Yorkshire Diary: Paul's secret is out at last

MOST children have pets but back in 1957, Paul Farnill found himself in possession of a snake which ended up causing quite a commotion, so much so it made front page news – but Mr Farnill, now 67, managed to keep his involvement secret... until now.

By way of a late confession, the father of three and grandfather to six decided to spill the beans on a notorious incident which will no doubt ring a few bells with some Yorkshire Diary readers, particularly those from East Leeds.

The retired plumber took up the tale: "When I was about 12, a friend of mine, David Mackwell, of Ascot Terrace, bought a snake. We lads all fell in love with it, Dave would ride on his bike with the snake wrapped around the crossbar. It was stunning. The snake was about three foot long and an inch thick, complete with fangs and bold markings, it was virtually a scale model of the snakes we'd seen in Mogambo and Tarzan at the Princess Cinema.

"Dave bought the snake from the pet shop in Tower Arcade, Vicar Lane. Long before animal conservation was even thought about, the shop sold anything from tortoises to budgies, lizards to hamsters and goldfish to white mice and rats.

"The regularly changing window display often had puppies or kittens to entice customers into the large stock room at the back which doubled as a zoo, for which, I think, the management charged about a penny admission – a must visit for any schoolboy.

"Then another friend, Lewis Muhl, who had just started work and was 'in the money', promptly bought a coveted snake for 7s 6d (about 37p). However, Lewis's mother was not too pleased about him spending most of his first wage on a snake, so it quickly came into my possession for 4s 6d. Having achieved my ambition to own a snake, the reality soon dawned. I was no snake charmer.

"I was a bit scared of it and didn't like it climbing up my arm or under my shirt. I couldn't take it home as my mother would have had a fit. I decided I would secrete it in my pigeon loft in an old fish tank. I put a piece of hardboard and a brick on top but it somehow came off and the snake escaped.

"Nothing more was thought about it until, a couple of weeks later, to my shock and horror, my father Harry started reading out a story in the Yorkshire Evening News: 'Snake causes evacuation of East Leeds clothing factory'.

"The police, two fire engines and a dozen firemen had been called to the factory, all employees were evacuated, whilst the firemen spent half a day searching for the snake.

"My dad read the story out loud, I kept my head down, if only he had known!

"Dad read on... a fire brigade spokesmen at the scene said 'great concern was felt, because the factory adjoined the premises of a fruiterer and it was feared the snake was poisonous and may have arrived in a box of bananas!'

"After much searching, the snake was duly captured and removed by the RSPCA, who declared it 'a harmless grass snake'.

"That in itself would have greatly added to the mystery, as there was probably not a single blade of grass in inner city Richmond Hill in the 1950s."

Mr Farnill added: "For 53 years I have kept that secret but often wondered about the look of sheer horror on that poor tailoress's face when the snake slithered up her sewing machine leg!

"Dad had a strict Victorian upbringing and tended to carry over this tradition, albeit slightly mellowed, to his own family.

"He died some years ago, at the ripe old age of 91, and although I was going towards 60, I never had the courage to tell him I was responsible.

"Perhaps now, after so many years, it is time to come clean and clear my conscience. If anybody concerned with the incident or their families are still about, please accept my belated apology."

Do you have a childhood tale of pet ownership? Contact Neil Hudson and let him know.

How the Mouseman carved his own niche

Your letters

I enjoyed the history of St Michael and All Angels Church, Headingley (Yorkshire Diary, January 8). I was so interested to read of the carvings in the church by Kilburn artist Robert Thompson, known as the Mouseman.

He has West Yorkshire connections, he served his apprenticeship at the Garnett Wire Company in Cleckheaton, during which time he lived on Mount Street, near Cleckheaton Library.

On his travels home from Cleckheaton, he would stop at Ripon and admire the craftsmanship of its cathedral. The master carver there was William Bromflet, who was young Robert's inspiration.

An apprentice was not considered good enough unless he could carve a mouse like Robert Thompson.

Thompson died in 1955 and is buried in Kilburn, the workshop he founded is still in operation to this day. His work can still be viewed in churches, schools, colleges and pubs throughout the UK and other parts of the world, including the Solomon Islands.

John Appleyard, Liversedge

After reading the story about the YEP Women's Circle, my wife was a member and she and I went on a few trips together with the club.

We went to Israel in 1985, India and Thailand in 1987, America and Hawaii in 1988, the Canadian Rockies in 1990. The last three were organised by Paul Ridyard Travel. They were superb holidays.

On the Canadian holiday we met three couples and have remained friends with them ever since and have been on other short holidays together and meet up for lunch etc.

W Pratt, Westfield Court, Mirfield

A friend and I joined the YEP Women's Circle almost as soon as it was formed, I have happy memories of a trip to London by train which cost all of 5.

A highlight of the journey was when Austin Mitchell walked down the train and was talking to various people – he asked my friend if she had a job and she told him she owned a rhubard farm in West Ardsley.

He then asked me what I did. I told him I played piano and organ at the weekends and that I got that Monday morning feeling on Thursdays!

M Gledhill, Morley

On this day

January 22 1991: A councillor branded one of the city's inner ring road tunnels a potential death trap, claiming it had dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide.

Coun Graham Kirkland (Lib Dem, Otley) called for an urgent safety review of the tunnel under Leeds General Infirmary.

He said it was the longest unventilated tunnel in Europe and said carbon monoxide levels had twice exceeded danger thresholds in 1990.

He said: "Carbon monoxide is odourless, colourless and tasteless. It is a silent killer and yet there is no effective system of warning drivers and no easy access to rescue workers."

He said many of the tunnel lights did not work because fumes had rotted away wires and signs telling drivers to switch engines off when stationary in the tunnel.

He also called for a survey of the tunnel's pre-stressed concrete, ventilation for emergency use and access from the surface for firefighters and rescue services.

He added: "We must ask whether the tunnel can cope. It cannot be widened and the sliproads are very badly designed."

Barry Carlton, acting highways director for Leeds, said in response that concerns had also been raised by emergency services and said all issues would be addressed.

Last week's question and the final 'guess the year' in Yorkshire Diary for the time being was: Stump Cross Caverns, Nidderdale, are one of the country's premier show caves and extend some 6km, although some sections are only accessible to experienced cavers. They were formed millions of years ago thanks to water erosion and discovered by accident by miners searching for coal. Various animal remains have been found in the caves, including those of reindeer, bison, a giant member of the weasel family and a wolverine, which is on display in the visitor centre. In what year were the caves first discovered? Answer: 1860.

EP 22/1/11

Anil Stocker, CEO of MarketInvoice

We want strong trade links with EU after Brexit, say Yorkshire firms