Tunes on a Penny Whistle by Doris Coates

I have received a free e-copy of the book Tunes on a Penny Whistle: A Derbyshire Childhood by Doris E Coates to review.

Tunes on a Penny Whistle by Doris Coates

Here is the book blurb.

The early 1900s were a period of great hardship for many working-class families, particularly in rural areas. However, they were also times of pride and self-sufficiency, with fun and laughter derived from simple pleasures as well as mutual support and courage when poverty could have become unbearable.

This book is a personal history of a childhood in the village of Eyam – known as the Plague Village – in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Doris recalls how her mother confronted tough living conditions without labour-saving devices and often with little or no money.

She remembers, too, her father, who fought for the right for union representation, worked for self-help groups, and organised political meetings and village entertainments. He was a talented self-taught musician, producing a wide range of music on his Canadian organ and penny whistle. His fighting spirit made him a remarkable and influential character within the village community.

Both humourous and shocking, this description of domestic and community life at the beginning of the twentieth century is illustrated with many contemporary photographs, documents, and line drawings by George Coates, the author’s husband.

This book is a biography originally published in 1983, mainly about the author’s father Harry Dawson, but also all their family life during her childhood. This new edition has been edited by Doris’s son Richard with supplemental information from ancestry databases and also includes plenty of period photos.

Doris was born in 1908 in Eyam, Derbyshire into poverty. The cottage had no plumbed water, gas or electricity. An earth closet at the far end of the garden and baths in front of the living room fire. But the family had a good quality of life despite the lack of facilities and shortage of money. Lots of foraging walks and selling teas to passing ramblers helped.

Eyam was a rural industrial village where shoe making was the main industry. Harry worked long 12 hour shifts, five and a half days a week in the shoe factory, but still found time for newspaper reporting, local temperance and friendly societies, cycling and music. The working conditions were dreadful and the pay appalling with wages at about half the national average. The union didn’t reach Eyam until 1918 when Harry was sacked on suspicion of having joined the union. He hadn’t but soon did. And of course with no income, things became even more difficult for the family. And worse still in 1922 when the shoe factory owners tried to evict the family by putting their rented cottage up for auction. But Harry went into debt and bid 3 times over its value to buy the cottage that his family had lived in for at least 3 generations.

Doris’s grandfather George Dawson was famed for his tune to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and his musical prowess led to the family being held in high esteem locally even though they had no social status.

And Doris’s mother Margaret spearheaded the campaign to get a district nurse.

School was stressful for Doris aged 8 with physical punishments from the teacher and she was near a nervous breakdown when the school medical inspector intervened on his annual inspection. 2 months off school and then a different teacher improved the situation. He encouraged her to sit the Grammar school scholarship examination, which she passed but there was no transportation and the family couldn’t afford the boarding fees. But even so in 1926, Doris became the first non-Grammar school student to qualify for higher education at Goldsmiths’ College, London. Again money was a problem but was overcome with a loan.

Tunes on a Penny Whistle is available on Amazon, currently priced at £11.95 in paperback and is also available in Kindle format or hardback. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. A fascinating insight into the local and social history of the early twentieth century.

Here is an extract from the book to give you a flavour.

No Power to the Workers
(Chapter 7 page 93)

So it was that our district nurse arrived in 1917, a crucial time in the life of the village. Self-help and thrift had done something to ameliorate life’s perpetual difficulties, but with wartime strains, long working hours and wages in the factories barely half the national average, morale was low. When the suggestion was made that workers should join a union and fight for their rights, some were apathetic, while others saw this as the only hope of improving their conditions.

Trade unions had strengthened during the war, when there was a great demand for labour to fulfil Government contracts. The National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives (NUBSO) had achieved good conditions for workers in Northampton, Leicester and other large centres. A working week of forty-eight hours was agreed, and with wage increases and bonuses it was possible to earn 45-55s a week (£2.25–£2.75).

By 1917 the union was turning its attention to smaller centres. John Buckle was appointed organiser to recruit members in Eyam and Stoney Middleton, and to try to bring conditions in the factories up to union standards. He met with obdurate resistance from the bosses. Any worker who was suspected to joining the union was sacked instantly.

Seven firms were involved in the dispute. Four, in Stoney Middleton, all made heavy boots for men, pit boots, army boots and carters’ boots. Three factories in Eyam manufactured light shoes for women and children. They were all family firms, and the bosses were what was known as ‘little masters’ who came from the same background as most of their employees, and spoke with the same Derbyshire accent. They had no pretence to culture or education, and treated with suspicion people like my parents who were well read (through self-educated) and who were not afraid to express their opinions.


Chapter 7 describes in detail the working conditions in the shoe factories in Eyam and the neighbouring village, Stoney Middleton. The author’s father, Harry, had worked in one of these for all his working life – 30 years or so.

Through the contemporary notes of the professional union organiser, this chapter describes the ultimately futile fight for union recognition and nationally agreed pay rates. Harry lost his job on suspicion of joining the union (which at that point he had not), and was never able to work again in the village again through what today would be regarded as victimisation.

2018 is the Centenary of the strike in Eyam and Stoney Middleton, and Eyam Museum is promoting events and exhibitions to commemorate it.

About the Authors

Born in Eyam in the Peak District of Derbyshire, Doris E. Coates achieved a successful and varied career as a teacher in both Derbyshire and later in Norfolk. Along with her husband George, she was an active member of her community promoting local groups, enjoyed singing in the local choir and, after retirement, turned her talents to writing. Her son, Richard Coates, now based in Bath enjoyed a happy childhood and grew up appreciating the importance of a strong education. After gaining a scholarship at Oxford University he went on to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Later as a management consultant he worked for international companies including Audi, British Airways and Mars in both the UK and oversees and continues to sit on the board of Davos Consultancy. Now retired, and in memory of his mother, Richard has decided to republish her books with fascinating new additions after researching further into his family history.

I’m participating in the book tour and you may like to check out some of the other blog stops on the tour, including my own review of Tuppenny Rice and Treacle, in which I try out the Bible Cake recipe.

Tunes on a Penny Whistle by Doris Coates

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Disclosure.  This post is a review of an e-book I was sent for free.  All opinions are my own.










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