Jim Gordon is a born storyteller. And he has plenty to tell! Jim is the grandson of a Leeds hero: Archie Gordon. Archie Gordon was an inspirational teacher who helped set up the Boots for Bairns charity and was also behind a local institution: Leeds Children’s Day. Raised in Leeds, Jim now lives in Harrogate. He shares his memories of his inspirational grandfather and some more personal tales.
“Are you coming to Youth Club tonight?” my friends asked me. “I can’t, can I?” I replied. “I’m not Jewish.” The best youth club in Leeds it was, on Street Lane, Roundhay – and how I wanted to be there, but couldn’t. However, there was to be a revelation in years to come ... but more about that later.
I was raised in Leeds - my family came from Marijampole in Lithuania. We have a family tree, but it all seems rather sketchy - when did we move to England? And why Leeds? However, Grandfather was to become such an inspiration to myself – and many, many people during his lifetime and thereafter.
I come from a very musical family, and my early memories are of my two uncles Ray and Ken, playing violin
A pre-war baby by a couple of years, I was educated at Coldcotes School. There wasn’t such a thing as ‘catchment areas’ then. Kids went to the local schools, whether it be primary, junior, or secondary. We only usually travelled if we passed the 11-plus examination, or if any secondary school of choice was out of our area. Coldcotes no longer exists nowadays, having been split into four separate schools. I knew I wanted to go into construction when I left school, so moved on to college to learn all aspects of the building industry. A friend of mine had a motorcycle and he would give me a lift to the College. The speed he rode at, with me on the pillion, was exhilarating to say the least. I did wonder on occasion if we would arrive in one piece! Thankfully we did. I studied hard, later qualifying as a Quantity Surveyor.
I come from a very musical family, and my early memories are of my two uncles Ray and Ken, playing violin, cello and (possibly) a double bass, every Sunday afternoon. My father was a good pianist, playing by ear. I was so keen to learn to play the piano; unfortunately, I did not inherit his keyboard skills. I went everywhere to learn but was a dead loss. I tried and tried, but I was hopeless! A music teacher asked me one day, “Can you whistle?” I replied, “Well, yes, I’ve got one somewhere”. “No,” she said. “You’ve got to whistle!” But I couldn’t even do that in tune. My grandfather had suggested me going to meet Fanny Waterman (who was to later to become Dame Fanny Waterman in honour of her work as founder of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition). It soon became apparent that a pianist I would not be, if I couldn’t even whistle in tune, so we didn’t progress any further. Such a shame for the family too, as one of my uncles had violin lessons with Fanny Waterman’s brother Harry. Being so gifted, my Uncle Ray then had the opportunity to study at The Yehudi Menuhin School, but it was far too expensive for him to attend there. Ray went on to play with the famous bandleader Geraldo! What an exciting time that must have been on the big cruise liners; playing with a world-famous dance band, and the onboard life at sea. Uncle Ray also shared a flat in London for a short time with the actor Dirk Bogarde!
Living not far away from Roundhay Park, my wife to-be Anne and I were introduced by friends at the funfair there. I’ve never really been one for funfairs, even though I celebrated my 60th birthday at Alton Towers – but that was more for the benefit of our granddaughter. Roundhay Park was going to mean so much to us and our family in the years which followed.
I worked for several years in the Plant Hire business, for all major names in the field. My first motor vehicle was a small grey works van, with a light reading ‘SGB’ on the roof. Anne reminds me how, during our courtship, she insisted I turn the light off when we were out for a drive in the van at weekends!
When Anne and I, (aged 17 and 19) decided to get married, a strange thing happened. One day at work, Anne received a phone call from the mother of a friend of hers. The lady asked if Anne knew she was to marry into the Jewish faith? Anne asked me; I denied it. But said I would speak to my mother about it. It transpired my grandfather, Archie Gordon, fled Lithuania as a Jewish refugee. On arrival in Leeds, they chose to keep their heritage under wraps, as Jewish people were not generally welcomed. The family must have decided to renounce the faith. We surmised that at some point, the family name was changed from a Jewish name after leaving Lithuania. Again, it is unclear. When this came to light, I was somewhat annoyed, but not because of the reasoning behind the family’s decision. It was the fact that being unaware of their faith meant I had missed being part of all those great times at the Jewish Youth Club!
Anne and I married on 1st April 1961 - but by no means were we April Fools! The ceremony was held at 1 o’clock, thus missing the Noon deadline, and as many couples chose to do so at that time – we could claim our tax back for the year! The wedding took place at St. Matthew’s Church in Chapel Allerton, followed by a reception at the Mansion House in Roundhay Park.
We were blessed with two children, Phillip and Deborah. They loved their school days at Wigton Moor Primary in Alwoodley. Transition to senior school proved difficult, with many of their friends choosing to attend schools in Harrogate. Thus, we moved to Harrogate and have enjoyed living here ever since. Eventually, I left Plant Hire behind, turning to the world of swimming pools - or rather their design, construction and installation. But enough of me – I haven’t told you of my Grandfather’s inspiring achievements.
Len as a child with his parents
As Headmaster of Lower Wortley School, Leeds it became a familiar sight of children arriving for school without socks and shoes as they were from families near to destitution. My grandfather was extremely concerned, fearing the children would be mocked. He set up a scheme in 1920, whereby outgrown socks, boots and shoes would be given to those children. Of course, it was no guarantee that the footwear would always be the correct size. But this must have been welcomed by all, to see the children clad in warm socks and sturdy footwear. From there the ‘Boots for Bairns’ charity was born, a joint initiative by the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Education Department. It was a huge success, with over 12,000 pairs of boots and socks being donated to children all over the city within six months.
Another passion in his working life was Gardens for Schools but little is known of this venture. I do remember his own garden had a lawn like a billiard table which no-one was allowed to set foot on. He also owned an old bus and would, with colleagues and friends, take children to see the countryside as so many of them seldom saw any grass where they lived and had never seen animals such as cows and sheep.
Jim and Anne Gordon on their wedding day
The major event my Grandfather shared responsibility though was for Leeds Children’s Day. After the First World War, there was a lack of decent housing in Leeds with overcrowding of large families, many seeking Poor Relief and with subsequent poor health. Several teachers were concerned that children couldn’t reach their full potential due to this - and the fact that they never left the immediate area where they lived. Three teachers in particular (T.V. Harrison, Archie Gordon and Arthur Thornton) realised something had to be done and formed the Teachers’ Charities. This was in 1920, the same year as the ‘Boots for Bairns’ project. Plans were then made for an annual outing to Roundhay Park. Children’s Day was born!
Modest as it was in its infancy, many children were in fancy dress and enjoyed a picnic in the park, but the ideas soon grew, leading to the formation of Leeds Elementary Schools’ Sports Association. Funding was needed for their plans to increase sporting facilities and set up a campsite near Ilkley, so it was agreed that Children’s Day would be a fund-raiser for this to benefit Leeds children. The Sports Association was later to become Leeds Schools’ Athletics Association with whom Archie Gordon, my Grandfather, worked tirelessly throughout his life.
Children’s Day started small but soon rose to being the event of the year and was the envy of much of the country. As each year’s closed, preparations commenced for the following year, to make it bigger and better. The children’s involvement made for a happy and much healthier way of living. Sporting activities in schools led to heats in various venues, the finals being held at Roundhay Park. Massed displays of P.T., skipping and dancing: Maypole, English Country, European and Scottish. A mass of colour and spectacle, particularly when seen from Hill 60. Children’s Day had its own Queen and attendants, the crowning ceremony on the Arena being one of the highlights. Other competitions taking place in schools ranged from handwriting to healthy teeth, with the prize-winners being awarded at Roundhay Park. A very popular event was the Bonny Baby Competition.
I won a coveted Silver Spoon for this – although I have to admit they were presented by my Grandmother at Children’s Day! At its peak, up to 100,000 people visited the event, entire families supporting and enjoying the fun day. However, over the years the crowds reduced due to other leisure opportunities available, and foreign travel. Ever at the mercy of the weather, the sun didn’t always shine even though it was held in early July. In 1963 the whole day was a washout. The Queen was crowned on the staircase of the Mansion House, with all events cancelled. It was time to call an end to Children’s Day.
Some years ago, a lady called Susan Green contacted me regarding the history of Children’s Day for a book she was writing. Published in 1995, I am proud to own a copy of such wonderful memories.
I’m sure it can be understood just how much of a determined and inspirational man Archie Gordon was, up to his death in 1955. The Leeds Schools Sports Association had bought a large piece of land at Kirkstall to provide sporting facilities for children and dedicated it to his memory in 1956. It was named the Archie Gordon Ground. In 2011, Leeds Rugby Foundation opened a state-of- the-art facility at which I was proud to cut the ribbon and make a speech. My son Phil and grand-daughter Chloe accompanied me. So, three generations of the Gordon family were present to see the name of Archie Gordon live on.
Back to the present now. On the 1st April 2021 my wife Anne and I will celebrate our Diamond wedding anniversary! Still being under Lockdown of course, but a visit to Roundhay Park will certainly be on the agenda.
Last year we answered an advert in the Harrogate Advertiser for MHA Communities who’d recently opened a new scheme in the town to enable older people to maintain their independence and live more fulfilled lives. Our membership confirmed, we then went into Lockdown. Like everyone else we just await the day when we can get on with our lives again. We now look forward to meeting up with MHA Communities in Harrogate, joining in their activities and making new friends. We’re lucky to have such good friends; we like to play golf and enjoy travel, having visited America several times, staying with friends. Cruises too, another one maybe? Next year I aim to take all the family to Lithuania and visit Marijampole – where my family’s story began!
Jim and Anne in 2020
More Shine a Light Stories.
Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.