The Story of the Geordie Pantsman

I was watching TV one night and saw this guy on Rude Tube setting a world record for putting on the most t-shirts and thought ’I could do something like that’said Whitburn resident Gary Craig. However, t-shirts seemed boring and potentially expensive so I came up with the idea of underpants and an alter ego ‘Geordie Pantsman’. Not to be confused with the Australian slang, Gary explains…At school I was always second best at sport, the unused substitute on the football team standing in the freezing cold for two hours. At the age of 51 I decided I wanted to be number 1 at something.

I investigated whether there was a world record for putting on the most pants, but couldn’t find one. Great I thought, I’ll just bang on 50 pairs or so, and establish a new Guinness record with ease. But in 2009 I was informed that there was a record of someone putting on 170 pairs of underpants so I set out to put on 190.

What happened when you contacted Guinness ? The Guinness rules were actually quite strict. You had to wear ‘y’ fronts, not boxer shorts, you had to do it in a relatively public place, film and photograph it, and obtain witness statements otherwise you had to pay thousands of pounds to have a Guinness adjudicator present.

I began buying the cheapest underpants available in a variety of sizes including the biggest pants available in the UK  – 60 inch waist, and I decided to attempt the record on April Fools Day 2010 so no one would know if it was a joke or not.

I had a friend with a t-shirt printing company who allowed me to get a name, a photo, or a message printed on the pants so basically sold advertising space on my backside. Encouraging friends, family, and local business people to sponsor me, with the highest amounts earning a space on the biggest, record breaking pants.

In the end I raised £3000 which was split between two local charities – Cancer Connections and a drop in centre for the unemployed and underprivileged in South Tyneside.

Did you rehearse your record attempt ? Yes but in truth, practise went very badly. I found that I didn’t have enough big pants. I wasn’t that slim and it became painful trying to squeeze into large numbers of underpants. My wife got the job of arranging pants in the correct order and would sit for ages putting pants over her knees ready to slip on.

 

Where did you hold the event ? I agreed to attempt the record in Dusk Nightclub, South Shields with around 150 friends and family as witnesses – there was no turning back. The way it works with Guinness is that there may be other people attempting the record elsewhere in the world so you get updated on any new record that has been set shortly before your attempt.

Literally a week before my attempt I was informed that a new record had just been set in Australia and I was now going to need to beat 190 pairs! I only had 190 pairs of pants in total and it was too late to order any of the really big ones so I had to go out and buy whatever I could.

April 1st came around very quickly. Dusk opened the bar early and DJ Wayne whipped the crowd into a frenzy. He thought it would be fun for me to come on to the tune Eye of the Tiger in true ‘Rocky’ style. Once the attempt started everyone had to count the pairs as I put them on with the DJ announcing who was sponsoring each pair. There was fantastic support in the room as I reached 211 pairs – every pair of underpants I owned!

There was a nervous wait over many weeks whilst all the evidence was collected, submitted to Guinness and scrutinised. Finally I received the e-mail I was waiting for – a Guinness world record and I was finally number 1 at something.

How long did you hold the record ? In truth it didn’t even last long enough to make that year’s Guinness Records book. Within a few months an American woman had taken the record to 249. I had a problem with that as she was stick thin and appeared to have used woman’s knickers which don’t have the same thickness or elastication, but you can’t really call for a steward’s enquiry with Guinness.

In any case I had other distractions. My film crew had a few TV connections and next thing I knew footage of the record was being used as a question on Have I Got News For You! More importantly for me, I was contacted by Rude Tube and appeared on the Ultimate Champions top 50 internet clips of the year, and the Rude Tube film crew came to my house to do a special feature for the Rude Tube Xmas DVD.

In 2011 I was approached by Britain’s Got Talent production team and devised a comedy routine that involved plastering the judges faces over my crouch! The audition was so funny the cameraman couldn’t keep the camera still for laughing. I appeared in front of the judges at that time – Amanda Holden, Michael McIntyre, and David Hasselhoff. I was buzzed off, but they filmed the Geordie Pantsman for hours backstage.

Without any prior notice they gave my details to The Sun newspaper and the Geordie Pantsman became the main feature of a 2 page spread billed as potentially the craziest person ever to appear on BGT! I was advertised for a few seconds in trailers for the show, but Geordie Pantsman ended up ‘on the cutting room floor’! With my new back story further TV opportunities followed.

I appeared on Britains Best Dish, presenting Mary Nightingale with a pair of underpants bearing the BBD logo, and on a little known program called The Great British Taste Tour where I won £1000, the only money I ever got from my ‘career’ as the Pantsman.

The Media seemed to have caught the Pantsman bug….I’m convinced that had I appeared on BGT as promised I would have become world famous. In 2012 I was asked to appear on a world records based show for NIPPON TV in Japan. Their programs typically have around 20,000,000 viewers so I knew that world domination was again beckoning Geordie Pantsman, only for it to be called off days before I was due to be flown out for filming.

Similar situations arose for a number of new and existing TV shows including Russell Howards Good News where I was lined up to appear then discarded at the last minute like a pair of used pants!

Was that the end for Pantsman ? No I decided to give the record one last go. I was going to smash it – set a record that would be almost impossible to beat and get it out of my system once and for all! I contacted Guinness again and through a friend was given permission to make another attempt at the record in the Great North Run Finishers Marquee in front of 1000+ people. I got a personal trainer to help lose weight and I bought the largest pants available in such large quantities that the manufacturers were virtually giving them to me.

Guinness had made the rules even more complicated – they basically expected you to get the Local Mayor to witness your attempt, with an independent ‘expert’ witness. How do you find an expert at putting on underpants ? I ended up using an Accountant who was taking part in the Great North Run. This record attempt was pure craziness!

In the marquee we had a small stage roped off and as the tent started to fill up I had to wait to see whether my independent adjudicator was going to finish the run. He duly arrived while local band The Gaslighters and that bloke off Emmerdale who also sang in a band kept the crowd entertained. They would stop at regular intervals to let the crowd know how I was doing. But a Gazette reporter interrupted the cameraman when he was supposed to be counting the pants, one or two pairs got twisted and had to come off then be put back on again so by the time I’d finished no one knew how many pants I’d put on.

I always tried to pull up as many of the underpants as possible until they became impossible to reach, at which point my wife would help to pull them past my knees. In bending over some slipped down and I ended looking like a Subbuteo player.

I had to pile the slightly warm, sweaty pants in a corner for my accountant friend to count and finally came up with the official figure of 302. I submitted the usual evidence to Guinness in full confidence that I had totally smashed the world record.

Weeks later I received my reply. Even though there was no rule about how far you had to pull the pants up Guinness had decided that I hadn’t met ‘the spirit of the record’ as I hadn’t pulled the pants up far enough. To say I was gutted was an understatement – the pants were just under my knees, well clear of the floor, and there’s a limit to how far up they can go.

Did you appeal against the decision ? I thought about an appeal, but Guinness are a law to themselves. In the end I decided to be happy in the knowledge that I had put on more pairs of underpants than anyone else on the planet. Even though the original record was set in 2010 people still bring it up when I meet them and the TV Companies have kept my details as they know I’m game for a laugh.

In 2017 I appeared on the one and only series of Cannonball, a Saturday evening ITV show hosted by ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff. I made the final, even though I didn’t win I became the hero of my episode and star of Cannonball’s compilation show in December that year.

What next for Geordie Pantsman ? Who knows? I still have the pants. I’d love to take ‘Geordie’ to the Edinburgh Fringe or somewhere just as silly. Never say never.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020

 

 

 

 

 

TRADING PLACES – 250 years of South Shields Market

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.

Trading Places

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

 

 

HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS ? in conversation with award winning journalist Janis Blower

A journalist for 44 years Janis’ first and only job was at The Shields Gazette… I don’t remember having any clear idea of what I wanted to do but the only subject I was any good at in school was English and History, so it was always going to have to be something to do with writing of some sort. My brother in law John had been a reporter at the Gazette and my sister Pam worked on the front counter reception, that’s how they met. When I left school I wrote to the editor at the Shields Gazette, Jim Sinton, asking for a job, nowadays you would need a Media degree from University but I just sent the letter in.

I fell very lucky and got taken on as trainee reporter and signed my indentures for three years. I literally learnt on the job then periodically being sent to college learning the law and shorthand, then at the end of the three years got my National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency certificate.

What was the job of a journalist then ? I spent a lot of time covering court cases, council meetings, area health meetings that sort of thing. Then if you were covering a story where somebody had done something or something awful had happened to them you would go out with a photographer, interview them, take some photographs, get back to the office and write your story up. Sometimes you would get the story over a telephone interview but I liked going out and seeing people because it was the only way of getting the feel of the story plus you picked up other things as well.

In interviews I’ve found most people are open to talking not only about good times but also bad, did you find that ? The dreaded part of the job is what is called these days, the death knock, and a lot of times you ended up getting the bums rush. It was having to go and see somebody where someone had died possibly in tragic circumstances. You would start by saying I understand if you don’t want to talk to me but…..  You always had to brace yourself for being told to f off which did happen sometimes and I totally respect that. A lot of time people would speak to you because they wanted the story to be right, to make sure you understand what the person who had died was like. So yeah it can be a surprise to find how willing people are to talk.

Were there any deadlines that you had to work to ? There was nothing written in stone you just knew to get your story in as soon as possible, it was more instinctive than anything else. You’d been to the event, got your notes down then find a telephone box and hope you’ve got the right money. If you didn’t you’d reverse the charges (laughs).

You are writing it in your head as you are dictating it down the phone line. Hoping to hell you are getting it right. Terrifying at times but brilliant training. We used to go to court in the morning and write the stories up, taking down a note from one case and writing the previous one by hand (laughs).

The messenger would come across from the office pick your story up, take it back and that would get in that nights paper. That’s how current it was. Even covering trials in Newcastle Crown Court you would phone your copy over after an hour or two of the trial for that night’s paper. There was 4 or 5 copy girls who would take dictation. The early edition used to come out around 1pm and that was basically yesterday’s final edition with a bit of updating in it. But the final would come out at 4pm.

Years ago The Shields Gazette on a Monday would have a celebratory page of wedding pictures …Yes there was always certain jobs that you did before the end of the week, one was the Agoes which was snippets of what happened 25 or 50 years ago that went in to the paper and the other was the wedding reports. People would come into the office and pick up a form that had to be filled in with the details of the bride and groom, their parents, what they did for a living, what the bride and bridesmaids would be wearing, anything special about it and name of the church. You wrote the report from that, then the photographer would go take the picture on the Saturday. You would see them married up together on the Monday. There was a kudos of having it in the Gazette. Do people realize now just how valued the Gazette was, you had achieved something if you were in the paper.

Janis wrote a daily column called Cookson Country featuring people and places around the town it’s popularity led to the books ‘Aall Tgithor Like the Folk O’Shields’. How did that come about ? Cookson Country in the paper started in the late 1980’s and it had been such a success with the use of the old photographs. I can’t remember who brought up the idea, it was maybe the editor or management but they said ‘Why don’t we do a book, a spin off from Cookson’. That’s when the paper was still owned by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers who had their own publishing arm, they were doing books and magazines commercially. So it was ‘Yeah I’ll give it a go by all means’.

The first one was very popular, we done that about 1993 or 4 because my son Alexander was only a baby. I look back now and wonder how I accomplished it really, working, having a small child and doing them. There’s five of them in all with the last one in 1999.

Did you find it hard work to put them together or did they fall into place ? No it wasn’t hard work I think for the first one, the blue one, I settled on the things around the town that were most well-known, like the Market, Old Town Hall, Comical Corner, Marsden Grotto and Marine Parks so it was easy to come up with a selection of things to do, and the Gazette did have this wonderful collection of old pictures. For the text the Gazette had this detailed cuttings archive dating back to just before the Second World War. So no it wasn’t a chore to put it together.

Can you remember any stories or photographs that caught your attention, that stood out ?  I think what I was struck by most and this had come out of Cookson in a way was how hard people’s lives had been. I did a bit about guys gathering sea coal, you had all this coal that was washed from out of the ground seams and spilled off ships, and men would go and gather it. I can still remember the tidal edge along the beach down there was black with all the coal washed up on the beach. I wasn’t aware how poor parts of Shields had been, the riverside area especially, that was a learning curve. Also to see how much the place had changed, then how in some instances it had stayed the same. There are still huge parts of Shields that are still recognizable from 100 years ago.

This photograph (above left) is at the top of Mile End Road of the old corporation staithes where all the midnight mechanics would go round and empty the ash closets, then it was all taken to the staithes put in hoppers, taken out to sea and dumped. You could never imagine that there was something on the riverside that looked like that. God knows how old some of these buildings were. That was the biggest revelation, coming to realise that there had been this whole riverside town parts of which probably dated back a very long time, and it’s just gone. It used to be one street with pubs and shop’s along it, people now go to York for the Shambles with it’s little streets, we had that. But because it was so dilapidated and insanitary it was all cleared.

How important do you think local history is ? It’s important, you’ve got to know and understand where we have come from and how the town has been shaped. But I have a profound dislike of the word nostalgia. I hated it when Cookson page was referred to as nostalgia. There is a saying that nostalgia is a seductive liar. Nostalgia now for people can be the 1980s, when I started doing Cookson a lot of the readers memories were going back to war time.

I never tried to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles, you look at those old photographs in the books we’ve talked about, families in those houses on the riverside were living in appalling conditions, the sewage, the water supply was poor, walls of the houses full of bugs, people were hungry, they were dirty – there’s no nostalgia for that. It is important that we know about these things so you can see what improvements we have made, how much we’ve come on in that time.

Now that you are retired do you still keep your hand in ? Since I’ve retired I have done some work with school children and they are absolutely fascinated by things you tell them. I’ve taken some on walks along the riverside, to The Customs House and where Brighams dock was and tell them they would have been covered in coal dust sitting near The Customs House, where the old coal staithes where. Then behind you is the top of St Hilda Colliery pit head, can you imagine 150 year ago little children your age working down that pit ?

They are fascinated about it, I tell them to go home and talk to their parents, talk to Granda and Grandma what life was like when they where children. Don’t get seduced by nostalgia for the olden days, cos they were hard…really hard.

Gary Alikivi  Interview January 2020

EVERYBODY’S LIFE WAS TOUCHED BY COAL with artist Bob Olley

 

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Between 2009 and 2016 I made over 20 films. ‘Vanished’ was a documentary about the lost industry of coal, shipyards and railways made in 2012. Also featured was the lost village of Marsden, once situated on the cliff top near Souter Lighthouse and Whitburn pit. (pic above courtesy of Marsden Banner Group). This extract is taken from an interview featured in the film with former miner now Artist, Bob Olley….

Well I worked at Whitburn Colliery from 1957 till the colliery closed in ’68. Whitburn was a wet pit mostly and I was working in the east yard seam 3 miles out under the North Sea. It took us three quarters of an hour to get in and three quarters of an hour to get out. I think it’s because it’s such an adverse industry, danger, and whatever else, a sense of humour developed.

When the colliery closed it was the push I needed to get out. When I first went into the artistic side of my life the stuff I did was very dour, mostly pen and ink work. Then I moved away from coal mining for about 15 years then suddenly I got this urge to go back to the subject and this was the type of thing I was doing (points to picture next to him).

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Up to about 15 years ago I would say most people in the North East their lives was influenced by the coal industry. The amount of people that were involved with the transportation of coal, the winning of the coal, the processing of the coal, everybody’s life was touched by coal.

Gary Alikivi   January 2020.

FAMILY PORTRAIT – Downey photography studios in South Shields & London

As I was sorting out some books this picture card fell out of one of them. It’s something I picked up at Shields Market a few year ago. I’m not sure who the sitter is but the photo was taken by the Downey brothers, William and Daniel, who along with older brother James, had studios in the North East then moved to London. Commercial photography was in it’s infancy when the brothers were taking pictures of royalty and personalities like Oscar Wilde.

Looking back to photographers in South Shields if it was a competition I couldn’t call it, they have different qualities. There was James Cleet with his housing clearance pictures during the 1930’s, and reported to be a bit of a showman in his mac and bowler hat, especially at Tyneside ship launches he would signify when he was finished by making a large sweep of his bowler hat and take a deep bow in front of the crowds. Amy Flagg’s unforgettable Second World War images of a scarred town after the German bombs hit, then in her own darkroom printing photographs of devastating images of a town she loved, important pictures that still have a huge impact today.

Records show the Downey brothers worked out of a studio in London, but before that were based in South Shields. William Downey was born in King Street, South Shields in 1829, with help from his older brother James and together with brother Daniel, they set up a photographic business in the Market Square in 1860. The studio became successful resulting in branches opening across the North East in Blyth, Morpeth and old Eldon Square in Newcastle.

In 1862 Queen Victoria commissioned William Downey to take a series of photographs illustrating the Hartley Colliery disaster, near Blyth. Soon after William and his brother Daniel moved to London where they accepted commissions from dignitaries and aristocracy including the UK royal family, the Emperor of Russia and King of Norway. The brothers also took pictures of show business personalities from their studio at 57 & 61 Ebury Street in Belgravia, while older brother James, as well as his grocery business, kept a studio open in South Shields.

Big brother James was a huge help to William and Daniel. He was a grocer and importer of German yeast, with premises in West Holborn in 1865. 10 year later he had two shops trading as a grocer and confectioner out of 17 & 19 Eldon Street. By 1881 he had one shop for his grocery business and opened the other as a photography studio. There is a record of a Frederick Downey at 19 Eldon Street, I suspect that he was James’ son who carried on the family photography business.

Meanwhile in London, Daniel and William continued their work of royal sittings and portraits. Sadly, Daniel passed away in Bethnal Green in 1881 while William died in Kensington in 1915. His son, William Edward, kept on the family business, as did his son, Arthur.

A lasting record of their work is an impressive set of 5 books called ‘The Cabinet Gallery’ printed by Cassell & Company of London, Paris and Melbourne in 1890. The volumes include 36 photographs each, plus a summary of the subject. Kings, Queens, Professors and actors all sat for a Downey portrait, the attention to detail made them stand out among other photographers and ensured customers would return. Their stamp is on the back of some pages.

Throughout the early 1900’s there is records for a Downey photography studio at 17 & 19 Eldon Street, but unfortunately by 1912 the trail goes cold. What happened to the Downeys in London and South Shields? Is there more to their story? If you have any information to add get in touch.

Source: Census records, Burgess Rolls, Wards Directories, Wikipedia, The Word South Shields.

Gary Alikivi  December 2019

 

THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS – James Cleet, South Shields Photographer 1876 -1959

In a previous post I talked about coming across photographs by James Cleet around 10 years ago, particularly the housing clearances in South Shields during the 1930’s. After looking at the images in South Shields Library for a number of weeks I was curious who he was and what he looked like. I had only seen his shadow in some pictures that he had taken – the outline of his cloak hunched over a tripod and camera. Then one day while researching through old newspapers I came across a story about him and there he was, looking straight at me, a camera in hand covering half his face – he had a look of the artist Salvadore Dali.

 

On his death at the age of 82, local newspaper The Shields Gazette reported… ‘Mr Jimmy Cleet, a photographer for 68 years has died at his home in Wardle Avenue, South Shields. From the day he moved into the world of cameras as a 13 year old plate boy photography was his bread and butter, his hobby and his greatest interest in life.  He never cared much for flashlights, which he thought ruined details in portraits, and until he retired last year he still used a camera which he had bought 30 years previously in preference to a modern one. But if his equipment was a little old his finished photographs were never below the standard of excellent’.

They were, and had an instantly recognizable look among all other photographers I researched. The Gazette added… ‘James Henry Cleet, the first South Shields man to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (1933), served a seven year apprenticeship in commercial photography and studied art at the old South Shields High School. As a young man he went to Fleet Street and worked as press photographer for The Daily Mirror and soon established a lasting reputation that he would get pictures whatever the difficulties. On one of his first assignments he was given 20 minutes to produce a picture of Lady Londonderry as she left Charing Cross Station. No one could get near her, but he solved this problem by carrying some of her luggage to the train’.

When researching his family history I found that in the late 1800’s James’ Grandfather was a Master Mariner, the family owned several ships and they lived in Heugh Street on the banks of the Tyne. But unfortunately a downturn in business led to his father becoming a shipwright and the family moved to Bath Street. On the 26th December 1908 James married Eva Aspery, they had a son James, but sadly he died at 4 year old. An event that would have had a deep effect on the couple.

The newspaper report carried on his story…Later he concentrated on his love of old marine photography and went to sea in all weathers to get his pictures. He had a deep affection for the Tyne, tug boatmen were always ready to help him. A small man wearing a bowler hat, he was a familiar figure in every Tyneside shipyard. When he took pictures at a launch he would photograph the ship then the launching party, then with a magnificent sweep of his bowler hat and a deep bow he would signify he had finished’.

For one month a year from 1930-38 James recorded what was called the ‘slums’ of South Shields, mainly around the Holborn and riverside area of the town. The photographs were commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department and displayed in a book published by SIDE Photographic Gallery in 1979. This features in a previous blog (24th December 2019).

Sadly, James Cleet died on 2nd June 1959, the Gazette article ended by saying His photographs of South Shields form a remarkable record of the town, and like many photographers he objected to having pictures taken of himself’.

Source: The Shields Gazette, Census records, Wards Directories.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

AMY FLAGG: HOLBORN & THE MILL DAM VALLEY

Following on from a previous post featuring Historian & Photographer Amy C. Flagg and her book ‘The History of Shipbuilding’, further information has come from South Tyneside Libraries….‘The book was printed in 1979 about the same time when Hodgson and the Boswell Whitaker trilogy of books were printed. A figure of 200 copies each of these books were printed’. (G.B. Hodgson – The Borough of South Shields and Boswell Whitaker –The Preservation of Life from Shipwreck Volumes 1-3).

A tributary of the Tyne called the River Branin cut into South Shields over 200 years ago and created the Mill Dam Valley. An Ordnance Survey map of 1895 has the valley clearly marked. Before that time, it possibly would have extended in an easterly direction towards the North Sea making the Lawe an island. In his book ‘The Borough of South Shields’ Hodgson states that ‘in 1748 the churchyard to the south of St Hilda’s was described as sloping down to the edge of the Mill Dam Creek or the river Branin, a fine sheet of water, up which the tide flowed as far as the modern St Catherine Street. The creek when filled with water at high tide formed a picturesque lake.

Miss Flagg describes the Mill Dam Valley in her Shipbuilding book….’When the Chemical Works occupied most of the space near the Mill Dam Valley, then a large sheet of water at high tide, the shipbuilders were all clustered together nearer the sea because the ‘Narrows’ – the throat of the river, which led to the Harbour was shoaly and difficult to navigate’. She talks about walking along the riverside…‘Leaving Low Street, crossing the Market Place and over the Mill Dam bridge to the ‘High End’. Holborn, the main street, was of a much later date than the old, almost medieval Sheeles’. (I’ve come across a few different spellings of the town – Shiels, Schiels and todays Shields).

Further reading reveals…‘Filling in of the millpond or valley by Newcastle Corporation in 1816’. I think Miss Flagg was referring to the River Branin as she added ‘After the valley was filled in, the remains of the creek were used for a mooring place – it is given as Mill Dam Dock on one map. After an unsavoury history it was filled in and only a very small ‘gut’ of the river remained’. What was the ‘unsavoury history’ ? The book reveals more about the industrial map of ‘Sheeles’.

Miss Flagg includes a section about The Holborn Landing and two shipbuilders, William Wright and John Clay. Her research found William Wright had five sons, all of whom were Master Mariners. She adds that one son, William, left the sea and was manager for many years at both High Docks and West Docks. Another son, Leonard, married a baker’s daughter and founded the well-known Wright’s Biscuit Factory, the bakery being somewhere near Holborn Landing. A document stated that ‘During the Franco-Prussian war the biscuit firm worked day and night for over twelve months making 48 tons of biscuits from 400 sacks of flour every week for the French government’.

Her research on John Clay revealed in 1847 he constructed the first iron ships built in South Shields on premises where Wrights Bakery originally stood. Clay was labelled ‘King of Shields’ as he was listed as having his finger in many pies: the son of a grocer in Nile Street, a brewer, farmer, publican and banker who ‘went down with the bank’ in 1857. Although doubt was cast on his career as a shipbuilder, Amy concludes ‘the whole question is a mystery and must be left at that’.

There are copies of ‘The History of Shipbuilding by Amy C. Flagg’ available to read in the Local and Family History section at The Word, South Shields.

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

HARD UP in HOLBORN – South Shields photographer James Henry Cleet 1876-1959.

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.

JARROVIANS – Vince Rae’s photographic record of Jarrow in 1978.

For 30 years Vince Rae ran the Bede Gallery in Jarrow which featured paintings, sculpture and photographs reflecting the town’s history. Included was material relating to the 1936 Jarrow March and the execution of William Jobling, the last man to be gibbeted in the North.

I knew of Vince Rae’s work as I’d read a couple of books that he had published about old Jarrow and came across his photography through the 1990’s. But first talked to him around 2001 when I was running a Community Video Project in South Shields. He was organising an exhibition about the Jarrow Crusade and was looking for a video projector. We didn’t have one, but I went along to the Viking shopping centre in Jarrow to see the exhibition.

Then in 2008 I called him up explaining that I was making a documentary in Jarrow called ‘Little Ireland’. The film was going to look at the Irish immigration into Jarrow and could I use some of his photographs. He agreed straight away ‘Yeah no bother son just send me a copy when it’s done’.

But if we go back to around 2002 I was filming in Jarrow and in a newsagents I saw a book called ‘Jarrovians’. Inside were some amazing black & white documentary photographs of people and places around Jarrow, all taken by Vince during 1978. I handed my tenner over.

Packed with images of drinkers and barmaids from pubs like the Royal Oak, Prince of Wales, Tunnel Tavern and the Viking Bar. There’s gadgies suppin’ pints and playing domino’s, kid’s on the streets setting up bonfires, homeless men in Simpsons Hostal, women’s darts team in The Western pub. Dogs, horses and Joblings gibbet – all life is here in it’s working class glory.

With few exceptions, the overall feel of the collection of photographs is people simply enjoying themselves, being out of the house and among friends sharing their time together. Most people are happy to get their photograph taken but looking at some of the images Vince might not of asked first.

The Jarrovians was first published in 2001 by Vince and Willa Rae at The Bede Gallery, Jarrow.

Gary Alikivi  December 2019.

HISTORY LIVES – Amy C. Flagg: South Shields Historian & Photographer 1893 – 1965.

Currently in South Shields Museum there is a small exhibition featuring houses and residents of Westoe Village. One of the residents was local historian and photographer, Amy C. Flagg. Amy was born in Chapel House, on the site of a former medieval chapel, the house dates back to 1808. In previous blogs (July 19th 2018 & July 11th 2019) I’ve looked at her life and included a link to a 16min film I made about her local history and photographic work, an important historical archive for the town.

She documented the air raid damage on Shields during the Second World War and printed the photographs in her darkroom in the attic of Chapel House. These photographs and detailed records were just one part of the important historical archive that she left.

Another part of her legacy was a book printed in 1979 by South Tyneside Council Library Service which featured her detailed notes on The History of Shipbuilding in South Shields 1746-1946. The book includes a comprehensive list of ships, shipyard owners and important people of the town like Fairles, Temple, Wallis and the Readheads.

Amy put together a section about the shipbuilder John Readhead and Sons…‘In 1894 at his home, Southgarth in Westoe Village, he had been in failing health for some time but had visited the West Docks almost daily until the last few weeks’. During the Second World War she noted… ‘The West Docks may not have suffered  as many attacks from the air as some parts of the town but there is no doubt that in terms of material damage, they were hard hit in April 1941 when major fires were started by incendiaries, and several bombs fell in Readheads yard’. Further research by Amy revealed that …’A ‘Satan’, one of the largest bombs dropped in England to date, fell on Newton & Nicholsons premises near the West Docks but failed to explode: many other bombs of sizeable calibre also fell in the river nearby’.

Her notes revealed what she called a ‘family’ feeling in the Readheads shipbuilding firm…’Not only between directors and employees, but department with department, staff with staff. Generation after generation has been proud and anxious to ‘get in’ sons or nephews to the various trades’. Amy realised the importance that Readheads played to South Shields especially during both world wars and recessions.

The book includes sections on place names like Pilot Street, Mill Dam, West Holborn and Coble Landing. At the bottom of The Lawe next to the river Tyne was Shadwell Street and Pilot Street which feature in the opening section of the book…’It is very fitting that these two streets should be the first section in these notes: the eastern extremity of the old township of South Shields was the birthplace and for long the nursery of shipbuilding in our town’.

Copies occasionally appear on EBay, and the book is available for reference only in the Local History section at The Word, South Shields. Check for details.

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.