Sunderland is a port on the east coast of England, it grew during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries to be increasingly busy. A precious mineral, often referred to as black gold, was discovered along the coast and the river banks. Coal produced steam power  and the Industrial Revolution developed many machines for the textile industry, spinning and weaving machines and of course steam trains to transport the cotton and woollen cloth to wherever it was needed. Many ships were needed to carry the coal to the midlands and the south, the population of these areas also began to burn coal in their homes.  Shipyards developed along north and south banks of the river together with engineering and steel works.  Workers were attracted to this full-time employment.  My own ancestors moved from Whitby in north Yorkshire, our roots in this area go very deep. Of course many came from Ireland, Scotland  and rural areas of Northumberland.

    In the 1940s Germany began to bomb the industrial areas after Britain entered the Second World War in September 1939. London and Liverpool suffered particularly heavily in 1941. In May  1943 the bombs began to drop on Newcastle and Sunderland. Several bombs landed on Coxon street in Hendon, the street where my family lived, fortunately we were all in the air-raid shelter in the back-yard. Grabbing a few clothes and shoes mother decided we should go to a sister of granddad’s and hope to shelter there for a short time. We had a quick look in the back lane where an unexploded bomb lay in a slight depression.  The warden told us we must get away as soon as possible. In the cold grey light of the morning we set out to walk, all keeping together. We were welcomed at great aunt’s house and found a mattress to lie on and covered with coats and blankets.

    The next morning we had toast and tea and dressed warmly we set off for the Housing Office. There was a long queue of people waiting and lots of children wandering up and down the stairs. After a tiring wait Mother at last got to see Mr. Holmes and told him that Dad was away in the army and she had my sister Jean, three years old and me coming up to five and she wanted a house with a school close by.  Everything was written down in a very large book, then the Housing Agent told mother that he would try to find suitable accommodation as soon as possible. We returned to great aunt’s house and she gave us some fish and chips.  Every day we walked around the nearby streets looking for empty rooms, mother was sure if there were no curtains at the window, there would be a spare room. One day we came across a large brick built school, on the opposite side of the street were neat terraced houses. She looked carefully at the windows she found one that had two completely bare windows upstairs. Mother knocked at the front door and a very tidy woman answered it, she told us, yes there were three rooms empty upstairs. She looked at us all very carefully and then said no-one had taken the rooms. I’m not sure of the order in which things happened but very soon we had a key and mother told us those three upstairs rooms would be our new home, the street was Leamington street and the school, Chester Road School would be my  school.



Truth to tell I don’t remember the mechanics of learning to read, or to count or write. I remember a peaceful, pleasant classroom and being introduced to these interesting and enjoyable new skills. Words whether spoken or written entranced me, at home I listened to the radio, there was a programme called, Children’s Hour which was my favourite. Every day there was a new story, I thought it was being told just to me. It took me to another world. sometimes there were plays, Norman and Henry Bones were boy detectives, I hung onto every word.



School was very different now, my class were all strangers to me, one girl soon became my friend. She was pretty,  and generous to me, she was full of self confidence. I was reserved and rather timid, Mary was jolly, kind and a very popular girl. She knew, even at such a young age, how to appeal to the teachers, especially the young male teachers. There was nothing untoward, just a lot of charm. New subjects like algebra and geometry appeared I found them very puzzling. Latin I knew was the language of the Roman civilisation  but French was a language spoken by living people, my own father had been in France. We were lucky he came home, now he was working as a bus conductor.  I had a free bus pass to take me to and from school, because of the distance I stayed for school dinners. I was a pernickety eater, the food was not up to my mother’s cooking at all. Then there was  the painful gap before lessons started again. My favourite lessons were; English both language and literature, history and geography were also fascinating, scripture appeared not very interesting, although I was still going to Sunday School. P.E. had few attractions for me, although netball had some appeal and then there was learning to swim. I had a physical awkwardness which I wanted so much to lose but it hung onto me until I left school.

    The best  thing that happened to me was at the end of the second year, I was asked to go to the headmaster’s office, he was a stern awesome figure. He asked me if I wanted to go into the languages form in the third year, I was almost to overcome to speak. I had no warning of this change and I have no idea who suggested it.  Somebody thought I was good at something. I answered a whispered yes. The following September I progressed into 3L, no more sciences for me, the dreaded C stream became just a memory. I was among strangers again but I felt this was the right place for me. In addition to my favourite English lessons I was now studying Ancient Greek, to learn something of that wonderful classical civilisation, the foundation of human learning. Miss Lee was knowledgable, kind and fair, she also taught me Latin. I began to feel that I would grow up to be a well educated, successful person.

     After awhile I began to notice one or two boys in the class, most were still acting like naughty children. There was one boy who had black hair and the handsomest face I had ever seen. He sat at the back of the class and was very popular and also top of the class. I was much too shy to speak to him.  One day opticians came and tested everyone’s eye sight, mine was a matter of considerable interest, there was a query is it a P or is it a T? I had a problem. Some time later I received a pair of free glasses. There were two things wrong, no attractive girl wore glasses, everyone knew that. Secondly the glasses were small and round and worst of all the frame was pink plastic. Everybody knew these were the free glasses. My chance of finding a boyfriend had gone for ever, I would always be alone. At first I just wore them in lesson time  and just stumbled my way around.  There was no point in dreaming that a handsome, popular boy would be interested in me. He did speak to me once or twice in a kind friendly way. I was too overcome to let him know how much I liked him. His first name was Malcolm, one of the few names I remember from those days.

 I knew now that working hard was something I had to make myself do, the classroom was alright but homework was a different matter altogether. Two years before I was due to face the exams, my youngest sister was born, mother was of course very preoccupied with attending to her. I had a place to study but family life, plus the radio made concentrating very difficult. Am I making excuses for myself, absolutely yes. I was often trying to come up with the right answer, after I should have been in bed. There were three subjects which caused the biggest problems, Greek was one of them, strange new symbols to make ph and th and probably others. I enjoyed the stories form Euripides and Virgil, a classical education. An even bigger problem was mathematics; arithmetic I could manage but what was all that stuff; algebra, numbers and letters, trigonometry and geometry. I was lost. The maths’ teacher having marked my maths mock exam paper told me it was probably better if I did not sit the GCSE exam. I was relieved.  Years later I realised how important an ability to use mathematics was, I should have given it my best effort. The third problem was scripture, I was a church going girl, the subject was not  especially interesting, I failed the mock exam. The teacher informed me I must pay to take the final exam. I made up my mind not to ask my mother, the budget was already very tightly stretched.

      My exam results were reasonable, Greek was the one I failed. I knew by that time I would be leaving school at the end of term. I had no idea what I would or could do, I was lacking in self confidence and generally awkward.

I was lucky enough to meet my own handsome hero some years later and oddly enough he had actually been at the very same school. He is two years younger than me so we did not meet then, ten years later we were both teaching, we met at a social gathering for young teachers. Like the best romantic stories it has a happy ending, last year we celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary.


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. I had never before been in a C stream class.


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 1832, 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 £900 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.