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The Berry Family - about 1943
The Berry Family - about 1943

Billy Berry - Farnworth Town Councillor and Amateur Entertainer

by Vera Berry

My Dad was William (Billy) Berry, Farnworth Town Councillor and amateur entertainer. I owe him so much and yet I had him only until I was 14 years old. He died at the age of 45 from peritonitis in 1956.

My Dad was a very clever man who had been denied a grammar school place because before the 1944 Education Act was passed, only the financially well-off families were able to send their children to grammar schools. My Dad found this irritating as it hindered his progress in his career. He missed out on promotion because he didn't have the necessary "bits of paper" that proved he was a clever man! When his three daughters gained places at Farnworth Grammar School, he did everything he could to encourage their success and yet he didn't live to see the success of two of them.

He was born in 1910, the youngest child of James and Clara Eveline Berry and their only son, having two sisters, Ada and Louisa. I always found it amusing as a child when they referred to him as 'Ar Willy'. I believe that they lived in the old toll house on Bradford Road, Farnworth, but I have no hard evidence to prove this. He used to tell tales of people passing along a footpath placing their hand on a post where he had put wet mud and of hiding in the bushes to see their reaction.

He went to Plodder Lane School and I could hardly believe that Miss Rothwell who taught me as a six-year-old, had also taught my Dad. He was a school governor at the time and I can remember feeling very proud, but embarrassed on open days, when my Dad visited the school in his official capacity. He was always interested in what we were doing at school. I used to read to him every day when I was five and I remember telling him off because he read "Wagger is fast asleep in a basket" when my teacher had told me it was "Wagger is farst asleep in a barsket". She must have been a southerner! I also remember his amusement when I read a headline in the newspaper about trade unions. In my inexperience I read it as 'onions'. He laughed, but he never belittled me.

When we had algebra homework, he surprised us all by being able to sort out quadratic equations by arithmetic. He checked our homework that way although he had never been taught maths farther than primary school. He always looked at our English essay titles and talked to us at length about various topics to broaden our experience. No topic fazed him and we always benefited from his interest in social and political history. He even had a go at Latin, Chemistry, Physics and Biology and I vividly recall him learning the process of osmosis when my sister Brenda brought home her biology homework one night.

Billy Berry - EntertainerBilly Berry - Entertainer

He became interested in politics as a young man and was a Labour councillor. He was often asked to write official letters to the council for his constituents, as he was able to express himself succinctly and appropriately despite his lack of secondary education. He wrote beautifully in cursive writing and always with a fountain pen. I know that he helped other aspiring politicians to make their way in local politics. Nothing was ever too much trouble for him.

My Dad was an ordinary man. He liked a Woodbine or two and I remember going to the paper shop round the corner for him. "Go and get me a double Woodbine, Love," he'd say. That was a packet of ten and it wasn't illegal then for children to do such errands. He'd go for a gill to Crompton's on Mossfield Road and that was all he had. I never saw him drunk, but my Mum used to tell a story of him being drunk once and he was so ill, he vowed never to drink again! He was a hard working man and was the head warehouseman at Century Ring and Spinning Mill across the road from where we lived on George Street. He used to come home for his dinner and do a bit in the garden during his dinner hour, or listen to Workers Playtime on the wireless.

Every Saturday, I'd go to the market with him. We'd walk down Harrowby Street, along Albert Road and King Street and do whatever we had to do. I would link arms him and feel very grown up and he taught me the value of good manners and chivalry at those times as he would always walk on the outside, shielding me from the dangers of traffic on the roads albeit very sparse in those days.

We never had a lot of money, but we didn't go short of much. He'd save up to take us to Auntie Ada's in Cleveleys at Bolton Holidays and one year we went to Rhyl which was farther than we'd ever been in our lives! On Bank Holidays we'd go to Blackpool, or Southport on the train from Moses Gate and what an adventure that was for us. After the Coronation in 1953, he saved up from his pocket money and bought us a television. He always tipped up his wages to my Mum who was pretty good at eking out meagre rations and making good, yet frugal meals. I still make potato pie and potato hash like my Mum used to make!

Billy Berry - Pantomime DameBilly Berry - Pantomime Dame and Producer

I don't know where he got his love of the stage and entertainment, but he was a natural comic. He wasn't able to join the Forces because of a minor medical condition, but joined the auxiliary fire service and did his bit for the war effort. His great sense of organising gave him the ability to become the producer of amateur pantomimes during and after WW2. He operated out of Century Mill and a lot of the mill girls formed the chorus. He was able to spot and draw out talent from the most unlikely characters. His shows were good entertainment and were performed in the Co-op hall on Market Street, Farnworth. The whole family was involved in some way. My Mum made the costumes and we three girls were given little parts to perform...I was only 3 years old when I first went on stage. Later. He produced pantomimes for St James's Church, New Bury until his death in 1956.

I was very close to my Dad. As the youngest child, my oldest sister, June, used to say that I got away with murder! My "middle" sister, Brenda, was the quiet one, but we all benefited in some way from our Dad's love. When he died, I was devastated, but wouldn't admit to anyone for a long time that I had no Dad. I wanted him there and he'd died and I didn't feel able to tell anyone. I feel ashamed now, because I actually denied him the right of being my Dad for a while, but it was too painful to tell new friends that he'd died. I was 18 and at teacher training college before I could bring myself to say that my Mum was a widow and even then I found it very hard. During difficult periods in my life, I have firmly believed that my Dad has given me the strength to carry on, that his strength of character and sense of humour has helped me to combat the problems I have had to face. I like to think that he has been my guiding light...after all I'm still Vera Berry and proud of him as I hope he would be of me.