Who do you think you are? Wearsiders are being urged to step back in time and investigate their family history.
TALES of tragedy, poverty and survival against the odds are the focus of a new exhibition opening today.
What’s Your Story? celebrates the family histories of people from Wearside and across the North East, documenting a host of rags to riches journeys, love affairs and feats of courage.
“It is amazing to learn about the real people who lived and breathed on these very streets,” said Martin Routledge, curator of the exhibition at Sunderland Museum.
“These are the people who shaped the place in which we live today, and who are part of the rich tapestry of the history of this region. We hope it inspires others to look at their own family history.”
Buried stories and long-forgotten dramas have been unearthed by researchers for the exhibition, which showcases the trials and tribulations of several Wearside families over the decades.
Among the tales featured is that of Gary Wilkinson, whose investigations into gaps in his family tree revealed a great-uncle no-one ever spoke of – despite him serving as an MP for Sunderland.
“Knowing about your history gives you a bigger sense of who you are, where you are from, and how you got to the place where you are living now,” said Gary.
Also featured are two diaries penned by Washington F Pit winding engineman Mark Swaddle, which were rescued from the rubbish bin by his great-granddaughter Barbara Pollard.
The books describe day-to-day life in Washington and at the colliery, as well as documenting the frequent accidents and deaths he witnessed – helping to shed new light on Victorian times.
“Thankfully I was able to save the diaries. It’s all very well seeing photographs, but when you see something your ancestor has written you realise it’s a part of you and your heritage,” she said.
Old photographs of Sunderland and the North East, as well as historical artefacts and family memorabilia, are also on show at the exhibition, together with nostalgic film footage and paintings.
“Investigations for the exhibition have brought forth remarkable stories of strength, determination and endurance that so characterise the spirit of the people of the North East,” said Martin.
“Genealogy has always been a popular pastime, but with the internet it has never been easier. Gone are the days when you had to travel to churchyards, libraries or town halls, now you just log on.
“Family history is the most personal history you can have. People may have a rough idea of who their family were, but it is only by digging that you get the details. It is a very personal journey.”
Martin – keeper of history at Sunderland Museum – speaks from experience. He has traced his own family back several generations – uncovering a variety of colourful characters along the way.
“You might think you come from an ordinary family but, chances are you don’t. It is truly amazing what you can find when you looking into the stories behind the names on your family tree,” he said.
“The idea of this exhibition is to embrace the popularity of family history, and encourage more people to get involved. You really don’t know who you are until you start delving into the past.”
Jo Cunningham, manager of Sunderland Museum, added: “The dramatic and often moving stories in our new exhibition will really strike a chord with many people.
“We hope that our visitors will also be inspired to research their own family trees, which we would like them to share on the What’s Your Story? website.”
** Anyone willing to share snippets of their family history can log on to the What’s Your Story? website at www.whatsyourstory.org.uk
Sidebar: Family history
THE stories of several Wearside families are told in the new exhibition, including:
GARY Wilkinson’s passion for genealogy was sparked in 2007 – when his uncle showed him a copy of the family tree.
“I’m proud to say I have managed to uncover the lives of some very interesting ancestors in the not-so-distant past,” he said.
One of the ancestors traced by Gary was his great-grandfather, Richard Ewart, who worked as a labourer and municipal lamplighter in South Shields.
“As well as lighting the gas lamps in the street, it was also his job to wake up the men from the mines and shipyards and make sure they got to work on time,” he said.
Richard married Sarah McFadden in 1894. His new wife’s family hailed from Derry in Ireland and, after moving to England, she worked at Haggies Rope Works in Willington Quay.
“My nana use to say that her dad was a ‘wrong ‘un’ because he had lots of girlfriends – many of whom were the wives of the men he had woken up and sent off to work!”
Another ancestor traced by Gary was his great-uncle Richard Ewart – who was rather a mysterious figure for Gary when he was growing up.
“I knew he had something to do with politics, but there were no photographs of him in my nana’s house. He died in 1953 aged 48. It remains a mystery why they never spoke of him,” he said.
At the age of 21, while working at Whitburn Colliery, Richard injured his back. After leaving the pit, he joined the Labour Party and, in 1932, was elected to South Shields County Borough Council.
“He was heavily involved with the Trade Unions as well,” said Gary. “In 1945 he became Labour MP for Sunderland. I would have disowned him if he had been a Conservative!”
BARBARA Pollard’s passion for family history was inspired by a very special heirloom – two diaries written by her great-grandfather Mark Swaddle in Victorian times.
Mark, who was born in 1848, followed in his father’s footsteps to pursue a career in coal mining and, in 1874, started as a winding engineman at the F Pit Colliery in Washington.
“This was one of the most responsible jobs at the colliery, and involved operating the engine for raising and lowering men, coal and materials,” said Barbara.
Mark’s diaries are full of references to accidents and deaths at the colliery and, in later years, he became a trade union delegate – fighting for improved conditions for miners and the community.
“His grandfather had been killed in a pit accident, so it was no surprise that this was something Mark kept a close eye on,” said Barbara.
“He was a religious man and also teetotal – ‘drink did it’ is a common phrase throughout the diaries. But there are also numerous references to visiting fairs, circuses and Queen Victoria’s jubilees.”
For many years the Swaddle family lived in Granary Row – a small row of houses tagged on to the end of the colliery.
“At the end of the day, Mark would return to his cottage and enjoyed spending time mending watches for his friends and growing strawberries in his allotment,” said Barbara.
LOCAL historian Pam Tate was just 18 when she started researching her family tree – and the lives her Sunderland ancestors still continues to fascinate her today.
“It was stories about the family that got me started, and realising that to understand these stories I had to go into the history of Sunderland and the surrounding area,” she said
“Several branches of my family arrived in Sunderland following the opening of the first Wearmouth Bridge in 1796. I reckon they came to see the bridge and decided to stay, as business was booming.”
Pam’s three times great-grandfather, Thomas Parton, arrived from London to set up business in Low Street, where he worked as a ‘compass cleaner and repairer of telescopes and nautical instruments.’
“Meanwhile, the Tate family arrived from Holy Island in around 1815, finding work as blacksmiths, while the Millers moved from Greenock to start work in the glass industry,” she said.
Among the most colourful characters in her family tree was Jim Miller, who enlisted in the Durham Light Infantry in the 1880s and was sent to India – where he worked as a beer-taster.
“As far as he was concerned, Jim wasn’t doing his job unless he was drunk!” said Pam.
“After seven years, Jim returned to Sunderland, married and found work at Clark’s Engine Works. My great-grandmother Caroline was ‘bitter against the drink’ but she could not change his ways.
“That was until one night when Jim hit out at Caroline for disturbing a game of cards. From that moment, he realised the error of his ways and even joined the Order of Good Templars.”
HISTORIAN and teacher Keith Gregson had always been keen to dig into his family history – but the early death of his maternal grandmother left him knowing little about her roots.
“To me, there’s nothing worse than just seeing a name on a piece of paper - it just means nothing,” said Keith, archivist for Ashbrooke Sports Club and author of several local history books.
“What I really want to know is what kind of lives did they lead, what work did they do and which church did they go to?”
Keith made it his mission to research the missing family history and soon established that his grandmother, Grace Pottinger, had been born in South Shields in 1882 – but had Scottish roots.
“Her father, Thomas, was a ship’s captain from the Shetland Isles. He had been raised along with eight siblings in a two-roomed croft on Burra Isle, one of the most desolate of the Isles,” he said.
“This was a time of great unrest. Rents were high and tenancies often ended abruptly. In 1883 a Royal Commission was set up to review crofters’ grievances and the Pottingers were interviewed.”
Keith’s Shetland ancestors arrived in South Shields in the mid-19th century, to study at the Marine School in South Shields – an institution educating boys over 17 who wished to go to sea.
“At this time South Shields was a thriving port, and shipowners on the Tyne were regularly sending agents up to the Shetland Isles to find new recruits,” said Keith.
“The oldest brother, George, came to Shields as a young lad in the 1850s, and quickly became a captain. But in 1865, while captain of the Ocean Bride, he was washed overboard during a storm.
“The ship’s log book was written in his handwriting until his death, then the story about what happened to him was written by the first mate. Turning over that page sent a chill down my spine!”