One hundred years ago is not much more than one lifetime, in fact my lifetime. I confess my own memories do not go back a hundred years, my research into family history and the relationship I had with both sets of grandparents convinces me that I can understand something of the childhoods of my mother and father. My mother was in 1917 6 months old, my father was 2 years and 2 months old, they were born a few streets from each other, in the same town, Sunderland. My father was the first child of a young couple. When just a few months old he went to live with his grandmother, she had a second family a few years older, his uncle became his closest friend. He returned to his parents when he was old enough to go to school.
His parents were tenants occupying a couple of rooms in a shared house, George, my grandfather worked in the shipyards which stretched out on both banks of the river. He was a labourer, the skilled men jealously guarded their status, apprenticeships were for their own sons.
The River Wear had for most of the previous century become the focus of industrial activity. The extremely valuable mineral coal had been discovered, for the most part close to the surface 10 miles upstream at Chester-le-Street. The best way to transport this material was in flat bottomed keels, to the port. The coal was then loaded on to larger ships and carried to the Midlands and the south east to fuel the mechanisation of the developing industries and heat the homes of the wealthy manufacturers and traders. The establishment of the railways in the mid nineteenth century both transported the coal to other industries and used a great deal of it to power the increasingly efficient steam engines. Glass, lime and pottery also developed and of course Sunderland overtook Newcastle as the biggest ship-building town in the world, in addition mast and rope-making would in time become the town’s greatest industries. During the nineteenth century thousands of young people were attracted to the town with the promise of regular work, mainly from rural areas in northern England, Scotland and Ireland.
I have been able to trace the arrival of my great, great grandfather, Thomas Taylor Pickering in the 1840s. He was born in Whitby, a shipbuilding, coal transporting and whaling port in 1824. The huge wealth created by coal meant it was often referred to as ‘black diamonds’ . Sunderland’s development as a port owed much to the plentiful supply of coal in Durham. Thomas started working on the colliers as a boy. Work was hard and dangerous. In his later teens he made his home in the port of Sunderland, at the age of twenty, he married a Sunderland girl, Mary Thornton. They brought up their large family in the town. My great grandfather William was one of his sons, my grandfather George was William’s youngest child, born in 1893. George’s mother died in 1906 when he was just twelve years old, his father and three of his brothers were then looked after by one of his married sisters, as recorded in the 1911 Census.
On the 1st February 1913, at the age of twenty George married his girl friend Katherine Johnson at Sunderland Registry Office . I have never seen any pictures of the wedding, I assume that none were taken. The first picture I have is of my grandmother holding my father, George William when he was a few months old in 1915. My father was born on the 30th December 1914. My dear father did once actually have a number, he was called up to serve in the Royal Artillery in 1942. My family, mother and two little girls were extremely fortunate that he came back to us. He caught rheumatic fever during his service and it was some considerable time before he was well enough to go back to work.
My family are not the sort of family you usually find written about in history books. No Prime Ministers, Members of Parliament, Captains of Industry, in fact no-one of any importance at all. We feature only in the aggregate numbers section for example workers or more explicitly the working class. Decisions were made for us; in 1870 the law said every child had to go to school, so in the 1890s my grand-parents went to school. No man or woman without property could vote, working men received the vote in 1918 , women did not receive the vote on the same terms until 1928. Democracy had to be struggled for, it is a modern development.
People like us did not occupy a house, couples rented two or three rooms and maybe two or three others families lived in the rest of the house. Sometimes it was the extended family, when I was three years old it was two rooms on the ground floor of a house in Hendon, upstairs lived my grandparents with their six younger children and in the basement a widow woman. There was one toilet at the bottom of the yard and no bathroom anywhere in the house. The really big changes came after the 2nd World War, in 1945 a Labour government was elected with the power and the determination to establish a Welfare State. Some attempts had been made in 1911 by the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, he introduced Old Age Pensions to be paid out when the worker reached seventy. At that time that was a small minority of people.
The Labour government of 1945 under the Prime Minister Clement Attlee had a vision of improving life for the majority of the people, this was called the Welfare State. The biggest change was the setting up of the National Health Service, the man who brought this about was Aneurin Bevan, a Welsh politician. The National Health Service would be paid for out of general taxation and free at the point of need, every person would receive health care by virtue of being born in this country. Today in the United States President Donald Trump wishes to abolish Obama-care which reaches out to those who cannot afford Health Insurance. This is because the extremely rich imagine they are paying for people who won’t work. This is a total misunderstanding of economics. The taxes which pay for Health Care are an economic investment on behalf of the whole nation. Well educated and trained doctors, nurses, specialists; the whole nationwide professionals are there with the right equipment , in centres all over the country to care for and treat everyone including the very, very rich. Its an investment stupid!
There would also be child allowances, free primary, secondary and university education for those who passed the appropriate examinations plus grants for living expenses for poorer students. The first examination to apply to all primary school children following the passing of the 1944 Education Act was called the 11+. This Act made a big difference to me because in 1949 I passed the 11+ and was awarded a free place at grammar school. The Local Education Authority awarded my parents a small grant to pay for the uniform. I was thrilled and somewhat nervous, in my new blazer with my satchel on my back, I caught the tram, then a bus to begin my new adventure. The Second World War had brought about many changes, every person whether rich or poor was expected to play their part in the war effort, in the munitions factories, the armed services and of course in producing the food we depended upon. Married women went back to work.