People who matter

About 30 of us spent Saturday afternoon thinking about an old photograph.
It dates from 1901 and shows Robert Embleton Heslop, my great grandmother’s cousin, standing in front of the old Queens Head Inn, Newbiggin by the Sea.He’s recently taken over as landlord and he’s holding up his one year old son for the camera.
Robert’s pride is palpable; you can almost hear him saying ‘my bairn, my pub.’
At the age of 35 Robert had a great deal of work ahead of him. 20 years after this photograph was taken he was still in charge of a rebuilt Queens Head and the child in his arms had made him a grandfather. With the coming of the Pit the population of what was once a tiny fishing village had multiplied 3 times.
The baby in Robert’s arms actually represented the 5th successive generation of his family to live at the Queens Head. Robert knew that he was succeeding 3 women – great grandmother, grandmother and aunt who had been the licensees before him. In all, Ann Embleton, Jinny Cowell and Sarah Davison ran the Queens Head for seven decades of the 19th Century – 1828 to 1899.
What extraordinary women they must have been.
All widowed, for many years , all mothers who lost some children in infancy, all in business at a time when women were so repressed, with opportunities so limited. They all had to manage a public house whose customers would overwhelmingly be men; fishermen, sailors, miners . Hard men from a hard men’s world.
At a time when it was reported that Newbiggin publicans were remarkably short-lived, remaining in business no more than 7 years ,they must have been formidable.
There was opposition; the temperance movement deplored the ‘ inveigling’ of young people with ‘fish suppers and dancing’. In 1874 the Medical Officer of Health joined in the condemnation; complaining that living conditions of fishing families were so cramped the wife would usher her husband off to the pub so that she could tidy up the house, thus ensuring that men acquired the habit, the taste for alcohol. Later, Dr. Reid acknowledged that these widows seemed better able to keep orderly houses than men.
Every family must have similar tales; the difference in Newbiggin is that we are building a community family history, resurrecting the interlinked family tales of thousands of people, resonating with those alive today, wherever we are in the world.
It’s important that we do so. Not only because everyone is surely to be valued in themselves but because the more we learn about people, the more we recognise our own identity and, learn to make sense of our own world.
Some think that genealogy is an interesting pastime for people with plenty of time on their hands. I think it’s critical to understanding who we are. It demonstrates respect for people; recovering information about past lives ensures that a vast treasure house of experience can be reflected upon, utilised rather than being squandered. It’s a tool with which to build humanity.
We now know that three women ran the Queens Head, spending their whole lives around a few streets in an obscure fishing village at a time when Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire spanning the globe. Yet why should accident of birth or greater opportunity mean that any human being is valued more ?
Sometimes I reflect that we haven’t really moved on. While it is possible for some individuals to rise from very humble beginnings I think we constantly re-invent an ‘aristocracy’ of money, unelected officials, so-called celebrity driven by the pernicious influence of ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ you know. Millions are simply ignored.
Whether they are alive or long dead, I believe this to be stupid as well as immoral. In a long career of meeting fancy people in fancy places my experience is of learning most about life from other kids in the back lane, children in care, powerless people who I was elected to represent, dispossessed people seeking refuge, under-valued people from undervalued communities.
We all, when it comes down to it, inhabit small places for what turns out to be a short time. However, there’s really no question of any of us living small lives. In fact it’s just sensible for us to learn to listen not just with our ears but with our whole being and to forever put the principles of equality and democracy into action.
One month today Scotland has the opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s a matter for the Scots people; what gladdens my heart is the vigorous democratic debate taking place, involving people as never before.
What utterly saddens it is the bunch of cronies from the ‘Core Cities’ group of local authorities who have the undemocratic effrontery to advocate that a Councillor elected by a few hundred people to represent one ward can thereafter be entitled to lead a million people deploying vast resources in a ‘City Region’.
100 years and more since they last walked on the earth my great grandmothers tell me that people require better than that.