Jarrow born writer, Tom Kelly, tries to discover the life and hard times of his maternal grandfather, almost fifty years after his death. He follows him from a boy on the training ship, ‘The Wellesley,’ moored off North Shields, through two world wars. And still asks, “do I know my grandfather?”

Photographs of Granda in a sailor suit with his mother.

In this rare photograph, taken one hundred and twenty years ago, we see an unsmiling mother and child. No smiles for the camera. No wonder. Margaret Henderson, his mother, my great grandmother, would have been thirty-years-old. 

My grandfather, James Robert Henderson, was born in Jarrow on March 14th 1889 and died August 18th, 1972. The bald facts. What do they hide, what do they tell us? How much do I really know about him? Take away photographs and family stories and what is left? 

Just weeks after his birth, on March 31st, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was unveiled for the Paris Exhibition. The Tower, at the time, was the World’s tallest structure. It is seen as one of the masterpieces of nineteenth century architecture. In sharp contrast, my grandfather’s birth would have been met with a sense of foreboding. No fanfare for James Robert Henderson. His mother, Margaret, was a single mother. He was illegitimate. The mark of Cain was on his head. His father was killed in a pit accident at Hebburn Colliery months before his birth.

Granda was born into a world where the stigma of being illegitimate was difficult to overcome. His mother needed to work. She did not have family support and she placed her son initially in Green’s Boys Home, South Shields and at twelve-year-old on the ‘The Wellesley’, an Industrial School ship, moored off Liddell Street Quays, North Shields. ‘The Wellesley’ was initiated in 1868 to take care of boys who, “through poverty, parental neglect or being orphans may be in contamination with vice and crime”. There were 300 hundred boys on the ship.  The boys could have visitors once they had been onboard for two months and provided the visitors were not drunk!

Life onboard ‘The Wellesley’ was harsh. At half-past four in the summer, or five in the winter, they would wash, have breakfast and scrub the decks.

He was fifteen when he left the training ship and signed on a sailing ship that left the Tyne for the Black Sea in 1904. Incidentally ‘The Wellesley’ was burnt off the Tyne on March 11th, 1914. I suspect Granda did not shed many tears at its demise.

However, ‘The Wellesley’ developed a number of skills he used all his life, his dexterity with rope always amazed me as did his prowess at darning, knitting and sewing. He was also a strong swimmer, which was encouraged and developed on the ship. It is said he saved a man’s life in the Tyne, that led him to being awarded a lifesaving medal, which was pawned when money was in short supply in the 1920’s and 30’s.

After returning from sea, he worked in the shipyards on the Tyne. 

He used the sailing skills learnt upon ‘The Wellesley’ and became a Rigger.

He told me he would stand outside the shipyard gates and if you had paid the foreman a bribe you would get a start, perhaps a day or two’s work.

This bribe, in the form of a half-a crown, would be placed in a matchbox and slid along the counter to the Foreman, often in Jarrow’s ‘Long Bar’.

During this time Granda met Margaret Cumiskey, my grandmother. Her father, my great grandfather, was Thomas Cumiskey an Irishman from Clonbur, in Galway. Bridget Lydon, his wife and my great grandmother was born in Jarrow in 1865 and Thomas in Clonbur a year later in 1866. Thomas came from Ireland to work in Jarrow’s Palmers Shipyard.

When Granny brought Granda to meet her father, for the first time, and told him that Granda was not a Catholic she was told, “Don’t bring that man in this house again”. Reason, eventually, prevailed. Granda ‘turned’ and became a Catholic and they married at St Bede’s Church, Monkton Road, Jarrow, on February 21st 1914. 

With the First World War looming Granda joined the East Yorkshire regiment and became, Private James Henderson 16985, which is stamped on his three medals in a case on my desk. The medals were presented to each surviving serviceman at the end of the war and were nicknamed ‘Bubble, Squeak and Wilfred’ by the servicemen of the day. 

War was declared on August 4th 1914 and he saw action in Italy, France, and Salonika.  In an article in the Gazette in February 1964, celebrating their Golden Wedding Granda said, “I was there at the beginning and at the end”. And that is why among his medals is the ‘1914-1915 Star’, which were given to those who saw service between August 1914 and December 31st 1915.

He fought in Gallipoli from April 1915 to December 1915. The conditions that the troops at Gallipoli had to endure were horrendous, bad sanitation led to a dysentery epidemic. Granda, along with thousands of others, contracted dysentery, which stayed with him all the way home through France. He also suffered frostbite and on his return to England was treated for several months at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, in Buckinghamshire before he was able to return home to Tyneside.

After his recuperation he returned to working in the shipyards of the Tyne.  It was while working in the yards he gained his nickname ‘Tot’, as he was a small man. However, he always preferred his full name, James Robert Henderson, which he would say slowly and with pride.

His mother, Margaret, known as ‘Polly’ died in 1937 and now the Second World War was on the horizon and his sons fought in Borneo and South Africa. 

He continued to work in the yards throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s and when he retired from the shipyards took a part-time job on the building of Jarrow shopping centre in the 1960’s and later at a bakery on the Simonside Industrial Trading Estate. His wife, my grandmother, died at home, in 1969.  Grandfather died not long after being told of the birth of my sister Maureen’s son, Stephen. Granda was 83.

There they are the bald facts I have gleaned over the years. Do I know him any better? I can still hear his voice: deep, slow and resonant but recall little of what he said or not enough. I want to know more, but now it’s too late to ask.