WORKING THE HARD YARDS: in conversation with Adam Bell

Following on from an interview with Artist, Bob Olley (8 November 2021) where he talked about his latest work – Tyneside Shipyards, I met up with Adam Bell, Assistant Keeper of Social History in South Shields Museum & Art Gallery who revealed the theme for next year’s main exhibition.

A lot of people have said that when you left school there was two opportunities for work – the pits or the yards. A few years ago we done an exhibition about the coal mines that was very popular and I think we need to complete the picture, it’s high time we done an exhibition about ship building and ship repair on South Tyneside.

Launch of the Turkistan at Readheads, South Shields, 1962.

When are you opening the exhibition to the public ?

It begins in May next year and runs until November so it’s going to be our big, main exhibition right through summer 2022. We have started now because it takes a long time to do all the research, make contacts, meet former shipyard workers and listen to stories about their time in the yards.

It’s a fascinating process I really enjoy this aspect of the job. I really enjoy the history that is within living memory. You get to meet people who have actually lived through that history and they can tell you in their own words just what it was like.

So far there has been around thirty oral histories and I’m still looking for people to come forward to share memories and tell their stories about what it was really like to work in the docks.

What topics have the dockers talked about ?

The Health and Safety, or lack of, has appeared – they were eventually given hard hat’s and ear defenders. A lot of people talk about how quiet it is on the Tyne now compared to back then when it was constant noise.

One thing that always comes over is pride – they all talk about how proud they were to take part in building a ship from scratch. Or how it was repaired in double quick time with everyone pulling together to get the ship refitted and out on the seas again.

People were working night shift to dock ships as they were at the mercy of the tides, and there was sometimes three ships lashed to each other stretching across the river. They paint such an evocative picture of their time in the yards.

Tracers at Hawthorn Leslies, Hebburn, approx. 1950. Image courtesy of Irene Hills

You think of shipyards being a men only occupation but a woman called Irene Hills told her story of serving her apprenticeship in Hawthorn Leslie’s as a Tracer. This was before you could just run off copies – they had to make full size traces of the plans for all departments.

We’ve had someone from Australia get in touch about his Grandfather who was managing director of T.D.E and inventor of the quick release lifeboat. Apparently he donated the patent to the British Government and they rewarded him with a C.B.E. – who knows we might get that on loan!

The cross over from the mining exhibition and this one is the humour, practical jokes and one particular welcome to the yards. Many dockers tell of just leaving school, starting in the yards and being sent to the stores for a ‘long stand’. The young docker though it was a tool – after half an hour the storeman would tell him to clear off as ‘you’ve had your long stand!’

A retirement presentation in the blacksmiths shop at Middle Docks, South Shields, 1970s. Image courtesy of John Embleton.

This exhibition is special for me because my Grandfather worked as a plumber in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast and I loved hearing his stories of life in the yards. My Granda passed away a few years ago but the stories are very much fresh in my mind. I wish he was around and I could share with him what I’ve been told by the Tyneside shipbuilders.

It was his stories of the past that got me interested in history and ended up working where I am today in the museum. It’s very important to do this exhibition now when people are still around and memories are still there, we want them to share their stories.

Anyone who worked in the South Tyneside’s yards, or individuals with something they could lend for display, should contact Adam Bell, adam.bell@twmuseums.org.uk or (0191) 211 5599 during museum opening hours. 

Interview by Gary Alikivi  November 2021.

One thought on “WORKING THE HARD YARDS: in conversation with Adam Bell

  1. Isn’t a Docker someone who worked in the docks loading and unloading ships ie Stevedores as opposed to shipyard workers who were known by their trades eg fitter,blaster,caulker,spark,chippy etc

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