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Can a veteran’s story be believed?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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A postcard home from RAF Cadet Corporal JAWilson, 1918

WWI RAF Postcard 1919

John Arthur Wilson MM 1896-1992

95 years later Houthulst Forest is used to first store then detonate the 200,000 bomb a found in the Ypres area every year.

http://wikimapia.org/4103376/Quarters-Bos-van-Houthulst-EOD-Houthulst-Forest

An arm torn off in the corn crusher – North Eastern Brewery 1912

I remember the Forman Joiner, Jack Walton, getting his arm torn off in a crusher

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Down the lane from the Royal Hotel there were the stables and the joinery. They had slats of mahogany used for wood storage. They made their own furniture.

Walton was a Cockney – he always had to be right.

This corn crusher had a steel roll and you put the corn in at the top and caught it out the bottom. It was driven by a belt from the pop factory. It got choked and Paddy Rafferty went to fetch Walton. Paddy was an Irish Labourer. He lived at 21 John Street.

Walton got on an empty crate, propped it up to stand on so he could take a look to see what was blocking the crusher and the crate collapsed. His arm went straight through. He was left hanging there by his arm. They had to dismantle the crusher to get him out, the muscles were all torn.

They took him down to the infirmary where they amputated the arm. 

To get some sense of what it was like a hundred years ago I turn to books such as this.


From First World War

The other thing to do is to rent a holiday cottage with no electricity, an outside low and a peat fire.

I found a two room cottage in Donegal that took me back at least 100 years!

A ghost in the Hotel – Royal Hotel, 1911

Bob Ritchie was the manger of the pub downstairs.

He’d just turned fifty when I started because they had a bit of a do for him. He had a wife, Beth, and a daughter Jane.

The pub would be packed on Mondays, but the hotel itself was never busy.

I had Bob Ritchie and his wife convinced the place was haunted

There was this telephone in a wooden booth. It was down the passageway from the office. You could just get in and close the door and get yourself sat down. There was a ledge you could lean on to write messages and that. There was this missing panel underneath with a piece of canvas across that was probably put in to service the bell-pull strings that came in from the various rooms, but it seems everyone had forgotten about that. There were all these strings coming from all the rooms. I’d be in there waiting for a phone call for someone to put their order in and I’d fiddle on with these strings. House telephones would often exploit the wiring previously provided for the bell pushes which summoned servants … or in this case the hotel manager or his wife. This access point must have been created when the Hotel and Offices had the wiring carried out with many of the pull strings for the guest rooms remaining. The telephone was known as butter-stamp receiver, because of its shape.

Beth Ritchie was so terrified by all these bells going off that she wouldn’t go to bed.

I kept it going for some time and I never let on. I wasn’t aware I was doing anything. It would die down then Muggins would be in the box waiting for someone to make a call and it would start up again. Bob Ritchie died at the Royal Hotel, Blackhill, on January 19th, 1911. I’d just been there six months. He had a heart attack. When I heard someone suggest it was to do with the torment of the bells going off I worked it out and thought I might get the blame.

An office boy on this 14th birthday in the offices of the North Eastern Brewery

Office Boy in the offices of the North Eastern Brewery

1910

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).

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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.

The theatres and pubs of Consett and Benfieldside before the Great War 1910

Theatres and Pubs

1910

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.

The Royal Hotel, Consett. Head Office of the North Eastern Brewery in 1910

The Royal Hotel

1910

The Royal Hotel was a huge stone built building with these five massive windows.

It was built for business; it’s all finished now. There was a station near by and next door the Mart for all the Blackhill farmers round about Lanchester. There was a huge yard. The station took all the deliveries for the Paper Mill and Flour Mill in Shotley Bridge.

There were six in the office above the bar and taproom.

J.G. had a private office across the passageway. I was the office boy. Joe Trones was on the sales ledger, Bill Barron, was the principal ledger clerk (tenants, free trade). Tommy Morland, who came from Medomsley, was the cashier; he held the bank cash book. He was 38 when I stared. Then there was Ernie Caldwell, the estate agent and local brewery area manager. Mr Gardener was General Manager of the branch and stores. Mr Gardener was in his fifties. He’d been with the North Eastern Breweries for 26 years. I got to know his son later on. John Gardener was just a year older than me. His mother lived into her eighties as did John. I must have been the Spa water we were used to drinking!

Bill and I used to do the column.

We’d sneak out of the office and go down the corridor to the billiard room that overlooked the spirit store and bottling factory.
There were two tables. We’d slide in and keep the door from the office locked. We’d sneak back as if we’d come back from the telephone. We got to know Tom Brown who worked for the Consett Iron Works. He used to play billiards when it was open. Tom and Bill were a similar age. Tom was from Wokington. He was nearly 30 when I started at the North Eastern Brewery. He lived at 7 Constance Street, Consett . They were a five of them, there was Bill, Dick, George and his sister Florence. His father, George was from Yorkshire. His mother, Mary was from Durham. Tom was a big strapping lad. Before the war his brother was shot in the leg and he lost it from gangrene.

Bill had a brother called Ridley who was a good footballer.

Just before the War Bill got a message to say his brother had been killed in a fall of stone in the mine at Busty Pit, Medomsley. Ridley had started out as a coal hand puller ‘underground’ at Busty Pit when he was 14. He was killed on 8th October 1912. He was kirning in a longwall gateway in a seam 2 feet 2 inches thick when a large stone fell between slips canting out some props and crushing him.

Bill was broken hearted. In those days all the mines were going: Hunter, Busty and Derwent interlinked with their own railway with iron ore from Spain.

Ernie Caldwell used to count all the coins, it was all gold then.

He had this desk next to a massive iron safe. When the figures didn’t add up he’d put it down to petty cash. When they came to move the safe they found all these coins stuck down the back. Ernie Caldwell came to me one day.

“John, I’ll show you how to work a pub stock out.”

And he put this pub stock sheet in front of me.

One of my jobs was to take all the coins down to the bank.

With it being the brewing trade a lot of them got sticky. I remember once the bank manger got fed up with getting sticky fingers and handed me the bag back.

“Go and wash them; I’m not handling them like that.”

So from then on before I went to the bank I’d take the coins into the lavatory and wash them in the sink.

There were three joiners and two horse keepers for the twelve Cleveland Dray Horses. The pop factory was run by Tommy Blackburn. There were six bottling girls and a bottler we called ‘The Dummy.’ They bottled Bass, Guinness, Wheatley Hops and their own beers.

Crossley Gas Engines ran the machines – there was no electricity. That factory was sold to the Venture Bus Company, now the Northern.

All the letters were hand written with copying ink.

You put an oil sheet in, damped the blotting paper, put your letter in and squeezed it to make a copy – that was before the typewriter.

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