Given the impressive length of Harold Heslop’s memoir, and the clarity and detail in which he writes about ‘life beneath the fields,’ it is surprising that Heslop fails to mention – or albeit only briefly – personal details about his childhood or his experience of being a father. Still, through the brief moments that are described, it is possible to gather some insight into Heslop’s home and family life.
Heslop describes how he was part of ‘an average family’ where life went on ‘without deep incident.’ He recalls how his ‘father went daily to the mine. Returning home, he washed his body in front of the kitchen fire, and when it was possible, went along to Howden to gossip’ (44). Still daily life in the North-East mining village of New Hunwick was ‘shaved to the bone.’ Heslop remembers living conditions as primitive and life was hard work.
There was a communal tap for all the houses and toilet sanitation consisted of sheds situated at intervals along the street ‘which the men designated as “the nessy.” (3). Heslop recalls how in the summer months ‘the flies became a horrific invasion’ and trapped on fly papers, their ‘hum’ held a peculiar fascination for him. He describes the chore of washing clothes as ‘a task that required great strength in its execution’ (16). And for ‘a couple to set up house there were three domestic requisites that had to be obtained for they could not be borrowed more than once, and these were a poss-tub, a poss-stick and a mangle’ (16). Heslop remembers how his mother struggled with the heavy burdensome work demanded of the Durham miners’ wife. And he recalls his grandfather Whitfield telling him, after her death, how she was ‘not a strong specimen of the women of the coal-field’ (18).
Heslop claims that ‘religion bothered the Heslop family all the days of its existence’ (9). He recalls how, despite a move to Boulby and the significant distances needed to travel, Sunday attendance at Chapel was stringent and relentless. The day would begin with Sunday school and continue well into the evening with the adults, i.e. his father and grandfather ‘choosing’ to remain behind for evening prayers.
Perhaps it is not surprising in the gendered world of the mining community that Heslop’s father took on the role of disciplining his children. Heslop remembers his ‘early years [when his] mother provided the family comfort and [his] father reproved his children after the manner of the sons of the north country’ (22). He claims that being a deeply religious man his father was capable of inflicting merciless punishment: ‘it was his duty and his pleasure to thrash us, and as the years passed his thrashings became more and more explosive’ (22). He recalls an incident when his father punished him for misbehaving in chapel by beating him with a strap: ‘Every family possessed a strap, a thong of leather with many ends. Without a word [my father] began whipping me across my bare buttocks. From then, until my mother interfered’ (22).
Whilst Heslop remains respectful, he is not reverential when he recalls his father. Indeed, there is, on occasion, a definite sardonic tone, particularly when he speaks of his father’s religious devotion. His father’s failure to rise above the position of deputy, Heslop believes, was the consequence of his time in the pulpit. He suggests that ‘had [his father] subdued his passion to “preach the word” [he] might not have been overlooked by those who might have been willing to utilise his services as a mining engineer’ (53). He continues: ‘it was strange that [my father] never understood that his outrageous acts at the [Cooperative Society] meetings, and his declamations from the many pulpits would be received with scant pleasure by the men who employed him’ (30). Heslop also recalls his father losing his job at the iron-mine in Boulby, shortly after his mother’s death:
I have often wondered if those unseen people ever did place observers in the places where my father went to preach. They need not have troubled themselves, for my father accepted the capitalist mode of production as being ordained by God. Nevertheless, in a short while, they did get rid of him. They showed him no pity. He was cast aside with his motherless children (77).
Still, whilst the image portrayed above may sound like a grim description of childhood, Heslop does reveal more happier moments. He had fond memories of his grandmother and the language he uses to describe her is particularly endearing: ‘I can see her now…a thin, time-worn little creature, dressed in black, buttoned to the ears, and bonneted like a flower, a bonnet like a black halo with a thin white spray that danced with every movement of her head’ (26). He describes her voice, as she told him tales of her youth, as a ‘lovely cadence, pure and radiant, as when the violin rises in the melody and sweetens the playing into soft gentling tones’ (29). It is impossible not to be amused at Heslop’s summation of the memory of his grandmother’s voice; as in the typically political tone that is Heslop’s memoir he states: ‘I never heard speech like her’s until I listened to Tom Burt, the first working man to be elected to parliament’ (29).
Of Heslop’s adult family life he reveals almost nothing. He does tell us that he married a London girl and they had one daughter and an adopted son. He uses an unusual turn of phrase when recalling his son, as he describes how ’Phyllis had been persuaded to take into her care a male child whose mother had died shortly after giving him birth’ (278). This reveals how Heslop had little to do with the decision and suggests a detachment from the situation. Still, he does say that having possession of the child allowed Phyllis to accompany the two children when they were evacuated at the start of the war. It is not possible to glean from the scant details we have, what kind of father Heslop was. It appears that he was somewhat removed in the early days, judging by his level of involvement, as mentioned above, and his prolonged trips abroad. Still, given his tone when he recalls his father’s parenting, we might imagine that Heslop strove to parent in a very different way.
Broughton, Trev Lynn. Helen Rogers. Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Gordon Hall,, Valerie. ‘Contrasting Female Identities: Women in Coal Mining Communities in Northumberland, England, 1900-1939.’ Journal of Women’s History. 13.2 (Summer, 2001). 107-31.
‘Harold Heslop’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 3:0075.
Heslop, Harold. ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:005, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/11000
McGaffney, E. ‘Home and Family: Wilhelmina Tobias, 1904’ 31st October 2014. Writing Lives. Web Accessed, 20th February 2017.