Tag Archives: Fourth Avenue

Kiddar’s Luck and Edwardian Heaton

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’.

 Physical environment

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!

Economic life

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.

immigration

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.’

 School

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….

Gangs

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 town

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.      

Conclusion

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?

Sources

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

https://libcom.org/blog/common-words-wandering-star-keith-armstrong-06032010

Acknowledgements

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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

S in Ringtons, Tea in Heaton

The imposing white brick Ringtons building on Algernon Road bears the date ‘1924’, indicating that the famous tea company has Heaton connections going back at least 90 years.

Simon Smith, son of Sam, and staff outside Algernon Road HQ, 1932

Ringtons staff outside the company’s Algernon Road HQ, 1932

In fact the story starts much earlier than that.

Samuel Smith was born on 22 June 1872 in Leeds and christened on 22 December of that year along with his older brother, George. His parents were both local. William, his father, earned his living as a fettler, someone who cleaned the machinery in a woollen mill.

According to Sam’s great granddaughter, Fiona Harrison, young Sam started work, aged eight, as a ‘butcher’s boy’ on Friday nights and Saturdays. Aged ten, he joined the staff of one of the country’s biggest tea-dealers, as a ‘half-timer’. He gradually worked his way up and was sent to various of the firm’s offices across Yorkshire to learn all aspects of the business.

By the time he married Ada Emmerson, daughter of a Leeds milk dealer, at the age of 25, he was a travelling salesman for the company and was based in Sheffield. The couple’s two oldest children, John and Douglas, were born in Sheffield but the next two, Elizabeth and Vera, started life in Bradford and by time the youngest, Samuel and Harriet, came along, the family were back in Leeds but preparing for a new life in Newcastle.

We are extremely lucky in that, not only did Sam keep letters, diaries, notes, photographs and mementos, but that his family have treasured them and Fiona has painstakingly combed through the family archive to help us piece together the story of the birth of Ringtons and its relevance to our ‘Heaton’s Avenues in Wartime’ Heritage Lottery Fund project.

The records show that Sam had become increasingly disillusioned with the firm he worked for in Leeds. He felt its staff weren’t treated well and he believed that he could both run a successful company and live true to his values. His friend and colleague, Irishman William ‘Will’ Titterington, was of the same mind and they decided to set up in business together under the name of ‘Ringtons’, which combined the last part of Will’s surname with the first letter of Sam’s.

Sam Smith, founder of Ringtons

Sam Smith, founder of Ringtons

Tea to Newcastle

As was common at the time, there was a clause in their contracts stipulating that if they left their current employer, they couldn’t set up within 50 miles of its Leeds headquarters. The two men weighed up their options and were initially tempted by Scarborough, but in the end they couldn’t ignore the excellent opportunities offered by industrial Tyneside, where, although there were already a number of tea dealers including Brooke Bond and Pumphrey’s, none of them delivered door to door, which Sam and Will planned to make their unique selling point, one which has stood the company in good stead right up to the present day.

Fiona has found a letter from William Titterington to Sam Smith, dated 17 July 1907, and written from 2 Fourth Avenue, Heaton, where William is lodging in what is clearly a tiny room that the two men planned to share:

‘I have arrived at the combined room… This bed will only hold me, and I am afraid by the look of it, my feet will be hanging over the foot of it.’

On the other hand:

‘I am on the spot to assist at the shop and see that the workmen are getting on with the cleaning. This house is at the other end of the same terrace as the shop.’

Extract from letter from Will Titterington Fourth Avenue, Heaton to Sam Smith 1917

Extract from letter from Will Titterington, Fourth Avenue, Heaton to Sam Smith 1917

So it was in Heaton’s Avenues in 1907 that Ringtons was born. By 1908, the partners had two vans and four assistants and they were blending twice as much tea as a year earlier.

The first mention of the firm in the trade directories is in 1909-10 (which was probably surveyed in 1907-8). Ringtons was based at number 23 Third Avenue with Sam Smith, manager, living at 25. By 1911, the Smiths had moved to 129 Warton Terrace. Will Titterington and his wife Mary were living at 109 Tynemouth Road with their sons, William jnr and Francis, aged six and four.

By 1910 Sam Smith had bought Will Titterington’s share of the company and the firm itself had moved to more spacious premises on an abandoned rifle range at 392 Shields Road (where the Byker retail park is now).

RingtonsShieldsRdc1910ed

Ringtons, Shields Rd c1912

Ringtons, Shields Rd c1912 with extension to the 1910 building in the first picture

Here, their neighbours included a coach builder, cart proprietor, horse keeper and horse shoer, all vital to the Ringtons’ enterprise. Sam had worked hard to make the business a success and it had gone from strength to strength. By this time, there were 11 vans and 11 assistants.

Struggle for survival

But then World War One broke out. It changed everything, as Sam recalled later:

‘Of my staff of 17, some of whom were married, 15 were called to the colours and I promised to do certain things for them so their families should not suffer too much while they were fighting. Of course, I agreed to keep their jobs open for them.’

What Sam hadn’t reckoned with were the severe food shortages and the resulting rationing and restrictions. There was a sugar shortage so people were only allowed to buy it where they bought their tea. Ringtons didn’t sell sugar and couldn’t get hold of it, so business plummeted.

To compensate, the firm started to sell any foodstuff it could lay its hands on: tinned and evaporated milk, dried eggs, canned meat and fish, saccharine, pickles etc. However, often as soon as Sam had bought a consignment, the price of the commodity would be fixed by government at less than he’d paid for it.

‘ Somehow I managed to keep my promises to my soldier staff’ remembered Sam. ‘And somehow managed to relieve a little the distress of the widows of the three who never came back. But it was a fight to be able to pay my own rent and the wolf came nearer and nearer my door’.

At the end of the war, the 12 surviving members of staff returned, ‘three of them wearing the Military Medal’ and, as promised, Sam took them back although the outlook for the company seemed bleak. But gradually, once people and retailers were free to buy and sell what and where they liked, customers returned.

When the ex-servicemen received their gratuities, they clubbed together to buy Sam a watch, which from then on he always wore. It was inscribed: ‘Presented to Mr Samuel Smith, as a mark of gratitude and esteem, from the staff of Ringtons Ltd, on their return from military service. December 1920′

Loyal servant

One of the returning servicemen was Robert Ernest Sturdy, who, in 1911 was living with his wife, Minnie, and their three year old son, Norman Leslie at 57 Spencer Street, Heaton. Robert described himself as a ‘superintendent, tea trade’ . By 1916, the couple had two more very young children, May and Ernest. Robert volunteered to join the army, aged 32, in December 1915, just before conscription was introduced early in 1916. He described himself as a ‘manager (drivers)’ .

On enlistment it was noted that Robert’s heart ‘seemed weak’. His letter of enlistment stated that he was invited to join the Army Service Corps(Mechanical Transport), ‘provided he has not attained the age of 46 and is found medically fit for Service‘ Despite his heart condition, Ernest was accepted and he served on the home front for just over a month before being sent to France in October 1916.

Throughout 1918, he was in and out of military hospitals with conditions variously described as ‘mild debility’, ‘TB‘ and ‘Bronchial catarrh’ before being transferred back to the UK in October 1919, at which time he signed a disclaimer to the effect that he wasn’t suffering from any disability which was due to military service.

Robert returned to Ringtons where, as Sam Smith had promised, his old job was waiting for him. He was still there in the position of sales manager in 1934 by which time he was 50 years old. On completion of 25 years service, he was presented with tea and coffee services. Robert died in 1956, aged 73. By this time his son, Norman, was himself described as a tea dealer, presumably (though we can’t be sure) also with Ringtons. Robert’s younger son, Ernest ,was sadly ‘lost at sea’ during WW2.

The Somme

In total there were 14 people in Heaton in 1911 whose occupation, as recorded in the census, included the word ‘tea’. One was Sam Smith, of course, by now living at 129 Warton Terrace, with Ada and their six children. We can’t be sure which of the others worked at Ringtons, as employer names aren’t usually recorded, but Robert Clapperton Mair, aged 15, who lived with his parents, two brothers and a sister, at 13 Charles Street, described himself as a ‘tea merchant’s assistant’. He joined the 10th battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and was posted to France. Robert was one of those who didn’t return, having been killed in action on the Somme on 25 September 1916, aged 20. His name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial and also on that of Heaton United Methodist Church on Heaton Road.

Bravery award

Bothers Patrick and Thomas Sullivan were both ‘van salesmen (tea)‘. The family had moved from Dundee while the boys and their sister, Lizzie, were young and the family lived at 16 Fourth Avenue, just a few doors down from Will Titterington’s lodgings in 1907. When war broke out their father, Patrick, a tram conductor, was active in recruiting volunteers for the ‘Pals‘ regiments and we know that Tom enlisted very early on, in September 1914, at the age of 22.

Two years later, by now a sergeant, he was awarded the Military Medal and a Card of Honour for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. A full report of his actions appeared in the Newcastle Journal, reproduced below. (Despite what it says in the article, the family appears to have lived on Fourth Avenue, rather than Sixth, throughout the war).

Newcastle Journal 18 November 1916

Newcastle Journal 18 November 1916

 So Tom was one of the three recipients of the Military Medal who returned to Ringtons after 1918 and was remembered by Sam Smith almost twenty years later. This was confirmed for us by Tom’s great great niece, Helen Wells, who told us:

‘My mam remembers talk of Uncle Tommy. We knew he’d been awarded the Military Medal but we didn’t know why. Tommy worked for Ringtons tea. He moved to Thornaby near Stockton to work for Ringtons there. He died in the 1940s and had no children. Patrick was exempt from military service because he was colour-blind’.

Post-war

A hundred years later, the personal stories give us a tiny insight into the suffering of Heaton and its people during World War One. But within just a few years, the firm, its staff and customers showed their resilience. Ringtons’ business picked up to such an extent that in 1924 a magnificent, modern building was commissioned on Algernon Road.

Ringtons, Algernon Road c1930

Ringtons, Algernon Road c1930

Work began in 1926 and it was finished in 1928. It still stands, of course, and is much loved, although the firm has since moved again. Not far though. Ringtons’, first managed from a cramped single bedroom on Fourth Avenue, is still very much associated with Heaton. Its headquarters remain on Algernon Road, next door to its impressive 1920s HQ.

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

This article was researched and written by Chris Jackson, with considerable help from Fiona Harrison, for Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, which has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund. An exhibition, ‘’Tea in Heaton’, will be on display at the Chillingham pub from October to December 2015.

Find out more

This article and the exhibition at the Chilli concentrates on the early days in the Avenues and the impact of World War One but it’s just one chapter of the Ringtons’ story. To find out more, pay a visit to Ringtons’ museum in their Algernon Road headquarters and look out for a talk by Fiona  in our 2016-17 programme.

Can you help?

if you have worked at Ringtons, know more about any of the people mentioned in the article and/or have memories or photos to share, please either leave a comment on this website (by clicking on the link immediately below this article’s title) or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

We’re delighted to announce that Heaton History Group has been awarded £8,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a project, Heaton Avenues in Wartime. Awarded through HLF’s First World War: then and now programme, the project will focus on life on ten terraced streets off Chillingham Road, Heaton during World War One.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, the project will enable local people in Heaton to come together to learn more about the lives of the people who lived in First to Tenth Avenue a hundred years ago. Writer, Jack Common, was growing up on Third Avenue and attending Chillingham Road School at that time and he later wrote about his experiences in his autobiographical novel ‘Kiddars Luck’. Local people of all ages, including pupils at Chillingham Road, Jack’s old school, will be able to find out more about him and take his account as a starting point for discovering more about life of ordinary people in the Avenues and Heaton at that time. The money will fund visits to local collections, talks and workshops but also an opportunity for artists to get involved by illustrating some of the stories that are uncovered to bring them to life for a wider audience.

The aim of the project is to learn, not only about the lives of those who fought but also the impact of war on some of those who stayed behind.

Commenting on the award, Heaton History Group chair, Alan Giles, said: “We are thrilled to have received the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund. This project will enable Heaton History Group and the people of Heaton to come together to learn and so enrich our community in the present as well as commemorate a momentous event from the past”.

The group is very keen to hear from anyone interested in getting involved – especially anyone who lives or has lived in the Avenues themselves or knows of any family member who lived or worked there between 1914 and 1918. We’re also interested to hear from anyone locally who has WW1 memorabilia or family stories they’d like to share – they don’t have to relate to the Avenues.

Explaining the importance of the HLF support, the Head of the HLF in the North East, Ivor Crowther, said: “The impact of the First World War was far reaching, touching every corner of the UK. The Heritage Lottery Fund has already invested more than £52 million in projects – large and small – that are marking this global centenary; and with our small grants programme, we are enabling even more communities like those involved in Heaton Avenues in Wartime to explore the continuing legacy of this conflict and help local young people in particular to broaden their understanding of how it has shaped our modern world.”

If you would like to get involved or think you can help, contact Chris Jackson, Secretary: chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org