KING AND LORD OF THE ROACHES
Born in Liverpool, he had four brothers and two sisters. His father died when he was still very young and all the children were split up.
Doug was sent to an orphanage in Durham with his brother Fred.
After leaving school in the 1940s, Doug became a labourer on farms, in coalmines and in a shipyard.
Then he enrolled with the Royal Engineers and was posted to Kenya. There, he spent a lot of time in the ‘Glasshouse’ (army prison) for insubordination. When his time in the army ended, he chose to stay in Africa.
He worked on railway construction gangs in South Africa, around the Pietermaritzburg area.
Doug came back to the UK in 1969 and met, and married Anne Granite, a former beauty queen. He always called her ‘Annie’. She was 7 years older than he was.
They lived in Liverpool for a short while and then moved to a bungalow in the Clwyd Valley in Wales. He tried to make a living as a hill farmer.
But then permission was given to build a caravan park next to their home, so they decided to leave.
Also, Anne ‘suffered from her nerves’, so they wanted a quiet place to live.
In 1978, they bought an old cottage at auction (£6,000) called Rock Hall (or Rock Hall Cottage) near Leek in Staffordshire, for the solitude and the stunning views. It was originally a cave lived in by a woman called Bess Bowyer, in about 1800.
It is placed beneath a wooded ridge of millstone grit known locally as the Roaches.
The Swythamley Estate, owned by the Brocklehurst family, turned the cave into a crenellated cottage for their gamekeeper in 1862.
Bizarrely, Rock Hall had a royal visit in 1872. It was from HRH Princess Mary of Cambridge (the granddaughter of King George 3rd) and her husband the Prince of Teck.
A cannon was set off to mark the occasion but stupidly it was pointed towards the rocks and missed the Princess by inches. Luckily it did, because her daughter May would eventually become Queen Mary, the wife of King George 5th.
The royal visitors enthusiastically carved their names on the inside of the cave.
Both their graffiti and the dent made by the cannon ball, can still be seen today.
In the early 1960s, the house was visited by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady (later to be the Moors Murderers). Hindley so loved the area she took a small rock with her which was in her handbag when she was arrested.
The police wondered if the missing bodies could have been buried around this area – but no evidence was ever found.
The last gamekeeper to live in Rock Hall did so with his wife and 12 children.
Swythamley Estate was sold to the Peak Park authority in the late 1970s.
Doug and Anne aimed to refurbish the dilapidated cottage, but they quickly realised the cost was prohibitive. So, the couple lived in the most primitive of conditions.
The walls were made of rock, so the cottage was always cold. The floors were bare earth and there was no power or sanitation. They had to get their water from a spring nearby.
He used to laugh and say his running water was running down the sides of his walls.
There was no front door, just a gaping hole, no glass in the windows and an iron ladder to the bedroom. During one severe winter they awoke to find 6 inches of snow on their bed.
But they loved communing with nature. They were both keen birdwatchers and fed the feral wallabies that had escaped from the Swythamley estate decades earlier.
But it was not quite the country retreat they had envisaged.
The Peak Park authority opened up the area to tourists. Hikers, mountain bikers and rock climbers were encouraged – and the climbers were on the rocks above their roof. Any stones dislodged landed on the Moller’s roof.
They were offered £3,000 by the authority, to buy them out, with the offer of a council house. Conflict arose…
Doug also found himself in a constant battle with the tourists. He said he hated their, “insanitary, inconsiderate behaviour”, although he admitted it was the poor attitude of just a few visitors that upset him – the majority were considerate and welcomed. What angered him the most was people urinating in the mountain spring – their source of water.
On one occasion, he even threatened some walkers with the axe he used for felling trees, earning him the nickname ‘The Mad Axeman’.
He said the stress was putting Anne under enormous pressure. “Climbers have made our lives a misery. They worry Anne so much that she has tried to commit suicide several times”.
He was a constant writer to both local papers (the Leek Post) and the national press (The Times). He wrote to successive Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and even to Princess Diana.
His letter to Mrs Thatcher went, “Who the devil do they think I am? Do you think I am going to get down on my hands and knees and thank them for a council house? Not flaming likely, luv, so they can take a running jump from a cliff. We will fight them to the death. They owe us at least £7 million – and that’s letting them off easy”. The Prime Minister did not respond.
And he wrote a book about the challenges, entitled ‘The War of the Roaches’, which was published in 1991 (and sold 1,500 copies). In the book he said he would, “Blow the place sky high, rather than submit to the local authority”.
The book was regarded as rather weird – ‘part fact, part fantasy’.
In it, Doug boasted about how he was a thorn in the side of the authorities, and the police. He admitted, he found it difficult, “to live in normal society”.
It established his reputation locally, making him an almost legendary figure, known as ‘The King and Lord of the Roaches’. By now he always wore a black eye patch, which added to his mystique, and earned him another nickname, ‘Dougie the Pirate’.
It did lead to the Leek Post asking him to write a regular column about life in the countryside. These were often incoherent ramblings but built up a cult following.
He was always out walking the moors with a black rubbish bag, picking up litter – “keeping my garden clean”.
But he mellowed in time. He became a good friend to the rock-climbing community, giving his advice and sharing his knowledge of the rocks.
He had another falling out with the estate managers, the Peak District National Park Authority. This was because he would go onto the estate to collect firewood.
To Doug’s surprise, the Chief Executive of the Authority invited him to lunch to sort out the problem and said Doug could choose the food of his choice. He chose beans on toast.
The two men became friends, the dispute was solved, and Doug got all the firewood he needed.
Eventually, living in such primitive conditions proved too much. Staffordshire Moorlands authority designated their home as, “unfit for human habitation”. When Doug had burned the very last piece of wood in the house – the staircase that had replaced the iron ladder – he finally agreed.
The British Mountaineering Council were happy to buy Rock Hall and in return provided a small cottage for the couple at Knotbury Hall, for a peppercorn rent.
Rock Hall is now known as the ‘Don Whillans Hut’, refurbished after a bequest.
Meanwhile, despite still being isolated, Doug and Anne’s new cottage had electricity and heating – but he refused to have a telephone.
Anne died in 2003 in a terrible accident. Her nightdress caught fire whilst she was tending the fire and she was badly burned. Doug had to run half a mile to the nearest neighbours to call the emergency services.
Whilst Anne was alive, her greatest wish was for Doug to find his siblings. He did manage to trace his brother Fred in Liverpool and they met up. Doug was 72 at the time. But he never found any of the other siblings.
Doug continued to travel once a week (every Wednesday) into Leek to do his shopping and to meet some of his hundreds of friends.
He wasn’t always easy to understand as he spoke his own lingo with some made up words.
He used to sign all his Christmas cards, ‘Your grumpy friend’.
The town was genuinely saddened when he died. One local said, “He always had a kind word and was always trying to help people…He was a lovely guy who always talked sense and I had a lot of time for him – He was brave and kind and there aren’t many like him around now. I will miss him”.
Another said, “You only had to talk to him to know he loved the life he had. He lived the simple life and I’m sure he enjoyed that”.
There was some debate about his age at his death. Various reports have him at 89, 90 or 91.
RIP – RockHouse Irritated (by) Passers-by.