Tag Archives: Basil Peacock

A Peacock’s Tale

It’s a two minute walk from 44 Third Avenue to 19 Cheltenham Terrace, 150 metres if that. Like most buildings in this part of Heaton, the two properties date from the late nineteenth century. And it’s easy to imagine what they, one a Tyneside flat, the other a terraced house, would have looked like in, let’s say, 1904, when the families occupying both included a young boy.

After revisiting his birthplace many decades later, one of the boys wrote:

‘ The terrace seemed little changed except that the entrance to it had been barred for motor traffic. It consisted of about thirty close-built houses on each side of a road [He failed to notice that the houses immediately opposite number 19 were replacements for those destroyed during the Second World War] , the original surface of which was made of granite sets. Number 19 stood well and firm, looking fresher than I remembered it… in our period of residence, most outside and inside paintwork was a dull yellow or brown because light colours would soon tarnish in the dust and smoke of Newcastle, a sooty industrial town.

Each house in the terrace had a miniature garden about four feet wide in front of it, showing signs of care and cultivation. In our time, they were mainly scratch places for cats and dogs, as the soot and even coal dust in the atmosphere precluded successful gardening. Those householders who managed to grow some privet or tatty chrysanthemums were counted as skilled horticulturalists, making use of the horse manure gathered in the street. There were three front steps to each dwelling leading to a small tiled level surface before the front door. These and the gardens raised the tone of the terrace, as in many streets in Newcastle there was only one front step from the pavement to inside the house’. NB p2

19 Cheltenham Terrace in November 2020, no sign of the ‘small tiled level surface’ or 3 steps.

While the other recalled:

‘That part I knew first, the south side, started with a grocer’s shop on the corner, ran past some eighty front doors arranged in twos, one for the upstairs flat, one for the down and each pair separated from the next by the downstairs garden.These gardens were just narrow fenders of soil laid around the buttress of the bay window but they were magnificently defended from depredation by low brick walls, coped with granite slabs each sprouting a complicated fence of spiked railings. The Edwardian builder imitated magnificence even in the cheapest house. Between them lay cement aprons in front of the doors.’ KL p16

44 Third Avenue in November 2020, the spiked railings long gone.

If you were walking between Chillingham Road and Heaton Road down Third Avenue and Cheltenham Terrace back in 1904, you might well have encountered two year old Jack Common on the street. For, as many readers will know, 44 Third Avenue was his home and he wrote:

‘ …when you could call and totter, you always made for the street whenever the door was open. Over the rough cement path, down the step not the wonderfully smooth pavement, perhaps again to the cobblestones into the middle of the road. As soon as you got into that dangerous area, however, some girl would come to lift you up and totter with you back to safety. They were your street guardians, the little girls.’ KLp15-16

Much has been written about Jack Common, including on this website. He went on to become an acclaimed writer. Local children even learn about him at primary school.

But further on you might well have caught sight of a slightly older boy. Basil Peacock of 19 Cheltenham Terrace, would have been six years old:

‘There were few children’s playgrounds, and only well-to-do people had gardens so we played in the streets and back lanes. There was little traffic except for the occasional tradesmen’s carts so it was comparatively safe’. NB p57

Contradicting those words somewhat, both Common and Peacock described the wide variety of visitors to their street. Peacock remembered the the striped-aproned butchers’ boys, white-clad grocers’ boys, the bell-ringing muffin man, the milkman on his horse-drawn float, bonneted nurses and midwives in starched cuffs, policemen in high-collared tunics and tall helmets, organ grinders, a hurdy-gurdy man with a bear on a chain and, of course, Cullercoats fish wives but it was a Heaton postman who really captured his imagination:

‘The postman came three times a day and wore a smart, blue tunic and trousers with a red stripe down the legs and what I thought an enviable head-dress, a kepi similar to that of an old-fashioned French soldier, with a peak back and front which turned the rain from his house and neck. I once thought of becoming a postman so I could wear such a uniform. The Cheltenham Terrace postman carried a large sack over his shoulders in which were parcels as well as letters; and one of my first girlfriends, aged six, informed me confidentially that he also had babies in it which he delivered to those who wanted them.’ NB p32

Additionally, Jack Common recalled the rag and bone man, coal carts, doctor’s trap, firewood seller, tin whistler and a German band.

Both also described in some detail the games they played on the streets. Here, Basil Peacock’s memories of marbles:

‘Most marbles were then made of pot (fired clay). – the glass ones were too expensive, and much prized if obtained. In addition to a pocketful of small ones, every lad had a “plonker”, which was a large one used to pitch at the others. A cheap plonker could be had by breaking up a lemonade bottle and obtaining the glass stopper… In addition to the normal game in which small marbles are placed inside a chalked circle and knocked out with plonkers, we played one which took place in street gutters… the drain gratings were hazards, as ill-judged shooting led to marbles being lost forever down them.’ NB p61-62

And Jack Common’s:

‘The marble millionaires gambled untold wealth at Big Ring, increasing the stakes as the evening wore on until there was a fortune out there on the cement, whole constellations of fat milks and coloured glass-alleys with twinkling spirals down their centres and clear sea-green or water-white pop-alleys winked in the shaky gaslight, nothing less than these high counters allowed in the big games, stonier and chalkies definitely barred’. KL p37

School

Both boys attended Chillingham Road School. Jack Common, in his autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, was famously negative about some of his school experiences.

 Basil Peacock wrote that from the age of three as ‘some schools administered by local authorities were prepared to take toddlers into the baby class providing they were properly weaned and toilet trained.’

‘Coming from a “respectable” family, and being rather a timid and retiring child, I found it difficult at first to associate with more robust and turbulent pupils coming from less orderly homes, who spoke in extreme Geordie dialect, so I dwelt on the words of my school teacher, which I could understand, and gained her approbation as a “bright pupil”’. NB p76

Chillingham Road School

He didn’t say much more.

Both authors, however, said they were keen readers at an early age:

Jack Common recalled:

One day, however, I made a discovery. I could read myself! I was four years old now, I suppose, thin, rather weakly, too feminine in appearance for the taste of the local matrons but undeniably bright; and while sprawling on the floor with a comic open at the pictures of Weary Willie and Tired Tim, or Dreamy Daniel, or Casey Court, or the Mulberry Flatites, I found that the captions under suddenly began to read themselves out to me. Marvellous!’ KL p 27

while Basil Peacock wrote:

‘Early in life, I became a voracious reader, especially of adventure stories, once I had advanced beyond the ‘Tiny Tots’ sort of publications. Children’s comics were proscribed in our household, though I read them in secret if I obtained copies; with the result that I was introduced to better literature, such as stories and serials written by first-rate authors in the famous “Boys Own Paper” when younger than most of its readers.’ NB p19

Parallel lives just 150 metres and four years apart.

Divergence

There were differences between the two boys’ upbringing, however. The Peacocks considered themselves middle class. Basil’s mother came from a family of sailors. Her father and brother were master keelmen. Basil’s father was privately educated at elementary school and although he had to leave school early because his family weren’t well off enough for him to continue, eventually he was able to set himself up in business because of his wife’s dowry.

The Peacock Family c 1899. Basil is third from the left, next to his mother.

In explaining how the family was considered prosperous, Basil Peacock described the area in which he grew up as follows:

‘The working men were factory hands, pitmen, shipyard workers and artisans. White-collar workers were comparatively few and tradesmen, office workers and particularly, council employers were considered well-to-do… On Saturdays the gutters were strewn with helpless drunks … the pitmen, delving and sweating miles underground, were a race apart; they took their beer in quarts, needing the liquid to replace the copious perspiration they lost during working hours.’ TM p6

We can see from the 1901 census that the Peacock’s neighbours on Cheltenham Terrace included two booksellers, a sailor, a commercial traveller, a draper, a manager in an iron foundry, an overseer at the Admiralty, a clerk to an oil merchant, an agent for Cook’s Tours, two butchers and a self employed builder. Diverse occupations but definitely no pitmen!

Jack Common, on the other hand, always stressed his working class credentials. The neighbours of his parents in that same census included: a self employed grocer (like James Peacock, Basil’s father, on Cheltenham Terrace), a butcher, a self employed dairyman, several commercial clerks, a foreman potter, a master mariner, a sailor, a ships’ surveyor, a marine engineer, an electrical engineer, a telegraph clerk, a pupil teacher, a meat and egg importer, an iron turner and bricklayers, as well as several who, like John Common, Jack’s father, an engine driver, were employed on the railways, mostly as clerks. 

The occupations are just as diverse as those on the next street. It perhaps suited both men, later in life, to give a particular impression.

Another difference between the two is that, while Jack Common lived in Heaton throughout his childhood and adolescence, Basil Peacock’s family relocated to the west end when he was seven years old. This may be an explanation for some of the things he wrote about Cheltenham Terrace and its environs not quite ringing true: when he left, he was simply too young to understand the economic and social nuances of Heaton and its people and he hadn’t built a memory bank to compare with that of Jack Common.

Military

A third crucial difference is that, at the start of World War One, Common was not yet 12 years old while Basil Peacock was already 16. So, while Common wrote of the excitement of North Heaton School being commandeered as temporary barracks and of school being reduced to half days, Peacock joined first the Junior Training League and then Durham University OTC before signing up, ‘aged seventeen and a half’ and eventually serving as a commissioned officer with the Northumberland Fusiliers. This experience undoubtedly shaped his whole life.

An army instructor suggested that Peacock study medicine when the war was over and that, after qualifying, he apply for a regular commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Peacock tried to follow his advice but, because he didn’t yet have the Latin qualification that was required at that time, he was accepted instead for dentistry. He studied at Durham University Dental School, which was based in Newcastle. 

On qualification, Peacock moved south to find work but remained a member of the Territorial Army. In WW2 he served in the far east, where he was imprisoned by the Japanese military and forced to work on the construction of the Burma Railway, a project on which about 16,000 allied prisoners and up to ten times that number of Asians died. Peacock returned to dentistry after the war and in the 1950s, he was seconded by the NHS to North Borneo.

Writer

After retirement, Basil Peacock’s life once more converged with that of Jack Common. From the 1960s he became a successful writer, broadcaster and public speaker. And it was as an octogenarian that he visited Newcastle to deliver a lecture on ‘Soldiers and Soldiering in Ancient Times’ to a ‘Society of Senior Male Citizens’ at Heaton Presbyterian Church, where he had attended Sunday school over 70 years earlier.

Heaton Presbyterian Church, taken from the corner of Cheltenham Terrace.

After the talk, he and his brother crossed over the road, apparently on impulse, and knocked on the door of their old childhood home at 19 Cheltenham Terrace. The visit led to his ‘A Newcastle Boyhood 1898-1914’ – there is no indication in the book that he was aware of Common’s earlier work. So we are lucky enough to have published accounts of, not one, but two writers who spent their early years in Edwardian Heaton.

Basil Peacock died in 1990, aged 92. You can still find his books in libraries and in secondhand bookshops.

Acknowledgments

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

Can You Help?

If you know more about Basil Peacock or have memories or photos to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

‘Kiddar’s Luck and the Ampersand’ by Jack Common; Frank Graham; rev ed, 1975

A Newcastle Boyhood 1898-1914′ by Basil Peacock; Newcastle upon Tyne Libraries and London Borough of Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1986

‘Tinker’s Mufti: an autobiography’ by Basil Peacock; Seeley Service, 1974