The poignant story of a South Tyneside woman's hardship and tragic loss
After telling us about the ultimate sacrifice made by young soldier Harry Smith in the First World War, his great niece, former Shields woman Pamela Siegel today continues to shed light on her family's history.
In her account, entitled The Hardship and Pain of a Wife and Mother, she concentrates on Harry’s mother, Helen Jane Niddrie (formerly Patton, Smith), who was born in 1873 and died in 1940.
“As we remember Harry, what of his mother, my great grandmother?” asks Pamela.
“She did not remarry, or I should say, she did not take another partner, as she was already married before setting up home with Henry Smith. Back then, divorce was for the rich, not for the poor.
“I cannot imagine the feelings and emotions that Helen endured in her lifetime. For not only did she lose her partner Henry at sea, in May 1907, and her son Harry in the Great War, she also lost her first born, John Thomas Patton, Private 467112 of the 5th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, who died on September 27, 1916, while serving in France.
“The death of a child is the most devastating loss, but to lose two sons within seven months of each other, Helen’s life would have been forever changed.
“As a mother, she would have mourned their loss of life, their potential and their future.”
Pamela reveals that prior to their deaths, the 1911 Census shows that two of her other children, George and Margaret, had been sent into the care of Dr Barnardo’s Homes.
George was placed in the Juvenile Mission, Mile End Old Town, London, and Margaret into the care of a family in Greens Norton, Northamptonshire.
“I can only guess that they were sent to the homes after her partner Henry died, and the birth of her youngest child, Gladys, in June 1907.
“To be parted from her children, to have missed out on their childhood years, this decision would not have been easy for Helen or any mother to make. But then again, perhaps her only other option was the workhouse, and Dr Barnardos was a God-send, where she could have her children placed in a safe-care environment, and where they would have been educated, fed and clothed.
“At what age did the children return home, I do not know, but I would surmise that it would have been at the age of 12, school leaving age.”
When they did return home, George joined his brother Harry at St Hilda’s Colliery, while Margaret and her sister Gladys travelled to London, looking for work.
“Was it Helen’s decision to send George to work at St Hilda’s Colliery with Harry, if yes, then it was a decision that she had to live with, as George met with an accident at the age of around 15, when his left arm was caught in the coal conveyor belt and it had to be amputated.
“Margaret and Gladys moved to London sometime in the early 1930s. In the late 1920s, early 1930s, the country was in recession, especially the North East. Women were not eligible for benefits if they refused to take up available jobs in domestic service, so perhaps the girls moved to the capital in search of work – and a better life.
“In her later years, Helen worked as a supervisor in the dressmaking department at Croftons, a big store on the corner of Market Place. She lived with her son George and his family at 5 Beethoven Street.
“Helen’s health was not good, and on September 1, 1939, she was evacuated from Harton General Hospital to the Relton House Hospital, in Chester-le-Street. How do I know this? My granddad George, Helen’s son, kept an annual birthday book, recording events that happened in his life.”
Pamela goes on to say that Helen died on February 3, 1940, aged 66.
“My last search was to find her final resting place, which I did. She is buried in a pauper’s grave in Chester-le-Street Cemetery.
“I ask myself, did she die alone or were her three surviving children with her? I hope it was the latter, no one should die alone.
“They say that happiness can be found, even in the darkest of time. I hope that Helen was strong enough to reach out and that she found happiness ... and peace.”