My Early Life in Percy Main

My earliest recollection of my dad was that he seemed to be permanently in his overalls. I think he must have worked very long hours and was just too tired to change.

I was born at 14 Backworth Street, Percy Main, in a two bedroom downstairs flat on 14 September, 1933 in the early hours, delivered by Dr Bewley, the third son of Norman Dundonald Charlton and Sarah Tennent,

My father was born in Hexham on 1 March 1900, one of a very large family. I don’t yet know his father’s name but he was a cattle dealer and a lay preacher at some church in Hexham. I know my father was in the Durham Light Infantry during World War One. I don’t know if he saw any action. My mother, Sarah Tennent, was ‘in service’ at some big house in Newcastle where she met and married my dad before moving to Percy Main.

My father worked at Howdon Gas Works as a labourer on the Retort House (whatever that was). It was an awful job. He was in a small three sided hut some 30ft above ground and the wind whistled around him. I think it was some part of a conveyor belt for cooling the coke as it came from the ovens. All I know was that it must have been a terrible job especially in winter. My earliest recollection of him was that he seemed to be permanently in his overalls. I think he must have worked shifts or worked very long hours and was just too tired to change.

If my dad had a tough job, so did my mother. She never stopped working – washing, ironing, cooking and shopping. She was a marvellous cook (I think as women were back then). Homemade bread, scones and cakes seemed to be always on the go. Monday, I think, was her hardest day, up at first light to start the fire under the big cast iron boiler in the outside washhouse, then see us all off to school (Percy Main Council) just down the end of the back lane. Then she would do the washing, my abiding memory of Monday was coming from school at dinner time hearing the possing.

This was the noise of the clothes in a large wooden barrel being pounded by heavy ‘poss sticks’ also called dollys and the steam coming out of all the washhouse vents. Some clothes already washed were drying on lines strung across the lane. Our dinner was always a fry up of the potatoes and veg and the cold meat from Sunday’s dinner. When we got home at 4 o’clock, my mother would be ironing. The irons were cast iron, heated on top of the gas cooker, wiped across a tablet of soap to make them slide. She would stop and get our tea. In summer, we played out in the back lane. She would still be ironing when it was time for us to go to bed and was probably still ironing when we were fast asleep.

At home, my father was a severe figure of authority. I cannot recall him ever hitting us, he didn’t need to. One look or a word and we did what he or my mother wanted. He was always trying to teach us by playing games – darts was our favourite and he used this to teach us to add and multiply by using the scores. He had a large silk map of the world and he would teach us about the countries and their capitals. We played Ludo and Snakes and Ladders.

We had great fun, but my father’s pride and joy was his radio (most people called them a wireless). He never missed the news, and used the silk map to show us where the World War Two battles were taking place. He read his paper ‘The Daily Herald’ from cover to cover every day. I can still remember one of the headlines ‘Victory at El Alamein’. He tried to explain to us what was happening but it must have been very difficult for him and my mother to explain to young children. I only realised later in my life what a struggle and worry the war years must have been for our parents and all of our friends.

However, there was some light relief on the radio. My mam and dad’s favourite was a programme called I.T.M.A. (It’s That Man Again), the man being a quick talking comedian called Tommy Hanley. His programme was hugely popular. My mam and dad would laugh until the tears rolled down their cheeks. We did not understand a lot of it but just to see our parents laughing was truly heart-warming for us.

Our favourite radio programme was Dick Barton Special Agent. It was on every weekday at about 6 or 7 at night. In the summer months, all the children would suddenly disappear into the house to hear the episode which left everyone hanging, then half an hour later, we were all back outside playing.

The radio was run off a large battery plus an accumulator which was a thick glass container with lead plates inside. It had a handle for carrying and when it ran low, it was our job to take it to Mr Park’s cycle shop at the Building (our name for the streets north of Percy Main) and he exchanged it for a fully charged one.

The reason we had a battery radio was that we had no electricity in the house. This was because Mrs Heads who lived upstairs was frightened of electricity and our landlord would not put it in our flat alone. Consequently, we were one of the last houses to get electricity in the village, but, on occasions, we were lucky being the only people in the street with light when there were electricity cuts of which there were many.

My dad’s pleasures were very few and simple. He liked a small bet on the horses every day and he smoked Wills Wild Woodbines. I don’t know how many a day. On Saturday night, he went to the Percy Arms (The Die Shop as it was known) for a few pints. That was the sum total of his leisure time, except for an occasional trip to the cinema which he loved, and would talk about the film he had seen for days after.

My dad dropped down dead outside his works on Easter Monday 1949, aged 49. The people there said he only said Sarah, my mother’s name. I was at St James’ Park watching Newcastle. I will never forget going into the house and seeing my mother crying surrounded by family and friends.

Things from then on must have been even harder for her. She got a job as a school cleaner, scrubbing floors. etc as well as raising three boys and still having to do all the usual jobs about the house. I have nothing but praise and admiration for her. Howard, my brother helped with his apprentice wage from Wallsend Slipway. I had a job as office boy at Tynemouth Council Borough Treasurers Department, but it must still have been very hard for her.

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