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Maurice Legg

Chapter 2 - My early life 1926-1931

 

I was born in Langley Park in Co Durham on the 12th June 1926. My father was 31, my mother 28 years of age. I was the younger of two brothers; my elder brother John was born in April 1925. Like 99% of our contemporaries we were delivered by the midwife in the upstairs bedroom without the benefit of doctors, hospitals or the NHS. Our house was owned by the railway company and had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and an outside “dry” toilet. There was a large railway embankment some 20 yards high on one side of the house and a road on the other and the house was sandwiched in the middle. In those days there was very little traffic on either the railway or the road otherwise the noise would have been intolerable. What noise there was stopped at around 7pm, as did all outside life as far as I was aware!

           

My father was a signalman on the railway. He was born in Whitby in 1896. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had been railway engine drivers and, since my grandfather was driving in the 1850’s, he may well have driven the original Rocket on the first railway - the Stockton and Darlington Railway. I have all of their birth certificates but sadly never did find out definitively about my great grandfather. Interestingly he was born out of wedlock which was not so uncommon in those days. It is back in fashion!

 

My father left school at 12 and had tried to fight the inevitable conclusion that he would also work on the railway. He was apprenticed into the local newspaper, the Whitby Gazette. In those days apprenticeship meant being the general dogsbody for penny wages and although he loved his work he succumbed to pressure to “get a man’s job”. By then he’d taught himself shorthand, a skill which he retained all his life. Inevitably he finished up on the railway and spent some years as a greaser. He never talked of that in later life – indeed what is there to talk about -so I don’t quite know how he climbed up the ladder to become a signalman.

 

However by the time he was 28 or so he’d left Whitby, a feat comparable these days to emigrating overseas from Britain, and was lodging with a Mrs Eyre in Ryhope. My mother Mabel Williams was a Nurse at the local Ryhope Mental Home and they met and married in 1924. Mabel was one of seven children. Her father, Thomas, was a miner who had been promoted over the years to be a Deputy which, so far as I was able to discover, was the foreman of a shift of miners at the coal face and he had worked down the pit all his life. When I knew him, he was a pillar of the local non-conformist church, the primitive Methodists, which he helped to found and was their President. He was also a preacher, a local councillor, a governor of a hospital, and a member of the 1912 Strike committee. Proudly he had the PLEDGE hanging on the wall so maybe he had sinned in the past. If he had he kept it well hidden and I found him quite terrifying. He and my grandmother were from Wales and when coal was discovered in Durham my grandfather went ahead to seek work and my grandmother followed with all of their worldly goods and possibly some children pushing a perambulator. My grandmother painted roses on Wedgewood china which no doubt demonstrates the artistic gene in our family. (ha-ha).

 

My uncle David was the second oldest child and by a strange coincidence was well known to my own family. He had attempted to escape his background and the evil of working “down the pit” and had come to Parkside School in Cobham, Surrey as a caretaker and had worked there for some months. It was paradise for him as he told us when he came to stay with us in Stoke d’Abernon and rediscovered Parkside by pure chance. He stayed with us for a week so we all got to know him.  However he had left his girlfriend Polly behind in Seaham and she prevailed upon him to come back to Seaham and marry her. She wasn’t pregnant either and I wonder what other reason could have persuaded him to go back to the smoke and grime of the colliery where a typical day would be to go 300 feet into the bowels of the earth, crawl to the coal face under the North Sea and then lie down in a coal seam wet, generally 3 feet deep and hew coal while stripped to the waist. They were paid by the barrow load of coal and if there were stones found in the barrow they would be denied payment for the whole barrowful. Compared to this, a caretaker’s job must indeed have been heaven nevertheless he gave it up – such is the power of love.

 

The day I was born, the 12th June 1926, my father was on strike in the so-called Grand Strike. This was no strike for higher wages! Those days the boot was on the other foot. The miners were told by the mine owners that they must either accept a lowering of their wages or face dismissal. As unemployment was high, many miners accepted this – it was that or the dole which was then 50d per week. On May 1st, when the miner’s leaders insisted that there should be no further reduction of wages in the industry, the whole workforce was locked out by the owners. In sympathy with the miners, the Trade Union Congress – the TUC - called a general strike on May 3rd. The country ground to a halt so dramatically that the TUC, faced with economic catastrophe, called off the strike on May 12th. The unofficial coal strike went on for most of the summer and finally the miners had to accept defeat and work for lower wages. Gertrude Bell, a member of the Bloomsbury group and a famous  snob, commented that (for her!) “The world seems to go on just the same – Ascot and parties are all what I read of in the Times”.

 

This is for me an attempt to characterise the life that I was born into rather than to set the baseline for a rags – to - riches story. In fact I was lucky in that my parents were nice, kind people whose first thought were for the welfare of my brother and I, and we were insulated and unaware of the terrible conditions of a typical working class existence at that time.

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