By  Brian Childs

Tom was good company. He was a father figure at the Darlington Folk Workshop and in the Darlington Mummers … affectionately referred to as T.C. or Top Cat.  However, those who were close to him will tell you that they never felt they knew him that well. He was always willing to talk to people, but rarely talked about himself, and was really quite a private person. As a result, it has been difficult to piece together a full story of his life.   What we have here is a series of snippets gathered from a number of different people.

Tom was born in February 1929 (date uncertain) and died in April 2018. He lived in Westmorland Grove (Norton) all his life, and went to school in Norton. He joined the RAF soon after leaving school, and developed a lifelong interest in building and flying model aeroplanes (powered by rubber bands) which he entered in flying competitions.

He competed at home and abroad, and even represented England in international competitions. There are different classes of competition, and you have to wind up the rubber band a specified number of turns (depending on the class) and launch the plane. The plane climbs until the band has ‘run down’ and then proceeds to glide back to earth. The winner is the plane which (in its class) travelled the furthest distance.

 On one occasion Tom was flying one of his models and it came to ground in the middle of a farmers corn field. He carefully waded into the field, parting the crops as he went, and retrieved his plane … only to be met by the angry farmer demanding payment for his damaged crops. With an apologetic face, Tom said “I’m very sorry. If you can point out the damaged crops to me I will gladly pay for them”. But, of course, Tom was greatly experienced in retrieving models from fields, and there were no damaged crops. The red-faced farmer gritted his teeth and stalked off!

Early in his career he attended an open day held by the Stockton Blue and Gold dance team, and tried his hand at the various dances they did. He managed the hanky dances OK, but was unable to master the stick dances (as Ken Allan, with bruised and bleeding knuckles, can confirm!).

 Tom started his working career as an apprentice at Head Wrightson’s, and went on to become a draftsman. His speciality was conveyor belts for mines and steel works at home and overseas. In time he changed to pipe work, but never really enjoyed that. He had an enviable knowledge of thermodynamics, and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

He discovered trad jazz with his good friend Eric Brookes. Tom couldn’t play or sing, but always had a very good ear for the music. As kids, Tom and Eric would go to Brown’s store in Stockton and listen to the records (and occasionally even buy one!).

Very early on he developed a deep interest in traditional customs. This interest was to stay with him all his life and he travelled the country far and wide in search of customs, often accompanied by friend and fellow devotee Ken Allan. One of his main interests was maypoles, and at one time he would have been considered the world expert on maypoles. He looked all over in search of known maypoles (to check their details), and in search of as yet unrecorded maypoles. When he was about 55 years old he inherited some money from an uncle in London, and this allowed him to follow his maypole interests more fully. 

Aston on Clun is one of only a few villages which still celebrates Arbor Day (where, in mid-May, they dress a tree with flags). On one occasion, Tom and Ken went to Aston to see the Arbor Tree … only to find that the locals had forgotten to decorate their Black Poplar tree. Once reminded, the locals (aided and abetted by Ken and Tom) hastily proceeded to dress the tree. That’s one way of making sure that the old customs survive!

Pete Thompson relates the time when Tom took John and Sheila Bentham to see the Maypole at Belton (Lincolnshire). When they arrived, there was no sign of a maypole, perhaps because the maypole in question was actually in Belton (Leicestershire)!

His great aim was to establish a museum of folk customs, but this never came to fruition. He wrote a book on the History of Maypoles and took it to the Folklore Society in the hope that they would publish it. However, they did not publish it as they considered it ‘not academic enough’. Sadly, his book was never published, but years ago Tom did write an article on maypoles for Folk Roundabout - which we reprint on page 80.

When Tony Foxworthy started a folk club (the Darlington Folk Workshop) at the Golden Cock in Darlington, Tom was one of the founder members. When ‘Foxy’ left the area in 1967, Tom and Pete Thompson shared the running of the club, each running the night depending who arrived there first. They carried on the practice of booking traditional singers as occasional guests - people like Willie Scott, Shirley Collins, Fred Jordon etc. When ‘Foxy’ started the Darlington Mummers, Tom was again a founder member. 

Johnny Taylor recalls his first visit to the Darlington Folk Workshop in the Golden Cock. After several songs, Tom turned to John and asked “Are you going to give us a song?”, to which John replied “I don’t sing”. Tom’s riposte was “What are you doing here, then? You won’t last long if you don’t sing!”. Tom couldn’t really have been much more wrong, could he? As most will know, John is now one of the most experienced and successful festival and folk club organisers in the country.

Tom was always willing to play chauffeur to anyone from the Stockton area who wanted to attend the Darlington Folk Workshop - people like Dave and Pat Turner, and the Wilson boys. On one of their dance excursions, Dave and Pat found a maypole in middle of housing estate, and thought it would be a pleasant surprise to let Tom know about it, and a good way of saying thanks for all the lifts. But, of course, Tom already knew all about it: “Ah, yes, that’s the … ”.

Tom would regularly attend folk festivals. One evening at Broadstairs he was in company with the Reverend Kenneth Lovelace (Rural Dean of Hackney) and, being sociable, asked him “What would you like to drink, Reverend?” The Reverend Ken replied “I’ll have a treble pink gin, my boy.” Tom (and his wallet) were somewhat taken aback by this!

Tom’s preferred chariot of the road was the Mini, as it had front wheel drive and was good in the snow. For a long time he never went above third gear (he didn’t realise there were 5 gears!), and burned clutches out with some regularity. One night after the singaround at the Britannia, Tom went to his car, got in and started it up. He proceeded to put it in gear and tried to reverse out. 

Nothing happened, and he wondered if the clutch had burned out (again!). He got out of the car … and noticed that it was mounted on four small piles of bricks. Someone had nicked all his wheels!


Cheers, Tom - good to have known you.