STEPHEN LEWIS looks at the remarkable link between a York-born Hollywood star and Seebohm Rowntree’s landmark study of poverty in Edwardian York.

HE’S the internationally-recognised star of films such as The Full Monty and Robin Hood. But while these days Mark Addy rubs shoulders with the likes of Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, an extraordinary BBC2 documentary to be screened next week reveals that 100 years ago, his family was living in conditions of abject poverty in the slums of York.

Three generations ago, the actor’s great-grandfather, John Thomas Addy, was the head of one of eight families whose lives were described in a groundbreaking study of unemployment by Seebohm Rowntree.

Rowntree changed the names of the families to protect their identities – so in his book, the Addys became the Nevinsons.

But the Rowntree researcher who visited their home off Walmgate left no doubt about the desperate nature of their plight.

This was no family of undeserving poor. “They are a sober, decent, well-living family, always eager for and willing to do any work however poorly paid,” the researcher wrote.

Yet, back in 1910, there just wasn’t any work to be found. Despite suffering from sciatica “Mr Nevinson”, Mark Addy’s great-grandfather, spent every day walking the city in search of work – everything from meeting the barges at Naburn wharf to digging graves at York cemetery. But he met with little success. The family lived on bread and tea – and most of Mr Nevinson’s children didn’t survive infancy. In one heartbreaking passage, the Rowntree worker describes Mrs Nevinson talking about the death of her children. She’d had a large family, Mrs Nevinson said, but “the undertaker has buried them a lot.” Subsequent research has revealed that only five of her 22 children survived.

In the documentary A Life Without Work, Full Monty star Mark is seen retracing his great-grandfather’s steps to Naburn wharf, where he walked in a vain attempt to find work, and visiting the site of the Hungate slums where his family had lived in the late 1800s before coming to Walmgate.

It was an unsettling experience, Mark admitted. In one way he felt distanced from their lives. They were just too different, and he didn’t feel he “knew” them. Nothing had been known about that side of the family until the programme was made.

“Maybe there was some embarrassment in the family that they were living in poverty.”

Yet it was also painful to learn about the conditions in which they had lived. As a father of three himself, he said he found it hard to imagine how the “Nevinsons” dealt with the death of so many of their children. “I don’t know how you cope with that.”

What really struck him, the actor admitted, was that families such as his were living in desperate poverty at a time when Britain had an empire that spanned the world.

Today, many of the strides we have taken in the last century in terms of social welfare were under threat again, he said, because of the spending review and the need to repay our national debts.

But if there is anything to be learned from Rowntree’s work, it is that we have to look after those in real need. “I feel very strongly that you cannot turn your backs on them. Look at the way the health care system has improved. To be cutting it back…. it seems to me to be obscene.”

The first part of A Life Without Work will be screened next Friday on BBC2.

Guy Smith, the BBC producer behind it, began researching the documentary in January this year. His plan was to try to trace the descendants of eight unemployed families mentioned in Rowntree’s book. But he admits he could never have dreamed where the search would end.

“That we would trace this family to an actor who starred in the only film ever made about unemployment in Yorkshire…. people would think we’d made it up!” he said.

“It’s extraordinary. I’ve been working on TV and radio for about 27 years, and it is so unusual that things work out like this.”

• The first episode of A Life Without Work can be seen on BBC2 next Friday at 9pm. The second episode follows a week later, on October 29.

‘Mr Nevinson’ never refused work

From Seebohm Rowntree’s report
“The Nevinsons lived in a four- roomed house in a very small street situated on the outskirts of the city.

Mrs Nevinson feels the heat, being tall and very stout, weighing 14 stone; they have a delicate girl of 20 who has worked in various factories but always left through ill-health and is to be married in a few weeks.

The other lad is 12, undersized for his age and the youngest girl at the Blind school.

Mr Nevinson is nearly 50, a silent man, never known to refuse work, his last regular work was for two years, since then he has only had catch jobs chiefly at the waterside.

He can neither read nor write and is well-liked both by his mates and his employers.

They have had a large family but as Mrs Nevinson once remarked ‘the undertaker has buried them a lot. Only five children are living.”

Extracts from Mr Nevinson’s diary, taken down by a married son “who is a splendid scholar”

• “July 21: Went out at 6am, walked to Naburn to meet barges, walked back, home at 2pm. Dinner - bread and tea, tired out so went to bed, got up at 7pm, had tea and bread.

• “July 26: got up at six, heard of a job gravedigging at cemetery, went to see after it at eight, but was disappointed.”

Detective work by family historians

THE story of how family historians were able to trace the descendants of one of the eight families described in Seebohm Rowntree’s 1911 study on unemployment in York to the actor Mark Addy reads like a classic detective tale.

When Guy Smith first approached Pam Elliott, of the York & District Family History Society for help, Pam thought it would be easy enough. Mr Smith had the names of eight families, and detailed descriptions from Rowntree’s book of the approximate locations where they lived. A quick trawl through the 1911 census, she thought, would surely soon turn up some clues.

To her surprise, there was nothing.

She enlisted the help of York historian David Poole. But searches in the poor law relief records and the city archives likewise drew blanks. Appeals in the local media, including The Press, were equally unsuccessful. It occurred to Pam that perhaps Rowntree had changed the names of the families in his study.

It was then that she and Mr Poole honed in on the reference to a daughter of the Nevinson’s going to the Yorkshire School for the Blind, at King’s Manor.

They went through the details of Blind school pupils recorded in the 1911 census. They knew the girl they were looking for had to be under 12. Only one girl matched: Ivy Addy, aged ten.

They then went back to the city archives, to search through the vaccination records for an Ivy Addy born in 1900. They found her – and the records gave the details of her parents, John Thomas and Jane Addy.

David and Pam then turned to the 1901 census, where they found Ivy, then aged 11 months, living with her parents and two sisters, Edith and Sarah, in Ancroft Street. But there was still a son missing. The 1911 census revealed that the Addys did have a son, Sydney, aged just seven. The Rowntree researcher who had described the Nevinson’s surviving son as ‘about 12 but undersized’ had made a mistake, Pam and David realised: he was actually only seven. All the family details matched – right down to the heartbreaking number of Addy children who died young.

Now they had the family’s real name, it was comparatively easy to trace the generations.

Sydney Addy grew up to work at the Rowntree factory; his son Ian was a glazier who worked at York Minster; and Ian’s son Mark became a film star. Ian, now retired and living in Osbaldwick, also appears in the documentary.

He admits he was “chuffed” to learn about his ancestors. He had always regretted not asking his father more about his grandfather, he says.