THE SUNDERLAND SITE - PAGE 006
GROWING UP IN PRE-WW2 SUNDERLAND

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GROWING UP IN PRE-WW2 SUNDERLAND

We thank Len Charlton for the following article.

As far as I am concerned, life started in 1923 when I was told that I was too old to sleep in my cot in mother's large bedroom & I could have a proper bed to share the small front bedroom with brother Frank. It seemed a rotten idea as I was just two & Frank was nine, an adult in my eyes. We lived in the large family house in Chester Road in Sunderland with our widowed grandmother, mother & three aunts, my father, a ship's captain, being only a rare visitor when on leave. So rare that I recall struggling away from this stranger when picked up & my mother saying 'but Len surely you know your father'. My mother & aunts were catholic & we had more frequent visits from the local 'Fathers' who were afforded the greatest respect & which confused me even more about who my real father was. Years later, I came to realise that this clerical supervision had much to do with their worries that my grandmother & my father were both stubbornly non-catholic.

Although the family had their own bed-rooms, one sitting room on the first floor was shared & all cooking was done on the one coal fired kitchen range downstairs. Each room also had a coal-fire & the house was gas-lit which provided me with much pleasure because if the mantle dome (equivalent to a light bulb) was broken, the new one started with a most satisfying burst of flame which burnt out the support fabric. The sitting room was on the first floor & its bay window was a great vantage point for me to watch the constant flow of traffic & people going about their business on the street below.

 

Mantleboxes & a mantle at left above. Margaret Shipley, Sunderland street-vendor, below at right.

Chester Road was a main thoroughfare & it was a noisy mixture of trams, buses & trade vehicles plus horses & carts, barrows & even old prams pushed into service. Over the clatter of metal wheels & horse's hooves on cobbles, the traders' shouts resounded ... 'Any Old Iron' - 'Rags and Bones' - 'Caller Herrin' (fresh herring).

Many street traders kept to a weekly or daily timetable & had regular customers as did Margaret Shipley, a popular fisher-woman who sold fresh crabs from a pram.

Some early family photos show me at the seafront at Roker & I have vague memories of crossing old Wearmouth bridge while the new structure was being built over the old roadway. Later, as a schoolboy, I was taken to see the final silver rivet being driven in by the Duke of York (later King George VI), but my first completely clear knowledge of going out was being taken to the Cenotaph (image below) which had recently been erected in Mowbray Park.

 

I was then four & was told about the Great War & that there would be a loud bang & then everyone had to keep quiet for two minutes. I was told not to cry or move until there was another loud bang. It all seemed very strange to me but I can still recall being dressed in my best clothes with a black tie standing in a packed crowd with people weeping round me & a sense of deep grief. It seemed to go on for ever then the sudden bang started everything going again including the tram cars which had stopped with the drivers & conductors standing hatless alongside. (This was the Armistice Day Ceremony of 1925, signalled by 'maroons'). Trips with my mother to Fawcett Street in the town centre for shopping gave me great pleasure particularly the milliners which had an elaborate system of wooden rails & junctions on the ceiling along which cash, placed in a wooden ball, would trundle to the cashier's glass office to be counted before the receipt & any change was returned the same way. And many were the biscuits I was given from the open containers on the floor of 'Home Dairies' while the salesmen cut to size & wrapped each portion of butter or cheese.

In 1927 I started at my first school, St. Mary's, (above right) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It stood right at the bottom of Chester Road close to Bishopwearmouth Green & had a sad history of being the fever hospital in Cholera days (it is now a listed building in the University Campus). It was a big institutional building with a yard in front enclosed by iron railings & I sensed a feeling of fear of the nuns.
Many of the children came from some of Sunderland's poorest areas & even at age five I felt shocked by children running barefoot with cropped hair & often none too clean.

 

I left this environment a year later, when I was moved to St. Mary's Grammar School, a small private school in Bede's Tower near to Mowbray Park (black & white above right). This had been a private residence in its own grounds built in Italianate style with a splendid square tower.

At the same time my parents left the family home in Chester Road & bought a house in a newly developed area called Thornhill off the Durham Road. The smart terraced house in Beechwood Street was full of surprises including electric lighting & power sockets. There was a big old kitchen range but now we had a gas cooker as well. There were some local shops & tram stops nearby but Fawcett Street was only 15 minutes walk away. Beechwood Street was to be my home for 30 years.

I was growing up in a rapidly changing world. My mother could recall her distress as a child at seeing horses struggling to pull tramcars from MacKies Corner along the single line which ran past her home. 'Sunderland Tramways' had originally opened between Roker, Fawcett Street and Christ Church (south of Mowbray Park) in 1879, but after electric trams were introduced in 1899, routes spread rapidly.

Trams fascinated me & one day I was told that they ran from Grangetown terminus on through open country to Ryhope, Humbledon, Silksworth, Houghton, Herrington & Penshaw. This was really a single track light railway using both single & double deck trams to connect pit villages & farms together, but I was never to use it because, like many others built in those years, the District Tramway eventually succumbed to better roads & reliable buses.


At left is MacKies corner where Fawcett & Bridge Streets cross High Street. It took its name from a silk top hat maker named 'MacKie' who originally rented the corner in Victorian times. The haberdashers 'Drury and Son' later occupied the site since which time there have been many occupiers. The corner was badly damaged in the town fire which devastated Havelock House on the opposite corner in 1898, but the main structure, cupola & clock survived & are still named MacKies corner.

 

It became the 'Sunderland District Omnibus Co' in 1925 with buses in Royal Blue & Gold livery setting new standards of comfort. They were known as the 'Blue Buses' & did indeed rather shame the red town buses run by 'Northern'. The town tramways however fought on & expanded until the last tram ran in 1954. As far as I was concerned trams were part of my life. There were still some with open tops which would appear in the summer but these were rare & most had been enclosed leaving open ends on both decks. Children loved these & always rushed upstairs to get one of the front seats in the open with the driver below also in the open, generally wrapped in a heavy overcoat & gloves, & always shouting at the boys overhead to stop stamping. Seating upstairs & downstairs was usually on plain wooden benches running along the sides, perhaps not all that comfortable but with penny & halfpenny fares who cared?

 

I soon gained my independence with a small cycle to get to and from school and which also became my personal town run-about. There were plenty of things to do on holidays. Frank and I were both being taught the piano and he had acquired a radio set with accumulators which periodically I took to a nearby chemist's to be recharged. I enjoyed my Hornby train-set as well as constructing odd things with Meccano. During the summer the rest of the family sometimes joined us for a day on the beach. A tram would take us through the town centre & then on over the new bridge to Roker and Sea Lane which was later renamed Seaburn. We kept a tent there and my brother and I would go ahead to collect and erect it on the beach before the others arrived with the picnic. If it was not warm enough for the beach, 'going for a walk' was often the answer. There were many options usually along the Roker piers & promenades and then up the ravine into the Park or even along the coast as far as the Fishermens' Cottages at Whitburn.

Alternatively from home it was under an hour's walk through the Ashbrooke area to the top of Tunstall Hills. These two small hills in open country to the south of the town gave a marvellous view over the whole town to Cleadon Hills in the north and the docks and sea to the east although unfortunately the view might be obliterated by a dense smog. The walk generally included a stop at a farm enroute where everyone had a drink of creamy milk 'straight from the cow'.

Another place to visit or picnic was Penshaw Monument about three miles along Chester Road as it ran into countryside. Built in 1844 as a half size replica of a Grecian Temple, it still stands 70 ft. high on the summit of Penshaw Hill. It was built with public subscription & dedicated to John Lambton, the first Earl of Durham & a famed local philanthropist.

The 18 columns, each over 6 ft. in diameter, support the architrave which runs right round the folly though there is no roof. One column has a spiral staircase inside & it was once possible to walk round the top until a boy fell to his death in 1926 & access was closed. This story fascinated me though I would never have dared to go up to the top, even standing on the base of the huge structure scared me.

My older brother Frank also frightened me with the story of the Lambton Worm. Which he would recount with relish.

(Ed. Three depictions of the creature are at right!)

 

Apparently young Lord Lambton skipped church one Sunday and 'went a-fishing in the Wear where he cowt a fish he thowt luked varry queer'. He 'hoyd it doon a well' and went off to the Crusades. The fish became the Lambton Worm (1 & 2) which 'growed an aaful size; with greet big teeth, a greet big gob, an' greet big goggle eyes.' It lived on Penshaw Hill wrapped round the monument & ravaged the countryside & 'swallyd little bairns alive' until Lambton returned from the crusades & killed it. The nearby villagers of Fatfield argue that the Worm actually lived on their own Worm Hill & point to holes & depressions made by the monster. The song and lyric of 'The Lambton Worm' are now part of folk history & are as popular on Wearside as 'The Blaydon Races' is on Tyneside.

A more robust entertainment came with the Fairs held on the Garrison Field which was a large Parade Ground at Gill Bridge Avenue off High Street West. Steam organs and roundabouts were surrounded by stalls & shows of all types. Cocoanut shies & shooting galleries, roll a penny, ring a present, boxing and strippers -- what a noise and what smells -- toffee, hot potatoes, fish & chips - so many ways to spend your money apart from the pickpockets & other dubious characters making the most of their opportunities. Public holidays & celebrations were usually a good reason for a fair to be held here or on the East End Town Moor or on the Blockyard at Roker, this being a large area where the huge stone blocks for the pier had been prepared & then moved out along the pier railway as it extended out to sea. These fairs were no place for my mother or aunts but Frank and I, when our father was at sea, had a wonderful old family friend 'Uncle Wilf' to 'take the boys' for an outing.

Sundays were different - certainly no picnics on the beach. After dressing up for morning mass it would be either a day at home or if the weather was fine perhaps a short walk or tram ride from home to Barnes Park which had been opened in 1909. Situated at the bottom of Humbledon Hill up which the road continued on to Durham, the park was very popular. Compared to the high Victoriana of Mowbray Park this had a more modern emphasis on sports with excellent facilities for bowling & tennis as well as the traditional bandstand & lake which were great attractions (placed nearby an iron civil-war cannon recovered from the Wear seemed somewhat out of place).

 

Frank and I would be taken, smartly dressed, to stroll round the park on a Sunday afternoon to greet various family friends or perhaps a brass-band would be performing to listen to. It was all very formal & for me, very boring.

(Barnes Park gradually extended into open country & became the largest park in Sunderland. It suffered the same post-war degradation before being completely restored as did the other Sunderland parks).

 

I was becoming more aware of the social divisions in my home town. Although living amidst a mining fraternity, our family roots were all in seafaring where there was a great suspicion of trade union militancy. The results of the General Strike of 1926 had left many miners out of work or underpaid & poverty, sometimes in its extreme form, was all too visible. Even in the the town itself; ill-clad and dirty children played in pockets of slums & in surrounding colliery districts the numerous slag-heaps were often busy with grown men & women picking out cinders to sell in the street from sacks carried over their bicycle cross bars. These smoking slag heaps destroyed large areas of the Durham countryside whereas collieries on the coast often just dumped the spoil into the sea covering the adjacent beaches & killing marine life. (one of the triumphs of the late 1900s is the way these old heaps were cultivated & landscaped into attractive parkland).

My father was a ship's master with Anchor Brocklebank trading with India & U.S.A. and I would be sent to the town library reading rooms to check 'ship movements' in Lloyds Shipping Gazette. This reported ship arrivals at and departures from ports, in effect the only contact we had during his months' long absences.

When he did get back to the U.K. for a few days I would go down to the station to meet him & get a taxi home. He always looked for one old cab-driver who still used his old horse cab & then we would clip-clop home over the cobbles sunk in old leather & silk upholstery (how I value the memory).

But this last old cab was soon to go.

 

During father's short leave there would often be a party where a much loved guest was often 'Old Uncle Tom'. He was my mother's uncle and a retired ship's master. As a boy he had been bo'sun on the brig the 'Black Prince' trading the West Indies when the captain, his father who owned the ship, died off Pernambuco and was buried at sea. It was three weeks before Tom got back to Sunderland to tell his mother that she was a widow. He had two brothers also ship's masters one of whom also died at sea & one of his sisters had married a ship's master & sailed off to Rangoon on her honeymoon having her first born on the return voyage, who was named 'Alpheta' after the ship. With such family maritime connections, the stories flowed easily at these gatherings much helped by whisky & cigars. They could have come from a 'Boys Own Annual' and its little wonder that I used to think that bearded Old Uncle Tom had a wooden leg.

He had been born at Pottery Bank in the East End & claimed that when he was a boy he could 'plodge' across the river mouth at low tide. I would sometimes cycle down High Street East or Coronation Street to explore the East End around Potter Bank. The area was very deprived & I was shocked at the packed old slums.
The small Garths (inner yards) & lanes were no-go areas as my clothes & cycle showed me too clearly out of place - but I did venture into the Old Market once. Built in 1830 for the old town, the early Victorian building contained a warren of small shops & stalls selling meat, general provisions & old clothes.

 

My main memory is of the awful smell. The looks I was getting soon persuaded me to get out.

Motor cars & buses were now becoming much more common & although tramcars retained supremacy for local transport there was now a good mixture of bus services to surrounding towns & villages. Bus sheds were built in Holmeside & an adjacent open area called Park Lane became the main bus station. An exciting new travel option also developed when small companies & even individuals started running scheduled long distance coach routes.

 

The first scheduled Newcastle to London service was started by a Bedlington family firm (Orange Bros.) in 1927 using ordinary buses.

At left a 'United Automobile Services Ltd.' bus on its 1931 Newcastle to London (via Sunderland) service.

 

At right above, an 'Orange Bros.' bus used on the Newcastle to London (Thames) service with many stops along the way including Sunderland. Maybe photographed at Darlington. It would seem that 'Orange Bros.' later became a subsidiary of 'United Automobile Services Ltd.'. Their buses were likely not of an orange colour. More likely red, perhaps.

But soon individually designed luxury coaches with armchair seating, carpeting & curtains appeared. New routes would be opened in a blaze of publicity & I would go to see the first coach to leave fascinated by its luxury & roof boards listing the towns it stopped at.

The old coaching inns had come back into business for enroute refreshments & with no bypasses or motorways there was much to see on the lengthy journeys. Sometimes we went to Hull where my father had relatives & once to London, a journey that took 11 hours against 5 hours in a much more costly train.

The early 1930s were an exciting period for a young boy. I could cycle out to Usworth Aerodrome near N. Hylton to watch the RAF flying their old Westland Wapiti biplanes or to Boldon Flats when Alan Cobham's Air Circus arrived.

Although Britain's great Empire airship, R101, had set off in patriotic fervour for India & ignominiously crashed in France, Germany's Graf Zeppelin had flown round the world & my world was full of argument over the merits of airships, biplanes, monoplanes & the best way to build balsa models. After all 'WE' were very good at breaking speed records which were being constantly challenged on sea, land & air, At home as well there were new ideas, Most houses now had electricity, some houses now had private telephones & a 'wireless set' or 'radiogram' was almost universal. There was even some experimental television starting & rumour abounded of a lady in Fulwell having a set (in fact there were low definition transmission trials at the time). Sunderland already had several old Victorian play-houses some of which had converted to picture houses, the more decrepit known as flea-pits but five more cinemas were now built, one being the most luxurious in the town.

In 1932, the Regal was built in Holmeside in pseudo Egyptian style to seat 2500 people with staff of over sixty & a resident organist Mr. Arnold Eagle. He had helped design the huge 3 manuals, 9 ranks, Compton organ which rose up from a pit gleaming in spotlights to open the show.

A single show could last over 4 hours with his organ performance plus two full length films separated by an extravagant stage production. To go through a whole show was a tiring experience but everyone still stood up at the end while the National Anthem was played before the doors were opened to leave.

 


 

In these mid thirties, the dirty old steam dredgers were always busy in the river and harbour & the loud rattling sounds as the buckets went round dredging up the sands could be heard all along the river. On my cycle rides I found that some of the Old East End had disappeared where the Deep Water Quay had been built displacing some of the old Fish Quays. And the river frontage itself was changing rapidly with the rowing boats of the remaining individual fishermen lying round in different places & the fisherwomen now gutting their fish outside their homes. 

 

Pottery Bank was still there but Old Uncle Tom could not now have 'plodged' across the newly deepened river. It was a period of political unrest overseas whereas the long reign of King George V & Queen Mary seemed to create a strange stability at home & perhaps for that reason there was genuine concern when the King died in January 1936. Edward, the Prince of Wales, who succeeded him was liked but there was some guarded criticism about a playboy life & the nation was split when he was made to abdicate in December after he chose to marry Barnes Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. The decision, enforced by 'The Church', was unpopular with many who argued that he should be allowed to marry - whereas there were others who were equally sure that his abdication was essential to the Monarchy's survival. My parents fell into the latter category. Now however it had happened, leaving Edward's brother Albert to take over. He was a shy man with a terrible stammer who hated the very thought of his new position & certainly seemed a most unlikely monarch. At age 15, I joined in the arguments but I had more personal concerns because that was the year when St. Mary's Grammar School, increasingly over-crowded during my nine years there, left Bede Towers & moved to a quite splendid old mansion & grounds in the Ashbrooke area of Sunderland called Corby Hall College & under Jesuit control.

May 1937 had already been chosen as the date for the Coronation & to celebrate this Sunderland Corporation had decided to install illuminations at Roker and Seaburn as a Summer Show which would rival Blackpool's renowned display. Local excitement was further developing as football had always been a religion in the North-East & the team was playing very well. Indeed for many people 'Roker Park' meant the Football Ground not the Park itself from which it was completely separated. When a home match was on the whole town seemed to be on the move with a continual stream of trams running over the bridge & down towards Fulwell with the special branch line to the Roker grounds. Many preferred to walk & the bridge was packed with traffic & walkers going to or from the match.

By May excitement had reached fever pitch & one day Sunderland's streets emptied to listen 'on the wireless' to their team winning the final of the FA cup at Wembley.

I had previously 'confessed' to a friend that I was not very interested in football & had been asked what on earth I found to talk about. Such a comment would have been fatal in the pubs that Saturday night.

The following week the illuminations now seen as a Cup Final celebration were switched on.

 

The illuminations stretched for a mile along the seafront but the main attraction was in Roker Park where the lake, bandstand & sea ravine complete with 'Fairy Dell' became the highlights. Heavily promoted, they were an outstanding success with visitors from far and wide including one of my cousins who came up from London for a few days. By the year end however the talk on everyone's lips was about Hitler & his intentions. At home there was also the question of my future which seemed to me as confusing as the political world. One way or another 1938 would resolve both issues & I passed my school-leaving certificate for Durham University & somewhat reluctantly signed articles to become an Accountant. It all seemed rather pointless with war impending.

In 1939 I would turn 18, just the right age for the services but in the meantime I made a good friend at work & we went for a cycling holiday up the Wear Valley away from the ship yards, collieries & slag heaps into the hills & quarries in Weardale. Gas masks, ration books & ID cards were being distributed, air-raid shelters being built & plans to evacuate the children were published.

On another occasion I went to Seaburn to see the Graf Zeppelin flying by, little realising that its 'Goodwill Tour' was in truth an espionage flight to check the coastal radar system. This of course was then top secret but I was soon to become involved as a radar technician in the army. In fact the idea of being called up had become attractive as an escape from what I had found to be the world's most boring job and it was with no little relief that my immediate future was settled on my behalf at 11.15 a.m. on September 3, 1939 when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast as follows ...


"I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany."

Len Charlton
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
June 7, 2009

IMAGE SOURCES

Sources, as best the webmaster can now determine, for the various images accessed above. All of which illustrate well, I think, the related text. Hopefully all of the images will be source linked in the future.

Copyright? Not a problem, surely, since all would date from prior to Dec. 31, 1945.

We sincerely thank you all:-

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27.

TO END THE PAGE

For your pleasure & interest.

Within the text above, is a reference to the Charlton family visiting relatives in Hull.

Those words brought to my mind an old Sunderland postcard image. Perhaps it shows the Charlton family arriving at Hull all those years ago!

Comments?

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