Sunderland woman shares memoirs of city in early 20th century

East End street party
East End street party
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We are indebted to the Sunderland Antiquarian Society for these wonderful memoirs of Mary Veronica Ciarella – from one of the many Italian families who came to the city in the early 20th century.

Here are her recollections.

Ready for the East Carnival outside The Robert Burns in 1920s

Ready for the East Carnival outside The Robert Burns in 1920s

I was born in the East End of Sunderland in 1928.

One of my earliest memories is standing tiptoe to reach the heavy oak counter inside my parents’ ice cream parlour when I was four.

The parlour stood on the corner of Burleigh Street. My grandfather Francesco Paula Ciarella and my grandmother Maria Willamena Ciarella came from Sora in Italy in the 1870s and settled in Glasgow.

They moved to Burleigh Street in Sunderland in 1908.

Lizzie Valente with her ice cream cart

Lizzie Valente with her ice cream cart

My aunt, Philomena Valenti, had an ice cream business on the opposite side of the Town Moor.

Further along stood Maffen’s Italian Warehouse, where you bought pastas, conserves and everything needed for a slap-up Italian meal.

Grandfather Francesco died in 1923 and my father took over the business which ran until 1935.

The shop was separated from the living quarters by a heavy beaded curtain.

I was often awoken by the heady aroma of custard. I never left the house on a morning without having eaten a bowl of hot custard.

Children often bought brown paper bags of broken wafers from dad for a halfpenny. He had a good trade from the dock workers each day for packets of woodbines, clay pipes, plug tobacco and chewing baccy.

For a penny, you could have a steaming mug of Bovril or Horlicks or a long-stemmed glass full with ice cream covered with monkey’s blood and crushed chocolate.

In the middle of Burleigh Street, you could buy anything from Ganny Butler’s grocery shop – a halfpenny worth of jam to a couple slices of polony, three halfpence of bacon bones or pieces to make broth.

Ganny Butler had a winning smile, unless you were behind with your tick bill.

My aunt Alice Denoven made her own ginger beer and if you took your own bottle to her you got it cheaper.

East End parties were wonderful events.

Everyone tried to outdo their neighbour in decorating their houses hoping to win one of the prizes which ranged from five shillings to three pounds.

I met my future husband, Peter Murray, at St Patrick’s School.

His father and grandfather were sellers of most commodities including fruit, plants, tatties and fish.

My husband’s grandmother lived in Water Street.

I recall the first time he took me to meet her.

I walked up a dark stairway not knowing what to expect. After knocking on the door and being told to enter, I encountered grandmother sitting in an old rocking chair in front of a roaring coal fire.

She had one eye and was wearing a pair of men’s black boots, a coarse apron and was smoking an old clay pipe.

My uncle Giles was a rat catcher and lived in the Barracks.

He always wore a long black topcoat with epaulettes on the shoulders and was rarely seen without his checked cap on.

Caps then were worn by both men and boys as if they were part of their body armour.”