How Carol Stephenson rakes over York's history for pick of our past
Updated 1:12pm Friday 11th April 2014 in Features
Every day in our The Way We Were column we delve into past issues of the paper to unearth quirky stories from long ago. MATT CLARK meets the woman who makes the selection.
UP in The Press archives, surrounded by dusty bound copies from years past, Carol Stephenson is leafing through a tome that contains copies of the newspaper from 1964. She's looking for stories that to retell in our The Way We Were column.
Stories such as that about a plague of flies, which made it into the 100 Years Ago section a few years back. It happened in Middlesbrough, but in those days the Yorkshire Evening Press circulation area took in some far-flung corners of God's Own County.
There were no fridges in the early 1900s and it was difficult to keep the number of flies and bluebottles down in summer. Then Alfred Mattison, the chairman of the Middlesbrough sanitary committee, had the bright idea of paying youngsters a penny for every 50 dead flies they handed in.
The response was predictable enough. "The announcement was greeted with the wildest enthusiasm by the juvenile section of the town, and during Tuesday and up to 4 o'clock on Wednesday 60,000 flies and bluebottles were delivered at the office, £6 passing hands for the two days bag, while one huntsman delivered a catch of 1200," the newspaper reported.
"There would have been more, as a great crowd of flycatchers remained outside the office with their day's catch, but by this time the clerks were tired of counting the flies and sorting them from the blue bottles, and in addition, the funds were running rather short..."
She loves stories like that, Carol admits: "They're snippets of the ordinary bits of life, which would never be put into history books."
Carol has been compiling our The Way We Were column for just over a decade now, fishing out articles from 25, 50 and 100 years ago that she hopes will inform, educate or entertain readers.
She rather modestly calls herself a closet journalist: one who works in a broom cupboard, and spends more time in one than Harry Potter. But Carol has an eye for a story many reporters would envy.
"Sometimes it's big important events, sometimes someone has lost their budgie," she says. "It can be anything that illustrates everyday life. If it interests me I think it will interest readers, especially if it's funny."
Like that one about the plague of flies, for instance. Another classic dated from May 1956. People in Scarborough had complained of intermittent TV interference. It was happening every few seconds and engineers were baffled. "For three and a half hours nightly the interference blotted out both sound and vision, and even drowned the voice of Billy Cotton calling 'wakey wakey'," the newspaper reported.
But what was the cause of this mysterious interference? Eventually, Mr Percy Pepper of Peasholm Drive teamed up with Scarborough Corporation electrician Les Speakes to try to find out.
They noticed that the interference happened every time the illuminated model of an owl in Scarborough's Peasholm Park blinked. Mr Speakes cut the switch to the illuminated bird. "The owl no longer blinked, and neither did the viewers and their sets," the newspaper reported.
Then you get the big stories: the ones describing events that changed or shook the world. These, Carol says, are often the hardest to include, because she only has about 150 words for each entry in her column.
"How can you sum up the sinking of the Titanic in 150 words?"
One method Carol uses is to tell a 'big' story through side issues, or in bite size chunks. How something like the Great War affected individual York families, for example. Many such stories are sure to turn up in this the anniversary year.
"I do my best to mix the stories up," says Carol. "You don't know what everyone is interested in and you don't want it to be too serious. So I aim for a good cross section of topics in the hope that it will make more people happy more of the time."
She especially loves the style of writing from 100 years ago, because journalists then were so fond of double negatives. "I find that rubs off on me, because I'm reading it all the time.
"Also the writing was much more elaborate. Today they will say in one sentence what they would say in three paragraphs back then."
Which is interesting because the paper only ran to four sides of broadsheet. Perhaps less went on in Edwardian York.
Carol says she has her family to thank for knowing which stories will resonate with readers more than others. Her grandmother was born in 1885 and the stories she told have given Carol a good grounding of background knowledge.
And that means names and topics that would not normally be known about by someone of her age can actually be quite familiar.
"I can recognise some shop names from the past that people might recognise, which helps pick a story that people might be interested in. But you don't know something like the blinking owl is coming. Like today, it's whatever was in the news."
From the 9,400 articles Carol has selected over the years another one to tickle her fancy is from June 1908 and covers a village race for a pig that had been smothered in grease. The race was open to the 'women of the village', and whoever caught the pig would keep it.
"You can imagine these women in Edwardian times with their corsets and costumes and they were all desperate to win.
"The story tells how a Mrs Dixon got hold of the pig's tail and despite someone trying to get it from her, she wasn't going to let go, because the reward was pork for tea."
Sounds like supermarket sweep without Dale Winton.
For Carol stories that would seem incongruous today also appeal. Take the one she found about a pile of bones being stolen from a field. It seems this was a heinous crime in the 1900s because farmers used crushed bone as fertiliser.
"The culprit got hard labour for that and yet there was another incident reported where someone had discharged a pistol out of the window on the York to Knaresborough train. All they received was a telling off. "
A sign of the times indeed, but other articles from 50 or 100 years ago could have been written yesterday; age old tales of vandalism, drunks in the street, York City losing at home (though not so much any more).
And fashion tips are nothing new. One article Carol enjoyed from the 1950s advised women how to store their huge petticoats. They were too big to stuff into a wardrobe, so one writer suggested hanging them from the ceiling.
But there are occasions when, try as she might, little gems like the greasy pig and blinking owl stories just can't be found.
"Most definitely and if ever you see an advert in my column; Dr Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, Veno's cough medicine, that sort of thing, you know it had been a slow news day."
Archivists help us to look through back pages
CAROL loves leafing through the original bound volumes in The Press archives. “There is a feelgood factor to working with the original volumes and getting the sense of history buried in their pages,” she says.
But these are precious objects and thumbing through 100 year old newspapers is best avoided.
To protect them most of the older volumes are now in store – and that means much of Carol’s work involves scanning microfilms in the archives at York Explore Library in Museum Street. “The staff at York Explore Library and Archives know me well and are very friendly and helpful,” she says.
She has particularly appreciated that consideration during the ongoing refurbishment of the archives.
“In particular Richard Taylor and Victoria Hoyle, the City Archivists, and Gillian Holmes, the team leader, have bent over backwards to accommodate my requirements and facilitate an uninterrupted ability for me to continue with the column. Without their support the column would have had to stop whilst the refurbishment is proceeding.”
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