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Family Of Four: 30 - Memories Of A Townie Lad

...Also in 1946, I recall eating a banana for the first time. One day at school, some pupils came back after dinner and asked the teacher if they could leave early because Baines, the local fruit shop, had received a delivery of bananas and were to start selling them at 4 p.m. Once the Headteacher found out, the whole school finished early, so we could go home, collect our ration books and get a good place in the queue...

Robert Owen remembers his school days - and the 11 plus eamination.

For earlier episodes of Robert's life story pleace click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

I remember the year 1946 for many other reasons. It was early in March when Bob Charlton came home from work one night and announced that Tom Bulmer had died. We didn't know who this was, so he went on to explain that Tom lived in Station Road, about half a mile away, and although he was originally a grocer, he had been secretary of Durham County Cricket Club for as long as he could remember. It was not until nearly fifty years later, when reading Bannister and Graveney's (1993) about Durham County Cricket Club, that I recalled this conversation. Tom Bulmer had practically run the Club for nearly forty years and was held in extremely high esteem throughout Durham County. A Memorial Fund was set up after his death and special seats were erected on grounds where the County played, together with a bronze tablet at the Ashbrooke Ground at Sunderland.

The weekend after Tom Bulmer's passing was also a tragic weekend in the history of English football. The tragedy happened at Burnden Park, Bolton, when over 70,000 spectators crowded into the old ground, for the Bolton versus Stoke City fifth round F.A. Cup encounter. Sir Stanley Matthews played in that match and describes in his autobiography (2000), 'the horrific experience, where 33 died and over 500 spectators were injured when barriers broke and thousands were crushed.' I remember the occasion because Newcastle didn't have a game that weekend, having already been knocked out of the Cup by Barnsley. Coincidentally, Bolton played at St James's Park the following week and in spite of the tragedy, I saw them beat the Magpies by four goals to three.

Also in 1946, I recall eating a banana for the first time. One day at school, some pupils came back after dinner and asked the teacher if they could leave early because Baines, the local fruit shop, had received a delivery of bananas and were to start selling them at 4 p.m. Once the Headteacher found out, the whole school finished early, so we could go home, collect our ration books and get a good place in the queue.

Educationally, 1946 was also a significant year. I took my 11 Plus Examination. The school leaving age - much to the disgust of many - had just been raised to 15 years. Many parents still wanted their offspring to leave school as soon as possible, as money was short and work was plentiful. At Fence Houses, success in the 11 Plus examination meant going on to Houghton Grammar School instead of the Secondary School just across the playground, and staying on for at least an extra year. The feelings of several parents were evidenced when they refused to pay a small voluntary fee for practice examination papers that could be obtained by the Headteacher.

A different philosophy was demonstrated by John Charlton's aunt and uncle. He had now lived with them for over four years and, as they had no children of their own, they became very attached and ambitious for him. This was reflected in the fact that during the six months before the examination, they paid for John to receive private tuition from a retired Headteacher. This investment in education seemed to work because in the final year at junior school, he came out top of the class. A girl called Audrey was second and I came third.

The 11 Plus examination was compulsory and consisted of two parts, the preliminary and the final. The preliminary consisted of basic mathematics and English and the final included intelligence and verbal reasoning tests. Perhaps in order to minimise any mass disappointment, we were told in advance by the teachers, not to expect too many passes. Much to everybody's surprise, several pupils including myself, passed the preliminary. A few weeks later we all got a shock at the much harder final exam. Only three pupils were successful, Audrey Marley and John Iveson from Woodstone Terrace, and John Charlton - Bob's son.

The unexpected news about John went round the village very quickly. People were both surprised and pleased. Bob, Jack and Annie Charlton were delighted and made arrangements for John to be rewarded with a new bike. My mother was glad about his success and not too worried about my failure. However, after John had 'proved himself' - to use Bob Charlton's words, I remember very harsh words being said about our respective academic abilities. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had passed for the Grammar School. It would have been a major decision for my mother. In truth, she was not convinced of the value of education and she wanted me out working and earning money as soon as possible. Little did we know however, that other dramatic things were to happen before the start of the next school year.

While we were at Fence Houses, my mother very wisely did not give up her house in South Shields. Addie continued to live at Reed Street and pay the rent while working at the Ingham Infirmary and then Harton Dyeworks. During this time, she met Dennis Hooper, who was in the Royal Navy. He came from Birmingham and after the war when he was demobbed, she also moved to the Midlands. They married and bought a semidetached house at Stechford on the outskirts of the city.

Throughout our time at Fence Houses, Bob Charlton and my mother had, as far as I was aware, an informal working relationship. True, they went out together, but this was usually with John and me and as my mother did not drink, she never accompanied him into a public house. He was undoubtedly looking for a wife and he must have discussed a more permanent relationship with my mother, because I remember her asking me once if I would like to live permanently at Fence Houses.

Although about the same age, they were not two of a kind. Also, my mother had been severely scarred by my father's behaviour. In her own words, she was 'finished with men - they were two a penny.' She must have made Bob Charlton aware of her intention because in the summer of 1946, he met someone else. She was a widow called Jenny Richardson, who lived in Brandon Colliery, the far side of Durham. I remember the heated discussion that took place, when he said he was going to bring Jenny to see his home at Finchale Terrace. My mother said, "That's fine, but just give me time to leave." As a result, we left Fence Houses and returned to South Shields very quickly in August 1946. Fortunately for me, it was during the school holidays. Once we had left, Bob and Jenny did not waste any time. They were married at St Barnabus Church, Burnmoor on 28th September 1946.

How John got on at Grammar School, I don't know, but he married a girl from Birtley in 1961 when he was working as a fitter-turner at a local ordnance factory. They lived in Chester-le-Street and had a baby girl the following year. Tragically, John died many years too soon in 1974 - two years before his father.

I was very sorry to leave Fence Houses and I look back at that period of my life with much nostalgia. A great deal had been learnt out of school, perhaps more than would have been learnt in the more urban environment of South Shields. I was greatly indebted to Bob Charlton. Unknowingly, he brought a period of relative stability into my life after the turbulent prewar years. He taught me many things and unknown to me at the time, he was the nearest I was ever to experience as a father.

I had also made many new friends whom I was very sorry to leave. In addition to John Charlton, who for four years was like a half-brother to me, there was Barry Gilhespy and Eddie Davis. Barry was like me - a townie and a wartime newcomer. His mother brought him and his younger brother Neil to live with his grandparents at 23 Finchale Terrace, while his father was in the army. Thankfully, his father returned safely after the war, but then took his family away to live at Worthing in Sussex. Barry left his address and I wrote to him, but never got a reply.

Eddie was different again, a local lad who did not like sports but enjoyed music and was learning to play the trumpet. My mother called him my 'musical friend' and secretly hoped some of his artistic ability might rub off on me. In the tradition of the time, both used to come calling on me by standing in the back yard and shouting ROBERT!

I also recall Walton Ramshaw and his brother Joe who lived next door; Brian Hartis, whose red-haired uncle kept wicket for Burnmoor; Tom Hall, who claimed to be related to Charlie Wayman, the Newcastle United footballer; Geoff Tindale, whose parents had a butcher's shop in Gill Crescent and a long connection with Burnmoor Cricket Club; Ken Bamborough lived in Briarwood Street and Jack Harland, Fred Foster and brothers Raymond and Norman Bolton in High Row; Derek Glendenning - a good footballer - who lived over the railway crossing in Wood Row. Then there were John and Alf Brown. I don't remember if they were related but one of their families usually had a reserved upstairs front seat at the local Palace cinema. I also recall someone called Mallerburn from Bank Head, Jefferson from Lambton and John Ivison from Woodstone Terrace. Memories of a Townie Lad!

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