From grinding poverty to Hollywood in three generations

Mark Addy's great-grandfather and his children were buried in an unmarked grave

A century after a ground-breaking investigation into unemployment, the remarkable journey of one British family has been traced. It starts amid the deprivation of industrial Yorkshire and ends in the glamour of film stardom.

Exactly 100 years ago an extraordinary investigation began into the lives of the poor. It provides a detailed account of the staggering poverty many of our grandparents or great grandparents endured.

"Up at five, walked round and round the town until 12. Nothing doing anywhere, so I was fairly sick of walking about. No breakfast, no tea and no supper. Went to bed around 7.30."

In 1910, Mr Nevinson was having a hard time of it. Living in York, he was out of work, out of luck and running out of money. If he didn't find a job, he and his family didn't eat. From his diary we know the family were only eating about a third of the calories they needed.

They reveal that in one week they had just tea and bread for most meals. Occasionally they could afford margarine or jam as well. Sundays seemed plentiful in comparison.

Monday:

  • Breakfast - Tea, bread and margarine
  • Dinner - Tea, bread and margarine
  • Supper - Tea, bread

Tuesday:

  • Breakfast -Tea, bread and jam
  • Dinner - Tea, 3 stale buns
  • Supper - Tea, bread

Sunday:

  • Breakfast - Tea, kippers, bread
  • Dinner - three pennyworth of meat pieces boiled with potatoes
  • Tea - bread and margarine, onions

The Nevinsons were only keeping a diary because of a unique investigation launched by Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, who ran the family chocolate company. The family were Quakers and their faith deeply influenced how they ran the company, but also Seebohm's interest in the poor.

York was a relatively wealthy city, but the Nevinsons' story was by no means unusual. Far too many of its population were living in poverty, according to Rowntree, who campaigned to ensure the rich and powerful knew what was going on.

The young Winston Churchill was an admirer, saying Rowntree's findings made his hair stand on end. "I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves but is unable to flush its sewers," he said.

In 1910 there was little that we would recognise as a welfare state and little interest in the likes of Mr Nevinson. Rowntree sent researchers out into the city of York with instructions to speak to every one who was struggling to find work. As the concluding report notes, there were hundreds of them.

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree Pioneer in highlighting the problems of poverty - Seebohm Rowntree

It was the first time the poor had been given their own voice. Of the Nevinsons, they said: "They are in arrears of rent and have a heavy bill at the corner shop. Until that is paid off, the family will continue to live almost entirely on bread and margarine."

It's a chilling insight into a world most of us would barely recognise. Only 100 years ago life was brutal if you were without work.

Neighbours testify that the family were sober, decent and well living, always willing to work however poorly paid.

"Nothing is against the Nevinsons but back luck," they added.

Blind daughter

Infant survival rates were shocking at the time. Mrs Nevinson lost almost all her 22 children either in childbirth or as infants. They had three surviving children, a son called Sydney and daughters, Audrey and Ivy, who was blind.

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  • A Life Without Work begins on Friday 22 October on BBC Two at 2100 BST

The names in the Rowntree study are all changed to protect their identity. But Ivy's blindness provided a clue as to their identity. A girl the same age with the same family background was enrolled at the local blind school. Her name was Ivy Addy.

Mr Nevinson it turned out was in fact John Thomas Addy.

So what became of John Thomas Addy and his children? We know he moved to a better house. But we don't know whether he found work. He lived for another 20 years and it's likely things improved for him.

Ivy, the blind girl, only lived to be 23. But Sydney, who worked in York's expanding chocolate industry, and Audrey both grew up and had children of their own.

Ian Addy is one of the so-called Mr Nevinson's grandchildren. He lives in a bungalow no more than two miles from where his grandfather kept his diary.

Cutting up boots

He had no idea his family's history had been so carefully recorded or that his own father, Sydney, grew up in such abject poverty. His father never talked about being poor.

Sydney Addy Sydney Addy - one of only three of the 'Nevinsons'' children to have lived

The diary describes Sydney aged 12 as underweight but healthy. Another diary entry has John Thomas Addy cutting up some old boots to repair his son's footwear. When Ian was shown the diary, not surprisingly he found the details very moving.

"It's just an age that's gone by and looking through a keyhole and seeing that and realising how lucky I am now," he says.

Ian grew up in a simple terraced house in York. His dad's steady job at the cocoa works meant they weren't desperate.

"I found reading what my ancestors had done and the struggle of that particular time was just something that… was amazing really."

Rowntree's study was published and - along with all Seebohm Rowntree's work - went on to influence the creation of the welfare state and provide an escape from poverty for families like the Addys.

The striking thing about the Addys' journey through the last century is how much has changed for working-class families.

Film star in family

John Thomas Addy couldn't earn enough money to buy food. His son Sydney was poor but had regular work. By the time we reach Ian, there were far more opportunities. He spent his working life as a glazier in York Minster.

Ian and Mark Addy Ian Addy and his film star son, Mark

Post-war Britain was a place of great social mobility - and the Addys' ascent from grinding poverty up the ladder of prosperity is testament to that. It perhaps no more apparent than in the experience of Ian Addy's son, Mark.

He lives a life as far removed from that of his unemployed great-grandfather as you can imagine. Mark Addy is a successful film actor whose breakthrough film was The Full Monty, about unemployed people in Yorkshire. He recently starred as Friar Tuck alongside Russell Crowe in Hollywood's latest depiction of Robin Hood.

"What are the chances of that," he says, speaking of the diaries. "But that's… I suppose that's the nature of these things… you never know where the path will lead you to."

From poverty to Hollywood in four generations, Mark Addy works all over the world but he still lives in York. He too had no idea about his family's story, but says he's proud of what his great-grandfather did.

"He was just being truthful about the way he lived and the way his family lived but it is extraordinary that it is part of... our social history."

Below is a selection of your comments

It is astounding that such a climb could happen so quickly. But I understand it, a similar climb occurred in my family as well. Hopefully, such ascents into better life can continue.

Maegan, Gainsville, USA

Oh! that is amazing, I was reading Addy and remembering a doctor, I worked with in Leicester, she told us that she was Mark Addy's cousin, about 1996? She worked there, so they came on in many ways, (She had a different surname so could have been from a different wealth background, but cousins all the same)

Heather, East Lyme, CT, USA

It does seem modern Britain forgot what it's like to be poor with all the wailing and bleating over taking child tax credits off people in the 40% tax bracket. We had kids growing up on tea and bread but apparently we have so much 'poverty' in Britain something has to be done. It's not poverty, it's being relatively not so well off. The days when families could only afford bread and tea for a week was poverty.

Dave, Bridgend

The Addys were lucky-although poor they were a united family-although of humble origins they moved up the social ladder because of hard work, ambition, self control and respectability - what a difference to the so called jobless poor nowadays. John Addy would weep if he could see us now.

Christina Burton, Eastbourne

I don't really understand the 'spin' put on this otherwise interesting story. It's hardly a case of ascending some supposed post-war ladder of prosperity is it? More like a shift from unreliable employment to relatively dependable but modest employment for two generations followed by a lucky break (a Hollywood career is hardly the typical experience of most working class people is it?). I wonder what the typical trajectory would be for a member of the wealthiest 20% in that time.

Dave Pinnock, York

Your touching story depicts life in many African communities. For many of us, we are the Ians of today- the immediate succeeding generation. We are encouraged however by the emergence of Mark. Our children and grandchildren will not share in our experience.

Agadah, W.O., Yenagoa, Nigeria

I have been researching my family tree and suspect that my family background in Leicester was rather similar. My ancestors, back in the 1870's, were part of the migration from countryside to city where there were opportunities in the new factories. But from the little I've ascertained life was hard. It really makes you think, doesn't it? Especially when so many have the luxurious recourse now of Social Security.

Paul, London

What a moving article. This is what life was like in Britain before the welfare state.

Andy Walpole, Romford

Is this supposed to be some 'good luck story'? How fortunate the Addys must be to have survived the 1st WW, the flu of 1918 and the depression. No doubt most of the other people interviewed back in 1910 didn't have anything like the success. Please don't tell us how such reports affected Winston Churchill, the people of Wales know exactly what he thought of the poor.

John Bennett, Swansea, Wales

The infant mortality numbers are the real story here - when children survive, and mothers are able to have only 1 or 2 children confident that they will live to adulthood, they are able to live much more productive lives. I wonder how the daytime TV generation would handle the thought of having twenty two children, and watching nineteen of them die as infants? I would imagine there would be a lot less whining about benefit cuts.

Ian Lowe, Airdrie, Scotland

Well, after reading that story, i suppose I shouldn't be bitter that I was informed yesterday that my employment with the council is now ended. At least my husband still has a job, and we have a roof over our heads, albeit a static caravan. At least we're not living in the streets (yet).

Sonja Griffin, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria

Poverty was often seen as a crime by those in power or wealth, the workhouses were the first attempts at social welfare and were brutal, cold and awful places so much so that people committed suicide to avoid them. Families were split up, children never saw siblings or parents again and many died young from rampant diseases, all this while the wealthy built enormous palaces on cheap labour.Period drama's only focus on the life of these wealthy few when the reality is abject misery, grinding poverty and early death for a large part of society.

Andy, Skipton

Growing up in Belm in the 40s was hard, I can tell you (so I will). Like the Addys', us Jacksons' didn't have a lot of a lot of food and really had to tough it out, often surviving on scraps we found in the neighbourhood yards. We mainly ate stale bread and powder but once a month we would go into nearby Osnabrück and feast on weisswurst and obazda cheese. Things improved when we later moved to England but I'll never forget my early childhood in Belm.

Provastian Jackson, Belm, Lower Saxony, Germany

he move from the grinding poverty described in this article to our relative comfort with the welfare state was not evolutionary, nor was it primarily changed by the Rowntrees or any of the other philanthropists - however well meaning. The changes were fought for and won over many years by ordinary people. In 1943 this was summed up by the Tory MP Quintin Hogg saying "We must give them reform or they will give us revolution". It worries me that a group of millionaire Old Etonians (We are all in it together!?) are doing their utmost to reverse those reforms so hard won. We have the largest disparity between rich and poor since the days seen in the article, hearing Cameron using Kitchener quotes it smacks of "Our Sacrifice" of WWI where the poor suffered most and the "Land fit for Heroes" failed to materialise. Pass the marg!

Jezz Etheridge, Ramsgate, England

An utterly moving account of the state of the nation. How different life was then. As we look down the barrel of the forthcoming age of "austerity", it puts some perspective on our comfortable financial position. Yesterday's interview with the PR exec who couldn't give up his real ale appears somewhat trite in comparsion. It's also hard to imagine that in 1914, men were queuing up to go to war, just so they could earn a wage. Sad times.

Chris, Godalming

Can I suggest that those interested in this story read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. This book is a defining account of working class life in the early 20th Century.

David Howie, Dunblane, Perthshire

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