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As the grandson of a veteran of the First World War I took my grandfather’s stories to be accurate to the letter – though how I visualised his antics as I grew up bore very little to the reality, but rather a boy’s perceptions from his surroundings, TV and books in the 1960s and 1970s.
As I study for an MA in British First World War studies the chance exists not only to entrench my research into his journey through the Machine Gun Corps and the fledgling RAF but to consider the accuracy of any veterran’s account – as the years pass their stories can be coloured by what they read and hear so that they may say what people expect to hear.
The opportunity may also exist to do some original research, even to be in touch with the relatives of those featured in his story.
Is it possible, for example, to put names to the faces in a set of photographs of the RAF cadets who were barracked at the Queen’s Hotel, Hastings in May and June 1918?
And where he marked the spot where he buried his mates Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld is it feasible to look for them or leave a permanent stone?
Toy Planes from Gamages
We used to send off to A.W. Gamages for these model aeroplanes made from balsa wood.
They were made with three-ply tea-chest wood and had a propeller with a bit of an elastic band. Gamages were at 116-128 Holborn, London. They sent you a 900 page catalogue every Christmas. Billy and I got paid lugging this equipment around for Lubbock, making deliveries to the big houses, which is how we got to know everyone, and fixing the cars. We knew what made the things tick and with no mechanics about we learnt to do the job. I could drive at 13; I’d manoeuvre them about the yard and from time to time father would take one of the cars saying he had to run it in or check the new tyres or something. There was no traffic to speak of, mostly gigs and tub traps. You had to watch out for startling horses and upsetting old ladies who liked to carry their loads down the middle of the road.
Office Boy in the offices of the North Eastern Brewery
One day my father comes up to me and says.
“Mr Murray wants to see you up at the house at Six O’clock. There’s a vacancy in the office.”
I was not fourteen so I couldn’t leave school.
I went up to the house where J.G. had me writing and one thing and another. He asked what class I was in. “Standard Seven” I said, which was about as far as you could get.
“You’ll learn a lot more in the office.” He said. And he was right.
I started work at the North Eastern Breweries in August 1910.
I was fourteen years of age. I was on Five Shillings per week and got an annual increment of Half a Crown which was (2/6d) – 2 shillings and 6 pence (Around £11 in 2012 money)
(In today’s money, 2012, Jack was getting around £25 a week for doing five days plus Saturday mornings. A 44 hour week? He was only 14 though and learning the ropes).
I walked the two miles up the hill to work.
Bill Baron, who was the cashier lived down in Shotley Bridge took me in. He’d started work as a clerk at a railway station. His mother Margaret lived in Bywell. He had two sisters. He was a bit older than me; he was 28 when I started. He walked up from Shotley Bridge which was further away still and fetched me up to the offices which were right up at the top.
Tom Young was in my class; his Family lived on Harvey St.
He joined the Consett Iron Company works as a clear. And one called Ripley, who made a fortune; his father was a coalminer and his mother was from Stanhope.
He became a foreman at the works.
Theatres and Pubs
J.G. used to build a theatre and a pub together.
He had the ‘Three Masons Arms’ and the ‘Globe’.
In those days there was nothing else, no cinema, just these theatres. I remember Gracie Fields was pelted with tomatoes at Stanley with the miners; she was a Rochdale girl and my age. She was in ‘Our Towers of London.’ She started out in Music Halls and became a film star in the 1920s and 1930s. The cinemas helped to black the music hall artists out.
The cellars held two gallon jars of gin and Irish etc:
The cellerman had an office which had a speaking tube running up to the first floor; you had to whistle down it to get your attention. Wagons would come in by these big double doors round the side. There were steps down in the cellars.
The manager of the Globe would ring his beer order down.
I’d run down to the phone in the corridor to take it down. I was just a boy and the man, a Cockney, asks for “Three barrels of oil.”
I went back to the office and asked.
“Where can I get some oil?”
They all laughed.
“Ale” they said. “He wants three barrels of ale.”
One day J.G. had my father carry this ‘Blick’ up from the car; it was a German typewriter.
J.G. tried to show me how to use this Blickenfurentstater. It was a portable affair with a wooden case. The top row of letters began ZXKGB so it came in before QWEERTY when they had to slow the action down on account of the metal keys getting jammed if you typed too fast. I did all the typing after that, up until the war. We started doing the letters with carbon copies. After the war they had girls in doing that job.
There were no girls in the office before 1914.
Spa Fields Fair and the Char-a-banc
Every year there was a fair down at the Spa Fields by the river
The Spa was noted for its waters which came out of the rocks by the swings; it was icy cold. The bath house and saloon still remain.
I remembered a Char-a-banc coming down from Blackhill to Shotley Bridge Spa grounds that crashed. That was on 26th August 1911. Those killed belonged to the Consett Co-Operative Choir. There was a couple that died a John Joseph Person and his fiancée Ettie Stokoe. I held her hand while we waited for the Doctor. It was shortly after my 15th birthday. There were many I say die after that, but she was the first. A lovely woman. Full of ideas and hopes. There were a lot that missed out.
Every year there was this fair and the Choir had come down for that
There was a Toll Gate. You paid once and there were swings attached to these huge trees with heavy steel bars and hooks and roundabouts and a Flower Show. Carriages carrying twenty people would come in from Newcastle. I won a First Prize for a handwriting competition and for my drawings. I did one of a Roman Soldier and another of a tulip.
I remember in 1902 going down to the Spa where they had a huge fire to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking. My father used to get a magazine, ‘The Black and White Budget’ on the Boer War.
The fair in Shotley Park was stopped eventually by a Quaker family who owned the land.
He was a banker, this Jonathan Richardson, a Quaker Banker. That was a rum deal. One of his sons refused to fight in the Great War. He stayed out until conscription came in then refused. He lived by his bible, he said and obeyed the Fifth Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ They had him shipped out to France all the same and put under military command; they might have been shot for that, but Parliament stepped in and gave them hard labour.
Fig. 1. Shotley Bridge, above the Flour Mill. The boys on the road are brothers John Arthur Wilson (Jack) and William Nixon Wilson (Billy) … and by the pavement ‘a boy called Moffat whose family ran the baker’s’. Cutler’s Hall Road.
William Lubbock – Photographer
There was a teacher called Lubbock; he was a good amateur photographer.
His name was William. He was born in 1871 and had a wife called Thomasine and a daughter Marion who was two years younger than me. Lubbock taught Standard Seven so I had him in my final year. He didn’t half wallop you with a cane.
He got out to take pictures of these real winter scenes.
I was thought to be a bit of a strapping lad, all the Wilson’s were big lads, we have the blood of Blacksmiths running in our veins which explains why we last so long. I’d go out to help him carry his equipment, trudging out onto the fells through snow that came up to your waist – the drifts could cover a barn.
Talk about winters. It went on for weeks, nothing like now.
Lubbock was Chairman of the Tyneside Photography Society.
He used a box camera with all these brass fittings a tripod, a large wooden affair that weighed a few stone.
The camera used glass plates.
He took a photograph of me and Billy in 1903 or thereabouts.
We wore these wide brimmed straw hats against the sun and I was carrying a cane and jam jar. We were off to fish for tiddlers in the Derwent by the Papermill. It was in front of what is now the King’s Head, with the bank running down to the flour mill and bridge at the bottom. The road back then was wide enough for carriages to pass but was no good for motor cars. A whole row of houses were knocked down for the motorcars and wagons to get through as that was the main route to Newcastle.
Lubbock turned up at the Chancellor Pub once. I filled him with beer and walked him back to the train.
There was another teacher called Evans and a woman teacher whose name I don’t recall.
I took part in Aladdin, a Chinese Play and I was a bugler in the Boy’s Brigade.
They were masterminded by Baden-Powell around 1900.
He who went on to establish the Boy Scout movement. One time we went camping up to Allen’s Ford.
There was a Saturday Matinee in Dally’s Hall.
We’d see these cowboy films and someone would play the piano.
Shotley Bridge and Benfieldside School
Shotley Bridge was a metropolitan, a proper town, a thriving place.
The War and the recession and the rest put paid to that; it’s never been the same. Never will be. Can’t be. Consett and Shotley Bridge drew in workers right up to the outbreak of the War in 1914 for the iron and steel works, the paper mill, saw mill, market gardens, mines of course and the manufactories. Then there were the railways, and shops and theatres of course. And the market every week that filled the town.
I remember taking Billy up to the infant school, Benfieldside School at Highgate and him crying.
Children started school aged six and stayed on until Standard VII. On our when 14th birthday we got a job. There was no staying on unless you had the money for the Grammar School. Lads from the big houses would be sent into Newcastle or they’d be away at boarding preparatory schools from the age of 7 or 8.
The school was divided into two, girls and boys
There was a separate block for infants with the schoolmaster’s house next door and a playground behind where I left him and went back for him. It was a mile walk. There was a two hour break for lunch as most children went home to eat. So back and forth we’d walk six miles a day. There were no buses and no bikes.
There was no gas or electricity either, just paraffin lamps.
The headmaster was Frank Allan; he was a little chap. He signed up, no need, he lied over age, said he was 37, in fact he was 43. He encouraged a lot of boys to lie about their age and got them killed, 14 year olds saying they were 19. Billy did that and joined the Royal Flying Corp when he was 15.
Frank was killed in the Great War.
Swimming by the Papermill Sluice
There were no swimming pools
We went down to the Papermill dam and used to swim under the sluice. The sluice runs for 600 yards alongside a gently running race. There are pools, rapids and diving spots. It’s still there, not operational though. The other place for swimming was Tiger’s below the Papermill.
We spent all our summers with a string and bent pin fishing for tiddlers.
The Paper Mill was owned by the Annandale’s.
They lived in a big mansion, Shotley Grove House up at Snow’s Green. James Annandale lived to be ninety. He was born in 1827 and died January 1917; my mother told me that in a letter I got when I was a Machine Gunner on the Somme. Mr Annandale’s wife was called Anne. They had four children: Charles, Annie, Nora and James. The younger James lived with his old man at Shotley Grove with his wife Elizabeth and their baby daughter Margaret; they had a domestic servant and a nurse of their own.
The Papermill produced 95 tones of paper a week and employed 300.
There were plenty from school got took on by the Mill, which was preferable than going down the mines and liked by some better than going into domestic service. The Papermill was established by John Anandale in 1799; that’s how old the sluice would be they put in to run the machinery.
The First Cars in County Durham
The first person to have a car in the area was Dr Ralph Renton.
Everyone knew when he was coming because you could hear the engine.
“Chug, chug chug, chug.”
You’d then see him sitting there bolt up right like he was at a desk. Dr Renton lived at Oakfield, Blackhill; he was born in 1878. His mother’s name was Mary Renton; she was born in 1850. She had two sisters who lived with her, Marjory and Agnes. They were still in Benfieldside 1901. Ralph’s father, Dr George Renton had been the GP at Shotley Bridge before his son.
Dr Renton’s car was a chain-driven 8 HP Single Cylinder Rover
This was their first motorcar, designed by Edmund Lewes who had been working for Daimler. Before that they’d made motorbikes and before than they’d made bicycles. There were mostly horse drawn vehicles when I was a boy, private cars were very rare.
They next people after that to have a motor car were C.T. Mailings of Ford Potteries, Greenwood, Shotley Bridge. It was a Lanchester.
It had tiller steering and bicycle wheels
When the cars came on the go JG got a mechanic driver, a man called Geldart, to come up from Middlesborough to teach my father how to drive.
The Murrays bought a 10 HP Coventry Humber from this firm in Middlesborough and later bought a 30/40 Beeston Humber.
Thomas Humber was a blacksmith from Beeston near Nottingham
He started with velocipedes, they had no chains, you just sat on them to make them go by running your feet along the ground. He got into bicycles and then tricycles and by the 1890’s he was building copies of Leon Bollee’s tricar. As well as tricycles, they built motorcycles and voiturettes. They had two speeds those first cars, one forwards, one backwards. They were well built and a more expensive car.
As a boy my father used to take me up to the yard to fiddle on with the engines
When old Dick Murray built Benfieldside House he had two massive stone pillars put up at the bottom of the drive. There was a little wicker gate into the lodge where we lived. J G. used to have a go with the Beeston Humber. One day he missed the gate and ran into the pillar which twisted round its base.
“How he didn’t knock it into our cottage I don’t know”.
These pillars were incorporated into the estate agent’s house which is called ‘Glastonbury’ and is on Benfieldside Road.
A second groom was taken on to look after the horses and my father took on the new role of chauffer. He used to drive J.G. all around the branches of the North Eastern Breweries, to the Moor Street Brewery in Sunderland, the Tower Brewery in Spennymore, the Weir Brewery in Stockton and up to the bottling plant at Blackhill next to the offices where I worked.
I blame cars for the growth in crime. You never heard of burglaries, but once the criminal types could nip in and out by car they’d target these big houses. Put the wind up a lot of people that.