Turn of the century

This story was written after thinking about the changes that the congregation of St Peter’s have seen over this century, and I realised that our church has seen the turn of many centuries. To put some meaning to this I have focused on my great-grandfather Samuel Derry, who was 65 years old a century ago. The story is very loosely written around fact and family hearsay. Samuel was born in 1835. His father, who died when he was 11, seems to have been a tenant farmer in the village of Tithby, south of Nottingham. As second to youngest in a family of eight there was no work for him and he went to Grantham to work as an ostler, marrying in Grantham, and moving to Nottingham after his marriage to work in stables in the Marsh and later as coachman to Dr Ransom who practised from 24 Low Pavement. His children were all baptised at St Peter’s and attended St Peter’s Church School , the boys going on to Bluecoat. The family rented a pew in the south aisle.

Sam DerryTake your mind into a dim silent space. Notice the colour in your surroundings and signify that it is an ancient place. Register the rough variety of stones around you, some sensitively shaped and honed, others rough and cobbled together. Smell the taste of seasoned timber and generations of sweaty palms rubbed onto it, mingled with the wax from a thousand packs of polish. Feel the cold draught of time, of comings and goings, beginnings and ends, great happiness and sadness. Now that you are there let your gaze drift down to a figure huddled, mouse-like, between the oak pews. An elderly man head resting on arms, totally becalmed. Asleep? At prayer? Crying? Resting? Dead? No, just being with himself. In the very heart of the city and yet totally and utterly alone.

Green, gold and misty pink light, home, freedom, good food. Scrumping, hiding, racing, poaching, energy, laughing, riding horses, wind through the hair, the total belief of youth in a good future. Then suddenly blackness, pain such as he had never thought of. Standing in Tithby churchyard, soil, wood, tears, homelessness. Got to go, got to do, got to get out, got to keep alive.

Stone flags beneath his feet, servant of servants, bound all hours. Watching tired horses exhausted by affluent whims, stench, filth and arrogance and yet there were eyelashes fluttering, soft skinned squeezes and the most beautiful eye exchanges. He could, he would and he did! With pride and blind terror he rode with his bride into this city with its grime, confusion and it seemed the whole of mortal life within its environs.

HorseBack to back housing, mud, noise, the Marsh. No space no privacy, then one day this place. Air, lofty heights, kind faces, acceptance. Back to back came the babies, Harry, Herbert, Kate, Nellie, Frank, Arthur, Ada, squash squeeze, take in washing, then the smell of horse dung. Yes he knew about horses, yes he could, yes please. Dr Ransom, sir, resident Low Pavement, required coachman available all hours. That’s me sir. Bell rings at the end of his yard, top hat, whip, horse, hansom cab rumble on the cobbles, round the corner, out the marsh, up Low Pavement off to the wealthy in need. Change where you fit until it fits you, make the best of it.

Lucky with the children, healthy and clever, head boy at the Bluecoat Herbert was, and Amy, Amy, she worried him, pupil teacher, wanted to be a schoolmistress. Scattered away they were, all restive, all wanting to get more and more as the century turned, the new century the age of opportunity, but not for him. Automobiles were coming, Dr Ransom gone, horses gone, and now his Lizzy, gone. He had to go, he had to give in, and yet this place was still here for him.

He heard his firstborn, Harry, squeal as the cold water from the font hit his warm forehead, he smelt Ada’s flowers when she had finally wed Frank, He felt the pain in his gut as he followed Lizzy’s coffin into church. Some told how this place had been through 800 years, through all those lives, and more to come, his son Herbert, newly wed, had faith; what would it bring for him? What of, dare he think, another century? No he could not, and he would not, he was tired, he had come far, and tomorrow he was to move to his daughter’s in that new suburb of West Bridgford.

Ann Gell

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th April 1999