Lionel died in December 2008. This is the interview he gave in 2006.
At 98 Lionel Anwell is a remarkable man with a remarkable life behind him. Born almost blind before the First World War he survived and prospered despite handicaps which would have demoralised most people. He is very well read, highly musical, and a lively conversationalist blessed with an excellent memory. Active in the Newcastle Labour Party from the early 1920’s, as a civil servant from 1945 he was unable to stand for the Council till after he retired in 1973. He then served as a councillor for Moorside Ward for nine years before leaving the area with his wife to live near his daughter in Canterbury. He was interviewed in April 2006 by John Charlton.
I was born 1909 in Clapham, South London. My grandfather was a manager of a goods yard at Nine Elms, London and my father a commercial traveller in ironmongery. He had an agency with Cooks of St Pauls Churchyard. Our family name Anwell was an anglicised version of a welsh name. My mother’s father was a soldier in Ireland; an army saddler. He had travelled to many different parts of the world.
After a time in the Navy, my father travelled as an iron monger sales man dealing in tools. We moved to Manchester when I was very young and lived in the Fallowfield district. I remember sitting at the table with father at the end of the table working out his income tax. In 1914 my father volunteered but he had a weak chest from pneumonia after naval service. He was told, ‘When all the soldiers are done, we’ll come knocking at the door, and ask you to pick up a gun.’
His Manchester business went well but at the outbreak of war there was a problem. He’d taken on a job order for Brunner Mond, Hamburg. The equipment was worth £1250. It was dispatched to Hamburg in July 1914. In August war broke out. There was no payment from Hamburg. Disaster struck. There was a total loss with no compensation. He struggled from August and things just got worse. We lost our lovely Broadwood piano with only £5 left to pay on it.
After two or three months we moved to Newcastle. My mother’s people were running a pub, The Lord Warncliffe on Scotswood Road. We were invited to stay there at 2. Warncliffe Street and stayed till we found our feet. Dad got a job at Armstrong Whitworths at a clerk’s wage of £2 per week which was a heavy downfall into poverty in Newcastle. We went round the area living in rooms from one address to another. There was a serious housing shortage. We had a miserable time. I was six when we left Manchester. Dad was later sent to Armstrong’s (shell) filling factory Alexandria, near Glasgow, for two years more factory work. I escaped the clutches of school board.
We went back to Newcastle straight after the war. When I was eight and a half I went to the Royal Victoria School for the Blind in Benwell. I was born with very poor sight. I could just read the headlines in newspapers. I have a nerve deficiency having been born a month premature. I was seven and half years at the school. It was a mixed experience. Some staff did not treat us properly dressing us in institutional clothes and not bothering to wash plates because we couldn’t see them. I was fortunate to get a good teacher who had returned to the school from Kings Manor York. The head master asked the class teacher if she had anyone to send up. I was told to get my things. I spent the last three years in the top class with a lovely teacher. She introduced me to Thackeray, Austen, Dickens and lots of poetry. We had a good library with a national book exchange.
I never really understood why three members of the top class were given special training but I learnt that we could be sent to Norwood, London, for a test for further education. There were three of us, Jack Foster, Gertie Bell and myself in a special division but none of us ever sent up to take the exam. I was told my family could not afford for me to go to London.
We all finished up in workshops for the blind caning, basket and mat making. I left school in 1925. I moped terribly at losing everything but round Christmas I pulled myself together. I had wanted basket making but there was room only for mats. That was all that was left. The workshop on the Battlefield then moved on to Whickham View with a cleaner, more airy building. I was eighteen years as a mat maker right up to the end of the second world war. An opportunity came with the 1944 Disabled Persons Act where the chance came to change your occupation. I chose telephone operating but soon lamp signals were put in so I had to leave. I moved on to short hand and typing where I reached 120 short hand and 80 typing speed. I became a Grade Two short hand typist in the Civil Service. I got all the proficiency allowances and stayed till retirement in 1970 at the Central Exchange building, Prudhoe Street.
I was involved in lot of club activity. I joined the Tyneside Recreation Club. I signed on and had lots of jobs connected with it. We had fully sighted help but we ran the Club. As a teenager I got myself elected to the committee. I remained friends with these people till we went our separate ways. I continued to correspond with Jack Foster and exchanged tapes until his death. Peter Wallace was the secretary of the club. Peter’s was a strange position. He had gone to Worcester College for the handicapped and on to Oxford to study law but because his parents’ money ran out and he had to leave. His father, a Deputy Pit manager, had lost his job. He became Secretary of the Club and with his law background was good at it. We organised Dances and a small choir giving concerts around the area.
I joined the Clarion Vocal Union. George Matthews who was partially sighted was also a mat maker and a fine tenor. He asked me to join The Clarion Choir as a baritone. I stayed till they broke up in the Second World War. Colin Veitch, the footballer and actor conducted the choir till he died in the late thirties. It improved my singing quite a lot. Peggy Murray was also in the choir. I knew her well. She was Manageress of the Co-op Fruit Department at Newgate Street. I would do the shopping and meet her there. She was a councillor for many years. I was also a member of the International Club on Jesmond Road. We invited Tory MP Cuthbert Headlam to speak during the Spanish Civil War. He explained that after international agreement the British would blockade arms supplies to ‘both’ sides. Of course the Germans and Italians supplied Franco. It was a mad, mad world. Many Spanish refugees came to the north east and got a lot of help.
I met my wife Jessie through Esperanto. I met her socially when she was teaching French at Bishop Auckland after graduating from the Sorbonne in 1940. We loved Symphony Concerts and she would come up to Newcastle for a Concert. I would get tickets. She would come up and meet on Sunday and go back straight away. She started to come up on Saturdays and one thing led to another. One Saturday when she came to stay I was down in the dumps. My girl friend had sent a letter saying it was over. It hurt quite a bit. Sitting on the lawn. My father had told her. She said, ‘ I understand you have had a nasty shock. I said it has been dealt with. That was factual but not elegant. She said, ‘I never want you to suffer like that ever again.’ From there on we got together. We got married in 1945 on the 22nd December.
My father wanted to argue the point politically though he was really not politically minded. He was a great royalist. He listened intently to the King’s Speech on xmas day. I always wanted to get away from it. Most of my life I have had an objection to cow towing to people in positions. It could get me into a spot of bother. For example the staff in typing section went off to Northumberland Road to see the Queen. The supervisor said ,”You should show your loyalty.” It was not for me.
I had joined the LP when I was 16 in 1924. I wanted the impoverished to have a better deal and we needed to work for it. My membership sub was 6d per month. I was a member till 2004, eighty years! I remember Bob Hanlan and Jimmy Clydesdale. Both blind, real Glaswegians and both active councillors. I was elected to the council after my retirement in 1973. We had the view that only Tory workers would get time off to attend meetings My friend Eric Walker was my agent for nine years of failure to be elected for Wingrove Ward. After I had left Newcastle Eric rang me to tell me he had been elected, first time, without my help! It was a joke.