Saturday, 1 June 2002

Memories of the Worsbroughs by Revd Howard Ansell

My first official visit to Worsbrough was in 1966, when I was still finding my way around South Yorkshire and learning the language.  I had come into teaching by accident, having left Lichfield Theological College after a very unhappy year there and arrived at Mexborough Grammar School because I had married a girl from Sheffield who was homesick!  I stayed until 1970, when I became Head of English at Penistone Grammar.  After part time training with the North West Ordination Course, I was priested in 1977, and after eighteen months as curate of Chapeltown I was asked by Bishop Gordon Fallows to take on the Worsbroughs, as he thought I was tough enough for the job!  It was not going to be easy, as Colin Hill had been there for about seven years and was very popular with the church people, and my family had been happily settled for thirteen years in Chapeltown.  However, I was immediately struck by the warmth and generosity of the congregation, as large working parties gutted the then vicarage, opposite the church hall, and redecorated it from top to bottom.
My memories of those four years are quite sketchy, as life was unbelievably busy.  Carol was still teaching in Chapeltown, but became very ill and had to have a hysterectomy, my mother down in Ramsgate went rapidly downhill after my father’s death and needed full time care, and the children were learning to cope with the survival problems which vicarage children usually had in those days.  Of course, the pits were still open but in serious decline, the railway line and many other businesses had closed down, and there was an air of dereliction and hopelessness throughout the parish.  Arthur Scargill, who was a national figure at that time, lived just behind the vicarage on Yews Lane, and so dodging reporters of all kinds and nationalities was an occupational hazard.
As I have no real contact with the parish now, I will give you the names of the people I remember most clearly, some of whom may still be around.  The wardens were Raymond Hampshire and Terry Kilburn.  Ray was our elder statesman, and his wife Marie ran the Mothers Union.  Terry worked for the Coal Board and was a valuable support to me and my successor until his untimely death.  My other valuable support was Pat Vaughan, who kept the keys, cleaned the church, wrote up all the records, ran the Girl Guides, and kept me on my toes – quite a difficult job, as I was still very inexperienced.  The organist was Ron Langdon, a saintly man who followed in his father’s footsteps, giving an immense amount of time and energy to creating and running a large choir, with real choirboys gathered from the back streets of Worsbrough.  The boys were regularly bribed with sweets from Percy, Gwen and Frank, and given occasional superb parties by Madge, Ron’s wife.  Ron sadly died not long after moving away from the parish.  The secretary was Audrey Hawes, who lived outside the parish, and now runs a hotel in Blackpool.  The treasurer was Derek Firth, who ran an engineering company, and grew magnificent dahlias.  The magazine, a monthly affair, was put together by Ann Wigglesworth, who lived with her aunt on the edge of the cutting.  The Church Lads Brigade was run with military precision by Malcolm and Kathryn Crowther, and the Sunday School was run by Hilda Hinde, including trips to exotic places like Mabelthorpe and Hornsea.  And then there were May and Mildred, Jean, Molly and Sally, who brightened my days with their cheery smiles and their willingness to help anyone do anything at any time.  There must of course be many more, but remembering even this lot for me is a triumph!
St Thomas’s was always a ‘church on the move’ – because of the amount of coal which had been dug out from under it.  The Coal Board strapped it and propped it, but yawning gaps appeared, and disappeared, from day to day.  However, nothing ever fell off, and eventually it always settled back on an even keel – unlike Chapeltown, which I gather has been condemned.   One old lady whom I visited regularly, always nagged me about the church bell which was never rung, because the frame was rotten.  When she died, she left sufficient money for the bell to be restored, retuned and re-hung on a very expensive metal frame.  Getting it down and up again, and removing half a ton of extract of pigeon from the loft was quite a problem!  Apart from this venture, I don’t think we attempted anything else of a structural nature during my time.

Visits were always popular with the congregation.  Apart from Hilda’s trips to the seaside, the Wives group and the MU would trek off to stately homes, gardens, and even on one occasion to Windsor Castle.  The choir liked to go on RSCM courses, and often came home full of enthusiasm and new music.  The PCC had at least one weekend away at Scargill, where, in company with other PCCs they ruminated over the problems and challenges – mainly financial – which they constantly faced.
Life for me was of course the endless round of funerals, weddings, and baptisms, with all the associated home visits, which I always felt I should do myself.  Trips to the factories and the pit were quite rare, but always rewarding.  Of course I always had to make my annual visits to the pubs for their Christmas carols and their harvest festivals, which sometimes made it a bit difficult to find my way home afterwards.  My first innovation in the church was a short family service before the main rather formal communion, which was welcomed by those with small children, but viewed with suspicion by everyone else.  The other was an annual Christingle service, quite rare in those days, which filled the church to overflowing.
Last of all there were my three friends from my teaching days, Dave Malkin, Les Foweather and Brian Ivett.  They seldom ever set foot in church, but their contribution to the artistic and creative life of the area was immeasurable.  Their best work – indeed, the best thing which has ever come out of Worsbrough – was ‘A Miner Too Many’ – a play written and researched by them about an actual Worsbrough family who lived and died in the pit disaster recorded on the monument in front of the church, and whose family history they traced in the church records.  It was performed in the school hall by children who were descended from the families they were depicting, to audiences of miners and ex miners who were gripped by the reality of the presentation, which included the creation of a coal face on stage, and an explosion with real explosives!  Their most spectacular project was a re-enactment of the Mystery plays in Worsbrough village churchyard, with the help and co-operation of all the schools, churches, factories, the NCB, and the Angels and Ministers of Grace!  I still remember the crucifixion scene under blackening storm clouds, when, as Christ on the cross said ‘Eli, Eli …’ a quite natural thunderbolt crashed to earth quite near, followed immediately by torrential rain.  On one moved!
Although I enjoyed my time at Worsbrough, and still like to visit Barnsley as a tourist, yet I never felt that I fitted in.  I was a young southern ex teacher with a Cambridge degree who didn’t smoke, drink beer, breed pigeons, or go to football matches, so although I was tolerated, yet I was never accepted, and my children had quite a tough time at school.  Therefore, when I was offered in 1983 the chaplaincy of a huge hospital with a small country parish in Essex, I felt I couldn’t refuse.  However, as I settled into my new job, the news that the miners strike was tearing my old parish apart gave me many sleepless nights.  However, no one is indispensable, and in the fullness of time a new man came, and parish life continued as it always had, and no doubt always will.
I wish you all well, and I thank you for giving me this opportunity to revisit places and faces which I had almost forgotten.

And now …

I’m getting older and more crotchety, and Carol is maturing gracefully.  She has had one cataract done, is eagerly awaiting the other one, while I remain as fit as a fiddle – apart from collapsing at a Mothers’ Union dinner and doing a blue light dash to the hospital.  I can, however, still manage Steep Hill (Lincoln) at a brisk pace without pausing – but of course, all my brain cells went years ago.  Stephen and Jackie are still in Ramsgate producing children – number three is on the way – Simon has just moved to a much happier Roman Catholic School in Dagenham, and Katie has decided to forsake the delights of Sheffield and move back down to London.
Howard Ansell

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