A fascinating insight into life in Accrington at the beginning of the 20th century has just come to light. Pat Whittaker wrote her life story in the 1960s. Now after lying in a garage for nearly thirty years, her book has been discovered by her son and published for the first time. Paul Harvey reports ...
FROM America to Accrington and back again - Pat Whittaker’s incredible life story spans almost an entire century.
The youngest of eight children, Pat was born in a snowstorm in Connecticut in 1902, before moving to Accrington aged five.
Her memories of the town in the 1900s provide an evocative snapshot of a world gone forever.
And the twists and turns of her later life see her American dream eventually come full circle.
Her son David has spent the last few years uncovering his mother’s amazing legacy – and he’s hoping that it will lead him to discover long-lost relations in Accrington.
David Mason, 81, who lives in Hexham in the North East of England, said: "My mother had an extraordinary life. She went across to America in 1960.
"Her husband wouldn’t let her work, so she decided to write her autobiography. It never got to an agent though, it just languished around the house and ended up in the garage for years.
"It was just sheets of paper held together with an elastic band. I came to get hold of it and I wrote it up. I only changed one or two small things and I tried to keep her voice intact."
Now David has published his mother’s story – which is called Father’s Last Joke – through the Arts Council funded publishers www.youwriteon.com.
The story begins in Accrington, where Pat’s father Frederick Dean married her mother Mary Whittaker in 1891.
The couple emigrated the following year, arriving in Boston on the MV Scythia on Easter Sunday 1892. They had eight children in quick succession, with six surviving birth.
Pat, the youngest, arrived in March of 1902 in a big old clapboard house in Connecticut, USA, during a heavy snowstorm.
Because she was the youngest she always described herself as "father’s last joke", hence the book’s title.
Following a typhoid scare when Pat was just five she travelled with her mother and five siblings back to Accrington. She describes her first impressions of Accrington as "a miserable blur of wet and grey, enough cold and damp to last anybody a lifetime".
The seven of them arrived at her mother’s family home to stay with her grandma and grandpa, twelve people staying in a three bedroomed terraced house with only one bathroom.
Pat writes: "We children started to cry, we all hated it so much. This must be some sort of terrible country where the sun just didn’t ever shine."
Pat’s grandpa went to work at 5am every morning and worked again at night. In the mornings he was a knocker-up, and in the evenings he was a lamplighter, walking miles every night to light the street gas lamps. For children, these lamps had a very different purpose.
Pat writes: "There was a cross bar just under the lamp cage, this was to hold the ladders of the maintenance workers steady, but for us it was to hold a length of rope for the local rope swing.
"Grandpa must have been a very healthy man, he had to be with so little sleep at night, and just an afternoon nap to keep him going.
"He lived till he was nearly ninety, a very likeable fellow."
The intended six week stay turned into two years, with Pat’s father eventually selling the house in Connecticut and joining his family in Accrington, where he became licensee of the Hargreaves Arms on Manchester Road.
Pat and her sister Alice worked the bar at the pub. There, reckons David, she heard the stories that fuelled her vivid imagination and she also met her husband-to-be, Harold.
According to David, he was "a smart, mustachioed ex-Flying Corps and university man". He was also a salesman.
One of the rooms in the pub was used for a cinematograph, an early projector on which silent films were shown.
Admission was one penny or two jam jars. The man who owned the equipment later opened the first cinema in Accrington.
He offered a partnership to Pat’s father but he turned it down, dismissing cinema as just a passing fancy.
Soon after they moved to the Ogden Arms in Manchester, now known as the Rembrandt, and it is at this point that the book leaves Accrington behind as Pat embarks on the rest of her life story
Pat’s father succumbed to pernicious anaemia and Harold landed a new job, taking them to the North East.
During the war Harold worked for the Ministry of Food, David was evacuated to Keswick and Pat drove a van around Tyneside for the Lyons Tea Company.
A decade after the war, with David grown up and married, his parents sold their Newcastle flat and moved to Worthing on the south coast.
Pat decided on action. Without her husband’s knowledge, she booked on to the Queen Mary and sailed to New York, there to be met by her widowed brother-in-law, Allan Houston, a retired oil company chief engineer, who had promised to show her around.
"She described it as being struck by lightning," says David. Instead of using the Greyhound bus ticket she had bought, the pair of them hired a car, drove across the Rockies and arrived in Reno, Nevada, where Pat got a divorce. They were then married in Las Vegas.
When doubts about the marriage certificate surfaced, the couple tied the knot again in Mexico.
The pair lived happily together in California until Pat’s death in 2000, aged 98.
But the story doesn’t end there for David. He’s looking to track down his mother's family in Accrington.
He said: "I know my mother's relations, she was a Whittaker. If anybody can put me in touch with any of my mother’s relations I would be most grateful."