A Notable Wearsider, Academic and Labour Activist 16 August 1929, 13 November 2010
On 2 July 1970 an editorial in the Sunderland Echo declared: ‘Seldom has any local issue so dominated the correspondence and news columns of this newspaper as have the proposals and counter-proposals for the revitalization of Millfield during the past few years’.
The paper was referring to the Millfield clearance saga, which witnessed a vigorous campaign by a local residents’ association to save the area from large-scale demolition planned by Sunderland Council.
One of the key players in the fight to save Millfield, a closely-knit, respectable working-class neighbourhood where most of the dwellings were Sunderland Cottages erected in the late 19th century, was Norman Dennis, a sociology lecturer at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Norman, a friendly down-to-earth man whose dominant attributes included integrity and courage, was the son of a Sunderland tram driver and was born on 16 August 1929. He came into the world at 29 Booth Street, Millfield, and both of his parents were born in the same district.
Nonetheless, during the 1930s the family lived in rented tenements in various parts of Sunderland and briefly resided in a council house at Grangetown on the southern outskirts of the town.
On Monday, 4 September 1939-the day after Britain declared war on Germany-Norman became a pupil at Cowan Terrace Senior Elementary School. The following Sunday, though, witnessed the departure of several thousand Wearside youngsters (it was feared that Sunderland’s shipyards would be targeted by the Luftwaffe) and Norman became an evacuee. He was billeted at Leasingthorne near Bishop Auckland, where he stayed with a friendly coalmining family.
By the close of the year, Norman had returned to Wearside – as was true of most of Sunderland’s evacuees – partly because no air raids had so far materialised. Consequently, in the spring of 1940 – by which time a programme of reopening schools that had closed at the start of hostilities was well underway – he became a pupil at Fulwell Senior Elementary Boys’ School, where he remained until July of that year.
Norman Dennis subsequently attended Bede Collegiate Boys’ School, an esteemed seat of learning (founded in 1890 by Sunderland School Board as a ‘higher grade’ school) which, since 1929, had been located in impressive purpose-built premises on Durham Road. His contemporaries at the school included Charles Slater, who later became a lawyer and the dominant figure on Sunderland Council, and Len Harper, who likewise became a prominent town councillor. They nicknamed Norman, ‘Bunty’ Dennis.
In 1948 Norman won entrance to Corpus Christi, Oxford. However, he chose to attend the London School of Economics instead, partly because its Socialist ethos accorded with his own political beliefs: he had joined the Labour League of Youth two years earlier.
Before studying at the LSE, from July 1948 to October 1949, Dennis performed his National Service with the RAF. Thereafter, he shone at the LSE and was awarded the Hobhouse Memorial Prize as the best graduate of the year 1951-2, gaining a First Class Honours B.Sc. Econ.
Various academic appointments ensued. For example, in 1960-1 he went to America as a Fellow of the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, California. He was accompanied by his wife Audrey (whom he had married at St Columba’s Church, Southwick, in 1954) and young daughter, Julia, who was born in 1958 in the Midlands.
By 1964 Norman was back in his hometown and resident at 10 Rosslyn Terrace in Millfield, where his family was augmented by the birth of a son, John. Norman was a senior research associate of the University of Durham at this time, but in 1966 he became a lecturer at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, to which he customarily rode on his bicycle.
As noted above, he subsequently became involved in the campaign to save Millfield from a programme of demolition (approved by the Corporation in May 1965) that planned to sweep away most of the area’s Victorian dwellings by 1970. He served as the secretary of the Millfield Residents’ Association formed in November 1967. It was set up as a result of a meeting called by a local clergyman Jim Taylor, the redoubtable Vicar of St Mark’s, a church built in the early 1870s. For a variety of reasons, the association’s campaign proved a success. As Dennis recorded, Sunderland Council ‘was forced by public pressure to devise for the first time a scheme which allowed householders to take advantage of borrowing power granted to the Corporation by the central government for mortgage loans for the purpose of house purchase and improvement.’ Consequently, as grants were made piecemeal, ‘there was a slow but eventually steep rise in morale and extensive improvements proceeded apace’.(1)
Of members of the local press during the Millfield dispute, Norman recalled that Millfielders ‘couldn’t have asked for more insight or integrity from anyone than was shown by the journalists of the Sunderland Echo, especially Carol Roberton, who reported both sides of the case’.(2)
In May 1971, with the campaign to save Millfield still underway, Norman Dennis became a Labour councillor for Millfield ward. At the time the council was under Conservative control for the first and only occasion in the post-war era, a state of affairs that lasted from 1967 to 1972. Dennis stayed on the council until May 1974, and was referred to as ‘Bunty’ by his fellow Labour councillors led by Charles Slater. Characteristically, in his new role Norman did not simply follow the party line. This did not endear him to all his colleagues and neither, states Bob Hudson, did ‘his insistence on conducting all negotiations through writing rather than closed door discussions. For Dennis, transparency of action constituted the legacy of history, and he wanted everything to be “on the record”’.(3)
Of Dennis’ period on the council, Brian Dodds (who became a Labour councillor in 1970) comments that Norman and several of his colleagues, including Bob Hudson who also represented Millfield ward, ‘were instrumental in stopping the demolition [of Millfield] and also starting co-operative housing schemes in Hendon and elsewhere’.(4)
Shortly after Norman’s days as a councillor came to an end, he moved with his family to 26 Westcliffe Road (little more than a stone’s throw from the Sunderland seafront) and stayed there until the early 1980s when he moved to 3 Thompson Road.
Dennis already had several published works to his credit, and 1988 witnessed the publication of English Ethical Socialism: Thomas More to R.H. Tawney, which he co-wrote with Professor A.H. Halsey of the University of Oxford. The book reflected Norman’s view that the Labour Party had moved away from its traditional values and that a return to its original ethos was required.
In 1996 Norman Dennis retired after teaching for thirty years at Newcastle University, where he had become Reader in Social Studies. Universities further afield had offered him professorships, but he had turned them down for he did not wish to leave Sunderland.
In 2000, Dennis moved with his wife to a brand new home at Hamilton Court, North Haven, a residence from which they could enjoy views of Sunderland Marina.
His retirement was far from idle. In the same year that he settled at North Haven, he was appointed Director of Community Studies for the think-tank, Civitas, a post he held until his final illness. He also undertook research both at home and abroad. Among other things, he studied the impact of the ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to policing spearheaded on Teesside by Ray Mallon of the Cleveland Police and did research on crime and policing in France, Germany and the United States. His last published book (which appeared in 2005 and was co-written with George Erdos), was Cultures and Crimes: Policing in Four Nations.
A central facet of Dennis’ published work-Families Without Fatherhood (co-written with George Erdos and published in 1992) is an example-is that the moral decay of society, and particularly the undermining of the traditional family unit, has resulted in rising levels of criminality and disorderly conduct. His views, which he supported with a wealth of data, elicited an unfavourable response in some quarters and he was subjected to abuse. Indeed, on one occasion his work was derided as ‘Bollocks’ on the front-page of The Guardian. In contrast, much of what he said struck a chord with right-wing politicians and thus, ironically, Dennis – a lifelong Socialist – was ‘transformed from an icon of the activist left to the academic darling of the right’.(5)
During his retirement, Norman (who had a good command of French and German) derived pleasure from studying Spanish. For several years, until his health failed, he attended twice-weekly lessons from a Bolivian-born Spanish tutor at Southwick.
Dennis cycled to the lessons-a round trip of about three miles-for he was very keen on physical exercise. In August 1991, for example, he had walked from Koblenz to Aachen and around 2007 he undertook an arduous trek in the Pyrenees. Running on Roker Beach near his home and swimming in the sea, even in very cold weather, were also pastimes that appealed to him.
Moreover, even though his energy was waning, at the General Election of May 2010 he distributed leaflets and canvassed on behalf of the local Labour candidate. Of Dennis, Carol Roberton observed in a letter to a national newspaper that ‘despite all his intellectual achievements and learned works’, Norman ‘prided himself on being a foot soldier for the Labour Party, and worked for the party wherever he found himself ’.(6)
In July 2010 Dennis was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia. In late August, after undergoing treatment in hospital, he was in a cheerful mood when visited by the author one afternoon at his home. He discussed his life and career and political views. He also lamented the hedonistic, anything goes state of society, and talked about his family to whom he was devoted.
During the visit, Dennis disappeared for a while before returning with some of his own books. While fondly paging through People and Planning: the sociology of housing in Sunderland (published in 1970), whose chapters include accounts of the growth of Sunderland and slum clearance in the 1930s, he drew attention to the diagrams. He recalled how many hours of painstaking work they had entailed, and wryly observed that with modern technology undertaking such a task would be far less time-consuming.
Sadly, Norman’s health subsequently deteriorated and he died in his sleep at home late on Saturday 13 November 2010. His funeral was held at Sunderland Crematorium on Friday, 26 November, when the city was carpeted by fresh snow, the early stages of what would prove an unusually prolonged cold spell.
The funeral was followed by a memorial service at St Andrew’s Church, Roker. Among those present were Chris Mullin (who held the parliamentary seat of Sunderland South in the years 1987-2010), Professor Bob Hudson and the former Echo reporter, Carol Roberton.
In St Andrew’s, a magnificent Edwardian church aptly described as ‘the Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement’, heartfelt eulogies were delivered by David Green (the head of Civitas) and the former policeman, Ray Mallon, the Mayor of Middlesbrough. A particularly moving event occurred towards the close of the service when Norman’s 14-year-old granddaughter, Sarah Hodkinson, beautifully sang a solo performance of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’
As mourners left the church, snow was falling heavily and they were thus enveloped by unusually large snowflakes. This rendered the admirable service – a fitting tribute to one of Sunderland’s finest sons – even more memorable.
This article is mostly based on information that I received from Norman Dennis and members of his family. I also wish to thank Brian Dodds and Bob Hudson for additional information.
Glen Lyndon Dodds
A list of books by Norman Dennis:
Coal is Our Life: a sociological study of a Yorkshire mining town (with Fernando Henriques and Clifford Slaughter), (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1956).
Stress and Release in an Urban Estate: a study in action research (with John Spencer and Joy Tuxford), (London: Tavistock Publications, 1964).
People and Planning: the sociology of housing in Sunderland, (London: Faber and Faber, 1970).
Public Participation and Planner’s Blight, (London: Faber and Faber, 1972).
English Ethical Socialism: Thomas More to R.H. Tawney (with A.H. Halsey), (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988).
Families Without Fatherhood (with George Erdos), (London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1992).
Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family: How Conformist Intellectuals Have Campaigned Against Common Sense, (London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1993).
The Invention of Permanent Poverty, (London: IEA Health and Welfare Unit, 1997).
Racist Murder and Pressure Group Politics: the Macpherson Report and the Police (with George Erdos and Ahmed Al-Shahi), (London: Civitas, 2000).
The Uncertain Trumpet: a History of Church of England School Education, (London: Civitas, 2001).
The Failure of Britain’s Police: London and New York compared (co-written with George Erdos and David Robinson), (London: Civitas, 2003).
Cultures and Crimes: Policing in Four Nations (with George Erdos), (London: Civitas, 2005).
1 N. Dennis, Public Participation and Planner’s Blight, (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 213.
2 N. Dennis, The sensational versus the trivialising press, (Civitas Blog, 6 January 2005).
3 Professor B. Hudson, e-mail to author, 28 December 2010. Bob served alongside Norman (whom he admired) on Sunderland Council in the early 1970s.
4 B. Dodds, e-mail to author, 7 February 2011.
5 Professor B. Hudson, ‘Norman Dennis, obituary’, The Guardian, 29 November 2010, p. 38.
6 C. Roberton, The Guardian, 7 December 2010, p. 33.
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 46, 2015