I grew up in a suburb of Leeds called Upper Armley. It was like a little village with several parks and playing fields. It had a sort of pastoral feel to it, but it’s not like that anymore. I’m going back 70 years.
I went to Northcote School, a private school for girls, from the ages of 11 to 15. Northcote School was in a big old Victorian house and our playground was a lovely garden. At the school we wore green skirts, with white shirts and green cardigans or green blazers and we had panama hats in the summer with a green band and in the winter, green felt hats. It was all very proper.
The headmistress of the school and my favourite teacher was Mrs Cox. She taught history, my favourite subject. Mrs Cox whetted my appetite for history by making it interesting. During a lesson on Henry VIII, she began: “Can you imagine a man with six wives and two of them he killed?” That caught your attention immediately.
There was nothing headmistressy about Mrs Cox, in that she didn’t wear a stern scowl. There was a calmness about her and while she disciplined us, she always did it in a gentle way. I wasn’t very good at arithmetic and that’s what I got little lectures about. “You can’t just be good in history and geography, Barbara,” she would say. “You love those subjects, but you are not interested in arithmetic and you must concentrate on that.”
Looking back I now realise that Mrs Cox was a woman of good character. She also had a warm personality, without being overfamiliar. She made the school a place I wanted to go to every day, because she ran it very well. There was a calm air about it and there weren’t many girls doing foolish things. The girls at the school were friends, which she encouraged, and we didn’t quarrel or fight.
While she wasn’t stern, she was serious about instilling in her girls propriety, good manners and looking nice when we came to school. My mum always had me looking as though I had been ironed and starched: my white shirt was pristine and crisp, my little shoes highly polished. She was very particular about how I looked and Mrs Cox always complimented her on the way she sent me to school.
Mrs Cox was 40ish, when I was 15. She was always quite well dressed. Her style was neat and tidy, but she had quite a little bit of flair with her clothes, as she would wear a brooch, a shawl or a blouse with a frill down the front.
I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes because my parents had always insisted that I pay attention. I wanted to learn and was hell-bent on a career in journalism. I wrote my first story when I was 10. It was about a little girl who wanted a pony. My mother sent it to a children’s magazine, and they published it. I confided in Mrs Cox that I wanted to be a journalist and she insisted that I take a course in shorthand and typing, with a teacher called Miss Smith.
It was Mrs Cox, along with my mother, who urged me to write stories. Sometimes, when Mrs Cox looked at them, she would say: “Oh, Barbara, you’ve been reading Zane Grey.” He wrote about the American West and some of my stories took on that flavour. Mrs Cox would smile and add: “You’re not to write about the American West because you only know it from Zane Grey, you must write about what you know.” She taught me quite a lot in that way.
It was Mrs Cox who encouraged Miss Smith to introduce me to the woman who ran the typing pool on the Yorkshire Evening Post and I was offered a job as a typist. When my parents objected to me leaving school at 15, it was Mrs Cox who was the diplomat. She said to my parents that I would not only be typing letters, but be trained to take copy on a typewriter from reporters out in the field.
After I started working for the Yorkshire Evening Post, in 1948, I occasionally went into school to say hello to Miss Smith and Mrs Cox and they were always very welcoming. When I left Yorkshire for Fleet Street, Mrs Cox knew, because she ran into my mother all the time. Mrs Cox once said to her: “You see, I told you Barbara would go far.” This made my mother very proud.
I met Mrs Cox again around 1979. She had retired and was still a lovely woman. She had great pride in what I had done, as a journalist. It made me feel good to see that pride in her, like she created me in a sense. But she hadn’t, I was my mother’s creation.
Barbara Taylor Bradford’s latest novel is The Cavendon Luck. She was speaking to Adeline Iziren
Barbara Taylor Bradford
Born 10 May 1933
Education Northcote Preparatory School for Girls
Career Typist and then reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post, fashion editor for Woman’s Own and columnist for the London Evening News, plus author of 29 bestsellers, including her debut novel, A Woman of Substance