My grandmother, Mabel Harrison, was brought up in a large villa, Parkhill, in West Hartlepool, County Durham. It had been built for her solicitor father, Matthew Harrison, in 1890. I do not know how
many bedrooms the new house had, but there were seven children and a live-in cook/domestic. It looks imposing with a croquet lawn at the rear, and possibly a tennis court as well. Matthew Harrison was a prominent local figure who had grown wealthy along with the new town of West Hartlepool which had not not existed until the railway arrived in 1839. New docks from 1847 onwards meant it became a transportation centre for coal, wool and other goods and by 1900 it was the 4th largest port in the country. Its prosperity was also due to iron and steel and shipbuilding. By 1913 upwards of 150,000 tons of ships were being launched each year. Much new infrastructure was built, for example the Grand Hotel (1899), St. Oswald’s Parish Church (1904) and the Co-op Stores (1913). Skating rinks, parks and the Headland promenade made it a fashionable place. There was doubtless a considerable demand for legal services.
West Hartlepool’s decline was as dramatic as its rise. Despite many improvements in the inter-war years, including a bathing pool and promenade extension on the Headland, the Great Depression and stagnating world trade saw the Hartlepool’s unemployment figures top 24% and the population remained static at around 90,000. The solicitors Matthew Harrison & Sons suffered along with the fortunes of the town. When Matthew died in 1933 his eldest son, who had joined him in the family business, was pessimistic about the value of his estate. The house itself was sold, divided into four flats and eventually demolished in 1950. Such were the powerful economic forces that determined our ancestors’ lives. But this heyday of pre-First World War prosperity left an intangible legacy. One of Matthew’s seven children, my grandmother Mabel, told stories of past comfort and social status which left a deep impression on me.