Amy Flagg is fondly remembered as the lady in a hat and trench coat, who quietly went about photographing buildings and recording the history of a town she loved. But who was Amy ? This is a story of courage and determination of a very unique woman who captured some of the most devastating images of South Shields in the 20th century.
At the end of the nineteenth century the North East was the industrial heartland of the UK. Collieries, Shipyards and Steelworks covered the landscape. Small villages dotted around the area offered their residents some clear breathing space away from the hazy smog of the town.
Westoe Village in South Shields was home to many notable people of the town. The shipbuilding family the Readheads, Robert Ingham MP, and in Chapel House was the Flagg family. In this grand 20 roomed house was Ambrose, his wife Annie and their only child Amy who was born on 30th of September 1893.
Amy’s father originally came from South London, and was educated at Cambridge University. In 1889 he married Annie Broughton of Westoe and was appointed Headmaster of the Marine School in the town. He was also member of the Ancient Vestry of St Hilda’s where he rubbed shoulders with influential people. He arranged for Amy’s private education.
The young Amy had a brief romance with a neighbour in the Village but sadly like many men from the town he went to fight in the First World War and never returned, throughout the rest of her life she never married.
There is no record of her being employed so what did she do with her education ? This was a time when women had just fought for the vote, was she involved in the Suffragette movement ? Reports describe Amy as a shy, quiet and gentle woman willing to help others. There is accounts of her spending hours in the garden of Chapel House and having an active role volunteering in the local hospital and library. Whether helping someone find information about the town or reading to a patient in hospital, was Amy now becoming aware of her surroundings and her purpose in life ?
By 1930 she was a member of the local photographic society. At a time when only a few female photographers worked in the UK, a woman behind the camera was very unique. This is the time when Amy blossomed and began to see the world around her in a different light. She was fascinated by the changing landscape of the town and photographed the housing clearances along the riverside. But the camera techniques that she had been using were brought into sharp focus in a period that would be Amy’s defining moment in her creative life. She captured the town’s suffering through one of it’s most traumatic episodes: the Second World War. When the bombs dropped she captured the scars with her camera. Amy’s father had died in 1936 and her mother died during the war, plus the town she loved was falling apart from the German air raids. Her life was crumbling around her. These were her darkest days.
But Amy was determined that these events would not destroy her, having a purpose and remaining active helped strengthen her. She gained recognition for her work and became the town’s official photographer during the war. After receiving permission from the Ministry of Information and the Chief Press Censor, Amy produced a series of booklets of the Air Raid Damage.
An intelligent, determined and very courageous woman, at nearly 50 years old, she was climbing into demolished houses and onto bomb sites to capture the photographs. To accompany the photographs she documented as much information as possible about the area’s and streets which were hit by bombs. She also recorded in great detail the time of the air raids and if there were any casualties or deaths.
‘On January 11th 1940 shortly after 10.00 hours South Shields felt the first impact of warfare by the Luftwaffe. The Air Ministry announced: Enemy air craft crossed the coast near Newcastle today. No bombs were dropped. Fighter patrols were sent up and Anti-aircraft guns opened fire’.
The pictures are haunting and as time passes they take on a new meaning for a wider audience. It is as if she was aware of the effect and importance they would have in years to come. In her dark room she printed every photograph herself of the devastation caused by air raids on the town. With the traumatic events revolving around her, Amy would go to the darkroom where she could feel warmth and security in her own home as images she had taken that day were revealed by the mix of the chemicals. She would watch the magic happen in front of her eyes.
Even the Flagg family home didn’t escape from the German bombs.
‘At zero 45 hours on the 16th April four bombs fell in the grounds of residential property in Westoe. The first on the edge of a field at Seacroft failed to explode and was dealt with by the bomb disposal unit at a later date. The second and third fell in the gardens of Fairfield and Eastgarth respectively. The last one on the lawn ten yards from Chapel House. No casualties were reported but considerable damage was done to a large number of houses in the neighbourhood, including over forty roofs of houses in Horsley Hill road which were penetrated by lumps of clay thrown up by the explosions’.
These incredible photographs are considered to be her most valued and precious legacy. In her very extensive diary notes of October 2nd 1941
‘At daylight on Friday morning the Market Place looked like the ruins of Ypres; nothing could be seen but broken buildings; the square was littered with debris and a tangle of fire hose; all the remaining windows in St Hilda’s Church were shattered, the roof dislodged and the old stone walls pitted and scarred with shrapnel. The Old Town Hall suffered heavy interior harm and none of the business premises were left intact. All the overhead wires were down and it was not until the afternoon of October 9th that buses were able to pass along King Street’.
Experiencing the two world wars, a changing landscape to her town, and both parents recently deceased, creatively and emotionally events of this magnitude would of tested the resilience of most people. But she picked herself up and threw herself into a frenzied period of her life. Recording information from parish records, researching family tree’s from notable people in the town, collecting various reports and photographs from the local paper that she would then cut out and paste in scrap books.
She was continually surprising librarians by asking to see little known documents, and then by hand she would record facts then type them up at home. Amy was tireless in her thirst for knowledge about the town she loved, and with a lot of buildings disappearing during the war she thought it important to record as much information as she could. Sadly this lead her to the last piece of work which was published by South Tyneside Library Service in 1979. It took Amy eight painstaking years of research to produce the book ‘Notes on the History of Shipbuilding in South Shields 1746-1946’.
‘Shadwell Street and Pilot Street. It is very fitting that these two streets should be the first section in these notes; the eastern extremity of the old township of South Shields was the birthplace and for long the nursery of shipbuilding in our town.
John Readheads story is that of an extremely successful industrialist in South Shields, from being a practical blacksmith, he built up one of the most prosperous shipbuilding firms on Tyneside. He made his way from wood and iron tugboats to large steamers for every part of the world. John Readhead died on the 9th March 1894 at his home Southgarth, in Westoe Village; he had been in failing health for some time but had visited the West Docks almost daily until the last few weeks’.
Amy also noted the huge effort by Readheads during the First World War. Amongst the constant procession of merchant vessels which needed repairing after being torpedoed or mined, they supplied 20 cargo vessels, 3 armoured patrol boats and one vessel which was converted into an oil tanker for the Admiralty.
Amy noted in the book that nothing better illustrates the importance of Readheads than the genuine rejoicing when local newspaper the Shields Gazette announces in large headlines ‘ANOTHER ORDER FOR READHEADS’.
In her later years it was reported that Amy put as much work into her garden as she did of her house. She spent countless hours planting unusual flowers and plants. Family, friends and neighbours were constant visitors to it, and she delighted in showing them the statues and conservatories. Even turning the crater caused by a world war two bomb into an ornamental garden.
Amy lived in Chapel House until 1962 when she gave the house and grounds to South Shields Corporation to enable the expansion of the Marine College. This was a heart breaking decision as she lived there most of her life.
‘I have not the slightest idea about the value of the house, but I shall not leave yet. I intend to spend one more summer here’.
But it was something that would of pleased her father as he devoted his life to education in the town. The Marine and Technical College being the successor to the Marine School where he worked for most of his life. Amy stayed in the village for another three years until her death from stomach cancer on the 22nd February 1965. Her body was cremated and the ashes buried in the family grave in Harton Cemetery.
Amy requested a quiet affair but her popularity meant her funeral was attended by over 200 people including the Mayor of South Shields, her close friend and Librarian Miss Rosemary Farrell and a contingent of medical staff and nurses from the Ingham Infirmary. In a last generous gesture Amy left a substantial amount of money in her will to Ingham hospital. A small remembrance in the town is Flagg Court, and the local photographic society where she was a member hold a yearly competition where the winner receives the Flagg Cup.
Amy’s extensive papers, research and photographs were all placed with the local library and are still held there to this day. Amy Flagg will be remembered as one of the town’s most important photographers and local historians.
Research from the documentary ‘Westoe Rose’ 2016.
To watch the 12min film check the You Tube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB1a3Y-yFhM
Gary Alikivi 2019.