My grandfather Bernard Robertson was born on August 4, 1884 at 7, Wilson Street, Newcastle, the fifth of eight children.
His birth was registered four days afterwards by his mother Mary Mitchell. She was from all accounts a very remarkable person by present day standards but I suppose in those days not so much out of the ordinary. Remarkable in remaining respectable and bringing up family in difficulties.
His father was James Henry Robertson who was grandly described on the birth certificate, in the column rank or profession of father as “house painter”, confirmed by the census.
My grandfather told my dad they were so poor he was sent out to sell blacking on the street. He never discovered the underlying finances of this but he supposed the blacking was black lead with which the range was polished.
My grandfather’s elder brother Tom apparently worked on the trams at Newcastle. The census shows him as a coach trimmer. He eventually decided to go and seek his fortune in Canada, where he ended up in Vancouver as a cook. My dad didn’t think there was much love lost between the brothers – probably because Tom went off and left his father with the responsibility of the family.
When my grandfather was 14 he entered into an agreement, which we still have, with Messrs Frederick William Dutton and David Keene Johnson ‘carrying on the profession of Solicitors under the style of Dutton Son and Johnson’ to serve as a writing clerk for five years. His salary was five shillings a week for the first year, moving up to 15 shillings during his “fifth and last year”.
In a momentous step my grandfather set off in the legal profession. My dad was sure he had no ideals at that time above becoming an experienced
and well-paid solicitor’s clerk. On September19, 1903, my grandfather wrote to Messrs Hollinshead and Moody Sols, Tunstall, in answer to an advertisement in The Sentinel.
Years later he received a gold, inscribed clock from the directors.
He said he was a competent shorthand writer and typist and could ‘draw an ordinary draft’. He got the job, became a partner and stayed there until he died.
I suppose nowadays it would be considered unadventurous to have two jobs from 14 to death at the age of 73, but he found his work very satisfying and remained, until the end, ‘a competent shorthand writer …. and able to draw an ordinary draft’. I still have the brass plate with the three names on it.
However, when my grandfather became senior partner he refused to have a partnership agreement so he could do what he liked.
On February 9, 1921, my grandfather entered into articles with Henry Edward Moody. My dad was never sure what preceded this. My grandfather had apparently been with Hollinshead & Moody since October 1903 and had no doubt discharged his duties well.
He had become Henry Moody’s right-hand man and I think he had given my grandfather an ultimatum that if he did not get qualified he would take someone else into the partnership (or sell the practice?).
By all accounts my grandfather was reluctant to undertake the necessary spare time study.
This, I think, is understandable. He had left school by 14 to go to Dutton Son & Johnson. His formal education must have been very sketchy.
There is a draft of a memorial from my grandfather to the Master of the Rolls ‘praying that the latter will give him a dispensation from taking the Preliminary Examination (of the Law Society) before entering Articles’.
However, my grandfather finally took the finals in 1923, passed, and was admitted.
It may be that he was not exempted from the preliminary examination because there exists a University of Cambridge External Certificate for Junior Students (he was 36) dated 1920 and he satisfied the examiners in dictation and arithmetic – which were compulsory – and religious knowledge, English language and literature, history, geometry and bookkeeping and shorthand.
Reflecting on what my grandfather accomplished, my dad says: “I would not have wished at the age of 36 to attempt such an examination – all the work to be done in spare time
which was much less than we get now.
“My father’s writing was better then than in later life but he learned shorthand which he never forgot and which I think was very useful to him.”
For some years my grandfather lived away from home at Whitmore, where he became friendly with Joe Cheadle the local blacksmith who was also a poet and who lived, when my dad was a boy, in the lodge at the end of the drive at Whitmore Hall.
Joe’s poems were put to music by the composer Challoner (a copy of which I have). Apparently, there is a tree in Whitmore churchyard dedicated to him, or so we were told when we went around Whitmore Hall.
My grandfather living away from home was to preserve at least some harmony at home because he couldn’t get on with his own father and probably didn’t return home until his father died.
Living in Whitmore, which is about four miles out of Newcastle, and Tunstall, the offices of Hollinshead and Moody were about a further six miles the other side of Newcastle.
There were no buses in those days but my grandfather was a great cyclist. He had a bicycle made for him, which my dad remembered and regretted ever parting with. It was a Triumph bicycle and was advanced in that it had cable brakes with the cables in the handlebars with the L-shaped brake handles pivoted to the ends of the handlebars.
I think Joe Cheadle was one of grandfather’s cycling companions and they used to cycle off to Wales and do touring distances which would make most of us quail.
He had very long legs although he was not very tall and this is why the bicycle was made for him – he wanted a long frame.
At some stage later he went by motorcycle, with stories of belt-drive Indian motorcycles with slipping belts up Porthill Bank which is quite steep.
My grandfather had fond memories of Whitmore all his life and when the family went to church – which was not often – they went to Whitmore.
They also used to patronise the Mainwaring Arms, which was just outside the church gate.
It also seems that my grandfather was at some time the secretary of the Mainwaring Arms Bowling Club because in 1930 they gave him a pen stand with a gold plate (which I still have).
At some point my grandfather became friendly with Barnett Stross. I am not clear when or how, but I think it was in his role as solicitor for miners and compensation for health issues. I believe ‘Bob’ Stross was a sort of godfather to my dad. Stross was a great patron of the arts and supported artists in the north west. My grandfather acquired works by Rowley Smart, some of which, following my dad’s death, we have donated to the Stross Collection at Keele University.
My grandmother had an equally hard, if not harder, early life than my grandfather, but a
bit more romantic. Or perhaps she romanticised it a bit more.
Her father was a warehouseman at Minton’s and earned 30 shillings a week on which to bring up 10 children.
She was the youngest and her mother died when she was four. She could remember two things. Being held in her mother’s arms looking at the stars and her mother in her coffin with a branch of lilies of the valley.
They lived in Vale Street in Stoke – now more or less waste – and my great aunts Elizabeth and Jane (Liz and Jin) kept a shop in Shelton Old Road, now demolished.
The shop was there when I was a child and dad went to it and even after the old ladies had left it was still there – they sold groceries and sweets – we still have the shop toffee hammer and yardstick.
After the death of her mother my grandmother went to live with her aunts and there she stayed until she married.
They had no electricity, only candles – and an outside privy. Both aunts lived a hard life, but my grandmother was very fond of them. In his journals my dad wrote: “My mother went to work at Hughes and Harber, the stationer’s and printers, near Stoke Town Hall.
“Later she worked in the Treasurer’s Department at the Town Hall for Thomas Thompson (TT) who later became my uncle by marrying, as his second wife, one of my father’s sisters – rather late in life.
“They seemed to have had a good time in the Treasurer’s Department. There is a photograph of a fancy dress or waxworks tableau with TT in admiral’s or similar uniform – must be admiral because he wore his hat fore and aft and not athwart ships as he might have had he been a general.
“There are tales of parties in the vaults at Christmas. The pace was reasonably leisurely and although they didn’t have two pennies to rub together, my mother seemed to enjoy her early life.
Indeed, I think she enjoyed all her life – after settling down with my father, which I gather was not easy – she had a very happy married life and was desolated when he died.”