Autumn 1914 saw frenzied efforts to mobilise the huge army that the government knew would be needed to win the war. Many men responded readily to the call to arms but, at home, women were left bringing up young children on their own, coping with rising food prices and shortages and worrying about their loved ones. For some it was too much. The story of the Donaldson family of Seventh Avenue illustrates well the story of those early weeks of World War One.
David and Mary Reith Donaldson lived at 55 Seventh Avenue, Heaton. The 1911 census tells us that David (aged 44) was a joiner in an engineering works and Mary (43) a domestic cook. They had three children Amba (10), David Junior (7) and Walter (5). They were already living in Heaton but in Queen Anne Street. In April 1913, Amba sadly died, aged only 11 years. The family had, by this time, moved to Seventh Avenue.
David Donaldson was born in Alves, Morayshire in the North of Scotland on 7 January 1867. By 1901 though, he had moved south to Hebburn and was married to Mary. He described himself at this time as a ‘house joiner’.
In October 1914, David was one of the first men to join the Tyneside Scottish Brigade. Although from the outset men volunteered to join the army, to start with recruitment was far below the numbers Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, believed necessary. General Sir Henry Rawlinson suggested that men would be more inclined to enlist if they knew they would be serving alongside their friends, work colleagues and other people like them. The first so-called ‘pals battalion’ was the London Stockbrokers’ Battalion, soon followed locally by the Newcastle Commercials, which formed the 16th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, and Newcastle Railway Pals (the 17th Battalion). Recognising that many on Tyneside, men like David, identified strongly with their Celtic roots, Scottish (20-23rd battalions) and Irish Brigades (24th-27th battalions) followed from October 1914. Luckily for us local historians, it was agreed early on that the names of men enlisting would appear in the local press to encourage others. David’s name appeared in the Newcastle Daily Journal on Wednesday 28 October and, as one of the earliest recruits, he joined the First Tyneside Scottish (20th Northumberland Fusiliers).
What is particularly striking about David is his age when he enlisted. The Tyneside Scottish advertised for men aged between 19 and 45 but David was by then 47 years old. It is well known that many recruits lied about their age in order to be accepted. Perhaps David did. Alternatively such was the shortage of trained men, an exception to the age parameters was made for those who had military experience. Certainly David must have been fit for his age as many would-be recruits failed their medicals or to complete their training. Although we haven’t yet uncovered details of his previous career, a clue that David had valuable experience comes on his army record card. The reason stated for his early discharge in 1918 is completion of 20 years military service. He would by then have been 51 years old.
Thanks to Graham Stewart and John Sheen’s comprehensive book ‘Tyneside Scottish’, we know a lot about David’s Battalion, the 20th Northumberland Fusiliers. At first they were billeted at either Tilley’s restaurant in New Market Street or Simpson’s Hotel in Wallsend. (By contrast, the 2nd Tyneside Scottish were originally based at four halls belonging to churches and schools in the Heaton Road area.) In late January 1915, the battalion marched to Alnwick. It wasn’t until January 1916 that the members of the battalion who had survived sixteen months of arduous training, set sail for France. Conditions there were much worse. Rats and lice were an ongoing problem even before the battalion became involved in the action. On 1st July 1916, Tyneside Scottish suffered huge losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed that day and some 57,500 injured. Tyneside Scottish lost almost 1,000 men with another 1,500 injured out of a total of some 4,000 soldiers. As we have heard, though, Private Donaldson happily survived and was discharged in 1918.
Mary Reith Donaldson nee Sutherland was born in 1868 in the parish of Wigton in Cumberland. Her mother was a Londoner and her father Scottish. By the time she was three, Mary’s family were living in Simonburn, Northumberland, where her father, David, was a schoolmaster and Amba, her mother, despite having four children under six, a sewing mistress. By 1881, the family, by now with six children, was in Widdrington.
Ten years later, we find 23 year old Mary working at Close House in Heddon, part of the huge staff employed by Calverly Bewick, his wife, Eleanor, and their eight children. May is listed as a kitchen maid, one of a staff of sixteen. Interestingly the coachman was someone named Edward Donaldson. Perhaps it was through him that she met her husband, David. On 5 June 1899, Mary and David Donaldson were married in Glasgow.
In the 1901 census, Mary doesn’t mention an occupation and yet ten years later in 1911, by which time she had 3 children, she describes herself as a domestic cook. Recent research on the occupations of women suggests that the census under-reports women’s work but nevertheless calculates that only around four per cent of married women worked prior to WW1. It’s interesting that Mary followed in the footsteps of her own mother in this regard. Did she work out of necessity or choice? We can’t be sure but subsequent events suggest she may have needed more money than her husband earned.
What we do know is that Mary’s life wasn’t easy. Her first child, Amba, born in 1901, suffered from epilepsy. By 1906, she had three children under five. By 1911, she combined motherhood with a job and tragically in April 1913, her only daughter, Amba, died at the age of 11. Amba’s death certificate records the cause as a combination of acute bronchitis and epilepsy. One can only imagine the pain the loss caused Mary. But things were to get even worse for herself and her family.
On November 13 1914, only a matter of weeks after her husband joined the Tyneside Scottish, Mary appeared in court charged with two offences of drunkenness and child neglect. Under the sensational headline ‘A Craving for Drink’, the Newcastle Journal reported that she had been found drunk in Algernon Road, Heaton. It said that she ‘was constantly drinking and taking things out of the house to the pawnshop’. The court was given detailed information about the ‘separation allowance’ she had received from the government. It said that she had received £2 5s but after drinking had returned with only 18s and that her husband had taken possession of the remainder and spend 7s on rent and 6s on groceries.
Court records dating from this time can be examined in Tyne and Wear Archives. They show that, while Mary was acquitted of the offence of drunkenness, rather than be helped overcome her addiction, she was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour for child neglect. We don’t know whether any attempt was made to treat Mary’s alcoholism or what happened to the two boys. Their grandmother lived in Tynemouth so perhaps she looked after them for a time but sadly she too died in 1915. Meanwhile David continued to serve his country.
This glimpse of one Heaton family via surviving records gives some insight into how hard life could be both for those serving and those left behind. It also illustrates nicely two government priorities in the early months of the war. Firstly, the need to recruit huge numbers of men led to the formation of the ‘Pals’ regiments and a blind eye being turned to the recruitment of over-age and under-age volunteers.
And, at the same time, the government had become increasingly worried about the consumption of alcohol and its effect on the war effort. Some newspapers claimed that soldiers’ allowances were over-generous and were being ‘drunk away’ by their wives; a new law outlawed the buying of rounds in pubs; opening hours were reduced with, in some places, specific restrictions on the times when women could be served; tax on drink was increased. David Lloyd George even started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol (although Prime Minister Asquith, reportedly a heavy drinker, refused to sign up!).
By 1918, alcohol consumption had fallen by half and convictions for drunkenness were down by some 75%. The government measures played a part but so did other factors especially the huge numbers of men serving, and in many cases losing their lives, on the WW1 battlefields and the large number of women who worked full time outside the home.
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