Phyllis and Arnold

I live in a cul-de-sac in Stoke on Trent. The houses around here were all built in 1936. They are all semi-detached but some are 3-bedroom and some are 2-bedroom. In no particular order, it would seem, as you go up the street. The houses were built by a J Thompson, Builder of Sneyd Green. We know this because that is what is written on the cast-iron manhole covers for inspection holes for the waste-water pipes. J Thompson had number 20, the highest number house in the street. It was rumoured that this was the best built house because he ensured that it was.

J Thompson Builder. 80 year old cast iron manhole drain cover.


Arnold Pugh, in whose bedroom I now sit, typing this post, saw the houses being built from across the Stoke-on-Trent valley, where he lived before, which must have been in Fenton. I met him on a couple of occasions before I bought the house from him. He told me that as he had watched the houses being built then he came across to have a look at them and “did the business”, as he said. So he must have spoken to J Thompson. Arnold paid £400 for this house in 1936. coincidentally, this is the same as the first little project that I did on it, a retaining wall to keep back the garden at the back, which is about four feet above the patio-paved area at the back of the house. So there was always soil or mud round the back. Arnold didn’t get much maintenance done his last few years here.

When I started work in 1972, as a Tecalemit Engineering Apprentice, in Plymouth, this house would have been 36 years old. I was then paid £3 per week. OK, I was only an apprentice but, up until then, I had been doing my paper round, every morning, six days a week before school, from the ages of 13 to 16, on 18/- (shillings, 90 pence) a week. Inflation was rife in the 1970’s. If you read Thomas Hardy, the Mayor of Casterbridge, there is a maid servant character who is paid £2 per year. So I guess in 1936 that £400 would have been the going rate for a two-bed semi-detached house.

I met another local resident, Mike, at the Penkhull Community Hall, the former church hall a year or so ago, who remembered Arnold Pugh. This was during a quiz night to help raise money for the Penkhull Mystery Plays, in which my daughter starred in 2016. Mike was born in 1946, the same as Arnolds daughter. And back then the Community Hall was the local infants school. Mike grew up in the street and knew Arnold as a train driver. Arnold used to drive the express trains and Mike told me a story of how he had to get back from Birmingham one day, where he had ridden on his small motorbike. The weather had turned bad and he didn’t relish the prospect of driving back up again. So he went to the station in Birmingham and waited for Arnolds train to arrive. Where upon Arnold arranged to get Mikes little bike in the baggage car.

“DOWN THE TRENT” The Penkhull Mystery play 2016 programme. Designed by Mark Procter

Arnold was born in 1910 and was 90 years old when I met him. His wife died quite a few years before and he now had a girlfriend called Ruby, who was 75. So, with 15 years difference between them, we reckoned that Arnold was a “baby snatcher” 🙂 . Ruby lived at the bottom of the valley and as neither of them could drive, they would traipse up and down the bloody great hill, the ‘bank’, as they say in Stoke, to meet each other. I guess that’s how he got to live so long. He said to me once: “Make sure you got a good pension because you don’t know how long you’re going to live!” Anyway, he would have had to walk up and down to the station every day, when he was working, a distance of 1.5 miles with, as I say, a bloody great hill in between. I did it myself for fifteen years, commuting to Manchester every day. Arnold went to live with his daughter and her husband, the Reverend Pullin, in Kent. He died in 2004, aged 94.


When we moved in to the Grove, there was still a few people left from when the houses were built, who had lived here 65 years by that stage. There was Albert Dodds, who used to have one of the old-type single-seater, turquoise disability cars. I haven’t seen one of those since Albert died about ten years ago now. There was also Mrs Hall across the way and Phyllis Duncan, opposite us. So quite a few genuine oldies, i.e. 90+ years.

Phyllis only went into a retirement home around six or seven years ago, aged 92. She would have moved in to the street here with her husband in 1936, same as Arnold and his wife. Oddly both Phyllis and Arnold got conned into buying some crappy double-glazed windows for the front of the houses to replace the lovely stained glass ones that were there originally. This would have been over twenty years ago. Phyllis got hers replaced before she sold the house but I still put up with mine! Too many other expenses.

Phyllis used to take taxis to and fro, hither and thither as she couldn’t walk very far by the time we moved in here. So I have a little story about that. To set the scene: in one of the Lord of the Rings Films, Faramir, who is in charge of a group of men in a hide-out on the borders of Mordor, has captured Frodo. Faramir brings Frodo to an opening in a cliff face overlooking a pool where Gollum is, unaware he is being watched, is busily trying to catch a fish. Faramir, looks at Frodo, to get his attention, and then looks away to an archer with an arrow trained on Gollum. Faramir then looks back to Frodo and then looks at a different archer some place else, also with an arrow trained on Gollum. There’s half a dozen of these guys.

Anyway, one time a taxi driver is supposed to be helping Phyllis into the passenger seat of his car and she is a bit slow, as you are when you are 90! And he shouts at her. I’m in my garden pottering about as it’s a nice day, and the taxi driver has his back to me. I walk to the front of my garden, as does another man a couple of doors down. There are also a couple other male neighbours, frowning as I am, wondering what this shouting is about with Phyllis. So I nod for them to come forward. I then give a loud cough, to get the taxi drivers attention. He stands up, from grumpily helping Phyllis into the taxi and turns around and looks at me. I do this Faramir thing and look towards a couple of the guys standing at the front of their gardens. Then I look back at him, then I nod towards another neighbour across the way and the taxi driver follows my gaze. I then raise my eyebrows as if to say “what was all that about?” He mumbles “sorry”. So, I cup my hand to my ear and he says “sorry” louder. Now, looking quite stern, I nod towards Phyllis in the passenger seat of the taxi. So, he says “sorry” to her. He then goes around to the driver’s seat and gets in. Phyllis is sat their beaming and I give her a big wink. Not a word was spoken by anyone other than the taxi driver throughout the entire exchange! Yeah, we all liked Phyllis, always cheerful. Lovely old lady.

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