Connelpark – where nobody locked their doors

by Alex Jess

I was born at 30 Bank Brae in my Grannies front bed. The Miners raws were basically one room houses with a kitchen and outside toilet. The bed was built into the wall and I was lucky as by the time I started to grow up, my Gran McHallam and Granpa had installed an indoor lavvy.

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My Granny Jane belonged to Carlisle, her maiden name being Bewley took me to stay with her before I started school, a thing that happened in those days in many houses.

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Granny at Bank Brae

Grandad Harry was a hard working miner who worshipped at the Bank Church.

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Granddad McHallum on the left

An experience I had in there at about the age of ten was when attending a service for a Bank school holiday.   The school’s real title being Bank Junior Secondary School.  The Reverend Buchanan was deep into his service when I turned ill.   Nearly fainted but I was carried out by one of the teachers and taken to Mr.John Knox’s Headmasters house next to the school.  An ambulance was sent for and I was rushed to Seafield Hospital with appendicitis.   I went through an operation and spent my one and only stay in a hospital – touch widd.

My other Grandparents lived at Fitba Raw being Granny Katherine Jess (Robertson) and Granpa Alexander Jess (The Sausanger).

His nickname came about when he attempted to bring Granny a present of a string of sausages.  Other women got things like chocolates etc.  However when he was giving a song outside ‘The Clachan’ a sort of men’s club at the top of the Fitba Raw (Football Road).  Where the men and I suppose everybody else women included, could play Cards, Dominoes, Carpet Bowling etc.  Back to Grandad who had clearly had a Sarsaparilla or two dropped the said sausages and they ended all over the road.  I think they would be in a bit of a state before Granny Kate got her hands on them and I think Sanny would be in a bit of a state too when she got her hands on him.

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Alex is 7th from the left in the back row

My dad William (Tip) had three brothers, my Uncle Dan, Dave and Alex.  Dan and Dave were like my dad, miners.  Alex the youngest did a bit of travelling away from home boring the ground for minerals etc.  Most neighbours were very friendly and as stated already no one locked their doors.

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Father Bill ‘Tip’ Jess and Tom Robertson back of Fitba Row Connel Park 1937

One of our through the wall neighbours was a very eccentric gentleman Wullie Gibson by name.  When the Raws were offered electricity in their homes Wullie turned the chance down.  He preferred the gas mantle method.  You very rarely saw him outside his house but he was a gentle person.  His night time pastime was throwing crumbs to the mice of which there were plenty, and watching them scampering aboot the floor.

Living with Grandparents tend to make you a bit spoilt.  In hard times you got probably better fed than others.  A wonderful place to be brought up in, of that there is no doubt.  With loads of freedom and you could walk in all directions and had only to beware of the cattle in some fields and the world was yours.  A beautiful rural country surrounded us.  I can’t lay claim to be a tree climber or a fisherman as for a start, I could not kill a fish if my life depended on it.  I did not know one bird’s egg from another in them days and did not care.

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Granny McHallam

Fitba was and always will be a huge part of my life.  I never missed a Glen’s game at Connelpark in all the days I stayed there.  From any age I kicked a ball usually a tennis ball, at the back of the Boig Road at the high side.  England played Scotland and never beat us at Boig Road Stadium.  Mind, I was both the teams.

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Fitba Alex with his grandmother left and mother right

The Glens had an unbeaten record on that very rough road.  Jimmy the Fruiters horse did not do it any favours.  What a man Jimmy was.  He had hands with quite a few fingers missing with which to juggle tatties and money for that matter.  But he did.  My Granny McHallam and him, had some good conversations as they both were brought up in the same part of the world.  We had Wallace Anderson who  sorted our bikes when they went wrong.   A handy man the Wallace and always willing to help with a smile on his face.

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My boyhood days were spent between Carlisle and Fife at Gran’s sister, Aunty Liz Park and Uncle Archie (porky).  He was also the Glens first Secretary.  They kept hens and my cousin John Park snared rabbits so it was adventure time up there.

Auntie Jean Bendle, maiden name Pringle and Uncle John were great people and Carlisle was like wonderland.  They had a fantastic Cathedral steeped in History, Hadrian’s Wall, The City Gates, a big Museum and the icing on the cake Carlisle Castle.  The History of the castle suggests that we Scots held it as long as the English did changing hands time and time again.

Back to my main passion fitba, we soon, when old enough established a football field opposite the Booin Farm.  South Boig farm to give it its fancy name was run by the Caldwell family.  They were lovely people who sold the best milk in the West.  If you managed to get Lizzie to serve, you were quids in, as she gave everyone extra. Big Jimmy Caldwell was the minder so there was never any nonsense when he was about.  He had the biggest pair of curly toed boots I have ever seen.  However the snag there was that we had to wait till the women brought their clothes in as it was the Bleaching Green Stadium.

Our team Connelpark  All Stars played teams the length and breadth of New Cumnock.  Kick off times for home games was when the washing was in.  Some epic encounters took place with scorelines of thirty two sixteen being the order of the day.  No dull nill –  nils in this fitba world.  With players like Ian(Eenta) Fulton, later to become the Glens secretary.  A sand dancer who invented the double shuffle.  The Buffer Carmichaels, Jim who played with Craigmark Burntonians.   Alex with the Glens until a broken ankle ended a very promising career. Tam, who had the chance to play with Kilmarnock but truth be told, he did not like to do the training.  Harry and Billy McGinn the wizard of the dribble.  However, that was with sand shoes in the playground.  When he had to put on the boots it was game over.  Jock Campbell whose faither drove the wee Pit Pug, had to be told before the game you are allowed to kick the ball as well as the opponent.

Goal scorer supreme was our ace in the pack Richard ( Nodder ) Kilpatrick , if ever a fitba player was weel named it was Nodder – ground or air

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Richard ‘Nodder’ Kilpatrick is in the middle of the front row

The ball nearly always landed in the net.  Oor keeper was David (Sabu) Ainsley and his sister Agnes was nifty on her feet too.  She, however, got a free transfer as she was better than some of oor players.  They both emigrated with their Mum to New Zealand.

Connelpark people were the friendliest people you could ever want to meet. Even as a small boy this came through.  I was the CO-OP delivery boy for the Drapery Department which was straight across from my Granny’s hoose at Bank Brae and there were very few houses where you did not get a tip of one thing or another.  One lady and that was how she should be described, a Mrs. McGinn, who lived near the Baptist Kirk, insisted I should get a sixpenny piece every time I every time I delivered.  In the Store, I saw my first ever Television programmes in Black and white entitled Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy and the Woodentops.  Along with all the other young yins in the village which incidently had a population of around twelve hundred.

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Staff at Connelpark Co-Op

Nearly every kid in the place went to the Baptist Kirk Sunday School and made very welcome too.  The Sunday school teachers were all lovely helpful people and we were treated right royally.  A Christmas Swaree was always held and most enjoyable it was too.  A trip to the likes of Dumfries House or Drumlanrig  Castle where sports and football were held.   The teachers and elders against the young uns.  There were an awful lot of sore muscles and strains with the older brigade while the young team were ready to go again.  One of the teachers, a  Mr.John Wilson, was a role model if ever there was one.   A gentleman of the first order.  The epitomy of a true Christian.

When I eventually had to move down to the Coupla when my Granny took ill it was with heavy heart.  24 Lochbrowan Crescent was the address and the good news was we were straight across the road from my role model John Wilson for later life. My first teacher was a very lovely lady called Miss McKinnon who actually taught my Mother many years before.  An amazing old girl she was, an outstanding memory of my very young days, nine years of age.

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Alex’s sister Cathie at Lochbrowan

To be exact was the terrible pit disaster at Knockshinnoch Colliery.  Caused by an inrushing sea of mud when after torrential rain for weeks, a farmer’s field caved in. The miners dread, peat had a lot to do with it. The atmosphere around the village could have been cut with a knife helped by the rumours flying around with all kinds of stories.  My father was in the rescue brigade and did not come home until he made sure all who could be saved were out.  His brother Dan Jess was also a helper as was every fit miner within reach, some of them who had come straight from their work in as far away as England.

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Two Salvation Army persons who were engaged to be married were quickly on the scene.  They both lost their life on their way back home to Saltcoats.  One hundred and twenty six men were trapped in the one area and thirteen unfortunately were overcome by the incoming sludge and lost their lives.

It took a year to get the last of the dead out. My father’s brother Dave Jess was one of the trapped and with tension rising, him and wee Buffer Carmichael a couple of natural jokers did their Music hall act of a ventriloquist and dummy act.  While Andrew Robertson gave a rendition of the Old Rugged Cross heard by the men above ground at the end of the phone link which had kept them in constant touch.   A miracle that they were able to get the men out.

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The thirteen who did not make it prolonged the agony of the village and their families. The sadness of every funeral hit home.  Two of our good friends Ian and Jim Strachan’s Dad was one of the victims.  Not too long after the the tragedy some of my pals and I decided to adventure down the old Knochshinnoch open mine.  No health or safety notices or warnings to stay out in those days. Just walk right in why don’t you and we did.  A hutch track still ran down a very steep slope.  We all had torches, flash lights and whatever as we bravely marched into the darkness.  The bravery lasted no more than a minute as the light at the beginning of the mine started to dwindle.  It was getting noisier too with water running down the walls.  Time for exit stage left and  a race to get oot.  That foolish venture did me a favour as it told me, don’t go down the mines lad and I didn’t.

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Alex with some of his pals Left to Right, Jim ‘Buffer’ Carmichael, Jim Park, Tom ‘Took’ Kilday. Alex Jess, Billy Paton

We had a lovely wee cinema at Connelpark namely the Barn.  I think its proper name was the The Afton Cinema but it was shaped like a farm barn with the rounded roof and all made of corrugated iron.  It managed to get all the best films never the less.  Trouble was that in the Winter you could not hear the sound track of the film for the hailstones and rain battering off the roof.  Things got tough for the movie goers in the Summer too as the Stuckies (starlings) had already nested behind the cinema clock which incidentally was never at the right time.  The noise they made was as bad as the hailstones.  Village life eh! You could not beat it.

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One of my best buddies Ian Fulton and I used to play at long shootie, that is scoring goals from some distance under the street lights in the Darker nights.  They even put new modern lights up for us and we played merrily the length and breadth of the Boig road. Little or no traffic in those days especially at night to interfere with play. Mind it was sore on the knees diving on the road surface.  Back to the best school in New Cumnock,  Bank Junior Secondary.  Walking distance from Connelpark and I used to go home for my lunch every day , rain ,hail or shine. Mind I was Roy Rodgers and Hopalong Cassidy on ma horse in those days. The Apaches stayed up the Bank area so passage was quite safe.

School days were good with a scattering of good, nae great teachers too.  I remember a Miss McPheators, in the early days.  Very nice lady.  In the secondary we had for Geography and History a Mr. William Pearson (wee Wullie Pearie) History was my favourite subject and always got my best exam results in it. Next English and the lovely wee Mrs. Mary Smith.  My next best subject, so she did get through to me.  Mind Wee Mary as she was affectionately known as could draw the belt with the best of them I can tell ye.  Richard (Dickie) Bell, I would describe as a near genius.  He also taught us more about life after the school when we left than anyone else.  Science was his main subject and he sure did make sure he we did not open any of the many bottles in his class room. Some of which were dangerous. However, he sorted that out by making the whole class girls as weel, sniff an ammonia bottle.  Probably a Jiling job these days.  He once picked up a piece of chalk in each hand and wrote a different wee story at the same time, a clever man. Mind, if there was any disruption in the class he belted the lot of us.  That only happened once I can tell ye, we made sure it never happened again.

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Mr Richard (Dickie) Bell 3rd from right

Mr. Mulgrew who took Sums, Mental Arithmatic and Algebra.  Now can someone please tell me what Algebra is?   I thought for years that it was the capital of Africa. My skills in this area of learning are best summed up by his speech to me when I was leaving school.   Jess he said, you will get any job you care to choose as your brains are brand new.  You have never used them.  What can one say to that statement.  School parties were eagerly looked forward to.  The formula for them was before they started you were handed a ticket which would say for instance. Robin Hood seek out Maid Marion and Mickey Mouse find Minnie to avoid wallflowers especially among the shy boys.  Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing was Mr. Meikle’s department.  He was a canny cratur and we soon discovered he loved talking about the Second World War.  The whole time we were in his class he would tell us some great stories.  I learned a new word to me at the time – Curry. He was in the desert campaign and temperatures were pretty high – during the day.   A lot of the meat had to be curried hence the name Curry In other words most of the meat was off but with it being Curried it was more edible.  Two things about the school I would like to comment on.  One, I deduced at an early age that most of our History they taught us or tried to was English History.  Looks to me like English Propaganda e.g. Romans, Saxons Normans etc.  Why did they wait till we were nearly leaving the school to discuss Rob Roy, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.   Beats me.

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Bank School Teachers 1950.  Back row: Mr Meikle, unknown, unknown                                             Front Row: Wullie Pearson, unknown, unknown, Mary Smith(English), Robert Knox(Head Teacher), Mr ‘Dickie’ Bell, Mr Ashton

Even at an early age Nicknames a New Cumnock trademark were rife. The term Auld Yin is a New Cumnock term of endearment even to some of the women.  In my class alone David ‘Bud’ Graham, David ‘Di’ Brechney, Kenny ‘Peasie’ Harris, Jim ‘Lava’ McGhee, Ian ‘Quinn’ Walker,  Jim ‘Shaneeks’ Shankland,  John ‘Pan’ Poland a very talented artist from a very early age.  In fact I remember getting a row from my Granny for showing a picture he had done when very young. That must have been his Dad I was told in no uncertain terms, John however overcame a very long spell in the Afton Sanitarium  with Tuberculosis.  An illness his Dad died with not long before that. John when he left school went to the pit as most did.  He then joined Glasgow Art School and one of his fellow students was Robbie Coltrane.  John went on to become the artist and storyteller for the Sunday Post’s Oor Wullie and The Broons. He eventually had to give it up as Arthritis had set into his hands.

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Alex and John Polland

There were a few schoolboy Internationalists who attended the Bank school at the football.  As my memory tells me Alex Goldie who tragically died before he got the chance to play.  John ‘Biscuit’ McDonald,  Danny McCulloch and one Davy Duck McDonald should have been capped .However a younger member of the McDonald clan Tom, ‘Biscuit’ by nickname got capped and as a schoolboy signed for Everton who had a star studded line up in them days.

Three of them were Scots Alex Young – Hearts, Bobby Collins – Celtic and Jimmy Gabriel – Dundee

Another talent of a different kind was ma pal and minder George ‘Angel’ Montgomery.  I played in trials and got picked to play against the Auld Enemy the Toon Schuill.  They had a good team it must be said.  At the team talk George singled me out.  I stood up with my chest out expecting to be told to display my silky soccer talent and he said Alex, kick him before he kicks you, shattered my illusions in tatters but we beat the Toon keelies.    My wee cousin Mary Dornan who went to the Bank of course, married Sports champion of the Toon, Patrick Dornan which made him Danny ‘Puskas’ McCulloch’s brother in law.  The poor soul Patrick has three of us to contend with and he just sits in a wee corner and dreams of going to the Bank school.  Nae chance.

We had Andrew Waddell Murray and Daleany Murray, Jim McCulloch, Bill Brown Geordie Johnstone, Big Henry Mackie and a host of others over the years guid footballers.  One of our school teams epic encounters was at Ladeside Park, Muirkirk against the best team in the league.  Those boys must have ett plenty purrich (porridge).  They were all giants and flying machines!  The goalie of the hour for us was the redoubtable David ‘Luggy’ Hyslop.  It became evident from kick off Dave boy was more interested in arguing indeed off the field fighting with the Kirk support while the match raged on and they piled on the goals.  The game ended with us getting thumped fourteen nil but even the most fervent home support would admit their fourteenth goal was a mile offside.  Characters were in abundance at oor wee school.  Alex ‘Herny’ Heron, the leader of the biggest gang of the lot.  Tammy Andrews, Davy Hose, Geordie Johnstone, Jim ‘Shaneeks’ Shankland to name but four.  If you were in Hernys gang you felt a little safer.  Alex was the smallest guy in the gang but remember Jimmy Cagney he was a born leader too.

Ma lifelong pal John ‘Peetna’ Rae was as a young boy, the boot boy at Connelpark the Glens home.  Understudy to the great character Drummer Thomson also a dedicated Afton hero.  Peetna was a handy no prisoners taken fitba player too. In other words he would kick yer heid aff.   A wee funny story involving ma wee sister Cathie, when John Polland and I took her to the Barn picture hoose.  After we paid to get in the wee yin decided she needed to go to the ladies.  Once in she locked the door and would not come oot.  Eventually wee Jean the ticket seller came to see what the racket was.  The little scallywag would not budge.  Guess what, a cake of chocolate did the trick in the end. 

Another wee lady who conjured up some fun in the picture hoose was Mrs. Jean Shearer.  She used to shout out loud during a Cowboy/Gangster film with the classical cry ‘Watch oot behind ye son!’ to everyone’s amusement.  Joe ‘Slim’ Penman was a handy lad to be with especially if there was any bother.  Alex ‘Accie’ Drinnan a quiet good fitba player and Ian ‘Eeki’ Bulfin.  Geordie ‘Hoogie’ Gracie sadly passed away recently.  Ian Bulfin moved away to Ayr in his trade as a garage mechanic.  All in all, a great era to be brought up in, with great friends all around you.

Took it hard when I had to move down town to Lochbrowan Crescent.   SORRY IF I’ve missed anyone out as my memories going.  However, was I not lucky enough to move back to Connelpark with my wife Mary and family.  Getting into Hawtrees an old cottage I passed every day to go to my beloved Bank Junior Secondary school.

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Hawtrees Cottage

Anne, Bill and Alan oor offspring who produced, grandchildren  David, Debbie, Rebecca, Stephen, Jason, Christie and Lauryn.  Great grandchildren, Emmie, Bailey and Blaine who is on the way.

Dedicated to my family and the place I love dearly.