Sport in The Little Theatre of Dreams : Roomfield Schoolyard, Todmorden
For the first few years of my life I lived in Blackshaw Street, which used to offer lovely views across to Stoodley Pike and was a walk of about a mile from Roomfield School; down Halifax Road and over the canal. If I had continued to live there my Infant and Junior Schools would have been at Castle Hill and I would not have experienced the pleasures of sport in Roomfield Schoolyard. However my dad, Joe Dobson, was an old boy of Roomfield School and knew that it had a reputation as the best Infants/ Junior School in town. Dad's view was reinforced by my Aunt Hermione, a teacher, who had great respect for its Headmaster, Harry Wilson (a.k.a. Pa Willy, who achieved the distinction of being selected as Mayor of Todmorden and also Mayor of Calderdale). Roomfield's high reputation was fully justified when two of its old boys won Nobel Prizes in Physics (Sir John Cockcroft) and Chemistry (Prof Wilkinson) respectively. Mind you, my Dad's decision to move to Cambridge Street was certainly not made more difficult by the fact he was employed as a woodworker at Jim-Harry Sutcliffe's furniture factory, which was only a hundred yards from Roomfield School. It was also much nearer to his beloved bowling greens at Centre Vale Park.
The afore-mentioned Headmaster of Roomfield Junior School, Pa Willy, was a keen sports fan and he could often be seen taking his son, on the bus, to watch a home match at Burnley F.C. He introduced his pupils to sport by organising a game of Rounders in the playground usually just before a school holiday and promised to give a half crown to anyone who could hit the ball into the River Calder, which required a hefty blow and a strong following wind . I gave it my best shot but didn't manage it. Perhaps Alan Fiddling or Bernard Grundy did?
On entering the Junior School, at Roomfield, one's playtimes were spent in the Back Schoolyard which, nowadays, someone would have christened The Little Theatre of Dreams. The surface of the Yard was concrete and the overall shape of the playing surface was like a letter E deprived of its top and bottom horizontal bars; when playing football, the goals were at the ends of the long stem of the modified E and so the unusual feature of the pitch was the area off to one side which was bounded by school buildings For most of our cricket games the wickets were chalked on the wall and the bowlers queued up to run in and bowl, towards Halifax. Unfortunately there was a metal grate just at the point from which the bowler delivered. This was not a problem unless, like me, you were wearing clogs with metal shoes on the soles. These caused the bowler to slide and lose his balance; perhaps this is why I became a leg-break bowler. Occasionally, in high summer, when it was known that there would be no football played in the yard, cricket took over the whole area and two dustbins would be used as wickets as they afforded a more realistic approach with a wicket-keeper and perhaps even a couple of slips.
When I first moved up, from the Infant School to the Junior School, cricket was played in this area, at least in Summer, but it wasn't long before most people started to want to play football all year round and this more or less finished cricket as a game in the Schoolyard.
An older lad, Jack Storah, introduced some of us to the skills of football and we used to practice crossing the ball for someone to direct a header at the goals which were chalked on the wall separating the schoolyard from the Christian Science Building. We would rotate our positions so as to improve all our skills, including goalkeeping, and all the while Jack would be gave an entertaining, running-commentary in which all of the participants were allocated the name of a Man U footballer, as Jack was one of the few Man U supporters in Tod; most Todders supported Burnley, who, at that time, had an excellent team which won the English 1st division and competed in the European Cup. It was in one of these sessions that Eddie Harling, who was playing the centre forward role, jumped up to head the ball and with no-one anywhere near him he fell to the ground in a most ungainly fashion and broke his wrist. (This was the only time I saw anyone suffer an injury as the concrete surface ruled out the sliding tackle). It was not an opportune moment to do so as the exams were only a fortnight away. Ah well he must have managed to pass his exams as he got a job with the Electricity Board before moving to Australia. I was sad to see him go as he was a good sportsman and a very friendly unselfish person.
Eddie and I represented the Danes House in the half-mile at our School Sports Day which was won comfortably by an older lad (called Mitchell?) Eddie and I followed him round the final lap with significant gaps between us. On looking back, Eddie saw that I was slowing down and in danger of losing my third place so he dropped back to help me home and virtually pushed me over the line in second place. He was the third of our group of friends to go to Oz. The second was Alan Marshall, whose father Clifford had a health food shop on Halifax Road. Alan worked very hard on his bowling developed into a fine bowler of off and leg cutters before most cricketers knew what they were. He left school at 16 to work for Turner & Newall. At weekends he played for Rochdale for several years before leaving these shores for Perth, Western Australia.
From the age of 8 -18 the large majority of my spare time was spent playing football in the Roomfield schoolyard. I even used to join in when I was in my 20's. Lads used to come from all over town to play football in this hallowed venue, which just happened to be at the top of the street where I lived. There would be a nominated start time for the game, when those present would be selected by the two captains. Latecomers would be assigned to a team in order of arrival and this could clearly upset the balance of the two teams. The best footballer of our time and neighbourhood was Rae Fielden, a classmate at TGS, who left school at 16 and went to work for The Manchester Rubber Company. (He was offered the opportunity to play professional football with Rochdale FC but he went on to get a PhD and emigrated to Australia) Rae played in midfield for Lydgate Utd, the predominant local team at that time, which was managed by Ronnie Wild, the legendary sports reporter of the Todmorden News and Advertiser. Whilst away from home at Uni I used to get my parents to send me the Tod Rag simply so I could read Ron's colourful and exciting accounts of Tod Cricket Club's matches and the exploits of our local football teams Lydgate Utd an d Todmorden AFC who were so good that they won all the competitions they entered. Ronnie lived in his parents' house immediately opposite ours across the narrow back street which separated the houses of Cambridge Street and Industrial Street. Despite his lengthy and debilitating illness Ronnie remained very active at both work and play and maintained a cheerful approach to life, as did the rest of his family. I can still remember his dad Abraham developing alopecia and going completely bald at a young age. He, too, was a very pleasant neighbour. Every Sunday he could be heard whistling a merry tune as he polished all the family's shoes, about 12 pairs, on the coping stone of his back wall.
Most of the players in the town's top teams occasionally joined in our games although most of them were a bit older than me. They included: Barrie Pickles (who I seem to remember lived on Industrial Street and worked at Jim-Harry's furniture-makers where my dad worked and I was a labourer during University holidays), Barrie Shackleton, Gordon Lord and Terry Stansfield. Another vague memory suggests that Ewart Clayton, who was a very fine cricketer, showed up very occasionally and I imagine he was rather good at football.
Malcolm Beet (Sugar) who was a nippy little forward whom I remember as a Saxon at Grammar School also played for Todmorden AFC and sometimes joined our schoolyard games.
Coming back to the subject of football, we all wanted to be on the same side as Rae Fielden, as he was clearly the best all-round footballer of our neighbourhood. Somehow, without being seen practising, he had acquired the dribbling skills of a top-class footballer and as an opposing defender, your best approach was to concentrate on watching the ball, so as not to be fooled by one of his feints. If he got past you, in our small schoolyard, his pace would take him into a shooting position and there would be a good chance he would score. There were other quality- footballers who played in our impromptu games but only young Adrian Mitchell went on to play professionally. Our games were played in the back yard of Roomfield School which was fit for purpose, except in the key areas behind the goals. At one end the goals were marked on the wall which separated the schoolyard from The Christian Science Building, on Halifax Road and if one's shot went over the bar one had to climb over the wall and retrieve the ball before it was confiscated by the humourless lady caretaker.
At the other end of the yard the goalposts were marked by piles of coats which were usually placed on the corners of the great big concrete slabs which formed the playing surface of the schoolyard, as their width was approximately equal to the statutory goal-width defined by the FA. Unfortunately the height of the goals had to be imagined as the ball crossed the goal -line and this led to many a dispute in close-fought games. Another serious problem was that any shot passing over the imaginary crossbar would usually hit the wall of a house which was on the opposite side of the wall and close to the River Calder. From the point of view of the participants this house served a useful purpose as it prevented the ball from going in the river, which was only about 10 yards behind the house. However, often, the ball would hit the windows of the house and sometimes the force was strong enough to bring down the lace curtains, whereupon some players would hide, in case one of the occupants emerged to remonstrate with the offenders.
Occasionally the police were called in and we were evicted and told that it was illegal for us to play in the schoolyard. An even worse consequence, of a strong, high shot at goal directed to the right of this house, was that the ball would probably end up in the river. This outcome lead to a Le Mans start by those with bikes who would scramble, mount their bikes and race down the river bank to try to fish the ball out at certain well-known places where the ball might come close to the river bank. Quite often this rescue effort ended in failure as the ball bobbed slowly along the River Calder and presumably down the River Aire and eventually out into the North Sea. Obviously for our games of passion to continue this meant that a new ball had to be purchased, as was the case when the ball burst. Such dire events necessitated a whip-round i.e. a collection from all participants to raise enough money (about half a crown) to buy a new inflatable plastic football and consequently there would be a significant fall in turnout for the next couple of days until the new ball had been purchased. In the meantime those who turned up, because they recognised that the new ball was good value for money and so were prepared to pay the price of say a threepenny bit, had to make do with an old tennis ball. Naturally when the news spread that the new plastic football had been purchased, all those who had not been seen for a few days were soon back in The Theatre of Dreams bearing their well-worn excuses for absence.
In the fifties not many manual workers could afford a car and so it was possible and tolerated for youngsters to up to about 12 to play on the streets, but thereafter they were often told to go and play in the schoolyard. This we were happy to do but we knew it wouldn't be long before the noise made by the participants and the nuisance caused by high-velocity tennis balls or footballs to the unfortunate occupiers of the houses just outside the school walls resulted in confrontation residents to tell us to go and play on the park. We aspiring footballers knew that this was not an option as the park was usually too muddy and too far away to be used for casual football. So we would perhaps miss a day or two and then return to the Little Theatre of Dreams at the top of the street where I lived. Wot Larks! Yes and I haven't even mentioned Tin Can Squat or the hours spent leaning on the lamp-post at the corner of Roomfield Schoolyard watching the girls go by.
Roomfield School was demolished many years ago and replaced by a development of sheltered homes
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