Jarrow is affectionately known as ‘Little Ireland’, it’s also the title of a documentary about the Irish immigration into Jarrow which had its premier at The Customs House, South Shields on St Patricks Day 2009.
The film is planned to be screened on one of the local history themed nights at The Albion Gin & Ale House in Jarrow. In a recent interview manager Jess McConnell told me he is looking forward to screening the film because of his connection to Ireland and also his life in entertainment and pubs.
Jess was born in 1952 and brought up on Jarrow’s Scotch Estate. His mother named him Gerard but at school there were three Gerard’s, so somebody gave him the name Jess which has stuck to this day.
My family came from Mahon, County Cork, Paddy my Grandfather came over for work in the shipyards in the early 1900’s. I remember when I was 5 or 6 my mother used to take me to my Irish granny’s house where she had hens and chickens in the backyard.
My Dad was a bricklayer who travelled on the train from Jarrow to work in Newcastle, he was also a drunk so he was still worse for wear and missed his stop regularly – the end was North Allerton which is miles away. Some nights me and my mother would be woken up by a taxi driver wanting a week’s wages.
But one day my Dad was coming home from work and again fell asleep on the train. He was nudged by the guard “Wake up Charlie you’ve missed your stop, you’re at East Boldon”. Luckily he was only one stop away from Jarrow so he thought he would walk back along the lines. He did – and walked straight into an oncoming train. We were devastated.
After leaving St Joseph’s school in Hebburn I served my time as a plater in the shipyards and when I was old enough I started drinking in the local pubs in Jarrow. There was no jukebox’s then so we would sing-a-long with piano players tinkering in the corner. That’s how we began entertaining, getting up and ad-libbing.
By 1970 I joined the Mel Unsworth Agency in Jarrow and started as a solo singer and played with a number of groups on the clubland circuit. There was so much work then, the clubs were packed – it was booming.
I was still a plater during the day working down Teeside during the ‘70s oil and chemical boom, that’s where I met Hebburn born welder Terry Joyce. Terry was also a performer and we got along great so decided to join forces and went out as the Jarrow Lads from 1979-84.
As a double act we sang and performed comedy in North East clubs, to keep the act fresh we loaded the van with our P.A. and done ten day runs in Scotland and Yorkshire. We enjoyed it and got very popular on the circuit but being away a lot the missus wasn’t happy.
We were regularly playing ten shows a week and in 1980 won a North East Comedy Act of the Year at Newcastle Mayfair – yes you could say we took North East clubland by storm (laughs).
One day in 1983 I saw The Queens Hotel opposite Jarrow Steelworks up for sale so I said to Terry why don’t we buy this pub it’s going for a snip – or so I thought. The trade wasn’t too hot, it had run down a bit but there was thirteen bedrooms upstairs.
The idea was to run the pub and hotel and be able to hand pick our stage work, no more trips to Birmingham or Yorkshire but Terry didn’t fancy that and we called it a day for our duo – I jumped head first into the pub game, he went on to a successful solo career. There was no falling out, we parted as friends.
We renamed the pub The Jarrow Lad and it started going well, upstairs we had rooms for travelling entertainers just like me and Terry used to do. We got in touch with the agency’s and told them about our set up here for accommodation.
On tour you would sometimes have a free night so the performers would stay here and put a show on and get free bed and board – Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown played on two consecutive nights, one for the ladies and one for the gents.
We put on a ‘free and easy’ night with a keyboard player, drummer and anyone that could get up and sing. This one night a guy called Joseph Allan came in off the street, had a few pints, got up, sung a few songs, and I gave him the name Jarra’ Elvis – for the next few year he ended up being a huge attraction.
Another opportunity came along to take up a Vaux tenancy of the Robin Hood pub in Jarrow. We ended up running both pubs simultaneously putting on entertainment six nights a week.
In 1987 I noticed Hebburn Trades and Labour Club was boarded up so we stepped in and renamed it The Victoria Park. National acts appeared on the bill like Bernard Manning, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds – we were upgrading the entertainment, plus we had a regular four piece band.
A few year later we sold The Victoria Park for a tidy sum and bought The High Pit Social Club in Cramlington. It already had a reputation for booking big acts for their 450 seater concert room with lamps on the tables – like a large cabaret room.
We booked American singer Jack Jones, Tony Christie, Ken Dodd, Norman Wisdom, The Drifters – packing it out every time. The club was doing well and looking forward to more national acts coming through and more opportunities.
We had acquired another two social clubs – The Percy Main, North Shields and Battle Hill, Wallsend. We were giving them a bit of life by revitalising them – but unfortunately through all this my marriage suffered and we split.
A few year later I remarried and my second wife and I shared a love for real ale. After a brewing course we bought the derelict Robin Hood pub from Vaux and reopened it in 2002 with a micro-brewery inside.
We could brew ten barrels of beer that’s 360 gallon at a time and one of our main beers called Rivet Catcher (a shipyard trade) became a champion beer of the North East and runner up in the Great British beer championship.
The pub was voted the CAMRA pub of the year a number of times, we had beers with local names like Joblings Gibbet, Red Ellen (Wilkinson Jarrow MP) and Jarrow Bitter.
We needed outlets for our beer so over the next few year we acquired, refurbished and put our beers on the counters of The Robin Hood, Magnesia Bank in North Shields, The Maltings in South Shields, The Isis in Sunderland and finally The Old Albion Hotel in Jarrow. Now we had a 40 barrel plant, everybody was after out beer even Newcastle United wanted Rivet Catcher on their shelves.
We expanded our brewing capabilities by getting a space on the Bede Industrial Estate and the Jarrow brewing plant became the biggest in the North East. That might sound outrageous but this was a time when Newcastle brewery had moved to Yorkshire, Federation in Gateshead and Vaux in Sunderland had both closed down.
Now we needed a bottling plant which would cost upwards of half a million pound, for the first time we needed outside investment. A financial consultant read our story in the Journal in 2015, got in touch and set up a few meetings to discuss it and plans were made.
Within a week I’m down in London meeting potential investors and listening to all the patter but I was gullible and soon put a deposit on a bottling plant, the contract tied in the pubs and our house.
A few times I was told the money is coming but the money didn’t come, the upshot was we lost everything, our house the lot – we were bankrupt. The financial consultant and his cronies picked up our assets from the receivers.
I’ve thought this through and I’m not saying they came into this to get me hook, line and sinker – was that the plan all along ? I think somewhere along the line they recognised I was desperate for the money and without it they thought they could pick up a few assets. It was a hard time.
So what do I do ? Well it’s time to pick myself back up again, go back to the beginning put a stage act together and perform in pubs, clubs, old folks homes anywhere that will give me a spot – I wanted, needed to have a bit of fun again.
I done that for about five year then one night in Hartlepool I was struggling up some icy stairs with huge speakers to entertain about 40 people in a 300 seater club. How much longer can I do this ?
Then I got the opportunity to take on the Albion in Jarrow – yes another pub again. I signed up for a three year tenancy agreement but unfortunately I couldn’t have taken over at a worse time because the covid virus had just started to spread. We had the pub going for a couple of weeks then it all crashed in – lockdown.
It’s only a small pub indoors so we’ve had a few months of nothing happening but we’re finally getting there, with relaxed rules about using outside space we got busy in the summer. We had so much free time on our hands that we made a few short videos, they are humorous but with a serious message one for the NHS and their magnificent work. Another tackles the problem of only four pubs left in Jarrow as one time there was fifty four.
Don’t get me wrong it’s not easy in the pub trade because they are open then they are shut and people are not coming out because they are petrified of covid. Who knows what’s round the corner – another virus next winter ?
But at the end of the day and at my age I thoroughly enjoy running just the one pub and we were lucky to get a really nice rented house in Boldon near the river Don.
The Albion Gin & Ale House, 76 Walter Street, Jarrow. 0191 489 7222
Interview by Gary Alikivi February 2022