My Early Years

I was born at 25 Clockwell Street, Southwick, Sunderland, County Durham on the 8th June 1920. The street was situated on the banks of the River Wear in Sunderland – the greatest ship building river in the world. My parents were Benjamin and Catherine Christison. My sisters were Margaret, Florence and Olive. I also had a brother John.

I was about 6 years old when both of my parents died within approximately 3 – 4 months of each other. They died from Consumption. My youngest sister, Olive, also died from the same disease.

My sister Margaret moved to London after the death of our parents. She married a Mr Sproats and they had one daughter, Brenda. My sister Florence married a Mr John West and they had one son, John. My brother John was in the Royal Navy and he married Dorothy, and had two daughters, Brenda and Jaqueline.

I have only a few memories of my life in Clockwell Street. I remember that we lived upstairs and we had a picture of my dad in his army uniform in the front room. I can also remember my playmate – he was called Dougie Burns.

I was fostered by my mother’s brother and his wife - Aunt Ella and Uncle Bob. They already had a family – 3 sons – Bob, Andrew and Ninian – and 2 daughters – Ella and Jenny. Jenny did not live at home as she was married. I was readily accepted into the family unit and was treated exactly the same as my “brothers and sisters”. No favouritism was given, and I was very happy.

Life as I remember, and have been told about at times from some of the elders of the family, was hard. Work at times was very hard to come by and when jobs became vacant you received a slip for that particular vacancy from the employment office. On arrival at the place of employment there would probably be 20 – 30 people for 6 or 7 vacancies. It was entirely up to the foreman who got the job. If your face fitted you were in! In many cases around the street people took in washing for the better off. The return for their labours was very little, however at least something was coming into their homes

Having settled in with my Aunt and Uncle I was treated as one of the family – what they got, I got. As an orphan I was entitled to certain council benefits. The allowance for keeping me was awarded to my foster parents. I was allowed school boots which as soon as we got them the soles were filled with segs (blakeys) to help to make them last as long as possible. When not at school it was either sand shoes or bare feet. This was the life of nearly all children. I do not remember a great deal of my early years but what I do remember was that I had a good life compared to other children. My earliest recollection is of playing in the street and making our own pastimes. Games consisted of swinging on the lamp posts, itchy-dabber, mountie-kitty (leap frog), tag, and when it rained making your own little boats to float down the gutter. Holiday periods were hard in those days and we used to walk about 10 miles to get to the sea side. All through the corn fields past the wind mill, down to either Roker or Seaburn. There was plenty of sandy shores to play on. One area was always favourite with me – The Holy Rock. They were caves that were washed out by the sea, and also an area called the cannonball rocks, because the formation looked as if they were cannon balls joined together. Other areas were at Seaburn by the fishermen’s cottages. There was a big expanse of rocks where all kinds of sea life could be found – crabs, winkles, shrimps, muscles. Some of which we would collect in little buckets. We would collect winkles to take home. They could be cooked and eaten as in those days there was little pollution. There were also very grassy banks leading down to the sea where the men would collect edible snails which they cooked and bottled in vinegar.

My early life at school was spent at West Southwick School where discipline was strict and manners and regimentation were the rule of the day. The day commenced with assembly in the main hall for the days instructions and prayers. I remember the headmaster was a Mr. Kellsall. The teachers were Mr Benson (cat of nine-tails), Mr walker, Miss Gainford, Mr Davidson (art and maths) and Mr Petrie. All teachers took their own PT classes. Things that were celebrated included Empire Day. I will always remember it for the maypole dance, and a big painting on the school facia – representing a part of the British Empire. I think I can safely say I had a reasonable education at West Southwick School. My sports education was mainly cricket, football, and rugby. In cricket I represented West Southwick School and Sunderland boys 11, and in Rugby I represented Durham County. Unfortunately I only played football for the school team.

My friends, as I remember, were Freddy Radcliff and Tommy Cook. I must admit we were no angels and were often in trouble. The headmaster did not spare the taws (strap), an outstretched hand or both.

We had no stumps for cricket so we would chalk wickets on the school wall. It was arranged that I could knock the balls bowled to me onto the school roof, where we would go and retrieve them after school. The worst incident that I can recall was after school when we went to recover the tennis balls from the roof. We found the cookery section of the school was open! At first we only looked around. Then we found a bag of rice and decided to make a rice pudding! We got started and not really knowing anything about cooking, it soon boiled over. With all our shouting, Mr Davidson, one of the teachers who lived by the school, heard us and saw us running away. We climbed over the wall at the back of the school into the church graveyard. We thought we had got away with it. When we went to school on the following Monday we, the 3 of us, were told to report to the head master where we found ourselves in deep trouble! Mr Davidson had recognised us and our school caps. Our punishment consisted of having to go straight home from school to bed. No going out to play, no sweets, no treats and the threat of being sent away to school. I still managed to get a few sweets. I made a crane out of Meccano so I could wind down a length of string to the street outside the window where my friends, Mick or Andy, would tie on a sweet and I would wind it back up. There was never any physical punishment – only privileges were taken away, or being sent to bed.

I found I had a sharp eye for casting a stone, or a ball, which came in handy when the fairs came to the town and villages. Our local fairground was in St. Columbus’s Church grounds. I was always in demand at the coconut stall (3 balls for a penny). I would soon knock of a couple of coconuts, which we would share. I often took home a coconut which we opened up, drank the milk and ate the flesh.

As we went through school lots of things happened. I recall the days we spent at Seaburn camp. This was a school camp where schools would have days out by the seaside. Some of the School Summer Holidays were spent at the camp. Orphans and privileged children would also go there for a fortnight’s holiday. The camp consisted of wooden huts. You were given a little locker for your own clothes and you had your own bed which you had to keep clean for the morning inspection. Classes were taken on the beach near to the village. We were taught about all types of sea life. We also had to draw the churches Lich gate (entrance). On one occasion we were taken to the beach on a day when there was a neap tide (lowest tide). We were shown the stumps of trees which we were told were part of a petrified forest. We did get quite a good education whilst at the Seaburn camp which was run by the Sunderland educational authority.

My cricket interest was encouraged by my guardians friend, Andy McDonaldson, who coached the schools team. On any important game he would say “there is a three penny bit on each stump, knock one off and it is yours”. In those days there were no speed kings in bowling. It was mainly length and spin bowling. I was a left arm spin “China man”. I played for Sunderland boys cricket 11s and also played rugby for Durham county schoolboys. Whilst I was at school I had a part time job as a paperboy, for which I got the princely sum of half a crown (two and sixpence). One shilling of this went into my savings. As well as delivering newspapers I also delivered weekly books and football echos on a Saturday night. It was my job to collect in some of the “weekly payers” money. One Saturday night I had quite a bit of change on me and this led me to meet my future wife. I called into a Chalk’s fruit shop where Jess, the manager at the time, asked if anyone had some change. I said yes. From then on every Saturday night I would call in with change and over a period of time we became really good friends. On joining the Royal Navy I had Jess’s home address and I wrote to her but gradually the letters stopped.

I had many friends, some of whom were Jackie Ecclestone, Teddy Harrison, Joe Henderson, Harry Worthy, Ratcliffe, Cook, Tommy Moire. Looking back at the past it is surprising to think the distances we walked every weekend and all the lonely areas we went into without fear. We went bird nesting. Yes we took eggs, however, never more than one egg from each nest, nor any egg from a nest if we already had one. The birds I recall were Blackbird, Thrush, Sparrow, Skylark, Owls, and Crow. To collect these eggs we walked many miles into the country, along the river bank. This was from the boat house (the Rowing Club), which had some champion crews, up to Biddick Bridge. One could not go down river as all the banks were in use for ship building and ship repair. Also Clarks was the fitting out berth where they checked that the ships were fit to go to sea. The Southwick Bridge was also a play area but you had to outwit the toll collector as you had to pay to cross from Deptford to Southwick.

Uncle Bob worked at Eagers shipyard as a riveter. We used to walk about two and a half miles with his dinner, a pot pie, in a basin tied in a big handkerchief. That is how I got to see the first rivets put into a ships plates. Beside the river we had the Boldon Flats where we used to collect frogs, frogs spawn (eggs) and spread them around the other ponds. Another place we walked to was a mining area near to Castletown. As its name indicates there was a castle there called Hylton Castle near to what we referred to as the “Dean by the Castle”. There was a small chapel in which we played after climbing the outer wall of the castle. We discovered that there was an arrow stuck in the wall, about half way up, and little statues on the turrets which looked like people in the dusk light. Also by the castle were large sand pits where we would collect the eggs from a Sand Piper, only one egg, for our collection. We wandered quite a distance from our homes without any fear, but if we were late home our outings were soon nipped in the bud – we were made to come in early from school.

Coal was a necessary fuel and the train lines from the Castletown pit ran just at the bottom of our street. There were 2 bridges and a bank side before they off-loaded at the depot. This meant they had to slow the trains right down and we had long wooden poles with which we could reach the loaded trucks. As the trucks slowed down we could push off any lumps hanging over the edge and then collect them once the train had moved off into the off loading areas, and then take it home for the fire. If you worked down the mine you were given a free load of coal. Uncle Bob would shovel this into a miners’ coal-house just down the road and payment, to Uncle Bob, was 4-6 buckets of the coal for his efforts.