It was a clear night, I was asleep in my bed, my  sister was also asleep in her cot, mum was in the big bed. Dad was away in the army training to be a soldier,  sometimes I heard mum crying. The last few months she had been trying to get used to the fact that Dad did not come home at night the way he used to. There was always plenty of work to do looking after her three young children. Washing took hours of hard physical work, the poss-stick in the tub in the back yard.  But she had never felt so alone  before.  Her parents lived in the three rooms upstairs with their six younger children, three boys and three girls. She knew better than to ask her mother for help.  

Our house was in a short terrace, at one end was a railway line going down to the docks and at the other a road leading down to Hendon Road, the main shopping road through the district. Coxon street was a well-kept street, houses which had once been for the skilled engineers and ship-yard workers were gradually being subdivided to house more  unskilled workers. My father rented two rooms and an outhouse on the ground floor, there was a toilet at the bottom of the back yard: beyond the back-door was a back lane.  On the opposite side of the street lived grandmother’s sister and her family. The streets were clean and tidy, up the bank a short walk away was the Mowbray Park with a duck pond, grassy banks and tall trees, space to run about safely.

    The time was May 1943, in the early hours of a clear moonlit night, the bombers were heard overhead and searchlights lit up the sky, the peculiar whine of the air raid warning sounded.  At that dreadful sound  grandparents and Mum got up and roused the children, putting coats and shoes on, we all made our way to the air-raid shelter in the back-yard. There were wooden benches to sit on and grandfather stood by the door. Death and destruction fell out of that moonlit sky, the noise swamped everything.  We waited in the shelter until everything went quiet and soon we heard the reassuring sound of the All Clear.

The house two doors down was completely demolished and the family killed. An air-raid warden quickly appeared at the back door and looked around carefully, tiles had come off the roof and the chimney looked distinctly wobbly. His voice was loud, it would be dangerous for you to stay here, the he said firmly.

“Please can I pop in for my purse and some clothes?” Mum and grandmother begged him

“Well you’ll have to be very quick, just a couple of minutes.”

We waited in the yard. Mum came back holding the pushchair and a bag full of clothes. My sister got into the pushchair and everyone went into the back lane. My uncle Joe took hold of the handles and pushed Jean along the pavement. The adults were worried were on earth were we going to stay? Grandfather had a married sister who had a couple of spare rooms, he decided we would try there just for a day or two. By this time it was getting light and all together we set off to walk there, with the youngest in the pram. I didn’t feel anxious, I didn’t   understand what the destruction of home meant, the people I trusted were all around me, everything would be alright.

    Within a few days mum started walking round the nearby streets, searching for uncurtained windows. Sometime was spent down at the Housing Office, my memory tells me that the manager was Mr. Holmes. The queue  was positioned up a long staircase, weary mothers and restless children. At long last we were in Mr. Holmes’ office, mother explained our family situation adding that soon I would be starting school. Mr. Holmes searched through his papers and smiled. Here’s something which will suit you, three rooms with a school close by, I’ll give the key and you can go and have a look. Mother smiled a little  and we went out to find the place which would be our new home.  The house was in a respectable terraced street at one end was a shopping area with a butcher’s, a well equipped grocery store and a chemist shop, on the opposite side of the road was an imposing brick built school. Mother knocked at the front door, a neatly dressed woman opened it, the vacant rooms were upstairs.  We all went up the stairs and the woman explained she lived on the ground floor with her son, there were three rooms vacant; the largest one contained a fireplace, there was a small room at  the front and a larger room looking out over a backyard but more surprising at the top of a small staircase was a toilet and bathroom. Mother had never before lived in rooms where there was a bath and a wash basin in their own special SMALL ROOM room. Very soon these rooms became our home.



Daily life for me and you is governed by the large events of history; peace or war, employment or unemployment, prosperity or poverty. In my youth I was taught that my future prosperity and happiness were entirely dependent on me, if I worked hard and used such talents as I have I could expect a happy, comfortable life. This is more of a myth or perhaps a fairy story.  The really important questions are: where was I born, when and who my parents were. Clearly I had no control over any of this, irrespective of these facts I believed, as I was meant to, that my success or failure would be entirely my responsibility.  Factors such as good luck or indeed the political orthodoxy were scarcely mentioned. Studying hard, passing the exams, presenting myself in the approved docile and courteous manner, these were the characteristics which were encouraged.

    Sadly docility and even good exam results are not the passport to a furiously changing world. You will not believe the years which had to pass before I developed a more accurate understanding of what is really important in this fractious and always changing world.  Youth had long since fled, middle age had gone beyond recall, two words rushed towards me with the speed of light O– A–. I can scarcely believe it, except my body reminds me that this is indeed the case. Time becomes a very precious thing, speeding away like a jet engine, and the  other precious thing is energy, so quickly spent, so hard to renew. I am very lucky in the 1940s my family survived the bombing and just when I needed it the Welfare State arrived and gave me a free  secondary education followed by full employment. Did I work hard?Well sometimes yes and sometimes no . Fortune favours the brave they say or possibly I was in the right place at the right time.

So much to learn and so little time. 



Some things I remember, some I have researched and the remainder I link together creatively. You will not find my family in the history books, they have never been wealthy or important, those words so often go together. We are only referred to as part of a much bigger group; the working class, the workers or the ordinary mass of humanity. We didn’t invent anything or discover some amazing truth, so perhaps the best word is ordinary.

    I have been in interested in history for as long as I can remember, the wonder that things were not always as they are today. Of course in my seven decades I have seen many things change; television did not exist in my childhood, the roads were mostly empty of cars, transport was by tram car for trips into town or bus if the journey was longer than five miles. Many other aspects of daily life have improved immeasurably; most homes are warm even in the coldest winter, clean hot and cold water are readily available and almost every home has a private bathroom and toilet. When I was a young child there was no bathroom in the house, the toilet was at the bottom of the yard, my parents had three young children in five years and we all lived in two rooms. Tragically today we are returning to a position where many families do not have a decent home to live in.

    In my search for my ancestors I’ve been able to discover my great, great grandparents Thomas was born on the 4th May 1824 in Whitby and Mary was born in 1823 in Sunderland. Thomas began his working life when still a boy and it is unlikely that he ever went to school. He probably worked with his father on one of the sailing ships  that sailed out of Whitby  harbour, probably  fishing but a lucrative trade was developing in coal. Many ships sailed up the north-east coast to the mouth of the River Wear to pick up a shipment of coal to sell to the industries and homes in the south-east. Coal was mined along the banks of the Wear and loaded onto flat bottomed keels and brought down to the port where it was transferred to larger sea-going vessels. Trade was increasing every year.

    Sunderland had many pits along the river bank, many where the coal was near the surface, but in the nineteeth  century the deepest coal mine in England was developed,  coal was mined in County Durham for eight hundred years.   News spread quickly to rural areas and to Ireland, people keen to work in the new industry, left rural poverty  and flocked to the town. Wearmouth pit opened in 1835 and was soon employing hundreds of men and boys.

    Thomas did not come to work underground, he was a sailor working on the colliers. He made the town his base in the early 1840s, in 1845 he married his sweetheart Mary Thornton, he was twenty-one and Mary was twenty. They had eleven children and raised nine of them. One of his sons called William was born in 1852, he was my great-grandfather. William worked in the busy shipyards and brought up a large family, his youngest child was my grandfather George. George did go to school, in the 1890s school was compulsory and free. As soon as he left school he looked for work, most of his elder brothers worked in the ship-yards so George began there. By the early twentieth century most ship-yards had slack periods from time to time so George was not able to sign on for an apprenticeship.

George and his sweetheart Catherine married on the First February 1913 in the Register Office, they were both twenty years old. Life for a shipyard worker could be and frequently was dangerous.  Most working people married as soon as the man had a regular income. They moved into a couple rooms often in the same street as their parents and brothers and sisters. George volunteered for the First World War  in 1914, he was in service for a few weeks. His records make no statement beyond the fact that within a few weeks he was sent home. I would guess that height and fitness were not acceptable for a front line soldier. My family are round about the five foot mark, including me, unlike George I never volunteered for the army.


    My grandparents were born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, that is in the days of the powerful British Empire. The power and wealth of the Empire had little impact on their lives, there was no trickle down effect. They were able to drink tea with two spoonfuls of sugar in it and they were able to put food on the table. The ships that were built carried British goods to all corners of the world and brought back raw materials to be manufactured in Britain.

But the conditions of their daily lives are really beyond our imagining. A teenage son of thirteen shared his bed with several brothers, he had no personal items; iPhone, computer , books. the only things that belonged to him were his clothes, and they had probably belonged to an older relative before they were handed down to him. He got up early and went out to the local shops to find out if there was any fetching and carrying, or helping with deliveries he could do. My maternal grandfather Joseph learned how to look after the delivery horses, how to feed them and clean out the stables. In time he got to be in charge of the horse and cart, the most important thing was he was earning money all of which he handed over to his mother. Joseph was proud that he was doing a man’s work and gratefully accepted the pocket money he was given, just like his Dad did.

   Joseph had been to school as schooling was now free, he could read and write, add up and subtract.  When he reached the age of twelve Joseph decided that it was time to go to work. His parents were proud of him, it was time to start work there were younger sisters to look after. His father’s wage wasn’t enough to take care of the whole family.


Thursday 1st June according to the weather forecasters the first day of summer. Blue skies, sunshine, gentle breezes, yes summer has arrived. I ventured out  to taste this beautiful day, husband was with me so all was right with the world.  The bus came at the expected time, we climbed aboard, a free trip! The shopping centre is nearby, more shops every time I go.  Went to my favourite shop, yes M& S, such a delightful display of summer tops, I was tempted. I turned resolutely away and marched to the Food Store.

    More temptation, meals already prepared packed neatly in clear boxes.  Is anything more delicious than a meal you pop into the micro-wave for five minutes? Fruit so ripe and ready, I think there is a psychological trick being played.  What is going to appeal to a busy woman who is busy in the office all day and then goes home to prepare the family’s meal? Women are so busy, just looking forward to the time they can put their feet up and switch on the television. when my dish-washer was working, I simply packed it and pressed the button. Now  I have a man and he does the dishes. Now where did I put the Radio Times?