[I was] born 1903. Where was I born you ask? In bed with my mother, where else? There was nowhere else. The where else for the likes of us - you got a bit of help from the handy woman in the street, and God help you.
I’m sorry, I should have said at 7 Rothsay Street* Sunderland. My Dad was a pick and shovel miner. I was the oldest of the boys. Bess and Flo and then me, Robert, the first boy. Father and mother? Salt of the earth, strict but fair. There were eight of us and we all did our bit. We had to. A look was enough.
You ask what my mother did as regards to work. Mother, father, three girls and five boys. Does that do for an answer? But it doesn’t, because some time during the two years before the first World War my father gave up drinking to save up enough to buy a business - a shop at the end of the street. Mam and Dad really set about making it pay and built [it] up by hard work. Dad made his own ice cream, toffies and lucky bags for kids. He made special toffies and called it “Dix stickjaw.” I could write all night about my wonderful Dad - a very strict man, but a fair one. I loved him very much. As for my Mam, she was more than wonderful. She used to send us to the Warwick Street chapel twice every Sunday. She was a very good-living person and she used to practice what she preached. None finer than she. Yes, we all went to chapel, except Dad.
No. 7 was a three-roomed house with a consertory* built by my Dad. I smile when I write “consertory.” Anyway, it was a good one because he wasn’t a joiner, and poor wood to build it. Now comes the tricky part. In that three-roomed house was Father, Mother, daughters Bess, Flo, Doris, me Bob, John, Arthur, Stan, George. It was a struggle to get in, never mind be comfortable. We had a desk bed that used to fold up and all the boys slept together head to tail. No, we didn’t have any money. At least, we only managed to scrape through. But there’s one thing: we were happy and loved each other. We only had one rebel in the camp,* I’ll tell you later on about him and me.
I can remember the miners’ strike in 1911.* My Dad swept our coal house of coal dust. He mixed the dust with soda and us kids used the [empty] coal house for our camp. I can even remember the kind of paper hats and swords. In fact, I could even make some as I’m writing this.
Looking back, I can see myself standing in line with hundreds of kids holding our mugs at the coronation* in 1911 -12 in Thomas Street School yard, which was blown to bits some time later by the first bomb dropped on Britain (?). It was a zeppelin* which came over late one night and a tramcar was stood ready to go into the tram sheds, and they made a direct hit which only left four wheels standing. “Huh,” you’ll say. But it was real in those days when they dropped bombs - hundreds, only small admitted. Anyway, they didn’t get away with it. That zeppelin got a direct hit too. It burst into flames, broke into two. You could see the men dropping down. There’s a thing. I wonder if parachutes were invented then. I doubt it, because if they had we would have been able to see them because it was daylight when it burst into flames and crashed at West Hartlepool.
Talking or should I say speaking of bombs the Germans dropped a bomb on our picture hall. It was only ½ penny and you got a pair of comic cuts and a stick of mint rock. There was only forms* to sit on and while you were watching the picture something would hit you back of the neck carrot tops, turnip skins, wet paper, anything, and when you looked down there used to be a stream running between our legs...
[I remember] earlier in First World War in Stewart Hospital, opposite Mowbray Park, taking wounded soldiers out in the push chairs (basket type).
I was 13 when I had my first job [at the] Newcastle Tea Company,* 1915-1916.
Roker and Villiers Theatre 1916-1917...I was a film lad. These two picture halls showed the same program. I was at one and my pal, Johnny Arkle,* was at the other. Then as soon as Part One was shown one of us would set off with Part One in a proper haversack, dash through the town to the Villiers Pictures, and so on. The program that was shown was Pathe Gazette – main film, 2 turns.
I never had a great deal of time for sport. I fancied myself boxing for a while till I got a broken nose and Dad says, “That’s enough. You’ve learned to defend yourself. Try something else.” I did, later when I got older and started to take a glass of bitter* and took up darts.
[I was] 14 on the Sunday and started down the pit* at Wearmouth Colliery on the Monday, 8 Oct 1917. [I] left the pit in 1918. In fact, I was having my dinner one day and my Dad says to me, “What’s the matter with you? You don’t look very happy.” And then he says, “You don’t like your job do you?” “No,” I says, and then he says, “Mother, get a pen and ink. Write him his notice,” and, “Take that to the pit. You’re finished.”
I was lucky enough to get a good job as a junior clerk, number-taking on the Railway N.E.R.* – 1918. While working among the wagons I spotted these young firemen on the footplate and knew that was for me. And, after applying for a transfer, I was transferred to Sunderland So. Docks Loco Shed – 1920. Then in 1921 I was sent to Tyne Docks Loco Shed, and then in the latter part of 1921 I was finished work and on the dole.*
So we had to find something. So my pal and I decided to join the Navy, so went to the recruiting office and went in as soon as we entered. Ted, my pal, duffed it* and so did I. We were only out of work a short while and was sent to West Hartlepool and old Hartlepool.
I also remember a very big pit strike and I was on the dole. Me and two pit men borrowed a barrow and went to Usworth Pit Heap to scratch for coal (six miles I believe). Perhaps more seven. We filled six bags and took two bags to the nearest house and got a basin of soup and as much bread as I wanted. And went to the next one and gave two bags and had the same at his house - a basin of soup and plenty of bread. And then I went home, and what do you think I got? Some more soup for my pluck.
Granddad died before I was born. They used to live at Roker in Brandling Street. Yes I remember my Grandma.* She was a very old lady. She lived at Roker, Brandling Street. I used to go see her, but very [few] of the family went to see her because she was an old battle axe, so they would say. Anyway she was alright with me. She told me she couldn’t manage on her “large income” - ten shillings – so I went to the council* and kicked up some dust and got her 2/6*. Not much but it meant a lot to her and she was grateful, battle axe or no.
I’d better get on and tell of my travels. I think I got as far as West Hartlepool. Well, I didn’t stay very long at West Hartlepool Shed, and also old Hartlepool. That was a place, if you like. When we worked on the fish dock the shunters used to throw great big cod on the plate and say, “Share them out,” and the firemen would go along to the smoke house and get a paper full of broken kippers.* Anyway I got stood off again. I got the old push bike out. That bike cost 18 shillings. My Dad said he would buy me a bike. Of course, I thought I was getting a new one but no such luck.
So out comes my old bike. It’s done some good service, this. I’d heard that ICI* at Stockton had a big engine shed of some 20 engines, so off I went and had a good talk to the boss, and I think he was a bit impressed to think that I’d gone there from BR,* for these engines were very tiny. But didn’t matter, it was a job. Anyway, I was out of luck. He said to be in contact, took my address and wished me luck, and that was that. Now where do I look? Well, a cousin of mine G. Glen (he’s in Canada if he’s still alive*), said they were building some homes at Burnopfield, and while we were talking he said he’d just bought a motor bike, did I want to see it? And I took a bit of interest on purpose, and then I conned him by saying give me a ride on [it]. “I’ll tell you what, take me to this Burnopfield.” He says, “Yes but I can’t stay to see if you get back. I’ve got to see to my shop (butcher’s).” Fine, OK. So he [gave me a] lift and I went to the building site and saw the foreman and asked him about a job. And he said, “No, sorry.” So there I was, no job and no push bike. So I walked around the estate and went and asked the foreman again and he said, “No.” So I went over and sat in Hedges Bottom, ate some sandwiches I had in my pocket, and went back again and asked him again. And he almost shouted my head off. And when I was walking away, he shouted: “Hey, come back. You’ve asked me a dozen times today. You must be hard up for a job?” “Yes,” says I, pulling three shillings from my pocket. “This is all I’ve got in this world.” He says, “When do you wish to start?” I said, “I’ll start now.” He says, “Oh, no, a few particulars first, and then lodgings for you.” And one of the men on the site took me in and what a good lodge it was. Real solid, good food. It was plenty [of] meat and Yorkshire pudding, and you can believe I needed it.
The Boss put me on a cement mixing board by hand. No cement mixers in those days. I used to go half hour early to mix a batch for the brickies* to start straight away. That was a laugh, when the boss said it’ll be the easiest half hour of the day. Twelve hours a day and then at night sneak back to the works and practice hod carrying because that’s what I was supposed to be - a hod carrier*. And I was running away with the idea that I was. The minute we finished the houses he told me he knew I’d never been on the building in my life when I picked up a spit. He was a fine man. He shook my hand and said he was sorry to lose me, but there was no more work for me. [He] gave me a letter, sealed, and pointed to 4 or 5 miles away and said, “Just give this to the foreman,” which I did, and I started for work for them right away. And when these were done I was out of work again. That was the hardest job I’ve had in my life. It nearly killed me when I first started. The landlady’s father was horse keeper at the colliery, and he gave me some liniment* for my back, and you should have seen my hands. Blisters, cracks and gaps between my fingers filled with cobbler’s wax and heel ball*. That was the time when my sister Flo got married. When I went to the reception I was wearing a pair of wash leather gloves and when Flo spotted the gloves she said, “What on earth are you wearing those for.” I never said a word, I showed my hands. She nearly died. We were very close.
I mentioned about the horse keeper. Well, when I went to his house for the liniment I got the shock of my life. I thought we were poor, but my God, I can’t describe it. It had upstairs to it but no staircase, just a big hole. There was some ladders outside. I suppose that’s the way they went to bed. Or did somebody chuck them a rope down? Oh, I didn’t finish when I was telling you I practiced hod carrying. Well, I never mastered it. I could go up alright but could never get off the top of the ladder.
Well I suppose you’ll be wondering how I got home without my sturdy steed (bike). I now had some money. I’d worked hard and was careful so I was fairly well off. But money was getting tighter so my brother Jack (next one to me in age) decided we would set off and look for work, because the Powers That Be decided if the man of the house was working he had to keep us all. But Jack and I wasn’t having it that way. We would do something about it, “just like that.” We’d heard that at Doncaster and Grimthorpe there was work. Well off we sailed passing the Wheatsheaf* at 4.00 a.m. God knows how many miles we traveled for there wasn’t a lot of sign posts like there is today. We must have [gone] a very long way out of our way and little did I think I’d be coming this way again. We tried everything and everywhere but nothing doing. We set off home and got at a guess half way and it started to snow and we couldn’t go any further. The wheels were snowed up. We were walking by now and we came to a very large house with a very large consertory and a man was inside. I went and asked him if we could leave the bikes and he asked a few particulars. I told him we had been looking for work in Yorkshire and he gave permission to leave the bikes, and that’s all (what no tea?).
Well, how far had we to walk? From here, Stockton, to Sunderland.* We set off and I noticed Jack was limping, sort of, and then he said he was having trouble with his bum. When he dropped his trousers - my God, it was just like a skinned tomato and as red. I bet he was glad to get off that bike. We’d walked two or three miles when up comes a bus. And as soon as we saw it coming I said, “We must stop this, choose where it’s going.” Then we pooled our money and I said, “Give me two tickets for as far as this money will take us towards Sunderland.” Anyway we landed home black bright, and when mother saw us she broke down. We had a terrible job with her. But I told you what kind of people we are earlier in this narrative, so up comes our reinforcements - Aunt Emma No. 6, Aunt Rachel No. 4, Aunt Maria No. 16, Mother No. 7. So you see we were soon in one piece again.
But it wasn’t over as far as Jack and I were concerned. At the Dole Office we had to face a committee, and the chairman accused us of going on a holiday. Of course, I got my back up because I was sick to death of this dole business. He kept belittling me by calling me, “Boy” till I couldn’t contain myself any longer. So I said, “Not so much of the bloody ‘boy.’ I’m a better man than you are. I could do your job sitting on my hands.” And he said he would send for a policeman, and I said, “You’d better make it a bobby because you couldn’t put me out.” I said, “If it wasn’t for the likes of me you wouldn’t be sitting where you are now,” and I added a bit more. “What sort of work did you do before you got that?” He nearly busted and sent for a bobby. You can imagine the place was in an uproar. I could almost see ↑↑↑ on my clothes, but no, the bobby was on my side and he took me to the door, whispering all sorts of names behind their backs.
I think this would be 1922. Jack and I had made a pact that we would get ourselves organised and he would make for London and I would make over to East Coast which was always my cup of tea. I never liked the west side. So that’s what it was, this time on my own. The class of farmers seem to have been poorer and more likeable when I stopped for a cup of tea and a sandwich. They seemed more sociable and helpful when they knew where I was going and what for. They put me on a settle near the back door. I just went along at a steady pace and landed into Normanton and spotted two shafts. So I went to the pit and asked to see the boss and this chap said he would see me. So I props my bike against the door and the manager, Mr Cox, asked what I wanted. And I said [what] I wanted. “What sort of job?” “Any job.” and then he says, “Where have you come from.” I told him, “Sunderland.” “How have you got here?” “Push bike,” I say, and Mr Cox said something to this chap, and he went out, just had a look and came back and nodded his head. And then a lot of questions and I had a job traming (pony driving).
Same old thing day in day out. When I received a telegram from Flo at Sunderland to say the Railway had sent for me, so I went straight to the pit and asked Mr Cox for my release and he agreed with me. Said he would send what money which was due to me to Sunderland, which he did. So I went to Head Office and signed on for LNER. What do you think they sent me to? - Hull Dairycoates Loco Shed, in 1923 Manager Mr Hutchinson. During that time the Railway groups were altered and I was sent north again to Heaton (beside Whitley Bay) Newcastle. Lousy shed, less said easiest mended. On the dole again so it was on my bike again and also back to Hull.
Well we’re back in Hull again. I think there must be something of special interest at Hull. Of course! I met Nora there, and the captain’s daughter Edie. I was introduced to [Nora] in my lodge in Maud Parade in Gypsyville, Hull. Nora had three brothers and one sister. Nora’s brother was a driver. The other was a fireman on the LMS and the other, Harold, is buried on the Isle of Skye. He was a sailor in the navy...
One day I went to see the captain about a job aboard his ship and succeeded, and on my way back to the lodge I thought I’d call at Dairycoates Shed and see if there was anything doing. I told him I had worked there before and he said the only thing he had was loading coal into wagons off a coal stack on piece work. I thanked him (Mr Hutchinson) and said it was just up my street. The harder I worked the more money I got. I used to go on a Sunday morning before dinner so I now had two jobs. So I went straight away to see Captain Fearnley and told him what I’d chosen to take and he said I’d done the right thing. I thanked him very much for his consideration and left. Of course, I was to see him and his family because his daughter was Nora’s pal. Anyway I just about worked that job out (met some more men of course) when the Railways sent for me and sent me up to Waskerley and Weather Hill*. I used to work in the engine house at the quarry after walking five miles up the hill, do a full day’s work and walk five miles back on pay all the time till I got back to the loco shed. Waskerley, in the part where I worked, had two boilers on cement stands and when the engineman was ready to draw a couple of wagons from the bottom he would blow his whistle and I would get him full steam. Waskerley, what a place. It must have been put there just for the quarry. Eleven houses on one side of the street and eleven houses at the other and every man had two jobs. No shops, only a wooden cabin they sold cigs and sweets.
There was a pub, one barrel of beer and 12 bottles of Vaux’s brown ale and it was about six miles away. Anyway it didn’t matter because we didn’t have any money. It was called Moor Cock. The landlord of the pub was a wagon tapper, one was a driver and a farmer, another a driver had a son, a driver, and also a son, a fireman. A driver had a son, a signalman. Some of these old ladies were well off. They had investments in pits and shops at Consett. Old Polly’s mother owned a picture hall. Her sister used to work down South Medomsley Pit. Old Polly and her Mam, 96. I used to lodge with them. They came and stayed with us, Nora and I, when we lived a[t] Fulwell. They only (old Nellie and old Polly) came for a day or two but stayed a fortnight and Nora didn’t charge them anything. But when we came back after taking them to the station we found a roll of notes on the sideboard. In the meantime Nora had come to Sunderland and got a job in service and during our courtship we had put the banns in twice and cancelled them because of unemployment. My Dad said dole or no, I should get married if I were you, but I said, no, things were too bad. I did two sessions at Scarborough and some time at Consett and Gateshead. Then comes the 1926 coal strike, then back on the footplate at Durham City. Then Rothbury* and Kirkley Stephen and then Shildon. I’d better tell you about Rothbury first or I’ll get mixed up and get off the road like I have been doing now and again. Rothbury - a lovely little village in Northumberland. Two hotels, “the County” and “the Station” on the North British Railway.
I wasn’t at Rothbury very long, which was a good job because for a start there was me and my mate G. Taylor looking for lodgings and they had a son in his twenties. Earlier I should say she said she wasn’t ready for lodgers, would we mind sleeping three in a bed while she got rigged up?????? And anyway “it came to pass” G. Taylor at the back, me at the front and Jack in the middle. Candles by night. Comes around 2.30 a.m. Scramble. “Where’s the bloody matches?” George shouts. “What for?” I shout, “What for? I’m being bloody eaten.” Down goes the clothes. Fleas there was, millions. Anyway we got another bed, just me and George. Jack slept in the old bed. He was [a] barber with shop attached to the house and Jack was a very keen fisherman and was always off fishing. Comes one Friday night and lots of girls came for a hair doing and no Jack. Landlady says, “Bob can cut hair. He used to cut hair for the girls a[t] Atkins tin works when we were at Hull.” Anyway I was pushed into it, so I brushed my hair, put Jack’s white coat on and with scissors and comb in my pocket [went] in and cut their hairs and got tips as well. They must have been holiday visitors. When I went into the house and put the money on the table, landlady says, “What you doing? Put that money in your pocket and another time if he’s out go in the shop and keep the money. If he can’t look after his business that’s his look out.”
I used to act as a look out [man] on sunny afternoons for salmon fishermen (poachers). All I had to do was sit on the river bank and if the bailiff comes into view “whistle a tune”. If the fisherman was lucky so was I. After the flea business I wrote to York for a guard van so we could grub ourselves and they wrote back and said it wouldn’t be worth the trouble because we would shortly be on the dole.
Well they were true to their word. They put me on the dole but not for long. Then they sent me to Shildon besides Barnard Castle. At first we used to travel every day, a long walk through the town and two trains, half hour wait for a connection. I had to get up very early in the morning (I must guess this, I should [say] 5 a.m.) and didn’t get home until 8 p.m. And there was boxing on at the stadium mostly on Wednesday so that meant me arriving home around midnight, straight to bed and ready for morning. Well my bosses wasn’t going to have that. We had to go into lodgings. Well we couldn’t do that because our wages wasn’t large enough to keep a home and lodgings too. There was seven of us in that predicament, three of us got a tent and the Shildon Wagon Works being close at hand we got plenty of free timber, so we put a wooden floor in. At this point the whole seven of us were working as a team. The Shildon football had gone bankrupt and they let us have the dressing room - a big box van in the corner of the field where our mates had their tent. Like I said, we had plenty free timber so we made four bunks, two either side, and cadged a big oil drum, knocked some holes in, opened the two doors and placed the drum the correct distance in front of the cabin and got one of the men at the works to cut us a square plate with a hole in it the size of the top of the drum, and placed the steel plate on top. And then we had a good fire and also a good cooker. We had everything to hand and all free and mushrooms too, with our egg and bacon. I remember it was Arthur Schills turn that day as cook and when he was frying our breakfast he was flicking something off the bacon and I boned him about it. He said, “Oh it’s nothing, only two or three maggots.” I says, “I don’t want any,” and as it was turning out only the cook was having breakfast. We argued, we ‘ummed and ah’d.’ “Go on then, I’ll have some,” until finally we all had some breakfast without the maggots. It worked out very well until it got around to September and October. The boys in the tent were looking for something warmer and came around the cabin on the football pitch.
Then they sent me and some more men to Hull. It was about that time that Nora and I decided to get married for we’d already put it off, and I thought if I didn’t watch out I was likely to lose her. It was in 1927 and we were both 24 years old when we got married in Hull. And Richard born in 1928, Cottingham Maternity Home.
Out comes my bike again, and did I love going to see her every night? I could have eaten her without any bread. Comes the night to go home to our love nest, it was in a cul de sac, back of beyond in Gypsyville, only one room, a large double windowed room. We had given from some of Nora’s family various pieces of furniture, nothing fancy. Our neighbours were called Bella and Donald, both very heavy drinkers and both were foremen on the fish dock, separate firms, and both drank in separate pubs. This only happened within the first week or two. Bella came home first and locked Donald out, and the language, you could cut it with a knife. After Donald had shouted “Open the ***** door” about 20 times he was sat on the door step and she opened the door alright and hit him on the head with a gas ring. That was our introduction to married life. But we struggled on, bits of jobs here and there.
I went out one morning and went into Anlaby Road where they were building a theatre, just the steel frame up, and I asked for a job and, “Yes,” he says. I nearly fainted, and he says, “Start on Monday.” “Thank you very much,” and walking away I suddenly realised. I shouted back, how was the job paying? He says, “£6.10.0” and I nearly collapsed. An ordinary labourer’s wages was only £2. When I got home I told Nora we were going to buy the world, all that money every week. We talked over our plans all the weekend.
Comes Monday morning, I couldn’t wait to get going. As I said earlier, there was only the steel frame standing. The boss says to me, “Get one of those buckets and a brush and fill your bucket with bitumen. Paint from that barrel and climb up to the far corner of the girders and paint them, undersides as well, and work your way down.” “Right,” I says. “But how do I get up?” “That’s easy,” he says. “Just go up that ladder, walk along the girder, 4-inch girder, till you come to another ladder and so on till you get to the top.” I think he was beginning to enjoy himself. But I wasn’t. My mind was working overtime. I was trying to work out how I was to walk a 4-inch girder. “Walk” - you must be mad! While I was sat on the girder with my legs fastened underneath as hard as possible I look around and see a young steel erector stand straddle-legged, shouting for one of his mates to throw him a 7/8 spanner over, and he did. He just stuck his arm out as if it was the easiest and proper thing to do. I was beginning to think I was the only sane man here. I struggled my way along on my bum and finally got to the top. God, it was awfully cold and it was beginning to snow and my hands were dropping off. And so was my brush. Away it went, loaded with bitumen paint, down among the brickies to bring up a chorus of very vulgar language.
So now I had to go down and meet the boss. And he says, “Never mind.” He says, “Go back and fetch your bucket,” and I said, “What! Go back up there? I wouldn’t go up there again for a gold pig!” He’d been having some fun at my expense. He said, “All these men on this site are either sailors or steel erectors.”
“I’m in trouble now, I’ll lose my dole.” “No you won’t, I shan’t tell them,” and he gave me a half crown and told me if the pubs are open fill yourself with beer and go home, which I did. When Nora came home from a little job she had I was laid on the bed disgusted with myself. We were going to buy a yacht and a small island somewhere. So, goodbye, don’t sigh.
So the next thing on the agenda: get somewhere else to live as soon as possible. Well, Nora’s sister Maud was going to get married soon so we got a house and shared it. Then the Railway sent for me again and sent me to Scarborough for the summer running, that is up to September. One of my old pals, Bob Walton by name, met up again but were in different lodgings. A chap told us he had been camping in a bell tent with his family and was going home, and the tent was paid for for the whole season and we could have it. Well, what a snip! So we had to leave the lodgings, but for an excuse we said we had to go and live with our drivers. So off we went around to the camp site and found the tent gone. The farmer, seeing the tenants gone, packed the lot up. So now we had nowhere to go. So we went to Scarborough Station and took our overalls out of the case and put them on and put our best clothes in the case and put them in the left luggage office. When we were working we were alright because we were working on the night shift. So we slept in the sand hole. We used coal man’s cabin (a small cabin with stone floor heated) to cook our food - mostly corned beef, sausage, bacon and Penny Ducks and anything else we could catch.The boss came up to the cabin and said, “By gum, it’s a grand smell in here.” Then he said, “Aren’t you on nights?” I admitted [it] and he said, “Well when you’ve eaten that lot, get off the premises.” Well I can’t remember how long that went on but we were soon to finish in September. We made a pound or two, no lodgings you see. When I got home I gave her [Nora] the money I’d saved. She gave £1 back and said, “Go and get drunk.” *
I was on the dole again for a short while to Gateshead where all the crack engine[s] are. I enjoyed being there although it was harder work. But more experience, with longer runs like Newcastle-Edinburgh-Carlisle. But London trains, we used to get relieved at York.