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Byron Rogers meets Tony Ireson, a man who stood firm against his town's developers
This article appeared in the Saga Magazine August 2001
I must recommend a book to you. I have never started an article in this way before, but this is no ordinary book. "Old Kettering and its Defenders" was written by Tony Ireson, who then had to publish it himself, for London publishers thought it only of local interest. This will tell you as much as you need to know about the state of publishing today, for the book should be required reading for anyone who has lived through the last 40 years.
There were Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse once, War, Pestilence, Famine and Death. Now there are Six. In the 1960s, out of nowhere there came the Councillor and the Developer, nondescript men in suits, but their impact on the little towns of Britain has been more devastating, and will last longer, than that unleashed by any of the others. Not the cities, mark you, the towns.
What became of my town, and yours? Where are the alleys now, the old walls, the squares, the little shops? More to the point, where is their past? Until our time a town was an organic thing, shaped by a its inhabitants, growing as their fortunes grew, declining with theirs; you had only to stand and look around you to read its history as in the rings of a tree. And a each town was different. Not now. They could be anywhere now. It is not your town or mine any more, but mere details on balance sheets far away.
You have all seen the result, the canyons of supermarkets and multi-storey car parks, the multiple shops, Etam and Next and Boots, the brutal geometry of glass and concrete, the silence of death in the pedestrianised precincts after six o'clock in the evening. You have only to go away for 10 years and you return like Rip Van Winkle, unable to recognise anything. But why, and how? You have asked these questions and been puzzled, for nobody answers them, certainly no local newspaper.
"Old Kettering and its Defenders" is the first book to explain in detail what happened to one town, but it is also the story of your town and mine, as the desolation came.
|Tony Ireson was born, and has lived all his life, in Kettering, working on
its evening paper before he became editor of Garden News. In 1947 he and his wife Rene
moved into a beautiful l8th-century cottage bang in the middle of the town. Fifty years
on, and a widower, Tony Ireson is still here.
Everything he knew around him has gone, his garden, his trees, his gates, even the lane on which the house was built. That is a modern thoroughfare now. On one side of him, just feet away, is a bleak line of modern stores. On the other, blotting out the light, is a shopping mall.
For the cottage was also bang in the middle of Phase II of what was called Kettering's "commercial redevelopment". And Tony Ireson, on whom the world called with compulsory purchase orders, stayed on. The Daily Mail hired a helicopter last year to photograph his cottage from the air. LWT, thinking to include it in the series Houses from: Hell, sent a television crew, only to decide at the last minute against its inclusion on the grounds that it was too beautiful. And it is beautiful, it is a gem, except that in its location it is as extraordinary as a motte and bailey castle, still inhabited, in the High Street.
Tony Ireson, suffering from arthritis, is housebound now, which, as he said wryly, is not without its compensations. "People ask, how can I bear it? If I can't go out, I don't see what's happened. If I don't have my glasses on, I can pretend the shopping mall is Hampton Court. Why not? Brick's the same colour."
You will have gathered from that brief quotation that he is not an ordinary man. Only there is more. From his cottage, with the earth-movers prowling like dinosaurs, with dust being thrown up to the point where he once said that, not only did he now know all the topsoils of Northamptonshire, he had tasted them, Tony Ireson, starting in his late seventies, has written and published a history of the town he knew. He is now on his seventh volume. "There comes a time in a man's life when the fruit's ready for plucking, you know," he said airily. Tony Ireson is 87 now.
There are other things you need to know. This is a man who had never taken part in any public protest, who had ignored, even on his own admission looked down on, local government, who in the later stages of his professional life ambled around Britain interviewing gardeners and inspecting their work. A bit like Johnny Appleseed really. But then the 1960s came.
"What I hadn't realised was that there was a new kind of councillor. In the old days, if you were good at business you got on to the council and things were well run. But then local government got political, people got on to the council as a reward for their political services, and there was a new, ambitious breed, again like fruit, ripe for plucking. But I blame it on the developers really. They were the pluckers.
"You had these narks travelling the country, trying to talk councils into redevelopment, holding out the promise that this would cost the taxpayers nothing, and the threat that if they didn't agree to it their town would be left behind. It was like selling rifles to a savage tribe."
Kettering had no civic society then. No town did, no town had needed one. They knew nothing about the details of opposition, that in a dispute with Town Hall policy they would need to meet their own legal expenses, and, a supreme irony, as ratepayers, those of the council as well. This, as Tony Ireson says, was like expecting Londoners during the Blitz to pay for the petrol of the Luftwaffe. They did not know because they had never had a need to know.
They had left it to the Town Hall, secure in the knowledge that the Town Hall had never done very much. Kettering was a small market town, its population 30,000, based on the shoe trade. Like most small towns it was not beautiful, but it was interesting. It had its old buildings and its myths, like the patriotic landlord of the Royal Hotel who, when a visiting Queen Victoria needed to spend a penny, not only kept the chamber pot, but its contents, and the whereabouts of the bottle of "Queen Victoria's Water" was known as late as the 1930s.
Kettering, in short, was ripe for the plucking. A great deal of plucking attends this account. The first anyone knew was that in July, 1960, the Borough Council submitted a map to the Ministry of Housing which showed its proposed redevelopment. Nobody even knew it had been contemplating such a thing. There had been no debate in public, and no newspaper reports: this was policy as a Soviet Politburo would have understood it.
The first reaction came from local architects, their pride stung at not being involved, who sent a letter to every councillor, pointing out the implications of a scheme which involved the demolition of 50 shops, of 30 streets, and the creation of a new dual carriageway inner ring road with seven roundabouts. There were to be five areas tackled in turn, of which, 40 years on, just part of the first has been completed. The scale still takes the breath away.
The next revelation came in a fit of pique from a firm of London developers, whose plan had actually been turned down on the grounds that it was too ambitious, so God alone knows what they had proposed. What the company did reveal was that the Council had been in secret talks with it and with another firm for two years, without even telling either they were in competition.
So the characteristics of modern redevelopment were there from the start. First, the plans had been drawn up far from the town by strangers. Second, there was secrecy.
The alderman in charge, a man called Crayford, actually said, "It is not fair for the councillors to be swayed by the views of the public or the press. This is something they must make up their own minds about." You might like to read that again. A council about to make the biggest decision a council would ever take felt no need to consult the community which had elected it, whose lives this would affect.
The details emerged: there were to be four new stores, 64 new shops, a 10-storey block of offices or flats, an 80-bedroom hotel, and a multistorey car park. But things began to go wrong. Exit, in 1965, the second developer on the grounds that the plan was uneconomic.
Enter a new firm, with a new plan. Eighty shops in place of the existing 45, "possibly" a multistorey hotel, "probably" two 17-storey blocks of flats. Because this would involve compulsory purchase, there was a public inquiry by a Ministry inspector, and at this point Tony Ireson got involved, to the extent of submitting a letter to the inquiry, for his own house would disappear. But he did not attend its proceedings, for, like just about everyone else then, he thought "progress" inevitable. The inspector approved the first stage of the plan.
But then, in 1967, Tony Ireson read a remarkable letter from Ted Rowlands MP referring to a country-wide frenzy of local authorities and developers. The result, wrote Mr Rowlands, was going to be "a concrete wasteland of unwanted shops and offices" in town centres, where there had once been communities, and life after 6pm.
For the first time someone in public life had questioned "progress", but not only that, the people of Kettering now realised they were not alone, for the agony and the lunacy of such schemes had until then been beneath the notice of national newspapers.
In the town, news continued to creep out under the doors. In 1971 it emerged that the developers, for the second rime, had withdrawn, again because the scheme was uneconomic. Only later did it emerge that they had withdrawn 14 months earlier. Then something amazing happened, Kettering Council announced that it would go it alone. It was to be redevelopment on the rates, for whatever else these men lacked, it was not self confidence.
In March, 1972, they announced that Ireson's cottage was to go, and, with it, Beech House, a stately home across the lane, part of which was built in Queen Anne's time. The wife of the chairman of the development committee, Bob Denney, and herself a councillor, voted saying, "We don't want to give our family jewels away." By then this remarkable Council had formed its own opposition, subsidising a Civic Society, I which immediately started to campaign against them under the banner "SAVE BEECH HOUSE". This was black comedy with a vengeance.
The famous got involved, with the poet John Betjeman promising his support, but the Council went its bizarre way, debating whether a reporter from the local paper should be allowed into its proceedings. Unable to decide, it adjourned itself and hired a PR firm. A man from a London estate agent acting for the Council called on Tony Ireson, and bleakly informed him that he could expect two more crops from the glory of his garden, a fig tree. He then picked a fig, ate it, and left. In 1972 a compulsory purchase order was served on Mr Ireson.
There was a second public inquiry, on the eve of which the DOE deepened the black comedy by suddenly promoting Beech House from Grade Three to Grade Two in its listings.
There were objections from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Georgian Group. Even the Royal Fine Arts Commission later asked for the development to be reconsidered. But the inspector still approved the plan. "He said yes, but he never said why," said Tony Ireson.
It was at this point, familiar to those of you who watch Westerns, that one man got cross. "When I went abroad and saw what they had kept I felt like a citizen of the Roman Empire among the barbarians when I came home."
On February 20, 1974, Tony Ireson watched the demolition of Beech House begin. It took three weeks, and his cottage was to be next, except chat during those three weeks someone from the estate agent called to say diffidently that, if he so chose, he might stay on, though his garden would have to go. A startled Ireson, who had been glumly looking at other houses, was encouraged by a friend, the novelist J. L. Carr, who said, "Human beings can get used to almost anything." He decided to stay on, and his garden was at its finest, the flowers out, the fruit already on the trees, when in July he watched the bulldozers tear everything up.
There were weeks of Hell and dust, in the course of which he pleaded unsuccessfully for his fig tree. His wife Irene had died in 1961; had she lived, he says now, he would not have stayed on. "It was complete madness, it would not have been fair to ask that of a woman."
After the garden went the building of the road began, on the edge of which he abruptly found himself, and, after the road, the start of work on the shopping mall opposite. This had its strange moments, as, with everything else demolished, he had for two months his first, and last, glimpse of the roofs of old Kettering from his cottage, which he had never been able to see before. But as the mall rose the shadows fell. And each night, after the bedlam of the day, there was the absolute silence in which he now found himself alone.
September, 1975, was the cruellest month of all, for, after all he had been through, the Council now informed him it still wanted his cottage. But then, in another bewildering twist, it announced in March, 19'I6, that he could stay. Ireson, like Ben Gunn, was marooned in the centre of Kettering. But, unlike Ben Gunn, he had a typewriter.
"I came to think of him in terms of Tobruk," said Arthur Heath, chairman of Kettering Civic Society for 30 years now. "Just as Rommel went round that, so the Council went round him." Only this Tobruk didn't fall.
"He rang me up one day," said Mr Heath, "said he'd seen an advert in the local paper that the Council was opening its books to the public for a day. Apparently councils are obliged to do this, and of course nobody goes. But we did, and it was as though we'd thrown a bomb at them.
"They even brought the Chief Executive back from holiday and he, nice as anything, invited us to his new offices in what had been the old Boys' Grammar School, and never asked us what we thought of them. Tony didn't bat an eye, I shall never forget this, he said, `When I was here, this was an urinal.'
"They gave us the books, bound in leather, but of course we didn't have the foggiest what to look for. I suggested a cup of tea might help, and, unbelievably, a secretary was sent home for two cups, two saucers, spoons and four biscuits. We drank the tea, ate the biscuits, and all we found out was that the Mayor's old car used more petrol than the new one."
But one of their number knew exactly where to look, which is how such remarkable little details emerged as the fact that the Council, desperate for tenants in its shopping mall, had let a supermarket to Sainsbury's for a ground rent of £60 a week, and a store to Boots for less than £40. As one businessman said, "I have seen better deals pulled off by Boy Scouts in a bob-a-job week."
In retirement the councillors are unrepentant. "You had to have progress," said Alderman Bob Denney. "If we hadn't done what we did Kettering would have been a stagnant old place. Instead of which, we have a nice new shopping centre."
But some footnotes cast a long shadow. A retired borough surveyor protests that, like a Nazi general, he had only been acting under orders. An anonymous gift of £500 to the Civic Society at the peak of its opposition turns out to have come from Geoffrey de Freitas, then MP for Kettering, who in public made no comment. But between them, the silent and the enthusiastic, they did for Kettering.
Except that a typewriter taps on, as one man tries to put down everything, everything, about the town he once knew. And no-one will again. Tony has now written six volumes of "Old Kettering - A View from the 1930s"
Arthur Heath, bemused by his experiences, wrote a novel about them, which was published last year (St Gyp-in-Mowsden). The councillors and developers of Kettering alone remain mute.
Details for obtaining Tony Ireson's and Arthur Heath's books are on the publications page
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The Following article is from the August 10th 2000 edition of Country Life
by kind permission of the editor.
Country Life can be found on the web at www.countrylife.co.uk
CLIVE ASLET meets the sort of man that every English town should have. TONY IRESON, writer and historian, has fought to defend the centre of Kettering, including his own cottage, from brutal redevelopment.
The centre of Kettering, in Northamptonshire, is a car park, a shopping centre and a scramble of featureless roads. In the very middle of this urban disaster, like an 18th-century aria just making itself heard above a cacophony of car horns, is a perfect ironstone cottage with its green door and windows, bed of lilies and beech hedge - it is called Beech Cottage - it could have been transplanted from a poster for the English Tourist Board. But it has not been transplanted from anywhere. It has always been here. Then the ghastliness of late 1960s and 1970s development came rolling in on all sides. The fact that this one little cottage survives to remind people of what Kettering used to be is the result of an epic conservation battle, waged by its occupant: Tony Ireson, the town's historian.
Mr Ireson, now 87, is the sort of man that every English town should have. He is the keeper of the flame. To date, he has published eight books on local history, all at his own expense, and another, which includes a chapter on Kettering's Members of Parliament, is on the way. He has been given an honorary MA by University College, Northampton, for his major contribution, as a historian, to the county. He receives a succession of visitors, seeking local knowledge or sharing memories, in the parlour of Beech Cottage, the walls of which are closely hung with watercolours painted by his father, Christopher, in the 1920s. In those days, this provincial town, famous for its shoe factories, possessed a flourishing artistic life. Its most famous artistic son was Sir Alfred East, who became president of the Royal Society of British Artists. Architecturally, Kettering could boast the first provincial president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, John Alfred Gotch, also the author of many books; his brother Thomas Cooper Gotch was an accomplished painter, some of whose rather morbid works can be seen in the art gallery. Sadly, Christopher Ireson's watercolours do not often show local scenes, most having been worked up from sketches made during the First World War, when he was stationed in Greece. He died in 1925, aged 41. The ghastliness of late 1960s and 1970s development came rolling in on all sides. The fact that this one little cottage survives to remind people of what Kettering used to be is the result of an epic conservation battle, waged by its occupant: Tony Ireson, the town's historian
These days, Tony Ireson never leaves Beech Cottage. He accepts the infirmities of age with good humour, and nothing ruffles the old-fashioned courtesy of his manner. `Let me leap up and get it for you,' he will say of some book, as his electrically operated armchair makes its slow ascent from the seated to vertical position. no doubt his wry sense of humour helped him through the dark years of Beech Cottage, when his garden was obliterated by a road and his view of l8th-century Beech House replaced by that of a car park. The sense of humour must veil a fair supply of Midlands stubbornness.
Parts of the Kettering in which Mr Ireson grew up survive: the church, the market, the railway station, the library-cum-art gallery-cum-war memorial. Predominantly red brick, old Kettering still radiates a sense of Edwardian civic pride. But comprehensive redevelopment destroyed the pattern of old, tree-lined lanes, gardens, shoe-working sheds, leather warehouses, stables, smithies, printers' offices and bakehouses that swarmed up the hill, in what had been Victorian Kettering's most bustling district. Also sacrificed was the theatre, formerly Victoria Hall, known as the Vic.
In old Kettering, the cottages of the poor stood just next to the houses of the town's prosperous shoe-making and banking citizens. The poverty was real. 'At school, I envied the son of a local newspaper editor because he could put his toe through a hole in his shoe and scratch the pavement with his toenail as he walked along. I envied that, but it shows the state of his footwear.' When the buildings of the steelworks at Corby, nine miles away, began in the 1930s, the labour exchange occupied a little cottage in what was then no more than a village. Mr Ireson remembers the queues of would-be workers stretching for 200yd. But Kettering remained a 'very well-behaved town', in which poor shoe workers did not think of robbing their rich neighbours. 'They were on Christian-name terms, because the rich people had often worked their way up from a bench in the factory.'
Mr Ireson comes from a family of stonemasons - hence, perhaps, his instinct for buildings. Some of his great-uncle's handiwork can be seen on the wall of Beech Cottage. During the First World War, to realiase his anxiety about his son at the front, he would carve a stone head. Eventually, he produced some 60 of them. On his death, they were divided among the family and those that. Mr Ireson inherited were mounted on the front wall. The features of wartime leaders, such as Lloyd George, can he recognised. Mr Ireson's father worked in the Family business until his untimely death.
In the late 1920s, when Mr Ireson began work, stonemasonry did not promise much of a future. Instead, he went into journalism, as a reporter on the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph. I remember starting work on the worst day of the Depression. Not a very good day to negotiate a few, bob to live on.' Later, he found the perfect billet as one of the founding staff of the gardening paper Garden News, where he finally became editor. The aim of the publication was to bring readers reports of the events and personalities that were making news at every level of gardening round Britain. A decade after his wife's death in 1961, his experience as a journalist led naturally to a retirement writing books.
The first of the books, Old Kettering and It's Defenders describes the campaign to prevent Beech Cottage being demolished. This was the iniquitous age when councils, bamboozled by developers, were able to use their powers of compulsory purchase to provide sites for commercial development. The tragedy for Kettering is that the result was not only an aesthetic disaster but no great commercial success. Many of the sites in the Newlands Centre, as the new shopping precinct is called, are empty or occupied by low-calibre shops. It would be enough to make a man bitter. Not Tony Ireson. He looks upon the councillors of that time as 'poor misguided creatures'. They were conned into thinking that the town would fade away if they did not modernise their facilities. Some ideas have changed since then: the old shoe factories are now being converted for loft living. But the architecture of the new housing estates with which Kettering is now being ringed looks all too much like another urban catastrophe in the making.
Tony Ireson (1913 - 14th Feb 2002)
A Tribute to Tony Ireson by Paul Ansell Chairman of Kettering Civic Society
"Need you ask so many questions?" I remember the White Rabbit asking Alice. With the curiosity and inquisitiveness of a child came the regular flow of questions from Tony, yet, as behind Alice, was a very intelligent author. I'm sure this curiosity in Tony was something, like his impish charm, he was born with.
His family had been stonemasons and carvers for several generations, and men working with craftsman's skill and natural products-usually stone, was Tony's childhood background. His cousin was Archie Ireson. Having reached 88years, he could look back over a lifetime of change. Being taken as a child by the family horse and cart had been a pleasure particularly if given the chance to hold the reigns. Lately he was a proud Triumph car owner.
As a journalist he would now be an E-mail man. It's not hard to see how this early upbringing developed in him a love of the countryside and carefully crafted buildings set in it. Having been educated locally and worked locally, he never really wanted to leave Kettering even though he spoke with some fondness of India. As a journalist, my link back to Alice, has a more serious side. Tony's questions were always searching for answers, put in an intelligent way, with thought behind them but never a vicious or scandalous edge. Where he considered he might be personally hurtful, he left things unsaid. I like to think this was the Christian side of Tony. In 1954 he wrote his first published book 'Northamptonshire History' which was to become a best seller. With an ear for local phrases and expressions, he picked up and incorporated the way Northamptonshire people were, into his writing. Photographic illustrations were his also.
From the Civic Society, we remember him as a founder member. The Town will remember Tony's Civic Society work in connection with Kettering Town Centre Redevelopment and particularly the saving of Beech Cottage, which now stands as a memorial to him and a reminder to the town of how things were. It is now a Gallery of his father's paintings. All towns grow and evolve and it was the caring side of this evolution of Kettering with which Tony associated himself. It was for his 'Care Quality' that I think everyone respected him.
There was always a sense of humour with what he said and did. During the Build-up to Kettering entering the Redevelopment Epidemic of the 1970's local politicians held meetings to win converts to their cause. At one of these meetings, Tony was to display his impish side.
Chaired by Councillor Barry Chambers, a full meeting, mostly of Politically minded folk, was joined at the back of the audience by Tony and a fellow Civic Society member. Heads turned, people murmured, and the chairman looked pensively and then launched into reasons why Kettering Town Centre should best be Blitzed and rebuilt. Tony proceeded to noisily unzip his briefcase and took out a clipboard and at the top of the sheet of paper wrote a short sentence. In front of Tony sat Alderman Len Smith. Tony tapped his shoulder and passed the clipboard to him. "Sign that please"... Len did and Tony urged with a dramatic whisper "Pass it on..." Gradually the board went round the whole seated audience who one by one signed the petition before it eventually came back to Tony. At this point, the other Civic Society member was able to read the petition, which read... 'SAVE THE WHALES'. The Chairman didn't know what had so broken the concentration of the audience but in a move, which Gatling Fen himself would have been proud of, Tony's impishness was well demonstrated and the meeting deflated.
Tony took early retirement to devote more time to opposing the development of the Newborough Centre, eventually saving Beech Cottage which I guess everyone will now try to save. What an irony.... Arrangements were made during the 70's for his cottage and we wait enthusiastically to learn what Tony had in mind. After Newborough Twin Towers crumbled, Tony devoted much of his time to writing and at the time of his death, he was nearing the completion of his 8th book.
Through all of Tony's investigations and missions he was caringly supported by 'Rene' his devoted wife and always accompanied by their spaniel. It was Rene's enthusiasm for gardening, which gave the grounds of Beech Cottage its charming appearance. As editor of Garden News he no doubt sought other helpful advice and he occasionally made mention of special plants that had come from the Chelsea Flower Show.
Civic matters always remained in his mind and he was a regular behind the scenes, worker and mentor. Lately it was the Civic Society secretary who called on him regularly to bring his thoughts back to our meetings. Tony has left us with memories of a charming intelligent, innocent man whose care for the world around him has left us a model in society to look up to and a conscience to protect and care for what is good. T
The Civic Society and The Town say 'Good Bye' to one of it's GREATEST DEFENDERS.
History Man Dies by Tony Smith from the Evening Telegraph February 4th 2002
Tributes have been pouring in following the death of veteran author, local historian and heritage campaigner Tony Ireson at the age of 88.
The former Evening Telegraph journalist campaigned against the controversial redevelopment of Kettering town centre in the 1970s and won a personal battle to save his historic home, Beech Cottage,from the bulldozers. He died in the town's general hospital on Friday after a short illness.
He wrote a best-selling book, Old Kettering and Its Defenders, about the bitter fight to preserve some of the town's best-loved old buildings, which were demolished to make way for the Newborough Centre (nom Newlands). He penned a further six books about his beloved home town and was working on a seventh when he died.
Born in April, 1913, he was the son of Christopher Ireson, a monumental mason and well known local landscape artist, whose watercolours adorned the living room of the Tanners Lane cottage, which dated back to the l8th century.
Mr Ireson was educated at Kettering Grammar School, joined the ET as a junior reporter in 1929 and left as special features writer almost 30 years later. He became the paper's most authoritative reporter and acknowledged expert on his native county, researching and compiling the official souvenir marking the ET's Golden Jubilee in 1947.
His newspaper career had been interrupted by the Second World War, when he served as an RAF mechanic in India, and he later wrote what is widely recognised as the definitive book on the history of Northamptonshire as part of the Robert Hale county series.
Published in 1954, all 2,500 copies sold out in just two weeks, to be followed by numerous reprints. After leaving the ET, he ended his working life as editor of the magazine Garden News, but in retirement forged a new career as an author of local history. He was 71 when he published his first book on Kettering - the warts and all - account of the Gold Street redevelopment scheme of the 60s and 70s.
Mr Ireson was a life member of the County Record Society, contributing many articles to its annual magazine Northamptonshire Past and Present, Northamptonshire Life and the Northampton and County Independent. He was also one of the founder members of Kettering Civic Society, formed specifically to fight the borough council's revamp of Gold Street which led to the demolition of the old Post Office buildings and historic Beech House.
Picturesque Beech Cottage, in the grounds of Beech House, goes back to Queen Anne days and became Tony's home in 1941. He remained there after his wife Rene sad death In I961. In I975 he won a protracted battle with town planners who wanted to demolish his home to create a service road to the new multi-storey car park next to the proposed shopping centre.
"I felt under siege," he said. "They tried very hard to get me out with a compulsory purchase order, but after studying the plans in detail, I found they didn't really need it. My lawyers made the most of this and we won the day." Mr Ireson still lost 70ft of his 72ft front garden and his view of the orchard behind, but in later years became resigned to being sandwiched between the Newlands and the more recent Tanners Gate development
|An aerial view of his idyllic home surrounded by concrete featured on page three of
the Daily Mail last summer when he also featured in
Saga magazine and
Country Life, whose editor Clive
Aslet said in his article:
"Mr Ireson is the sort of man that every town should have - he is the keeper of the flame."
Up to his death he remained tireless in his one-man quest to record as much of Kettering's history as mortality would allow, writing and publishing six volumes in his Old Kettering - A View From The 1930s series of books.
In 1993, Kettering Civic Society presented Mr Ireson with its coveted silver rose bowl for his third volume of town memories and last year his contribution to local history was recognised when University College, Northampton, awarded him an honorary MA degree in history and literature.
Mr Ireson leaves no family, but his selfless humanity and love for his home town and its people will live on for those who were privileged to know him.
Passing of the town's defender - ET February 7th 2002
The late Tony Ireson was a highly-respected journalist of the old school, a true gentleman of the press who lived by old-fashioned values of decency, honesty and fair play.
If this humble homage reads like idolatry, it is because this mercurial "man of the people" was my idol. He was also my friend and Kettering shrank a little with his sudden death aged 88 on Friday - still putting the final touches to his eighth book about his beloved birthplace.
He was without doubt the town's greatest ambassador and the best-known journalist in the ET's history. With his indomitable spirit, you thought he was indestructible (we had a long-standing joke that I would cover his 100th birthday!).
He inspired and supported my three pictorial history books on Kettering. A lesser man may have resented this "upstart" moving into his territory but to Tony, it was "all grist to the mill" and we often helped each other with research.
He gladly wrote the foreword to my first book, reviewed my second in the ET and I dedicated my third to him - a gesture he insisted was "undeserved". Typically, when I treated him to dinner at a country pub five years ago (on the pretext of celebrating my second book) he was still thanking me weeks later.
I was then, at 42, exactly half his age but we shared an impish sense of humour (he loved TV's Blackadder and Private Eye magazine) and led spookily parallel lives. Both our fathers died young (his at 41, mine at 44), both of us were Kettering Grammar School boys who went on to work on the ET for 29 years, me for 30), each ending up as feature writers. But here the similarity ended - I was I mere "apprentice", he would always be the "master".
As a cub reporter, Tony helped cover the inquest and funeral of the great Charles Wicksteed, one of his weekly contacts. In his living room is a picture of Tony looking dapper in top hat and tails when he attended the present Queen's wedding in 1947. I always teased him as his front page byline was elevated to the grander "Anthony Ireson" for his despatch from Westminster Abbey!
|Entering his home, Beech Cottage, was like stepping back in time. His words of wisdom were tapped
out on a cranky I523 Remington typewriter as he listened to his clockwork radio, his more modern 1950 Imperial kept upstairs for burning the midnight oil. He never really embraced
new technology, once quipping "I may acquire an internet set-up to play with when I get old."
He was both bemused and amused by the media scrum which followed a Daily Mail article on his cottage last summer. For several days he was besieged by TV crews from Anglia, Central and even Sky News but he turned down Breakfast TV as he never got up THAT early for anyone.
LWT filmed him for the programme Houses From Hell, only to decide at the last minute that his cottage - although surrounded by modern monstrosities - was too beautiful to be included. When they sent him the unedited tapes, he acquired his own "video replay device" (as he called it) although I offered to play them on mine. Needless to say he had no idea how to operate it!
Like many of his generation, he could be stubbornly independent. He never complained if feeling under the weather and said he "thoroughly enjoyed" his spell in hospital over Christmas, 1998, after breaking his hip in a fall. He summoned an anxious cook to his bedside after one meal, only to congratulate her on the much maligned hospital food!
Tony loved, being in the heart of the town, where friends could drop in, and exiled Cytringanians wrote from afar with their reminiscences, which he felt duty bound to put into print. "I don't wish to sound morbid," he told me, "But the Old Reaper is approaching so I've just got to get on with it."
Despite being robbed of his beautiful front garden by the realigned Tanners Lane, he became resigned to his view of the multistorey car park opposite. "If I so wish I can pretend its Hampton Court," he said, "It's the same colour."
Insight into the world of an author
The infirmities of old age never halted Tony's quest to record local history. From his Beech Cottage fortress he enlisted a willing army of helpers, yours truly doing much of the leg-work and research for his final forthcoming book.
I was one of 25 local people who also provided testimonies for a secret (but unsuccessful) campaign to get him an MBE. Maybe the fact that he dared to take on the system and won counted against him.
Every other week we exchanged letters or spoke by phone. I last visited three weeks before his death, to receive his customary grilling over town gossip and the news behind the headlines. More often than not, he knew more about what was going on than I did!
His letters were peppered worth priceless nuggets of nostalgia. After my holiday in Sri Lanka in 1997, he wrote: "Thanks for the Ceylon postcard. When 1 was there 50 years ago, 1 was based on a Dutch ship anchored in the harbour. The Japs were invading the Dutch East Indies, while women and children were being shipped away."
When the Poppies got to Wembley, he recalled visiting the Empire Exhibition there in 1923 on a trip to visit an aunt. "It was like a small town and you could go round it on a 'never-stop' railway, which was driverless and slowed to a crawl at stations."
He even recalled the First World War: 'I remember being wheeled in my pushchair along Rockingham Road and a Special constable warning my mother not to show a light as a Zeppelin was about.
During a rare outing last June, I drove him around Kettering to see all the development of recent years. But he positively purred when the trip also took in the Broadway house where he was born and many of his childhood haunts.
On the day before his death 1 received a thank-you letter for sending material he wanted on a long-gone shoe factory. In a poignant final sentence, he rued: 'Most of my old mates are gone now, but just as vivid in memory as they ever were."