Reflections from The College – On Memories

By Richard A Roberts BA TEP CTAPS (Alumnus)

Image by LEEROY Agency from Pixabay

No, not our College, but ‘The College’: those houses which form the quadrangle behind Durham Cathedral and partly face onto The Bailey opposite Haughton. Returning to the serenity of The College forty years after my graduation from John’s has been a blessing beyond measure, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, how have I spent the last few weeks?

I was left an ‘adult orphaned only child’ (AOOC) four years ago, inheriting boxes and boxes of family archives. Most people would call it ‘stuff’ – newspaper cuttings, menu cards, photographs often without description, and above all memories.

Most people would call it ‘stuff’ – newspaper cuttings, menu cards, photographs often without description, and above all memories.

Memories are strange things – following my mother’s death, I could no longer face looking at them any more than I could face life. One of the curious effects of being an AOOC is feeling desperate ‘aloneness’ rather than occasional social loneliness. I did not appear lonely as I had many friends, but in reality, I was alone. I had no blood family as my parents were only children too. I found myself wandering the graveyards of the Eden Valley near Penrith looking for gravestones of great aunts and uncles just to remind myself that I once had a family.

But my family narrative got boxed up, and until a few weeks ago was undisturbed. Lockdown has allowed me to ‘open the box’, taking me on a wonderful journey of a vast historical narrative. My mother was from a large and distinguished Penrith family – the Richardsons – and my father grew up in South Wales before joining the BBC as a radio engineer in 1943. They married in 1951 and lived in the same house, purchased by my grandfather in 1922, for the rest of their lives.

I knew some of their history and passions – cricket, the church, freemasonry and simply being hospitable. My father completed his National Service in India in 1946-47. I came across an album of his photographs which portrayed the life of a Sergeant in the REME during a turbulent period in the country – I cannot remember seeing them before. After 75 years, I want to know so much more about this chapter of his life. Even more intriguing are two 5” reels of 8mm cine film in their cases and marked ‘India 1947 Royal Tour’. Returning to Britain, he re-joined the BBC and was posted to the World Service transmitter station outside Penrith.

Lockdown has allowed me to ‘open the box’, taking me on a wonderful journey of a vast historical narrative.

Dad’s great passion was cricket, as coincidentally was my maternal grandfather’s. By 1948, he had started a cricket team for the young men who worked 24/7 shifts for the BBC. His association with that team lasted until his gracious retirement in 1984. I find cine film and many photographs of cricketing events such as the 1954-55-56 Scarborough Cricket Festivals, fundraising dinners that he organised with famous cricketers like Len Hutton, and then setting up cricket leagues and promoting youth coaching.

Meanwhile, Mum was organising monthly socials for BBC wives and children whose husbands and fathers were working difficult shifts or seconded to stations abroad. She also co-ordinated all the cricket team teas and the rota for players’ wives to make them. From an early age I learnt two valuable life lessons: always take a coherent message when answering the telephone and repeat it back to ensure you heard correctly AND making afternoon tea for 28 cricketers is only like making afternoon tea for four people but seven times over!

As I open the boxes, memories fall out: yellowing newspaper cuttings advertising ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ or the ‘Fol-de-Rols’ in summer season at Scarborough, the myriad of church fundraising events and fashion shows, and the daily life of a small Lake District market town that lives a life of intense social interaction and mutual support.

What better time than now to engage with the memory boxes

Then I open the freemasonry case and find menu cards from events from 1919 to 1984 as well as pictures and aprons. I found the menu cards fascinating, because one could see a progressive decline in the number of courses and the range of food offered as masons became more cost-conscious. But in the late 1920s, they were eating oysters and venison when people were starving one hundred miles away in Jarrow.

I could make half a dozen articles on my findings, and add pictures, but I want to convey that all of us have personal narratives that must be preserved for the benefit of our descendants. What better time than now to engage with the memory boxes or with older relatives who may be socially isolated for months. Get Granny onto Zoom and talk about the social events of her youth, her passions and fears, her joys and sadness, and build up a family story. One day it will be too late and as I sit here surrounded by piles of memories, I wish our family had talked more.

Use this time to reflect and share with your family, open the memory boxes, and think of those who will follow on and be delighted to read your narrative.

So as an AOOC, what do I do with these memories? The Facebook page for ‘Penrith Old Photos’ has been a joy – I try to post four to six pictures a day, with the ‘likes’ appearing like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. It seems I have hit a vein of memories and laughter across my hometown and indeed the world. I was recently asked if various pictures could be posted onto Facebook pages based in Australia.

And beyond that? County archive services, regional or local history or film societies, specialist museums such as the Museum of Freemasonry, and more – they are all interested in recording the past, and welcome contributions. If there is a story you can tell as background, this is even better as context is key. I already have emails from places like Scarborough Cricket Club and our own Oriental Museum expressing interest in the archives.

And that takes me right back to my surroundings here in The College, where I reflect on life in its current semi-monastic form. Use this time to reflect and share with your family, open the memory boxes, and think of those who will follow on and be delighted to read your narrative.


Want to share your thoughts? We actively encourage discussion and debate and would love to hear your opinion! If you’d like to write a full response, or if you have any thoughts on this article that you would like to share with us, please comment below or email johns.chronicle@durham.ac.uk.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed on this site are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the editorial board.

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