The doctor definitely got it wrong when he told my great grandmother, Jane Ann Hardy, that her newly born son Wilfrid was not long for this life. Wilfrid Hardy survived and lived a full and remarkable life for the best part of the twentieth century. He was a quiet and unassuming man for whom I held the greatest affection. As a grandfather myself I realise how much he enriched my life and I try hard to be the same great influence on my own grandchildren. Grandpa knew of my interest in family history and he was always proud of his roots in Sunderland, County Durham. As every genealogist knows, there is nothing more valuable than the personal accounts of family members and I am pleased to say that he told me as much as he could remember about his early life. The story of Wilfrid Hardy’s formative years in Sunderland is bursting with the colour of a period and place in our history.
Wilfrid was born above Willcocks Stores, a grocery shop at No.10 High Street East in Sunderland Co. Durham, on 18th April 1898. He was the fourth male child in four and a half years of Alfred Hardy and Jane Anne Marley. Alfred was a master grocer and the manager of Willcocks Stores. The owner of the business had moved to Whitby to open up another branch of this grocery business. Their home, above the shop, had fourteen rooms that had been a lace factory in the middle of 17th Century. It was situated on the main street of the bustling centre of the Town of Sunderland. In those early days the town of Sunderland was divided from Bishopwearmouth at Sans Street, extending down from the east side of Sans Street to Coronation Street and then along the east side of Church Street, along the Town Moor to the Docks, then to the Low Quay and Russell Street. This was the East End of the Town, the original Sunderland.
Wilfrid’s mother Jane Anne Hardy would have 10 children, six boys and four girls. Only two boys would survive – Wilfrid and his older brother, Alfred John Hardy; the girls were Lily, Ada, Mabel and Ethel. Wilfrid was named after his mother’s only brother Wilfrid Marley, who had died of consumption only months before Wilfrid was born. Wilfrid was from a middle-to-working class background. His maternal grandmother, Eliza, was of genteel family and had married John Marley a successful draper of Marske by the Sea in Yorkshire. He owned various properties and a villa and shops in Guisborough and District. He had died in his early fifties and Eliza had re-married a local Lay Preacher called Grice, who came to Sunderland to live and practice in a Methodist Church and took abode in Sans Street. Wilfrid’s paternal side, The Hardys, had prospered in Sunderland and surrounding Durham towns.
Wilfrid was a frail child, pale and thin, and, according to the story, ‘needed every care and attention to survive’. He told me that his earliest recollection was looking out from the upstairs window of the grocery and waving a flag to the soldiers who were marching down the High Street to the barracks on their return from the Boer War – this was in 1903. He was sent to Hudson Road School on his fifth birthday, the usual practice in those days.
The East End of Sunderland was bustling with seamen, dockworkers and ships chandlers and the River Wear was always full of ships, colliers mainly, and ships being built. There were hundreds of pubs, one on every corner, and brothels by the score. Everything depended on the river trading. Wilfrid’s father, Alfred, supplied the local grocery needs and supplied the shipping crews. In those days the grocery shops obtained their commodities in bulk. Flour came in sacks and was tipped into bins and weighed out by the stone (14lbs). Currants came in sacks from Greece and they were machine washed before being dried in a hand operated revolving drum; they were sold by the pound and half pounds. Tea came in chests and it was blended in a machine in one of the rooms above the shop. Sides of bacon were washed in tubs down in the cellar and the sides hung to dry on rails that ran along the windows outside the shop. Coffee beans were poured into a funnel shaped hopper and passed through a grinder into a huge box. Imagine the fresh smells in the shop as the commodities were prepared long into the evening. Alfred and his staff worked long hours in the shop – 8.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, Thursdays 8.30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 8.30 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. later on these days because customers would collect their orders after the pubs had closed at 11 p.m.. Wednesdays were half day closing at 1 p.m. and on Sunday mornings the customers came to the side door in the passage from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and were served with items that had been forgotten during the week.
These were the days when the women wore shawls, long skirts and blouses and the men wore hobnail boots, odd coats, trousers and caps. They were hard times, but Wilfrid was amongst the fortunate ones. His mother baked daily, washed and ironed and they employed a maid who came and did the main chores. There was always plenty of food on the table and a regular bath every Friday in front of a fire in a huge tin bath.
When he was 9 years old, Wilfrid had a friend called Bertie Hamp whose father was a River Policeman and they lived in Bodlewell Lane Police Station. Wilfrid and Bertie used to take bacon shanks, split peas and beans from the grocery, given to them by Alfred, to make soup for the waifs and strays, boys at The Lambton Street Club. It was owned and patronised by Colonel Ernest Vaux, a wealthy Sunderland man, and it was called the Sunderland Waifs’ Rescue Agency and Street Vendors Club. Vaux, who had just returned from The Boer War, was a personal friend of Lt. Gen. Baden-Powell. They were both veterans of the Siege of Mafeking and Baden-Powell and Vaux had successfully used native boys as army scouts during the war. When they returned to England it was decided to form a semi-military group of boys, called ‘Vaux’s Own’, choosing Sunderland as a pilot scheme. The Boy Scouts Movement was born. Wilfrid and Bertie, on hearing of the plan, raced there in the hope of being recruited and, along with 20 other local lads, mostly ‘Echo Boys’, those who ran down the streets selling the newspapers, they were accepted. They had to buy their uniforms from The Reynolds Store in Crowtree Road and Colonel Vaux gave any lad that could not afford the cost a loan. The boys sold copies of The Sunderland Echo to earn money to repay it; Vaux even helped by buying any unsold copies. The group met at Garrison Field – now the site of Sunderland Central Police Station. Wilfrid and Bertie were recruited to Wolf Patrol and at the first full parade on 22 February, 1908 at Garrison Field, Baden Powell, himself, attended and handed each one of the recruits the small ‘fleur de lys’ insignia badge that was to become the famous emblem for the many millions of Scouts that subsequently joined the worldwide movement. In the summer of 1908, Vaux’s Own Scouts held their first camp at Grindon Sandhills, on the estate owned by Vaux. They hauled carts with all their gear and provisions up to Grindon and used old wagon sheets as tents. One of Wilfrid’s life-long claims to fame was that he was amongst the first 20 Boy Scouts in the world and, later in life in 1977, appeared in the same Sunderland Echo to tell his story, under the headline – The World’s ‘Last Original Scout’ reveals all. He also appeared on the BBC programme “A likely story” to assert his claim of being the last surviving founder member of the Boy Scouts.
At the age of 10 years Wilfrid started his first job at the Pavilion Cinema in Sans Street as an effects boy to the silent films. His job was to make the sounds of the sea, thunder, horses etc. behind the screen, accompanied by a lady pianist who played according to the type of picture showing. His salary was one shilling per week, twice nightly and a matinee Saturday. He left to go as a billiard marker at The Gentleman’s Constitutional Club in John Street. The hours there were 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and all day Saturday, supper included, with an improved salary of three shillings and sixpence a week. Even as a young lad Wilfrid was expected to be industrious and add money to the family purse
But, he took ill with appendicitis after a year and had an operation. This was a relatively new procedure and the first performed in his local community; just previously, King Edward had undergone a successfully operation for the removal of his appendix. Medical complaints like this, amongst the working classes, may have been diagnosed but were not always treated and the mortality rates for appendicitis, and may other illnesses, were high. Nevertheless, Wilfrid survived, perhaps proving that he was not the weakling that everybody, including the doctor that delivered him, thought he was.
After his recovery from the operation he got another job, this time as a Nights and Saturdays Boy for Jones the Costumiers in the High Street. He had to deliver boxes of costumes and dresses after closing hours; his wage was three shillings and sixpence a week. In those days children left school at 14 years of age and when Wilfrid reached this age his schoolmaster recommended him to the Sunderland Post Office as a Telegraph Boy. Uniform was provided and the wage was six shillings a week. He was amongst about 40 Telegraph Boys commanded by Mr Todd and Mr Williams, both ex soldiers, and it was a very strict military regime. The boys received training like a Soldiers Bugle Band with rifle drill and every day they paraded for inspection. One week they performed their duties on foot and the next week on cycle. The boys were divided into three shifts with hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and they had one day off per week.
When Wilfrid reached the age of sixteen his father decided that he should become a grocer and follow the family profession; Wilfrid’s brother Alfred John was a grocer too! At 16 years it was compulsory for lads to leave the Telegraph Boys and either go into The Post Office, as a postman or clerk, or serve their time at a trade. He started his apprenticeship with Buens Stores, a multiple grocery firm, in the Stoney Lane Southwick Branch. One of his best friends at the time, John Robert Faulkner, started with him. The hours then were 8.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 8.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and again 8.30 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. on Saturdays. It was a long day for Wilfrid, especially walking the two and a half miles to his home on Saturday nights, arriving after midnight. Wifrid saved up and bought a cycle.
In August 1914, The First World War started and Wilfrid was still at Buens Stores. Soon after, like all young men, he volunteered for the army but he was refused on the grounds of his youthful boyish look and medical history. Eventually after a number of further attempts at recruitment, at the age of 18 years and nine months, he was finally accepted for the forces. Due to those boyish looks, frail appearance, and medical condition, which included a rupture from the appendicitis, the recruitment sergeant categorised him as C grade, deciding he was not fit for the trenches. Instead, he was enlisted in The Royal Army Medical Corps and after training at Blackpool he was posted to the Hospital Ship ‘Wandilla’ and he completed all his service bringing the wounded soldiers home. He sailed to East Africa, around the Mediterranean, to Egypt and Palestine, The West Indies and finally on the convoy of The Russian Expeditionary Force to Murmansk and Archangel. He was demobbed in November 1919 and returned home to Sunderland.
That seems a very short paragraph to describe a man’s service to his country. Wilfrid, like many young men, was always reluctant to share his experiences of The Great War. Like many men that go to war the horrors are repressed, not shared, but carried with them throughout their lives. He never told me of those horrors but it takes little imagination to picture the human suffering of the wounded and equally the trauma of those tending them on the Hospital Ship ‘Wandilla’. He must have seen pain and suffering at its worst and although he and his brother Alfred John Hardy, who served in The Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment, did return from the war, many of their friends and comrades did not.
Buens Stores had been taken over by the time Wilfrid returned and, like many, he was not happy about returning to a one pound a week wage after the war. That went for his friend John Robert Faulkner too! He had fought in the trenches and been badly wounded in the shoulder. Instead, Wilfrid went labouring as a ‘lad’ heating rivets in one of the local shipyards and John got a job on the railways as a platelayer, both in preference to working at the pit – the coal mines. The work in the shipyards dried up as the post war depression in shipbuilding started in 1920, and Wilfrid was, for the first time in his life, on the dole.
But, after only a fortnight on the dole Wilfrid obtained a position with Meadow Dairy at Seaham Harbour and after six months he was given a position as Manager of the High Street East Branch on the corner of the Old Market, much closer to his friends and family.
Wilfrid’s father Alfred was a generous man, as well as being the life and soul of any party. He would play ‘jiggy’ tunes on his melodeon, a particular favourite being ‘Lily of Laguna’; maybe he named his daughter Lily after the popular song written in 1898. The men and boys, all wearing their flat caps, would sit in one room drinking beer, playing cards or singing whilst the womenfolk, girls and girlfriends would entertain themselves in another. Wilf’s mother Jane Anne ruled the home with a rod of iron and threatened all her children with a fate worse than death if they went astray. His father Alfred however was much more relaxed and it was not uncommon for him to hand a fellow reveller a chamber pot and send him out for more beer. When Wilfrid met Elsie Brown at a cousin’s house, just before leaving the army in 1920, she was one such girlfriend. Another was her older sister Jennie Brown who was courting his best friend John Robert Faulkner. Yes, it was a small, hard working and close community. Elsie and Jennie were the daughters of a Master Bricklayer called Alexander Brown and they lived at Hendon, Sunderland. You can read the story about Alexander in another chapter.
One of Wilfrid’s famous stories was about the times when he was courting Elsie Brown. An evening out to the cinema, including a bus ride there and back, a small box of chocolates for Elsie and a packet of 5 woodbine cigarettes for himself – the cost? Change of a shilling. They were married at St. Ignatius Rectory, Sunderland on 1st June 1921. John and Jennie also married at much the same time. Wilfrid and Elsie had a son, Wilfrid Alexander Hardy, and a daughter Elsie Marguerite Hardy.
Wilfrid didn’t forget what he and his friend Bertie had done when they were 9 years old, namely, taking bacon shanks, split peas and beans from his father’s grocery to make soup for the waifs and strays. In the late 1920s, the East End of Sunderland was in the grip of depression; many families lived poverty and many children did not have shoes and stockings. The dole had run out and everyone was penniless. Church relief from the parish was the only welfare and food tickets were issued to the poor: the weekly allocation was 10 shillings for a single person, a pound for a couple and 5 shillings for each child. Wilfrid, as the manager of his own grocer’s shop, persuaded his company to deliver all the empty boxes to his branch and he made up food packages. In the bottom of the box was coal from a local merchant and Wilf added 7lbs of flour, two ounces of yeast, a bit of butter and margarine and anything he could find to provide a basic ration. As a result, he cornered the market in relief tickets, an act that didn’t make him a wealthy man but made him a friend to many desperate people. He continued in the grocery trade becoming and area inspector for Kemp and Moore’s Grocery Stores.
Wilfrid appears elsewhere in this book. Look out for him; I guarantee that he’ll never be portrayed as anything but a quiet and honest man. He is a true hero of mine.
Note: Neil W. Mearns, author of ‘Sentinels of the Wear – The River Wear Watch, A History of Sunderland’s River Police and Fireboats’ adds the following information on the River Policeman Hamp:
“The death of Sergeant Engineer Francis William Hamp occurred during October, 1932. He had joined the River Wear Watch on 1st January, 1907 and had been appointed directly to his rank, primarily due to his expert understanding of the types of boilers and mechanical equipment connected with fireboats. His knowledge was such that he was able to raise steam in the shortest possible time, thus enabling the fireboats to be used to their best advantage.”