A few weeks ago a story was sent in from a South Shields resident who signed out as Tinwhistler. After initial contact they didn’t offer anymore clues about their identity. Was this Shields version of the NSA’s Edward Snowden, or the X-Files Deep Throat ? Was there going to be a big exclusive or was this just a wind-up. But after reading the story I remember the old guy they wrote about. Billy Meths. I often saw Billy, real name Billy Roberts, in the Town Centre during the late ‘70s early ‘80s, most times sitting on a bench comfortin’ a bottle of cider.
The story also brought back a reminder of another couple of characters that hung around Shields. During the ‘80s I often saw a guy known locally as ‘Cowboy’ cos of his boots. I wasn’t sure if he was homeless or staying in a hostel. Then during the noughties hanging around the Mill Dam and river area of the town was ‘Wavey Davey’, he got that label from waving at passing ships. Where are they now ? There will be many Shields folk that can offer stories about characters from the town like Billy Meths – this is Tinwhistlers…..
Billy’s home was South Shields. Most of us exist in a finite amount of square feet on 1 or 2 floors that come with restraints known as mortgage, freehold or tenancy and all the rules and regulations that go with them. That is what we call our home. Billy viewed the town as his home, picking random points that could serve as a base when it suited.
Back in the early ‘70s society enjoyed virtual full employment and homelessness was not a national issue. But there was always going to be those in society that seemed displaced and show a preference for living outside the parameters of a normal existence, preferring a much harsher alternative. Constantly battling the elements, hunger, alcohol (or lack of it) and the occasional assistance of passers-by. Billy Roberts was one of them. But I want to go back in time to the era where I first heard of and met Billy Roberts, the artist formerly known as Meths.
He was one of several who sought cover in the Town Centre particularly in the Market Place. Someone your parents might tell you to avoid, someone that was barred from every public house in the town yet with his singing, dancing and playing of music either with harmonica or his ‘bones’, would entertain the pub’s punters on the streets.
He had a nickname ‘Billy Meths’ a name that was maybe bestowed in the previous decade by cruel kids that saw a loner drinking from a bottle in the street. His demeanor and mood would fluctuate depending on alcohol intake.
Some of the older workers in the licensing business referred to him as ‘Gypsy Roberts’, perhaps because of his nomadic lifestyle and no set official residence. Nor would he likely have had his lobes pierced though I came across him once wearing a clipped on hoop that was so big a dolphin could’ve jumped through it.
Perhaps Billy considered the whole of South Shields his home, setting down at various locations depending upon the season. As I grew a bit older I’d venture into town and would often see him around as I’d be visiting record shops. Sheltering from the elements he’d sometimes be in a bus stop with a bottle of cider, causing anxiety to those waiting for a bus. He might not be seen for a while but then when least expected, he’d appear pushing a barrow of scrap and rags that he’s moving on to turn into cash for cider in order to attain his preferred state of consciousness.
Leaving school and entering a life of work afforded me the dubious pleasure of sampling the weekend night life and I’d see Billy more often. At the junction of Mile End Road, Ocean Road and King Street there would be stationed a police vehicle and officers with dogs to attend any possible outbreaks of Saturday night violence. Billy would be drawn to the Ship & Royal pub, peering in through large windows, the pub had floor to ceiling glass windows that gave the customer a great view of the outside world. He would be weighing up the paying customers, also wondering what mischief might be achieved.
He might begin with a knock on the glass then maybe lewd hand gestures, face pulling, a sparring routine. Of course if you knew him you’d maybe laugh, smile and wave him on. But there was always one who was not aware of this growing legend in our midst who would remonstrate, return the hand jiving and on Billy pushing his face right up to the glass his target would then bolt for the door in order to deal with Billy in a pugilistic fashion. Billy’s timing was impeccable and his walk away followed by his collaring by a drunken assailant takes place in full view of the police. Those watching through the big windows see a police response to an older gentleman being harassed by a young drunken bully. They’d spring into action and Billy had another ‘kill’.
Summer ‘76 I was working in the family’s retail business and my father was a beer drinker. I suppose out of family loyalty I would accompany him for a sup. Again in the Ship & Royal, as usual the bar was busy with workers and shoppers relaxing before returning home. On this occasion Billy entered the pub resplendent in a 3 piece navy suit that looked a remarkable fit, he had an open necked white shirt and a cigar in one hand, the other hand behind his back. A barmaid was fulfilling a large order and loaded drinks onto a tray ready to carry them over. ‘Large brandy please’ was Billy’s request. ‘Out Billy, you know you’re not served in here’. She then began to walk toward her customers carrying a full tray.
His response was something like ‘Ok love no problem’ and went toward the door to exit. He was now behind the barmaid and his other hand came from behind his back revealing a fully inflated balloon. He held it out and brought the lit cigar to touch it. I saw this so didn’t jump, but the barmaid shrieked, dropped the tray and drinks went all over both table and punters.
Another occasion I was on Ocean Road and Billy was in the bus shelter. He had his companion of Gaymers or Bulmers cider with him and seemed fairly lucid when I sat talking with him. He volunteered the fact that he originally hailed from Blaydon and that at one time he had been a keen amateur boxer. ‘No trophies son, no trophies, just memories’.
I did partake of a drink from his bottle on the assurance that there was no added substance and stayed for a little while. But unfortunately I can’t remember other pearls of wisdom he volunteered that night.
There was a time when a friend of a friend was sufficiently displaced to need to share accommodation with Mr Roberts. Luckily it was summer but he stated how cold it had been that night. He slept underneath the Waltzer at the Fairground which was Billy’s summer residence. There was a previous summer residence, the Tyne lifeboat, a landmark at the pier end of Ocean Road. I believe he put in for an exchange when he alleged that he was being harassed by police and on one occasion 2 cadet officers did urinate on him.
My father told me he bumped into him whilst on his way for a pint or three. ‘Good evening Mr Roberts and where are we off to this fine evening ? ‘Good evening sir. I’m now moving to my winter residence as it’s starting to get a little bit cold during the evening. Mulligans Mansions, top floor, is where I’ll be for the coming winter’. Where he meant was the multi-story car park situated just off Mile End Road.
Some weeks later my dad bumped into Billy and asked how he was settling in. Now below the car park at ground level there was a night club originally known as Banwells… ‘I’ve got noisy bloody neighbours’ he stated. ‘I’ve been down several times to complain and ask them to keep it quiet as I cannot get a night’s sleep’. Trying to visualize the scenario where 2 burly doormen respond to rapping on the door and seeing a bedraggled gentleman of the road type, possibly holding a blanket and complaining, had me in fits.
When his spirits were high he’d often break into song, do a jig and bring out a harmonica or his ‘bones’ to entertain. When low he could be found somewhere with a bottle going through some sparring routines, beating the pulp out of his invisible opponent. Billy’s musical talents had not gone unnoticed as another of the town’s characters, Brian Batey, would invite him to gigs to sing on stage with the band Brian sang with, The Letters. He was recorded at Bolingbroke Hall in 1981 and is on You Tube.
Billy’s lifestyle eventually took its toll and his health deteriorated. He was cared for at the Ingham Infirmary and afforded a private room by the then casualty consultant, Miss Seymour. Seymour was an eccentric born again Christian who had spent the earlier years of her medical career attending to the sick and dying in the Congo. She now attended to the needs of Billy Roberts and may well have assisted financially with his funeral. He died I think circa November 1984 ? I’m sure there will be many Shields folk that can offer stories about characters from the town. Thanks Billy.
Is there another Tinwhistler out there ?
Gary Alikivi December 2019.