Wearside Echoes: Set sail for family adventure

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THE son of a Wearside orphan who found happiness on the other side of the world has launched an appeal for help in tracing his roots.

Southwick-born James Gray grew up in a series of Sunderland orphanages after the deaths of his parents in the years leading up to the First World War.

He went on to make a new life himself in Australia after joining the merchant navy, and now his son Michael is trying to trace the family tree.

“I’ve been contacted by Mike, who is keen for any help he can get,” said Pam Tate, chairman of Southwick History and Preservation Society.

“James’s story really touched me, and I’m hoping Echo readers may be able to find relatives of the aunt and two uncles Mike never got to meet.”

James, who was born on January 21, 1909, lived with his parents, grandmother, sister Annie and brothers Thomas and Willie at 19 Shakespeare Street.

“Sadly, his mother, Mary Jane, died in 1911. The family story has it that, after her death, his father, Thomas James Gray, took to drink,” said Pam.

“Thomas was just 38 when he died in May 1915, after falling down some stairs and breaking his neck. Doctors were unable to save him.

“I’ve spent hours looking through old Echoes, but can’t find the deaths of Mary or Thomas mentioned anywhere, not even in the death notices.

“Thomas worked as a shipyard labourer, so perhaps the family couldn’t afford to pay for a notice – or maybe their deaths weren’t classed as ‘news’.”

James was just six when he was orphaned. His siblings were taken in by family and friends, but James was cared for by his grandmother, Anne Gray.

“Unfortunately, this arrangement did not last very long, as his granny died in April 1918, aged 74,” said Pam.

“At nine James was put into a Cottage Home – possibly one attached to the workhouse and hospital in Kayll Road – and lost contact with his siblings.

“He ran away several times back to Shakespeare Street, as he couldn’t understand his gran was dead, but was always returned by the police.

“Southwick’s police station was very close to his former home at the time, opposite High Southwick Board School, at the junction of Goschen Street.”

James was moved from the Cottage Home to a larger orphanage as he grew older, where he was encouraged to pursue a naval career.

“The larger orphanage he spoke of was probably the East End one, as this was originally created to house the orphaned sons of sailors,” said Pam.

“The boys trained for a life at sea and James hoped to join the Royal Navy. Poor eyesight, however, saw him join the merchant navy instead.”

James travelled the world thanks to his chosen career, eventually meeting and marrying Hertfordshire-born Poppy Meek in Sidney, Australia, in 1934.

He went on to settle in the country, where he lived until his death in 1983.

“Mike is hoping readers may be able to shed more light on his Wearside roots. It is possible family members may still live in Sunderland,” said Pam.

“It would be wonderful if we could find the families of the aunt and two uncles he never got to meet, as his father lost contact with them as a boy.”

* Can you help Pam track down Michael’s family? She can be contacted on 567 2438.