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Two Rooms And A View: 8 - Walking Out

When Robert Owen was three years old his unemplyed father packed a suitcase and, without a word, walked out of the family home on Tyneside. Robert's mother then had to learn quickly to stand up for herself.

...One of the first to hear the power of her tongue was the Magistrate's Clerk at the local court when she went for help and advice.

"Come back next week!" he suggested.

"We might be dead next week - we have no money NOW!" was my mother's sharp reply...

To read earlier chapters of Robert's life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

The Owen family in Southey Street during the early months of 1939 existed in a tense, unhappy environment.

As the war threatened, my father was still without a job but somehow found sufficient money to go out at nights, while his wife tried to 'make scarce ends meet' and look after a boisterous three-year-old. I am told that arguments were frequent, then one morning the tension finally broke.

While his wife was out in the back yard doing the weekly wash, Jimmy Owen packed a suitcase and without a word, walked out, never to return. Looking back and seeking reasons for his behaviour it's possible that the problems of continued unemployment, the unsuccessful moves to London and Wallsend and back, and the birth of a son after being without children for so long, may have contributed to his radical action.

Whatever the reason, his 'walking out' was seen as inexcusable by the extended family. They were enraged that anyone could leave a near-destitute wife with a three-year-old child. A few weeks later, the reason for my father's behaviour became apparent. It was another woman. Her name was Annie Lamb - a mysterious lady. Nobody knew where she lived, if she was married, or how long my father had known her. What is known is that the couple stayed in Shields only for a short while before moving to London.

Nineteen thirty-eight was only ten years before the start of the Welfare State, but in pragmatic terms, it might as well have been a hundred. There was no child allowance, income support, housing benefits or acceptance of single parents. Society looked upon women as second class citizens and a woman with a small child and no husband was looked upon as even more inferior. This was now my mother. The infamous means test also applied to anyone who could not provide for themselves and their family. This again included my mother because she had no savings and the only income was what my twenty-year- old sister brought home while working in the laundry at the town's Ingham Infirmary.

My father's action however made my mother, perhaps for the first time, stand on her own feet. Members of the family said from that date, she was a changed woman. She was frightened of no one and said what she thought to anybody, immaterial of position or authority. One of the first to hear the power of her tongue was the Magistrate's Clerk at the local court when she went for help and advice.

"Come back next week!" he suggested.

"We might be dead next week - we have no money NOW!" was my mother's sharp reply.

She learnt quickly and got some immediate action. The next day, she attended court and got a mandatory maintenance order made out against her husband. This was established at a level of 1.10.Od (1.50p) per week. She was informed that it was fixed at that low level because Addie was working and expected to contribute to the family's expenditure.

It is interesting to recall that this level of maintenance remained unchanged until my father retired seventeen years later. This was in spite of massive inflation and my sister leaving home after a few years.

The main problem however, was that my father was unemployed and whatever the level of maintenance, he could not pay. The Magistrate's Clerk advised an immediate visit to the Public Assistance Committee - P.A.C. (also known as the Guardians) where an application for emergency help or 'relief'could be made. When we got to the P.A.C. office all we got was an appointment for the next day.

The following day, with me by her side, we met the infamous Public Assistance Committee. I'm told it consisted of a number of well-dressed older men sitting around a large table and smoking cigars. They asked many searching and embarrassing questions. My mother called it an inquisition and was highly annoyed because they implied that it was her fault that my father had walked out.

The outcome was that we got some immediate financial help, or relief, subject to 'standard conditions' and 'confirmation of our circumstances'. These conditions involved somebody calling at our house in Southey Street a few days later, to verify that she was telling the truth. Failing to find anything untrue during his visit, the P.A.C. official confirmed the level of maintenance that would be available.

This was set at such a meagre level there was no chance of us staying in our three rooms and scullery at Southey Street. We were on the move again!

It was not the P.A.C. that saved us from starvation during those very dark days of 1939, but the generosity of my mother's parents, relatives and friends. Disgusted by my father leaving his wife and a three-year-old son, they came to our rescue with money, clothes and food.

My grandparents were particularly helpful. Grandfather Chapman had worked at Harton Colliery for nearly fifty years. During this time he and his wife had experienced continually low wages, terrible conditions, a World War which had claimed a son, numerous strikes and lock-outs and a massive economic depression, yet they had still managed to save for their retirement and emergencies. Like most families of that generation, they had no bank account. Their saved money was hidden throughout the house. Some of it came out of hiding in 1939 to help their distraught daughter. Many years later, I was told to say nothing about this in case the P.A.C. found out.

The Owen family at this unfortunate time were very noticeable by their absence. My paternal grandparents had died before I was born, but I was told that with my father's departure, the rest of the Owen family also seemed to disappear. This meant that I never knew most of my aunts, uncles and numerous cousins on my father's side.

The two exceptions to this were my Uncle John Connell, my father's older brother, and my cousin Edith Falconer (nee Bainbridge) the daughter of Caroline, my father's sister.

Uncle John Connell Owen married Jane Thompson rather late in life. It was her second marriage and she already had four children. She bore the same Christian and surname as her new, but long-dead grandmother who married John Connell -the Master Mariner in 1856 and after whom her husband was named following his tragic death in 1882. Was this a coincidence or was the twentieth-century Jane Thompson related to her former nineteenth-century grandmother by the same name?

Whatever the relationship, my mother and my Uncle John and Aunt Jenny (as she was now called) got on very well. They lived in the Deans part of Prince Edward Road - now West Way - and I met them one evening a few years later. I think it was at Chichester where my mother stopped to talk to somebody and said, "This is your Uncle John and Aunt Jenny." I remember it because he took a handful of change out of his pocket and said, "Take yourself a three-penny bit Robert." It was only later that I found out he had failing eyesight.

My cousin, Edith Falconer was also a good friend to my mother. She visited us after my father left and kept in contact with the family for the next thirty years.

Given the indirect notice to quit Southey Street by the P.A.C., we had to find a new residence at a cheaper rent to suit our much-reduced income. The older and poorer houses in South Shields have always hugged the river side, with the slightly better accommodation being found on the higher ground. We had already made the one mile move down Stanhope Road to Southey Street. Our next move was down the very steep Reed Street bank to within about 600 yards of the river and its many shipyards and factories. It was there my mother had found a suitable flat, which satisfied our financial restraints.

A few days later, our meagre belongings were loaded onto a horse-drawn cart, which transported us to our new abode. This was my fourth move and I was just four years of age. As we walked with the horse and cart and the removal men down Laygate Lane to escape the steep incline at the top of Reed Street, my mother remarked, "Another move and we will be in the river!"

The removal men were very likely two unemployed locals who had hired the horse and cart from Hanratty's, who ran a very successful rag, bone and hire business from a large yard near High Shields station. He also hired all sizes of wheelbarrows out by the hour and they were much in demand. We were to be frequent users of his services during the coming years.

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