Tag Archives: Third Avenue

Jack Common: man of literature

In a recent article, Peter Sagar looked at how Jack Common described life in Edwardian Heaton in his famous semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, here he considers how Commons’ writing been viewed down the years and how we look upon it today:

Jack Common plaque
Jack Common plaque

It has been noted that Common was born in Heaton, in an upstairs flat at 44 Third Avenue. Of this background, the trade unionist and activist, Dave Douglass, ‘drew me to recall just such a Heaton street parallel to the railway (South View West) and a back bedroom in which I was to pass many a night in the formative political years. It was in the upstairs flat which Les Howard shared with his father. Les was a member of the first Tyneside Committee of 100 [an anti war group of the 1960s] and I became secretary of the second Committee. When I first met him Les had a magical aura which surrounded all the early crowd. The ILP Hall on Shields Road was the meeting place of anarchists, pacifists, the old ILP and the exponents of direct action…’  If you can excuse the pun, this kind of identification with Common’s work is not uncommon, among a number of commentators. 

Heaton

Douglass goes on to tell us how from beginning to end you can ‘almost smell Tyneside’ in ‘Kiddar’s Luck‘.  Douglass says how reading ‘Kiddar’s Luck‘ is the ‘next best thing to a visit home’ and capable of bringing on ‘nostalgic homesickness’ in him.  Interestingly, Douglass then goes on to talk of how he felt sympathy for Common in his role as worker-writer. Indeed this sympathy and empathy with Common was so strong in Dave Douglass, that he goes on to say that reading again of Common’s experience had cause him to, ‘man the pumps and set to, with renewed vigour to pull together my mountain of unfinished work which lies upstairs awaiting an injury or illness to provide me with the time to bring it all to life’.  As somebody who knows that feeling well, this would seem to be high praise indeed!

It has also been noted by local writer, Dan Jackson, that, ‘the novelist Jack Common, future friend and correspondent of George Orwell, was …………. smitten with belles-lettres growing up in a Tyneside flat near the railway sheds in Heaton.’ 

It is argued that Common was a well-read man and while his observations of Heaton truly came from the streets, his way of of expressing them were shaped by more exotic influences. It has been further argued that, ‘a love of great literature sharpened the pen of this “Geordie Proust” who was moved by “the birds at dawn, as well as the babble of the lounge bar”, yet as Common himself admitted later in life the life of a working-class writer was not an easy one: “There’s no talking to the lightning struck, the fatally illuminated are always alone.” ‘

If Common was undoubtedly one of those who was fatally illuminated, does that mean that his talent set him apart from his contemporaries in Heaton?  He did leave Tyneside for London. Is that always the curse of the so-called ‘working-class writer?’

Jack Common

We saw in a recent article about ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and its descriptions of Heaton, that Common had a quite contemptuous view of his education at Chillingham Road School.  However, there is also evidence that the same school nurtured Common’s love of poetry.  It has also been claimed that it was at this school that Common developed a lifelong love of the poetry of Shelley.   

As for Common’s love for the classics, ‘The Chronicle’ in 2015 reported his son, Peter, as saying,  ‘My mother taught me to read and write at an early age because I was confined to bed in a darkened room suffering from mumps, I believe. This gave my dad an opportunity to introduce me to many of the classical authors. His admiration and appreciation of these short stories made a big impression on me and I know that he tried to emulate them in his own short stories’.

This is surely what made Common such a great writer: with one foot in the rough and tumble streets of Edwardian Heaton and the other in the world of some of the greatest writers of all time, Common was able to convey an authentic impression of life in Heaton and the wider Newcastle.

Orwell

This ability meant that Common was able to convey the richness of working-class life in Heaton in a way which still resonates with us today. And it has been argued that this was not only true when considering better known works such as ‘Kiddar’s Luck’. Jack Common’s story, ‘Nineteen’, which was first printed in the 1931 edition of the London-based literary journal ‘Adelphi’ is seen as a case in point. 

Philip Hensher, editor of ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ , in which ‘Nineteen’ was republished in 2015, said: ‘What I loved about “Nineteen” was its understanding of how broad and varied working class culture could be, and its warm and humane understanding of two young people. It is so beautifully written, and so very special.  Jack Common was a wonderful writer and I hope to give him some circulation again.’ These characteristics of Common’s writing could be said to be the hallmarks of his work and why he was so revered by people like George Orwell. 

George Orwell

Indeed Common developed a strong friendship with Orwell and it has been noted that, ’Common and Orwell became friends, corresponding and occasionally meeting when Common was running the village shop in Datchworth, Hertfordshire, about ten miles from Orwell’s Wallington cottage.’

This was around the time when Common, ‘inspired, prefaced and edited’ the compilation ‘Seven Shifts’ (1938), in which seven working men told of their experience.

Orwell was famously rather envious of Common, stating that Common was the writer he would like to have been.  This was because Common had genuine working-class roots in Heaton, the likes of which Orwell might have yearned for, but could never have claimed. This quality, being a great writer, but being from a genuine working-class background is what set Common apart. It has been said of Common that his writing was, ‘warm, ironic and quirky’. He soon won admirers throughout the 1930s as a writer with a genuine proletarian viewpoint, as distinct from the purveyors of middle-class Marxist fiction. 

Common was invited in 1930 by John Middleton Murry, founder and editor of ‘Adelphi’, who had noticed an essay he had written, to become circulation promoter and later assistant editor of the magazine. For a period in 1936, he was acting editor and a collection of his articles ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ appeared in 1938. 

The writer, V S Pritchett, considered the ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ to have been the most influential in his life, and George Orwell heard in the essays ‘the authentic voice of the ordinary working man, the man who might infuse a new decency into the control of affairs if only he could get there, but who in practice never seems to get much further than the trenches, the sweatshop and the jail.’  

It has also been said Orwell had written of Common: ‘he is of proletarian origin, and much more than most writers of this kind he preserves his proletarian viewpoint’. It is further argued that this, ‘viewpoint was developed by Common with a clear critical intelligence, in a variety of reviews, essays and satirical pieces’ and that he was, as another reviewer put it: ‘a knowing bird, [whose] life appears to be spent with his head on one side forever questioning the quaint ways of the bourgeois, whilst he chuckles down his throat at their dependence upon the proletarians’. In this “knowingness”, however, there is no hint of smugness or self-satisfaction. The perspective he offered was not one of class prejudice or “workerism” (he had little time for middle class socialists who were determined – in dress, manner and speech – to outdo the workers on their own terms!) His concern was with a humanistic analysis of capitalist society. One which saw the proletariat to lie at the heart of an immense economic and social crisis which affected all classes.’  Here again we see Common portrayed as having the ‘authentic voice of the working-man’, or at least the working man from Heaton.

Oppressive

It has also been argued that Common paid the price for being this authentic voice of the working-man. It is said that, ‘Common grew up as a writer when the proletarian novelist, whether from the north-east or south Wales or Clydesdale, was worth a casual aside over dinner in Bloomsbury but was unlikely to be offered a seat at the table or a square meal.’  Like his contemporaries, the Ashington ‘pitmen painters’, Common was to be admired and talked about…from a distance.

Much of Common’s writing can be said to express the nobility of working life in the north-east, but he could also demonstrate some of the less positive aspects of life in the region.  As Dan Jackson notes in ‘Northumbrians’,  ‘The working-class novelist Jack Common wrote of the stifling conformity of suburban Heaton, where the pursuit of respectability, through a clean front-step and spotless rent book, was pursued fanatically and all under the watchful eyes of one’s neighbours’.

 ‘And there by the slight fold of a lifted curtain, he encountered an Eye’, wrote Common in his autobiographical ‘Kiddar’s Luck’.It was Mrs Rowley’s and there was no doubt about it. The woman was a natural overlooker.’ 

The north-east has never really lost that slightly oppressive sense of community and a certain suspicion of individualism. I do wonder, however, if it has begin to lose its sense of community somewhat in recent decades as the forces which bound communities together, such as large employers and their accompanying trade unions have either disappeared or declined drastically in their importance. 

Common himself describes another downside of working-class life in Heaton, when describing how when coming home his mother would more often than not return to ‘an empty house, in a hateful suburb. She loved the town and was happiest in company, with the full household of her childhood. True she was very much in love with her husband.  She’d sit up far into the night waiting for his return, a pleasant enough parcel of pretty wifehood for any man to find at the end of the day’s work. But he didn’t like it.  He was shamed, shamed in his manhood that he was kept like a slave away from her and could only slink back in the late hours when work had done with him and left him too tired and irritable to toss the nice nothings of love towards his waiting fancy. He spoke sharp and hurt her, he didn’t want to hear about the people she had met in town that day..’. 

 Again we see Common describing working-class life in Heaton in all its gritty realism, almost as if he was foreshadowing the northern kitchen sink dramas that were to come on television ten years later. But Common wrote of it with compassion and understanding and an honesty that came from having lived in the same house, the kind of honesty that could never have come from a writer from a more affluent background, the kind of writer who might glorify working-class life, without having experienced it for even a minute.   

Regional v Universal  

The Jack Common who wrote ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ was undoubtedly a north-east writer.  As Jackson says, ‘consider the working-class novelist, Jack Common in “Kiddar’s Luck”, sallying forth eastwards – on foot – from industrial Heaton to the glories of the Riviera:

 “From North Shields on, the air was full of the sea glow, a salt radiance heightened all along the Tynemouth streets. At the end of them, the land fell off at the cliff-edge into a great shining nothingness immense all ways over the lazy crimping of seas on their level floor.”’

Common could write about the harshness of working-class life in Heaton, but as we see here was also more than capable of writing of the glorious setting so much of Tyneside enjoys to this day.  Common was seen in his day by many as a ‘regional writer’.

Was Common a universal writer, or what would be seen as merely a regional writer?  There are numerous arguments that what Common wrote about involved universal themes, about family relationships or the role of working people in society, which pertain to humanity as a whole, but sadly it seems that, like many artists and writers from our region, Common has often been firmly put away in the box marked ‘regional’.  Indeed it has been noted that,

’In 1951 Turnstile Press published Common’s best-known book, the autobiographical “Kiddar’s Luck”, in which he vividly describes his childhood on the streets of  Edwardian Tyneside, as seen through the lens of his adult socialism. There are four chapters on his life before five years old – a feat of detailed memory – while his mother’s alcoholism and the overbearing father whom Jack at length dramatically defies, form the dark background to the vigorous, at times bravura, narrative. The book found praise as a slice of Geordie naturalism, a convincing depiction of “the other England” which so beguiled the imagination of contemporary intellectuals. On the other hand, its irony and subtly bitter  universality went largely unrecognised.’ 

Perhaps the truth is simply that writers such as Common have had things to say which worry establishment elites and worry them to such an extent that it is safer to just put him away in a box which limits his relevance to only the north-east.  If so, that only shows the cowardice of the literary establishment and just how narrow their own thinking really is. Perhaps they simply can’t imagine that the ‘other England’ is as real as their own…

This ‘other England’ would indeed take decades after Common’s best work to even be fully discovered. Alan Plater, the north-east born playwright, has described how when writing for ‘Z Cars’ in the 1960s, he and his fellow writers had to make up the name for a town for the series to be set in and call it ‘Newtown’, near to the large city of ‘Seaport’. Everybody knew it was Kirkby near Liverpool, but those were the rules of the game at the time. Indeed Plater himself has stated that, ‘the setting was an ill-defined, generalised lump of the good earth called “The North” and the writers were categorised as “northern writers”’. 

Hull-born Tom Courtenay starred in ‘Billy Liar’, despite its West Riding setting and Salford-born Albert Finney found his way to Nottingham in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, all without comment in the posh newspapers, though there were comments aplenty in the areas listed.  We can also consider the way the north east finally found its voice on television. In the 1960s there was the first series of ‘The Likely Lads’, which is portrayed as being set ‘somewhere in the north-east’, which could, in practice, have been anywhere from Tyneside to Hartlepool. The 1970’s reprise, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ is clearly set more firmly on Tyneside, with the pictures of a changing Newcastle during the intro and outro music and its habitual Whitley Bay jokes, but still one of the two likely lads themselves is played by Bingley-born Rodney Bewes, while another Yorkshire-born actor, Brian Glover has a starring role in perhaps the most famous of all the episodes, when Bob and Terry try to avoid the score of an England match.  It took the 1980s and ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ for three Geordie actors to be playing the parts of three Geordie characters. 

As it took drama and literature so long for the ‘other England’ to be taken seriously on a national level in the 20th century, it is little wonder that Common’s writing has been put in this regional box. Yet, if the universal themes of the work of the Bronte sisters from Haworth can be acknowledged then perhaps so will Common’s one day.  But then again, the Bronte sisters’ father wasn’t a humble railwayman.

Today   

So how should we look upon the legacy of Common’s work today?  In the last two years, I have had the pleasure of going into seven north-east primary schools to teach them old north-east songs and teach them some north-east history.  Almost without exception the pupils loved it.  They have seen the songs as their songs and the history as their history.  They listen to music from many different cultures in primary schools and rightly so.  Music is there to be enjoyed from whatever background it comes and if pupils can enjoy music from many parts of the world, then that is great.  And it almost goes without saying that music is a great way to break down barriers between people and anything that can do that is surely to be applauded, especially at a time like this. But, I would also say that their musical learning should be based on starting with music form their own heritage.  How can pupils in our region have any real understanding of other musical traditions, if they have no knowledge of their own?  And why should our musical traditions in north-east England be seen as any less important or valid than any others from anywhere else in the world?     

If this is true, then the same can be said about writing like that of Jack Common. Here was an authentic Tyneside voice articulating what it was like to live on the same streets as us a century ago. I would be the last person to say that Heaton school pupils should be deprived the chance to read great literature from around the world during their school days.  After all, we have seen that Common did just that himself.  But it does seem a pity that you will look in vain to find mention of any books by Common in the National Curriculum or in most north-east schools. Common is still seen as not quite important enough. Perhaps it is time for the north in particular to re-find its voice and one of the best starting points would be the writings of Jack Common.

For an example of what could be achieved, one only has to look north of the border to see how Scotland has regained its sense of cultural self-confidence. However, it can easily be forgotten that it has been a century’s long journey to get there.   In the years after the first world war, Scottish culture was embodied in the person of Harry Lauder, who presented to Scotland and the world a kitsch, tartan-clad version of ‘Scottishness’, a million miles away from the offerings on BBC Alba today.  A similar renaissance of northern English literature and culture in general is long overdue and Common could and should be a major part of it. In the hands of writers like Common, the ‘other England’ had much to say which was valid and important.  It still does.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Peter Sagar.

Sources

Geordies / edited by B. Lancaster and R. Colls; Edinburgh University Press,1992

Kiddar’s Luck / by Jack Common, 1951 

The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People — A New History / by Dan Jackson; Hurst, 2019

History Workshop Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, AUTUMN 1976, Pages 206–210

https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/2.1.206 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Common

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/george-orwell-hailed-heaton-author-10505289

Can you help?

If you know more about Jack Common or have photographs 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

A Darling of Third Avenue

Heaton History Group’s Arthur Andrews was looking through some papers belonging to his father’s first cousin, Alison Jeffcoat, recently when he came across a page from ‘The British Dental Journal’ dated 20 February 1988, containing an obituary for a Professor Arthur Darling. Noticing that the professor had been born in Newcastle, he decided to do some research to see if there was, by any chance, a Heaton connection.

Happily for us, it turned out that, in 1912, Arthur Darling’s father, John Straughan Darling, who worked in insurance, had married Henrietta Jeffcoat, a clerk at a boot manufacturer and a great aunt of our Arthur, the researcher. The Jeffcoat family were living at 8 Bolingbroke Street at the time.

Indeed, for a time, the Darling family had lived at 36 Third Avenue, next door to the Jeffcoats at number 34.

Not only was Arthur Ivan Darling a distant relative of ‘our’ Arthur, he was also a direct descendant of George Darling, the brother of Grace, the Northumberland heroine who, in 1838, helped rescue passengers and crew from the shipwrecked, paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ off the Farne Islands.

Cutting his teeth

John and Henrietta Darling went on to have four children: Joyce, Edna Grace, Arthur Ivan (in 1916) and Kathleen.

The family relocated to the coast, while Arthur was still a young boy, so he was educated firstly at Monkseaton and then Whitley Bay Grammar School. He went on to Kings College University of Durham to study dentistry. On qualifying, he became a lecturer at the Newcastle Dental School on Northumberland Road where he was greatly influenced by the Dean of Newcastle, Professor Sir Robert Bradlaw, who encouraged him to obtain a medical qualification, as well as to carry out research into caries (tooth and bone decay) for his Masters. Arthur achieved all of this by the age of 29.

Vigour

At the time, Bristol University was looking for young people ‘of vigour and vision’ to enhance its department of dentistry. Arthur fitted the bill and so became Bristol’s first Professor of Dental Surgery in 1947 at the age of 30.

WWII had depleted all of the dental schools of staff, students and resources. At Newcastle Dental School, Professor Bradlaw had put the emphasis on discipline and research as a basis for progressive teaching by doing both himself. Arthur set about doing much the same at Bristol.

At first, it’s said that his blunt north country approach did not go down well at all. There was opposition from some of the part-time honorary dental surgeons and senior members of the medical faculty, who looked upon Arthur as a ‘young upstart’.

Arthur admired Jack Armstrong and his Northumbrian pipe playing and he emphasised his northern roots by singing Geordie songs at dental school concerts and anyway he was ‘too young to be a professor’! But he was a fighter, carrying on his, sometimes lonely, battles for full-time staff, resources and the power to use them as he saw fit.

Reputation

Gradually the dental school’s reputation grew, as more full-time staff were appointed and student numbers increased. Research papers were published. Arthur’s own work on enamel structures was highly-rated. The Medical Research Council set up its first dental unit at Bristol, with Arthur as Honorary Director.

Soon Arthur’s whole-hearted enthusiasm for teaching dentistry and advancing the dental school broke down the earlier hostility from the older members of the university and hospital staff. Through his own research, he achieved first a national and then an international reputation in the dental world.

He successfully attracted funds to the university too, including a large sum from the Wellcome Foundation for a new research wing at the dental school. He was rewarded with the position firstly of dean of the medical faculty and eventually that of pro-vice chancellor, where he continued to display his skills as an academic politician.

Honours

Nationally, Arthur became an important figure on the General Dental Council, at the Royal College of Surgeons, the Department of Health and on many other bodies.

His services to education and dentistry did not go unnoticed and he was rewarded with a CBE and many honorary degrees.

Home life

Arthur and his wife, Kathleen Pollard, had four children.

He is described as having had a great sense of fun and he enjoyed fishing, music, foreign travel and working with wood, becoming a competent maker of chairs and stools, enhanced by delicately carved designs.

Arthur Ivor Darling died on 22 November 1987.

Postscript: Yet another Arthur and another Andrews

A scrappy fragment of a newspaper photograph in a diary belonging to Arthur Darling’s uncle Leslie Daykin Jeffcoat (of whom we have written previously) led our Arthur (Andrews) in another direction.

He knew, from the 1911 census, that Leslie’s father, also called Arthur (keep up!), had been a foreman at a chemical company. The words he could make out on the above photograph led to the discovery that Arthur Jeffcoat worked for 45 years at Wilkinson and Simpson Ltd who had premises at 36 and 38 Newgate Street and also at Low Friar Street in Newcastle. Numerous advertisements can be found in the British Newspaper Archive for many and varied concoctions. One that caught our Arthur’s eye was for ‘Natural Health Salt’ , their own version of Andrews Liversalts. (Ed: Not more Andrews as well!)

Can you help?

If you know more about Arthur Darling, 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

British Dental Journal – 20 February 1987

British Newspaper Archive

Ancestry

Findmypast

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. Copyright Arthur Andrews and Heaton History Group except images for which permission to reproduce must be sought from individual copyright holders.

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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Heaton WW1 civilian prisoners of war

They say that every picture tells a story, that it’s worth a thousand words even. But, in this case, the few words on the board in the foreground of the photograph enabled us to look past the polished boots and smart suits and ties; beyond the forced smiles and resigned expressions into the sixteen pairs of sunken eyes and imagine what these men and thousands more like them, Heaton men and boys among them, were going through far from home.

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SS Juno

The SS ‘Juno‘ was a 1,311 ton vessel built in 1882 and acquired in 1904 by the Tyne-Tees Steamship Company, newly formed in a merger of the Tyne Steam Shipping Company, the Tees Union Shipping Company, Furness Withy and Co and the Free Trade Wharf Company. The new company’s headquarters were in the building we now know as Hotel du Vin on City Road and it also had an office in King Street, just off the Quayside. You can still see a large advert for it on the wall of Sabatini’s restaurant.

The company operated passenger and cargo services to Dutch, German, French and Belgian ports. SS ‘Juno’ had the misfortune to be in Hamburg on 4 August 1914, the day World War One started.  The crew, almost all from Tyneside, were immediately arrested and interned at first in or around the port. Among them was John Rowe of Heaton.

Donkeyman

John was born in West Hartlepool in 1856, the son of John senior, a sailor, and Mary Ann Rowe of Stockton. In 1874, he married Cicely Jowsey of Hartlepool and by 1881 they had three children: Dorothy, Rose and Maude. By 1891, a further five had been added to the family: Jowsey, Cecily, Daisey, Jessie and John junior. John gave his occupation as stoker on a steamship. In 1901, John was absent and there was a younger daughter, Gladys. By 1911, John and Cicely and three of their younger children plus a grandson  had moved to 5 Addison Street in Heaton. Cicely reported that she had been married for 37 years and had given birth to 11 children, nine of whom were still alive. Again John was away from home, presumably at sea once more.

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In August 1914, John, by this time living at nearby 60 Addison Road, would have been 58 years old. He was the ‘donkeyman‘ on SS Juno. His job would have been to oil and grease moving engine parts and to stoke the boiler. After their capture and a short time under arrest in Hamburg, John and the rest of the crew of SS ‘Juno’ were transferred to Ruhleben prison camp just outside Berlin.

Ruhleben

A prison camp to house Germany’s civilian prisoners was established at the outset of the war on a harness racing track in Ruhleben, 10k to the west of Berlin. As soon as war was declared, nationals of the Allied Powers and anyone suspected of sympathising with them were arrested. Most of the 4-5000 prisoners were British, all were male but they came from all walks of life. There were merchant seamen, like John, but also fishermen, businessmen and sportsmen.

Among the detainees were a number of very famous footballers, including Steve Bloomer, who had starred for Derby County ( 291 goals in 473 appearances)  and Middlesbrough (59 goals in 125 appearances) and had scored 28 goals in 23 appearances for England. He had begun a coaching job in Berlin just weeks earlier.

Composer Edgar Bainton was another famous prisoner. He was piano professor and principal of Newcastle upon Tyne Conservatory of Music and a leading figure in the Tyneside music scene and later nationally and internationally. He had travelled to Germany to the Bayreuth Music Festival, where along with other foreign performers and concert goers, he was arrested. Bainton is credited with introducing Tynesiders to composers such as Holst and Vaughan Williams. He is best remembered for his church music but he composed a wide range, neglected for a long time, but  now increasingly heard.

Although life and conditions in the camp weren’t easy, prisoners were allowed to administer their own affairs and were allowed letters, sports equipment, even a printing press. The prisoners organised their own police service, postal deliveries, magazine, library – even businesses. There were football, rugby, cricket and golf tournaments; concerts, opera and drama performances; lectures; a garden club affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society and many other diversions. But there were also accounts of a class divide, racial segregation and other social problems.

Most prisoners stayed at Ruhleben, far away from their worried family and friends, for the entire duration of the war but a few were lucky enough to have been released early. Perhaps because of his age, illness or a swap with a German prisoner in Britain, John was freed on 22 December 1915 and so does not appear on the photograph, which was taken in the camp in 1916 or ’17. From research carried out by Marcus Bateman and published on the MT9 Project website, we know the names of the crew members and their home address at the time of capture but not who is who in the photo.

John Rowe was awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal and the British Medal in 1921. He and Cicely continued to live in Heaton. He died in December 1929, aged 73.

Marine Engineer

Another former Heaton resident detained was John Cyril Vasey, a marine engineer on board the SS ‘Indianola‘, a Liverpool registered ship. Records show that he was arrested on 16 October 1914 and, after a short period of confinement on the Hamburg hulks, was sent to Ruhleben.

Vasey was a Freemason: we have membership records from 1913 and he was one of 112 Ruhleben prisoners who signed a message of greeting to Sir Edward Letchworth, Grand Secretary of English Freemasons, postmarked 9 December 1914 and printed in ‘The Times’ on 28 December. He was also a keen footballer: his name appears in the ‘Handbook of the Ruhleben Football Association, Season 1915‘.

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John Cyril Vasey’s merchant navy ID card, 1923

John was born in Newcastle on 28 June 1885. By 1891, aged 11, he was living in Jesmond with his father Henry, a Londoner, part owner of Hawks, Vasey and Ridley, iron and steel merchants; his mother, Louisa, a Yorkshire woman; three older brothers, Henry, Arthur and Thomas and younger siblings, George, Frances and Nora, along with a servant.

In 1901, he was an eighteen year old marine engineering clerk, living at 192 Heaton Road with his mother Louisa, older brothers Henry and Arthur, both students, and younger siblings, George, Frances and Nora, along with a servant, Elizabeth Barnes. By 1911, the family had moved to Leyton in Essex, although John did not appear on that year’s census. Possibly he was at sea.

John returned to the merchant navy after the war. He died in 1936 at Papworth Village Hospital, Cambridgeshire, aged 50.

First Engineer

And Edwin Henry Perry was First Engineer aboard the SS ‘Sheldrake’, a Sunderland built steamer, when it was shelled and sunk on 8 November 1916 by the German U-Boat, ‘U 34’, 20 miles WSW of Marittimo Island in the Straits of Sicily. The crew survived but two senior members, Edwin Perry and the Master, Charles Stanley Johnson, were taken prisoner and transported to a prisoner of war camp at Furstenberg, north of Berlin.

In 1911, Edwin was living with his wife, Leila, and their two young children, John (3) and Henry (2) in Catford, SE London. Edwin gave his occupation as ‘seagoing engineer’. By January 1914, when he was admitted to the freemasons, he was recorded as a ‘chief engineer’.

All the family were born in the London area but they were soon to move north to Heaton. At the time of his capture in 1916, Edwin’s address was given as 18 Third Avenue, Heaton. Leila died in 1917, leaving three young children. Following the war, Edwin was married for a second time to Mary Elizabeth Gwinnett, with whom he had three more children.

Edwin was also awarded medals for service as a merchant seaman during WW2 at the start of which he would have been 60 years old. He died in 1950 in Poole, Dorset.

Apprentice

Our final Heatonian and the youngest, 17 year old William Martin Henry, was detained when the ship on which he was serving his apprenticeship, the ‘French Prince‘, was captured and sunk by the German auxiliary cruiser, ‘Mowe’, off the coast of Brazil on 15 February 1917. This time, the crew were taken to Gustrow prisoner of war camp in Northern Germany, where William was interned for the remainder of the war.

William was born at 49 King John Street, Heaton on 8 July 1899, son of Aberdonian Robert Martin Henry and Banff born Isabella Robertson Henry (nee Farquharson). On census night 1901, aged 1, he was at the home of his widowed grandmother, Annie Henry, originally from Scotland but by now a boarding house keeper  at 62 North View, Heaton. Also in the house on census night were her daughter, Mary, a ‘contralto vocalist‘ and four boarders from around the country.

On census night 1911, aged 11 William was staying with his 16 year old brother, Robert Farquharson, a clerk, who was described as head of household; his 13 year old brother Norman Charles, a ‘scholar’ and a 21 year old servant, Annie Stephenson, at 64 Rothbury Terrace. (We haven’t yet discovered where the brothers were in 1901 or where Isabella, William’s mother was in 1901 or 1911. Please let us know if you can help.)

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William Martin Henry’s 1st Mate’s certificate, 1921

After the war, William returned to the family home on Rothbury Terrace, where his mother and father lived until they died in 1924 and 1932 respectively. He was granted his Second Mate’s Certificate on 29 December 1919 and his First Mate’s Certificate two years later.  (We know from this that he was 5 feet 8 inches with blue eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion.) On 11 September 1924 William was granted his Master’s Certificate.

We have found records showing that, after his release, he continued to enjoy a life at sea. On 8 July 1932 (aged 33), he sailed from Liverpool to Boston on the SS ‘Nova Scotia‘ as a passenger. On Feb 1935, he was a crew member aboard the SS ‘Javanese Prince‘, which sailed from Halifax in Canada to Boston.

We haven’t found WW2 records relating to William but his older brother, Robert, is honoured on panel 29 of the Merchant Seamen’s Memorial at Tower Hill in London, which commemorates losses in WW2. It names his ship as SS ‘City of Canberra’ (Liverpool) although he didn’t actually die until 28 May 1947 in Withington Hospital, Manchester, aged 52.

William himself died at the former home of his brother, Robert, in Manchester in 1962. Probate was granted to Nellie Grace Henry, named as his widow. She had previously been married to Robert.

So a photograph that, as far as we know, doesn’t include anyone from Heaton has helped uncover an often forgotten aspect of WW1, the detention of civilians by both sides, and the stories of a number of Heaton residents, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Can you help?

If you know more about any of the people mentioned or in the SS ‘Juno‘ photograph , have photos you are willing to share or can add to our list of Heaton WW1 civilian prisoners of war, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Colin Green of Water Orton, North Warwickshire, who kindly sent us the photograph along with others from his collection which he believes to be relevant to this area. And also to Marcus Bateman of the MT9 project for additional information about the SS Juno, John Vasey and John Rowe.

Sources

MT9 Project

The Ruhleben Story

Ancestry UK

and other online sources

 

 

 

 

Alexander Wilkie: Scotland’s first Labour MP

Alexander Wilkie was born in 1850 in Leven in Fife, Scotland, where he became an apprentice to a firm of shipbuilders in Alloa. Although he spent his formative years and early adulthood in Scotland, it was on Tyneside, while living in Heaton, that he was to make his name, after he became the first General Secretary of the Associated Society of Shipwrights in 1882. This was an early national shipbuilders’ trade union and was based initially on the shipyards of Glasgow and Tyneside, reflecting the large number of ships being built on the Rivers Clyde and Tyne in the later years of the nineteenth century.

WilkieAlexanderresized

By 1897, Wilkie was also the Chairman of the Trades Unions Parliamentary Commitee and one of the founders and trustees of the General Federation of Trade Unions. He was a member of the Council of Federated Trades. He was also politically active in the nascent Labour Party and contested Sunderland for Labour (unsuccessfully) in 1900.

According to the census, Wilkie lived at 56 Cardigan Terrace, Heaton in 1891, before living at 84 Third Avenue in 1901 and then at 36 Lesbury Road (below) in 1911.

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Leven House on Lesbury Road, home of Alexander Wilkie

He named this last address ‘Leven House’ in recognition of his birthplace. In his personal life, Wilkie married Mary Smillie, daughter of James Smillie in 1872.

Wilkie was always involved in local affairs, wherever he lived. He was a delegate to the Trades Council in Glasgow when he worked there for the Glasgow Shipwrights. When he moved to Newcastle, Wilkie served for a number of years on the School Board and then on the Education Committee which replaced it. His interest in education was further developed, after he became a councillor in Newcastle in 1904.

MP

Wilkie was finally elected to parliament in 1906 as an MP for Dundee. He has the distinction of being the first Labour M.P. in Scotland. Hansard records his first speech to parliament being on 28 February that year, in an intervention during a debate about the Poor Law Commission. He spoke, he said as Scotland’s first Labour MP ‘to voice the keen disappointment of the Scottish workers that so far their claims to representation on this Commission had been disregarded.’

Labour then won 40 seats across Britain in the January 1910 general election including Wilkie himself, who was elected again in Dundee and was becoming something of a national political figure. He represented Dundee, in a two-seat constituency, alongside the victorious Liberal candidate, a certain Winston Churchill. Wilkie retained his seat in December 1910 as Labour won a further two seats nationally. He was to remain as an MP for Dundee until 1922.

However Wilkie retained close links with the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1910, he was made a magistrate here, while in 1917 he became a Companion of Honour. When he retired from national politics in 1922, Alexander Wilkie returned to his Heaton home and became an alderman.

It was surely very appropriate that on Mayday, 1 May 1914, the ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ reported that Alexander Wilkie had been the honoured guest at a large gathering at the Cooperative Hall, Darn Crook. It was further reported that Wilkie was presented with a gold watch and a cheque, whilst his wife was given a silver salver. All this was in recognition of what the ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ described as his ‘thirty three years service as Secretary of the Ship Constructors and Shipwrights Association, and in acknowledgement also of his work on behalf of trade unions generally’.

The Lord Mayor paid a special tribute to Wilkie saying that he had come back specially from London for the ceremony and that he had come not only as Lord Mayor, but as a personal friend of Wilkie. The ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ went on to report that, ‘the gathering had been arranged in order that they might show that they recognised the services which Mr Wilkie had rendered to the community and to the labour world, particularly the shipwrights. They deserved also to show their affections to Mr Wilkie as a man of the world.’

Wilkie was a very active member of the House Commons and spoke on many issues. Despite these interventions including a wide range of topics, he never forgot his commitment to the shipyard workers in places like the east end of Newcastle and Wallsend. In 1918 for example, Wilkie spoke about naval shipwrights pay and skilled labour in shipyards, while the following year he spoke about increases to dockyard workers’ pensions and national shipyards.

Wilkie died on 2nd September 1928, at his home, 36, Lesbury Road, Heaton, and was subsequently laid to rest at Heaton Cemetery 5 days later His effects were valued at £11 302, which today would be about £675 000. From this Wilkie left his housekeeper £104 a year for life.

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Alexander Wilkie’s grave, Heaton Cemetery

The Fife Free Press reported on 8 September 1928 that, ‘the universal esteem in which he was held was evidenced by the large attendance (at Wilkie’s funeral)’ and that, ‘the hearse was proceeded by two open landaus heaped high with beautiful wreaths – tributes of esteem and affection from all sections of the community.’ The last rites were then performed as the band played ‘Abide With Me’.

Legacy

Wilkie left a huge legacy of trade unionism on Tyneside, with the shipyards at the forefront of this movement. Indeed by the end of the 19th century, north east England was the most unionised region of England, having already had unions formed in the mining and engineering industries, before the Associated Society of Shipwrights was formed in 1882. Wilkie’s work helped to build this tradition further. His political legacy can be seen in Labour’s dominance for many years in Scotland, particularly from the 1960’s onwards, until the landslide by the Scottish National Party in 2015.

Can you help?

If you know more about Alexander Wilkie, especially his time in Heaton, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Jamieson, Northumberland at Opening of XXth Century, Pike, 1905

Newcastle-upon-Tyne Official Blue Book 1920

Newcastle Daily Journal 1 May 1914

The Fife Free Press, Saturday 8th September 1928

 

Acknowledgements

Written and researched by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group, with assistance from Arthur Andrews.

 

 

 

Heaton’s Back Lane Mysteries and Memories

Jack Common wrote of the many traders who called at Third Avenue:

‘Greengrocery and fish and coal came to the back door… Down here came the Cullercoats fishwives crying ‘Caller herrin’ in that season and otherwise “Fresh fish, hinny, straight from the sea”…

Everybody’s washing hung across the lane so that the appearance of a tradesman’s cart meant a rush to tuck sheets and things round the rope and to raise the diminished bunting high over the horse’s head with a prop.’

'Co-al' by Mark James

‘Co-al’ by Mark James

 

Jean Walker of Cardigan Terrace recalled playing out:

‘We called for people at the back door. At first, it was cobblestones. We played races and hide and seek… But then they concreted the lane so we could skate and ride bicycles as well. We played tennis. The concrete was in sections. We used the middle section as the net.’

Olive Renwick told us that her mother ‘walked to Meldon Terrace everyday with a jug to collect milk from a woman who kept a goat in her back yard’.

Joan Sweeney remembered ‘a container for ashes attached to the back wall with an aperture so that the ashes could be tipped into the bath which was brought around the back streets’.

Young Joan in her back yard c 19932

Ash box in the wall behind young Joan c 1932

So much of Heaton’s history must have been made out back – and, although admittedly some are more attractive than others these days, back lanes are still very much a part of Heaton life, whether as a short cut to the shops or a place we chat to a neighbour while putting out the bins.

Heaton History Group member Michael Johnston is fascinated by them and wonders what unusual features others have noticed.  To start the ball rolling he’s sent us some photos and asks whether anyone knows the history of these doors.

 

 

The green one is in the lane behind the shops on Chillingham Road and the brown one
leads into the yard of a house in Alexandra Road.

image

And we’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, taken in Back Molyneux Street. Who were these men? And what were they up to?

Over to you

What can you tell us about the doors? What do you think was going on in the Molyneux Street back lane? What other interesting historic features intrigue you as you walk through Heaton? Send us your photos and comment either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing: chris.Jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

 

VAD Nurses in Heaton’s Avenues

Following the end of the Boer War, the War Office was concerned that, in the event of another conflict, the medical and nursing services wouldn’t be able to cope sufficiently. The peacetime needs of a standing army, in relation to medical care, were very small and specific, and to find thousands of trained and experienced personnel at very short notice, without the expense of maintaining them in peacetime, was a difficult problem to overcome. On 16 August 1909 the War Office issued its ‘Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales’, which set up both male and female Voluntary Aid Detachments to fill certain gaps in the Territorial medical services. By early 1914, 1757 female detachments and 519 male detachments had been registered with the War Office.

VAD recruitment poster

VAD recruitment poster

When war came, the Red Cross and Auxiliary hospitals sprung up rapidly in church halls, public buildings and private houses, accommodating anything from ten patients to more than a hundred. The proportion of trained nurses in the units was small, and much of the basic work was the responsibility of the VADs – they cleaned, scrubbed and dusted, set trays, cooked breakfasts; they lit fires and boiled up coppers full of washing. They also helped to dress, undress and wash the men – which was of course a big step for young women who may never have been alone and unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex before, other than their brothers.

There were about 50,000 women involved in the movement immediately before the war, and it’s thought that in total somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 women served as VADs at some time during the war, some for very short periods, some for up to five years.

As part of the commemoration of the centenary of World War 1, the Red Cross has been digitising its VAD records, which has allowed us to identify three VAD nurses living in the avenues as well as two male members of voluntary aid detachments, shedding some light on their lives and contributions as well as the role that they played during the war.

The English Family

The English family lived at 30 Third Avenue, Heaton. The 1911 census shows Robert English (55), a plumber, and his wife, Isabella (48), had four children living at home, twins Annie and Mary Jane (28), Isabella (20) and William 18.

In 1911, William was working as a stained glass designer. On 29 October 1915, aged 22, he enlisted in the army. His military record describes him as 5’ 8” in height and weighing 7st 8lbs. His physical development was described as ‘spare’, with a chest measurement of 33 1/2 inches. It was noted that his sight was defective, except when wearing spectacles. He also had slight varicose veins. These were deemed as slight defects that were not significant enough to cause rejection. Given his physical development, it is perhaps not surprising that he was placed into the Royal Army Service Corps rather than a combat roll.

Four days after enlisting, on 1 November 1915, William married Lillian Phillips at St Gabriel’s Church. The next day, he joined his regiment at Aldershot. What is interesting about William, is not his relatively unremarkable military career, but that both his sister, Mary Jane, and his new wife, Lillian, were to go on to become VAD nurses.

Mary Jane English and the Liverpool Merchants’ Hospital

Mary Jane saw service with the VAD from 2 October 1915 to 12 November 1917 and is listed as a sister, although it’s not clear whether this meant she was a qualified nurse. Interestingly, the 1911 census does not show any employment for Mary, although it is possible that she trained as a nurse between then and the start of the war. Mary was posted to the No 6 Hospital of the British Red Cross in Etaples, also known as the Liverpool Merchants Hospital. She was awarded the 1915 star for her service.

The Liverpool Merchants’ Hospital was constructed and equipped from funds raised by members of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, making it unique. The hospital opened at the end of July 1915 and treated over 20,000 people during the course of the war at a cost of some £90,000. s a Base Hospital, the hospital had 252 beds and formed part of the casualty evacuation chain, further back from the front line than the Casualty Clearing Stations. In the theatre of war in France and Flanders, the British hospitals were generally located near the coast. They needed to be close to a railway line, in order for casualties to arrive; they also needed to be near a port where men could be evacuated for longer term treatment in Britain.

Staff of the Liverpool Merchants' Hospital

Staff of the Liverpool Merchants’ Hospital where Mary Jane English served

A report from the ‘Liverpool Courier’ in January 1920 gives a description of the facilities: ‘There were eight pavilion wards, each to accommodate 27 patients, with their own nurses’ duty rooms, sink, stores and cupboards, also large linen store; and each ward had attached to it a two-bed ward for special cases. Each large ward had also its own bath and lavatory. The operation block and the kitchen block were situated in the centre of the hospital. The operation block contained also X-ray room with dark room attached, an anaesthetic room, preparation room, operating theatre, dispensary, laboratory, medical store room, splint room, quarter-master’s and matron’s store rooms and ambulance stores.’

The article closes by saying:

‘Let it be recorded to the everlasting glory of Liverpool that the Merchants’ Hospital, the only military hospital which has been “designed, built, equipped, staffed, managed, and financed” entirely by the citizens of a particular city, has never been prevented from the fullest performance of the duties for which it was devised by lack of funds.’

This last fact is particularly interesting, as all of the records show that the hospital was staffed exclusively by the people of Liverpool. It’s not clear what relationship the English family had with Liverpool, or indeed if the necessities of war meant that this particular point was overlooked in the interests of providing a service.

Lillian English and the Australian Hospital

Lillian English married William on 1 November 1915. She was the youngest daughter of Alfred and Sarah Phillips of West Jesmond. The 1911 census shows Alfred as a letterpress machine overseer in the printing industry, with 19 year old Lillian working as an assistant at a music dealer and her older step sister Mary Gregory (28) working as a booksewer in a bookbinder’s. After their marriage, Lillian continued to live at her parents’ home, 34 Mowbray Street, Heaton and William’s military record was amended to show this as his address. The couple continued to live with Lillian’s parents for several years after the war.

Perhaps inspired by the experiences and contribution of her sister-in-law, Mary, Lillian also joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment on 6 March 1918, some four months after Mary returned from Etaples. Lillian’s stay in the service was however somewhat shorter, as she was discharged one month later on 8 April 1918. This initially caused us much speculation. Typically, VAD nurses would have one month probation and it appeared at first that either she was considered unsuited for the work or could not herself cope with it. However, the answer to her hasty departure became apparent when we discovered that William and Lillian’s only daughter, Monica, was born 12 November 1918. Obviously conceived during William’s leave, Lillian must have been about four weeks pregnant when she took up her post, a fact that would have become apparent during her brief placement, leading to her premature return home. Lillian spent her brief assignment with the VAD posted to the Australian Hospital, Harefield.

Some of the buildings at Harefield Park

Some of the buildings at Harefield Park where Lillian English served

In November 1914 Mr and Mrs Charles Billyard-Leake, Australians resident in the UK, offered their home, Harefield Park House and its grounds, to the Minister of Defence in Melbourne for use as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). The property became the No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in December 1914. It was the only purely Australian hospital in England. The Hospital consisted of Harefield Park House, a 3-storey plain brick building, some out-buildings and grounds of some 250 acres. It was proposed that the Hospital would accommodate 60 patients in the winter and 150 in the summer. It would be a rest home for officers and other ranks, and also a depot for collecting invalided soldiers to be sent back to Australia. As Harefield Park House could only accommodate a quarter of the number expected, hutted wards were built on the front lawn, and a mess hall for 120 patients in the courtyard.

As the war progressed the hospital grew rapidly, becoming a general hospital. At the height of its use it accommodated over 1000 patients and the nursing staff had expanded to 74 members. Nearly 50 buildings were in use, including workshops, garages, stores, messes, canteens, a recreation hall (where concerts and film shows were held), a billiards rooms, writing rooms, a library, a cookhouse, a detention room and a mortuary. For entertainment, tours to London were arranged and paid for out of canteen funds, and the ladies of the district made their cars available for country trips, picnics and journeys to and from the railway station, both for patients and visitors. The hospital gradually closed down during January 1919 and the whole site was sold to Middlesex County Council who planned to build a tuberculosis sanatorium. The site is now the site of Harefield Hospital.

Irene Neylon

Mary Irene Neylon was born in 1881 in Ireland. Somewhere around the end of the 19th Century, Irene and her sister Susannah moved to Newcastle, possibly to join their Uncle James, a wine and spirit manager living in Jesmond. Irene lived at 60, Third Avenue, with her sister and her husband John William Carr and their family. She never married and remained at Third Avenue until her death on 16 March 1947, where probate records show that she left effects to the value of £164 3s.

Irene was working as a shop clerk at the time of the 1901 census, but by 1911 had trained as a nurse and was working at the Infirmary of the Newcastle upon Tyne Workhouse (later to become Newcastle General Hospital). Between 27 February 1917 and 20 January 1919 Irene is listed on the Red Cross Records as being a VAD Nurse. Unfortunately, Irene’s record only lists her placement as T.N. dept, so it’s not clear exactly where she was posted. However, we do know that part of the infirmary was taken over by the army to treat venereal diseases, with beds for 48 officers and 552 other ranks, so it is possible that she continued to work at the same location but with a different employer. What sets Irene apart from the other VAD members in the Avenues is that she was, as a qualified nurse, a paid employee, earning £1 1s per week when she joined, rising to £1 4s 10d when she was discharged.

Irene Neylon's VAD record card

Irene Neylon’s VAD record card

Life as a VAD Nurse

‘Do your duty loyally
Fear God
Honour the King

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame.
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of working, and each in his separate star,
Shall draw the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are.’

These were the final inspirational comments of a message from the Commander in Chief of the VAD, Katherine Furse. The message was handed to each VAD nurse before they embarked. The message was to be considered by each V.A.D. member as confidential and to be kept in her Pocket Book.

The nurses were subject to full military discipline and required to assist in any way they could, with only minimal training. Given that we know that Harefield, for example, only had 74 nurses for its 1000 beds, it’s safe to assume that VAD nurses would have been carrying out most of the care. They wore a distinctive blue uniform with a white apron and sleeves and a red cross on the apron to distinguish them from other nursing staff.

VAD uniform

VAD uniform

The rules they were expected to work to included detail around personal cleanliness and presentation, including gargling morning and evening, but especially in the evening with carbolic, 1 in 60; listerine, 1 teaspoonful to 5 oz. water; glyco-thymoline and water, ½ and ½. They also advised combing the hair with a fine toothed comb every day!

There are several contemporary accounts of the lives of VAD nurses, including this from Kathleen Marion Barrow, who worked at a base hospital in France, similar to that where Mary Jane English worked:

‘In France, when convoy after convoy poured in, and when one piteous wreck after another, whose bandages were stiff with mud and blood, had been deposited on a clean white bed; the extent of a VAD’s work was bound to be decided far more by the measure of her capacity than by rule of seniority, or red tape. Matron and sisters soon discovered those whose skill, quickness and level-headedness, justified trust. In every new venture there are few who have not to walk for a space some time or other in the Valley of Humiliation, the military hospitals in France were a magnificent school, not only for actual nursing, but for self-control and nerve.’

She also talks of the comradeship and the humour amidst the pain and tragedy: ‘One recalls the dummy – carefully charted and hideously masked – which was tucked into bed for the benefit of the VAD and orderly when they came on night duty, and the stifled laughter under the bedclothes in adjoining beds. One recalls, too, the great occasions when some Royal or notable person came to visit the wards. Then we spent ourselves in table decorations, emptied the market of flowers, or ransacked the woods and meadows for willow or catkins, ox-eyed daisies or giant kingcups. Incidentally, we made the boys’ lives a burden to them by our meticulous care in smoothing out sheets, tucking in corners, and repairing the slightest disorder occasioned by every movement on their part, till the occasion was over. Sometimes the expected visitor did not turn up, and when another rumour of a projected visit was brought into the ward by a VAD, she was hardly surprised to find that her announcement was greeted on all sides by the somewhat blasphemous chorus of “Tell me the old, old story.” ‘

Male VAD members

Interestingly, our search for VAD nurses on the avenues identified two male members of Voluntary Aid Detachments: William Holmes and Richard Farr, both members of the St Peter’s Works Division, allocated to air raids, coast defences and convoys and employed as part of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade’s 6th division.

William Holmes, aged 51 at the start of the war, lived at 25, Eighth Avenue, with his wife Maria and five children, three of them, Harriet, William and Mary being adults.

Richard Farr, aged 32 at the start of the war, lived at 45, Second Avenue, with his wife Mary and nine year old daughter Madge.

Both were marine fitters and joined the detachment on 4 August 1914. William was too old to fight, but it’s not clear whether Richard was subsequently called up, although it is possible, given the nature of their work, that they would have been exempted. Although it was not a naval base as such, Tyneside played a huge role in World War One. A third of all the battleships and more than a quarter of the destroyers completed for the Admiralty were built here. Many other naval vessels were repaired on the Tyne particularly after the Battle of Jutland. There were no fewer than 19 shipyards on the Tyne at the outbreak of war, and five of them were big enough to build warships. Hawthorn Leslie alone built 25 royal navy vessels during the war.

Unlike the VAD nurses, the role that William and Richard would have played is much less clearly documented, although it is clear that they were expected to work on an as required basis, most likely dealing with emergencies and possibly manning coastal monitoring stations such as those at Blyth and Tynemouth.

That we have identified five Voluntary Aid Detachment members just from the ten Heaton Avenues* perhaps gives some indication of scale of the enterprise. What is even more startling is to recognise that the women in particular came from all walks of life and, with very few exceptions, worked, often for a number of years, on a purely voluntary basis, receiving no pay and little recognition for their huge commitment to the war effort.

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

This article was researched and written by Michael Proctor, with additional input from Arthur Andrews, for Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, which has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.

*Postscript

Since this article was written, the Red Cross has continued to post the names of VAD volunteers and so far we have found four more from Heaton’s avenues:

Annie Maud Monaghan, 90 Second Avenue

Lillian Rankin, 21 First Avenue

Annie Isabella Richardson, 55 Tenth Avenue

William Ernest Statton, 27 Ninth Avenue

Those from elsewhere in Heaton include:

Margaret Dora Burke, 146 Trewhitt Road (who served in France)

Mary Douthwaite, Woodlands, Alexandra Road, who served in France and was mentioned in dispatches (30/12/1918)

Mary Haswell, 7 Stratford Villas (who served in France)

Kate Ogg, originally of 21 Bolingbroke Street, who died of influenza on 23 February 1919 while on active duty

Mary Sharpley, 3 Jesmond Vale Terrace, who served in Egypt and was mentioned in dispatches (5/3/1917)

Plus:

Mollie Allen, 62 Chillingham Road

Thomas Atkinson, Street 150 Hotspur Street

Ralph Boyd 160 Warwick Street

Hannah Buttery, 28 Sefton Avenue

John D Cant, 19 Trewhitt Road

Margaret Clare Checkie, 88 Bolingbroke Street

Mary Cowell, 36 Wandsworth Road

Margaret Annie Douthwaite, 3 Alexandra Road

Ernest Edward England, 99 Rothbury Terrace

Mary P Field, Silverdale, Lesbury Road

Gertrude Fotherby, Silverdale, Lesbury Road

Florence Garvey, 9 Meldon Terrace

Alberta Louise Gerrie, 137 Addycombe Terrace

Robert G Horne, 64 Balmoral Terrace

Gladys Mary Miller, 16 Bolingbroke Street

Hilda Oliver, Bellegrove, Lesbury Road

Jane Ethel Park, Westville, Heaton Road

Mary Isabella Roberts, Heaton Hall

E D Scott, 21 King John Terrace

Eva May Stroud, Cresta, Heaton Road

W Theobold, 39 Cardigan Terrace

Matthew Tulip, 13 King John Street

Elizabeth H Turner, 22 Bolingbroke Street

Jennie Walton, 10 Falmouth Road

Laura Whitford, 17 Guildford Place

Irene Helena Whiting, Cresta, Heaton Road

J Wilson, 101 Warwick Street

Can you help?

If you know more about any of the people mentioned in this article, please get in touch either by posting directly to this site by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing Chris Jackson, Secretary of Heaton History Group at chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Joseph Fagg Story – Food Prices and Impact on Wages

On 6 February 1916, an open letter appeared in the Newcastle ‘Daily Journal’ from Joseph Fagg, of 27 Third Avenue in his capacity as Branch Secretary of the National Union of Clerks. In the letter, he protests about the alarming advances in the price of foodstuffs.

Joseph Fagg's letter to the press

Joseph Fagg’s letter to the press

In the letter he reports that ‘Clerks, like the rest of their fellow workers have nobly responded to their country’s call and this heartless fleecing of dependents of our patriotic comrades is a matter calling for immediate and drastic treatment on the part of the Government.’

It’s not clear whether the original letter was addressed to national or local government, or indeed whether it was addressed purely to the press in order to gain public support. However it does appear to have been part of a coordinated local campaign to persuade employers to recognise the impact of food price increases through increased wages.

Resolution

The city council minutes of February 1915 record the receipt of a letter to the Lord Mayor from a Mr J Wilkinson, Secretary of the Newcastle, Gateshead and District Trades and Labour Council, urging the council to adopt the following resolution:

That this council views with indignation and alarm the present and rapidly increasing prices of the people’s food, due in our opinion, not to shortage, but to the operation of greedy speculators and ship owners. 

We strongly urge upon the government the absolute necessity of at once instituting an inquiry thereon, and, if necessary, that they control the purchase, transport and distribution of food during the present war.

 He concludes by pointing out that other countries are already doing this.

Co-ordinated campaign

It’s not clear what the council’s response to the letter was, however we do know that within a month, Joseph Fagg’s letter had appeared in the ‘Daily Journal’ and the council had received simultaneous letters from Mr J M Gibson, North East Regional Secretary of the Municipal Employees Association and Mr H Goodhead, Secretary of the Amalgamated Association of Tramway and Vehicle Workers, seeking pay increases to recognise the impact of rising food prices.

The Municipal Employees Association letter went to all councils in the region. In it, Mr Gibson points out that his association had initially ‘instructed its officers to refrain from making applications for increased wages which would in any way tend to hamper or hinder the work necessary to enable the government to carry the present regrettable conflict to a successful issue’. However he goes on to say that the enormous increase in the price of foodstuffs had ‘made it imperative that the workers’ wages should be increased if they are to maintain themselves and families in a state of efficiency’.

Further evidence of a coordinated campaign comes in both unions seeking an increase of five shillings per week.

The council referred consideration to a special committee, which met on 19 March 1915 and which representatives of both unions attended. The arguments rehearsed by the committee are remarkably similar to current day discussions about public sector pay rises under a policy of austerity:

-If the application is granted, then the applicants and their families will be appreciably better off than before the war, and they will be relieved of the burden of increased expense which should be borne by all, including the applicants;

-In many communities, if carried out, would be disastrous to those ratepayers, who, out of limited incomes, would have to bear not only their own share of the burden, but also that which should be borne by the applicants;

-Where war bonuses have already been granted to workpeople other than municipal employees, it has been to men particularly affected by prevailing conditions: eg to those who have to work more assiduously consequent on excessive shortage of labour by means of the war, or to those who are called on to work long periods of overtime in work directly connected with the production of materials of war and the like. This is not the case as regards the present applicants.

War bonus

Despite these misgivings the Council made an offer of a war bonus of:

-2s per week to people earning less than 30s per week

-1s per week to those earning between 30s and 40s per week

-1s per week to boys under 18.

After further representations this was increased by a further 6d per week for all but boys under 18, to be reviewed in six months.

This was to be the first war bonus paid to the council’s employees, with further successful applications made in 1916, twice in 1917 and 1918.

A Special Committee report dated 23 December 1918 recorded the total annual cost of war bonuses to municipal employees (excluding tramway staff and attendance officers and nurses employed by the education committee) to be £10,285.

The total value of war bonuses for municipal employees at that point were:

25s per week for unskilled men

28/4 per week for labourers to skilled men; and

30/9 to 39/3 per week for skilled men

This represents almost a doubling of salary.

Price rises and shortages

Of course, the increases in food prices and food shortages were very real and badly affected the whole population. It is estimated that a pint of milk that cost 1d before the war cost 6d by the end of the war.

The reasons for the rising food prices were mainly linked to food shortages caused in part by the loss of skilled farm labourers, going off to war, but also of horses. Farms in the early 20th century were still heavily dependent on horse power, as was the army and many farm horses were requisitioned by the government

To add to the already escalating food prices and shortages, the 1916 potato harvest suffered severe blight, leading to the city council to send a telegram in February 1917 to the Ministry of Food expressing concern about severe shortages and that local farmers may be holding back supplies to keep prices even higher.

A response from the Controller of Food states that investigation of the matter by a local inspector indicated that the situation in Newcastle was not worse than in other parts of the country and reflected an abnormal shortage of potatoes due to failures in the harvest, not only in the UK but across the world. The response ends by stating that ‘it cannot be expected that persons in Great Britain will be able to obtain more than a small proportion of their normal requirements’.

Recipes

This would have been a particularly heavy blow as potatoes had been widely used as a substitute for other foodstuffs that were in short supply. A Ministry of Food leaflet titled Thirty Four Ways of Using Potatoes (other than as a vegetable) claimed that Britain had an unprecedented surplus of potatoes – over 2 million tons and encouraged people to use them as a replacement for grains, already in short supply.

Recipes included Treacle Potato Pudding:

1 lb. mashed potatoes,

1 egg,

half an ounce of sugar,

1 ounce of ground rice,

1 ounce of cooking fat,

flavouring essence or other flavouring,

3 tablespoons full treacle,

1/2 teaspoon full of baking powder.

Coat a plain charlotte mould whilst warm with a layer of thick treacle. Mix the potato, egg, sugar and melted butter together and add a few drops of flavouring essence. Stir in, lastly, the baking powder. Put the mixture into the prepared tin and cover with a greased paper. Steam the pudding slowly in a pan containing boiling water in a moderate oven or in a steamer for about 1 and a half hours. When cooked, turn out carefully on to a hot dish and serve.

Submarine warfare

The situation deteriorated even further when, on 9 January 1917, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. This meant that British merchant ships transporting food from overseas would be at risk of being sunk, worsening the shortages.

On 2 May 1917, the city council considered the urgent need for food economy. The lord mayor stated that the ‘proclamation of the king as to economy in food would be publicly read by the town clerk the following day and he suggested that copies of the leaflet be distrusted to scholars in each of the public and private schools in the city; that the proclamation be reprinted and exhibited inside the tramcars and that posters calling attention to the need for economy in the use of food be placarded on the outside of cars; and asked the members of council to arrange open air meetings in their various wards for the purpose of impressing the need for economy among their constituents.’

King George V’s proclamation

WE, being persuaded that the abstention from all unnecessary consumption of grain will furnish the surest and most effectual means of defeating the devices of our enemies, and thereby bringing the war to a speedy and successful termination, and out of our resolve to leave nothing undone which can contribute to these ends or to the welfare of our people in these times of grave stress and anxiety, have thought fit by and with the advice of our Privy Council to issue this our Royal Proclamation, most earnestly exhorting and charging all those of our loving subjects, the men and women of our Realm who have the means to procure articles of food other than wheat and corn, as they tender their immediate interests and feel for the want of others, especially to practise the greatest economy and frugality in the use of every species of grain and wheat.

AND we do for this purpose more particularly exhort and charge all heads of households to reduce the consumption of bread in their respective families by at least one-fourth of the quantity consumed in ordinary times, to abstain from the use of flour in pastry, and, moreover, carefully to restrict, or wherever possible to abandon, the use thereof in all other articles than bread.

AND we do also in like manner exhort and charge all persons who keep horses to abandon the practice of feeding the same with oats or other grain, unless they shall have received from our Food Controller a licence to feed horses on oats or other grain to be given only in cases where it is necessary to do so with a view to maintain the breed of horses in the national interest.

AND we do hereby further charge and enjoin all ministers of religion in their respective churches and chapels within Our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to read or cause to be read this Our Proclamation on the Lord’s Day for four successive weeks after the issue thereof.

Given at Our Court of Buckingham Palace this second day of May in the year of Our Lord 1917, and in the seventh year of our reign.

GOD SAVE THE KING.

Purple ribbon

On the day of the publication of this historic document Sir Derek Keppel, Master of the Royal Household, said: ” The king would never ask and has never asked his people to make sacrifices in which he is unprepared to share. He will do consistently what he asks the general public to do, and, what is more to the point, he has already done and is still doing it. We are all on strict rations here and have been since the beginning of February.”

People showed their commitment to the King’s appeal by wearing a purple ribbon. Lord Davenport, the Food Controller strongly believed that the solution to shortages was a voluntary approach and he echoed the King’s proclamation with his own circular on 29 May appealing to the public’s patriotism. However, it soon became clear that a firmer policy was necessary as a Board of Trade report showed a 98% increase in the price of food since the start of the War. Lord Davenport and his replacement, Lord Rhondda acted quickly, enforcing a wide range of restrictions under the Local Authorities Food Control Order 1917, which fixed the prices of some foodstuffs including:

  • Brewer’s sugar;
  • Sugar;
  • Milk;
  • Swedes;
  • Potatoes.

And it applied controls to the use of others, particularly, bread, flour, cakes and pastries, as well as limiting the use of grain to feed livestock and preventing its use in feeding game birds.

WW1 Ration Card

WW1 Ration Card

Detail from a WW1 ration card

Detail from a WW1 ration card

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

This article was researched and written by Michael Proctor for Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, which has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund. An exhibition, ‘Feeding the Avenues’, will be on display at the Chillingham pub from early August until late October 2015.

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

Feeding the Avenues

From the outbreak of WW1, getting food onto the table became increasingly difficult. We have been researching how the people of the Avenues were affected and responded.

The mother Isabella Wood grew up on a farm in Berwickshire. In 1881, aged 20, her occupation is given as a ‘farm servant’ but, by WW1, she was living at 57 Seventh Avenue with six children and her three sons in the forces. We know that Isabella donated gifts to the Tyneside Scottish (January 1915) and lettuce and flowers to Northern General Hospital (August 1916). She wanted to do her bit. It may well be that she and her husband took advantage of the council’s provision of allotments at St Gabriel’s and elsewhere and utilised skills she’d acquired growing up in the Scottish countryside. Sadly, on 18 April 1917, her son, Robert, died of wounds received in France. He is buried, with his parents, in Byker and Heaton Cemetery.

Robert Wood's grave

Robert Wood’s grave

The union officials Joseph Fagg of 27 Third Avenue was Secretary of the Newcastle branch of the National Union of Clerks. On 6 February 1915, his letter of protest against rising food prices was published in the ‘Daily Journal’:

Joseph Fagg's letter to Daily Journal

‘Clerks, like the rest of their fellow workers, have nobly responded to their country’s call, and this heartless fleecing of dependents of our patriotic comrades is a matter calling for immediate and drastic treatment on the part of the Government.’

Meanwhile, Amos Watson of 63 Second Avenue (a fitter) and W J Adamson (a joiner) of 36 Sixth Avenue served on the General Purposes Sub-Committee of the Newcastle Food Vigilance Committee, set up by the labour movement to protect the interests of workers and their families from shortages, profiteering and poor quality food, in response to what were seen as the vested interests of many members of the official Food Committee.

The shopkeepers Life was difficult for food wholesalers and retailers too. Not only did they have to cope with shortages and rising prices, just like their customers, but concerns over air-strikes and coal shortages led to restrictions on lighting and opening hours. The press reported that Elizabeth Maughan (possibly Florence Elizabeth Monaghan), of 90 Second Avenue, was fined 5 shillings for not shading her lights in 1916. Those who contravened the new laws were named and shamed in the press, although sometimes they elicited sympathy even from the authorities.

Mary Dawson, who kept a shop at 16 Second Avenue, was fined for serving bread after 9.00pm. The Chairman of Newcastle Police Court, Alderman Cail, said:

‘It is a frightful thing to see crowds of women clustering around drapers’ shops, which are ablaze with light in the evenings. If economy is wanted in light or coal, the Home Office should have turned their attention to these establishments, instead of the little shop burning only one light or perhaps a tallow candle.’

The Bench found Mary technically guilty but they let her off with only payment of costs.

Article about Mary Dawson selling bread after 9.00pm

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

This article was researched and written by members of Heaton History Group for our ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, which has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund. An exhibition, ‘Feeding the Avenues’ , which includes illustrations by local artists, will be on display at the Chillingham pub from early August until late September 2015.