To give it its full title, this anecdote is called ‘Hell hath no Fury – Like Big Jessie‘. Have a read, and you’ll find out exactly why…
The Widow Jessie
By Jock Kirkcaldy
Big Jessie was invisible as far as most of the members of Silverfield Golf Club were concerned. She had been a bit of a looker back in 1938, not long out of school, a typist in a big office pool and something of a mover when out at Fairley’s Ballroom which plied its trade in Leith Street Edinburgh opposite where the St James Centre now is. By the time I was at school in the mid 1960’s it had long since passed its peak and mysteriously went on fire.
Meantime things with Jessie had taken a turn for the worse. She started going steady with Bill Peden, who was a dashing guy when not working at the dockyard in Leith, but war loomed. Bill was in a reserved occupation and didn’t get called up immediately but by 1941 when Britain’s back was against the wall, Bill received his call up orders. He’d seen enough of ships’ construction and heard how they could blow up after a direct hit with a shell or torpedo and sink with almost all hands. So he decided, with the beautiful Jessie in mind, the Army would be a safer bet.
Bill went off to Redford Barracks in Edinburgh for his training and proved a good recruit. He soon heard he was going to be posted somewhere so he and Jessie got married on his last leave. They had a Registry Office wedding, some sort of “steak” pie dinner in a Leith pub and a few days at a B ‘n’ B in Leven across the water in Fife, as a honeymoon. Next thing Jessie knew Bill was in North Africa fighting Rommel’s Afrika Corps and alas just before the great break through at El Alamein he was killed. A stark telegram gave the bare bones but later Jessie received a touching letter from his captain that Bill had always been a keen and cheery soldier, had been marked out for promotion to Lance Corporal before being shot by a sniper as his infantry group had been advancing in the wake of a tank. It was as if the German soldier had seen in his sights Bill was a Tommy worth taking out. By this time however Jessie was pregnant and in due time Agnes was born. She looked like Bill to begin with but had Jessie’s red hair.
Things were tough in the war, Jessie lost her folks in an air raid, Bill’s family were grief stricken and moved away to look after elderly relatives and she lost touch with them. Agnes was a bit of a handful to bring up; she seemed to cry all the time and grew up into a right little madam running about with the Teddy boys in the mid 1950’s. Jessie picked up jobs as a cleaner when neighbours would mind Agnes for a bit. She didn’t have the stability at home to carry on as a secretary and let herself go a bit. By the late 1950’s she subsisted on 3 cleaning jobs, a lawyer’s office at dawn, Silverfield Golf Club 8 30 to 10 15 and an accountant’s office 6 30 to 8 30 pm. It sounds a lot but pay was poor, conditions non-existent and apart from a few kind people the now tubby greying lady who looked about 55 rather than 38 was ignored and invisible.
By this time her daughter Agnes had had to get married to Terry Palmer, a total spiv whose main claims to fame were an enormous Brylcreemed quiff and brothel creepers, coupled with a shiny purple finger length jacket over tight dark trousers. Jessie didn’t get this teenage thing but she reckoned Terry was a wrong ‘un and the whole setup wouldn’t last. Things were so bad with her and Agnes she wasn’t even invited to the wedding and only saw a photo of the couple in the Evening News headlined “Rock ‘n’ Roll “Wedding!” Agnes had her hair piled up and was wearing a frilly dress and white bobby sox. Jessie clipped out the picture and stuck in in her dressing table drawer.
Dreich Monday February 1958
It was a Monday morning in February 1958 when Jessie stepped out into the rain from her job at Beveridge and Kellas solicitors at the foot of Leith Walk. She was able to get a cup of tea and a buttered roll from the wee shop across the road. She tightened her head scarf and wrapped her thin coat over her housecoat while waiting for the No 8 bus. It was always late, but she just made her connecting bus to Silverfield Golf Club. A few members were out playing but the bar was shut, and she started there sweeping up the fag ends and dust then mopping the floor. Once the 9am to 9 30am players had gone out she could do the same thing in the locker room, and finally after hoovering the offices during the Secretary’s coffee break, she cleaned the Members’ Lounge. It was still quiet at this time though she had to be discreet as some golfers began to file in to be ready on hand when the bar shutters went up at 11 am.
There was one group of four mostly middle-aged men she didn’t like. Some days of the week they seemed to go out at dawn to play a round and were back by the time she cleaned the room, and other times they just seemed to stroll in, have a cup of tea from the kitchen and chat before getting down to the serious business of licensed hours. What really irked Jessie was that they showed no regard from her and worst of all in her book when she was running late and still had the lounge hoovering to do, they would never lift their feet for her, yet there would be complaints from their corner it was not clean. She mentally christened them as ‘The Bad Lads’, based on their manners and furtive actions. Clearly the oldest of this group of men had had a good war and when they came home had the pick of the girls to be dutiful wives. They would not end up a like widow Jessie. She didn’t listen to their chat and just concentrated on her job which she had grown to love. It was routine, it was safe and certain and all her employers were decent folk if not generous. She liked working on her own and had got used to speaking to few people let alone being spoken to in the passing.
The Bad Lads
These men however had been getting on her nerves. They never spoke to her but she could hear them whisper “Here comes that old bag again!” Jessie who had no aspirations began to have a desire to do something about these bastards, but what? She was too busy with the essentials of life to have much time for scheming, but one Saturday night while she was listening to Scottish Country Dance music on the radio and darning some of her work clothes she thought about the Bad Lads and wondered what they were up to as they didn’t seem to have regular jobs. She vowed in a quiet sort of way to keep more of an eye and ear on them starting on that February Monday morning.
Jessie became conscious of trying to work and listen at the same time, keeping within earshot, but at a safe distance. She realised with the hoover on she had no chance but just had to accept there would be a spell if she was working in the lounge and the Bad Lads were there, she could not make out any of their conversation. Fortunately the men were cocky and a shade reckless especially when the only other person in the room was an old bag they had dismissed from their view a long time ago.
She heard talk of a miner’s lamp and something hard ridden, mention of the Queen and relatives in Ireland. It didn’t make any sense until a week or so later, she realised that the men were talking about horse racing. That might explain how they always had newspapers with them, the Daily Express and the Noon Record, to name but two.
In the shop one morning when getting her tea and roll Jessie noticed the Daily Express had a fair coverage of horse racing and the Noon Record seemed to be devoted to racing, football and boxing and seemed devoid of any other news local or international. After a while Jessie noticed that three of the men had pens or pencils and seemed to make notes and use the telephone in the hall a lot, to make calls. Unfortunately the instrument was located in a booth with a door and opportunities to eavesdrop in the passing were non-existent. While the men were as dirty as most other members leaving copious amounts of cigarette ash, butts and empty packets on the floor, they never left any of their scribbles lying about but tore them up and put them in the bin beside the bar. Jessie made it her business to wrap up these pieces of paper and put them in a brown bag. She was careful to use her house gloves at all times.
Piecing the jigsaw
One Friday night despite being tired with the week’s work Jessie settled down after a tea of two slices of spam, some baked beans and tuppence worth of chips from the chip shop below her flat and to the strains of “Friday Night Is Music Night” on the BBC Light programme. She donned her gloves and set to work on a week’s worth of scribble jigsaw pieces. She could see different types of handwriting straight away- a bold fountain pen in blue ink with a jagged edge to it like her Dad’s writing, (that will be the Big Bastard, as she had christened the apparent leader), a less definite hand in a cheap pencil and recalled sweeping up some broken pencil leads from the corner seat occupied by Weedy Boy (her nickname for this individual) and a biro which Wide Boy (again her nickname) was wont to chew as sometimes a broken, chewed dead pen would be part of a day’s sweepings. It figured there were only three lots of writing, as the fourth member of the group Neddy Boy, as she christened him, was much younger and seemed more of a gopher.
Jessie usually went to bed after the music show ended at 10 pm but this night she didn’t feel tired and seemed to have a renewed burst of energy like Friday nights at Fairley’s circling the ball-room with Bill at full tilt. It was exciting too, like some days as a Secretary when you typed letters for the bosses about various deals that were on the go and occasionally when a contract was won there would be a small celebration in the office and once enough cash for an office dinner dance. Jessie couldn’t believe it when she noticed the clock was nearly showing 3 am. Her whole kitchen table was taken up with reconstituted torn and crumpled fragments of paper. It reminded her of a picture she had seen in the papers a few years ago when a plane which crashed due to metal fatigue had been pieced together by engineers in a hangar at Farnborough to fund out what had gone wrong.
Still a Few Bits Missing
Jessie’s puzzle was more simple but still left a bit of thinking. The scraps all revealed information about horse racing, jockeys like Lester Piggott, Charlie Smirke and Harry Carr who rode for the Queen, so vaguely registered in her blinkered world.
There were lots of horses’ names and the names of courses she recognised like Lincoln, Hurst Park, Kempton, Lanark, Bogside and Catterick to name a few. The Bad Lads were obviously betting men but so were many men in those days. Growing up in Leith even Jessie knew the corner boys or runners like wee Tommy at the end of her street who could get your money on a horse or lead you to a game of pitch and toss. She knew however that things were changing and as part of McMillan’s “you’ve never had it so good” Britain – which she didn’t recognise herself, betting shops could well become legal and a way of getting more money from the people without raising income tax. The fountain pen notes were in a different league and consisted mainly of figures and tables rather like the sheets of numbers she saw lying about when cleaning each evening at the accountants down in Constitution Street. That bit did puzzle her and Jessie decided to sleep on it. She did have to get up for her Saturday jobs and did the accountants’ offices at 2 pm after they had left for their half day and gone to the football. Despite the late night she didn’t feel tired.
Getting Into The Sport of Kings
Jessie bought a copy of the Noon Record that morning and when she had time to sit down with a cup of tea as she read through the paper. Later on with the football scores on the radio came the racing results and she noticed that most of the tips were hopeless and even to her beginner’s eye thought some horses had been run down the field with a string of 000’s for form, then trotted up on the day. Jessie did however read this organ from cover to cover even if she didn’t comprehend much. Further on there were yesterday’s results, stuff about greyhounds and football pools. Jessie had just about lost interest in this macho male stuff coupled with a hint of the country to her city girl past until her eye fell on a table in the bottom corner of the inside back page. It was entitled Field Money Table for a £100 book.
It showed the odds which could be offered to make a book on various bets wagered in a race and how to make a profit on most outcomes. Obviously if a hot favourite won and there was little money for the other runners, even paying out at odds on the bookie would lose but Jessie had read of “skinners” winning-horses no one fancied. Even if a housewife liked the name and had a shilling on at 50-1 no one else would have and the bookies would keep all or almost all in their satchels.
Jessie realised Big Bastard was an illegal bookie, and the scraps she had recovered were the bets taken and workings on the odds to ensure a decent profit. She knew from the table in the Noon Record fair odds offered would result in a total probability of 100% but it was clear Big Bastard tweaked the odds to “overround” the figures, as the Noon Record called it, to enhance profit or in the bookie’s argot “vigorish “, indeed the note “vig 20%” often featured at the foot of Big Bastard’s notes. Jessie recalled that Big Bastard kept a black notebook and she concluded the full figures would be in that, as opposed to the working drafts which she had gathered. The plan was formed. Jessie went out that afternoon before the shops shut to a stationer’s shop and bought a roll of Sellotape and a large envelope. She had worn gloves on this occasion although it was a warmer afternoon. Once home still wearing gloves she taped the notes together put them in an order and stuck them in an envelope.
Formulating a Plan
It took Jessie until Thursday of the following week to contrive a “bump meeting” with her supervisor at work at Silverfield, the Secretary’s assistant. She was at least a nice person who gave Jessie the time of day. In casual conversation Jessie enquired who the gentlemen were who came in early when she was cleaning the lounge. “Oh that’s Mr Rafferty, he’s well-to-do in business and the others work for him; Archie Howe, he’s a quiet one then there’s Donny MacLeod – he doesn’t say much as he’s always got a pen in his mouth; they’re not too bad lads, really” Miss Johnstone went on “after all they look after young Bobbie McElhone who hangs in with them – he’s not really the full shilling, if you know what I mean.” “Aye a ken,” replied Jessie and got on with her work, the conversation apparently forgotten on both sides.
At the earliest opportunity however Jessie had a look through the Register of Members’ names as she ostentatiously polished in the hall of Silverfield just behind the front door. It took a few trips to surreptitiously glance at the book, memorise details, scurry off and note them in a piece of paper stuffed in her apron then a last check to make sure she had the particulars correct. As she suspected the three older men were all members and lived at decent addresses – Daft Bobbie wasn’t joined up yet but was on the waiting list which conveniently lay nearby should any member wish to black-ball a new applicant.
The following weekend Jessie summoned up all her secretarial skills from nearly 20 years back to construct an anonymous letter as if from an outraged member of Silverfield Golf Club, complaining about a betting ring operating out of his club by a group of ne’er-do-well members. It took a while on the Monday night to type this letter out at the accountant’s office after all of the staff had gone home. Jessie was a bit out of practice but wanted her letter to be error free as if it came from someone of greater education than her, and of course, apparently from a man. Next day on her way to work at Silverfield, Jessie popped the letter in a postbox near to the club in Ravelston Dykes – a posh part of town.
Nothing seemed to happen for over a week, but then suddenly one morning as she was cleaning the lounge, several uniformed police officers arrived together with two detectives and made a bee-line for the group of four who had already taken their customary seats. The Secretary also appeared and Jessie was told to leave the room which she did with alacrity. Shortly afterwards she was able to see the four men being taken out of the club premises by the police and the detectives followed carrying a plastic bag containing papers and a black notebook. Jessie was told by the Secretary to say nothing about the matter but she noted in the “Evening News” the next day that the men had appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court accused of running a high class illegal betting operation. The Secretary provided a piece at the end of the article indicating that three of the men who were members had been suspended pending the outcome of proceedings.
Jessie felt good. Her job at Silverfield was that bit easier. The other members all raised their feet for her when she hoovered but otherwise ignored her. Jessie didn’t mind that any more. A few months later it was Derby Day; there had been much trumpeting about the race in the days running up to the first Wednesday in June. Jessie bought a Noon Record and saw that the Queen had a horse running called Miner’s Lamp and indeed the Irish had a horse called Hard Ridden in the field.
Jessie hurried back from Silverfield and sought out Wee Tommy, a First World War veteran, who was the local bookie’s runner. “Can I have a Derby bet, Tommy?” “That’s not like you Jessie, you’re a hard working lassie”. “I fancy the Queen’s horse and I like the name of thon Irish one, Hard Ridden is it?” “Aye the women always back the Queen,” said Tommy. The deal was done; ten bob each way on each nag.
Miner’s Lamp was 100-8 and Hard Ridden 18-1 Miner’s Lamp finished in the pack, but Hard Ridden, under Charlie Smirke, won by 10 lengths and Jessie later collected £19 from Tommy.” “Aye yer a lucky lass Jessie; not many had that one as the Irish haven’t won the Derby since I was a boy. I got you a decent price since you’re a decent girl.” “Thanks, beginner’s luck Tommy, but I did hear back in February they might have chances. There’s nothing like a bit of inside information, hen, the form’s often just a load of shite. See and spend it on something nice for yoursel'”
Jessie took Tommy’s advice. He was the only person that had called her lass or girl for years. The following Saturday afternoon Jessie went up town to Wilkie’s Department Store and bought a nice green suit for herself. Even Agnes was impressed when she bumped into her mother who was wearing it the following weekend. “How are things?” said Jessie. “We’ve got another wain did I not tell you? A boy and now a girl. That wee girl’s a handful! Terry’s working flat out on the bins to pay for it all.” “Maybe I can help sometime” replied Jessie. “Aye maybies, aye.”
The Bad Lads duly appeared on indictment at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Rafferty, Archie Howe and Donny MacLeod all pled guilty and were jailed; 9 months for Rafferty and 6 months for the other two. Daft Bobbie’s plea of not guilty was accepted.
A few years later in 1961 Betting shops were legalised. Shortly afterwards a betting shop opened in Great Junction Street in Leith.
It was called Bobbie’s and Wee Tommy was employed to chalk the odds up on the board in the shop while punters crowded in to listen to commentaries on “The Blower”. Jessie gleaned from Wee Tommy one day, when she congratulated him on having a decent job for a change, that he worked with two guys called Archie and Donny who settled the bets. His boss Bobbie was not the sharpest tool in the box and mostly was in the backroom playing darts, but Mr Rafferty looked after the show although the police objected to him becoming the licensee.
On another occasion as Jessie was walking past with her messages she saw a new maroon Jaguar saloon draw up near the bookmakers’ shop. She saw Big Bastard step out. He looked prosperous and wore a Chester Barrie suit. He strode straight into Bobby’s bookies and Jessie, intrigued, dallied across the road looking in a particularly boring window but which reflected across the street. Sure enough Big Bastard emerged soon after with a bag and drove off. He looked quite well for a man who no longer was a member at Silverfield.
Jessie took all this in her stride and in a sense forewarned by Wee Tommy had not been surprised by the revelation. For her part Jessie’s life had taken a turn.
She had a new confidence in herself, her red hair re-emerged, she gained a circle of friends, both male and female, and yes life had changed now she enjoyed a Friday night at the Bingo in Manderston Street just off Great Junction Street. Bobby became a member at Silverfield but on his own was no trouble.
She did hear however that applications from Messrs Rafferty, Howe and MacLeod were black-balled.
@Frank Crowe 2020