Hillsborough native Ashley Birch pays tribute to S6 Legend, Walter Holland
Far from receiving messages from secret admirers, last Valentine’s Day my phone was full of messages from friends, letting me know the sad news of a ‘local legend’s’ passing.
Walter Holland was 93 when he died on 14 February, and to me and all my mates he was a big part of our childhood, knocking about the Sheffield suburbs Hillsborough, Wisewood and Wadsley.
In fact, if you’ve spent any time in S6 over the last 60 or 70 years, the likelihood is that, at one time or another, you will have encountered Walter, and he probably told you it was his birthday, and offered you a conker!
My own memories of Walter include orange autumn days spent conkering for him in Wadsley churchyard, getting him the supplies, ready for him to string them on bits of blue nylon string to leave around the place alongside paper aeroplanes.
A friend of mine Cheryl Appleyard, remembers him as an ‘S6 treasure’ and recalls the time he ‘once gave me a picture of Prince Charles and a penguin!’ Another, Adam Jubby-Taylor, remembers the time that he ‘once seen him up a conker tree in Hillsborough park!’
However, aside from the fact that he lived in Middlewood Hospital, before moving into the supported housing complex Loxley Court, little was known about Walter’s early life by my generation.
His niece Joan Allen told how he was born on Rockingham Street, in the city centre, before the family moved to Burners Drive, Arbourthorne in 1936. One of 12 children, when he was around two or three years old he took a nasty bump to the head, which led to complications.
Joan said: “He had a nasty bang to his head at his mum’s house, on a big heavy cabinet and it led to meningitis. Meningitis can be awkward and nasty now, but then it was an even bigger problem. It left him with very severe learning difficulties.
“My grandma at that time was undergoing a kidney operation and it got to the point where she couldn’t cope with him [Walter]. My mum, his sister, used to bring him up a lot of the time, pushing him around in the pram, when she was around ten or 12.”
“It was then that Walter was moved to the psychiatric hospital Middlewood Hospital. In those days there was more of a stigma attached to those sort of things,” says Joan: “I don’t know why but it was unfortunately what it was like in those days.
“I think they tried to bring him home but he just kept running away and going back to the hospital. On one occasion they even found him sleeping in the wheelbarrow in the grounds of the hospital, because he wanted to get back.”
Walter with his niece, Joan Allen
As Walter grew up into his twenties and thirties he began working, baking cakes in the hospital’s bakehouse, and every Sunday he would walk all the way from Hillsborough to his mum’s house at Arbourthorne, where she’d cook him his dinner, do him his tea and pack him up.
Joan didn’t see a lot of her uncle in her early years, and it wasn’t until later on in life when Walter was on Worrall Road, and her mum was unable to visit on her own, that she began taking her up to see him. She vowed to continue looking after him, taking up sweets, crisps, cakes, and his favourite red salmon to the care home.
Joan said: “He had excellent carers, who really looked after him well. They were like his family. When we couldn’t be there, they were always there.”
It was only through social media that Joan realised just how many other lives her uncle had touched. “Through Facebook I’ve read so many stories about him and it’s been quite enlightening.” says Joan: “I’m so surprised by how many people he’s been involved with, and how many lives he’s touched. It’s been brilliant, really, that one person could make that much difference to people.
“He’s had a varied and colourful life and he was purely innocent. He wouldn’t have hurt a fly, my Uncle Walter. He was more like a child and that’s probably why he identified with local kids so well.”
Aside from handing treats out to locals, his pastimes were varied, with one of his big loves being trams. He could often be found on Hillsborough Corner, watching the Supertrams go past, and Joan’s husband Mick showed me the stacks of DVDs he had on the subject, recovered from Walter’s home.
Perhaps his biggest passion though, was photography – or more accurately having his photograph taken.
Joan said: “He always used to like taking photographs, and he liked to have them with ladies. He was definitely a ladies man. He used to like standing at the side of them and letting someone else take the photos.”
Some of Walter’s other favourite pastimes he’d kept hidden from his niece, including his love of smoking. “We didn’t know he smoked at first. I once saw him in the Riverside pub as we’d got some shoes we’d had mended for him,” says Joan. “And he was sitting there in a cloud of smoke, with a lemonade and some crisps. You couldn’t see him for smoke. We were shocked.”
Some things, it seems, were the same in Joan’s memory as they were in ours though, as Joan recalls some common birthday presents. “Usually, if it was your birthday you’d either get a bottle of aftershave, or probably a KitKat wrapped up in paper and Sellotaped, and of course, conkers.”