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Two Rooms And A View: 22- A Townie In A Mining Village

...Bob Charlton - I always called him Mr Charlton - was about the same age as my mother and of the build expected of a colliery blacksmith - tall, thick-set, muscular and strong. Time would tell that he was also kind, patient and instructive. His allotment was his main leisure activity. He smoked a pipe, was a Newcastle United supporter and enjoyed a weekend drink and a bet on the horses...

Robert Owen, continuing his vivid life story, tells of a time in a County Durham mining village when his mother became housekeeper to a pit blacksmith.

For earlier chapters of Robert's engaging autobiography please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on his page.

Fence Houses is situated about 15 miles from South Shields and located mid-way between Chester-le-Street and Houghton-le-Spring. The village is said to have been named after a group of miners from Lady Anne's Colliery, who came to live near the Biddick Fence, which originally divided the land from the next village of Burnmoor.

Fence Houses in 1942 consisted of a colliery, several streets of houses, a railway station, a cinema, a post office, a number of shops and a well-used Miners' Welfare Institute. At the Houghton-le-Spring end of the village was L.N.E.R. Sunderland to Durham railway.

About half a mile distant at the other end of the village, was the hamlet of Sixth Pit, also known as Woodstone Village. Here at the crossroads was the busy colliery with its coal-infested railway crossing and three streets of houses. One of these streets headed south to Finchale Abbey and was appropriately named Finchale Terrace. It was here that Bob Charlton and his family lived.

Bob was born at the Charles Pit Houses in Cocken Lane near Lumley in 1899. I believe his parents Robert and Dorothy and brothers Tom and John William moved to Finchale Terrace when the property was built during the early years of the twentieth century.

Nothing much is known of Bob's early years, except that he served his apprenticeship at the local colliery as a blacksmith. On the 6th February, 1926, he married a Mary Elizabeth Sherben of Engine Row, New Lambton at the Chester-le-Street Register Office. Not long after, their first child was born and he was also named Robert.

Bob's parents passed away during the 1930's. Bob senior had worked as a Coal Hewer for most of his fifty years in the pit. Evidencing his fatiguing life, the principle cause of his demise on his death certificate read, 'Exhaustion'. After his parents' passing, Bob junior and Mary took over the tenancy of the colliery house. Their second child named John Shields was born on 29th July 1935.

Each of the births caused Mary much pain and distress. When she found she was pregnant again at 43 years of age, she feared the consequences. Her fear seems to have been fully justified because, following the birth of her baby Betty in early 1942, both mother and baby died in Chester-le-Street Isolation Hospital.

Bob was absolutely devastated. By then his older son Robert (known as Bobbie) was an apprentice electrician at, where else but the local colliery. His younger son John, however, was not yet seven years of age and needed someone to look after him. Bob's older brother Jack and his wife Annie came to the rescue. They were childless and only lived about 400 yards away in Pinewood Street. Bob was pleased to accept their offer to have John to live with them.

It was, however, Bob and his oldest son Bobbie who missed Mary the most. The expected woman's tasks of shopping, cooking of meals, washing of clothes and cleaning the house, still needed to be done. Relatives, friends and neighbours helped but what he really needed was a live-in housekeeper. A carefully worded advert in the Evening Chronicle proved unsuccessful, but a few weeks later, Bob was pleased to see, under the 'Situations Wanted' column of the same paper, that a lady required a 'live-in' housekeeper's post where a child was not objected to'.

He replied in haste, but was disappointed not to get an early reply. It was several weeks later that an envelope arrived from a lady in South Shields. She seemed suitable and interested and her son was the same age as John so Bob invited her to Fence Houses the following weekend. They seemed very compatible and he was delighted when she agreed to start in a week's time.

Her name was Mabel Owen, So, leaving Addie in the Spring of 1942 in charge of our two rooms and a view property in South Shields, and equipped with two cases, my mother and I departed for Fence Houses.

The journey took about two hours. First we got the bus to Sunderland and then the Consett bus from the Park Lane bus station.

The journey was an education to me as we passed such places as Whitburn, Seaburn, Penshaw, Shiney Row and Burnmoor before arriving at Lumley Sixth Pit and walking up Finchale Terrace for the first time. Waiting to welcome us at number 19, amazingly the same number as our flat at Shields, was Bob Charlton and his two sons Bobbie and John.

Bob Charlton - I always called him Mr Charlton - was about the same age as my mother and of the build expected of a colliery blacksmith - tall, thick-set, muscular and strong. Time would tell that he was also kind, patient and instructive. His allotment was his main leisure activity. He smoked a pipe, was a Newcastle United supporter and enjoyed a weekend drink and a bet on the horses.

Shortly after we arrived, Bobbie left the house saying he was 'going to the Welfare'. We soon discovered this was the local Miner's Institute where he spent most of his leisure time. John was a likeable lad and within an hour of arriving, took me to the local 'rec' (recreation field) to meet his friends. Much to my surprise, I found they spoke a slightly different language compared to South Shields. They said, 'thou' and 'thine' instead of 'you' and 'yours'

Our arrival caused a minor problem in the house as we now had three males with the same Christian name. The outcome was Bob Charlton would continue to be known as Bob, his son as Bobbie, and I was to retain the more formal Robert. The following lyric which Bob taught me much later seemed very appropriate.

Wor Bob says to your Bob,
If your Bob doesn't give wor Bob,
That bob which your Bob owes wor Bob
Wor Bob will give your Bob - a bob in the eye
(A bob was a shilling (5p) in 'old money')

The house was a vast improvement compared to our two rooms and a view, but nothing compared to the luxury we had recently experienced during my mother's last job near the Readhead Park in South Shields. It was a colliery terrace house, upstairs and down with a small garden at the front and a large yard at the rear. The downstairs contained two large rooms and a scullery. Upstairs there were two equally large rooms.

The back yard was not shared with anyone and had an outside toilet and large coal house that had a capacity for a ton of coal. Being a miner's house, a large quantity of coal was delivered outside in the back lane every four weeks. Unknown to me at the time, I was to help to 'bucket' this coal into the coalhouse many times during the coming years.

The large downstairs room nearest to the kitchen/scullery was used as a living room where the focal point was undoubtedly the large black fireplace. This consisted of a large oven with a drop-down door at one side and an open access hot water boiler at the other. As a child, I always had my doubts about Santa Claus. These doubts were confirmed when I found out that the fire was never allowed to go out. At Reed Street, we didn't have enough coal: here they had too much!

In the centre of the living room, was a large table covered with a thick green cloth. This was only removed for Sunday lunch. Other meals were taken on a smaller, oil-clothed table in front of the window. The room was also significant for Bob Charlton's throne-like smoking chair, which nobody else dared use. There was also a sideboard full of his gardening books. My mother and I slept in the other front room and Bob and Bobbie Charlton slept upstairs.

The large scullery, which included a pantry and a gas cooker, was more like an indoor wash-house, with a sink and a coal-fired boiler for wash days.

Just like Reed Street, we soon discovered that the house had other occupants. This time it was not mice, but cockroaches or beetles as we called them. They were huge and came out as soon as the kitchen or living room was in darkness. The worst part was coming in on a dark night, switching the light on and watching them run for cover. At my mother's insistence, Bob Charlton bought some powder which helped to reduce the number of our unwelcome visitors.

As time went on, it turned out that the title of Housekeeper was a grand title for my mother's ordinary job. She cooked all the meals, cleaned the house, washed the clothes as well as managing the household's income and expenditure and doing the shopping. For all this she received a small wage, payment being mainly free board and lodging for herself and me.

I remember my mother used to listen regularly to Music While you Work, which was broadcast for 30 minutes, twice a day at 10.30 a.m. and at 3.00 p.m. She used to get so annoyed by the title of this programme and say, "I wonder what the BBC think women do for the rest of the day?"

Sleeping in the front room, I remember being awakened early every morning, not this time by dockers' boots, but by a regular bus service going up and down Finchale Terrace. I was told this was 'Hunter's Old Bus' that passed every twenty minutes going to and from Lumley. Being a light sleeper was something I was to experience for the rest of my life.

I quickly found out I was the main messenger while living at Finchale Terrace. Bobbie Charlton was a heavy smoker and most errands were at the shop at the bottom of the street to get him some cigarettes. Also, once a week, it was to the Meadow Grocery shop opposite the cinema to help with the weekly purchases. Then every Saturday, I had to take the football coupons and betting slips to the local bookie who lived in Wood Row.

We soon settled into living at Fence Houses and as far as the war was concerned the fifteen miles from South Shields made all the difference. We heard an occasional siren alert as a few German bombers flew overhead, bound for more interesting targets.

Having failed to bomb Britain into submission, the German strategy during 1942/43, turned to attempting to starve the country to defeat, by their U-Boats sinking millions of tons of allied merchant shipping heading for British ports. During the resultant fierce Battle of the Atlantic, allied convoy escort vessels, now fitted with radar and other anti-submarine technology, eventually made German U-boat attacks on convoys, too hazardous to be attempted.

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