In September 2018 I made a short documentary about South Shields market with former Shields Gazette award winning journalist Janis Blower. Janis has a wide knowledge of local history through producing the Cookson Country feature in The Shields Gazette and working on the books ‘Aall T’githor Like Folk O’ Shields’. An interview with Janis talking about her work featured in the blog ‘Have You Heard the News’ (27th January 2020).
We had previously worked together in 2016 on a film about South Shields Photographer and Historian Amy Flagg. Janis added the voice of Amy in the short film ‘Westoe Rose’. Included here is the full script that Janis wrote about the 250 year old South Shields market, a link to the film is at the end.
Author Joseph Conrad is said to have refreshed himself in its ample public houses on his voyage from life before the mast to The Heart of Darkness. It has rung to the strident tones of politics and religion. Marked the coronations and deaths of monarchs; been a centre of commerce and conviviality. A public forum one day, a fairground the next. War almost did for it. Peace would prove no less transformative.
Over the 250 years of its existence, the fortunes of South Shields’s historic Market Place have fluctuated with those of the wider town. Both have had to adjust to social and economic change. Within the lifetime of many townsfolk, that has included the decline of the market itself.
The rise of the discount retailer has seen a corresponding fall in the numbers of bargain hunters. Gone too is the tradition for Shields folk to put on their glad rags on a Saturday afternoon and go ‘down-street,’ to stroll up one side of King Street to the Market, and down the other.
For a post-war generation, this was the era of stalls piled high with crockery, pans and nylons – to be sifted through to find a matching pair, of reconditioned boiler suits and other stalls selling goldfish and rabbits. In winter the lamps would flare in the chilly dusk. By then, the market was no longer open until 10 o’ clock at night, as it had been before the war when, the later the hour, the more the cost of Sunday’s joint fell.
In those days visitors would also have found Harry Randall’s toffee stand where homemade toffee, with a free bag of horehound candy, could be bought for sixpence. Also the stall piled high with assorted tripe into which the stall holder would shove his hands, shouting: “Come on, get amongst it!”
And there was the painless dentist, who guaranteed to pull a tooth with his finger and thumb for a shilling: This was the market as part-public service, part-spectacle, like the stocks that a century earlier had once stood opposite St Hilda’s Church. Or the fairs that would visit, in spring and autumn, with their prancing horses and shuggy boat rides or, likewise, the travelling menageries that would also descend at regular intervals.
The Friday flea market has in recent years returned the square to aspects of what it was then, at least commercially, though the old clothes stalls are no longer confined to the side nearest the church. South Shields-born poet James Kirkup immortalised these in a poem, writing: “The old jackets rub shoulders on the rack of life and death, the crumpled trousers all undone swing in a driving wind, a boneless abandon, soft-shoe shuffle in the sands of time. Laid away, the painter’s dungarees are dingy white, stained with forgotten schemes for houses decorated out of sight…”
Gone, though, is the fresh fish market: also the groups of men who, hands cupped round their Woodbines or Capstan Full Strength, would gather around the Old Town Hall in the hope of being tapped for work on the river.
An old Shieldsman, writing of his Victorian childhood, remembered each trade having it’s own beat. “While the Church side was common to most parties”. Men milled in this way, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers, until as late as the 1960s, before the skyline increasingly ceased to be criss-crossed by cranes.
The Market Place pulsed with life, not only in the numerous pubs – of which there were at least six before the First World War and as many again in the surrounding streets – but also in the shops. Marks and Spencer started out in the town with a Penny Bazaar here. Barbour’s with a shop on the west side of the square, specialised in weatherproof clothes that would evolve into the garb of aristrocats. Crofton’s, the legendary department store on the corner of King Street, would survive one disastrous fire early in it’s existence but not a second.
That catastrophe was visited one autumn night in 1941 when the town suffered the biggest air raid of the war. In a matter of hours two sides of the square had been reduced to smoking ruins. The then-170-year-old Town Hall – miraculously stood firm, albeit not undamaged. The ‘Old Cross,’ as it was affectionately known was left looking out over a sea of devastation.
Over the next 20 years, new buildings would grow-up around it. There would be no attempt to reconstruct a square which had once been likened to the market place at Bruges. Post-war modernity won the day, in keeping with a town which, under Borough Engineer John Reid, was sweeping away much of its Victorian housing and redrawing its commercial heart.
Concrete took the place of brick, with new pubs going up on the site of the old and the building of a new tax office, Wouldhave House, with shops adjacent. Small thoroughfares which had run in and out of the square for much of its existence, like Thrift Street and little West Street, disappeared. East Street and Union Alley, became backwaters.
Today the square continues to evolve. Words remain its currency, – not those of the fairground barker, or the radical anymore, but as the home of the town’s main library, housed within an award winning building dedicated to writing and creativity.
The Market Place own story, meanwhile, continues to unfold….
Gary Alikivi January 2020