In times of hardship when people had next to nothing, they were forced into a world of low-level crime. Burglary, prostitution and gambling all appear in ‘The Five Stone Steps’ a fictionalised account of life in South Shields Police Force during the 1920’s. I asked author John Orton, who is originally from South Shields but now lives near Bristol, where did he find the inspiration and how long did it take to write the book ? ’A long time, Gary. After I’d retired from work due to stress I’d started writing as a hobby – just to keep myself occupied, really. I’d taken up family history and become fascinated by the story of my forbears who’d arrived in Shields in the 1890s. My Grandmother, a real Geordie Hinny, used to come round to our house every afternoon for tea – once she started talking she never stopped. Her family had come from Norfolk and landed in Maxwell Street. I had an idea of writing a whodunit set in Shields in the 1900s. I needed some info about the police in Shields and thought that my very good friend, Tommy Gordon might be able to help. His father had served in Shields Police and Tommy told me some of his stories. Tommy rummaged around on his bookshelves and pulled out a dog eared manuscript of his Dad’s ‘Memories’ of his days in the Shields Police. Tommy’s Dad, Jock, had gone to live with his son when he was too old to look after himself. He was depressed and at a loose end. Tommy and his wife Marilyn suggested that as he was always telling old stories then why didn’t he write them down as ‘memoirs’. So he did. Of an evening, sitting at a table by his electric fire, a glass of whisky at hand, he’d write down his reminiscences’.
‘When I started reading them I could almost hear the gravelly voice, and smell the whisky fumes, as I discovered the lost world of 1920s Shields – pubs galore where Bobbies got their pint, bookies and runners on every street corner, working girls who used to hang out at the Market Place, and so on. It was the same world that my Grandmother used to talk about – apart from the girls ! At that time I had no idea of writing a book but thought that this very important piece of social history ought to be preserved. The ‘Memories’ themselves were just that – a couple of pages a night, not in any particular order, just what came into Jock’s mind. I set about transcribing them, putting the stories into some sort of order, cutting out the duplication, and doing some very light handed editing’.
With attention to detail of real locations in Holborn, Laygate and Tyne Dock. How much research did you do ? ’Looking back, the research probably took a lot more time than the actual writing. In transcribing Jock’s hand written memoirs I would sometimes have difficulty in reading proper names, like streets and pubs. I’d bought some old 1900’s Maps of Shields to help with my family history research and these were often my first source of reference. I was born in 1949 at Wayside on the Marsden council estate and knew the general layout of the old parts of Shields on the Lawe Top, Laygate and Tyne Dock before the slum clearances of the 60s and 70s. The very old parts of Shields along the riverside, Holborn, Wapping Street and Shadwell Street had all been demolished in the thirties. Looking at a map did not give you much of a feel for these old places and that’s where old photographs came in. When I last visited Shields some fifteen years ago, I went to the local history library where they have thousands of old photos and postcards. This invaluable archive is now available online at https://southtynesidehistory.co.uk and was one of the major tools in my research’.
‘Census returns for 1911 and the Kelly Street Directories, were all useful in getting an idea of life in the cobbled terraced streets of Shields. I would research each story as I went along. I am not a writer who plots everything out in advance from beginning to end. I start with an idea and then develop this as the story progresses through the eyes of the characters. What would he or she have done next ? This sometimes caused a problem when I needed to check something. For example, were Woodbine tabs smoked in the 1920s ? (I learned the hard way never to make assumptions.) In checking that out I might come cross something else which would mean that I needed to make some changes in an earlier chapter’.
How much of the book is fact or fiction ? ’I met Tommy’s father once. Just a quick hello and goodbye although he left a distinct impression. He still spoke with a Glaswegian accent and was quite a character. But when I started writing the book with him as the narrator, I realised how little I knew about him. So I decided to give him a fictional name mainly to give me free rein to develop his character as each chapter progressed. For the same reasons I gave all characters in the book fictional names apart from one or two who only make the odd appearance. Some of them were criminals or shady characters who might still have family in the town. The fictional Doyle family, for example, was based on a real Shields family of villains. The father was a pimp, the mother a prostitute, the older brother and sister were sent down for incest and the youngest lad ran away to join the Foreign Legion. This is very much the pattern of the book’.
Are the stories based on real events ? ‘All the stories are based on events that really happened but I have created some characters, and changed some story lines to carry the tale along. I always strove to ensure that what the narrator was saying sounded authentic. For example in a Pair of Boots young Billy Ruffle is caught up in a hunger march from Jarrow to Shields. He steals a pair of boots, he is chased and caught by the mounted officer and marched back to the station, he is birched, finally he is encouraged by the Station Sergeant to take up boxing. In the ‘Memoires’ there was a hunger march in Shields and the Police charged the demonstrators with truncheons drawn. On another occasion a thief was caught by the mounted Polis who threatened to take his horse up the back stairs and through the flat where the culprit was hiding unless he was handed over. Jock Gordon did witness the last birching in Shields, and boxing was a popular sport. The character who I call Billy Ruffle was the thread that brought all these events together into one chapter’.
Did any of Jocks stories stand out ? ‘One of the tales that caught my eye centred on the fact that around the Market Place, publicans would leave out a little pot of whisky by the back door for the bobby on night shift. It had been known for a young bobby not on a whisky beat, to ‘poach’ a pot – the worst trick in the book, according to Jock, and one that would have repercussions. I thought that with a bit of work it could become a good little story, and I wrote A Nip of Whisky. It was then that the idea of The Five Stone Steps was born. Each story was free standing, but together they told the story of Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon’s early years in the Police in the 1920s. The title ‘The Five Stone Steps’ was a no brainer – it was a legend in Shields that whenever a culprit came up in court with black eyes, broken bones, the explanation given was that he’d accidentally tripped down the five stone steps that led into the building. Each story presented its own problems. Jock only ever gave the bare minimum and I would have to fully research the background, and create the odd character, or story line to fill out a tale. It took well over a year before the first draft was finished. It then went through several major rewrites before I had a version I was happy with’.
How much do the stories reflect the times ? ’The old photos are black and white – as well as helping the reader to visualize Shields as it then was, this also gives a period feel. Life was a lot harder in those days and so were the people. They would have a laugh and although they would suffer when times were hard they just got on with it. Jock Gordon had served three years in the trenches and survived. He would have seen needless death, and the agonies of the wounded. He told things as they happened, without any pathos or melodrama. Ordinary working people in Shields in the twenties and thirties lived lives that we would find extremely harsh if not unbearable. A pitman would work an eight hour shift in the pitch dark with only his lamp, or his pit pony for company. His wages would not always feed his wife and children. Most families lived in two rooms in a flat with a cold tap in the yard and a netty they shared with the neighbours. Street betting was rife, as punters dreamt of the big win and men would spend their wages in the boozers to forget their troubles. Families and neighbours stuck together and shared good times and bad. The stories in the Five Stone Steps do not deliberately dwell on the light and shade of life 100 years ago, they merely reflect it’.
There is a story of a fire in a pub near the station where the police manage to ‘rescue’ a large quantity of alcohol… it found it’s way back to the station. Did you find yourself laughing along with the stories and characters ? ‘Yes and I still do when I re-read a chapter. The ability to laugh at someone else’s misfortune is a natural way of lightening the load of everyday life. Like Inspector Mullins, a stickler for the correct writing up of incidents in a PC’s notebook, is on the lookout for mistakes. Ruth Lunn was editor and proof reader. She rung me up after a few days of receiving the manuscript and said that she was enjoying the book and had disturbed the others in the office with her laughing. In my serious voice I told her off: ‘You’re not allowed to laugh when you’re proof reading, Ruth – you have to take it seriously’ and then laughed with her’.
Were there many stories that you left out of the book ? ’Jock Gordon was a Scot who joined the Shields force after the Great War and his take on Shields is that of a newcomer to the town. His memories include first impressions not only of the Police but also of the town itself. He reflects a lot on his early days and the bulk of his early stories appear in The Five Stone Steps – covering the period from 1919 to about 1924. He did of course continue his accounts through the twenties and thirties and made a brief mention of the War, but it was clear to me that his fondest memories were of his early days on the beat’.
What else you been working on ? ‘After I’d completed the first version of The Five Stone Steps several years passed before I took the plunge and published the book. During this time I put my hand to writing a sequel using Jock’s later stories. I was never really happy with it and it went on the back burner until after I’d published The Five Stone Steps and then Blitz PAMs – the blitz on Shields through the eyes of a Police Auxiliary Messenger. I then took it up again but it took a long time, with several complete re-writes, before the sequel evolved into A Chill Wind off the Tyne which is both a prequel and a sequel, completes the stories begun in The Five Stone Steps, but as seen through the eyes of characters from the book, or new ones that appear for the first time’.
Where is the book available to buy ? ‘The Five Stone Steps on UK Book Publishing is available on paper back and Kindle at Amazon. It can also be obtained at the Book Depository which gives free postage worldwide on all sales. You can order a copy from The Word. It’s also available for loan at The Word and other libraries in South Shields. The two other books that are companions to the Five Stone Steps, Blitz Pams and my latest A Chill Wind of the Tyne are also on UK Book Publishing’.
All images courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.
Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.
Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.
Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.
Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.
Peter Mitchell, Life In a Northern Town, 9th August 2018.
Ray Spencer MBE, That’s Entertainment 6th September 2018.
Why not check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.