North-East political giant who masterminded bid to bring Nissan cars to Sunderland
THE SUNDERLAND civic leader Charles Slater, who spent decades fighting for the future of his city, has died aged 88. Charles Slater brought Nissan cars to Wearside, championed comprehensive education and revamped the city centre during his 33 years as a driving force in local politics. He also served as Labour Leader of the Council, Deputy Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear and Mayor of Sunderland, in addition to working as a solicitor until his late sixties. Charles was a giant on the north-east political scene, having led the Sunderland Council for three decades, which earned him the soubriquet “Mr Sunderland”.
“Charles gave an enormous amount to the city he was so proud of. He will be very sadly missed by a great many people,” said Sunderland Central
MP Julie Elliott. “Charles was very supportive of me when I stood for Parliament, and always gave good advice. He was a man of great wit and intelligence, who devoted much of his life to Sunderland.”
Former Sunderland Echo writer Carol Roberton, who worked with Charles on the Wearside “War for Work” campaign in the 1980s, recalled: “Charles felt drawn to politics, as he wanted to give something back to society. He was a man who would go not the extra mile but the extra marathon in the cause of Sunderland. His huge intellect and great wit made him a giant of the political and legal scene.”
Described by the Conservative 0pposition leader Peter Wood as a skilful politician and excellent debater, Charles was considered the mastermind behind the bid to bring Nissan to Wearside — his “proudest political moment” — fighting off national competition, as well as opposition from the left wing of his party. (His death came shortly after Nissan announced plans for a new major car investment in Sunderland, the first post-Brexit, which will build the next Qashquai and X-Trail models, safeguarding thousands of jobs.) In 2014, however, Charles — by then battling progressive Parkinson’s Disease — and his wife Sonia took the tough decision to leave Sunderland for London to be closer to their children, Laurence and Sharon. “Dad was always loyal to Sunderland. The town was in his blood. He took great pride in telling everyone he met about his time in politics and being Mayor of Sunderland,” they said. “Even after he moved to London, he took a great interest in everything that happened back home. In his latter months his books and memorabilia of Sunderland were a great comfort to him.”
Sunderland was in the grip of the industrial revolution when Rabbi Charles Cohen, Charles’s great-grandfather, fled Lithuania for Wearside in 1888, penniless and unable to speak English. But the rabbi received a loan from Sunderland Hebrew Board of Guardians and, within a few years, he had founded the Beth Hamedrash Synagogue in Mowbray Road. His descendants were to have a huge influence on Wearside politics and none more so than Charles Slater.
Charles was born in Gateshead to furniture store manager Sidney Slater, and his wife Sarah, and the family moved to Sunderland shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
He was educated at Sunderland’s Bede Grammar School, and subsequently read Law at Durham University. He went on to become the managing partner in a local firm of solicitors, alongside his demanding political career. Charles married Sonia Clark, a primary school teacher on November 6, 1956. He was a stalwart of the Sunderland Jewish community and of the Hebrew Congregation’s Orthodox Synagogue in Ryhope Road. Although his political focus was consistently on the bigger picture of local government affairs, he still served on the synagogue council and concerned himself — with a characteristic twinkle in his eye — with parochial, communal matters.
For decades, both he and Sonia were outstanding ambassadors for the Jewish community, notably in his year as Mayor of Sunderland, when he entertained United States President Jimmy Carter, then paying a visit to the US-owned Pyrex factory. In later years, before his move down south, Charles and Sonia took a prominent role in interfaith educational and community work in the North East, earning respect and admiration from regional educational leaders and grassroots teachers.
Sunderland’s “Litvak” community, which had thrived during the post-war years and produced many outstanding scholars, professionals and businessmen, would, by the turn of the millennium, dwindle to virtually nothing, an inevitable victim to the lure of London, Manchester, the United States and Israel. However, Charles and Sonia were among the last to leave, reluctantly tearing themselves away from their beloved Sunderland and moving south to Bushey in order to be close to their children. But the city will not forget Charles’s outstanding contribution and unstinting service he gave it in his lifetime.
Sonia predeceased him six months ago. Charles is survived by Laurence and Sharon,and two grandsons, Daniel and Alexander.
SARAH STONER AND RONNIE LANDAU
Charles Slater: born January 29, 1929. Died February 25, 2017
Charles Slater with wife Sonia