Voices of Geordie Childhood is a remarkable compilation of oral history extracts drawn from the extensive Beamish Museum Audio Archive, recalling what childhood was like as recalled by over 100 Tynesiders born at the turn of the century. Vivid memories are recounted, including stories of family and friends, of play, school, home, and work, of sheltering from air raids and trips to the seaside. This delightful compendium of memories offers a child’s-eye view of life, from staying in the hospital to making Christmas decorations, from watching street entertainers to wearing charity boots—revealing a Geordie childhood now fading from memory. Richly illustrated with over 60 pictures from the museum archive, many previously unpublished, this volume is sure to bring back wonderful reminiscences of childhood, and jog memories for those who grew up in Tyne and Wear.
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Voices of Geordie Childhood
Growing Up in Tyne and Wear
By Jo Bath
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Jo Bath
All rights reserved.
Whatever the circumstances, a story of Geordie childhood is almost always a story which starts with life in the bosom of the family – parents ready with a hot meal or sharp word, and brothers and sisters sharing the same bed. In the close-knit communities of Tyneside, aunts, uncles and cousins were often just down the street.
Mam and Dad
For most children, a parent's word was law, even if some of them, like Jim G.'s father, made a joke of it. He had lost an eye on the Somme, around twenty years before, and Jim remembers: 'He used to get sort of an eye sent by the government once a year, and he used to place the old ones all over the house. He'd say, "It doesn't matter what part of the house you go into, I've got my eye on you!"'
Some kept their children on the straight and narrow by words, others by deeds. Ethel B., who grew up in South Shields in the 1890s, says, 'I never knew my father lift his hand – his word was enough. That's how you were brought up in those days. Mother used to stop your pocket money and wouldn't let you go out.' Joe G. remembers 'if any of the neighbours gave you a clip you didn't dare tell your father, because he'd give you another clip.'
But of course, parents were there for the fun bits of life too. Mrs A., who was born in 1898, says, 'I had a marvellous dad. He would buy a pound of sweets to share out on the Sunday morning. He used to take us on the horse and trap for a ride in the country in summer, up the Barrack Road. It was lovely country up there then, there was no houses.' In the 1930s E.M.'s mother 'used to make writing books for us to write in. We had paper blinds, and every now and then she used to replace them, and she would cut those up and stitch the corner, and we would use those as notebooks.'
And parents could influence a child's interests. In the 1930s, Joseph D.'s father (a second generation Italian living in Gateshead) had an accordion. 'When we were children, he used to play at night. It used to wake us up when we were in bed. We would come and sit on the stairs and listen.' Joseph was only 8 when he began to play the accordion himself.
Brothers and Sisters
One hundred years ago, the average family nationally had 3.5 children (compared to 1.7 children today) and in the North East it was higher still!1 Most children had at least one baby brother or sister, and often several in quick succession. One Edwardian New Year's Eve, Mrs A.'s brother was born. The doctor came 'in a sledge, drawn by a horse with big bells around its ears, to bring him into the world. It was snowing, the thickest snow, when he was born. He was fat when he was born. They had to cut the little gowns up with scissors, he was so fat. But he was lovely.'
Mary remembers the delight of finally getting a little sister: 'Early in the morning, Agnes come in and said, "Come on, come on, get up, we've got a new baby" and I said, "You're only telling fibs." She said, "Get up, we've got a new baby and it's a girl" – and after having three lads, a girl was something special. But I didn't believe her. Anyway I got up and sure enough, there was a new baby, and a girl. Marvellous.' She remembers a midwife coming to help out. 'Mrs Richardson was sitting by the fire, washing the baby in an enamel bowl on a stool. I remember saying to her, "Eeh, isn't he little?" She said, "Not as little as you were, I could have popped you in a pint pot."' Elsie D. was a Gateshead midwife in the 1940s, and remembers that youngsters were often fascinated by the new arrival: 'You'd bath the baby, and all the other children would be sitting round and watching. "Can we watch the baby being bathed?"'
Christenings were big family events. Norman A. remembered confidently telling the minister that his little brother was named Tommy, after an errand boy he was fond of. '[The vicar] was just going to christen him and he said, "Is it going to be Arthur Thomas or Thomas Arthur?" And my mother said, "Oh, there's no Thomas in it!" And he said, "Well Norman said that!" I was in so much trouble!'
Where large families lived in small flats or houses – and most did, especially in industrial districts – it was often a struggle to fit everybody in. Percy B. lived in a two-roomed cottage near Newburn. His grandmother and parents slept downstairs in the kitchen, while he and his brother and sister 'climbed up the ladder, up the wall in the corner. There was no steps up in them houses.'
Children commonly slept end to end. In 1930s Jarrow, Robert M. shared a bed with his wife and his youngest child, while his five other children shared a second bed. There was a similar situation in Tom H.'s home in 1920s Hetton-le-Hole. 'There was my mam, me and my brother, my two sisters. Us kids used to sleep in one bed, and mam had a bed of her own, and my grandma and grandda and Uncle Joe all slept in the bedroom.' And John H.'s family 'had two bedrooms and to tell you the truth, I still cannot understand how we all fitted in. Downstairs in the kitchen, there was what we called a dez bed, or desk bed, a double-doored piece of furniture and inside there was a bed which had folded back in, and you pulled this out and the clothes and the mattress was inside as well. I often slept three in a bed.'
Older children, especially girls, landed the job of looking after their little brothers and sisters, whether they wanted it or not. Mrs B.C. was only three when she was given duties with the new baby: 'Mother used to say, "Now lie down on the mat pet and get the baby to sleep." So I used to lie down with the baby on the mat you know. And she used to say, "And don't put your hand on her" – that would be in case I put my hand on her face.' Mary remembers: 'You used to have to rock the cradle till the bairn went to sleep. Many a time we wanted to go out to play, and the bairn wouldn't go straight to sleep. Someone would come and call for you, so you'd rock the cradle so hard from side to side, the poor bairn was knocked about, bumped on one side and then the other. The strange thing was, the babies used to seem to like it. We used to sing the lullabies we learned at school, like Golden Slumbers Kiss your Eyes, to try to get the bairn to sleep quick.'
For Ethel A., who grew up in Newcastle in the 1910s, being the eldest child in a big family meant she didn't have much time for herself, especially after her mother contracted rheumatic fever. 'When my mother had the youngest one, Kitty, I had to bring her up as a mother would. She had to sleep with me, I fed her and everything. I was never a good scholar because I had to always mind the baby instead of going to school.' At the same time, and just down the road, Mrs E.C., whose mother died when she was 8, formed a strong bond with her two sisters. 'Wherever I went, I always had Maggie by the hand. I was always pulling her socks up for her. We were like mothers to each other, us three girls. We were left without our mother but we looked after each other.'
No matter how careful you were, in a time before antibiotics small children were vulnerable to many potentially lethal diseases. In 1910, over one in ten newborns died before they were even a year old, and many more didn't reach adulthood. Mary and her brother had pneumonia at the same time – she recovered, but her brother died. The disease returned to the family in 1922, when she was 10, and took her sister Hilda. 'She had a little cart thing with a horse's head on the front, on a string. My mother was pushing it out with her foot, and pulling it in, and little Hilda was sitting watching it running, too ill to make a lot of fuss about it, just watching it. Jim was a very affectionate bairn, and when Hilda died he put his arms around mother's neck and said, "Don't cry mum, cos Hilda's getting married."'
Aunties, Uncles, Grandmas and Grandpas
It wasn't uncommon to find several sets of relatives living on the same street, living close to where they had been brought up, perhaps following in a family trade or industry. Horsley H. was an only child, but he probably didn't get lonely – in the 1920s, his own family, his grandparents, several aunts and uncles, and fourteen cousins lived in houses sharing a single Byker back lane!
Still, elderly relatives could be something of a mystery. Mr O., who was born in Newcastle in 1906, says, 'In those days the old ladies used to say they were really old when they were 55 or 60. They just retired and lay themselves on the sofa, put a lace cap over their head and they were just grannies from that day onward. I always remember my grandmother like that.' Even in the 1930s, Robert W.'s great aunts seemed to have stepped out of a novel. 'I remember as a young boy being taken up to this gas-lit street, and I had to be very, very correct. I was sat in one corner and given a scrapbook with etchings of the old London Illustrated News to keep me amused. Little boys had to be seen but not heard. My great aunts were very, very old fashioned. They were the sort of women that you thought were on castors because they seemed to have no feet – everything was covered by those voluminous skirts.'
It's easy to forget how much life expectancy has increased in the last century, and how that has affected family life. In 1901, only 15 per cent of the population were over 50. One result was that more children were left with one or no parents. When this happened, other members of the family often stepped in. When Mrs E.C.'s mother died, her father asked his sister for help. 'She come to be like our mother, after our mother died. At the beginning she come and lived in our house, for about three year, then she got married and father married someone else. So we just went with her. My father didn't desert us, he used to come across from Gateshead to see us. He was a good dad, many a one would have forgot about us but he never did. My aunt was good to us as well, and her husband Johnny was like a dad to us really.'
When Ted C.'s mother died, 'the problem was who was going to look after the baby, and someone didn't wait for a democratic decision to be made, they stole me and took me off to [relatives in] Boldon. Then they brought me back the next day, I'm supposed to have cried all the way there, cried all night and cried all the way back. Eventually my father's only sister, she took me and she brought me to Jarrow.' Ethel R. was brought up by her grandparents in 1900s Gateshead. 'I was the eldest grandchild, and in those days it was very familiar for a child's mother to leave the baby with her mother. I don't know why. But I did see my parents. I remember my father used to come up every Sunday morning, but I wasn't a scrap concerned about that.'
Things were a lot tougher for bairns left without a family at all. Minnie B.'s husband's mother died in around 1912, when he was only 11. Soon afterwards, he came home from school to find his father had sold the house and moved away! He told her later that 'he was living in coalhouses and washhouses. One morning the man upstairs came down for a pail of water and he saw him running from the washhouse to the coalhouse and he asked him what he was doing there. He says, "I'm sleeping here." He says, "Have you no home?" He says, "No," and they took him in and he was in with them until he was married.' As a young man he became blind, and the doctors blamed this on the time he'd spent sleeping rough as a child.
Luckier children were catered for within the system, but their experience could still be a troubled one. Mary Br. was adopted in 1907, when she was 5. 'On the first day I sat on a chair and waited all day for my sister to come take me home, but she never came. I found when I had to go to bed that I had to stay there. They were very kind to me, but very stern. I was told that the less I was seen the better. I just used to sit and wait; I didn't have any life at all. I wasn't allowed to go out much, and the less they saw of me the more they liked me.' Another alternative was the children's home. These institutions have a reputation as very harsh places to grow up, which was undoubtedly deserved in some cases. But George F. enjoyed his stay at the Cottage Home in Ponteland in the 1920s. 'It was a good life. There were so many children in each house, and a foster mother and father who done all the cooking. They had two ploughs and about four horses and we used to do all our own gardens, and grow all our own stuff – turnips, cabbage, tateys – and make all our own bread.'
The final member of many households was a pet. Miss J.S. had an unusual present one Christmas. 'Mother managed to get a kitten. I used to have my Christmas presents put in a pillowcase, hung up at the end of my bed. I don't think mother got any sleep that night, she waited for me to go to sleep, so that she could put the kitten in the sugar bag on top of the pillowcase.' She named it Santa Clausabel.
Horsley H.'s cousin 'once swapped a rabbit for a parrot, a grey Amazonian one. I remember there was consternation in the house once, because the parrot had got out and pulled all the leaves off my gran's special aspidistra. They've got a strong beak, parrots! So the Amazon grey had to go!'
Destroying an aspidistra was bad enough, but in Mary's house, the birds ruled the roost. Her father 'had the house full of white birds. He had these birdcages ranged round the walls, and you weren't allowed to put the gason for fear of poisoning the birds. And you weren't allowed to put your hat and coat on in the kitchen, in case it frightened the birds. They used to take the skylarks, and they used to have song contests. And we used to make the lark food ourselves, with pea meal, and eggs, and suet. We used to grate it, mix it all up with your fingers and cook it in the oven and stir it up with a big spoon till it was nice and brown. It would come out like brown crumbs. It used to smell lovely; we used to fancy eating it ourselves. On the Sunday morning the birds had their bath. Everything had to stop when the birds had their bath, because father wouldn't have them frightened.'CHAPTER 2
Life at Home
Doing the Chores
Before mains electricity and central heating, before washing machines and flush toilets, keeping house was a time-consuming job. Most women stayed at home and kept the family going, as cooks, cleaners, nurses, teachers, seamstresses and even accountants. But there was still plenty of work to go around. Children began to help out as soon as they were old enough to copy. In Gateshead in the 1930s, a toddling Elizabeth M. 'used to sweep the back lane from the top to the bottom, I was noted for it! That was just me, taking after my mum.' But helping out wasn't just for girls, as Tom H. says, 'You all had your chores. There was nothing sissified about anything. All the boys I knew did the same. You got the coal in for your mam, and took the ashes out.'
In a pre-health and safety era, children were often allowed into hazardous industrial environments, and taking bait – lunch – into engineering works and shipyards for hungry relatives was a common chore. For boys, this was a good introduction to the place where, chances were, they would start work in a few years' time. Before the First World War, Mrs E.C.'s father was a stoker for a Scotswood gasworks, and she remembers 'going with his can of tea and sandwiches. We would sit on the coal and he would give us a drink of tea out of his can lid.' A generation later, Margaret R. took lunch to her father at Wallsend slipway, in a red spotted handkerchief with four knots in the corners. She hated the shipyard, but says, 'I think half the school used to get out at quarter to twelve, to get out there with their dinners.' Gordon R.'s grandfather, a Sunderland forgeman, had a special trick he would show Gordon at bait time. 'If there was a hardboiled egg in his bait that grandmother had sent down, he would put it on a block and start working. This dirty great hammer would come flying down, and he could stop it so it just touched the egg but it wouldn't break it.'
Back at home, the tasks were never ending. Winifred W. particularly hated cleaning brass stair rods. In 1910s Gateshead, Rebecca B. had to wash and tidy the kitchen, and fill up the paraffin lamps every morning, while her brothers chopped sticks and carried coal. Over the river, Mary Br. would 'clean the knives and forks, and the shoes. My uncle took a size twelve, and I used to grumble terrible. I had an awful job getting them clean.'
Clippy and proggy mats – carefully crafted fabric floor coverings which could be found in nearly every house – were a long time in the making. Mary says, 'Your mother used to nearly always have a mat on the frames, and if you didn't go out you used to get a progger pushed in your hand. Mother used to say, "If you're not going out, you might as well put a few clippings in the mat", so of course we were glad to go out, to get out of the way.'
A rather more enjoyable piece of home decorating happened every Christmas. Into the 1920s the favourite decoration at home was not the tree but the 'mistletoe', as Mary recalls: 'My mother used to make lovely mistletoes with the two hoops from butter barrels. She used to cover them with newspapers to give them a bit of thickness, and then she used to fold the tissue paper, and wind it around, so it was all fluffy and nice. And you used to put one hoop through the other, crossways, and then put all the decorations on, the sugar mice and sugar watches and those sort of things'. Mrs E.A. of South Shields also made paper chains. 'My mother used to cut the tissue paper and make paste for us. We used to all sit round and paste the chains, and mother used to put them up.' But all this decoration did make for a fire hazard, as Billie C. says, 'All we had was the gas mantle hanging from the ceiling and [the butter hoop mistletoe] used to hang so close to the gas mantle, and it was all like coloured tissue paper around and little glass toys. They were very femmer – if you put your finger through them, they used to break. You had to be very careful with them.'
Excerpted from Voices of Geordie Childhood by Jo Bath. Copyright © 2014 Jo Bath. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Our Family 9
2 Life at Home 21
3 Toys and Games 38
4 Out and About 54
5 Education 75
6 In the Wars 93
7 Harsh Reality 107
List of Contributors 126