Don Wilcock

Don Wilcock was the founding chairman of Bowburn Local History Society (then called the Cassop-cum-Quarrington LHS).

A resident of Bowburn and teacher at its Modern School and then Landsdowne Comprehensive, he was well-known throughout the region as an enthusiast and expert on its industrial history.

The following tribute to Don was published in the Durham County Local History Society’s Bulletin no. 67, Autumn 2003.

DON WILCOCK, 1927-2001

This issue of the Bulletin is dedicated lo Don Wilcock, a long-standing member and officer of our society, and a member of its council. The articles in this issue are all by friends of his from various fields of Durham studies. Firstly, John Smith offers this personal memoir, to which Donald Miller contributes.

In the death of Don we mourn the loss of a polymath of local studies, who was well able to construe the history of the North-East in its several aspects. He was born and lived in County Durham until the age of twenty-two. He then went south lo do his army service, and to train and practise as a teacher in London and Somerset. He did not return to the county for almost eighteen years, by which time he was forty. By then there had been a revolution in the life of Durham people and he keenly felt it as a family member, as a teacher and as a sensitive and observant man.

Don was born al Shildon in September 1927 into a family of railway workers and miners. His great-grandfather, who was born at Knaresborough in 1849, married an Aycliffe girl and moved lo Darlington, where he worked as an engine-driver in the 1880s. His son, Don’s grandfather, also became an engine-driver, working alongside his father at Darlington and at York, and married the daughter of an Alnwick man who worked as a printer machinist for the Northern Echo at Darlington. Don’s own father was of the third generation to work for the railway and there is a photograph on loan to the Darlington Railway Museum showing three and possibly four of the Wilcocks at the coaling stage al York sheds in the 1900s. Don’s father was lucky to survive being badly crushed in a turntable in about 1930. Don’s mother was the daughter of a coal-miner and his mother’s four brothers were miners too. Thus Don grew up among men and women who had helped, however modestly, to shape industrial Durham and he was proud of this lineage. He was brought up in a railway town, set in the heart of a colliery region, and first went to school at the Timothy Hackworth Primary School in Shildon. His horizons were of necessity very local and yet, as a friend of those years recalls, there was a landscape full of interest and instruction to be explored: old railway lines, abandoned colliery buildings and pit-heaps. Holidays were spent with other Durham relatives, including an uncle, his mother’s brother-in-law, who farmed at Heighington.

Don qualified to attend the King James I Grammar School at Bishop Auckland. During this time his grandparents lived in a house next door and on most evenings in his teenage years he would go round to read newspapers or Pilgrim’s Progress to his grandmother. He would also go to their house to read and to study. When he left school he worked for a while at various jobs until he could enter university. He went to King’s College, Newcastle, then part of Durham University, to study metallurgy for three years. It appears that he subsequently regretted this. His real interest and distinctions at school were in History and Geography. He had indeed been awarded an engineering cadetship but felt he had been over-influenced by wartime propaganda into doing something or a ‘serviceable’ nature. Moreover, he travelled daily by train to Newcastle, which made study difficult, and he was unable to share fully in university life.

On the other hand, his time in the army he found genuinely enjoyable. He told an interviewer that, whereas for others the time dragged, for him it flew. Beginning National Service in 1948, at the age or twenty-one, he discovered freedom in the confinement and opportunity in the bureaucratic confusions of an institution which sometimes mislaid men. Thus he was in a holding-camp at Rochester in Kent, where for six weeks he looked after himself while the authorities thought they had posted him away, until one day he decided to remind them of his existence. With his university qualifications, his mechanical skills and his relative seniority of years, he baffled the army, especially after he declined, for financial reasons, to go for officer-training. He became an armourer in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), concerned with weapons maintenance, and was posted to the second AA (anti-aircraft) workshops al Dorchester for the rest of his service. There he found that armourers were required to maintain bicycles. This enabled him to embark on two months of long exploratory tours of Dorset, ostensibly to test the bicycles he had repaired. That was brought to an end by an unusually inquisitive officer. Nonetheless, Don now found he possessed talents as a .22 marksman. This led to his being teamed with the CO (commanding officer, usually a lieutenant-colonel), the RSM (regimental sergeant major), a staff-sergeant and a subaltern in the unit’s .22 rifle team. Moving in such circles brought him to be put in charge of education and entertainment and to be excused all workshops and all parades. He was, moreover, promoted corporal and excelled in the corporals’ darts team. And so in such unlikely circumstances were exercised and developed some of those talents he possessed, of general savvy, universal usefulness and effortless, egalitarian bonhomie.

Yet after the army he was somewhat at a loss and felt he was without prospects. He worked at Heighington station as a porter on the railways for a short while and then at the Darlington North Road railway works for two years. This return to a family tradition and to the county of his birth did not satisfy him. When he had joined the army he had consciously sought not to be posted to the North and now in 1953 he decided again to leave and to take up teacher-training at Saltley College, in the Birmingham University Institute of Education. There he became chairman of the college debating society and took part in Dramatic Society productions, thus developing two more of the evident skills his friends in Durham came to know. In 1955 he qualified as a teacher, specialising in mathematics and technical drawing. He then took up his first teaching appointment in Tottenham.

It was at an NUT (National Union of Teachers) reception for new teachers, at the Tottenham Lido that he met Patricia, who was to be his wife for forty-three years and the mother of their four children. Although born in London, she belonged to another north-eastern tradition, coming from a family of Sunderland mariners. Her mother had done what many north-eastern girls had had to do in the years of post-1918 depression: at the age of seventeen she embarked on a coal-boat for London, where she went into service in Crouch End. After their marriage in 1958 Don and Pat continued to live in Tottenham, teaching in different schools. During the evenings Don went to adult classes at Birkbeck College and obtained a London extension diploma in the Humanities, in the history and sociology of Modern Britain. After the birth of their first child, in 1960, they moved to Somerset, where Don became assistant master for Mathematics and Engineering Drawing at the King Alfred Secondary School in Highbridge. They now lived in very pleasant rural surroundings, in a four-bedroomed school-house, but Don was not wholly convinced that he wanted to remain a teacher. Perhaps the hopes of doing something in environmental and local history began to stir in him. He was actively seeking a new post in other parts of the country when his father told him of a teaching vacancy al Bowburn. Don, concerned too about his father’s health, decided to apply. In 1967 he returned to Durham and became head of the mathematics department at Bowburn Comprehensive [sic – i.e. Modern School]. While raising the family of four children Pat did voluntary work and helped with playgroups, and only after twenty-five years was she able to return to full-time teaching of under-lives. Don found it necessary to stay in teaching, doing the standard technical subjects of the secondary-school syllabus. Nevertheless, he was a responsible and sympathetic teacher, concerned about the personal development of his charges and organising chess-club and theatre activities for their free time. He enjoyed listening to opera, classical and folk music. He particularly enjoyed the songs of Richard Tauber. He had many 78s (gramophone records) which over time were converted, so-to-speak, into a considerable collection of tapes and then to CDs, all indexed and catalogued.

The greater part of his own leisure time he now dedicated to the history of County Durham. While there was a tension here between what he wanted to do and what he had to do, his knowledge of engineering and metallurgy made him exceptionally well qualified to research and explain the industrial history of the county. He did not start this work until he returned to Durham in 1967 at the age of forty. However, this was the time when Local History and allied groups were starting up and Don was as active as any in their promotion. Thereafter, as an avid reader and as a keen walker and rambler, he made of himself a widely known and respected authority on the county’s history. People frequently referred to him as ‘Don Wilcocks’, not inaptly as though there were more than one of him. And his companionable and confiding nature made him a highly effective promoter of the several societies and groups which cover the whole range of research into the history or the North-East. To the end of his seventy-four years he was always young in outlook and open-minded, full of impulsive curiosity and sudden inspirations. He drove with a sometimes alarming dispatch, eager to reach some new destination, talking to his passengers with a heady mixture of ideas and risqué stories. Once at his destination, he went swiftly through gates and over fences, tenacious and undeterred, while his more conventional companions would nervously wonder aloud about getting permission or what reaction might be met with. Yet, for example, when visiting a bastle-house - without prior notice - he would knock on the door and draw the occupier into friendly discourse, and soon he and his companion were inside exploring, even into cupboards and bedrooms. Not infrequently, the result might be to apprize a local authority of a structure worthy of preservation. No artefact was too modest. Thus, he encouraged preservation, for a while at least, of the double telegraph poles on the road from the Royal Oak to Piercebridge, now sadly removed, or of the sewer-gas street-lamp post of the 1840s in the Bailey in Durham City. He also organised protest against proposed open-cast workings in a beauty-spot well known to him at Shildon.

His work as a teacher of adults was exemplary. He taught adults for the University of Durham and for the Workers’ Educational Association. This was the teaching he was best suited to and which he probably would have most wanted to do full-time. He had an enviable ability to weave a lecture about only two or three points and to draw people directly into their discussion. It was not his way to bombard people with facts and dates. In teaching Local History he was particularly well qualified to tell or the processes, needs and social influences of industries and machines. He was an effective guide and tutor in fieldwork. Less known and hidden were the patience and skill he brought to the task of drawing maps. The Durham County Local History Society’s Historical Atlas of County Durham owed its excellent maps to his hand.

Although a heart by-pass operation had not diminished his enthusiasms, diabetes began to affect him. Don finally suffered a stroke when returning from his brother’s funeral and died within the following month, on 2 March 2001.

Every kind of society - archaeological, architectural, industrial and historical - and educational bodies too are in his debt for his unstinting services as officer and committee member. He knew very many people and he was forever bringing them together; and they will long miss him.