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A Bachelor of Hauling Coal

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MY Uncle Tom was a gifted raconteur, talented pianist and all-round good egg. He was also, to my knowledge, the only former public schoolboy and university graduate to make a career as a coalman.

Tom Reeve was born in the late 1920s, first child of Henry Reeve and his wife Caroline. Henry was the ‘son’ in H Reeve and Son, Coal Merchants. There was a lot of money in the black stuff in those days, with horse-drawn carts delivering to almost every house in Nelson, Lancashire.

As the family business prospered, Tom was sent away to Rossall, an independent boarding school near Fleetwood on the Lancashire coast. I don’t know whether he liked it or not as the subject was never discussed in our house.

This was perhaps because Tom’s younger sisters Betty and Patricia (my mother) had to make do with a state education at Nelson Grammar School. When Betty said she wished to leave at the age of 15, her father decreed that she had better start earning some proper money and was dispatched to the cotton mill to become a weaver. The same applied to Pat two years later.

Meanwhile Tom had gone to Manchester University, where he gained a Bachelor of Arts degree. The Reeves’ youngest child, John, who stayed at Nelson Grammar to the end of the sixth form, followed his brother to Manchester where he studied electrical engineering to PhD level and became a world authority after emigrating to Canada.

I have no idea what discussions took place before Tom joined the family coal business with a view to taking over when my grandfather retired. However it caused a sensation, with national newspapers reporting on the young graduate heaving sacks of coal. (Sadly I cannot check the facts with my mother, who died 15 years ago and is missed by us all).

At some point in the late 1950s my grandfather invited my father, who was an overlooker or ‘tackler’ in the mill, to make a few extra quid by collecting coal money from customers on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. This continued until 1966 when I was 11, and deemed to be old enough to help.

So Dad would drive his battered Morris van round the streets of Nelson while I flitted from door to door. On settlement of their debt, I would place the customers’ carbon-backed bill on to my pad of duplicates and sign it, ‘Paid, AA’. Or in the case of poorer families, I would subtract an instalment of £1 or even less from the total owed.

Dad’s commission for collecting the cash was 5d (roughly 2p) in the £, from which he gave me a quid (which bought a lot of sweets in them days).

The arrangement continued after Grandad Reeve’s retirement, with Uncle Tom rolling up at our house to pick up the takings and pass on the latest jokes doing the rounds. Much later in life, when I moved to the Pendleside village of Fence, I discovered that on his way home he would often call in to my local, the White Swan, known to all as the Mucky Duck. The landlord and landlady spoke fondly of ‘Tom Reeves’ and insisted on calling him thus despite my insistence that, as his nephew, I should know his correct surname.

When a schoolfriend passed his driving test on his 17th birthday and offered to take over chauffeuring duties in his Triumph Herald estate, my father decided to bow out of the collecting business and I took over, sorting out the bills and planning the route around some 50 or 60 houses per week. By this time, the price of solid fuel having shot up, I would be carrying several hundred pounds by the end of the round. However, no one ever tried to rob me and I never felt threatened, even though we were visiting the same mean streets at the same time every week.

Neither, unfortunately, was I ever propositioned by an attractive housewife in baby-doll nightie offering to pay me in kind. But I could dream.

My debt-collecting odyssey finished when I left school and began working shifts at a cardboard factory before beginning a journalism course in Newcastle upon Tyne the following year. I was away in the North East when I received the bombshell news that Uncle Tom had died of cancer. The family doctor had repeatedly prescribed kaolin and morphine for diarrhoea until his bowel burst. Tom Reeve, a father of two, was still in his forties.

I was unable to attend the funeral but according to my mother it was a hugely moving occasion with mourner after mourner paying tribute to her brother. To her astonishment, she learned that Tom had several times been invited to play the organ at York Minster. He had never mentioned it.

These days someone of his talents would have been a star of social media. Yet what I have written here is just about all I know of him. Rest In Peace, Uncle Tom.

Old jokes’ home

My Dad always used to say that when one door closes another door opens. He was a great man but a hopeless cabinetmaker.

A PS from PG  

He wore the unmistakable look of a man about to be present at a row between women, and only a wet cat in a strange backyard bears itself with less jauntiness than a man faced by such a prospect.

PG Wodehouse: Piccadilly Jim

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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