That picture of little children half starved, half undressed, having to beg for crusts in THIS country in the twenties has haunted me ever since and been a constant nightmare, more so than some of the scenes of desolation I saw after military battles.
Stockton on Tees, on the north side of the river but a few miles higher upstream, perhaps six or seven miles following the winding course of the river, was in days gone by a more prosperous market town, or so it seemed. Lower down the river on the North side is Billingham which today is the working home of what was once Britain's largest industry, Imperial Chemical Industries Limited. It is past its best but it is still a huge industrial chemical conglomerate which is undoubtedly even to this day the biggest employer in the region (only possibly the National Health Service which reputedly is the county's biggest employer exceeds I.C.I. as an employer in the region.) Before I come to the point of this digression about ICI, let me tell you that this great industry was started by a Jewish man from Germany named Alfred Mond, and within my memory there was a Mond Division of ICI. For short ICI was locally called the 'Synthetic' The name no doubt derives from the fact that the brilliant chemists synthesised very common substances to produce something special, or they added nothing to nothing and got something. My sister Blanche worked in the ICI laboratories during the second world war years.
Now in the early twenties ICI was expanding rapidly, so land surrounding began to increase in value. So far as I can assume, no one knew exactly in which particular areas the expansion and construction of new plant would take place and so there was guesswork and speculation. My father and others thought that the area known as Haverton Hill further down river than Billingham would be the favoured area, because there were already ship building yards, and docking facilities there and some housing and shops. My father bought a row of houses and shops in Hope Street, and he was full of hope himself.
Another working man who had aspirations to be a business man called Thomas Malcolm, also bought property in Hope Street on the opposite side, an old church hall which he turned into a Billiards hall. Neither of them had their hopes realised because ICI developed more in the opposite direction and whilst Billingham became the little 'boom' town, Haverton Hill slowly declined. Tommy Malcolm wriggled out and was saved because for some reason the local council wanted his building, but my parents had to make the best of Hope Street. Rents of cottages in those days were three or four or perhaps even five shillings per week and the Landlord had to do all repairs and renovations to the satisfaction of the local authority. One shop was occupied by a butcher and he managed to make a living.
The shop on the corner however was empty and difficult to find a tenant, so there seemed to be no alternative than for mother to open the shop herself for the selling of drapery. Blanche tells me that the shop did make a few shillings a week, but the cost to my mother's health and strength far outweighed any profit. Mother had to get up early in the morning. She could take the tram right down to the Transporter Bridge for one penny. Descending from the tram she then paid the toll to be taken on the moving platform across the river. I do not know the exact price but it would have cost more than the tram ride, possibly twopence or even three. As I have already said, the river Tees is almost always a bitterly cold place, and riding on that draughty transporter could be like Scott's expedition to the North Pole. Descending on the North side, the Port Clarence side, there were buses either to West Hartlepool or to Billingham via Haverton Hill. The buses were not all that frequent, and it was cold to stand and patience was needed to wait. Furthermore the bus also cost money. In retrospect it might have been money well spent, but money in those days was counted in pennies, not pounds; hence the old adage 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'. So my mother invariably set off to walk the two miles or so to Hope Street, Haverton Hill, then stand on her feet all day in the shop and return by the same route. That walk from the Transporter to Haverton Hill is just about the coldest, most miserable, and smelliest hike imaginable. I know, because I often did it with mother when I was off school. Many years later in the fifties and after, ICI was willing to buy each and every house in that area that people wanted to sell just because of the injurious affection of the chemicals in the atmosphere. I know that for a fact also because I handled several such sales for various clients. What I have said is not the full story. According to Blanche, on days when the Transporter was out of action because of electrical breakdown, or the weather too fierce, my mother WALKED OVER THE TOP OF THE BRIDGE. This was permitted, at your own risk, but you still had to have a ticket. (obviously the authority did not want suicide attempts, so the ticket man looked carefully at everyone taking a ticket). I guess the pedestrian platform must be about two hundred feet or more above water level. The nearest I ever came was ascending the steps to about thirty feet and then coming down. I never had the guts to do it myself. I think I said very early on in the family story that the pity is that my mother's determination and will power far outstripped her physical strength, and she inevitably pushed herself beyond reasonable limits.
Another recollection of my early childhood at 276 Linthorpe Road was to go into the work-room (the front room on the upper floor) and try to entertain the tailoresses (and no doubt distract them from their sewing) by singing pop songs I had heard on the wireless, such as 'Don't I look like Harold Lloyd with my kid-caps on...' Harold Lloyd was an American comedian who wore big dark horn rimmed glasses. I remember the names of two of the tailoresses:- Ethel Shore and Doris Innes. They always gave me a half penny, probably more in the hope that I would go away than to encourage me. Mind you I am sure that they did not work on 'piece work'. Father paid them a proper weekly wage. Cutters and pressers were probably engaged on the basis of being paid so much for each garment processed, ie.'piece work'