On motorway verges draw
Sharp lines between me and
Four fatherless fourteen-year-olds
On the brink of another war
This project blog is curiously personal, but then for me, much of this project falls into this category: my family are from the North East and the period we are researching (just) falls into their living memory. My paternal grandmother grew up in Loftus, born in 1923. This little research snippet is about an interview I conducted with her about her childhood, and the long shadows of two wars.
My grandma was the third of four children, her older brothers Eric and Ron coming before her and sister Doris not too long behind. Her father was injured in the Battle of the Somme, a shrapnel wound in his face that later became cancerous and killed him in 1931: she doesn’t remember him ever being well enough to work and his injury overshadows a great deal of her early memories. As a result, she told me, they didn’t particularly notice the Great Depression: he couldn’t work, and because they’d married after his injury (seemingly a scratch at the time), her mum didn’t get a war-widows pension. So there was never much money around, neither before nor after 1929. She didn’t particularly remember the crash (but then, she would have been small), but she did remember the dole queues, and recounted that later, she found out that they had had (subtly) armed guards at the dole offices, at least in Newcastle.
“… what I can remember about it is very very long queues at the dole office. The men were stood three abreast for about a quarter of a mile. …in Loftus waiting for the dole. It was a Friday morning”
She was a mine of useful information about how families made do, with relatives lodging in, allotments providing delicious veggies, eggs and pigs to supplement the table, and tricks used by her mum to make things go further, like ‘sides-to-middle’. A procedure where worn-out bedsheets were cut in half and stitched back together with the unworn edges making up the middle, and the worn out centre now at the sides. They lived in a terraced house in East Loftus, owned by her Grandad (her mother’s father), who had been a mining engineer and who had been to America twice, before coming back to Loftus. Her mum washed once a week in a huge copper, baked twice a week without a proper stove, and kept the five of them together on 24 shillings a week. They had help: their rent should have been just over half of their weekly income, but after her Dad died, her Grandad agreed they could stay rent-free. Her mum could have gone and worked as a private nurse but then Grandma and her siblings would have had to go into care so they managed without anyone earning a wage. This actually meant Grandma stayed on at school a year longer than most: her and the three others who were also from fatherless households year stayed on until they were 15 before going out to work. Her eldest brother Eric won a scholarship to Guisborough Grammar School, but that meant uniforms and bus fares: the British Legion helped by buying his uniform but he was the only one to go.
“I always support the British Legion, and you should because they are good. They are there when they are wanted… they helped with Eric’s school uniform, which Mum couldn’t have afforded. And his bus fare”
Far from experiencing the Great Depression as tumultuous event, or a defining period of change, my Grandmother’s family, at least, experienced it as a backdrop to more pervasive poverty, challenge and change. I am starting to think this was the same for most people in the region: not everything was dire. Their housing gradually improved: everyone got indoor WC’s all in one go in their street: my Grandma presumes because of some sort of improvement grant. Similarly, she remembers them getting electric lighting and their first proper gas stove and indoor sink. A regular bus service to Middlesbrough began, and because the local director lived in East Loftus and had kids at school, they got a free bus ride home on wet days. Though there was never much money around, they never went hungry, their table generously supplemented from allotments and I suspect some poaching.
“we got our veggies from him (her maternal Grandfather), which were beautiful you know, and he had a greenhouse, and he had hens, and he had pigs. And I remember how thrilled we were when he said the… the idea was, if you kept pigs, you sent them to, oh what’s that big pork firm up north, what do they call it?...anyway, you sent them there and they but they cut the pig up for you and they let you have the cuttings back, cause there were pieces they couldn’t sell, and I remember the dinners we got off that was beautiful, pork casserole, ‘cause it would be fresh wouldn’t it.”
The challenge I have is drawing these memories into the dry world of old maps and planning records, which are the bread and meat of my part of the research project. Archaeology, to me at least, is about accessing daily life in ways not often managed by textual history. It is also concerned with change and continuity. I’ve looked at all the planning applications for the Bishop Auckland rural district between 1929 and 1937, and I am starting to look at differences in Ordnance Survey maps created in 1924(ish) and 1939 to identify those changes and to explore the character of the built environment. It is a large task and I am only at the start, but there are already patterns emerging that fit my Grandmother’s experience: an increase in allotments and a marked decrease in heavy industry; new housing built along roads linking formerly separated parishes, planning applications for improvements to housing and schools. There is also evidence of the growing availability of utilities like electricity and telephone lines, and the growing importance of the car.
Getting to how people thought and felt about those changes is harder, and this is where I am glad to have my Grandmother’s stories to connect me back to the landscape. Tales of walking all the way to Saltburn or Staithes, trips on their bikes, learning the names of flowers and how to catch fish in the rivers. The excitement of a proper stove, and a flushing toilet. Of playing in the bus depot with friends, or those long curling queues of men, waiting for their dole money, to go and spend it immediately on household provisions in the local grocers.
I’m enjoying the balancing act this research requires, between the vividly personal and the detached overview from the maps. Next time I write I’ll share some statistics about the sorts of new buildings being proposed and the places in the landscape they were affecting.