Once a month my wife and I volunteer at the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre in Darfield, our village near Barnsley, and when I welcome people and tell them to mind the step as they come in, I proudly announce that they are standing in the only museum in the world named after a gay, cross-dressing ex-Gordon Highlander.
I have to say I’ve not checked this scientifically, and there may be other museums of this kind somewhere, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Maurice and his partner Fred Halliday (they didn’t cross-dress all the time, only on special occasions) were fixtures in the streets of Darfield for many years; my mother remembered them walking down the pit lane looking like Barbara Cartland and Joanna Lumley, and as a boy, on my way to the Lads’ Brigade, I would pop into their shop, where Maurice, perched on a high stool in a powder-blue suit, would put down the cigarette he was smoking in a long, elegant holder and shout, “If you say ‘bugger’ I’ll give you a Spangle,” before launching into a Kenneth Williams-style hooting laugh. Fred, sober in a brown smock, would tut and shake his head and tell him not to be so blooming daft.
The museum has a beautiful photograph of Maurice taken by the local snapper, Joe Short; Maurice looks exquisite with his hair pomaded, a loose silk shirt above high-waisted trousers, and lipstick so vivid that it reaches to you across the years, even though the picture is black and white.
I’ve always seen the unlikely tale of Maurice and Fred as a metaphor for acceptance and inclusiveness. Darfield in the 1960s was a typical mining village and outsiders, as well as insiders who scuttle away for a more fulfilling cultural life, would be surprised at the way this odd couple were treated. They were accepted, they were celebrated, they were appreciated and they sold the most amazing sweets from huge glass jars that shone in the sun. That isn’t to say that kids didn’t sometimes rush into the shop and shout hurtful things, but Fred and Maurice, because of their army training, could give as good as they got.
Maurice was born in 1912 in Low Valley, a local settlement built for the burgeoning mining industry and, after a brief period down the pit, joined the Highlanders in 1929. After he’d left the forces in 1946 he went to London, presumably in a boxy and stylish demob suit and a broad-brimmed hat, where he worked in the hotel trade and met Fred.
There’s a tantalising image in the museum of Maurice and Fred with a gang of people in dinner suits and a young woman in a pinny; the picture is captioned “Grand Hotel”, and it could have been a grand hotel in London or one in Blackpool, where they ended up in the early 1950s. They moved back to Darfield in 1956 and the rest, as they say, is Heritage.
After Maurice died, he gave his old shop to the Darfield Amenities Society with the express purpose that it should be used as a museum and, in the first year of the new millennium, it opened. In the place where Maurice tried to get you to say rude words there’s a shop; walk through another room and you get to the café. Upstairs there are displays of Darfield’s history and industries: the coal mines and the toy factory and the football factory.
As I welcome people on a Saturday I like to imagine Maurice and Fred strolling down from the Post Office, past the Miners Welfare park, splashes of colour in the grey late 1950s, speaking a Barnsley-inflected Polari and making a stand for better, more tolerant times.
The Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre is at 2 Vicar Road, Darfield, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S73 9JZ (01226 754 593)