Uncle Bob was always a mystery. As a toddler struggling to make sense of the world, as a reasonably bright youngster, as a teenager who knew everything, as a novice family historian, and as a seasoned researcher, I could never quite figure Bob out. Just as I thought I’d figured something out, a new mystery popped up, thumbed its nose at me and sneered.
I first met Bob when I was very young. At weekends I often stayed at my gran’s house at High Spen, and occasionally, on a Saturday, she’d visit her sister who I knew as “Aunt Lizzie”. Lizzie lived at Denton Burn, so the journey there was an exciting one. A Venture bus from High Spen took us to Newcastle – nothing special about that – but we then took a tram (I am dating myself) up Westgate Hill and the West Road to the terminus at Denton Burn, a marvellous experience. Finally a very short walk took us to Lizzie’s place on Wharmlands Road. Unfortunately the trams were soon replaced by trolley buses, which, though still exciting, didn’t have quite the character of the wonderful old trams.
I should explain here that gran, though I loved her dearly, was not the most cheerful of ladies. She went around humming or singing dreary hymns like “Nearer my God to Thee” or “The Old Rugged Cross” and she seemed to collect miseries and sufferings like I collected stamps. The price of bread, her aching back, the dreadful weather, what the Tories were doing, poor Mrs so and so’s awful accident – all were grist to the misery mill. Then, when she met a like-minded soul, they’d happily exchange miseries and add any they’d missed to their own collections.
Lizzie was even worse than gran, so you can imagine what things were like when they got together. When we arrived at Lizzie’s I was always offered a cake and a glass of lemonade and I usually got a pleasant smile and a smothering hug too, but the two ladies soon got down to the important business of the day – taking turns trying to out-misery each other. I quickly ate my cake, drank my lemonade and asked the question I’d been aching to ask since our arrival: “Can I go up and see Uncle Bob?” I’d learned not to ask the question too quickly as that was an insult to Lizzie, but if I waited until gran and Lizzie began their woeful exchanges, I knew I would always get a quick nod of approval.
Bob lived in his bedroom, or so it seemed to me. I never saw him anywhere else. He was always there when I arrived at Wharmlands Road and he was still there two or three hours later when gran shouted upstairs to tell me we were leaving. Not that he was sick or anything. He always seemed well. It was just where Bob lived – he had a desk and a chair and lots of books and papers and that was where he always was.
Why did I like to visit Bob? Because he was such an interesting and clever man. I felt he could talk about anything and he knew everything. Sometimes he talked about his travels which he illustrated on a large globe, sometimes he talked about the war, sometimes about science, and he made it all so very interesting and easy to understand. He also showed me magic tricks and demonstrated simple physics principles, and I never left empty-handed. I always came away with a little card trick, or an optical illusion, or a bit of elementary science gear like a magnet and a little jar of iron filings. I still have some of the stuff he gave me over the years.
As I got a little older, I figured out why he lived in his bedroom; he and Aunt Lizzie didn’t get on too well, in fact they hated each other’s guts. I found this hard to understand as all the other couples I knew seemed to live in relative harmony. I was very lucky. But as that mystery was solved, another reared its head. The mystery of the surnames.
All the families I knew shared the same last name. In our house we were all Pears, my neighbours on one side were all Matthews and on the other side, all Bewleys. But Bob and Lizzie were different; he was Bob Atkinson, she was Lizzie Wilks. They had two grown-up children – my “Aunt May”, who was Florence May Wilks, and her brother, Ronnie, who was David Ronald Renton. How could the grown-ups be Atkinson and Wilks and their children Wilks and Renton? I also wondered if Lizzie and May were related to my grandparents’ friend, Tom Wilks, a nice old chap who lodged in Ramsays, a slum area of High Spen.
That remained a mystery for several years as neither my parents nor my gran would ever admit to such things as marital infidelity in the family. Eventually, however, I heard the basics from another relation, and once the cat was out of the bag, my mother and gran filled in the details, though my mother didn’t miss the opportunity to portray Bob and Lizzie’s current unhappy state as a punishment from God for their terrible sins.
Apparently Aunt Lizzie, Elizabeth Axford, had married coal miner, Tom Wilks, in 1911, and in 1913 they had a daughter, May. They lived in a rented colliery-owned house at 4 Watson Street, High Spen, one of the better streets in the village, and all was well until they took in a lodger, Bob Atkinson. That was around 1924 when May was 11 years old.
Bob and Lizzie soon began an affair which went on for years right under the nose of Tom Wilks. I don’t know why Tom tolerated such a humiliating situation – he was a big and powerful man and Bob was puny in comparison – but he did. The domestic arrangements were further complicated by the frequent presence of Bob’s nephew, Ronnie, at 4 Watson Street.
Ronnie was the son of Bob’s sister, Maria, who had died of childbirth complications on October 17th 1923 when Ronnie was only 2 days old. Ronnie’s father, David Renton, who worked in the chemical industry at Stockton, was unable to look after his baby son, so Maria’s parents took the child in. By the time Ronnie reached school age, however, he was spending much of his time at his uncle Bob’s lodgings, and he soon became a de-facto younger brother to May.
May began her nurse’s training at Seaham Hall Sanitorium in 1930, and this caused a subtle change at 4 Watson Street. While May was at home, Tom Wilks had an ally, but now he became more and more isolated. In effect the household consisted of Bob and Lizzie and their foster-child, Ronnie, with Tom very much in the sidelines. This arrangement lasted until one day in 1933 when Tom came home from the pit and found that Lizzie, Bob and Ronnie had moved out. They’d moved to much grander accommodation at Wylam, which was only 3 miles from High Spen as the crow flies, but a world away in terms of social status.
Tom had lost everything – not only his wife, but his home too, because the colliery had a strict rule whereby their houses could only be rented to married couples, never to single, widowed or deserted men. So poor Tom had to move out of his home. He found lodgings at 50 Long Row West, High Spen, where he remained until his death in 1954. Tom still saw his daughter occasionally, but only briefly as May always stayed with her mother, Bob and Ronnie when on leave from her nursing jobs.
Bob and Lizzie had an idyllic life in rural Wylam with little Ronnie for six years, but in 1939 Bob decided to buy a new semi-detached house at 2 Wharmlands Road, Denton Burn on the western outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne. I gather that Lizzie never forgave Bob for leaving Wylam – perhaps the first nail in the coffin of their relationship – and when Ronnie left home in 1945 to get married, there wasn’t a great deal left between them.
So I knew why there were Wilks, Atkinsons and Rentons in the one family and I had an idea why Bob and Lizzie didn’t get on too well, but by this time something else was puzzling me, Bob’s life in general which seemed so different from that of anyone else I knew.
When I was first aware of Bob’s work, say in the mid-50s, he and a partner ran a driving school, the City School of Motoring, at 11a Haymarket, Percy Street, Newcastle – that was next to the bus station where Marks and Spencer’s store is now located . In the evenings, apparently, Bob was in great demand as an after-dinner speaker and he boasted that he’d spoken in every rotary club, chamber of trade and military establishment in the North of England. As a child this didn’t surprise me at all as Bob could keep me enthralled for hours and I always left having learned something new and wanting to know more, but as a teenager I did find it strange.
What did I know of Bob’s earlier employment? According to family gossip, when Bob first came to High Spen around 1924 he’d opened a sweet shop, first in premises at 43 Ramsay Street, two shops along from Cooper’s (now Adamson’s) butchers’ shop, then in premises over the main road on the Front Street/Strothers Road corner. For a while Bob employed teenager Tommy Axford, Lizzie’s brother, in his shop and that’s how Bob and Lizzie first met and how Bob ultimately became her “lodger”.
Apparently the sweet business didn’t last very long, but I couldn’t get a clear idea as to what Bob had done after the shop closed. Gran thought he might have gone down the pit at High Spen. I also had no idea what he’d done when he was living at Wylam or what he did when he first moved to Denton Burn. In fact I didn’t really know what he’d done between his sweet shop closing and his driving school opening, and I didn’t even have dates for those events.
Presumably all Bob’s overseas travelling must have occurred in this period. I remember once asking Bob why he’d traveled to all the places he mentioned in his tales, but all he would say was that he’d been on “Government Service”. That was a phrase I heard him use several times in different contexts, always with an enigmatic smile on his face.
As I got older, my visits to Wharmlands Road, Denton Burn became more infrequent, and by my mid teens I didn’t go at all. I still saw Lizzie occasionally at my gran’s house and at family gatherings, and I saw Bob rather more frequently as I often popped in to his driving school at Newcastle for a cup of tea. Indeed from 1963 to 1967, when I was studying at Newcastle University, I saw Bob there regularly. He never lost his ability to entertain and educate; he really was a fascinating man.
Lizzie died on January 5th 1970, by which time Bob had more or less retired from his business, and I did make a point of visiting him at Wharmlands Road from time to time between then and his death on January 20th 1974 at the age of 77. It was after his death that I found more answers to my questions – along with many more questions.
A few days after Bob died I received a phone call from May in which she asked me to meet her at Wharmlands Road next day after work. I then taught in a school within walking distance of Wharmlands Road, so this was no problem. When I got there I found that the reason May wanted to see me was to ask me to keep an eye on Bob’s house until such time as they were able to sell it. May then lived in Essex, and she was concerned that the house might be vandalised if left unattended. She gave me a key and I agreed to call at the house every two or three days to check that everything was well and to forward any mail on to her.
When I’d arrived, May was going through some old photographs and documents she’d found in a draw in the kitchen, and she indicated that she was going to throw some of the photographs away – apparently she didn’t want any which showed Bob and her mother together. Happily she agreed to let me have them instead. Then May showed me a document which puzzled her almost as much as it intrigued me, it was a quarto-size typed sheet headed BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE OF MR. ROBERT ATKINSON. It consisted of five numbered paragraphs and a closing paragraph, and was more of a C.V. than a biography. I’m pleased I copied it verbatim there and then as I never saw it again.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE OF MR. ROBERT ATKINSON
1. Before war engaged in mining – mainly at coal face, then Ship’s Radio Operator, Lecturer on Sociology and Economics.
2. On outbreak of war in 1939 taken over as Lecturer by Ministry of Information, Northern Region.
3. 1946 Appointed Assistant Commissioner National Savings Northern Region.
4. Later selected by War Office for assignments in Middle and Far East.
5. On return raised to National Panel Speaker for Ministry of Information.
On retirement from Government Service became a Principal of a High Class Driving School. Holds the M.S.A. and R.A.C. Proficiency Certificates. Author of Book ‘Make Sure You Pass Your Driving Test’.
May said she’d known that Bob had worked for the government during and after the war, and she knew he’d been overseas and had then lectured to industrialists before setting up his driving school, but she hadn’t known anything specific. In particular his appointment with National Savings and his period as a ship’s radio operator were news to her. She’d first known Bob as a sweet-shop owner, a job which isn’t even mentioned on the C.V., and when I asked what Bob had actually done when the shop closed, May realized that she had no idea. She didn’t think Bob had gone down the pit, as gran had thought, but she wasn’t sure. All she remembered was that he was out most days but didn’t seem to have regular hours.
I also asked how Bob had been able to afford a house in an expensive area like Wylam. Again May had no idea. In fact the more she thought about it the more she realised how little she knew of Bob’s life, and that’s where we left it. I don’t remember discussing Bob again with May until the year 2000, 26 years later, by which time May had moved back to High Spen and had lost her husband.
Once May was living alone at High Spen, my wife and I visited her quite regularly, and quite often May would have some photographs set aside to show us. May had inherited her mother’s and many of her grandparents’ photographs, and she’d been a very keen photographer herself since she was a young woman, so she’d accumulated a large collection of her own photographs and negatives. We often spent most of our visits looking over May’s albums and old family photographs.
May was quite unlike her mother. Where Lizzie had always been miserable and sorry for herself, May, despite serious health issues, was always positive and cheerful. She also had a wonderful sense of humour and an inquiring mind. Often, inspired by her family photographs, we remembered and eventually resolved several family mysteries together. May’s memory of family members and events going back to the late 1910s, and my experience using official records, proved a great combination. Several skeletons came rattling out of long-locked cupboards.
Bob was often mentioned and speculation was rife, but we still really had no definite ideas about Bob’s early working life. I did access the usual genealogical sources to confirm what we thought we knew of Bob’s parentage, birth and childhood – his birth certificate and census returns. The former showed that Bob was born at Byers Green, Co Durham on August 10th 1896, the son of Robert Atkinson, a Colliery Joiner, and his wife Ann Atkinson, née Adamson. Bob was simply Robert Atkinson, he had no middle names. The 1901 census, the only relevant census accessible at the time, showed Bob as the youngest of five children then living with their parents at Hunwick Colliery. Bob was aged 4 and the siblings were Annie Maud 14, Margaret 12, George 9 and Thomas 7.
No surprises there, but Bob’s pre-war working life remained a mystery for a few more years. On one of our visits to High Spen in July 2005, however, May was very excited. She’d been going through a box of old family photographs, and she’d found two which she thought might just help to fill in some of the unknowns in Bob’s life.
From Bob’s apparent age on the photographs, they were probably taken in the late 1920s or the 1930s. One shows Bob standing on a platform at the back of a van holding a map and addressing a small group of men; the other shows Bob and six other gentlemen standing at the back of the same, or very similar, van, with a second van parked alongside; a blackboard at the rear of the van beside the group of men bore the words “MEETIN[G] TO-NI[GHT] [AT] BOLDON [COLLIERY]” (with the bracketed sections surmised). The first photograph showed that the words “TO-NIGHT AT” were on a sign above the platform of that van, so we can assume that this was the essentially the same message as on the blackboard, and the other photograph shows the words “QUESTIONS INVITED.” at the left of the same sign.
Both photographs revealed other inscriptions either painted on a van, or on signs attached to a van. The words “THE ECONOMIC LEAGUE” appear twice on one van and can be comfortably surmised on the other, and the words “TELLS THE TRUTH ABOUT INDUSTRY” can be surmised too from partially visible sections on the two photographs.
So what was “The Economic League”? In 2005 there was nothing about the Economic League in the Encyclopedia Britannica or on Wikipedia, but I did find a reference on the web page http://www.statesecrets.co.uk/organisations/ which read:
“Economic League: Effectively MI5’s ‘industrial arm’. Between the wars, it was run by JOHN BAKER WHITE, a founding member of the British Fascisti.”
I also managed to borrow the book “Spies at Work” by Mike Hughes (1995) ISBN. 0 948994 06 1 which tells the full, unpleasant story of The Economic League. This is now out of print, but the full text is available online. Apparently the Economic League was a far-right pressure group with very strong links to MI5 and, in the inter-war years, rather disturbing links to German and Italian fascists. It existed from around 1918 until 1993 when it was closed following a press outcry about its involvement in the blacklisting of left-wing workers.
Chapter Six of the book tells us exactly what Bob and his colleagues were doing with those vans.
The early 1930s were a time of massive unemployment; of riots and hunger marches. The Jarrow Crusade was just one of these marches, but it was by no means the largest or longest and it was certainly notable for the way in which it avoided political controversy and thus escaped violent opposition from police forces. Few of the hunger marches organised by the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) were so fortunate. The Economic League ran a vigorous campaign against the NUWM. The League sent “Flying Squads” of “Propaganda Vans”, speakers and leafleters to towns and villages ahead of the marchers with the aim of encouraging or inciting an unsympathetic reception. …
Economic League leaflets were distributed ahead of the hunger marches, from vans emblazoned with the slogan “The Economic League Tells The Truth about Industry”. One leaflet described the NUWM as “a purely Communist body” and continued:
“ANYBODY WHO SUPPORTS THE “HUNGER MARCH” STUNT, EITHER BY TAKING PART IN IT, BY ATTENDING THE DEMONSTRATIONS ARRANGED IN CONNECTION WITH IT, OR BY GIVING MONEY TO THE MARCH FUNDS, IS MERELY ASSISTING A COMMUNIST PLOT TO CAUSE CIVIL DISORDER…
THINK THIS OVER AND DON’T BE DUPED BY THE REDS.
N.U.W.M. STANDS FOR NATIONAL UNEMPLOYED WORKERS MOVEMENT. IT ALSO STANDS FOR NATIONAL UNEMPLOYED WORKERS MISGUIDED AND MISLED. N.U.W.M. ALSO STANDS FOR
NO USE WASTING MONEY
NO USE WALKING MILES”
Now I knew what Bob was doing in the early 1930s, and perhaps during the entire period between running the sweet shop and being “taken over by Ministry of Information” in 1939. He was working for a far-right group with strong fascist and MI5 connections, spreading a vile anti-union, anti-worker, anti-socialist message. This activity is what Bob euphemistically described as “Lecturer in Sociology and Economics”! I’m not surprised he didn’t want to spell it out.
The phrase “taken over” in Bob’s C.V. is perhaps revealing too. If he was “taken over” by one government department, doesn’t that imply that he was already working for another? Was this an inadvertent acknowledgement of the real power behind The Economic League?
Was he working for the Economic League even earlier – spying on miners in the village, perhaps? The Economic League was engaged in identifying and blacklisting left-wing workers from its early days, and High Spen was a hot-bed of union activity in the months leading up to the General Strike of 1926. Is it a coincidence that this was just when Bob arrived in the village and set up his shop?
I never did tell May what I’d found out about Bob’s political activities and what I suspected. It would certainly have upset her, and she was by then becoming increasingly frail. She died on October 14th 2008 at the age of 95.
Since May’s death two other sets of public records have become accessible which cast further light on Bob’s life – the 1911 census and World War One Army Service Records. The 1911 census showed Robert snr, Ann and family living at 18 Dodsworth, Greenside. Of the children listed in 1901, the two eldest, Annie Maud and Margaret, had apparently left home; while the three boys, George 19, Thomas 17 and Bob 14, were still with their parents and were all working as coal miners. There were now two younger children in the family, Maria 9 and William 5, who were born after the 1901 census. Maria was the one who married David Renton in 1923 and then died after giving birth to Ronnie. Further research showed that in 1911 the two eldest sisters were living at Tennyson Street, Gateshead – Annie Maud was married to house painter Patrick Bolam, and Margaret was living in with them as house-maid. No surprises on this census either, but at least this did give confirmation that Bob had worked down the pit as he claimed on that C.V.
Next the World War One Army Service records. We did have a photograph showing a young Bob in army uniform, so we knew he’d served, but I was still rather uncertain that we’d find anything relevant. A lot of the WW1 service records were destroyed by bombing in 1940 and only about 40% survived. And even if his records had survived, I wasn’t at all confident that I’d be able to easily identify his records from the index because of his relatively “common” name. I was expecting dozens of Robert Atkinsons with little to help pick out the right one. I needn’t have worried, although there were 86 Robert Atkinsons listed, the index did show approximate year of birth and residence, and there he was – “Robert Atkinson, born about 1897, residence 18 Dodsworth, Greenside, Newcastle-On-Tyne.” I soon had the twenty pages of his army service record in front of me.
Bob had enlisted in the army at Blaydon on February 21st 1916, but, presumaby because of his occupation – he was still a miner and was working at Greenside Colliery, he was immediately put on the Army Reserve and he was returned to his home and his job. Technically he had signed up “For the duration of the War, at the end of which you will be discharged with all convenient speed. You will be required to serve for one day with the Colours and the remainder of the period in the Army Reserve” or “until such time as you may be called up by order of the Army Council.”
The enlistment papers describe Bob as: 5 ft 6½ ins in height, chest 32 ins, dark hair, blue eyes, fresh complexion with “tattoo marks on both arms”. Two surprises there – I was quite unaware of the tattoos, but I’d never seen Bob without a long-sleeved shirt and, almost always, a tie too for that matter – and the “dark hair”. When I’d known Bob, and I knew him from his early fifties, he had white hair, and photographs of Bob from the 1920s and 30s show Bob with what appears to be fair hair. So it seems that Bob must be one of those individuals who went prematurely grey. There are even signs of this on his army photograph.
Perhaps Bob expected not to have to serve at all, but the call up did come. On April 9th 1918 Bob had to report for a medical in Newcastle. This concluded that everything was fine except for his eyesight which was “not good enough for rifle shooting.” He also received his vaccinations against smallpox, typhoid and paratyphoid during the course of that month. Then Bob got word that he had to report to St George’s Drill Hall on Sandyford Road in Newcastle, the Northumberland Fusiliers Reception Depot, on May 30th. He did so, but Bob found he wasn’t joining the Northumberland Fusiliers, he’d become “350145, Pioneer Robert Atkinson, Royal Engineers”.
Now things moved fast. Next day, May 31st, Bob found himself at the Army Trade Testing Centre at Charlton, Woolwich, London S.E.18. There he was “Examined without Test and accepted as Wireless Operator”. Well, well! Not quite the “Ship’s Radio Operator” mentioned on Bob’s C.V., but close. On June 3rd Bob arrived at the Royal Engineers’ Bedford Signals Depot and that’s where he spent the remainder of his service. On December 15th 1918 Bob was transferred to Class W of the Army Reserve, and next day he was “Discharged – surplus to military requirements”. Elsewhere on the records he was said to have been “Discharged for coal mining” – perhaps he was discharged more quickly than would otherwise have been the case because coal mining was considered so important for the economy.
Did Bob use the skills as a wireless operator learnt in the army to enable him to get a job as a Ship’s Radio Operator after the war. Given the reference on Bob’s C.V., I think we must assume that he did. Perhaps some day I’ll be able to confirm this with documentary evidence and be able to identify his ship or ships and the period of his maritime service.
Bob’s career was certainly a strange one – coal miner – army wireless operator – ship’s radio operator – sweet shop proprietor – political speaker and propagandist for far-right group, the Economics League – lecturer for Ministry of Information – Assistant Commissioner National Savings – overseas assignments for War Office – panel speaker for Ministry of Information – driving school proprietor.
Other records might turn up which cast further light on Bob’s activities, though I don’t hold out much hope of finding anything concrete about the most fascinating period in Bob’s life, his work with the Economic League. When and how was he recruited? Was he working for them when he ran the sweet shop using it as a cover to spy on the workforce looking for left-wing activists in the run-up to the general strike? Running the sweet shop seems so out of character for Bob, but it could make sense if it was just a “front”. Sadly, I’ll probably never know the answers to that and many other questions.
(Click on photographs to enlarge – Hover over photographs for captions.)