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Doncaster News and Features: Shirley Clarkson: Growing up in Doncaster

Early married life is never easy, but when you marry an accident-prone, 24-year-old, mad, car nut, it’s damn near impossible. A month before my wedding, Eddie, my fiancé, once again wrapped his boss’s car around a bus stop, breaking a number of bones and ending up in Doncaster Royal Infirmary, which in those days was a forbidding, Dickensian institution.

The ward sister, a fearsome woman with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, said as I entered: “There’ll be no wedding for you my dear, your fiancé’s broken his neck.”

She was wrong but I spent my honeymoon night sitting up in bed, finishing off a fisherman’s rib double-knit sweater. Well, what else can you do when your partner is encased in plaster of Paris from elbow to ankle?

Joke captions accompanied our wedding photographs in the local press: “Groom plastered before the wedding starts”, etc.

On honeymoon in Ireland, we hired a Volkswagen Beetle, which was far too small and meant that Eddie had to lie in the back seat with his various broken limbs stretched out around the car.

That motoring accident would seem like a playground graze compared with the five that followed soon afterwards. Telegraph poles, brewery wagons, roundabouts and flights of concrete steps all made contact with one or many of Eddie’s bones.

The month after we were married, he met a brewery lorry on a humpback bridge in thick fog. He crawled from the mangled wreck of his car, walked to the local doctor’s house and asked the doctor’s wife if she would kindly ring my father (also a doctor) and tell him that his son-in-law would be popping in to the infirmary for a check-up. By the time I arrived, he was having his smashed patella removed, along with most of his teeth.

In all, Eddie had three patellas removed. I know, the human frame only has two, but Eddie’s body was different to anything medical science had seen before. He always said that when he died they would keep his body in a cupboard and bring it out on Friday afternoons when medical students had had a hard week, so that they could enjoy a good laugh.

Eddie loved his cars. I couldn’t give a damn what I drove, as long as it started first pull, had a heater and I could get Jimmy Young on the radio.

Jeremy, our son, obviously inherited his father’s passion, though when he was a boy this amounted to crashing thousands of Dinky cars into the skirting boards, and forcing Joanna, his sister, to play hot-wheels. Poor Jo, she never stood a chance to become “girlie”. The few dolls she had were always left out in the rain overnight, so perhaps it was never meant to be.

Strangely, though, our family fortunes would eventually be made not through cars – Jeremy would of course make up for that later – but through a cuddly toy.

This is the story of how the car-mad Clarksons gave the world the Paddington Bear doll and of the tumult it would cause in our lives. But first I think you should know where we were coming from so that you can understand why Paddington took us over so completely.

I HAVE never been one for doing things the orthodox way or paying much attention to the rules. Perhaps that explains the story of the Clarkson family. Did my unusual childhood have something to do with this?

I was only five on the day war broke out in 1939. My father was a GP in a suburb of Doncaster called Balby. After evening surgery he would go to the railway station to meet the troop trains. As well as making tea and coffee for the soldiers coming home for 48 hours, he would drive them home to the outlying villages to save them time on their short leave. This kindness, on a foggy November night with no signposts and minimal headlights, was not for the fainthearted.

For my mother, on the other hand, the war constituted a kind of social merry-go-round. She was never at home. She spent every day selling war savings certificates, making camouflage netting, driving a mobile catering van around the searchlight stations in the area, knitting balaclavas and socks, or frying chips in the station canteen.

My elder sister Pat and I were looked after by a middle-aged man called Basset who chain-smoked Woodbines. He picked Continued on page 2 us up from school, built rabbit hutches, washed cars, delivered medicines, cooked rice puddings, made all the blackout blinds for the windows, bathed us, put us to bed and baby-sat when Mother or Father were out on the street “fire watching”. Can you imagine what the social services would say about that today?

I was sent to Queen Margaret’s, a boarding school that was evacuated during the war to Castle Howard, the glorious mansion situated in the North Yorkshire Wolds. Had I been able to travel through time and see the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited, which was later set there, I might have appreciated the priceless and truly beautiful works of art left in situ by the Howard family. As it was, I remember stuffing toffee paper up the nostrils of The Dying Gladiator, flicking ink pellets at the Gainsboroughs, and, most fun of all, inserting our penknives under the gold-em-bossed fruit on the wallpaper, in order to project it across the room.

If only I had observed more closely the granite statues of Apollo and Zeus I would have at least made a start on my sex education. School gossip did not revolve around boys, because we had no contact with them. We weren’t even allowed to look out of the school gate in case we caught a glimpse of one, and our interest therefore centred on which mistress was in love with which other mistress.

The majority of girls had no ambitions at all when we left school. They just wanted to stay at home, help mother organise balls and shoots, and sit around waiting for a nice rich man, or even a nasty rich man, to marry them. This didn’t appeal to me much. Anyway I was completely unable to attract a man of any description.

Slowly, as I reached my twenties, my social life picked up. Every town in Britain has a tennis club, and in the Fifties they were a great place to meet “the man”. I joined the Doncaster club and did.

Eddie was quite extraordinary. His parents owned a pub in Tickhill, a charming little village south of Doncaster. Having suffered appalling asthma all his young life, he had barely had any education. Leaving school at 14 and considered to be the black sheep of the family, he struggled to make his way in the world. He started work for 7s 6d a week in the local builder’s yard but realised this was not for him so became a salesman for a firm of timber merchants and would have done quite well there if he hadn’t wrapped his boss’s car round a tree in the first week.

When he started “seeing” me, a doctor’s daughter from the other side of Doncaster, and borrowing my father’s Bentley for the night, his parents realised there was no hope for him.

Eddie finally secured a good job in Stourbridge, near Birmingham, living in digs. He bought a 1930s Austin 7 sports car with borrowed money – and bald tyres – and raced up to Doncaster at weekends to see me. He also borrowed enough money, £35, from his dad to buy me an engagement ring. We were married in August 1957. I was only 22.

Considering the unbroken succession of Eddie’s injuries, it is maybe surprising that in 1960 Jeremy was born. My pregnancy was a nightmare. I was violently sick for the entire nine months. Father reluctantly agreed that maybe I should take some tablets for it, and prescribed one of the two new antinausea drugs on the market. One was Thalid-omide. I took the other one.

Jeremy was due on March 24 at 9.30pm, so by the second week in April I was getting somewhat impatient. I was booked to have the baby at a large three-storey nursing home with no lift, run by an overweight Scottish lady named Mrs Farrar. Suffering a mild bout of indigestion in the middle of the night, I decided this must be it. Eddie rushed me in to the nursing home, and there I lay for about four days, doing nothing. Mr Farrar came up each evening with his sherry to sit on the bed for a chat.

I was finally moved to what was laughingly called the labour ward, a tiny bare room with dirty windows. By this time I was in extreme pain. Eventually the gynaecologist visited me, and I overheard her telling Mrs Farrar something about the baby being in distress, and quick quick, call the surgeon.

Eddie, on arrival, fainted on the landing. As he hit the linoleum floor, I was being transported in a canvas bag down to the basement operating theatre. The staircase was so narrow and winding that a stretcher was useless. Seeing a prostrate Eddie, the volunteers put me down on the floor and carried him to my bed, where there was lots of loosening of his collar and requests for brandy. When they had made him comfortable, they picked me off the floor, and I continued my journey down the last flight of stairs.

Before that day I did not know what a caesarean was. And I don’t think caesarean scars today stretch from your throat downwards.

My mother was already in the early stages of mental illness. After Jeremy’s sister Joanna was born in 1962 Mother became seriously ill. A series of minor strokes left her able to say only one word: “Rossington” – a mining village south of Doncaster with which we had no connection whatsoever. Coupled with this, she suffered from manic behaviour, staying up all night, cooking, washing and most worrying of all, picking the babies from their cots.

Eddie and I moved into the family home to enable Father to continue practising. He slept with the car keys around his neck, but Mother cut them loose one night and headed off in the Morris Minor. Five hours later we received a call from Pat, my sister, then living in Windsor near London. Mother had driven there through the night and morning rush hour, trading in the car’s spare wheel for petrol along the way. Uttering a string of “Rossingtons” that left the garage owner bemused, she demolished a brick wall as she left.

On another occasion, she locked herself in the garden privy of a stranger’s cottage. Wearing a large-brimmed velvet hat, she popped her head over the door every few moments and shouted “Rossington!” at the astonished cottage owner.

I seemed to spend my days rushing around with the two babies in the car endlessly searching for her. I usually found her in town merrily shoplifting, but as she was well known in Doncaster, shopkeepers were very understanding.

The owner of the high-class ladies’ gown shop was exceptionally good about it and let Mother sit in the shop by the fire with a glass of sherry. She only drew the line when Mother blew raspberries at customers as they emerged from the changing rooms to indicate that she thought they looked ghastly.

A full-time nurse was employed, but Mother emptied her suitcase out of the bedroom window. A new housekeeper had a freshly baked cream cake pressed into her face.

Father was endlessly patient, and most days took my mother out on his rounds. She was desperate to take the wheel, and one day in a fit of pique threw the ignition key out of the window of the Bentley, then, while Father searched the grass verge, took off all her clothes.

They were difficult times, compounded by money worries. With two babies, we needed somewhere larger than the cottage we had lived in since our marriage. Our eye was caught by an enormous, derelict farmhouse in a pretty hamlet with the wonderful name of Burghwallis, just north of Doncaster. Its walls were encrusted with thick green moss – and that was on the inside.

Undaunted, we borrowed huge amounts from the bank manager, Mr Robson, who was very intolerant of late mortgage repayments. When money was tight, Eddie would often enter the bank on hands and knees and present his cheque for cash withdrawal without daring to poke his head over the counter. The cashier would identify him just by his hand, and leaning over the counter would announce: “Mr Robson would like to see you, Mr Clarkson.”

Asked to account for our awful finances, Eddie would say that he was just about to get an insurance payment for his most recent personal injury. Every Tuesday morning I would stand on the steps of the post office, waiting for it to open, so that I could collect my eight shillings family allowance. Without that, there was no bread on the table.

Our finances finally reached crisis point when, to Mr Robson’s chagrin, we entered Jeremy at the local prep school, never giving a thought as to where we would find the £67 for the first term’s fees.

But then came the Christmas when I made Jeremy and Joanna a bear each for their stockings, and our fortunes changed. AS a girl, I had delighted in embroidery. Pat still has a tablecloth of lazy daisy flowers that we worked on together when we were little. The red and purple flower in the corner was the subject of heated debate. Pat wouldn’t do it how I wanted, so I bit her. At school I had excelled at nothing except, perhaps, needlework; and during the years between school and marriage I had done a course at Doncaster School of Art, specialising in textiles and weaving.

On holiday in France in 1967, I was idly gazing into a gift shop when one of my friends said: “Good God, Shirley, you could make everything in that shop window for tuppence!”

That chance remark changed our lives. Within a few days of arriving home, I rushed out to buy pieces of chipboard, gingham, glue, brass knobs, artificial flowery things, etc, etc, and set about making some rather hideous little objects. It was amazing what people would buy in those zany, flower-power days.

Eddie was working as a salesman for yet another builder’s merchants and on his travels would make impromptu visits to kitchen shops. He would come leaping home with the orders he had taken for my creations.

I was making extra money by working as a teacher, so every night I had to pick up the children from school and ferry them around to music lessons, ballet classes (not a great success where Joanna was concerned), riding, chess club, and in Jeremy’s case extra maths coaching (an even bigger waste of money – he still can’t divide by 12). Home for tea and then to bed with a couple of chapters of Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven, after which I would start making cockerel tea cosies till 3am.

I would get up at six, rush to the municipal swimming baths, watch both offspring do 50 (well, five maybe) lengths, ram a bacon butty down them, and deliver them to their seats of learning for nine o’clock. Many a morning I crawled past my headmistress’s office window to avoid her sigh of despair at my indo-lence.After a year of this, I took enormous delight in handing her my resignation. I was about to be sacked anyway for flatly refusing to go on strike, something to do with dinner duties.

Free from the fetters of teaching, I was deliriously happy. Our house was barely habitable, but I gave the spare room a coat of paint, bought a cheap sewing machine and an army surplus table, set up a company called Gabrielle Designs (after my middle name) and got to work.

I quickly increased my range to include an owl tea cosy and a hessian draught excluder in the form of a caterpillar. Hen tea cosies were the No 1 seller, and my crowning glory in 1970 was to have them displayed in the Design Centre in London.

That did it: there was no stopping us. Eddie gave up his highly paid sales job to join me in the company. This meant that cash would get even tighter until he could bring in new business. We thought it only right to put the idea to the children.

Having heard what it would mean in terms of hardship, Jeremy just said: “Okay, now we can we watch Thunderbirds?”

Each Christmas I made him and Joanna a soft toy for their stockings. They both treasured these one-offs, which became a kind of family tradition. In the attic I still have some moth-eared creatures with one eye, torn-off limbs and appendectomy scars.

The choice of toy in 1971 changed all our lives dramatically, and with such swiftness that we hardly realised what was happening. A friend recommended that I buy a book for the children entitled A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond.

Jeremy and Joanna loved the stories. They contained everything a child wants in a book: a bear, marmalade, sticky buns, ice cream, glue, soap suds, together with a character that epitomised what every adult admires: innocence, vulnerability, kindness, humour, politeness and an unshakeable love and loyalty towards his friends.

My problem of what to make for the children’s stockings that Christmas was solved when I read Michael’s book. I bought a couple of yards of fur fabric from Doncaster market, and with bits of felt left over from the tea cosies, together with some glass eyes and plastic noses, set about designing a bear.

Kristina, a young girl of Polish parenthood who had joined us from Doncaster School of Art, did the initial cutting and stitching of the bear one afternoon while I rushed off on my school run, ferrying, comforting, smacking (you were allowed to in those days), screaming and doing all the things that frustrated mothers do in traffic jams.

When I finally got home, and had served up the chips and sausages etc to the children, Kristina had gone home, which was unusual for her as she often stayed well into the evening and joined Eddie and me for the nightly gin or vodka, before heading home in my Audi.

I went across the yard to the workrooms, and there, sitting on the table was the little fellow who was ultimately to change our lives. Unmistakably Paddington! He had a navy blue duffel coat and a light blue hat, if my memory serves me right. Kristina had added a little touch of her own by giving him a posy of flowers in his hand, and a little pair of rimless spectacles perched on the end of his nose.

I stood and gazed at him for a long time, and thought: “He’s got it.” I knew immediately that this design wasn’t just going to sit atop Jeremy and Joanna’s Christmas stockings.

The children were delighted with their toys. When they showed them to their friends there were more squeals of delight, and when the parents of those friends arrived to pick up their children, the squeals would turn to demands: “I want a Paddington like Joanna!”

It was that reaction, above all, that convinced us that we should turn him into a commercial product. For copyright reasons, we didn’t think we could call him Paddington, so we hit on a brilliant idea: we would sell him as the Earl of Burghwallis, after our village. It’s amazing that two adults could be so naive.

Off went Eddie with a Bear to show potential customers. Every shop loved Bear and placed an order on the spot. We doubled the work-force to 10 and invested in an industrial sewing machine. Just when all the wheels of big business had been set in motion, the first of probably a few thousand blows hit us.

Alone in the office one April morning in 1972, I took a telephone call from a very polite gentleman who inquired if we made the wonderful Paddington Bears he had heard about. Flattered by his praise, and suspecting nothing, I replied that indeed we did.

He then asked where he could buy one in London, as his wife was a keen reader of the Paddington books and he wanted to give her a bear as a present. Without a moment’s hesitation I advised him to try Hamleys as I knew they had stock. As I replaced the receiver after my call something told me I had just made a terrible mistake.

Sure enough, the following morning an official-looking envelope arrived from Crawley & de Reya, Solicitors. Translated into legal speak it read approximately as follows: “It has come to our notice blah blah . . . infringement of copyright blah blah . . . and we the undersigned . . . insist that you cease forthwith . . . substantial damages . . . etc.”

It was a real bugger.

© Shirley Clarkson 2008

Extracted from Bearly Believable: My Part in the Paddington Bear Story by Shirley Clarkson, to be published by Harriman House on June 23 at £16.99.


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