Jack Common’s famous semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ gives us some great insights into life in early 20th century Heaton in the years between the dawn of the 20th century and World War One. In the novel, Common writes as the narrator and as an imaginary character named ‘Kiddar’. It is, however, generally considered that Kiddar is Common himself and the novel is really about his childhood in pre-first world war Heaton. So what can we learn? Heaton History Group’s Peter Sagar has been rereading the novel.There are a number of different categories into which we can place this learning from reading ‘Kiddar’s Luck’.
The north-east born playwright, Alan Plater, once described the way Jack Common described his birth in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ as part of a ‘bobby-dazzling opening chapter’ in which Common bemoans his genes missing out on much more genteel places of birth, such as lush Sussex, many a solid Yorkshire village, affluent Mayfair and Surrey soft spots to instead be born into the relative poverty of a railwayman’s family near the East Coast mainline in Heaton.
On page 5 of ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, Common relates how he ‘came upon the frost-rimmed roofs of a working-class suburb in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in the upstairs flat in a street parallel with the railway line, on which a halted engine whistled to be let through the junction…’ This gives us a clear image of the Avenues around South Heaton at the start of the 20th century.
As the avenues haven’t changed that much in the intervening 100 years or so, it is possible to imagine those frost-rimmed roofs, although with the continuing and dangerous progress of global heating, the winter of 2019/20 has been remarkably short of frosts.
Common, of course, was also describing a Heaton without cars. On page 19, Common states that he, ‘belonged to that street by the same right that I had to belong to one particular family on it….often the lamplighter was on his rounds before all the small fry were safely back in their boxes’. How often do you see children playing on the streets of Heaton today?
Common described trips to nearby Jesmond Dene. On page 26, he says that, ‘we’d walk the hot, red paths of Jesmond Dene, brick-red gravel dust throwing that heat up into my inclined face and the tiresome rich green of full summer seeming to shout at one to look, look up, look around.’ Jesmond Dene is still a beautiful community resource for people in Heaton – sometimes we see that some things haven’t changed much in the last 120 years!
The streets might not have been packed with cars, but Heaton’s streets were still busy. Common, on page 17, notes that the ‘street was usually lively enough. These were the days of private enterprise: a mad economic maelstrom drew down every thoroughfare debris of competitive endeavour, such a procession of horse-drawn vans, man-pushed barrows, milk-chariots, coal carts and steam wagons as could have been achieved only by a separate deadly seriousness on the part of each participant blinding him to the comic glory he was collectively included in. Practically any moment of the day, one or another of these strange craft, ark or pinnace, would come upon our horizon’. It certainly seems that the streets of Heaton in the early 20th century were a very interesting place!
Not only did local tradesmen fill the streets of Edwardian Heaton but, on page 18, Common tells us that, ‘behind our houses, as was general in that district, ran the back lane. It was narrower of course, with the same granite cobbles, smaller sidewalks and monotonous brick walls pierced evenly along the whole length with two back-doors, two square openings into the coal-houses, with two back doors and so on. Though milk and bread were front-door deliveries, greengrocery and fish and coal came to the back-door. Sometimes for days on end children would spend all their time in the back lane, in and out of each other’s yards, sitting on the steps or swinging on the lamp posts’. A different world to today! How often do you see children in and out of each other’s yards? What would you do if you did see children going in somebody else’s yards?
With car ownership either tiny or non-existent, there was at least a variety of public transport to help people get around. For people living in Heaton this included one form of transport which has recently been revived in a number of cities across Britain, including Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh. On page 25, Common tells of how after a trip to Newcastle City Centre, ‘we came home happily in the shaky old trams which sparked over the wind-clutched Byker Bridge’.
There have been many plans from the likes of NEXUS in recent years looking into the feasibility of bringing back trams to the streets of Tyneside. There was one particularly bold plan hatched back in 2003, by the name of Project Orpheus, which would have seen an ambitious integrated transport system for the north-east, including a new tram line from Walbottle to the East End of Newcastle. These plans look great on paper, but we are still waiting for politicians with enough vision and political will for this kind of project to be made real. This is a pity as, given the ever worsening climate crisis, it would seem sensible to consider bringing trams back as a way of augmenting the Metro system, but I am not sure that I would be keen to travel on a shaky tram over a wind-clutched bridge! Thankfully we have higher standards of health and safety today…
The Edwardian era is often seen as a time of great social serenity before the terrible shock of the first world war, but a deeper study of history reveals the era as one of considerable social conflict as the trade union movement began to really flex its collective muscles in response to harsh working conditions and low wages. Common’s father was a railwayman and so it is no wonder that he recollects a railway strike on page 51. Rather than write about the effects on his family, Common describes what the effect of the strike was on the atmosphere in Heaton. He notes that it was, ‘true, of course, had I noted it, there was a curious stillness over the Avenues. Normally, at any hour of the twenty-four, if you looked along our street, you were bound to see at least one railwayman in work-clothes, his bait-tin under his arm going to or from the junction. They were always about, hurrying along clean-faced towards the sharp dawn paling the signal lamps over the lines, drifting wearily back on an afternoon sun; in groups jolly and joking in the Chillingham Hotel or outside the social club, in pairs coming out of the light of the blue arc lamps at the end of the shift and ready for their bed. Now that traffic was stopped. So was lot of other kinds. The electric trains were silent in the cutting, the sudden blue rainbow they made ceased to flicker on the houses above; there were no puffs of steam or harsh mechanical panting behind the junction wall, no shunting noises like the slow collapse of huge iron playing cards against the buffers.’ It must have made a real difference to the life of Heaton for a young boy to notice it in the way that Common describes. Of course the railway was arguably more important then, at a time when people didn’t own cars.
Listening to some of the ‘debates’ around the issue of Brexit, it would appear that immigration from Europe began with our accession to what was then the EEC in 1973. Common’s ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ reminds us of what nonsense that is when, on page 21, he mentions ‘…the German pork butcher from Heaton Road…’ (See a previous article to see who he might be referring to). It would be interesting to know more about how he fared as xenophobia and jingoism swept the country?
Certainly racism was unfortunately part of the life of some young people growing up in Heaton at the same time as Common. On page 56, Common talks about the trials that a man from China had to go through due to appalling behaviour from some young people in Heaton. In the middle of a piece about the gang warfare in Heaton at the time. Common relates how Fong Lee, ‘had plenty reason to be annoyed. Oriental patience might withstand the loud chanting of ”Ching, Ching, Chinaman, choppy, choppy, chop” by a choir of twerps around his door, but when that door was frequently flung open, its bell jangling, to enable one of that choir to fling in a couple of damp horse-turds that might land among the parcels of finished washing, then the love of cleanliness, natural to a laundryman, must have been offended beyond the immediate consolation of Chinese philosophy’
I would like to think that even in the darker days we are going through at the present, this type of racist behaviour would not be expected in the Heaton of 2020. As for Chinese philosophy, Confucius did of course preach the importance of patience, when he said, ‘ it does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop’, although another of Confucius’ famous sayings might be more relevant here: ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’.
It is actually quite surprising that Heaton had a Chinese inhabitant at this time, given the small number of Chinese-born people living in north-east England at the time. Dave Renton (see sources below) has noted that, ‘as late as 1945, the numbers of Chinese-born people living in the region were maybe as few as three dozen. There were several Chinese laundries in the region, including three in Newcastle, as well as one in each of Whitley Bay, Gateshead, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.’ It is often noted that right up to the present day, the most racist areas in England tend to coincide with those which have the least immigration into them as racism is largely born out of ignorance and a lack of contact with people perceived as ‘different’. Perhaps this was why poor Fong Lee had to endure such appalling behaviour towards him.
To put all this in context, while the north-east was prone to racism at the beginning of the 20th century, just as anywhere else in the country was, it has traditionally been seen as less racist than many other regions. A few decades after the time about which Common was writing in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists stated that the north-east with its high unemployment in the 1930’s should become a ‘storm centre’ for his new fascist movement. It didn’t. Indeed it has been noted that Tyneside’s notions of working-class solidarity were an anathema to the bullying tendencies of the racists. Common’s own antipathy towards racist attitudes is hardly surprising given his upbringing. Dave Renton notes that, ‘Common’s mother lit candles for a Jewish family on the Sabbath’ and that Common recorded his mother saying, ‘when I hear how the poor Indians live I’m sorry for them, cos I know what it is.’
We have seen that in some respects little has changed in Heaton since the Edwardian era and this is brought home to us on page 30-1, when Common describes his journey from home to school: ‘The school was only a few streets away, within the Avenues. There were ten of these, of which ours was Third, all built in one plan though not by any civic authority. The First and Third ran parallel to the railway lines, sharing a common back lane; these short ones and back lanes, were set at right angles to the rest, but extended only from Third to Seventh; Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth were parallel too; and the long Second ran at right-angles to the railway from it as far as Tenth, though where it was not keeping the short avenues company, it was all corner-ends owing to the interruption of the lanes and front streets that ran into it. To make room for the school buildings, half of the north side of Ninth and the south side of Tenth was missing. Our route that fine morning then was across Third into Fifth, down Seventh as far as the back lane to Chillingham Road (that being the fourth side of the square); along the lane past end of Eighth and into Ninth. Well, there we were.’
Other things about school life have changed. Common describes the different entrances for different aged pupils at Chillingham Road School during his time there. On page 31, Common talks of the ‘sign over the door which said “Infants”… [and]… the Tenth Avenue entrance which said “Boys“..’ I don’t think we would have gendered school entrances in Heaton today!
Chillingham Road Primary School is one of a number of primary schools in the Heaton area with a well-deserved good reputation today, but while the building may have changed little since the early 20th century, it does appear that it the teaching methods today are a little more enlightened.
On pages 31-2, Common describes how, ‘we were given brushes and little porcelain dishes containing water-colour, or else coloured straws which we were supposed to plait – babyish stuff, but not too bad. Then there’d be a lesson. A cracked yellow scroll was unrolled and hung on the blackboard. It showed three-letter words and very fat black letters they were, spaced out and then put together. Teacher took a long pointer, touched each letter in turn and said, “Kuh, Aah,Tuh spells Cat”. The class intoned cheerlessly, “Kuh, Aah, Tuh, spells Cat”‘. From what Common says about this lesson, it appears that this method was not only rather uninspiring, but also on occasions unsuccessful. Common relates that once the class had mastered the spelling of the word ‘cat’, ‘then the teacher got clever.”Ruh, Ahh, Tuh “; she stopped. “What does Ruh, Aah, Tuh spell, Freddy?” Freddy got to his feet and threw a hapless glance down at the girl next to him. “Please, teacher, Ah divn’t knaa”‘. Poor Freddy. Haven’t we all been there at some time of our life, either at a school or in adult life?
A few pages later on Common tells us of how you had to work through a social hierarchy in Heaton, even as a child. On page 36, he relates how, ‘out of school, I was beginning to graduate to a corner-lad. I was my baby sister now who was the pride and anxious delight of the girls.……According to the incidence of boy-population, about half the corners had their own gangs. I drifted for a time between two of these, Third Avenue, which had its customary headquarters round Daddy Hilton’s grocery at the bottom and Sixth Avenue who congregated at the barber’s window right opposite our house. Second could never call a corner its own; Fifth was too short of boys; Fourth had a gang, but they were weak and swamped with their own girls; Seventh were a numerous and lot of thugs; and the rest were too far away to be my concern yet awhile’. Which brings us neatly to the issue of gang warfare in Edwardian Heaton….
Heaton in the years immediately prior to the First World War, could be a dangerous place for a young lad like Jack Common to be growing up in. On page 54, Common wrote about the start of a period of gang warfare: ‘Then a bigger matter blew up one evening. I was on Daddy Hilton’s corner, hanging about hoping to get into a game of Kick-the-Block, when sounds of battle drifted down from the Fourth Avenue entrance. Sticks and stones were flying; war-cries chanted. From nowhere the words “Chapman Street gang” got uttered on the anonymous air. Chapman Street, now, ran from Chillingham Road, but on the other side of the railway bridge, down to Parsons’ Works. The lads from its corners and those on the streets next to it had a long-standing feud with our lot in the Avenues. At long intervals it would boil over into a regular battle. Then they invaded us, or we invaded them; the signal that such an attempt was on being the appearance of large bodies in battle array on the bridge.’ As we shall see this was not an isolated incident…
Indeed Common tells us how the rivals were usually dealt with effectively. Not on this occasion however: On page 54-5, Common states that, ‘often enough the invaders were met and turned back on the bridge itself; this time however, we were caught napping. The invaders seemed to be already overwhelming the weak Fourth Avenue forces. They would soon be in command of the bend going in to Third back lane, which was a strategic point of high value to us since it allowed us a choice of charging over in mid-battle to an attack on the rear of any force which advanced beyond that entry without first capturing it. Too late to get up there, though. We’d be lucky to halt the Chapman mob at Fifth’. It was looking bad for Jack and his mates…
It was time to get better prepared for the coming attack, On page 55, Common relates that, ‘our corner and Sixth rushed off to get hold of weapons. The five Robson brothers could be trusted to hold their own Fifth for a bit. Meanwhile Wilf and I, being young, but not absurdly so, must race off to arouse Seventh and Eighth, if we could.’ Heaton was clearly made up of a myriad of allied groups!
Seventh Avenue were easy to get involved. Common relates that, ‘by luck, we found the surly Seventh in just the right mood. They were all assembled on one corner and talking together gloomily. They’d just had the police after them over a matter of a large parcel of cigarettes knocked off that very afternoon from their own corner shop at the bottom of their street. And none of them had done it! They didn’t know who had. So the air about Seventh was knit up with rankling injustice, heavy with frustrated vengeance and melancholy, because of the mirage of smokes they might have had if they hadn’t been so uselessly honest. Now Wilf and I were rather in the position of a couple of Cherokees appearing unarmed before the war-painted Choctaw tribe. We had to rattle off our message before we were scragged – we did all of that twice over. It was just the news to suit present moods round these parts: Seventh started up as one man – yes, they’d be in any trouble that was going.‘ So far, so good. Would Jack and Wilf fare so well as recruiting sergeants at the Eighth Avenue?
The simple answer to that is, no. Jack and Wilf ended up having a somewhat difficult encounter with members of the opposite gender. Jack Common takes up the story thus: ‘Wilf and I ran on to Eighth. ….A little way down the street their girls were skipping with a big rope, two turning, the rest running in, pair after pair, while all chanted, “Never mind the weather girls,; in and out the fire girls” We asked the girls who were waiting, where the lads were. They at once rushed on us, grabbed our caps and chucked them into the gardens.” Hadaway to your own street,” they yelled.’
Things looked bleak for Jack and Wilf, but deliverance was at hand, with some useful news. Common states that, ‘;….In one doorway sat wee Alfie Bell, his leg in plaster and a pile of comics by him. He told us. “They’re all down at the Chink’s —- that’s where they are. What d’ye want them for?”He wanted to keep us talking, but we only yelled the news over our shoulders as we pelted on, “Big fight on in Third —Chapman Street out.”‘ As we have already noted these were days when casual racism was more prevalent in Heaton than today.
The mayhem continued through the avenues. On page 55-6, Common relates how, on their mission for support, ‘at the bottom we almost collided with the Eighth Avenue lot who were scattering away before the charge of an infuriated Chinaman brandishing a knife — at least that’s how they would have described it. Really, old Fong Lee was never infuriated. There, he was shuffling back towards the laundry now, his blue shirt tail flapping on his thin behind. He turned at the door to shake a skinny fist, grinned at a couple of passing railwaymen and popped inside.’
Inevitably all this childhood ‘fun’ had to come to an end once local adults had got wind of what was happening. We are told on pages 56-7 that. ‘the battles came to an end usually when a sufficient number of adults round about had realised the unusual scale of the tumult and began to gather for its suppression… That is how this one finished. Chapman Street army could get no further now that the forces engaged were more nearly equal and were beginning to retreat. They would have to, in any case, because Third Avenue parents were now at their doors and a lot of our lads were being ordered to lay down their arms. It was recognised as not fair to keep on engaging an enemy who had half the fight knocked out of him by having to listen to his mother’s shouts….’ Perhaps the Heaton warriors weren’t quite as hard as they liked to think they were!
To finish on a more peaceful note, we can also learn about ways in which Common was familiar with paths into ‘town’ at a time when there were few if any cars or buses – and of course the alternative of a shaky tram across a wind-clutched bridge! The narrator tells us on page 11 how he, ‘lay in a go-cart and travelled along the paths of Heaton Park…’
Meanwhile, on page130, Common tells us about a path, ‘that was probably the oldest path to town. Other nights I took the newest, through the clean air of the parks and crossing the Ouseburn by Armstrong Bridge, that is over the tops of cherry-trees and a cackling of geese at a farmhouse below. Or to avoid people altogether, I dipped down into the darkness of the Vale, over a bridge so small and low it bent to the muttering intimacy of little waters’. So we end with a beautiful description of the Ouseburn valley, which although describing a scene over 100 years old, reminds us of what a lovely part of the city of Newcastle it is.
There is clearly much we can learn about Heaton in the years immediately after the turn of the 20th century from an examination of ‘Kiddar’s Luck’. We can learn that, while some of the physical environment of Heaton has changed since the 1900s, much of it it seemingly remains the same. We have seen that there were immigrants living in Heaton and we have seen how inappropriately they were sometimes treated by some of the younger people in the area. We have also discovered some more about school life at Chillingham Road and of the tribalism between young lads from different avenues when they were out of school, at at time when the street was also the local playground.
All in all it is hard to disagree with Keith Armstrong, when he says of ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, that Common’s earlier writing was, ‘followed by imaginatively twisted tales of childhood and teenage in Kiddar’s Luck (1951) and The Ampersand (1954), which surely rank among the very best descriptions of growing up working-class ever committed to paper.’ It also begs one more question: who is writing about Heaton today with such compassion, understanding and real insights?
Geordies / B Lancaster and R Colls; Edinburgh University Press, 1992
Kiddar’s Luck / J Common; Turnstile Press, 1951
Colour Blind? Race and Migration in Northeast England since 1945 / D Renton; University of Sunderland Press, 2007
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group. Copyright: the author and Heaton History Group
More on this website about Jack Common
‘Jack Commons’ Avenues in Wartime’ https://heatonhistorygroup.org/2015/02/07/jack-commons-avenues/