Print this page

Shirley Topham

Shirley Topham

My name is Shirley Topham, though I was born Shirley Wright on Christmas Day in 1935 in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. My father's name was Willie and my mother's name was Connie.

My brother Philip was five years old at the time and he always said he did not want a brother or a sister. Unfortunately I was born on the best day of the year for him and he was really upset as I robbed him of all the attention he would have got from our parents. He never forgave me. For many years he resented me being there. Once he left me in my pram at his friend's house in the garden when he was supposed to be looking after me. He may have forgotten all about me being there. Anyway, Mum had to go looking for me and found me abandoned!

When I was about two and a half I had to go into hospital due to having wry neck. I had to have an operation at the Sheffield Children's Hospital. At that time, sixty-odd years ago, parents were not permitted to visit their children in hospital. They could only see me through the door. After the operation I was told to lie still. There were sandbags to hold me down. It was a bit traumatic really. There were no toys for me to play with in my cot. I had to make do with pieces of paper. When my parents finally came to take me home, I had forgotten them and also the few words I could speak before. Thereafter every time I saw someone in a white jacket I was terrified.

When I was about three years of age, war broke out and they decided to let me go to school because there were shelters in the grounds of the school. There weren't any shelters near where I lived. We used to have practice runs to the shelters just in case the sirens went while we were at school. So we would all march out to the shelters which were very damp and very dark. We would sing songs to keep cheerful. We sang Ten Green Bottles, One Man Went to Mow and Knick-knack Paddy-whack and songs like that. I can still sing them today because we sang them so often. If the siren went during the night, I would be carried downstairs, probably still fast asleep, and my brother and I were put under the kitchen table until the 'all clear' sounded because that was the only shelter we had.. It wouldn't have been much protection if a bomb fell.. Fortunately we didn't get any bombs dropping in our area but Sheffield suffered a lot. Many shops in the city centre were destroyed. My parents have told me about what happened but I was too young for it to mean anything to me. My brother being that bit older got very excited when the planes flew over.

In the first class we had to lie down in the afternoon and go to sleep. I understand I was the only one in the class who went to sleep because I was used to it. School dinners at that time were atrocious but we had to eat everything up that was on our plate. I was kept in many times during the break to eat up my dinner. The nurse came periodically into school to check if our hair was clean and free of lice. The dentist also came and the children would sit on ordinary chairs and he would pull their teeth out with no gas or injections.

Food was rationed and for some years many things, such as bananas, were not available at all. Sweets were very hard to get and everyone only had a few coupons for these. Children had to make coupons and sweets last as long as possible. People had to queue for items of food. Clothing coupons were needed as shops could not sell garments or material without the appropriate coupons.

From the age of five until I was nine, I was sent to Betty Bacon's School of Dancing and I learnt to tap dance. We all took part in many shows including pantomimes. So I got quite used to performing on stage.

When my brother was growing up he developed the serious illness of rheumatic fever. This left him very weak. In fact he caught it twice. Apparently you are not supposed to do anything energetic when you have this illness. While he was ill in bed, he took to doing magic tricks. He perfected quite a few of them and when he was feeling stronger he was asked by a local organisation of boys in Rotherham if he would entertain them. He was fifteen by now and I was ten. He agreed to do this and as I was the only person available to help him he asked me to help him at his first show. We went to this club and set up the equipment. We had practised previously at home and I walked on the stage with the tricks which my brother then performed. Unfortunately, I shall never forget it, I gave one magic trick away to the audience as I walked off the stage with the apparatus thus showing how the trick was done. My brother was furious and he told me off. I thought 'That is my first and last show!' but I carried on for fourteen more years.

Philip gradually became more and more expert but before he could become a magician recognised by the Sheffield Circle of Magicians, we had to perform in front of professional magicians in a private room. There he was passed to become a magician by the panel of judges. We also had to swear never to divulge how the tricks were done. At school other children did their best to get the secrets out of me, but I stood my ground and never gave anything away.

My brother and I entertained at Old Folks' Homes and at places where they had bungalows but had a community centre, at Children's Hospitals and other kinds of hospitals in Sheffield and all around. We went to village halls and birthday parties and firms' dinners. Once we went to a prison to entertain the inmates. That was a bit frightening because every time you walked through a door they locked it behind you. There was a fabulous stage there with lighting and curtains. It was quite upmarket for us!

We did special Christmas parties for the children of the people who worked at the Steel Works. We had to do an hour's entertainment and that took a lot of tricks to fill. It was something like a pantomime and Philip and I had this thing going like 'Yes it is!' and 'No it isn't!' and the children would join in. Philip could do balloon twisting where he made one of those long sausage balloons look like a dog or a doll. So that was another string to his bow.

We both went out to work by now and after we had done a full day at our place of work, we had to travel to the venues on the bus carrying all the cases containing the magic tricks. We were not lucky enough to own a car. Once in a while someone might give us a lift, but not often.

Occasionally we hired a bus and invited various talented people to join us with their acts at many of the different places we went to. We had people who played musical instruments such as the violin or trumpet and those who danced or sang or did juggling. We had children who could tap dance, and also acrobats, comics and of course our magic. We had a good lot of artistes that we could call upon to make up a longer show, say for a couple of hours.

I wore evening dress or skirts and tops. My brother had an evening suit and lots of smart jackets and trousers. When we did children's shows later on, he wore a clown's costume and wig and I used to make his face up. We had a wide selection of audiences - adults, teenagers and children. As television was not commonplace at this time, the concerts were very well-attended. My father kept records of all the outings and of the people who were willing to give up their time to entertain. All this work was for charity and only travel expenses were given to us.

Philip went to a lot of Magic Conventions and bought new tricks. Then he thought it would be a good idea if he gave me something else to do as well as being his assistant. So he taught me how to perform a memory test. There were two different types of memory test. One was where I had to sit on a chair facing the audience and I was then blindfolded. We had a blackboard with numbers one to twenty on. Members of the audience then had to shout out the name of any item, it could be anything from a car to a newspaper. These names were written on the blackboard by the side of the numbers, and I had to tell the audience which items were by which number in the right order. Then the audience could shout out any item or number and I had to say where they fitted on the list. The last bit was where I recited the list backwards from twenty to one and get it all correct. That definitely took a lot of thinking about. It was not a trick. It was visualising pictures . This is how they teach people now to remember certain things.

Philip joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians and became more interested in other forms of magic. For instance he learnt how to do fire-eating. He did a lot of fire-eating. I was still his assistant and to prove it was a flame coming from his mouth I had to light a cigarette from the flame. Then he had a Wheel of Fire where he doused every single flame coming from it. He even did a show at Sheffield that needed a witch-doctor and he had to do fire-eating for that show. I was not invited to it!

We were asked to entertain at a dinner that a local cricket club was giving so we put on the full show with all the other artistes. It was for Fred Trueman who at that time was playing in the English Cricket team. He was very popular and quite the local hero having been born in the area where I lived. We were introduced to him. I also met him recently at Stamford and spoke to him. Another time we went to the Station Hotel in Leeds to entertain an MP who was there to 'axe the last trams'.

And so it continued for many years entertaining and supporting local charities. It was a fabulous experience and I really enjoyed it. Philip continued to do his magic to entertain the public for many years. He became the President of the Doncaster Circle of Magicians and a member of the Sheffield Circle of Magicians.

In 1958 I got married and moved to live in Barnsley. My husband was a policeman. I had my son Martin in Barnsley Hospital in 1959. During the gales of 1962 we lost part of our roof and had to move to Uppermill, near Oldham. This area is called Saddleworth and it is situated on the Pennines. We were there during the time of the Myra Hindley murders which was terrible. My second son, Adrian, was born at a hospital in Ashton-under-Lyne. Therefore I have one son born in Lancashire and one in Yorkshire but they both support Manchester United. Both my boys went to university and both got degrees in mathematics, physics and computers.

My husband was later posted to Todmorton and I went to work full-time. After about seven years of living in Todmorton, my marriage broke up.

In 1979 I met David Topham, a builder and we were marrried in 1985. David was working for a marble firm which made marble fireplaces of every design and also repaired them. He loved this work but, after working there for twenty years, the firm closed and so he went back to working for himself. I was working for the National Health Service for the Family Practitioner Committee in Rotherham.

David was anxious to build his own house, in fact he was on about it all the time. In 1985 David asked a retired builder if he knew of any land that was for sale. This man said that he had three plots at Woolsthorpe-by-Colstreworth. We had never heard of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth but we came to have a look and decided to buy the land and move here.

David bought an old static caravan and he installed a new kitchen with a cooker and a freezer and he made all the rooms in it very comfortable. In addition to the kitchen, it had a lounge, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a toilet, so it was quite comfortable. It was situated on the third site. He also built a little outhouse to it. My job was to make cups of tea for David and all the visitors. It was like a canteen.

The weather that winter was extremely cold and had lots of snow so building the new house was very slow. David got Gilbert in to do the foundations and I did my little bit by carrying the bricks around. Eventually the first house, a dormer bungalow, was built and sold in 1986. David offered the buyers the choice of bathroom and kitchen units before it was completed so in many ways it was the house of their choice.

David then set out to build the second house. He only had a young apprentice to help him and occasionally part-time workers. I got a job at the Woodland Trust, a charity organisation which bought woods of all types and also created new woods wherever they could acquire the land. They take care of these woods and pay special attention to sites of Special Scientific Interest and Ancient Woodland. It was a very interesting job speaking to people on the work of the Trust and answering enquiries on the telephone. The Trust grew quickly from fifty people working there to, by the time I left, about three hundred.

The second winter at Woolsthorpe was also very cold and the caravan was covered in snow for several days. The outside water pipes were frozen many times and had to be directed inside to stop them freezing. It was damp in the caravan even though four heaters and a fire were always working. However the spring and summer were very warm and David built the second house very quickly. He had other professional people to do the electrical work, the plumbing and the plastering, although if he didn't like the work he would do it again himself. He was very particular. Our house has three large bedrooms, one with a shower unit and a dressing room, bathroom with separate shower, lounge, dining room, kitchen, utility room, a separate toilet and a conservatory. There are two garages at the front and a garden at the back.

After retiring from the Woodland Trust in 1996, I became more interested in the activities of the local area and had a lot more time to join different organisations, such the Parochial Church Council at St John the Baptist Church, the National Trust, the Gardening Club and I am secretary to the Village Hall Committee. I also serve on the committee of the Conservative Women's Organisation which covers the area from Grantham to Stamford.

I enjoy working for all these organisations and I must say that since I have been living here everyone has been very friendly. I have felt at home ever since the day I came to live here.


This page was last edited on Thursday 06-Aug-09 21:25:26 BST


email email the village archive group