For his new project looking at the connection between the Tyne and the Thames, former South Shields lad Garry, now based in London, was inspired by a poem written by English poet and writer, John Masefield – you’ll find a Masefield Drive in Biddick Hall where Hunter grew up.
The poem Cargoes is all about sea trade and it starts with the romance of travel by ship, the second verse is of a Portugese war ship full of gold coins, with the third about a collier travelling between the Tyne and Thames full of coal. It’s a beautiful poem.
The main aim of the project is to engage with young people to learn about trade in the late 19th century and we look at innovation and technology from the 1800’s and compare it to now. Plus highlighting the type of work that William George Armstrong was doing here in the North East producing hydraulic machinery, cranes, bridges, then artillery.
At the eastern end of the Thames river in London are the high rise buildings of Canary Wharf, in their shadow is Cody Dock, which was operational until the mid-60s. A lot of colliers from the North East would take coal down there for the coal powered gas stations which are now being redeveloped into housing estates.
I set up a community pub in Poplar in 2018, to honour locally born engineer Tommy Flowers who designed the world’s first computer for Bletchley Park in 1943 and was given an honorary doctorate by Newcastle University in 1977.
Berkeley Homes have a partnership with the National Grid including Beckton which is where Stanley Kubrick shot scenes for his film about the Vietnam war, Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick didn’t want to go to Vietnam so they changed the east London gas works into Saigon (laughs).
We also look at tin plate photography of the 1850s used by Edward Sheriff Curtis who photographed Native American Indians, to glass plate techniques when Sunderland born inventor Joseph Swan brought his process into photography.
The different techniques used are really interesting and young people can compare them to today’s mobile phone camera which basically does all the thinking for you.
When I was about 12 year old I started messing around with a camera taking pictures of street scenes, snap shots, stuff like that. I didn’t get a decent camera with a good lens until ’82 and started taking pictures of bands.
Around this time I went on a year’s course studying Marine Engineering at South Shields Marine & Technical College. Then a job came up for processing and printing photographs at Tynecolour, South Shields, at the same time a letter arrived from Charles Taylor Foundry offering me a job, but that was for £1 a week less (laughs).
So I was at Tynecolour for over four years which was a great grounding on all the technical side of processing film and using colour, and when nobody was looking I would print my own photos.
As well as bands I photographed live comedy. I was at Sunderland Empire in ‘83 and had a front row ticket for The Young Ones. With six frames left on my camera I had to be careful because I didn’t have much money for new film. But ended up with three good shots which I printed.
The next year Rik Mayall was supported by a young Ben Elton and I got in the soundcheck. I took a few pictures, Rik was really great ‘You gotta come to London’ he said. So off I went he introduced me to a few people and I got my first pictures published – £25 for an hours work really, this was when I was only getting £30 a week at Tynecolour.
To be honest that’s when I was looking to get out I didn’t want to be here for the rest of my life. My Dad had gone round the world which gave me a sense of wanderlust. 1985 was a bad time in Shields, the pits had been on strike for a year, shipyards were closing, it was all grey and miserable I just had to get away. I felt it was important to try something new.
So I moved down south and ended in The Lodge recording studio in Suffolk as in house photographer. Basically it was a farm house in the middle of nowhere run by semi classical musicians.
The studio was all analogue with quarter inch tape, and during my time there was a lot of recording done, one time in the studio was a French experimental band Orchestra Rouge, who were really interesting. But bands were getting into synthesisers and some of them should’ve stuck with what they were doing and not try to be trendy.
I remember coming down to breakfast one morning and punk band The Anti Nowhere League were moaning about their mortgages – even anarchists need a roof over their head (laughs).
At the studio Mal Tootill who designed all the record sleeves and tour merchandise was a lecturer at Swansea University and asked me if I’ve thought of going to art college. He phoned ahead to check it out while I hitch hiked from Suffolk to Bristol then on to Swansea and saw the head of the Art Department. The course was a really good move for me.
After that about 25 ex-students all moved to London so we weren’t alone there, and these were days when you could still squat and get along without much money, that saved me.
WRITING ON THE WALL
Fast forward to over 30 years later and after a successful career in professional photography, I came back up North in 2013 and started working on a project called Street Art Heroes supported by Cultural Spring for public engagement inspired by the street names of Biddick and Whiteleas.
There was a lot of work bringing international artists over from Brazil, Canada and New Zealand, to create murals in north Sunderland and Shields, when we all stayed at Hillhead Farm on Lizard Lane in Marsden.
They created artworks in the area, one of which is a mural on the side of Chuter Ede training centre, it’s still there now. Chuter Ede used to be the school where I attended and it was great going back because when I was a teenager there I got caned for doing some graffiti (laughs).
Next year is the International Year of Glass, that’s an interesting link to the collier ships going down to London and sand being used for ballast on the return journeys. It is reported that was a different sand from the beaches, it was better for glass making and used in the North East glass factories.
Nearby to where we are now (The Alum House pub, South Shields) was Cookson’s glass factory, half of the chimney is still standing next to The Custom’s House. In the latter part of the 19th century some people from the North East would go down to London and work in the glass works.
I’m really interested in all those industrial innovations and how people have used technology to progress trade and industry and with a successful Heritage funding bid we’ve been given the go ahead for a project.
We’re in the early stages of planning now, I’m working with Graham Carrick, a fine artist from Gateshead who is Director of Digital in our Community Interest Company, Fitzrovia Noir. Plus we’re bringing in two other organisations to work alongside us. I find it all very exciting and interesting – we’re making innovations in industry sound sexy (laughs).
Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2021.