Continuing the story of Bessie and Joe Wyche. It’s now 1938 and Bessie and Joe have left Tideswell for Leeds …
The fact that Joe was at college in Leeds made it in Bessie’s eyes the best place for her too. Luckily she was able to persuade her parents to let her go, as it had the reputation as the best teacher training college for music, which Bessie wanted to do.
When Elizabeth first arrived at college she found herself already labelled as ‘the girl from Lady Manners’ who was the barrier preventing all the girls from going out with Joe. The first night in the hostel, when they were all lining up to get their keys, a girl told Bessie that she would be going out with Joe Wyche but for this ‘girl from Lady Manners’ back home.
Their college years were not the couple’s happiest. There were strict rules about students from the male hostels meeting the girls, with the women’s hostels on one side of the grounds and the men’s on the other. Joe was still known as a bit of a reprobate in his hostel although he always had A+ for his teaching marks. Saturday nights were usually a visit to the pictures in town, a clanking, rattling journey back to Headingly on the tram, and fish and chips at the best chip shop in Leeds, always supposing there was enough money left.
More seriously though, the country was on the brink of war. The male students marched down the drive shouldering broom handles with great bravado to enlist in the city. All night long men were digging trenches in the public parks. The students had their trunks packed and their return-home ticket money at the ready, so they could evacuate the college at a moment’s notice. If war were declared they were to make way for the No. 1 Army Medical Corps. One evening Joe and Bessie were in the Majestic Cinema in City Square. The Pathe News showed Neville Chamberlain descending from his plane after his trip to see Hitler, brandishing the famous piece of paper and declaring ‘Peace in our time!’ The audience rose as one to cheer!
While Elizabeth was still at Leeds Joe did a year at Loughborough Physical Training College, coming up to visit her on the excursion train. One Sunday, arriving at Leeds City Station, he fell down a flight of stone steps, put out his cartilage and his knee swelled up enormously. He was set in plaster at the hospital while Bessie took the tram to college to borrow crutches. Joe’s knee was never quite the same again and was a nuisance all his life.
Bessie left college on a Friday and started her first job on the Monday. She had been accepted in the Derby ’pool’ of new teachers and started at Swadlincote. She applied to Derby because Joe had a grant from Derbyshire and would therefore have to teach in the county when he qualified. In the event though, they didn’t have a vacancy and Joe was sent to Poynton in Cheshire.
Their starting work coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War. The entire Wyche family were in Ireland for Joe’s brother Billy’s wedding, and Elizabeth had gone too. It was very hot and they spent the days in the swimming pool at the hotel, with Granddad Wyche running to and from the radio, listening to the news from Europe. They were urgently calling teachers back to help with the evacuees. Joe and Elizabeth and his two sisters were all teachers but they couldn’t get back any quicker than planned.
The first blackout of the war was the night before the wedding in Belfast. It was total. There wasn’t a flicker of light. They went to look at Billy’s house and Elizabeth remembered coming face to face with a cow in the middle of the road. They sailed back as planned on a Saturday night, a very different journey. Outbound it had been all drinks and laughter and singing. On the way back the whole boat was silent and under blackout. They sat expecting to be torpedoed at any moment or to find Liverpool razed to the ground. In fact, when they arrived sandbags were being put round the Liver building. This was the ‘phoney’ war at its beginning. They got on the express train from Liverpool to Derby, which didn’t usually stop at Millers Dale. But they were desperate to get home, so Granddad Wyche bribed the guard to stop there – the guard protested but eventually agreed. Granddad Walker was waiting with the car. He was the Evacuation Officer for Tideswell and was already worn out trying to find places for evacuees from Manchester.
Teachers were called up according to age. Joe was one of the youngest so went the following January to Carlisle for training with the Lancashire Fusiliers. With his background he was an obvious candidate for the regimental PE course at Chester. Bessie went to see him on a Sunday and got very depressed about the thought of him going abroad. They weren’t even engaged. Elizabeth said ‘Why aren’t we?’ so they pooled all the cash in their pockets and bought the ring. That was June 1940.
Joe never did go abroad. The closest he got was at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation. The Lancashire Fusiliers were actually on the train, en route to France, when Elizabeth received a wire that said ‘Meet me at Gumbet Mbot at Skipton’. She had no idea what it meant (it was supposed to read ‘Meet me at the guard house’) but went to Skipton anyway, and happily there Joe was, coming up the station approach. The train had been stopped because the Dunkirk evacuation had begun. From Skipton Joe went on to Hull to be a mortar sergeant in charge of a battalion guarding Hull – but they had no mortars! They’d all been left in France.
In the end Joe joined the Physical Education Corps. By 1941 he was instructing Canadian instructors at Borden, near Aldershot. (That was why they had a Canadian best-man and grooms-man at their wedding.) Later he was stationed on the cliffs at Dover, where he was teaching the Somerset Light Infantry to swim, in preparation for D Day. The shells were coming over from France and one went right through the swimming pool.
Joe spent the rest of the war as a sergeant major in military hospitals in the south of England, rehabilitating badly wounded soldiers and doing remedial work.
Joe would go back to Tideswell on leave whenever he could. The couple’s son, Peter was born in 1944. Around the same time Joe cut his Achilles tendon in two and sent months in plaster. Told he might never walk again, it was one of his lowest points.
The following year Elizabeth was cast in a play at Tideswell when Joe appeared in rehearsal and told her that the war was over.
The couple went back to Poynton – which Elizabeth wasn’t keen on at first – and Joe took up a job teaching at the High School. He eventually became Head, at the age of just 36. Joe and Bessie had two more children, Christopher and Carolyn, and were at the centre of Poynton life for many happy years.