From grinding poverty to Hollywood in three generations

By Richard Bilton
BBC News

  • Published

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.

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.

Image caption,
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.

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.

Image caption,
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.

Image caption,
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."

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