ONE: Beginnings

MANCHESTER

I was born early on Sunday morning, 1st August, 1937 in Jericho Hospital (until 1929, the Bury Union Workhouse) a few miles north of Manchester. Throughout her pregnancy, my mother Ruth–always one of strong convictions–was sure that I would be a girl. I would be called Veronica. She had a difficult delivery and was further tormented by the tune An English Country Garden running through her mind during the 48 hours of labour. From time to time for the rest of her days she would remind me of this, almost as if naughty little Veronica was somehow to blame.

I appeared through the normal channels and was taken home to 1 Caister Avenue, Prestwich and to my father, Robert–or Bob, as he was known. In those days, fathers seldom attended the birth of a child, and though Bob was in many ways progressive–being a committed socialist, a pacifist and an inspiring teacher–the messy business of child-birth was still a step too far for him.

After a week I was vomiting and losing weight. Our doctor said things would sort themselves out, but Ruth was not convinced and went straight to the main library in Manchester to look up baby illnesses. Back at the surgery, she insisted that I might have pyloric stenosis, a symptom of which is ‘projectile vomiting’ and which is fatal if left untreated. The doctor demurred yet again. At this, as she often told me, I emptied my last milk-feed down his shirt front, he revised his opinion and they rushed me to hospital. (This drama occurred ten years before the National Health Service was established.) The operation for pyloric stenosis, leaving an impressive scar down my abdomen, was one of the earliest carried out in Britain, so I have reason to be grateful both to the Austrian surgeon who devised the new procedure and to my mother for her intelligence and persistence. Such was my first escape from death. At least eight more, some quite grisly, were to follow over the years.

A while later, on a train, Ruth and Bob were arguing. We were on our way to my first public viewing at a meeting of the North Manchester Esperanto Association, of which Bob was president. Both were seasoned in argument, both would weave and duck, using any wily tactic to gain advantage. At times, they seemed to enjoy fencing with words, but over the years their wrangling grew nastier and it upset me. On that day, it concerned a boy’s name for their child, since by then even Ruth had accepted that I would find Veronica a handicap in later life. As the train drew into Victoria Station, with no name yet agreed between them, Bob noticed on a card the name of the station master back at Whitefield. ‘It was Glyn Roberts,’ my mother later recalled, ‘So we picked “Glyn” for that afternoon – just until we could agree on a regular name for you.’

My first memories are vague: the smell of creosote from a sun-baked wooden fence, a loose-weave, brown-grey woollen blanket over me during rest hour at nursery, a wind-up silvered clock on our mantelpiece framed by women in classical Greek robes….  What I do not remember, though I often heard it mentioned later, is my parents teaching me Esperanto as my first language. ‘It was something by way of an experiment,’ Ruth would explain. ‘We hoped it would come to be your mother tongue.’ The experiment failed, and by two, I spoke only English. In later years, I felt guilty that I did not pick it up again–it meant such a lot to them–but I never did. I wanted to be me, with my own interests and enthusiasms.

My father once said that, at fifteen months, I scrawled a capital H on a sheet of paper–entirely by chance. He applauded my penmanship, ‘Well done, well done, Glyn! That is an aitch, an aitch!’ Evidently I took his praise to heart, and next day he found twenty books pulled off the shelves in the front room, liberally inscribed with aitches, inside and out. (Seventy-five years later, during the clearance of my old house on the Isle of Wight, a battered copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, unread for half a century, fell open to reveal a wobbly H on page 97.)

A clearer memory–from nights in 1941–s of the wail of air-raid sirens as Bob, Ruth and I (now aged four) huddled under the dining room table for protection from German bombs. We had our evil, rubbery-smelling gas masks with us and blankets hanging down from the table to catch any flying glass. I also seem to recall being up on my father’s shoulders somewhere in town, with warehouses burning, their windows gushing flame, and him picking his way over broken glass and hosepipes in the street. Or is this a false memory? Would he really have carried a four year-old down such a street?

Before describing my childhood, let me say something of my father, my mother and their family backgrounds.

ROBERT “BOB” ROBERTS AND FAMILY

[Note: for a couple of generations, the Roberts family seems to have found it hard to choose a name for its first-born sons, so the next page may prove confusing. Even sixty years later, when my fiancée, Sigyn, was arranging our wedding in Paris and produced documents detailing my own lineage, the town hall clerk sniffed, ‘Robert Roberts? Et encore un Robert Roberts? Mais quel manque de fantasie!’ ‘Robert Roberts? And another Robert Roberts? But how unimaginative!’ ]

Bob, was born in June, 1905 and grew up in the very poorest part of Salford, a ‘dark, satanic’ mill town separated from Manchester by the highly polluted river Irwell. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the population of Salford had grown enormously, its industries attracting many tens of thousands of skilled and unskilled workers from all over the country. Its endless rows of back-to-back houses, adjoining gas works, factories, mill chimneys, canals and railway tracks, appear in paintings by L. S. Lowry–beneath skies dark with Pennine rain and chimney smoke. Already back in the 1850s, Friederich Engels had described Salford as the ‘classic slum’.

All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen. [… ] The average construction of Salford is, in this respect, much worse than that of Manchester and so, too, in respect of cleanliness. [… ]  The working men’s dwellings between Oldfield Road and Cross Lane, where a mass of courts and alleys are to be found in the worst possible state, vie with the dwellings of the Old Town in filth and overcrowding

Oldfield Road and Cross Lane defined almost precisely the area where Bob’s father (my grandfather), Robert (yes, Robert) had been born in 1872.

Robert’s own father, Thomas (born in Manchester, 1834), possibly stemmed from Neath in south Wales. Certainly, Robert himself went on to marry a lass with a Welsh name, Jane (“Janie”) Elizabeth Jones (1873-1936), at the Weslyan Methodist Chapel, Irwell Street in 1896, and Welsh bibles were found in the attic after Janie died. In all events, Thomas worked some years in Salford as a brass finisher, but died when Robert was still an infant.

Robert had three older sisters, all bright and good looking enough to marry well and escape from their humble origins, but their brother remained resolutely working class. ‘At the age of eight,’ it was said, ‘he took up education–and twelve months later put it down, to find summat a sight better to do at the blacksmiths’.

Young Robert followed Thomas into the brass industry and was soon put to work at an engineer’s lathe. [Bob later wrote a short story, Bronze Mushrooms, which describes in touching detail the hard and tedious life of a Salford brass turner at the end of the 19th Century.] As an adult, Robert, like many working men of his time, drank heavily. “Beer is my food”, he would roar, though on marrying Janie he promised to give up drink. That promise lasted just a fortnight.

Janie was soon to have another shock when a tipsy Robert arrived home and announced that he had quit his job and, with £40 of borrowed money, had bought a grocery shop at No 1 Waterloo Street, one of the drabbest lanes in all Salford. Reluctantly, Janie agreed to give it a try, ‘for two years’, unaware that nearly thirty years of struggle and heartache lay ahead. Her son, Bob, wrote accounts of these troubled times in The Classic Slum and A Ragged Schooling, books which are now standard works of reference for anyone interested in the labouring masses of Edwardian England.

They were indeed hard times, but it was not unmitigated hardship. Robert (senior) and Janie produced six [Glyn originally wrote seven here] children-Elsie, Ada, Thomas, Bob, Arthur & Jessica of whom Bob was the fourth, born in 1905.

Thomas died, aged one, and two sisters, like their aunts, married well and quit Salford as soon as they could. The others stayed and had their good times and their bad. Even amidst poverty there could be dignity, respect, kindness and a surprising amount of humour. Several books of black & white photographs exist today showing Salford at the turn of the twentieth century, but we have only one picture of Bob, the curly headed urchin, peering out from behind a group of school children (6th from the left, below the back row), most of them poor, at a time when one child in four still walked the streets of Salford, summer and winter, barefoot.

salford pic of Bob Roberts

Bob Roberts, sixth from the left, below the back row.

 

Mrs Jane Roberts was a hard women–she had to be–but intelligent, showing flashes of humanity from time to time, and she was a great reader, as were her daughters and Bob. Bob tells in A Ragged Schooling that his father claimed he had more than once come home and found everyone with their nose in a book, ‘except ‘t bloody cat’. There is no doubt that mother and girls all spoiled Bob and he hated the prospect of becoming an apprentice engineer on leaving school at thirteen. But he had to do so, adding his modest wage each Friday to the takings of the family shop. He also attended evening classes, at Loreburn College in Manchester, where he studied technical drawing (reluctantly, to improve his work chances) and languages (avidly, for pleasure)–for he hoped to quit the grim, deafening workshop as soon as he could and become a teacher.

His chance came in the late 1920s when the teacher at his French evening class fell ill and asked Bob to supervise for a week or two. His teaching proved so impressive that the college offered him a full-time post. By now, Bob had grown into a tall, very thin young man, with a head of black curly hair and, in the mode of the day, round, wire-framed spectacles. With his teacher’s wages he could contribute to family expenses for the first time, while still getting out and about. He never drank–appalled by his father’s bouts of drunkenness–but smoked heavily. He played billiards and went to dance halls, just like any other young man with money in his pocket.

bob going up in the world

Bob, starting to go up in the world

 

It was possibly at one of these dances–though I really do not know–that he met a pretty, cultured girl called Ruth Dean. She lived with her father in Lower Broughton, an area one step up on Bob’s. Ruth demonstrated cosmetics, glassware and other goods in a Manchester department store and at evening classes, inspired by her father, Albert, she had begun to study a new language, Esperanto. Esperanto had been devised some decades earlier by a Polish linguist, L.L. Zamenhof, in the hope that its widespread use would counteract nationalism, which he saw as a primary cause of war. After the horrors of the 1914-18 war, huge numbers of people around the world heard his message and responded.

Motivated by the desire to work for international understanding between people of different tongues and, no doubt, by the chance to accompany a pretty girl to an evening class, Bob decided that he, too, would learn Esperanto. This he did and soon became a fluent speaker at international conferences working for peace during the 1930s–just as the major powers of Europe themselves geared up for war. Within a few years, Bob and Ruth started to play a prominent part in Sennaciulo–the worldwide, non-national and broadly socialist Esperanto movement.

In April 1939, conscription (compulsory military service) was introduced in Britain and Bob, convinced–rightly or wrongly–that war itself was the ultimate evil, applied for exemption on the grounds of being a Conscientious Objector. Tens of thousands of other men did likewise, usually referring to their religious beliefs, and all had to attend Tribunals, special Magistrates’ Courts, to make their case. Most had their appeals dismissed and went into the forces as non-combatants, or else to prison; many of the rest accepted to work in farming, forestry and other occupations helping toward the war effort. Bob was unusual in that he held no religious beliefs to support his case, but he argued persuasively that he had worked for peace and internationalism through the Esperanto movement for almost a decade and that it would make a nonsense of all his efforts were he now to take up a gun or in any other way be party to the war effort. Remarkably, the Tribunal respected his position and allowed him to leave the Court a free man with no conditions imposed whatsoever.

 

RUTH (DEAN) AND FAMILY

Following the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, military service in Germany became so widely accepted that those who refused conscription were no longer considered proper Germans. ’Whoever will not defend his homeland (Heimat) should leave it,’ went the word, ‘Whoever will not defend his fatherland does not have one’.

A small minority of Germans opposed this new militarism and in the little town of Künzelsau (Bad Württemberg) a young forester named Wilhelm Dehner (1863 – 1948) and his brother Ernest decided to emigrate. They landed at Hull, where Ernest lent Wilhelm a modest sum of money, with which he managed to set up as a pork butcher in Bradford.

Business was good in the early days. Wilhelm–later, ‘William’–married a German woman Sophia and they had three sons (Albert, 29 March 1887 – 1961, whose christening mug we still have; Edward and Fred) three daughters (Louise, Rose and Hilda), all of whom helped for some time in their father’s shop. The business later moved to 59 Bridge Gate, Hebden Bridge, a few miles west of Halifax.

the deans' shop in hebden bridge

The Dehners’ shop in Hebden Bridge

 

Albert (1887-1961) grew up there, was talented in drawing and music, later becoming conductor of one of the Clarion Choirs that flourished in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. In his middle twenties, he set up his own pork butcher’s shop, in Sheffield. He married Bertha Praz, also German, and on 13th January 1911, they had a baby girl, Ruth.

Ruth’s earliest memories were of the furnaces, smoke and slabs of incandescent steel glimpsed through the hellish portals of Sheffield foundries, and of the steep streets running up and down the hills on which the city stands. Albert and Bertha worked long hours–pigs had to be bought, transported, butchered, cut up and displayed; pies, sausages and brawn must be cooked and sold–and Bertha was not strong. She had no more children and, though she did not know it, she was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Yet even more difficult days loomed ahead.

ruth albert and bertha 1914

Ruth, Albert and Bertha (1914)

 

The Great War with Germany broke out in August 1914 and soon violent groups roamed the streets of English towns, vandalising and looting shops owned by German immigrants and attacking the staff. Albert was quite liked locally and his shop was never damaged, but one evening when he was away in Bradford, a gang came up the street shouting that they would ‘get’ the young German lad whom Albert had recently employed. The ailing Bertha was terrified as they neared the door, but her English shop assistant saved the day. She was Lilly Kirk, not large, but broad and tough. She told the German boy to hide in the attic and, as the thugs pushed into the shop, she stood with folded arms barring the cellar door and shouting, ‘Any bugger that tries to go down into ‘t cellar will have ter deal wi’ me first! And he’ll get a right thumpin’!’ Amazingly, since it’s the oldest trick in the book, her ploy worked and the trouble-makers backed out into the street to hunt down some other poor victim.

Anti-German sentiment proved so strong, though, that Albert could not continue in business. Feeling that he must demonstrate his loyalty to Britain, and changing his name from Dehner to Dean, he joined the army. He did not carry a rifle, but was soon in France as an ambulance worker, in a team with other German nationals, carrying the wounded on stretchers from the front line, along flooded trenches, back to first aid posts. It was horrendous and dangerous work, but during quiet periods and on leave from the front, Albert and his comrades would question war as a means of settling international disputes and became ever more convinced that nationalism divides peoples of different lands, especially the working classes. In lighter moments they entertained each other with songs, even appearing in costumed sketches. Some wrote and drew in Albert’s autograph book, as Albert did in theirs.

a drawing by albert

A drawing by Albert

 

Although these were terrible years, they exposed Albert to people with more education than he had ever known, with a wider range of ideas and values. Shocked by the carnage and futility of war and the hypocrisy of national leaders who glorified it, he developed internationalist views. If he should survive, he decided, he would work for reconciliation between ordinary working people in different countries. And at some point, he heard of, Esperanto, a relatively simple international language, which he believed had huge potential to improve contact, and therefore understanding, between working people with limited formal education.

the pierrots

Pierrots – Albert top right

 

Meanwhile, Bertha and Ruth had left Sheffield to live with Bertha’s parents in Blackpool. Even here, they were worried–Bertha’s MS grew worse and she was duped by doctors promising cures for substantial fees–anti-German attitudes were still rife and they feared for Albert’s safety on the Somme. Ruth was growing older and she loved Blackpool’s brash, noisy fun fair and the stretch of sea along the South shore, Here, too, she was drawn to the travellers who parked their Romany caravans among the sand dunes. Although reprimanded time and again by Bertha for approaching them (‘Gypsies will snatch you and take you away to the ends of the Earth’) Ruth would hover near the camp for hours, hoping to be kidnapped, longing so see the world–and would return home at tea time dismayed that no one had bothered to kidnap her.

The Great War ended, Albert returned unscathed and took wife and daughter from the seaside to the very heart of smoky Salford. He also quit pork butchery, became a vegetarian, and took work with the Royal Liver Insurance Company, pedalling his cycle down the mean streets (though the houses’ doorsteps were stoned and scrubbed with pride each week) collecting a few pennies from households to cover their doctors’ bills in times of illness.

Sadly, illness was now to deplete his own small family. Bertha died of multiple sclerosis while Ruth was still young, just starting at the Grecian Street girls’ secondary school in her new uniform. It was a progressive school for Salford, even teaching French. She loved it and she was a bright pupil. Her term report dated 3rd December showed that of ten subjects, three were marked as ‘Excellent’, five Very Good’ and two ‘Good’. All the more reason, then, to be angry and sad when Albert insisted she leave school at fifteen to keep house for them both. She felt envious each morning as classmates passed the house, off to school, while she had to wash, clean, iron and cook.

It may seem strange that an enlightened father should cut off his intelligent daughter’s education so early. Albert did pride himself on his liberated ideas–he was one of the few men in Salford at the time to go out in public wearing neither hat nor tie–but he could not afford paid help with the housework, and ‘progressive’ men in those days often had very traditional attitudes to women. Albert did try to compensate by teaching Ruth both German and the piano, which he played well (but always took the tune in duets, while she had to play the boring lower part). They had drawing materials and books in the house and lively conversation with interesting friends- anti-militarists, vegetarians, socialists, choir members, ramblers and Esperantists. He also made Ruth some spectacular costumes for the annual Easter Parades in Manchester and Salford, several times winning first prize.

 Photos: Ruth in Albert’s creations

 

Around this time, she made her first trip abroad, to Künzelsau, taking along a simple Kodak box camera. One afternoon, walking in the countryside, she met two oxen driven by a man seated high on an empty hay waggon. She took a photo, but–now comes the ghostly part–when the photo was developed, the driver had vanished! Of an evening, when I was young, she would tell me this story in a low, mystified voice, and together we would examine the yellowing photograph under a magnifying glass.

ghost driver

Ghost driver

 

In her late teens and early twenties, Ruth joined a team of travelling saleswomen demonstrating washing powders. Later, she found a better job with a large department store in Manchester city centre as a demonstrator of the store’s latest goods, from cosmetics to Venetian glass. She had become a good looking girl and she widened her ideas, going to evening classes and meetings of various worthy associations. She also absorbed a set of values–anti-militarism, equality, justice and fair play–that she followed with great determination. Sometimes she could seem a little too principled, too ‘holy’, (at least, my father thought so), but she lived by these convictions to the end of her days.

ruth displays cut glass

 Ruth displays cut glass

 

I wish now that I had asked my mother and father much more about their life during the 1930s. Perhaps I avoided doing so because that I knew there had been unhappy times, especially on the home front. According to my mother, the close-knit Roberts family -in particular the cruelly cutting Janie and certain sisters – took against her. They considered Ruth “stuck up, with fancy ideas”. My cousin Dorothy says that she, too, has heard this from other sources. It seems that my father, while proclaiming his love for Ruth when they were alone, went along with family jibes at home, even with my mother in the very next room. Of course she resented that he did not stand up for her–and whenever we touched on the subject, even half a century later, her bitterness would pour out, so often that I could not bear to hear it all again and begged her to stop and try to put it behind her.

ruth and bob rambling

Ruth and Bob rambling

 

Ruth and Bob were probably at their happiest when rambling with the Esperantist group in the Peak District or attending conferences in Britain, Sweden and Germany. Ruth loved these events, especially abroad, but Bob–though he shone at the conferences, being an excellent linguist and a witty speaker–was a poor traveller. No sooner did they leave Manchester, but he would go down with stomach pains and vomiting, particularly on the boats. These attacks would continue while they were away–but always stopped, my mother would recount, the moment they opened the garden gate home at 1 Caister Avenue and walked up the path. ‘I’m really hungry,’ he would announce, unlocking the front door, ‘What have we got for tea, love?’ Though sympathetic, Ruth found such miracle recoveries maddening. Nevertheless, she treasured her photos of the hiking groups and conference participants, only burning most of them once she reached her nineties. ‘They’re of no interest to you,’ she said, ‘You wouldn’t recognise anybody’.

Socialist Esperantist camp Bob and Ruth

Socialist-Esperantist camp. (Bob far left, Ruth in plaits.)

 

Their wedding, almost certainly in 1935, was a pitifully small affair, lasting fifteen minutes at the Registry Office. No one else in the Roberts family turned up, nor anyone from the Dean side. Perhaps they were not invited, maybe they stayed away. Bob asked one of his best friends, Bert Wilshaw, to act as a witness, while Ruth invited Lena Boden, a member of the North Manchester Esperantists. This choice was typical of my mother. Several years her senior and–how to put this?–not greatly endowed when it came to conventional good looks, Lena seemed fated never to be asked to be a bridesmaid, let alone a bride. My mother felt that natural justice dictated that Lena, too, should have her chance to be a bridesmaid, if only the once.

The ceremony concluded, Bob and Bert headed off to play billiards, while Ruth took her basket, joined the local Co-op in Prestwich, did her shopping and went home to prepare a ham tea.

 

NEXT CHAPTER: TWO: Weeting

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