Wearside Echoes: Village life - just as it was yesterday

Old Grangetown
Old Grangetown
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THE highs and lows of village life come under the spotlight in a new book.

Strikes, school days and the daily struggle for survival are the focus of the last in a trilogy written by Dr Rob Shepherd – Just Like It was Yesterday, A History of the Village of Grangetown.

But pubs, clubs, sport and entertainment are all featured too, together with several pages of tributes to local men who gave their lives in battle during the First and Second World Wars.

“The book is dedicated to the memory of those who, through sacrifice and toil, in hardship and prosperity, in peace and in war, forged the community of Grangetown,” said Rob.

“Much has changed in Grangetown over the last century, but I have tried to bring some of the history and characters back to life once more – to make it seem as if it was ‘just like it was yesterday’.”

Volume Three of Rob’s trilogy opens with a chapter on entertainment. Some of the earliest concerts at the Spelterworks Institute are listed, together with lectures, readings and musical gatherings.

Also featured are archive photos of groups such as the Mothers’ Union, Women’s Guild, Brownies, Scouts and Youth Club, as well as memories of the old Regent cinema and the local music scene.

“The earliest entertainment in Grangetown developed in association with the local church,” said Rob. “I have documents which show music and reading evenings were being held by at least 1884.

“Sport started in Grangetown almost as soon as the village became established too, particularly football and cricket, although cycling, badminton, bowls and swimming clubs were also founded.

“Traditional sports such as quoits and handball were played as well, and several Grangetown characters achieved success in amateur boxing. Grangetown fielded numerous teams in local leagues too.”

Many of the sports were played on two areas of wasteland in Grangetown, known locally as The Green and The Track. Scores of villagers flocked to the areas each day – especially those out of work.

“The Green was home to a quoits pitch and, close by, handball was regularly played,” said Rob.

“Quoits involved throwing of rings, often of rope, over a set distance to land on or about a spike.

“Handball was a much more athletic sport. It is remembered that handball was played against the gable end of the then top house of Westminster Terrace before later council houses were built.”

Rob has also dedicated a chapter to another popular pastime – drinking – with vintage images, historical information and memories of the many watering holes once frequented by villagers.

Anecdotes featuring places such as the Hendon Grange Hotel, Ryhope Grange Hotel, The Alexandra pub and Grangetown WMC are included, together with photos taken during the early 20th century.

“Local hostelries were often used for inquests too,” said Rob. “Many of those who died were involved in accidents at Hendon Paper Works or Ryhope Colliery, but there were many other sad tales too.

“The Echo of 1902 reported an infamous attempted murder and suicide case.

“There were heroes too. Take for example Albert Toner, who died whilst trying to save a young girl, Hettie Fairbairn.

“She fell from the cliffs, one of many over the years. Albert lost his life too, but his heroism was rewarded with a Carnegie Fund Award and a 10 shilling weekly allowance for his widow and family.”

But, while sport and a few pints with pals may have helped to raise the level of community spirit within Grangetown, there were many dark days in the history of the village too.

Strikes and unemployment were not uncommon. Several walkouts were recorded at Hendon Paper Mill over the years, and the district also suffered greatly during the General Strike of 1926.

To help those in need during the post-war depression of the 1920s, as well as the “Hungry Thirties,” a Public Assistance Office was established. One of the first members of staff was Herbert Broderick.

His daughter, TV agony aunt Denise Robertson, recalls in the book: “My father’s business had crashed and, after a period out of work, he was made a PA officer and given Grangetown to care for.

“His office was at the bottom of Regent Terrace, but quite often those in need would turn up on our doorstep, asking for help. My first encounter with childbirth came when I was about five.

“A woman appeared at the door. She was crying and I came into the hall to hear my father telling her there was nothing he could do.

“She walked off and I demanded to know what was going on.

“My mother sat down on the stairs and told me the lady was having a baby and had nowhere to go. My father was not an inhumane man, but he had to manage an inhumane system.

“Years later my mother told me the thing he hated most was having to tell old people he would have to take them into Highfield workhouse because their son or daughter refused to provide for them.

“This was not because of lack of love, but usually because they could hardly provide for themselves. As he was devoted to his own mother, this upset him greatly.”

Despite the prevailing poverty, however, crime was not a particular problem. Three local beat bobbies, Pcs Leishman, Harper and Tindle, helped to keep villagers on the straight and narrow.

“Reggie Leishman was a good copper; he knew all your family. He kept you out of trouble. He would rather have a quiet word with your father,” recalls one Grangetown resident in Rob’s book.

The officers provided 24-hour cover and the villager added: “Every night they would walk their beat; trying all the front doors of the shops, then go around the back lane and try the back doors.”

Another topic featured in Rob’s book is the local school, Commercial Road. The infant and junior sections were opened in 1905, while the senior school started welcoming students from 1935.

“The school log books record fascinating insights into the social conditions of the time. There are many reports of it closing due to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as whooping cough,” he said.

“In 1931, for example, it was reported ‘the school is being swept by a severe epidemic of measles.’ It was not uncommon, either, to hear of children with incurable illnesses, most commonly tuberculosis.

“An insight into the social conditions can also be had. During the winter of 1929 it was reported that, owing to the poor condition of many of the children’s boots, ‘the attendance is distinctly poor’.”

The final section of Rob’s book deals with the wartime service of Grangetown’s men and women – a topic close to the heart of the first pupil to enrol at Commercial Road Juniors in 1905.

Francis Joseph Lee had been born in Grangetown in 1895. Tragically, he died on the battlefields of France during the First World War, at the age of just 22. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial.

“He was one of many to make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Rob. “But, while the First World War remained mostly distant from Grangetown, the Second World War touched the village more closely.

“Three Grangetown children were lost during the sinking of SS Benares in 1940, a ship evacuating them to Canada, and an anti-aircraft battery was established on the fields of Clark’s Farm.

“This claimed the only confirmed downing of an enemy aircraft in 1940. The official war diary recorded: ‘197th battery scored a direct hit – plane crashed’.”

Local legend has it that Hendon Paper Mill, one of the area’s largest employers, was used as a landmark for enemy aircraft as they crossed the coast – but it still managed to survive the conflict.

And, over at the former St Aidan’s Cabinet Works in Ocean Road, workers turned their hands from making furniture to churning out ammunition boxes. One million were manufactured in just a year.

“Sadly, many of the Grangetown men who went away to fight did not return home. I have told each of their stories in the book,” said Rob. “Vitty Keers’s story is one.

“His brother, Jerry, reminisces about the day Vitty left on embarkation leave. He can remember Vitty standing in front of his mother’s black-lead range in Ocean Road, and being immensely proud of him.

“That would be the last day he saw him. He had a premonition as he left his mother’s house, walking along the hallway, that he would never see his brother again. Vitty died from meningitis in 1944.

“Many years later, Jerry visited his brother’s grave. Whilst pausing at Vitty’s headstone, a single drop of rain fell and ran down his headstone. ‘That was one of my mother’s tears,’ he later recalled.”

l The limited edition trilogy Just Like It Was Yesterday – A History of the Village of Grangetown costs £25. For further details email robshepherd1974@googlemail.com or phone 548 2040.