Which City?

Monday, 15 April 2013

Just to be different, my blog is not about Margaret Thatcher...well, not all of it.

Since my last blog, a fortnight ago, Margaret Thatcher has died. I can't imagine how many millions of words have been written about her, and there will be yet more, so I don't need to add to that volume. Looking back at my last blog, however, I realised that if you want to know what I thought of Margaret Thatcher, it would be pretty clear, so I refer you there.

One of the reasons why my views of Thatcher are clearly to one side, is because of my heritage. I am a coalminer's daughter. And over the last fortnight I have been obsessively researching my family history, triggered by a feeling that there is nobody left now in the generation above me and I need to leave some legacy to my children, who knew little of their grandparents.

I discovered that I am a coalminer's daughter, and grand-daughter and great-grandaughter back to the ninth generation when coal was commerically mined in Staffordshire. It is fascinating to find the details of people who have carried my DNA to where it is now, but the greater fascination is in tracing through the stories of real people the economic and social history of the last five hundred years, since amazingly I have found some relatives born in the early 16th century.

After an initial breathtaking but false start when I thought I was part of a line that stretched back through earls created by Henry V, to knights slain at Flodden and even pre-Conquest back to Charlemagne, I had to concede that I was probably fantasising but the likely false link has yet to be definitively disproved. Still, it is more likely that one of my ancestors was known as 'Big Charley' rather than Charlemagne!

The truth of my heritage is that on one side it is almost exclusively North Yorkshire, in a line from the outskirts of York to a village near Saltburn which is now in Redcar and Cleveland. These families illustrate clearly the impact of industrialisation on the rural poor as increasingly young men moved alone or with their families from labouring on farms to crawling down mines - initially ironstone mines in Rosedale and after 1926 to coalmines in South and West Yorkshire. 

And here they met families of Staffordshire miners going back generations who had moved for more work to Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley, as well as Irish migrants who built roads and railways and then mined for coal. These families initially farmed the lands of the gentry, and later mined to create power for factories and wealth for mine owners. They created wealth, but their share was only ever just enough.

It is striking how much they moved around for work, how much they squeezed into one another's tiny cottages to keep a roof over their heads, how few of their children survived to old age, how some of them declared themselves (especially a women living alone with three young sons, or an old man or woman) as paupers, and how some of these people after the Poor Law did find some awful kind of safety net in the workhouse. Pickering workhouse records for the end of the 19th century are full of surnames which appear in my family tree.

Some branches of my family enjoyed a little more prosperity, with small farms and skilled work appearing now and again, but generally I am clearly from working class stock.

Interesting developments appear in my grandparents' generation, where my grandfather's move from Rosedale to Doncaster is supported by housing provided by the local council. Having returned from the First World War alive, he was indeed a worthy beneficiary of these Homes for Heroes, but the solid brick family homes had an economic benefit in enabling men with the right skills to generate wealth in the local mine.

For my parents, born in 1920, early lives of austerity if not poverty in the 20s and 30s were followed by a married life after the war of relative security, comfort and aspiration. Things began to change for them, and were different for me because they had the benefit of social housing (initially the prefab in which I was born ) within five years of their marriage in 1946. 

My father, a bright man, was prevented by a test of his families means from going to grammar school - they could not afford his uniform or equipment. I passed the eleven plus and my brother and I benefitted from state education which set us up for working lives outside of mining or factory work for women. We enjoyed good health as children with free vitamins, vaccinations, eye tests and dentistry and developed aspirations to do something with our lives. 

Our parents, their parents, and all the generations before them clearly had  worked hard, moved around for work, used every spare inch of space in their homes to good purpose, and always hoped for better. All this they did on their own, with little help from anybody. 

With the help of collective contributions into welfare services and state provision of health, education and housing, I have prospered, which was the intention. I have had a career which has meant I have paid back into the system at a fairly high level, my children hopefully will do the same. But they are already seeing the state narrowing for them - they have no expectation of social housing, they will pay back the loans for their student fees, they will pay for the dentistry, the vitamins, possibly some of their healthcare, their care in old age.

We seem to have the view that the Welfare State makes us weak. It has made me strong. It has been the platform from which I broke out of generations of poverty and despair. I was lifted up by collective kindness and collaborative effort. By being the best we could be collectively, I have been the best I can be, I hope.

I have seen through the eyes of my family that people will move for work, live in overcrowded conditions, share their resources in order to survive, but I have also seen that some of them will die in infancy, of starvation, of addiction, of early ageing because without some kind of support.

I have worked in public service all my adult life. My commitment to it is personal and professional. I think it is good for individuals and society that we contribute collectively to support those who need our help. We all recognise that in charitable giving, (and in the modern idiom, in crowdfunding), but we don't seem to apply that kind of positive logic to taxation and the state.
State support in itself does not disempower, in fact it can do the reverse, it can make us strong. After just one generation of the welfare state 'experiment' we have just pulled out some of the vital bricks of support which may see the most vulnerable suffer real hardship. It is harsh and not economically sensible to frighten people into work without good access to jobs and housing in the places where jobs exist.

Margaret Thatcher is dead in the flesh, but clearly not in the spirit.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Janet. Nice to see the subject of Thatcherism tackled in a different way