“To Begin At The Beginning.”

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.

    The late 1930s were a difficult time economically, the old industries; shipbuilding, steel making and engineering were in decline. In areas like Tyneside and County Durham unemployment was sometimes as high as 30%. My grandfather was a labourer in the shipyards when there was work. Coal-mining was a dirty, difficult and dangerous occupation. The health and safety regulations were frequently ignored, the same thing was true in shipyards. In later years Grandfather was seriously injured by a crane, it brought to an end his working life and made it difficult to walk more than a few yards. The only job father  could get was as a coal-miner. Germany was re-arming and much of Europe felt threatened. The Munich Agreement in September 1938 appeared to hold the promise ‘ Peace in Our Time’.The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain met with Adolph Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany, he attempted to persuade Hitler to accept the peaceful withdrawal  of the German part of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain thought he had received Hitler’s agreement. Others in the government did not trust Hitler.


    My parents  had a much more domestic focus my arrival was imminent . I arrived safely but alas the promise of ‘Peace’ soon disappeared. Britain started re-arming, as did most of Europe, the shipyards, the mines, the iron and steel works and any industry connected to the War Effort were working at full capacity, unemployment became a thing of the past. The country needed the active support of every man and woman. Germany a powerful industrial country, was the first to re-industrialise on a war footing. My mother was one of a large family and they lived in the upstairs flat, grand-parents and six growing children. From time to time uncle Joe helped out although he was only a school boy at the time.

     Soon my baby  sister came along then after a year a baby brother, within five years the family had increased to five people. There were at the time none of the electric helpers we now take for granted.  In fact the house relied upon gas as a source of power, there was a coal fire, a gas cooker and the rooms were lit by gas mantles, these produce nothing like the clear blaze of an electric light bulb. For entertainment we relied on the radio fitted with the appropriate valves , a large instrument which seemed to require a lot of attention and constant tweaking.  Father occasionally had a trip to the cinema and the Sunderland Echo to read, mother chatted to her sisters and her mother.


Looking after very young children was then as now a very time consuming business and housework was extremely labour intensive. I remember watching my mother washing; first the boiler had to be filled up with cold water and the gas lit underneath. This boiler was in a kind  of outhouse, roofed over but cold and damp. A metal tub was close by and also a wringer turned by hand. When the water was hot mother poured it into the tub, added some of the clothes and the washing powder, the she picked up a metal stick with a broad end which went into the water, a poss-stick. Holding onto the stick with two hands she beat it up and down against the clothes. You probably know  any object which contains water becomes extremely heavy. This ‘possing’ went on for some time, the next stage involved draining of the dirty water and filling the tub with clean rinsing water. The clothes were then put through the wringer to squeeze out as much water as possible and then hung out on the line to dry. Then the whole process started again with another load of clothes.

When the clothes were almost dry each shirt, or vest or blouse was ironed with a hot iron. Households with more wages coming in sent their washing to a laundry, they came back fresh, neatly folded ready to put into a drawer. Mother sent only sheets and pillow cases. Some families knew a widow woman anxious to make a little money and she took in washing. A family almost always dressed in clean clothes was regarded as very respectable, most people knew what a huge effort this took.

In the 1930s most of the homes of the working class did not have a bathroom, so keeping the body clean was not an easy matter in overcrowded homes. Privacy was a matter of great concern, so children and husbands had to be out of the kitchen when an adult woman was getting washed and similarly for an adult man. There were public baths which cost a small amount. The first house I remember had no bathroom, it had a flush toilet at the bottom of the yard. In the late 1940s, after the 2nd W.W. the new council homes that were built had a bathroom and indoor toilet and amazingly the whole house was occupied by one family, your own front and back doors and a wash-house just across the passage. For many families , including my own, they were a huge improvement. Somehow a school close by was not considered necessary or perhaps too expensive.



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.


More on the BBC today about how we will end our links with Europe, it focused on the town I was born in, Sunderland. The majority of the industries that were there as I was growing up; shipbuilding, coal-mining, steel-making are long gone, the most profitable industry, the Nissan car factory employs thousands of skilled well-payed men. Most of the cars made are sold into the European Common Market, against that well established fact 60 % of the voters voted leave in the recent referendum. I am speechless. I do understand that for most people the past extends to last week or the week before, for me I don’t actually remember a hundred years but if you add my parents life-times to mine, you get to just over a hundred years. I was a school girl when the 2nd World War ended, I do remember overcrowding, limited food supplies and low wages.  These serious problems were ameliorated by the Welfare State from 1948.  The most important thing was for the most part we were living in peace with our near neighbours and the USA helped us to build towards a better future. I would like the next generation to live in peace and prosperity.

     Of course we should have relationships with many countries around the world. The best legacy that we have inherited is the English language, this is now a language spoken and understood around the world, a lingua franca.  The fact that this is the language used by most people in the USA gives it enormous power and influence. We need to treasure this great good luck and use English with skill and honesty.