Fish, Spratts, Barbed Wire & Trikes

During the war years my mother used to  make a trip to Sunderland by train and visit her Aunts Cissie and Sally and then her Mother-in – Law, Esther (nee Hopps) at Wingate, a pit village just a few miles away. On the other hand most places in that part of Co. Durham were colliery villages, the area was riddled with them.

We started the journey from Leeds Central Station and I have a memory of the always pungent smell of fish as we stood on the platform. In those days fish was transported around the country by train from the fishing ports and was no doubt in wartime an important source of protein.

Spratts were not a fish with one “t” but large adverts in the station for dog food. There were other adverts such as Wills Wild Woodbine cigarettes and chocolate that was no longer available. Indeed, there were chocolate vending machines – much to my disappointment – out of use for many years.

The journey took many hours, the train constantly stopping for long periods of time possibly due to air raid warnings or to make way for higher priority traffic. When we eventually got there we stayed with Aunt Cissie who lived in the Fulwell area of Sunderland. In the war years I have a memory of her husband, Ted, sitting in his leather armchair by the fire drumming his fingers on the arm.

Aunt Cissie was my great aunt, a sister of Gran. At that time early on Gran still rented a house in Sunderland , Lee Street. I remember a large aspidistra when we visited. I suppose it’s possible we stayed there in the early days but I don’t remember that. You see memories that old need to have a good reason to stay imprinted on the mind and the reason I remember staying at Aunt Cissie’s many times over the years was because just a road’s width from her front door was the main railway line from Sunderland to Newcastle. I became a railway buff at an early age.

Aunt Sally was another sister of Grans – or should I say half sister – who lived in Sunderland. I only remember visiting once in the war years when her husband Jim was hand led across the room and to my astonishment naked from the waste down past a room full of people. I think he might have died from bowel cancer and loss of dignity.

Sally had a daughter called Sadie who must have been in her early twenties. Sadly she died of tuberculosis near or just after the war end but I do remember her taking me to Roker Park navigating past the many railway bridges which were bricked up and festooned with barbed wire in case of invasion. In those days a town like Sunderland was crisscrossed by railway lines because of coal and shipbuilding so there were quite a few blocked bridges.

There was always a trip to Wingate on the maroon single decker bus which seemed to take forever to me. I don’t think my grandmother had prior knowledge of a visit but she always produced tea and cake. My fathers brother John lived with his mother. He was ten years older than my father and hadn’t been called up because he was a coal miner, a reserved occupation. They lived in the family home where my father grew up. There was always a fire in the one downstairs room – a cooking range  fueled by the free coal available to miners.

Eventually Uncle John used to appear from the pit totally blacked up with the coal dust – no washing facilities at the pit in those days. He greeted us with a huge booming voice and then went off to clean up. After that I accompanied him down the garden as he tended to his pigeons and his tomatoes growing in a coal fire heated greenhouse.

All too soon we had to leave on the maroon bus back to Sunderland.

My maternal grandfather,  Lawrence Copeland used to turn up once a year  He and Gran were separated and had been for some time. They were always at loggerheads when they met up and Mother always sided with Gran.

My memory is of him turning up on his motorbike but I don’t know if that happened during the war due to petrol rationing but he certainly visited from Cleethorpes at some point possibly by train. I don’t have a memory of him visiting during the war or where he stayed but he wouldn’t have stayed away for five years that’s for sure. I do, however, remember my uncle George, mothers half brother. He was in the REME and I remember him dressed in his uniform and playing his accordion at the Roberts Avenue house. That was the snapshot I have in my mind. Sadly he was killed by a V1 flying bomb whilst at a camp at Ashford, Kent in June 1944 in preparation for the Normandy landings.

Grandfather Lawrence ran a second hand shop and also repaired and sold sewing machines. Sometime when I was about the age of five he turned up with a kid’s tricycle which means he must have come on the train. I got a lot of use out of that.

I remember riding the trike in a distressed state up and down Harehills Lane because I didn’t know where they were and it was getting late. It seems that sometimes my mother would meet up with my father in town when the shop closed and they would drink in The Golden Cock and that was where they were, unconcerned for the five, six year old alien child, home alone.

I said earlier that it doesn’t get any better – I find their attitude appalling even if I make allowances for earlier times. Lets face it the uncaring was personal, just five years later when the other one was born everything was different for him but not for me. I was not to get any help from them whatsoever in later life, he got everything. More about that later.



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