During the 1930’s James Cleet was commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department to make a photographic record of ‘slum housing’ in the town. Side Photographic Gallery in Newcastle produced a booklet in 1979 of some of the photo’s. Not sure if the term ‘slum’ was first used by Side Gallery or Public Health Department ?
But first time I came across James Cleet when I was doing some family and history research in the Local History section of South Tyneside Library. It gave me the idea to make a documentary in 2010 called ‘The Hills of Holborn’, featuring the area once known as the industrial heartland of Shields, Cleet’s work and the digitization project. The Local History section had been awarded funding to digitize thousands of photographs they had in their archive and load them onto a new website. Volunteers were needed for this process and as I was self employed I could give a couple of hours a week to a worthwhile cause.
Spending time looking through photographs, some from the early 1900’s, of people, places and events around South Tyneside was a great way to spend a couple of hours. It wasn’t long till I dropped in more frequently. Photographs by Emmett, Flagg and Cleet were an excellent record of the times. Some images had familiar street names of area’s where my ancestors lived, mainly Tyne Dock, Holborn and Jarrow. Finding a family of photographers called Downey who had a studio in Eldon Street next to where my great grandmother lived was an added bonus.
There was a small team of volunteers who recorded details of the images, scanned the photo’s, and uploaded them onto the website, this process features in the documentary. Street names, buildings, shops and people were researched, as much information as possible was added. On the back of the pictures was nearly always a date or name of the photographer. But unfortunately, some photographs were left blank and didn’t have any recognizable signs, but were still uploaded.
After a few sessions I could recognize the styles of certain photographers and two of them stood out. Amy Flagg added extensive details to a lot of her work, and covered some powerful subjects like the Second World War – climbing over bombed houses to get the shot won’t have been easy. Some of her images became instantly recognisable, in her darkroom she stamped a date in Roman numerals on the bottom of the photo.
There were a load of photographs that were taken in Holborn by James Cleet, his style and composition was of a very high quality with clean, sharp images. Most of the images are taken on overcast, grey rainy days – is that a coincidence ? I doubt it. The lighting give the pictures a uniform look and add to the bleak, grim atmosphere of the housing clearance. In research I found he had regular work at ship launches, plus The Shields Gazette and Daily Mirror. While Flagg’s technique was more hand held, Cleet used a tripod in most if not all of his shot’s. Both were passionate about their work.
Around that time an old guy used to come to the local history section and tell me a few stories about Tyne Dock and Holborn as his family lived in those area’s. Next time he brought in a booklet which he gave to me, it featured a collection of the housing clearance photographs I’d been looking at.
The booklet also included reports by the South Shields Medical Officer for Health talking about ‘rat repression’ and ‘eradication of bed bugs’. They reported….’The women had a very hard life. They polished their steps and the pavement was scrubbed. The backyard was washed regular. There was a question of pride. They had to keep them clean or they’d be overrun with vermin. No getting away with it. It had to be kept down’. The report also included complaints from residents…’A’ve seen some hard up times. Families of nine in one room. I knew a family, the father and mother had to gan ootside to do their business. Yes they used to do their courtin’ ootside. The mother used to stand at the telegraph pole on Johnsons Hill and have her love with the husband and then gan yem to bed. You couldn’t do nowt with all the family livin’ in one room’.
In a previous post I wrote about the important historical archive that Amy Flagg had left to the town: her Second World War photo’s plus the book ‘The History of Shipbuilding in South Shields’, the James Cleet housing clearance booklet is just as important a document of South Shields.
To check out the South Tyneside photographs featuring Amy Flagg and James Cleet go to : https://www.southtynesidehistory.co.uk/
Gary Alikivi December 2019.