Back to Wakefield - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We moved from Salford on 22 January 1953. Dad was already in Wakefield; he collected the keys to our brand-new house while the rest of us spent one last night in Salford getting the house in Murray Street ready for the removal men. They arrived late to start packing our furniture and we were all on tenterhooks, but they eventually got everything in and departed for Wakefield at 11.30am. Mum, sister Kathleen and I then took a taxi to Manchester Victoria and from there we boarded a train bound for Leeds. The train journey was awful. We had to change trains at Halifax and wait 55 minutes for a connection to Wakefield Kirkgate. Halifax station was then, and still is, a very draughty station, picturesquely perched on the side of a steep Pennine slope but with no proper facilities for waiting around. As we slowed on the approach to Kirkgate Station, I found time to look out of the left side of the carriage as we passed the end of Cotton Street and saw our former house on Cotton Street. Nothing seemed to have changed in the intervening five years.

Above: This was our house from January 1953 when we were its very first occupants (I took this photo in 2010)
Our next-door neighbours at No 2 Windsor Crescent were Scots: Mr and Mrs Leslie and their two young twin daughters. They kindly invited us in for a very welcome cooked tea as soon as we arrived. They all spoke with very broad Scottish accents. I was fascinated! It came out in conversation that Mr Leslie had served in the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division, during the war and reached the rank of captain. He had joined the Prison Service soon after being demobbed. Our new home was No 4. We and the Leslies were amongst the first half dozen families to move in. Our houses were finished but the gardens and the surrounding roads and footpaths were still unmade and indicated only by marker flags.

The hammer blow came the very next day when I went with Dad to the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School but QEGS would not accept me back. They gave me two reasons: not only had I already missed a complete term when I should have been studying in the 6th Form but also, and crucially, they didn't have a 6th Form music course anyway. (There was also an unspoken suggestion that, by leaving after only the first two terms, I had wasted the free scholarship I had been awarded.) The other Grammar School in Wakefield, Thornes House, would not accept me for similar reasons: too late a start and no 6th form music course. It finally dawned on me that my school days really were over and my hopes of a career in music were finally dashed. Once again, I had to visit a youth employment office to find a job.

A week later I started work at the West Riding County Council Motor Vehicle Licensing Department in St John's North, a 15-minute walk from our new home. From the office on the first floor where I was put to work, I could hear the nearby Wakefield Town Hall clock strike every hour, and very long hours they seemed. The office staff comprised an office manager, a couple of senior clerks, another junior and me. We juniors were treated like schoolboys, which of course we very recently were.

On 27 January 1953 just about everyone in England was talking about the imminent execution of 19-year old Derek Bentley and everyone I came across was against it. He had been sentenced to death on 11 December 1952 for killing Police Constable Miles during a break-in that went badly wrong at a warehouse in Croydon, Surrey. Another lad, 16 year old Christopher Craig, had done the actual shooting. Three police officers had told the court they had heard Bentley encourage Craig to shoot at PC Miles by shouting: "Let him have it". However, Bentley was already under arrest at the time the shots were fired and claimed he was simply urging Craig to give up his gun. Because of his age, Craig escaped the death sentence and was ordered to be detained "At Her Majesty's pleasure", although, as I wrote in my diary at the time, "I doubt the Queen has anything to do with it."

My diary entry for the following day was brief and to the point: "28 January 1953. Bentley was executed at 0900hrs. Already I've decided that I don't like office work – it's exceedingly boring!!!"

Several decades later Bentley was granted a posthumous pardon. Bit late really.

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