Monday, August 15, 2016

Verity Bargate

Verity Bargate appeared briefly at Wolverton Grammar School during the mid-50s. She boarded at Wolverton House while she was there. She was a year or so older than me and I don't recall having anything to do with her. However I do remember her as a very lively character and my sense is that she kept the Senior Mistress, Miss Full, occupied. She went on to achieve some distinction as a writer and theatre director but it came at a cost as the biography from the DNB makes evident, and is quoted in full below. As children we have no idea what lies oder the surface of the lives of other children, so the DNB biography, written by the theatre critic Irving Wardle, came as a complete surprise.

The  girl did, however, have talent. I found this piece from the school magazine of Spring 1957, which may be the first example of her writing in print and it does show a precocious talent. At the age of 16 most of us were writing rather stodgy school essays, but this, on re-reading it now after 60 years, illustrates a gift for language. Her vocabulary, style, her sharp  observation and humour should have marked her out at that age for a career grounded in writing. Instead, she was encouraged to train as a nurse when she left school in 1957, something that she was apparently unsuited for. Sadly, in 1957, intelligent and educated women were given few choices - secretarial work, nursing, teaching or marriage. Take your pick!


We own a dog. Please do not be misled by that relatively mild statement. It would have been better to say a dog owns us. She is, ostensibly, a dachshund. Her mother definitely was; her father, I fear, is unknown. Although we usually call her Mitzi-Mary there are, as always, variations on this theme, and she is registered in the Kennel Club as Tugboat-Annie. When she was taken to the Kennel Club to be “identified” the judge, after a long examination, said she thought she must be a dachshund because she didn’t know what else she could be. If Mitzi was hurt when she heard this, she didn’t show it, but she was rather subdued on the homeward journey. 
She was not acquired because we wanted another dog, she was thrust upon us in such a way that it was impossible to refuse. The alternative was a brick and a bucket of water. My mother went to see her owner merely to please a friend who had said she would. A rickety shed was unlocked, a voice said “Here’s Baby" and a tiny, bandy legged little thing staggered out, blinking in the bright sunlight. She was in a very bad condition, through sheer neglect, but she gave my mother such an appealing glance that—well .... She came home in state in a handbag and immediately made us all her slaves. She was so weak and helpless, and so very, very small. 
Weak ? Helpless ? Small ? It seems incredible now to think that any one of those adjectives could ever have been applied to Mitzi. She is large, strong and independent. At first we were under the impression that she was to be a miniature dachs.—-at six weeks, she could have turned into almost anything, but as she grew and grew (and grew) our hopes diminished and finally disappeared altogether. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we had on our hands a Dog Dubious. Some of her features are definitely of German origin, and it is difficult to trace just where she starts to go astray. 
She is devoted to us and we all adore her, so of course she is excessively spoilt. I think, however, that it would take a heart of stone to resist the appeal in those large brown eyes; her left front leg, which is unashamedly about as bandy as the right; the really enormous feet, the long silky ears that are the colour of autumn leaves, and the way she sits, head on one side, looking at you, pleading, wheedling, coaxing, hoping and above all, trusting.  
I think I am right when I say that we all hope that when, and if, we get to heaven, the first thing that we shall see will be a small brown bomb careering madly towards us, wings and halo left far behind, ears flying and eyes shut, over the green velvet of the Elysian Fields.

Bargate [married names Proud, Keeffe], Verity Eileen (1940–1981), theatre producer and novelist, was born on 6 August 1940 in Exeter, the second child of Ronald Arthur Bargate, electrical shopkeeper and later sales manager in the London Metal Warehouse, and his wife, Eileen Dewes. Her childhood was disrupted by her parents' divorce in 1944, followed by her mother's departure to Australia, leaving Bargate and her elder brother Simon for four years in the care of their father. When her mother returned it was with a new husband, Clarke Taylor, a Royal Air Force doctor, who installed his new family in air force bases at Hornchurch, Essex, and Bicester, Oxfordshire, and dispatched his stepdaughter to a succession of boarding-schools and holiday homes. In later years she described her upbringing as that of a ‘middle-class charity child’ (private information).On leaving school Bargate trained as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital, London, where she qualified as a state registered nurse and supplemented her income with private nursing. Although she was emotionally and physically unsuited to this profession (in which she came to rely on the ‘pep pills’ that sowed the seeds of her future intermittent spells of ill health), it was five years before she abandoned nursing and took a job with a media analysis firm in Paddington, London, where she remained until her meeting and subsequent marriage on 14 February 1970 to Frederick Proud, with whom she had two sons, Sam Valentine (b. 1971) and Thomas Orlando (b. 1973).Proud was an aspirant director who had studied at the Rose Bruford College, and with Bargate he launched the Soho Theatre at an address in New Compton Street in 1969, as a somewhat late arrival on London's lunchtime theatre scene. With a policy of offering new and little-known work at low prices, it established itself as a home of good acting and arresting texts—which ranged from modern English and American plays to Sheridan and Cervantes. Reviewers got to know Bargate as the beautiful long-legged girl on the door. She had no theatrical experience but she knew about public relations work, and one reason for the theatre's success was her ability to win over the press with intelligence, good humour, and excellent home-cooked food. Even so, its position was precarious; and in 1971 it was obliged to quit its original premises for a temporary home at the King's Head Theatre in Upper Street, Islington (to which it introduced lunchtime shows), before finding a more secure base in Riding House Street (behind Broadcasting House) in the following year, and changing its name to the Soho Poly.Shortly after this move the marriage collapsed, leaving Bargate (from 1975) as the theatre's sole artistic director. She seldom directed shows herself; instead she emerged as a persistent and effective encourager of new talent. Policy for her meant ‘putting on what I liked’ (private information). This involved extending the lunchtime programme to full-length evening productions; opening the doors to women directors and designers; and concentrating exclusively on living writers with whom she worked as a catalyst and a midwife. Not all of them were full-time playwrights. The actor Bob Hoskins claims that she saved him from insanity by letting him present his one-man piece, The Bystander, as a therapeutic exercise. Among those whose careers advanced from the Poly to other stages were Hanif Kureishi, Tony Marchant, Micheline Wandor, Caryl Churchill, and Barrie Colin Keeffe (b. 1945), whose studies of alienated working-class youth spoke for a hitherto voiceless generation.In Keeffe Bargate found a second partner who also persuaded her to embark on writing of her own; from this point her life underwent a powerful and subsequently fatal acceleration. Until now she had played the public role of a hopeful supporter of others, which had masked her spells of ill health and her private sense of oncoming calamity. She was convinced that, like her mother, she would die at the age of forty, and it was of great significance to her that her birthday fell on the same date as that of the bombing of Hiroshima. The dark side of her nature now found expression in her writing. With grim logic, her birth as a novelist coincided with the onset of cancer, and the remainder of her life became a neck-and-neck race between creativity and disease.Of Bargate's three books, No Mama No was published in 1978, and Children Crossing in 1979. At the insistence of her publisher Tit for Tat (1981) was rewritten in its entirety, even though Bargate had one arm in a sling at the time. Her subjects were the lies and cruelties of the sexual contract, and the emotional wounds parents and children inflict on each other. Terrible things happen. A seaside holiday ends with the children dead under a juggernaut: mastectomy becomes an instrument of sexual revenge. But the narrative voice is irresistible, and connects the immediate events to a deep well of early pain.Verity Bargate died in Greenwich Hospital, London, on 18 May 1981, two months after her marriage on 14 February to Keeffe and a month after the publication of her final book. Her ashes were scattered on the lake of Lewisham crematorium. Her memorials are her books, her theatre, and the annual Verity Bargate award for short plays.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Family histories: From Wolverton to Williamstown

Since I started this blog I have grown a readership from all over the world. Wolverton has spread its influence far and wide!

I have just been sent a family history by Maureen Brown of Australia. It can be read on the Wolvertonpast website through this link:

The story traces the Brown family from its North Bucks origins, through Thomas Brown who found work in Wolverton and later moved to Egypt. He returned to England but one of his sons emigrated to South Australia before the end of the 19th century.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Local History Books

A bout seven years ago I decided to write and then publish books about the history of Wolverton and district. Since that time the numbers have grown and there are more on the way. this might be a good time to review the titles.

These books are available to purchase on our updated website at

The Lost Streets of Wolverton describes the development of the first railway town from 1838 and its first decade.

I Grew up in Wolverton is a collection of conversations from a Facebook group with many recollections of growing up in the post war town before Milton Keynes came into being.

This was followed by a second collection.

Wolverton was not always a railway town. In the middle ages is was the centre of a large barony with a castle, and throughout this period remained a rich manor. Stony Stratford was created on the Wolverton side at the end of the 12th century and in the 18th century the manor was sold to Dr John Radcliffe and the income from the estate was used to fund to fund the Radcliffe Ifirmaryand the Rdcliffe Library in Oxford.

Stony Stratford became famous for its roadside inns and in the late middle ages was a stopping point for English kings and their entourages and was the site of some famous events. In the 18th and early 19th century Stony stratford was an important staging post. All of the known inns throughout history are recorded in this book together with a full history of the town and its hostelries.

Wolverton played a critical role in the 1914-1918 war. Many young men from the railway works and McCorquodales were quick to enlist and many of their roles were filled by women back at home. the works was used to manufacture munitions and the railway network was essential in supplying troops and goods to the front. John Taylor describes in these two detailed volumes a very different world where many decisions were locally driven.

Bryan Dunleavy describes how brick buildings reshaped rural North Bucks, starting with the "Little Streets" and gradually moving westward. New Bradwell was created in the 1850s and in the 1870s Stony stratford began to expand along the Wolverton Road. The story closes after 100 years in 1939, when the major phases of these town's redbrick development had come to an end.

If you are interested in ordering any of the books please go to:

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Local Historians: 11 Milton Keynes Archaeological Unit

It is not an exaggeration to say that modern archaeology has transformed our understanding of history. Historians tended to rely upon documentary sources and used these as their principal source of evidence and the discovery of a few artefacts to reinforce their theories. Archaeologists in the 18th and 19th centuries (and indeed into the 20th century) were enthusiastic amateurs who often, during the course of rescuing artefacts, destroyed the context. After universities created departments of archaeology in the 20th century the discipline has become more scientific and professional.

When I was at school I was taught that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded the shores of these islands and conquered the native Celtic people who were driven westward to Wales and Cornwall. This theory was supported by the writing of Bede (673-735) whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People said as much, and by the linguistic evidence of place names, which are almost entirely English in the major part of the country. Only rare Celtic words survive, such as Avon (which is the Celtic word for river) in two rivers in this country. Largely on this basis, historians accepted the theory that there had been an invasion, which conjures up pictures of invading hordes. The archaeological work of the last few decades (supported now by DNA evidence) creates a very different picture.

The archaeologists have studied burial patterns, which change as cultures change, and, with modern scientific analysis at their disposal, are able to date their finds with some precision. The overall picture now shows settlement over quite a long period. New arrivals came to the eastern shores soon after the Roman occupation ended and gradually increased in numbers. England was underpopulated compared to what we are used to, perhaps only 1.5 million in total and there was plenty of room, particularly if the new settlers could claim virgin land. The new settlers may have arrived one boatload at a time in small numbers. Over a century the newer arrivals had to move further westwards.

This is probably what happened in Wolverton where the English started to appear early in the 6th century. The work done y the MKAU is able to tell us a great deal. There were established farms that we know of at Bancroft, Manor Farm and Haversham. They were based on the Roman villa farming system, but it is likely that they were still occupied (or the land was still occupied) when the English arrived. They appeared to settle and create their village at Wolverton Turn, on the south side of the Stratford Road, near the copse we used to call the "Happy Morn." This was probably unoccupied land at the time and since the bones of animals that have been discovered show an emphasis on animal husbandry, they may well have used the rough land on the higher ground, later known as the furies, for pasture. So it is quite reasonable to speculate that the English incomers were able to settle peacefully without threatening the livelihood of the established Celts. Obviously the latter group became dominant in time, but the settlement may be closer in character to the settlement of Europeans in North America than to an actual armed invasion. Later the village was moved to the north.

At the time Milton keynes was created there was much more awareness of the danger of destroying archaeological heritage and it was quite a modern thing to undertake "rescue" archeology prior to land being cleared for development. In 1971 the Corporation appointed two full time archaeologists and the unit grew from there, eventually disbanding in 1991. Over that 20 year period extensive work was done in the area with may now rank as the most comprehensively studied area outside London.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Local Historians: 9 Wolverton and District Archaeological Society

This survey of local historians will not be complete without mention of the Wolverton and District Archaeological Society, formed by a group of enthusiasts back in 1955. The society is still going strong although after the creation of the Milton Keynes Archaeological Unit in 1970 they voluntarily ceased active archaeological work. Founding members included Sir Frank Markham, Keith Tull and Robert Ayers. I have written before about the society here.