Donald White (standing, centre), with the chemistry department of Salford Tech, c.1932

A life devoted to public education

My father Donald White (1904-1983) was a lifelong advocate for public education. He is commemorated in a feature about my memoir Children of Coal on a blog from the library at the University of Salford, where he taught for more than 30 years when it was simply “the Tech”.

Born in Manchester, the heartland of the Industrial Revolution, he studied his way out of poverty in the years after World War One – just like my mother Joan over in Yorkshire. His father, an engineering worker, was frequently out of work and on the drink, and it was his mother Winnie who encouraged his education.

He won the prestigious Crace Calvert scholarship to read chemistry at Manchester University, but felt he couldn’t take it up without bringing in some money. So he made up lipsticks in Winnie’s kitchen and hawked them door to door. He worked in the city’s industries when he graduated, but moved into teaching at Salford’s Royal Technical College in 1931 – just as salaries were cut. He was a Lancashire man, careful with money, but money was never his aim in life.

He hated fascism, and had left the Catholic Church because of its support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He taught us about civil rights and social justice. He loved teaching his students, especially the influx who came, after World War Two, from the West Indies, Africa and the Indian sub-continent. They made him an honorary life member of the Students’ Union.

When I was three, in 1951, he moved us out of Manchester to the coast to save us from the smog that gave me chronic bronchitis. That meant he got up at 5am every day to get the train into Salford to work.

He was in love with chemistry and the dance of molecules. But he also loved cricket and gardening and the classics, and when I struggled at school with chemistry definitions, in a way my scientifically-minded sister did not, he set them to music for me. He took us sailing on a little dinghy he had a share in, and to Old Trafford for an Ashes match.

He died from cancer on a cold Valentine’s Day night in 1983. He had very little eyesight left by then, but his last act, with my mother by his side, was to watch a Panorama program that was highly critical of the detested British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Falklands War.

All his life he had kept a box of secrets, that he shared only with his grandson. The night before the funeral we opened it. There was a copy of the Manchester Evening News announcing the end of World War One, and another newspaper cutting from 1926 with a photograph of him and his brother brandishing the stumps during a pitch invasion when Lancashire won the County Cricket championship. There were pictures of his first wife Alice, who died tragically from cancer, and a photograph of a Jewish student of his, Hyman Cohen, who had left the Tech during World War Two to join the RAF and fight Nazism, and was shot down and killed.

That night was 39 years ago, and I still think of him every day. He and my mother are the heroes of my memoir Children of Coal.