Married life began happily, they were young and in love. Working at the pit under the sea was a difficult and dangerous job,there was a long walk to the coal face before winning the coal could begin. Mates all shared the same dangers and all kept face that they could cope with the knowledge that at any moment the rock could collapse and everything would end for these young men. Mother was aware that mining was a dangerous occupation but it was not talked about.
I was born almost to the day twelve months after the wedding, a loved and cared for child but the upstairs rooms became more inconvenient with a baby and a pram as part of daily life. Rooms on the ground floor became the next aim, within a few months two ground floor rooms became vacant just across the street. The paraphernalia of daily life was moved by friends and relations, down the stairs, across the road, through the front door and into two rooms on the ground floor. There was no bathroom in this house and the water closet toilet was in the yard next to the back wall; a coal-house was at the other side of the back door, the room facing the yard contained a coal fire and range , the room facing the street was a bedroom. This is the first home that I have memories of.
Soon my baby sister arrived, then a little while later my baby brother. Within five years we had grown to a family of five. Mother had the challenging job of looking after us all on very limited money. In 1942 father received his call up papers, off he went to be a soldier. Mother was very much on her own although her parents and brothers and sisters were close by. Like many young children my sister and I caught an infectious disease, it was probably measles, as we were three and four we had a certain stamina and we recovered, George was only a few months old and he died. Father came home on compassionate leave, George was buried in an unmarked grave with other babies. Many years later Jean (my sister) and I were able to put a name marker on the grave.
In May 1943 in one of the last bombing raids, the German bombers flew over Sunderland, Hendon was a particular focus because it was so close to the shipyards. One house was completely destroyed, the house we lived in was damaged by a bomb landing on the roof, we were all, my grandparents and their six younger children, my mother , sister and me, safe in the air-raid shelter in the back-yard. After the All Clear sounded Grand-dad opened the door and we looked around, the house was still standing, a number of tiles were scattered on the ground. The air-raid warden appeared and looked at the damage.
“You can’t stay here now, the roof could collapse.” The adults conferred. Grand-dad spoke, ” We’ll go to our Hilda’s, she’ll find room for us.” Mother and Grand-mother dashed into the house to collect coats and handbags and the push-chair for Jean. It was beginning to get light and we set out to walk to a safer place. I felt soon everything would be alright again, great-aunt welcomed us all in and some of us fell asleep in a make-shift bed. The next morning Grand-mother and mother somehow provided breakfast. There was very little space but quickly we all got dressed. The two women decided that they must go to the Housing Office and register the fact that we were now homeless. Jean and I accompanied mother, we soon came upon a queue of mothers and children all waiting to see the Housing Officer. It was a tiring, noisy wait, mother eventually stood in front of Mr Holmes and explained our family names and ages, his secretary wrote everything down. We left the office past a very long queue, mother decided that she was not just going to wait for something to turn up. We went back to Great-aunt Hilda’s for a cup of tea, the street was a very respectable street but mother was anxious to get her own place. We walked around mother looking for uncurtained windows, in a few minutes she spotted two windows upstairs in a house, she knocked at the door. A woman opened it, mother explained our position. Yes two rooms were empty, somehow it was agreed that we would take the rooms. A few hours later we moved our meagre possessions into the upstairs rooms. How it was furnished I can’t honestly say, very soon these three rooms became our home, very fortunately just opposite the houses was a large brick built school,Chester Road, a primary and secondary school on the same sight. A few months later it was time for me to start school, I crossed the road and walked up the back-lane with mother and Jean. There was a big iron gate which was open and a large play ground. That first day seemed very strange to have so many boys and girls all around me. Gradually things settled down and I discovered I liked school,the young teacher was kind and fair.
I soon discovered there were a number of interesting things to do. On some mornings musical instruments were brought out; drums, tambourines, castanets and triangles. The teacher placed a big chart full of different coloured shapes, these were musical notes. I was given a triangle with a little metal stick, I’m pretty sure the triangles notes were blue. The class was making music, a lot of fun. Fortunately I’ve forgotten about the sound we made.
Shapes of letters and numbers were written on cards and on the blackboard, I entered into a new world, sometimes the teacher read stories. I don’t remember the process in any great detail but one day I found I was reading, I had the key to a fascinating world brought to me by words printed on the page. From that day to this so many years later books have been the delight , the constant pleasure and a very important source of information of the wide, strange, exciting world outside my front door. I was a reader.
My parents could both read, mother was usually much too busy cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing to bother with books. I can scarcely know how labour intensive, not to say exhausting each domestic task was. Mother cooked from the raw ingredients,except for bread which had to be bought every two or three days. The coal fire kept us warm but created a lot of ashes which had to be scooped up on a daily basis and every surface was covered with a layer of dust. I think at home I began to see myself as the big sister, mother was very busy with the younger children.
I started school in 1943, the 2nd World War was consuming all the nation’s resources in man power and tanks, aeroplanes, bullets and bombs. Schools were managing on pre-war resources and most of the male teachers had been called up. The disruption caused by the evacuation of three million working class children from the big cities to the countryside brought to wider attention the dire state of some of Britain’s schools. Civil servants evacuated to Bournemouth began to plan for a better Britain, a New Jerusalem, a country worth fighting for. A young Conservative , Richard Austen Butler, was made by Churchill, President of the Board of Education, set to work to improve the nation’s schools. He saw his big opportunity in Education.
The 1944 Butler Act:
a) to replace all previous education law
b)Board of Education replaced by Ministry of Education
c) All maintained schooling to be free
d) Three-tier secondary state schooling, grammar (entrance based on 11+ test), secondary modern and technical- i.e. selective state schooling
e) Further education through county colleges for school leavers to 18 years of age.
There was some opposition in Parliament, with great skill Butler guided the Act through and in 1948 it became law. I have considerable gratitude to RAB Butler as the Act had a direct effect on my future. The 11+ was brought in the year before I reached the age of 11. In 1949 my class all sat the 11+, some time later brown envelopes arrived and were brought to school, there was no envelope came to my house. About a dozen people in my class, my best friend was one of them, were proudly showing off the letter which awarded them a place at Bede Grammar School. There was no letter for me. I was devastated, my father tried to comfort me, I refused to be comforted. I was useless, I was stupid! Two weeks went by, one morning a brown envelope arrived, the letter told me I had been awarded a place at Monkwearmouth Grammar School. I had never heard of it, Bede school I knew , a girl I was friendly with was already a pupil. Father knew that Monkwearmouth was across the river, a district we had never visited. A year to two before the school there had been a technical/commercial school, the introduction of the 11+ inspired the Education Office to upgrade the school on the north side of the town to a grammar school to serve the increasing population there. A couple of girls on the south-western edge of the town had been awarded places, I was one of them.
Life suddenly looked more hopeful, maybe I wasn’t stupid. The uniform was expensive, there was a small grant from the Education Office, I was measured for a blazer, tunic, blouses and PE slip, the smallest in the shop proved to be just the right size. One Monday morning in September, dressed in my new uniform, I caught the tram into town. In the centre of town I changed to a bus going to Southwick, there were a couple of older girls in uniform, I got off when they did. We walked down a narrow street and at the end stood the school, lots of boys and girls walked into a large school playground, most were talking to each other, I stood quietly. A teacher came out and rang the bell, boys and girls moved into lines and stood without talking. On the teacher’s instruction the lines moved into the school, now just the new pupils were left. We moved closer to the teacher, she told us to listen carefully as our names were called out and line up in front of her. First she said 1A and called out about 30 names, they disappeared into school. Then 1B more names, I didn’t hear mine. Finally 1C this time I heard my name called out. I was sad and disappointed. I went into school.
This February morning the sun is shining, I slept late so the morning is almost over. I had a good idea about 3.0a.m. which at this present moment escapes me. I have time to myself these days alas energy runs away very quickly. I live in a small city which is surrounded on three sides by a river, not a fast flowing imposing river, more a gently meandering water-way. Many decades ago it carried coal to the mouth of the Wear at Sunderland from where it was shipped to the midlands and the south where it produced the energy to run the machines. Now the machines are in China and the coal is too difficult to reach. The boats on the river in the twenty-first century are pleasure craft and canoes rowed by young men and women. The water is clean and probably fish have returned, I’m not a fisherman so my knowledge is limited.
The air is cleaner, coal produced a lot of dust and dirt, some of which settled in the lungs. Thankfully my lungs are clear, the rest of me is showing some signs of wear and tear. How does this city of Durham continue its relatively prosperous way? You have probably heard of the University of Durham, I think it dates back to 1833, long before most twentieth century city universities like Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds. It is still growing and much of the present building is accommodation for even more students from around the world. The prosperity of this architecturally interesting city comes in a large measure from these young men and women and the services they need. Of course there are schools and colleges, some long established fee-paying schools. It could be said that the business of the city is education, there was a time when carpets and organs were produced . I haven’t heard much about these industries recently.
A friend came today she has toured the beautiful new buildings the university is putting up to attract more students to the campus. There is a particular move to attract students from other countries, one reason could be that they pay very large fees to study in Durham. One group of students to whom large fees are very much a disincentive, are mature students. These are often people with families and homes to maintain. Some years ago I was myself a mature student, I doubt very much if I could have contemplated £9000 per year. I had fees to pay because in earlier years I had spent 2 years training to be a teacher although the sum involved was in hundreds not thousands. We cashed in our savings.
The only education available to my parents in the 1920s was free elementary education. They both left school at 14 their families needed them to be earning money. Mother and father were each the eldest child in the family, mother had six younger brothers and sisters, father had two sisters. There has been a great deal of progress since those days: the establishment of the Welfare State, pensions, free schooling up to the age of 18 years and increased social security. But in the twenty-first century events have been moving in the other direction. Studying for a degree has now become prohibitively expensive for young people without the support of the bank of mum and dad. they begin their adult lives with a very large debt even before the question of a mortgage. Both my parents had started work while still at school, father started to deliver groceries on his bike, mother did cleaning and some cooking for an elderly couple.
Many homes were overcrowded in the 1930s, family planning was reserved for more educated middle class families. As soon as young people were earning a regular wage, they began to think about setting up in their own home. This usually meant renting two or three rooms in an area quite close to their work.
On this chilly, snowbound Saturday afternoon I have just watched a television programme on Winston Churchill, it was made by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Oddly it was not shown on one of the BBC’s own channels but on the Public Broadcasting Service of America. Such is the reach of this amazing technology I can see it in my own home. It was made in 2015, did the BBC judge it would not be popular in the UK? In this house history could be described as a passion; some people like knitting, some play whist, some are always keeping disorder at bay. Here stories of the past take precedence of everything except the next meal. My husband and I have some differences in our particular enthusiasms, he likes the broader picture; the British Empire, continental wars, the role of government. I focus much more on personal history, how did my ancestors fit into the bigger national or international picture. My people don’t appear in history books by name except for, births, deaths and marriages. But to me they are nonetheless part of the bigger picture.
Most of my life I’ve heard the name of Winston Churchill, he was the leader of the country during the 2nd World War and according to many historians this was ‘Britain’s Finest Hour’. Churchill himself said so. The broadcast dealt with the differences of opinions concerning the role of Churchill himself. Was he the saviour of Britain or did he have some dangerously undemocratic ideas. Evidence was presented by a number of historians to back up both sides of this argument. It certainly made a very interesting programme.
Time is a very strange commodity. When I was at school in the 1950s, the time period ‘a hundred years’ seemed a barely comprehensible period in the distant past, a fairy-tale. Today seven decades from my beginning it seems perfectly comprehensible. Now I understand it is just two generations, my parents and my own. My parents figure in my thoughts quite a lot, I still miss them.
I come from generations of hard-working people, nobody famous at all!!! They appear only briefly in the births, marriages and deaths columns, a brief outline. Discovering history has been a passion of mine since I learnt to read. In lessons it was the story of my country in peace and war, its place at the head of the British Empire: the struggle for political democracy. We are celebrating this year the 100 th Anniversary of the granting to some women the right to vote, women over 30, who owned some property. It was 1928 before suffrage was extended to women on the same terms as men, that is the age of 21.
More recently I have looked into my own family story; both my parents were born in Sunderland. The town was at one time famous as the biggest shipbuilding town in the world. In addition to shipbuilding the River Wear was lined on both banks by coal mines, some shallow, some very deep into the earth. Coal and ships lead to the development of steel and heavy engineering around the town. Three generations of the men in my family were involved in these industries and in sailing the ships. My father was a coal-miner when I was born. Of course in these industries there was times when demand was very slack and other times when there was plenty of work for everyone.
Labouring men often married young when they were at their maximum strength and earning capacity, father was twenty-two and mother celebrated her twenty-first birthday three weeks before the wedding. Another factor they shared, they were each the eldest child at home. Homes in those days were often very crowded, the living room/kitchen often became a bedroom at night and beds were shared with sisters or brothers. There was no personal space and extremely few personal possessions not like the TV, radio and books owned by my own sons before they left home. My parents were married in the parish church in September 1937, sadly there is no photograph which commemorates this very important day. The witnesses were my father’s uncle and his sister. Mother told me she wore a new costume and a white silk blouse, father wore his Sunday suit. There was no honey-moon instead a trip to the cinema in Newcastle.
The young couple moved into two upstairs rooms in a flat in Hendon, a district they knew well. Mother gave up her paid work as soon as she married. Father continued his work as a coal miner working under the North Sea at Dawdon pit. Many of the terraced houses in Hendon were in the 1930s divided into two or three room flats and rented out privately. In most there was no bathroom and a flush toilet was at the bottom of the yard, for the use of all the people living in the house. The street was neat and well kept, it was considered to be a respectable area. A main road at the end of the street led up to Mowbray Park, the opposite direction led to a busy shopping area.
I’ve been a wife for fifty-one years, sometimes the length of time is hard to comprehend. I’m fortunate to be still living with my husband, in the house we bought in the second year we were married. The book I have on my desk is, ” GOOD WIVES?” by Margaret Forster, it is a signed copy. The only signed copy by any author which belongs to me, sadly I never met the author but much of what she writes has a very particular interest for me. The author has written many fiction books, the most well known being ” Georgy Girl ” which was made into a very successful film; she has also written many biographies and memoirs.
The book is about four wives; Mary Livingstone, Fanny Stevenson, Jennie Lee and Margaret Forster herself, 1845 – 2001. I confess at present I have only read about one of these women, Jennie Lee, an extremely interesting woman who was politically active for all her adult life. She was married to a charismatic Labour politician, Aneurin Bevan . In the Labour government elected in 1945 Bevan was made Minister of Health and Housing, he was the man responsible for setting up the National Health Service, free at the point of need and in addition organised a very large programme of council house building. In the 1950s my family moved into one of these council houses in Sunderland and my father needed treatment for the rheumatic fever he caught during his service in the army. These things were part of the Welfare State, set up after the 2nd World War. The changes affected me and my family very directly.
The Welfare State was a vital part of our financial support, my father was in hospital for about a year after he was discharged from the army. My mother received family allowance payment for my sister and later for my brother. The small gratuity father received went in paying every day expenses. Fortunately mother was a very good manager, indeed ‘A Good Wife’ the flat was always warm and we never went hungry. Mother always put her own needs last, as many mothers do in difficult times.