BREAD, JAM & COW HEEL PIE – Hard times in Shields with author John Orton

After posting on 1st October ‘Bobbies, Bookies & Beer’ featuring the work of author John Orton. I caught up with John again and we talked about his new and third book ‘A Chill Wind Off the Tyne’.

He described it as a companion volume to his previous books about South Shields, ‘Five Stone Steps’ and ‘Blitz PAMs’.

What led you to write it John ?

‘It took ages to write and I sometimes nearly gave up on it. After I’d finished The Five Stone Steps. I didn’t get very far trying to get it published, so put it to one side, and thought that I’d work on a sequel.

The problem was that I’d already used up most of the material in Sergeant Jock Gordon’s memoirs and was having a job finding inspiration for new fictional stories. 

I’d finally got something I was reasonably happy with and then wrote Blitz PAMs, which was originally intended to be a final chapter on the war years but turned into a new book.

After Blitz PAMs was published, I looked again at the sequel and basically re-wrote it. I then decided that rather than concentrate on the stories from a police angle I should tell the story of the characters in The Five Stone Steps and also delve into the life of ordinary working class folk during the great Depression of the 20s and 30s. 

This involved a lot more research but it was worth it. I also wanted to tell a bit more about some of the characters who’d appeared in The Five Stone Steps. 

In telling the story of Geordie Hussain who appeared in A Pair of Blue Eyes in The Five Stone Steps I went back to his birth in Shields in Holborn in 1904.

I then added more stories in the late 1930s about the burning down of the Casino, the raid on the Trow Rocks pitch and toss schools and was finally happy with the result.

Tom Duncan who told his own stories in The Five Stone Steps was not about in Shields in the early 1900s and was a peripheral figure in some of the later chapters, so I needed a new narrator.

‘Titch’ Foster who first appeared in The Five Stone Steps in A Sure Thing,  a pathetic specimen who’d been in and out of Durham and who’d do anything for money but work for it’ came in very handy’.


The first chapters are set in the early 1900s before the Great War – you give detailed descriptions of the riverside areas of Holborn, Wapping Street and Shadwell Street and the people who lived there – what research did you have to do ?

’A lot and it was not easy. I had an idea of what life was like in the Laygate area from the tales told by my Nan who had lived in Maxwell Street but the original riverside areas had all been cleared in the ’30s and was just ancient history to me.

The town of Shields owes its prosperity to its location. Salt pans were in operation from medieval times in the Holborn area – salt preserves fish – put them together and you have a roaring export trade.

The clinker from the salt pans and the ballast from the ships made the hills where Holborn was built. 

My main difficulty was getting an idea of the street layout. The main roads were East and West Holborn, Nile Street, Cone Street and Laygate Street and in between were many little Banks, Courts and Places.

I spent hours going over old maps and looking at the hundreds of old photos of Holborn on the website  before I was familiar enough to start writing. 

One of the problems was that pubs and shops changed hands and were often renamed. Many pubs in Holborn were taken over as Arab lodging houses, or cafés.

The Yemeni seamen who settled in their hundreds in Holborn and Laygate did not drink so there was less need for pubs.

Wapping Street, Shadwell Street and the Lawe Top were the home of the ‘Townenders’, or as the locals would say the ‘skeuytenders’ – this was probably the first part of the town to be lived in by fishermen and sailors. 

It is now the area around River Drive but used to be a warren of quays and courts, the oldest house in Shields dated from Tudor times. Conditions were basic. In Holborn there was no running water until the later part of the 19th century.

Women would carry a ‘skeel’ of water on their heads to have it filled at a ‘pant’ (private well). The skeel carried about three and a quarter gallons and would cost a farthing to fill’.

Two main storylines concern the depression of the 1920s and how it affects the mining and shipping industries, with tales about the 1921 and 1926 pit lockouts and the Mill Dam riots.

How much of the stories in your book are based on fact and how much is fiction ? 

’Shields was a major seaport and also a coal mining town. In 1921 over 2,000 men worked at St. Hilda’s, 3,400 at Harton, and 3,500 at Marsden collieries.

Lloyd Geroge had nationalised the mines for the war effort and pitmen had been earning good money but in 1921 he gave the mines back to the private owners.

They cut wages and increased the working hours – a hewer who had been earning nearly four pounds a week would now take home just over two pounds.

The colliery owners locked the pit gates and you only got back in if you accepted the new conditions – no one in their right mind would and the 1921 lock-out started. 

These troubles continued through the 20s ending with the National Strike of 1926. The three Shields collieries were out for between six to ten months, but the miners were starved into submission. Similar difficulties hit the shipping trade.

Yemeni seamen had been recruited in their thousands during the war and many gave their lives at sea. Many sailed from Shields, and after the war the returning demobbed ex-servicemen who were after a job at sea found themselves in competition with the Arab seamen.

There were riots in 1919 in Shields and also in Cardiff and Liverpool for the same reasons. 

The Yemeni seamen were unmarried; they did not drink and were bringing in good money – many local lasses fell for them – some wed their man, but others were unlucky and gave birth out of wedlock.

By the late twenties the Arab seamen had all but taken over Holborn and pubs gave way to lodging houses and cafés. The simmering tensions and the continuing difficulty of finding work at sea resulted in the Mill Dam Riots of 1930. 

This is the factual background – to create authentic tales of how life still went on I developed the characters from my previous book the The Five Stone Steps, brought in some new ones and weaved their lives into the stories of hardship and humour’.

Smart Touch TIFF File

There is a lot of humour in the book but also a lot of hardship – hard times and hard people – bare knuckle fights in the back lanes and pitch and toss at Trow Rocks.

Do you think that your book accurately describes the poverty, hardship and the way folk stuck together ?

’To put it into perspective, young people today might think that my life in the early ’50s was hard. No heating upstairs; no duvets on the bed – which meant ice cold white cotton sheets – bed socks and hot water bottles were the norm.

My mam or dad had to come downstairs to light the stove in the kitchen first thing in the morning. A bath once a week; one telly with only one channel to start with – get up to turn it on or to turn up the volume ! 

Life in the early 1900s, by comparison, was not only hard it was brutal – in 1906 there were 465 shoeless children in the town.

The Council did what it could – the Police set up the Shoeless Children Fund. Boots were provided – probably having learnt the hard way, the Police ensured that the boots had holes made in the leather at the top to prevent them ending up in the pawn shop. 

There was no such thing as five fruit and veg a day – bread and jam or dripping was a staple for many – folk ate tripe, brawn and even cow heel pie – as Titch Foster says, ‘When you’re hungry you’d eat owt.’

My Grandfather went down the mines at the age of twelve – the work was hard and dangerous. Fatalities and serious accidents were common particularly among the young lads who might have been thinking of something else and been hit by a tub, or got hooked to a cage as it was going up the shaft. 

All the pits had their boxing champions – unskilled, bare-knuckle sluggers for the most part. Drinking and gambling were common place which explains why there were so many pawn shops –  not necessarily a last resort for the housewife when the wages had gone over the bar counter, or lost an a Sunday morning at the pitch and toss schools at Trow Rocks. 

There was a hardness about people, men and women, which you probably don’t find now, but in the long terraced streets you’d know all your neighbours and folk would help each other out. They really were all in it together in those days’.


John Orton

Is ‘A Chill Wind off the Tyne’ the final book in the series, or can we expect another ?

A ‘Chill Wind does complete the series, Tales of Old South Shields. I’m taking a breather at the moment and certainly don’t have any immediate plans for another prequel or sequel. I do like writing so something else may crop up.

I’ve just had an email back from one of my friends who’s just finished A Chill Wind he said he didn’t want it to end and could I write a fourth! 

All images courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.

A Chill Wind off the Tyne, on UKBookPublishing along with The Five Stone Steps and Blitz PAMs is on sale at The Word bookshop, South Shields.

You can also get it as a kindle or paperback from Amazon. The Book Depository offers free worldwide delivery if you’re an expat.

Interview by Gary Alikivi    October 2018


John Orton, Bobbies, Bookies & Beer, 1st October 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.

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