries through to Rawmarsh in 1948 as Harry prepares to start his rail journey to begin military service in the British Army.
It ends with his move to London to join the Army Medical Corps and to train as a radiology tech — but first he must serve king and country.
Diane adds: “My dad’s life was an extraordinary one; from difficult beginnings, he was able to finish his education, become a doctor, practice medicine and teach a generation of Harvard Medical School students, and ultimately earn the rank of captain in the United States Navy Medical Corps. He used to say that his happiest memories were in, up, and around St Mary’s. It took the combination of his innate gifts and the caring of family and community around him to persevere against difficult odds. He was a caring, compassionate Renaissance man.
“I am so fortunate to call him my dad and grateful that he encouraged my love of history and writing. My book is my way of honouring him, the community in which he was raised, and my family’s history.”
* Poverty to Possibility — Snapshots From A Yorkshire Boyhood by Diane Bailey-Boulet is published by Evensong Press and available from her Amazon author page.